If you buy a captive-bred ball python—and we strongly recommend that you only buy captive-bred ball pythons, never wild-caught—chances are that it will already be used to feeding on rodents, specifically mice and rats.
Even if you take the usual route and feed your ball python mice that you buy at a pet supply store, you won’t feed your snake the same size mice at every stage of its life.
As we will discuss in more detail later, the younger the snake, the smaller the prey it needs for food.
A hatchling ball python may need a single pinky mouse, while an adult ball python may make a meal of several adult mice.
But rodents aren’t the only prey that ball pythons eat.
What Do Ball Pythons Eat?
Mostly, you can feed your pet ball pythons frozen mice for their entire lives.
There are some ball python owners who also feed their snakes hamsters, gerbils, African soft-haired rats, and baby chicks.
Foods other than mice and rats and most commonly used to tempt wild-caught ball pythons who are not used to eating rodents, so they will not starve and die.
Once fussy eaters have been persuaded to feed at least once, it usually is not difficult to get them to switch over to foods that are easier for their owners to get.
However, some ball pythons never adapt to an all-rodent diet,
Adult Ball Pythons Need to Eat More Than One Adult Mouse Per Feeding
By the time your ball python is an adult, it will eat adult mice.
In fact, it will usually need to eat more than one mouse at a time to stop being hungry.
Adult male ball pythons up to 3 feet (90 cm) long should be offered two thawed, previously frozen mice per feeding.
Adult female ball pythons up to 4 feet (120 cm) long should be offered three or four mice at a time.
You should wait for your snake to finish swallowing one mouse before you offer it another.
Dead Food Is Better Than Live Food for Your Ball Python
Whenever possible, make sure you feed your ball python dead mice rather than live mice.
As mentioned earlier, dead mice don’t bite back. It is easier to get a steady supply of frozen mice that you can thaw out before feeding them to your snake.
Live mice are not always available, and there have been many instances in which they killed a ball python that was not interested in eating them.
If your ball python only eats live food, do not leave it in the enclosure with your snake for more than five minutes, so the mouse will not have a chance to cause serious injury to your snake.
Ball pythons recognize prey by heat, movement, and scent. Keep this in mind when you are feeding your snake.
Your ball python will not recognize an ice-cold mouse as food. It will need the mice to be warmed up to room temperature (but not thawed in a microwave, which can make it too hot for your snake to eat safely).
Use hemostats or tongs, not your fingers, to dangle the mouse in front of your snake, especially if it is only recently thawed.
If your fingers emit more heat than the dead mouse, your snake may think your fingers are its next meal.
How to Use Frozen Food to Feed Your Ball Python
If you thaw your snake’s meal in the sun, you should check it regularly to make sure it does not begin to cook.
Ball pythons only eat raw prey animals.
Once the animal is thawed, you should feed it to your snake as quickly as possible, so any E. coli, Salmonella, or Botulinum bacteria in the animal’s gut will not have a chance to multiply.
If you thaw the rodent you are feeding your snake in warm water, be sure to pat it dry before you feed it to your snake.
This way it will not pick up as much of the substrate in the bottom of your snake’s cage before your snake tries to eat it. If the mouse or rat is coated with wood shavings or newspaper, your snake will not eat.
Keep in mind that microwaves cook from the inside out. Ball pythons cannot eat cooked food.
The outside of a prey animal may be raw, but the inside of the animal may be cooked, and indigestible for your snake.
Food Size Is Very Important for Hatchling Ball Pythons
Another requirement for feeding your ball python is making sure its food is the right size.
The first meal for a hatchling ball python might be a large fuzzy mouse (a mouse that has just grown its fur).
Hatching ball pythons also eat hopper mice (mice that have just started moving around).
They do not eat pinky mice (baby mice that do not yet have fur) unless they are unusually small hatchlings, as can happen when twin snakes hatch from the same egg.
When the meal offered a ball python is too small or too large, it may choose not to eat it.
If a ball python goes ahead and eats a prey animal that is too large anyway, it may regurgitate it a day later. Regurgitation of one meal can cause refusal of the next, and slow starvation of the snake.
A reliable way to confirm that you have given your snake the right size prey is a slight bulge in its midsection after it eats.
Dealing with Feeding Problems in Ball Pythons
Not many things excite most ball pythons more than the scent of their next meal.
Not many things frustrate ball python owners more than a pet snake that refuses to eat. Sometimes ball pythons will eat but won’t get excited about it. Sometimes they won’t eat at all.
There are many things that can affect your ball python’s appetite. Sometimes ball pythons will imprint on a single item as food.
For instance, a pet ball python may recognize a rat as food, but not a mouse, or the other way around.
New owners can create long-term problems by offering an exotic food item, for instance, a gecko, to their ball python for its first meal.
It may decide that the exotic food item is the only thing it can eat, forcing you to go through the effort and expense of providing that food item over and over again.
Many ball pythons will go through their entire lives refusing to eat anything other than mice.
Other ball pythons will refuse to eat anything besides rats.
Some will switch back and forth between mice and rats but refuse any other prey animals.
Then there are also ball pythons that will eat anything that is placed in their cages.
It is always best to offer your ball python what it is accustomed to eating. When you buy or adopt a ball python, always verify what it has been eating with the person who has been taking care of it.
You also need to know how often your new pet snake eats and when it had its last meal.
If you know you will have trouble getting any kind of food for your snake other than frozen mice or frozen rats, you need to make sure that is what the previous owner has been feeding it.
It is particularly important to know if your new pet snake is used to eating live prey. We don’t recommend feeding live prey to pet ball pythons, because live prey can and do bite back.
They may also bite the human feeding them to the snake. It is illegal to feed live prey animals to snakes in some cities in the US and Canada, and the law requires that you avoid causing unnecessary suffering to the prey animal in the UK.
Ask the person selling or giving you the snake about the rules where you live.
It is also important not to feed your snake rodents you catch yourself.
Wild mice and rats tend to be very aggressive, and are more likely to bite and scratch you and your snake.
Wild rodents often carry parasites that they can pass to your snake, and if a mouse or a rat is slow enough to get caught in a trap, the reason may be that it has been poisoned.
Store-bought food is required for feeding your snake.
Failure to Feed Can Be a Serious Problem in Ball Pythons
In the 2020s, ball pythons are considered low-maintenance pets, but before about 1990, they were thought of as problematic and very difficult to keep alive.
It used to be that nearly all ball pythons were trapped in Africa and flown to the US to be sold in pet shops.
The problem with these ball pythons was that many of them refused to feed, even a year after they were taken home from the pet shop or the reptile show.
Adult ball pythons ripped away from their homes on the west African savannah were completely “stressed out” by the experience.
In their native habitat, ball pythons are opportunistic eaters. They will eat bats, rats, birds, and small mammals.
One study found that ball pythons in the wild that were under a meter (39 inches) long mostly ate birds, while ball pythons over a meter long mostly ate small mammals, like rats, mice, and rabbits.
Ball pythons in the wild lead interesting lives pursuing various kinds of prey.
They escape the animals that would like to eat them by making a home in the termite mounds that rise above ground level across the plain.
But that interesting life ended when wild ball pythons were captured for sale in North America and Europe.
These snakes were ripped out of termite mounds, stuffed in a sack, packed in a box, and flown halfway around the world only to be dropped into glass tanks in a pet store.
They were deprived of any of the animals they were used to eating and given a diet of dead, previously frozen mice and rats they had never encountered in the wild.
As more and more serious snake hobbyists began having success with ball pythons, they learned how to do captive breeding to bring more snakes to the pet market.
These captive-bred snakes never knew anything other than mice and rats in their diet, so they did not become fussy eaters like their wild-caught cousins.
Still, getting even a captive-bred ball python to eat the food you want to give them can be a challenge.
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