The ball python is a popular choice for snake keepers of all experience levels. Pythons are non-venomous snakes that feed by squeezing or “constricting” (swallowing) whole prey.
While ball pythons are considered to be a “beginner” species in many ways, feeding a ball python in captivity can be challenging in a way other aspects of husbandry (snake care) is not.
One question even experienced ball python keepers often continue to wrestle with long into their pet snake’s adulthood years is feeding and digestion rates.
How long does it take a ball python to digest each meal? How often should ball pythons be fed? What do ball pythons like to eat? Will the type of food offered to affect the rate of digestion?
We take a close look at these and other related questions in this comprehensive ball python feeding guide.
Watch a Video About the Ball Python Feeding Schedule At Different Ages
In this YouTube video, you can listen to an experienced keeper talk about all the different feeding methods other keepers use with ball pythons of various ages.
As the keeper explains, no matter how much experience you may have, there is always going to be something new to learn when it comes to each individual snake that is in your care.
As well, there is no substitute for hands-on observation, weighing, husbandry adjustments, and mentoring from more experienced keepers when it comes to identifying what works best for your ball python pet.
How Long Does It Take a Ball Python to Digest Each Meal?
Let’s start our guide with an overview of how long it takes a ball python to digest their dinner.
As you probably expect, the amount of time your ball python will need to fully digest each meal can vary depending on the size of your snake, the frequency of feedings, and the amount eaten at each sitting.
As Rainforest Adventures Discovery Zoo points out, the average length of time it takes a pet ball python to digest its last meal is four to five days.
This is assuming the snake received one appropriately-sized prey (more on this in the next section here) per meal.
It is especially important to completely avoid handling your pet python for at least 24 hours after each meal. Handling your snake too soon after feeding may cause your python to regurgitate (throw up) their dinner and you have to start all over again.
How Can You Know Your Ball Python Is Done Digesting Their Meal?
The tell-tale sign that your ball python has completely finished digesting their last meal is when you see snake poop.
Ball pythons will typically defecate (poop) anywhere from five to seven days after they have finished eating (not digesting) their last meal.
Here, it can be very helpful and reassuring to actually keep a calendar of your feeding schedule. When you make a note in your phone or calendar of the feeding date and what was fed, you can then track through to the time your snake defecates.
This will tell you whether your ball python is digesting at a typical rate or perhaps may be having difficulty. Then you can work to adjust your feeding frequency, prey size, husbandry, or other factors as needed to reduce feeding stress.
What Size Prey Should You Feed Your Ball Python at Each Meal?
Choosing the right size prey based on the size of your snake is important for your snake’s health and safety.
There are three handy tips that you may want to bookmark to help you gauge the right prey size for the size of your snake.
1. Prey description
The Reptifiles offers a handy general guide you can use as a go-by when sizing the prey to the size of your ball python.
In this description, you will notice how different sizes of prey species have special names that indicate their general size.
Here are some of the basic size terms you are likely to see when ordering fresh-frozen prey for your ball python.
- Pinkie mouse.
- Pinky rat/hopper mouse.
- Rat fuzzy/small mouse.
- Rat pup/adult mouse.
- Weaned rat/jumbo mouse.
- Small rat.
- Medium rat.
- Large rat.
2. Snake diameter (circumference) measurement
Another good guideline is to measure the diameter (circumference) at the widest point on your snake’s body and then make sure the diameter of the prey is smaller than that.
3. Snake age and/or weight
Yet another generally accepted guideline for determining feeding amount is the weight of your ball python.
- Less than five meals: feeding every five days.
- Less than 200 grams of weight: feeding every seven days.
- Less than 350 grams: feeding every seven to 10 days.
- Less than 500 grams: feeding every 10 to 14 days.
- Less than 1,500 grams: feeding every 14 to 21 days.
- 1,500+ grams: feeding every 28 to 56 days.
- Hatchling and a young juvenile ball python.
As Reptiles Magazine highlights, the average size of a hatchling (newly hatched) ball python baby is around 10 inches long.
Contrast this with the ball python’s adult size, which can range anywhere from two to five feet long (with females being longer than males on average).
So a hatchling or young juvenile snake is going to eat smaller prey that will digest more rapidly.
Typically, you want to choose prey that is has a width (circumference) of less than the width of your ball python’s open jaws. If the prey is any bigger than this, you face a choking risk.
So a hatchling ball python should eat “pinkie” mice or rat crawlers (“fuzzies”).
– Older juvenile and adult ball python.
A young juvenile ball python can generally handle eating adult mice or juvenile rats.
And an adult ball python can generally handle adult large mice or adult small rats.
You always want to observe each feeding so you can step in if you see your snake struggling to swallow prey.
How Often Do You Need to Feed Your Ball Python?
As Pender Veterinary Centre explains, it is often necessary to feed younger juvenile ball pythons more frequently than adults.
A ball python baby or juvenile may need to be fed weekly to stay healthy. Younger snakes won’t be able to swallow as large prey and will need to have meals more often as a result.
Ball pythons may take anywhere from 18 months to four years to reach full maturity, as Lehigh Valley Zoo explains. During their juvenile life stages, a ball python may need to receive a weekly meal to stay healthy.
Once your ball python reaches adulthood, which is typically defined as three years of age or older, you can drop back to twice-monthly or even once-monthly feedings depending on your python’s individual needs.
Ball pythons can easily live for 20, 30, or even 40 years with proper care and diet in captivity.
You may see your ball python’s appetite fluctuate based on gender, size in adulthood, season, and mating behaviors, which is why it is always wise to consult with an experienced ball python keeper or your exotic veterinarian if you have questions.
When Should You Feed Your Ball Python Again After the Last Meal?
In an earlier section where we talked about how it can take up to a full week before your older juvenile or adult ball python is even ready to defecate after the last meal.
Eating is actually a huge energy drain for your snake! It can take your ball python one to two days just to fully swallow their whole prey meal. Then it may take another four to five days before the meal is completely digested.
Then it may take another two to three days before your python’s body expels the waste material from their meal.
This is why, in most cases, you want to give your snake a day or two to recuperate before the next feeding.
With hatchling and young juvenile ball pythons, you may need to feed weekly just to accommodate the rapid growth and development they are going through.
But once your ball python is eating regularly at least every seven days, you can start to leave a gap of a day or two in between feedings and defecation.
This gives your snake’s body a chance to rest and is likely to improve appetite and enthusiasm for feeding at the next meal.
What to Do When Your Ball Python Won’t Eat
Anapsid.org points out that there may be times in your ball python’s life when they simply refuse to eat at all.
Rather than panic, this is always the time to step into troubleshooting mode and consider what may be prompting your python to refuse food.
In this section, we will take a closer look at the most commonly reported feeding issues that ball python owners regularly encounter.
All kinds of factors may contribute to systemic stress in a ball python. Ball pythons that have recently been re-homed may go through a period of adjustment where they refuse to eat.
Ball pythons that are undergoing shedding (molting) may also refuse to eat.
Ball pythons that have tried to feed and failed, or pythons that have been injured by a prey while trying to feed, may also refuse to feed out of stress or fear.
Ball pythons can be particularly susceptible to worms and may also be impacted by parasites, bacteria, and fungal infections.
When there is no other obvious reason for your ball python to reject feeding, it may be time to visit the exotic veterinarian to test for health issues.
Rejection of food type
While many snake species are quite familiar with the most common prey animals (mice and rats), ball pythons are not in this group.
In fact, in their natural wild habitat, ball pythons would not encounter mice or rats. They feed on gerbils and bird chicks in the wild. So there is a chance your ball python may simply not recognize the item you are offering as food.
If this happens, it makes sense that your python may refuse to feed. You may need to try a different type of prey, use scent markers to help your ball python recognize the prey, or change your husbandry to help your snake become willing to try the prey.
Snakes that are kept in too-cool or irregularly lit conditions may stop eating. Snakes are cold-blooded and need to be kept sufficiently warm to muster up the energy to feed.
The ball python is known to be diurnal, which means these snakes are generally the most active in their wild native habitat at dawn and dusk. So lighting is not as much of a concern with the ball python.
But the temperature can be a big contributor to unwillingness to eat. If your snake suddenly stops eating, take a look at the ambient temperature and lighting cycles in the enclosure, and see if something needs to be adjusted.
In the same vein as the previous section on husbandry, ball pythons have been observed in their wild environment to regularly stop feeding when the temperatures turn cooler.
Winter is prime time for ball pythons to stop feeding because they lack the necessary warmth to digest their prey. In fact, as the Reptifiles points out, it is not uncommon for wild ball pythons to only eat 10 times in a calendar year!
The best strategy, if your ball python stops feeding during a seasonal shift, is to simply minimize handling and keep regular notes on your snake’s weight.
As Reptiles Magazine points out, as long as your snake is maintaining weight during their cold season fast, there is nothing major to worry about.
You can also continue to offer your snake their regular meal every two weeks or so just in case they decide to feed.
However, if you notice your ball python is starting to drop weight, and if this weight loss begins to approach one-tenth of their total body weight, this is the right time to dig deeper and look for another possible reason why your snake has stopped feeding.
As Serenity’s Snakery points out, adult female ball pythons that are getting ready to lay eggs will often stop eating.
Adult male ball pythons have been known to stop eating for as long as six months to focus on seeking a mate. While this is worrisome behavior to you, the keeper, it is relatively normal (or at least well-documented) in ball pythons.
While humans that eat more than they truly need at a meal may readily eat again at the next meal, ball pythons are much less likely to do this.
Ball pythons are fairly self-regulating in terms of energy in/energy out. A ball python that has eaten enough to maintain its energy requirements is much more prone to simply stop eating until they get hungry and need to eat again.
If you have been feeding regularly and suddenly your ball python stops eating, it may simply be that your snake has been slightly over-fed for a period of time. Here, weight checks are once again a good method to determine if over-feeding may be the cause.
Special Feeding Issues With Ball Pythons You Should Be Aware Of
While ball pythons are arguably one of the most popular pet snakes in the world, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are easy to keep.
These snakes, nicknamed “royal pythons” for their association with Queen Cleopatra, are notorious for being picky eaters.
As such, it can help to imagine your ball python in their natural wild environment in west Africa. What would it be like to hunt for prey there? What challenges would your snake face?
In this section, we take a look at the certain well has known special feeding issues that tend to affect ball pythons that you can watch for.
Ball pythons detect their prey with the help of small, specialized heat (infrared) sensors located on either side of the nostrils just beneath each nostril.
These so-called “heat pits” help your snake locate food. While you may be feeding your pet snake fresh-frozen pre-killed prey, this will not in any way inactivate your snake’s sensory experience of feeding.
This means that sometimes, the best way to help your snake find their dinner is to heat it up!
In a wild setting, changing foods can make the difference between life and death. Your ball python has to learn quickly which foods are safe and which foods are not safe.
Let’s take the example of changing food manufacturers or distributors. Even though the frozen rat looks the same to you, it may smell or feel very different to your ball python. This can be a danger or a warning sign to your snake to stop feeding.
Too much handling
Ball pythons are typically quite relaxed about being handled, especially as adults. But a snake that is handled too much before a meal may refuse to feed out of over-stimulation or stress.
Any ball python that has ever been injured by a live prey may become fearful of feeding. Too many keeper stories exist about rodents that have inflicted severe damage on captive snakes.
There is always a risk in feeding a warm-blooded prey animal to a cold-blooded predator animal. This is why the vast majority of ball python keeper guides will advocate for feeding fresh-frozen pre-killed prey rather than live prey.
You are not depriving your ball python of the “thrill of the hunt” so much as you are ruling out the possibility that your snake will be injured by the claws or jaws of a strong adversary with an internal temperature advantage.
Never feed your ball python under too-cool conditions and err on the side of warning up dead prey versus feeding live prey whenever possible.
Ball pythons are very intelligent and will readily remember being injured in the past, which may cause fear-based fasting.
Too bright light
As you learned in an earlier section here, ball pythons are a diurnal species. This means they are typically most active, moving about and hunting for meals, at dawn and dusk.
The best mealtime atmosphere for your ball python at any age or stage of life will be one of low lighting, warm temperatures, and an enclosed area to swallow and digest their dinner.
You can create the right habitat conditions by lowering the lights, raising the temperature, pre-heating the prey food, and offering an enclosed area where your snake can feed and retreat to rest and digest in peace after their meal.
Common health issues
In addition to all the other special issues we have already mentioned here, it is definitely worth noting that ball pythons in captivity can be prone to certain health issues.
Respiratory and mouth infections, issues with shedding, parasites, anorexia, and mites are all commonly reported by ball python keepers.
If you have adjusted everything else and followed all the recommended protocols for encouraging your snake to eat and nothing is working, the next right step is always to make an appointment with your exotic veterinarian to have your ball python examined.
Ball pythons are long-lived and engaging reptiles that make great pets and typically if they stop feeding there is a good reason why. Feeding a ball python is perhaps the most challenging part of caring for this species of snake.
If this is your first time caring for a pet ball python, it can be helpful to keep a log of feeding behaviors to help you spot patterns. Your log will help you identify what needs an adjustment to get your snake eating again