Adult ball pythons only need to eat a rat or mice once every week or two. In fact many adults can go for several weeks between meals.
Unfortunately this species is somewhat notorious for going on occasional “hunger strikes”.
Despite their infrequent feeding needs these snakes should not go more than three weeks without food. There are many reasons why a ball python stops eating.
Snakes may temporarily stop eating while adjusting to a new environment or food. Others stop eating before entering a shedding cycle or because they are responding to seasonal cues. Ball pythons may also go on a hunger strike if they are sick, stressed or living in an unsuitable enclosure.
Continue reading to learn why your ball python won’t eat. We also share how to get them eating again and when you might want to contact a vet.
9 Reasons A Ball Python Won’t Eat
If your ball python stops eating it may be an early sign that it is going into shed. Shedding is a natural process that occurs most frequently when pythons are young and fast-growing juveniles. Ball pythons periodically shed off their top layer of skin as they grow.
Hatchlings and juveniles can shed up to once per month. Older pythons shed less frequently due to their slower growth rate. Most adults will shed once every four to six weeks.
Shedding generally takes around 14 days in a healthy snake.
Most of this time is spent in the pre-shed stage when the old outer layer of skin separates from the new layer underneath. During the pre-shed stage many ball pythons stop eating.
During the pre-shed your snake’s skin will become dry and white, with the consistency of tissue paper. Papery skin signals that the shedding process is starting. Its eye-caps will also turn milky blue in preparation for shedding.
The actual shedding itself usually takes no more than 72 hours if humidity and temperature levels are within normal ranges.
Once shedding is complete they should regain their appetite and start eating again.
Ball pythons can become shy and irritable while they shed. The best course of action is to leave your snake alone for a week or two until it is ready to eat again. Shedding is one of the most common reasons for why ball pythons won’t eat.
Stress is also one of the most common reasons for a ball python refusing to eat.
Chronic stress activates the sympathetic nervous system in snakes. This increases the release of corticosterone hormones in their body. These hormones suppress their appetite, activate the “fight-or-flight” response and increase the likelihood of strikes.
A ball python not eating might be stressed. They will also display increased defensive behaviors such as:
- Balling up
- Mock striking
- Become more lethargic
- Rubbing its face against the glass
Chronic stress has dozens of root causes which makes it difficult for an owner to pin down.
Incorrect diet, improper temperatures or humidity, loud environment, parasites and rough handling are all potential stressors.
Most of these factors slowly increase stress over time. If consistently wrong these factors can eventually cause your ball python to refuse food. The slow nature of stress means they will stop eating even when nothing has recently changed.
You will need to carefully check each aspect of your ball python’s husbandry to identify possible reasons for stress.
Chronic stress is a more likely cause for refusing to eat than acute stress.
Acute stress is short-lived and does not repeat. For example taking your snake to the vet for an annual exam is an acute stress. A snake living in an enclosure that is too hot would be subjected to chronic stress. Chronic stress has more negative health consequences over time.
Most ball pythons remain active year-round, however some snakes naturally reduce feeding during the winter months. Though uncommon in this species, this behavior is considered normal for most reptiles and is called brumation.
Pythons that naturally stop eating at certain times of the year will respond to changes in daylight hours and their own internal annual rhythms. This is true for pets even if temperatures and lights within their setup remain constant.
If your snake starts to refuse food in the winter months it may be responding to temperature and lighting cycle cues.
As long as your snake continues to drink and act normally it should begin to eat normally again in spring.
Make sure to continue to check that your ball python does not show signs of poor health like losing weight, wheezing, or developing crust or discharge near the eyes and mouth.
Some ball python breeders intentionally decrease temperature and lighting cycles to induce a winter fast in their snakes before breeding. Many think this will increase the size of the egg clutch. This is an ongoing debate among breeders and triggering a fast in any animal comes with risks.
Parasites and diseases are much less common in pet snakes than in wild-caught individuals. However, this does not mean that pet ball pythons cannot become infected through their food or other reptiles.
Common parasites include internal organisms like protozoa, hookworms and flagellates. External parasites include species like ticks and mites. Illnesses from parasites can range from the highly deadly Cryptosporidiosis to mild respiratory infections.
Not eating is a symptom of many ball python health problems.
Parasitic infections are easier to spot because they also come with other symptoms. A sick snake will not only stop eating, but may also lose weight, have discharge from its nose and mouth, pass runny or discolored stool or have difficulty shedding. The exact symptoms depend on the specific parasite.
Any ball python that stops eating and shows the symptoms above should be taken to a reptile vet.
A vet can test for parasites as well as bacterial, fungal, and viral infections to pinpoint what may be affecting your snake’s eating habits. Luckily most diseases can be successfully treated if caught in the early stages.
Parasites and diseases can spread between wild animals and pets or even between different pet reptiles in a collection. Always wash your hands before and after handling your snake. In addition make sure to never feed your snake wild rodents as these often carry parasites.
Ball pythons are native to western and central Africa near the equator. This species has evolved to thrive in a warm climate and needs relatively high temperatures to stay healthy and active. Temperature plays a significant role in the energy levels and overall health of any snake.
Snakes are cold-blooded and cannot properly eat and digest prey unless they are warm enough.
A ball python that is too cold will not be able to eat until temperatures rise. They will also act sluggish and lethargic.
Consistently cool temperatures also induce stress and may lead to respiratory infections and poor immunity.
Your python’s enclosure should follow a temperature gradient to give them the freedom to move between warm and cool areas. This will help them to maintain optimum internal temperature. The warm side should remain between 80 and 85°F with a basking spot surface temperature of 88 to 92°F. The cool side can dip down to from 80 to 75°F but should go no lower than 70°F.
Their basking spot should be a large, flat surface big enough for their entire body to fit on the warmest area. Avoid using electric “hot rocks” as they tend to overheat.
You should make sure temperatures within their enclosure always remain within normal limits.
If you are using a heat source for the first time, check temperatures several times a day for a week or so until you are certain that it is functioning properly.
Female ball pythons go through a reproductive stage called ovulation. During this stage they develop eggs after locking with a male. This is a very intensive process which lasts for between 6 to 8 weeks. The energy usage of an ovulating python shifts from normal bodily functions to egg production.
Most female pythons stop eating once they begin ovulation.
It is very rare that a snake will continue to eat all the way until her eggs are laid. Some will continue to accept food until the pre-lay shed which is about halfway through ovulation.
Keeping track of when your ball python breeds will help you determine whether she has stopped eating for reproductive reasons. Successfully fertilized pythons start ovulating 17 to 18 weeks after mating. Ovulating snakes show key behaviors like:
- Refusing to eat
- Inverted laying
- Wrapping around the water bowl
- Starting to become fatter and lumpier
After laying and incubating her eggs a female ball python’s appetite will return full force to make up for lost fat stores.
Healthy ball pythons that are large enough to breed (1,500 grams or heavier) should have no lasting ill effects from this fast. A healthy adult female should weigh between 2000 and 3000 grams.
Unless your snake begins to drastically lose weight you should not worry if it stops eating for several months during ovulation and laying.
7. New Prey
Ball pythons are notorious for refusing to eat for long periods of time.
A good example of this is that a ball python won’t eat if you have recently switched to a new type of food. Changing from prey like pinky mice to fuzzy mice or from pre-killed to frozen-thawed can trigger a hunger strike. This is especially true for a picky eater!
Unfortunately even if your ball python is in perfect health and its enclosure and husbandry are immaculate they can still strike!
It may take your snake several feeding sessions to warm up to a new kind of prey.
Do not be surprised if your ball python goes on a temporary hunger strike after being introduced to a new food or prey item.
If you have a picky snake there are a few techniques you can try to get it eating again.
Instead of suddenly changing the prey, start by introducing the new prey to your snake gradually. Alternate meals between feeding its usual food and the food you want to start feeding. Over the space of four months slowly increase how often you offer the new prey until it is the only food provided.
A slow and gradual introduction gives your snake time to acclimate to its new prey. This will lessen the chance it will reject it.
Another method to get a picky python to take food is to mask the scent of its prey with another preferred animal. If you normally feed mice then try rubbing the mouse on a duckling or rat to entice your snake to eat it!
8. Feeding Technique
There are many options you have for how to feed ball pythons. You can feed different prey from live mice to pre-killed gerbils and frozen-thawed chicks. Feeding methods can also range from offering prey with tongs to letting the snake hunt in a separate enclosure.
Overall there is no single ‘right’ way to feed a ball python, but there are wrong ways!
We highly recommend that you do not feed live prey. Certain feeding methods may also prove unsuccessful for individual snakes.
A ball python won’t eat if there is a problem with the feeding method.
Here are a few common feeding mistakes that can cause a ball python to refuse food or regurgitate its prey.
Handling After Eating
Reptiles need more time than mammals to digest food due to their slower metabolism. Ball pythons should not be handled for 72 hours after each meal to give them enough digestion time. If you try to handle one before 72 hours have passed, they may regurgitate their prey.
Not Preparing Frozen Prey
Ball pythons will not eat cold prey. Frozen rodents should be thawed in a refrigerator and heated in warm water until they reach approximately 110°F. The heat helps your snake ‘see’ the prey with its heat-sensing organs. Dry the rodent with a paper towel and offer it to your snake with tongs.
Wrong Prey Size
Rats, mice, and other prey should be no larger than the girth of the snake at its widest point. Ball pythons will generally ignore animals that are too large unless they are exceptionally hungry.
9. Wrong Enclosure
Ball pythons are not demanding and are low-maintenance which is what makes them a great pet snake. However, they still need a proper habitat setup to feel comfortable and be happy.
Incorrect substrate, décor, and tank size can all be the reason for a ball python not eating.
These factors can cause considerable stress which in turn may lead to a hunger strike.
Enclosures for ball pythons range from large, naturalistic cages to industrial rack systems meant for housing many snakes in a small space. Both cages are widely used for keeping ball pythons, but more stimulating enclosures are better for the overall welfare and neurological well-being of the snake.
Minimalistic enclosures are popular for their money-saving design, but they can have negative consequences for your snake’s health.
A small tank or few places to hide leaves ball pythons feeling stressed and vulnerable.
Adult ball pythons should be housed in at least a 40-gallon tank. There should be at least two places for your snake to hide, one on the warm side and one on the cool side. Make sure to include branches for your snake to climb, live or fake plants, and a good substrate (such as aspen shavings).
The goal is to make your snake feel more secure and at-home.
What To Do If My Ball Python Won’t Eat?
Getting a ball python to eat food again can be a matter of simply waiting it out, adjusting its enclosure setup, changing their husbandry or taking it to a vet. To know which method you should begin with the first step is to determine the reason why a ball python is not eating.
Below is a table of the nine most common reasons for not eating. We also share the symptoms for each of these reasons and what you can do to get them eating again.
|Shedding||Pale, papery, or blue-tinted skin.
White or blue eye caps.
Soaking frequently in the water bowl.
Rubbing their faces or bodies against rough objects in the tank to tear the old skin.
|Make sure humidity is 50 to 60% and that your snake has rough surfaces to rub against. You can lightly mist using a shedding aid, but otherwise let it be and do not handle.|
|Stress||Sudden changes in behavior, lethargy or increased aggression.
They may mock strike, ball up, hiss, or attempt to escape.
Pacing, rubbing against the side of the enclosure, stargazing, or corkscrewing.
|Identify possible sources of stress and eliminate them. Common sources are loud noises, bright lights and dirty enclosures.|
|Season||Starts to refuse food in the winter.
Temperatures in your house decrease during the winter.
Snakes with exposure to outside lighting can respond to changes in daylight hours, even if their tank’s light schedule remains unchanged.
|Keep lighting on a 12 hour on/off schedule. Once spring begins, your snake should begin feeding.|
|Parasites||Rapid weight loss.
Yellow, white, clear, or foamy discharge from the nose, mouth, or eyes.
Discolored scales around the mouth.
Runny, bloody, or discolored feces.
Wheezing or mouth breathing.
|Take your snake to a vet as soon as possible. Clean the tank and replace the substrate regularly|
|Temperature||Your snake is constantly under its basking bulb attempting to keep warm in a cold environment.
Your snake is constantly in its water bowl as overheated snakes will often soak to cool down.
|The tank should be between 75-80 degrees on the cool side and 82-85 degrees on the warm side, with a basking spot between 88-92 degrees.|
|Ovulation||Inverted laying where your snake lays with the lower half of its body belly-up.
Wrapping around the water bowl.
Becoming lumpy in appearance.
|Leave your snake alone until its eggs are laid. Healthy pythons will not need to eat during ovulation.|
|Prey||Your python seems interested in food but will not strike.
Regurgitating their prey.
|Offer a new type of prey like chicks, gerbils or quails.|
|Feeding Technique||Your snake will strike prey but not eat it.||Make sure frozen prey is completely thawed, dried, and warmed to 96-98 degrees.|
|Wrong Enclosure||Constant hiding.
Inability to stretch out fully.
Improper substrate as they should not be housed on sand, pine or cedar shavings, or gravel.
No hiding places.
|House your snake in a larger enclosure if it is unable to fully stretch out. Add more hides for species in large enclosures.|
How Long Can A Ball Python Go Without Eating?
Ball pythons are ambush predators like toads. They sit and wait for prey to come to them, instead of actively hunting the animals they eat. As a result they are well adapted to withstand long intervals of food scarcity in the wild.
In extreme situations this snake can go for six months or longer without eating. However it is more normal for them to go days and weeks between meals.
Pet ball pythons should never be forced to go months between meals. Adult snakes with a healthy appetite should be fed an appropriately sized rat once every few weeks. Hatchlings and juveniles under two years old need a subadult rat or mouse once every week.
If your ball python has stopped eating for over three weeks and starts losing weight or acting abnormally then take it to a reptile vet. Though they can survive for months without eating, it is not healthy or recommended.
Without food a ball python can lower their resting metabolism rate to burn less fuel.
They will then start to break down their excess fat and muscle stores. They can even digest parts of their own vital organs to survive prolonged periods of starvation.
After eating a meal these snakes will work to quickly rebuild their organs and regain their energy stores.
Ball pythons have a slower metabolism and burn less energy than mammals. This means they can use the energy from a single meal for a very long time.
Ball pythons are infamous for going on hunger strikes. These picky eaters are notorious for refusing to eat for weeks at a time. The most common reasons for pythons not eating are:
- Parasites or illnesses.
- Incorrect temperatures.
- Inadequate tank/cage setup.
- Incorrect feeding techniques.
- Picky eater.
Most snakes will start eating again on their own and are generally unharmed by a brief fast.
In some instances when a ball python won’t eat some help may be needed.
A ball python not eating due to ovulation, shedding, or changing seasons is not in danger. These are normal reasons for a temporary fast and they will start eating again on their own.
Incorrect temperatures, enclosure setup, or feeding techniques can be corrected by an attentive owner that changes their husbandry routine.
A snake that stops eating because of parasites, illness, or stress should be taken to a vet.