General care and husbandry for Royal Pythons
Royal Python Ė General Care Sheet
This is by no means the definitive care sheet for Royal Pythons. Itís based on my personal experiences in the (at the time of writing) 27 years of keeping and breeding this species of snake. I will cover the basics to get you started, but I strongly urge you to do as much research as possible, and donít rush into your first purchase.
Scientific name is Python Regius. Common name Royal Python. Sometimes (often in the US) called the ball python, but as the true Latin definition of the word regius is ďworthy of or belonging to a king, or of being royalĒ, Royal Python is their correct naming. The term ďballĒ refers to the trait that wild caught Royals exhibit where they coil themselves up with the head protected into a ball like shape. A trait that is seldom observed these days, especially given a lot of snakes offered today are captive bread.
A large heavy bodied snake with adult females weighting between 2kg - 3kg. Average length is around 120cm for males, and upwards of 170cm for a female. There are no official data on the longest royal or the heaviest Royal, but there is an old video on Youtube where a Brian Gundy is showing of one of his adult female Royal pythons who is upwards of 5kg and around 2m in length
Firstly, you will need to house the snake in a suitable secure enclosure. There is no maximum size for a vivarium so if you have the space for a six foot vivarium, then that would be every bit as good as a fourfoot one, even for a newly hatched baby Royal. It is also possible to house Royals in rack systems, using RUBs ( really useful boxes). There are proís and cons for any enclosure, but as an adult royal has the potential of reaching 1.5m to 1.7m and weigh between 2.5kg Ė 3Kg or more, a vivarium of 48Ē (1.2m) x 21Ē (0.53m) x 24Ē (0.6m) (L x W x H) is the minimum size vivarium for an adult. A lot of people believe that you should start small and increase the vivarium size as the snake grows. Iíve found this is not always the case, and provided there is ample cover (see below) you can place a young Royal in a large vivarium without any issues. Oh and Royals love to climb. They may not be very good at holding on, but given the opportunity they will climb and in the wild have been found in trees, so having a tall vivarium will give you the option of installing branches or shelving to provide climbing opportunities.
The enclosure needs to be secure. Use two part epoxy to glue in the vents in a wooden vivarium, especially if it is a commercial vivarium purchased as a flat pack. Seal any large cable entry holes with aquarium grade silicone, and purchase a key operate glass lock for the two part sliding panels. Donít use wedges, as they can fall out and Royals are very capable of moving loose glass panels. If you are using a rack system, ensure the RUBs have a clip on lid. If you are opting for a lidless system, then the trays should fit snug to the divider above them to ensure the snake canít escape.
Ventilation is required in any enclosure. In a wooden vivarium the vents should be placed low down in the side wall at a cool end with a second up high in the opposite warm end. This will allow the warm air to escape and draw fresh cool air into to the vivarium. In a RUB small holes can be drilled front and back.
Heating is probably the most hotly (no pun intended) debated subject. Royals require an area in the enclosure that enables it to warm up and absorb the energy in order to live and function naturally. Royals need access to a hot spot of 32c Ė 34c and an area away from that heat it will thermo-regulate itself depending on its needs.
Heatmats are often chosen as they are cheaper than other methods of heating, and only require a basic thermostat for control. However one thing needs to be clarified is that heatmats do not heat the air. They provide low level infrared energy that induces warmth into the body of the snake. So placing the probe of the thermostat in the air above a mat will have no control over the amount of energy the snake will absorb. Most people donít use the mats as instructed and place them on the floor of the vivarium and then cover them with an insulating substrate such as wood chips. If you do opt to use heat mats, please read and install them in accordance with the manufactures instructions.
Red spotlamps are not recommended as a heat source as in order for the snake to access heat anytime it needs it, the light has to be on 24/7. Research has shown that contrary to belief, snakes can see the RED wavelength these lights emit and as such would never experience a day / night routine which is a natural occurrence. Having a day / night photo-period is essential for a snakeís natural process, especially with snakes that are active at night. For this reason the use of lamps as a heat source is not ideal.
A ceramic heating element (CHE) is ideal for heating a vivarium to house a Royal. These need guarding to prevent the snake coming into contact with them as they run very hot. CHEís also havethe advantage of heating the air as well as the area directly beneath them, making them the ideal heater for Royals.
All methods of heating need to be controlled using a thermostat designed for use with reptiles. A heat mat can be controlled by a simple on/off type thermostat, whereas CHEís require either a pulse proportional thermostat or dimming stat. Running a CHE from an on/off stat will shorten the life of the CHE and will create too wide a thermal range. The heater needs to be placed at one side of the enclosure (at the end where the top vent is in a vivarium). CHEís must be guarded as they get very hot and can cause burns if the snake comes into contact with the element. Try to get a guard that is not too close to the element, and is more of a wire mesh type rather than a plate with holes drilled, as the CHE will warm those types of guards to a point that can still cause burns should the snake come into contact with it.
The use of a thermometer to read the temperature of the substrate and set the thermostat is recommended rather than relying on the indications on the dial. An IR laser temperature gun is ideal for performing this function, and can be had cheaply from a well know auction site or any leading electronics retailer.
The need for lighting has been debated and discussed at length on the forums. If you want to display your snake in its vivarium, then the installation of some form of lighting is required. This can be LED, normal incandescent lamps, or fluorescent tubes; the two latter methods should be guarded or in the case of fluorescent tubes, mounted close to the roof of the vivarium as they can get hot enough to cause burns should the snake stay in contact for long periods. LEDís especially the strips that are self adhesive may also need covering as there have been cases where the strips get stuck to the snake and then requires treatment from a vet. Lighting should be on a timer to give around 8 Ė 10 hours of supplemental light per day.
Substrate & decoration:
Substrate and decoration is a personal choice. At one end of the scale you have a few sheets of kitchen paper towel and water dish, at the other end a fully natural enclosure with live plants, natural substrate and even a section with flowing water. For Royals, the use of delicate live plants in a vivarium is not recommended. Royals being heavy bodied snakes will just crush them. However, sturdy live plants can be used, but in reality you can make the vivarium look good with silk and plastic artificial plants. Common substrates include newspaper, aspen, pellets of wood or paper, beech chippings, bark chippings, and wood shavings. One regular subject that often appears on the forum is that of snakes ingesting substrate which gets stuck to a mouse or rat whilst eating. As far as I can remember there has only been one case of someone posting concern after their snake had ingested a beech chipping which had got stuck in its throat. This was regurgitated within 48 hours, much to the relief of the owner. In the wild, snakes will ingest all sorts of leaf matter and dirt whilst eating, and they deal with it, so there is no need to use feeding bowls, or plates to try and remove the possibility. My own snakes are currently kept on small bark chippings and regularly swallow the odd chipping with their rats and have never had a problem. In the past Iíve used pelleted wood cat litter (pettex brand) which has the advantage of turning into sawdust if swallowed, but this also causes a lot of dust in the vivarium and needed constant changing. Originally from resin free white wood, it then changed to be made from recycled wood and so could not confirm the quality. It also caused the humidity to fall and the drier environment caused shedding issues.
As mentioned, add in some shelving or sturdy branches for the snake to climb on. These can be secured with stainless steel screws through the base of the vivarium. I purchased a branch that is used for parrots from a local pet shop, however you can use branches from your local wood, so long as they are not from pine trees, and have been washed to remove most of the insects and dirt.
Hides are a must for any royal. This can be sections of cork bark if you want a natural look, or you can use upturned flower pots, half a large pipe, or even the card board tube from the inside of a roll of carpet, cut lengthwise. Lots of artificial plants also provide cover which will make the snake feel secure and settle in.
Settling in period:
The vivarium is set up, itís got a hot spot (ball park figure of 32c Ė 34c), plenty of cover, branches , and a decent layer of substrate and itís time to collect the snake. Take a cloth bag or pillow case with you as the seller may not have anything to put the snake in for you. Once the snake has been bagged and brought home, release it into the enclosure and then leave it alone. Resist the urge to constantly open the enclosure and watch it, or get it out for handling sessions. Let the snake settle in for two to three weeks, with the only disturbance being to change the water in its dish / bowl. You will soon see the snake exploring its enclosure when itís ready to. After two weeks you can try and offer a meal to see if it will take a meal.
When it comes to feeding, again there is no one set rule. However one thing is certain and that is that you donít feed your snake on a daily basis ! - Feed one food item on a weekly basis. However, feeding once every two weeks is sometimes preferable. Snakes metabolism is slow, and it can take three to four days to fully digest a meal, so feeding too frequently means that the snake never really has a chance to digest and process the food completely before being offered another meal.
The size of the food item also matters. You can offer two small items when the snake is between prey sizes, and generally itís better to give a meal that will produce a slight bulge in the snakeís girth once itís been swallowed. Yes a snake can manage a huge meal, and weíve all seen the video or photos of a large python eating a gazelle or impala, but snakes are opportunist and will take what it can when it can as in the wild it never knows when its next meal will be. In captivity, where the snake expels less energy searching for food, it doesnít need such a large food intake.
Royal Pythons tend to rely on their heat pits as well as other senses, so the food item needs to be warmed. This can be done by either placing the food item in a plastic food bag then placing it in hot water for half an hour or so, or using a hairdryer has the same effect. You can dip the rodent into hot water, and then dry it off using a kitchen towel, or place it on a warm radiator to do the same. Donít place the item in a microwave as this can cause the rodent to cook inside, or explode. Itís also not hygienic. The use of tongs is also recommended so the snake doesnít mistake your warm hand as the target !
Royalswill go off food from time to time, especially when reaching adult age (I have had one female lesser pastel that has so far proven this wrong and has never missed a meal in two years, but also had a male that went 9 months without eating). Donít worry if your snake refuses a meal and hasnít eaten for ten days or so. Males will often refuse food for upwards of 4 Ė 6 months, maybe taking the odd meal here and there. Females may also refuse food, but normally this happens less and for shorter periods than males. In this period, simply offer a meal once every three or four weeks so that you donít waste food. As mentioned Royal pythons are notorious for fasting, with the record has been more than a year without food. Itís mostly males that fast, and often it associated with the breeding season. Once the snake is feeding again, you may find a change in its behaviour in that it comes charging out of its hide every time the vivarium is opened. If the snake has lost some body weight then you can take advantage of this behaviour and feed two items at each sitting on a weekly basis in order to regain its body weight. Water should be provided in a bowl that is small enough to prevent the snake bathing in it, and it should be changed daily.
Royals tend to shed around five to six times a year, especially in their first three years. Humidity of around 60% should be maintained, which can be achieved by misting with warm water a couple of times a day whilst the snake is in shed. Shedding starts by a darkening of the appearance of the snake. A few days later youíll notice a slight milky appearance to the skin, and the eyes become opaque with a milky appearance. The snake may stay in this state for a few days before the skin clears and then around a week later the snake will start the process of shedding by rubbing its nose against things in order to start lifting the skin. In an ideal world the snake will shed in one complete section, but most royals will end up tearing the old skin and it comes off in bits. A royal with a bad shed can be helped by either placing it in a tub with damp moss or similar for about an hour or so, or run a shallow bath (2Ē) of luke warm water (if it feels warm to the hand then it is too warm) and let the snake bathe. You can then let the snake run through your hands allowing you to rub off any of the old skin. With Royals having large eyes, pay attention to each shed to ensure the eyecaps have come away.
The amount of handling snakes is again down to personal preference. If itís your only snake and itís a pet, then regular handling will allow the snake to get use to the disruption. Note that snakes donít get any enjoyment out of being handled in the way a dog or cat will. Often the fact the snake may sit still on your lap is because itís an excellent heat source and not that it wants to sit with you and watch the TV. Snakes tolerate being handled, some more than others, but even the most placid snake can have its moment and would much prefer to be left alone. Snakes that are in shed should be left alone, especially whilst the eyes are blue and opaque. Remember that they are not domesticated animals; they still have wild tendencies to either fight or flight, so learn to read the signs.
Royals are nocturnal by nature. They will spend most of the daytime coiled up in their hides, occasionally moving to thermo-regulate. Once the lights go out they become active and will explore their environment. So as a display animal they donít really step up to the mark. But Royals are an impressive snake in their own right, a four foot, 2.5kg snake is very impressive.
As this caresheet is aimed at the beginner who is considering getting a Royal as a first snake the subject of breeding should be covered in a separate article, as breeding Royals is not really something an inexperienced keeper should undertake.
Back in the 1990ís a few wild caught royals produced the first mutations, or morphs. Today you can obtain a Royal python in hundreds of variations in colour and patterns. Some of these snakes are products of four or five genes, with long names to match. Each year breeders are putting together snakes to produce a new, hopefully much sought after, designer snake. Whilst these can be attractive, there are those who feel the natural ďwildĒ type equally attractive and prefer to keep snakes that would survive in the wild environment. The choice of morph should be researched in depth as some morphs have produced some unwanted side effects.
Generally Royals are healthy snakes, and donít have any real major natural issues. However, one thing that has developed due to genetics is head wobble or corkscrewing. This neurological condition is associated with the spider gene. The Spider morph is a very popular morph due to the way it affects the normal wide banding marks along the body, reducing them to give a spiderís web appearance. It is also found in the ďbeeĒ morph variant so snakes offered as killer bees; queen bees etc all carry the gene. Snakes with these conditions exhibit traits from a slight head wobble trough to total disorientation causing the snake to roll along its length hence the term ďcorkscrewĒ. This condition doesnít otherwise prevent the snake from having a normal life, however it can be distressing to see a snake with this condition, and recently the ethics of commercial breeders using this morph has come into question.
Do royals make an excellent beginners snake? In my opinion no they donít. They are an ideal second snake for someone who has already been involved in the hobby and has been keeping a snake or snakes for a few years. Yes they tick a lot of boxes for being a first snake; they are docile, non-demanding snakes and tolerate handling well. Itís the shedding issues, their feeding habits and the worry that gives their keepers which is why I would suggest getting a Royal after you have gained some experience. If you are prepared to put up with these issues then by all means get one as they are fantastic snakes.
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