General care and husbandry for Common Boa's
Boa Constrictor – General Care Sheet
This is by no means the definitive care sheet for Boa’s. It’s 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 don’t rush into your first purchase. There are several variations of boa constrictors including island varieties, but this care sheet will deal with the common boa. Most of the information can be applied to most boa’s, but research for specific island breeds, or true red tails is strongly advisable
Scientific name is Boa imperata refers to the common boa and covers a wide geographical location including island species such as Hoggs, and Clay’s. Boa Constrictor Constrictor refers to true red tail boas, however with decades of inter species breeding to get common boa’s to exhibit some of the traits and colouration often found on red-tales.
A large heavy bodied snake. Average length is around 2m for males, and 3.5m for a female. The average weight of a boa is around 10kg – 20kg. They have a distinctive arrow head shape to their heads with a narrow neck, leading to a thick set square sectioned body.
Boa’s require a vivarium of substantial size. Give that the average length of a male common boa, a vivarium of 6’ x 2’ x 2’ (200cm x 60cm x 60cm) would be the sort of size required to comfortably house it. If you have a female, then consider an 8’ x 4’ x 2’ (LxWx H). If you can provide extra height, then it’s worth it as Boa’s are excellent climbers and will spend time in branches or trees in the wild.
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. Don’t use wedges, as they can fall out and boa’s are very capable of moving loose glass panels. If you are building your own vivarium, or purchasing a commercial one, make sure the back panel is solid and not thin hardboard. Boa’s are incredibly strong and powerful, and can easily push out a thin back panel.
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.
Common Boa’s need access to a hot spot of 32c – 34c and an area away from that heat where it will thermo-regulate itself depending on its needs.
Do not use heatmats. They do not heat the air. They provide low level infrared energy that induces warmth into the body of the snake, and with a snake of this size they just lack the ability to provide the warm humid air environment a boa requires.
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 snake’s 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 Boa’s. These need guarding to prevent the snake coming into contact with them as they run very hot. CHE’s also havethe advantage of heating the air as well as the area directly beneath them, making them the ideal heater for boa’s
All methods of heating need to be controlled using a thermostat designed for use with reptiles. CHE’s 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). CHE’s 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.
Humidity can be maintained by spaying warm water from a mister, but this tends to be required when the snake is in shed, or if you live in a particularly dry country. In the UK an average humidity of 55%- 65% is fine. Spraying water onto the substrate under the CHE will help if the humidity is low.
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. LED’s 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 – 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 boa’s, the use of delicate live plants in a vivarium is not recommended. Being such a heavy bodied snake, it 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 Boa iscurrently kept on small bark chippings and it regularly swallows the odd chipping with his rat and have never had a problem. In the past I’ve 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, if you have the space, 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.
Hides are not as important as they are for other species such as Royal pythons. If you have a young boa sections of cork bark can be used 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.
Settling in period:
The vivarium is set up, it’s got a hot spot (ball park figure of 32c – 34c). Take a cloth bag or pillow case with you when you go to collect your snake 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 it’s 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 don’t 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 it’s better to give a meal that will produce a slight bulge in the snake’s girth once it’s been swallowed. Yes a snake can manage a huge meal, and we’ve 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 doesn’t need such a large food intake.
Boa’s are not fussy when it comes to feeding. They are commonly referred to as dustbins as they have such a good appetite. But resist the urge to overfeed. The use of tongs is also recommended so the snake doesn’t mistake your warm hand as the target !
Unlike some species of snakes, boa’s don’t go through fasting periods. The only time boa’s lose their appetite is when breeding, but even then they been known to continue to eat whilst carrying young.Water should be provided in a bowl that is small enough to prevent the snake bathing in it, and it should be changed daily. Boa’s will bathe if a large water bowl that can accommodate them is provided, however they will also tend to defecate in the water, and that doesn’t bode well as a means of providing drinking water.
Boa’s 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 you’ll 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. Most boa’s will shed in one section, and seldom have problems requiring intervention by the keeper.
The amount of handling snakes is again down to personal preference. If it’s your only snake and it’s a pet, then regular handling will allow the snake to get use to the disruption. Note that snakes don’t 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 it’s 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.
Boa’s do become viv defensive, and will strike at anything that comes into range. Sometimes this can also be a feeding response given their drive for food. A bite from an adult boa is not pleasant, so I’m told as I’ve only been bitten once in nearly 30 years of keeping snakes, and that was from a Royal. Youngsters will be snappier as they have a need to defend themselves and see us as a threat. With regular handling young snakes calm down. With adults, the use of tap training, where you stroke the snake with something like a card tube before picking it up often works. Personally I wait until the snake is stretched out so I can pat / stroke him mid body and then lift him out. Once out they calm down, and will tend to hold you rather than the other way around. With such a strong snake its good practice to have someone else on hand to help should you get into difficulties. I personally would not suggest handling an adult boa when you are the only one in the building.
Boa’s are nocturnal by nature. They will spend most of the daytime coiled up at one end of the vivarium, occasionally moving to thermo-regulate. Once the lights go out they become active and will explore their environment.
As this caresheet is aimed at the beginner who is considering getting a Boa as a first large snake the subject of breeding should be covered in a separate article, as breeding Boa’s is not really something an inexperienced keeper should undertake.
Like Royal pythons you can obtain a boa in several variations in colour and patterns, some vastly different to the natural marking, which in some cases are stunning. Whilst these can be attractive, there are those who feel the natural “wild” type equally attractive and prefer to keep snakes that would survive in the wild environment. A true redtail can have very clean markings and a deep red triangular patterned lower third.
Generally common Boa’s are healthy snakes, however they are prone to respiratory infections (RI) which is why they should be kept in a warm air environment, with a mid range humidity. Too much humidity or lack of ventilation can lead to ideal conditions for pathological bacteria growth which will compound the risk of an RI.
They can also suffer from regurgitation syndrome, which is more common in true redtails (BCC) than commons, and tends to occur with young snakes. There is no one specific cause, from too large a meal, to environmental conditions.
IBD or Inclusion body disease occurs in boa’s and pythons, but more so in boa’s. In boa constrictors, the first signs may include off-and-on regurgitation, and some develop head tremors. Abnormal shedding may occur. Some develop chronic regurgitation and anorexia (lack of appetite or refusal to feed). However, not all infected snakes may regurgitate. Boas lose weight and may develop clogged nares (nostrils), stomatitis, or secondary pneumonia. The disease can rapidly progress to produce nervous-system disorders, such as disorientation, corkscrewing of the head and neck, holding the head in abnormal and unnatural positions, rolling onto the back, and stargazing (constantly staring at the ceiling). Anyone with a snake exhibiting these signs should contact a vet as only blood tests and swabbing of various tracts are needed to identify the condition. There is sadly no know treatment for IBD
Do Boa’s make an excellent beginners snake? Well that depends on the individual. Obviously a common or redtail boa can’t be safely handled by a young child, at least not without adult supervision. However, if you have the space for a large vivarium, and are prepared for the uncertainty of a bite from a viv defensive snake then yes these make for an ideal snake to enter the hobby. Be prepared to cover any vet bills given that boa’s are more susceptible to illnesses, but having said that, none of the boa’s I’ve kept have shown any signs of disease or illness. Just buy from a reputable breeder. Never meet in a public place to do the deal, and try to see the parents at the breeders premises. If in doubt walk away and continue your searching.
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