Ball pythons don’t yawn for the same reasons people do.
Yawning never means that your ball python is sleepy.
Ball pythons yawn before they eat, after they eat, when they have inclusion body disease, when they have respiratory infections, and sometimes when they are just stretching.
In this article, we will explain each of the reasons your ball python may yawn and what you may need to do.
Is Yawning Really Important in Ball Pythons?
Yawning in snakes often means nothing, but it can be a symptom that something is seriously wrong.
When your ball python’s mouth gapes open, you should take note of the circumstances.
If something seems seriously wrong, or your snake can’t stop yawning, you should make an appointment to take it to the veterinarian immediately.
Yawning Before Eating
If your snake notices that you are about to bring it some food, it may open its mouth wide to unhinge its jaw.
It will need to do this to swallow a large animal whole.
Of course, you may not be bringing your ball python a mouse so large that it needs to unhinge its jaw, but it will be ready if you do.
Yawning before eating a meal is actually a very complicated process for your ball python.
In nature, ball pythons must be able to grasp their prey by its neck and shoulders—so the prey animal won’t bite back.
Ball pythons will grab the animal they intend to eat just behind the skull, and then coil behind it to suffocate it, before swallowing it whole.
If the snake is not able to avoid getting bitten by the animal it is about to bite into, the snake may develop infections and be left with scars.
You should always feed your ball python previously killed prey to avoid this problem.
Your ball python needs to be able to hold its mouth open around its meal until the prey animal is dead.
When your snake senses that the prey animal has been asphyxiated and its heart has stopped beating, then it is safe to let go and start to swallow.
Yawning After Eating
Ball pythons need to realign their jaws after they swallow their meal.
It usually takes five to 10 minutes for a ball python to swallow a rodent from its head to its tail.
This is a long time to hold its mouth open, and it may take one or two yawns to bring the ligaments back to their normal length.
Ball pythons may also yawn after eating to “burp.” Like a human, a ball python that eats too fast may swallow a lot of air.
It will need to let the excess air out of its digestive tract.
Snakes don’t make loud burps you can hear, but they may need to open their mouths several times to let the gas out.
When a snake yawns, it isn’t about to eat, and it hasn’t just eaten, the reason may be a respiratory infection.
Yawning can be a snake’s way of gasping for air.
Yawning won’t be the only symptom of a respiratory infection that makes it hard for your snake to breathe.
Ball pythons that have respiratory infections will usually have mucus in their mouths or dripping from their nostrils.
They won’t yawn silently. They will make gurgling sounds as they yawn.
Unlike most other snakes, ball pythons have two functioning lungs, not just one. Like other snakes, ball pythons force air in and out of their lungs with their rib muscles.
Ball pythons don’t have a diaphragm.
You may notice extra effort all along your ball python’s body if it has a respiratory infection.
Most respiratory infections in ball pythons are caused by bacteria, sometimes the same bacteria that cause a condition called mouth rot.
Your snake may have trouble eating or closing its mouth due to mouth rot.
Respiratory infections in ball pythons can also be caused by viruses, fungi, or parasites.
Whatever the cause, there may be wheezing, lethargy, unusual hiding, loss of appetite, mucus discharge, or gurgling sounds.
Make sure your snake is warm enough, and make an appointment to take your snake to the vet.
Inclusion Body Disease
Inclusion body disease is a serious viral infection that affects pythons and boa constrictors.
There is no prevention, no treatment, and no cure.
However, not every ball python that catches the virus will develop symptoms, and you can stop the spread of this always-fatal disease to your other pet snakes.
Inclusion body disease is caused by a kind of virus known as a reptarenavirus.
There are eight arenaviruses that are known to cause diseases in people, including aseptic meningitis, and severe inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.
In theory, if a mite bites a snake that has inclusion body disease then bites you, you could catch the virus, although this has never been documented.
Yawning is a symptom of the early stages of inclusion body disease.
As the condition progresses, there will be other unmistakable symptoms.
An affected snake’s body takes on a corkscrew shape—not a gentle twisting shape, but a tight spiral like an actual corkscrew.
Sometimes inclusion body disease progresses slowly, and sometimes it progresses quickly.
The snake may be able to continue to eat and defecate for as long as a year, but it will inevitably die of starvation because it can no longer swallow or suffocate because it can no longer breathe.
How Can I Recognize the Signs of Inclusion Body Disease in My Ball Python?
Ball pythons are sometimes born with inclusion body disease. These snakes will not have any symptoms when they are very young.
As infected snakes mature, they will develop a peculiar head lifting behavior called “star gazing.” They will point their heads upward as if they were gazing at stars.
The snake will lift the first third of its body with a slight backward tilt. The snake will hold this position for several minutes before it can lower its head again.
There can be a variety of additional symptoms.
These include abnormal shedding, tremors, loss of appetite, clogged nostrils, pneumonia, paralysis, the inability to constrict or strike, and disorientation.
The stargazing episodes will last longer and longer, sometimes with the snake falling backward and unable to get back up.
Symptoms get worse and worse for six months to two years until the snake dies.
But the overwhelming majority of ball pythons that are infected by the virus do not develop any symptoms at all.
Scientists from the University of Florida, Colorado State University, and the University of California at San Francisco tested 131 ball pythons for inclusion body virus.
They discovered that 25 of the ball pythons they tested were positive for the virus, but all but three ball pythons were healthy.
Only captive-bred ball pythons get inclusion body disease. Female snakes can pass the virus to their young, or it can be spread by mites.
You can stop the spread of the disease by always keeping ball pythons in their own enclosures. They should not have cage mates.
You can rub your snake’s scales with wet hands to test for mites.
If you find them, make sure your ball python is kept separate from other snakes, in case it is a carrier.
Sometimes Yawning is Just Stretching
If your ball python yawns once in a while with no other symptoms, don’t worry.
It is probably just stretching.
Frequently Asked Questions About Yawning in Ball Pythons
Q. Can my ball pythons suffer a dislocated jaw from yawning?
A. Ball pythons don’t really dislocate or “unhinge” their jaws to be able to swallow their prey.
That is because snakes don’t have chins. When they are yawning before a meal, they are really stretching ligaments to open their mouths as wide as possible.
Q. Why does my ball python take a break after it yawns before it swallows its food?
A. In nature, a ball python suffocates its prey by coiling around it, and then takes a break before eating it.
What is going on during this break is the ball python is really sniffing its prey for saliva so it will know where the head is. It can’t see its prey animal, even right in front of it.
The ball python swallows its prey head first so it can gradually stretch the ligaments around its mouth to swallow more and more of it.
Swallowing prey by the narrow end first prevents it from spraining its ligaments.
Q. Will a ball python always yawn before it eats, and always eat after it yawns?
A. Snakes always have to stretch the ligaments around their mouths with a yawn just before they eat.
Sometimes snakes will decide that an animal is too big for them to swallow and leave it alone.
Q. If yawning is a sign of respiratory infection, what will the vet do to treat it?
A. Bacterial infections of the lungs and mouth are usually treated with antibiotics. You won’t have to give your snake a pill.
Your veterinarian will give your snake an injection.
Treatment of parasitic infections depends on the parasite. Some internal parasites are treated with deworming medications.
There are few good treatments for viral infections in snakes, and unfortunately no treatments for inclusion body disease.
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