When keeping a ball python it is important for their health to maintain a warm temperature gradient in their tank year-round. Their enclosure should have a basking spot on one end at 90-95°F, with an ambient temperature of 75°F on the cool side.
If tank temperatures drop below 70°F, your ball python may experience brumation, hypothermia, and even cold shock syndrome. It is important to know the warning signs of cold exposure and have an emergency plan ready.
I have also been through instances of needing a heating plan because of power outages. Since then, I have always kept an emergency heat kit, and I’m prepared for any event.
- Ambient tank temperature below 70°F is too cold for ball pythons.
- Temperatures close to 70°F can lead to bacterial and fungal respiratory infections, dehydration, regurgitation, and anorexia.
- Exposure to cold tank temperatures below 70°F can lead to gradual hypothermia and even sudden death.
- Temperatures below 60-65°F can lead to severe hypothermia within days.
- Ball python cold shock syndrome is the lasting organ and neurologic damage caused by their body shutting down due to hypothermia. It can cause metabolic and neurologic problems for weeks, months, or a lifetime.
How Cold Is Too Cold For Ball Pythons To Survive?
Any sudden or prolonged exposure to temperatures below 70°F can put your ball python at severe risk of illness or death.
At temperatures below 65°F your ball python will begin to show signs of hypothermia. Additionally, they are at a higher risk of sudden death or developing illnesses due to a suppressed immune system.
Cold temperatures lower than 55-60°F decrease survival rates within days.
Maintaining a consistent heat gradient in their tank is the only way to avoid the risk of:
- Bacterial or fungal respiratory infections
- Sudden death
When ambient temperatures are around 70°F you may notice your ball python hiding more, refusing meals, and avoiding their basking spot. They will avoid their basking spot because of stress and preparation for a false brumation. After two months, they may start to show signs of brumation or even hypothermia.
Seven years ago, I experienced this with my own ball python.
We evacuated for a hurricane and I did not have an emergency heat plan. After only three days of being at 60-65°F, she stopped eating, avoided her basking spot, and developed a respiratory infection. It took almost two months for her to recover, requiring antibiotics, veterinary tube feedings, and vitamin injections.
Reheating your ball python too quickly from cold temperatures can also cause issues like regurgitation, anorexia, and sudden death.
Ball Pythons are a sub-tropical species, so they are rarely exposed to temperatures below 70°F in the wild. Warmth is so important to these snakes, they are one of very few species that coil around their egg clusters for incubation!
If seasonal temperatures begin to drop to 70°F, ball pythons will enter a form of reptilian hibernation called Brumation. Leading up to brumation, they will gradually stop eating and seek shelter. Their heart rate, metabolism, and breathing slows and they can survive temperatures as low as 45°F underground until spring.
The difference is, as pets, temperatures tend to drop suddenly (unlike in the wild, where they drop gradually).
This sudden temperature drop prevents them from entering brumation properly and can cause a major imbalance.
Cold Temperature Effects
Ball Pythons are ectothermic and use heat from their environment to function normally.
Cold exposure can cause a variety of symptoms with mild to severe impacts on your snake’s health.
One of the most immediate effects of cold temperatures is vomiting or regurgitation of meals.
Ball Pythons typically eat larger meals and require more time for digestion than temperate climate species. If your snake has eaten recently, and the temperature drops suddenly, they will not be able to digest their prey. This will cause the prey to rot inside their stomach and can result in vomiting, constipation, or in severe cases, sepsis and even death.
Additionally, they may become anorexic, leading to weight loss and malnutrition.
Malnutrition can result in lethargy and damage to their neurologic health.
Extreme lethargy will prevent normal behaviors. Ball Pythons experiencing hypothermic lethargy will often stop drinking, have poor skin condition, and develop shedding problems. Behavioral changes that stop normal movement and climbing can also lead to muscle loss.
Another dangerous side effect of cold exposure is hypothermia and a weakened immune system.
Hypothermia is a dangerous drop in body temperature. Mild symptoms of hypothermia in reptiles can include lethargy, hiding, prey refusal, and heat avoidance. If conditions aren’t corrected in time, these can lead to worsening symptoms and poor quality of life.
Just like when humans get fevers to boost their immune system and fight infections, reptiles do this by raising their internal temperature through basking. Cool temperatures or an improper basking temperature can allow respiratory infections to develop if your snake isn’t able to self-induce a fever.
If tank temperatures remain below 70°F for two weeks or more, your ball python will experience multi-system shut down. This can occur faster if temperatures are below 60°F.
The liver and kidneys will gradually stop functioning due to malnutrition, dehydration, and poor circulation. Decreased respiration and poor circulation will cause their respiratory system to stop oxygenating the body, increasing organ, brain, and muscular damage. Once multi-organ failure begins, survival is highly unlikely.
Even if your ball python does survive, they are likely to develop cold shock syndrome.
Cold Shock Syndrome
A ball python may develop cold shock syndrome if the symptoms of hypothermia are left untreated for more than two weeks. Cold shock describes the lasting effects of cold exposure and organ dysfunction, even after heat is reintroduced.
Reintroducing heat is vital to reversing hypothermia, but it does not guarantee survival or good quality of life.
Ball Pythons experiencing cold shock syndrome may die suddenly at any point. If they survive, the road to recovery is long and will have many ups and downs.
Recovery is a slow process and may not ever be fully achieved.
My ball python survived her short bout with hypothermia, but it took two months for her to begin eating again and start displaying normal behaviors. At first, I was really concerned because during her antibiotic treatment, she began hiding from me more and hissing. It was a long two months of constant monitoring and intervention. Luckily, I addressed her issues early enough to avoid long-term effects.
Some ball pythons may refuse to bask in the heat at all, making it difficult to improve their quality of life. Others will refuse prey items, or intermittently regurgitate them.
Unfortunately, some snakes experience more severe symptoms for their entire lives.
Kidney and liver damage can be permanent, requiring regular blood work to monitor internal functions. If any damage to the nervous system occurred, they could experience behavioral and coordination issues like stargazing, poor striking, falling, spinning, or tremors.
How Long Can They Go Without Heat?
Pet ball pythons generally have poor survival rates within days of exposure to temperatures below 55°F. Sudden cold exposure at this temperature risks developing hypothermia and leads to death quickly.
At low temperatures around 55°F, your snake could die in as quickly as 1-3 weeks. The exact time frame depends on when their last feed was, their general health, and how quickly the cold temperature was introduced.
Survival times also depend on the temperature.
At 65-70°F your snake can survive for up to 2-4 months before symptoms begin worsening. At temperatures between 55-65°F, symptoms can appear as early as 6-12 hours after initial exposure and severe negative effects can start within 2-3 days.
What To Do If The Heat Goes Out
The most important part of preventing hypothermia is addressing health issues before they start.
I use the InkBird Outlet Temperature Controller thermostat, which alerts when the warm side of my enclosure drops below 85°F. This way I will know about a problem within hours.
If your heat goes out, you can insulate the tank to prevent heat loss. This can be achieved by wrapping saran wrap, blankets, and towels around the sides and screens to hold heat in for several hours. Just make sure your enclosure still has ventilation.
During an emergency, I recommend ignoring the temperature gradient and aiming for an ambient temperature of 75-80°F to prevent onset of hypothermia. At these temperatures, your snake will be safe for several weeks.
You can also keep hand warmers in an emergency kit in case heat loss lasts more than 2-3 hours.
You can tape the hand warmers to the sides of the enclosure (under the towels) to keep ambient temperatures above 70°F. These can cause burns, so don’t put them where your snake can lay against the hot glass directly! Warm water bottles can also be placed directly inside the enclosure if needed.
If all else fails, the calm temperament of Ball Pythons make them great candidates for using your body heat! If your snake tolerates it, you can let them ball up against you under a jacket or blanket for as long as necessary.