In order to care for any snake, it's important to be very observant for signs or symptoms of illness. Often, symptoms are not apparent until well into the course of the disease, so promptly addressing signs of illness is crucial. While they sometimes present feeding challenges, ball pythons (Python regius) are generally hardy animals that aren't subject to any health problems unique to the species.
Though daily handling of your ball python isn't recommended, daily observation is important. Observe your snake's posture; most often, a healthy ball python will lie in a flat coil. Note abnormalities, like the snake stretching out for prolonged periods or holding its head in an elevated position, termed stargazing behavior. Strange postures can signal a respiratory infection; your snake may be uncomfortable because of fluid in its lungs. Serious health concerns like paramyxovirus, inclusion body disease or neurological diseases can also be indicated by stargazing.
Some snakes, like anacondas (Eunectes sp.), are known to soak often, but this isn't typical behavior for healthy ball pythons. A snake that spends a lot of time in its water dish may have mites, be too warm or be trying to "hide" in the water. While an occasional soak, particularly during shed cycles, is no cause for concern, you should investigate further if a snake spends excessive time in the drink.
Improper husbandry, chronic stress or exposure to pathogens can cause respiratory illnesses in ball pythons. Respiratory infections can cause wheezing, labored breathing or mucus to bubble from the nose. If caught early, respiratory illnesses can be treated by correcting the underlying problem and seeking veterinary care. Most often, the prescribed care will involve a combination of heat and humidity changes and, when appropriate, antibiotics. Respiratory conditions that aren't addressed swiftly can quickly turn lethal.
Skin problems can be traumatic, such as rodent bites, or infectious, as when caused by bacteria. Minor skin injuries will heal within a shed or two, so require no special treatment, but rodent bites and other significant wounds should be evaluated by veterinarian. Ball pythons kept in poor, cool and damp conditions can develop sepsis, sometimes characterized by blisters filled with clear fluid. Immediate veterinary care is necessary if the snake is to have any chance of survival. Poor sheds can occur in stressed or dehydrated snakes but, while they require attention, they're not imminently dangerous. Soaking a snake in an inch of lukewarm water for a few hours will generally allow the shed to be removed.
A healthy ball python should be fed about once per week and should defecate several days later. Healthy stools are firm and dark brown, and rodent hair is sometimes visible. Additionally, small white or yellow "rocks" may be passed; these are uric acid pellets that snakes pass in lieu of urinating. Runny, off-color or bloody stools signal that veterinary care is warranted. If your snake doesn't defecate within 10 days of a meal, the snake may be constipated, which could be caused by dehydration. Additionally, snakes may vomit if plagued by parasites, kept at improper temperatures or stressed. Vomiting is taxing on the snake's body, so it's important to ensure the snake is adequately hydrated and allowed to rest.
When a ball python refuses food, it may be a sign of parasites or infection. Conversely, food refusal may be attributed to a number of benign causes. Stress is the most common reason for food refusal; ball pythons may fast when undergoing a shed cycle, which is normal and no cause for concern. Additionally, breeding behaviors may interrupt normal feeding habits: males may fast during breeding season, and gravid females often refuse food as they approach egg deposition time. Wild ball pythons are notorious for refusing domestic rodents, and likely carry high parasite loads. If neither breeding behavior nor shedding can be identified as the cause, a trip to the vet is in order.
Lumps under the skin can mean a number of things, none of which can be diagnosed without the help of a veterinarian. If your snake has recently eaten, the abnormal lumps may be food moving through the snake's system. Other causes of lumps include broken bones, abscesses, tumors or parasites. In all cases, seek veterinary attention for lumps that aren't associated with feeding.
A common concern among new keepers is that their ball python never seems to move. In most cases this isn't cause for alarm; humans and ball pythons live on different schedules. In the wild, ball pythons spend much of their day in burrows or termite mounds, becoming active at night. There's no reason to worry if your snake spends most of its daylight hours curled up in the hide box.
- Maryland Zoo: Ball Python
- Veterinary Pathology: Severe Granulomatous Lesions in Several Organs from Eustrongylides Larvae in a Free-ranging Dice Snake, Natrix tessellata
- Kingsnake.com: Ball Pythons, A Trouble Shooting Guide
- Melissa Kaplan's Herp Care Collection: Vomiting/Regurgitation in Reptiles
- Melissa Kaplan's Herp Care Collection: Respiratory Tract Infection in Reptiles
- Petmd.com: Stargazing Syndrome in Reptiles
- Long Beach Animal Hospital: Snake Skin Conditions