When I brought my first Ball Python home, I was new to snake keeping. I would reach in quickly to pick her up, sometimes even right in front of her face. Luckily, she had a very calm temperament!
A few years later, when I started working with rescue Ball Pythons, I soon learned the dangers of doing this! After a few well-deserved bites, I started studying the body language and behavior of these snakes.
Ball Pythons are known to be shy and easily stressed by over-handling. Handling should be introduced to them gradually to make every interaction low-stress and safe.
Keep reading to learn how to make handling a ball python an enriching and safe experience.
- Aim to handle your ball python 3-5 times each week, up to 20 minutes at a time.
- Let your snake rest for 2-3 days after eating before handling. Also avoid picking them up during shed.
- Watch your Ball Python’s body language and avoid reaching quickly towards the head, from above or grabbing them suddenly. The best way is to approach from their mid-side.
- During handling, let them move through your hands for several minutes to get acclimated. Continue to remind your pet they are safe by gently rubbing them.
- Handling can be a good form of enrichment.
How To Handle A Ball Python
In my opinion, the hardest part about handling Ball Pythons is when you first pick them up.
Ball Pythons can become stressed, fearful, or even aggressive during handling. Knowing your pet can help to determine the best way to approach them. Depending on whether the snake is calm, prone to defensive striking, or fearfully aggressive, I change my method of handling.
Author Tip: The most important part of learning to handle a Ball Python is understanding their body language.
Signs of a relaxed, comfortable Ball Python are:
- Deliberate movements
- Stretching out
- Getting comfortable by loosely balling up
- Tongue flicking the air
If your snake is showing these behaviors, it means you are successfully making them feel safe and comfortable and they are ready to be handled.
Step 1: Scent Recognition
First, it is important to make sure your snake knows you are there to avoid startling them. I always talk to my Ball Pythons as I am approaching and opening the enclosure so they associate human voices with being handled.
By leaving the enclosure open for several seconds before reaching in, it gives them the opportunity to recognize my scent.
Step 2: Mid-Body Only
For calm, comfortable Ball Pythons that are used to being handled, I use a direct approach to picking them up. If your snake seems calm and uninterested in your hand, you can reach for their mid-body from the side.
Avoid reaching too quickly past their face. This can lead to a bite, even for pets with good temperaments.
Step 3: Scoop Correctly
Hold them gently from the side and scoop your fingers underneath them to provide support.
If your Ball Python is longer than 4ft, I recommend using two hands to support them as you lift them to prevent stress on the spine.
Once you have picked up your snake, you are free to continue holding them with two hands or to let them explore a safe area under your supervision.
Tips for Anxious Snakes
Some Ball Pythons have good temperaments, but may be a little nervous about handling at first.
For these individuals, I like to introduce them to hook training. Hook training is a handling technique that helps to communicate to your Ball Python that you are planning to pick them up and conditions them to a routine for interactions. It also helps with pets that have a strong strike response to incoming movements.
I like to use a 1.5-3ft hook, depending on whether the Ball Python is a juvenile or adult.
First, gently rub them along the lower body with the hook to let them know you are there.
Once the snake is ignoring the hook, start using it to pull their tail towards you and position their head facing away. Then, use the hook to lift up their tail and gently grab it with your hand.
From here, you can hook them mid-body and lift them out of the enclosure, keeping your hand on their tail. You can also set the hook down at this point and use your other hand to pick them up from mid-body.
Author Tip: I recommend being very slow and calm around these snakes to avoid startling them.
Sings of mild stress in ball pythons include:
- Balling up
- Tight coiling
- Head hiding
If your Ball Python is not becoming more relaxed after 10 minutes of handling, I recommend putting them back in their enclosure to calm down. This prevents their stress level from escalating.
Tips for Aggressive Snakes
When I was working with rescue Ball Pythons, several of them had “spicy” attitudes that did not respond well to hook training. These can be a bit more difficult, but nevertheless, they must be handled in certain circumstances.
In my experience the security blanket method has more success with fearful Ball Pythons.
To do this, I usually start by using a hook to redirect their head into the opposite direction. Then, I’ll use feeding tongs to drape a small towel over their head like a security blanket.
After this, I use the hook to pull their tail towards me, while keeping their head covered and pick them up just as I would a hook-trained snake. Pick them up entirely with the hook and then set them down in your lap.
Author Tip: Handling should be introduced slowly and in short periods to tame stressed Ball Pythons. A negative handling interaction can cause more damage to taming your Ball Python, so skip a handling session as needed.
Handling your Ball Python isn’t just fun for you; it is mentally and physically enriching for them.
Mental stimulation by enrichment increases quality of life in pet snakes, so try to build a positive relationship with your Ball Python; that they can get just as much out of handling as you do.
Severe signs of stress in Ball Pythons include:
- Refusal of being handled
- Tail whipping
- Fast, jerky movements
Handling should be introduced gradually. Ball Pythons are known to be shy and easily stressed by over-handling. It is a good idea to give them a 1-2 day break between each interaction to condition them.
Taming A Ball Python
Taming is a type of behavioral conditioning that teaches your Ball Python to be more accepting of you and handling.
To tame any snake, you will need to start with a socialization schedule.
|First 5-7 days
|Leave your snake alone to acclimate
|Next 2 weeks
|Begin interactions (feeding and scent)
|After 3 weeks
|Start short handling sessions of 5 minutes every other day
|After 1-2 months
|Increase handling times by 5 minutes and handle 2-4 times weekly
Socializing your Ball Python is the most important part of building a positive relationship. I recommend giving them 5-7 days to acclimate to their new home, then start a routine to get them used to being handled. This can prevent fearful or aggressive behaviors from developing.
For spicy or temperamental pets, it may take several weeks of hook training just to be able to pick them up.
You need to be prepared to be patient.
Author Tip: Try to keep a snake socialized by handling 2-4 times weekly for life. This type of conditioning helps to reassure your snake that they are safe in your presence.
When I was working with rescue Ball Pythons, one rescue in particular was not very receptive to handling. Every time I opened the enclosure, it would strike at me, mouth open. It would hiss and coil away from me, always taking the defensive position.
It took nearly a month of me petting it with the hook to even get the snake to ignore it!
At the end of a two month period, I was able to pick it up using the hook and then slowly handle it faced away from me for 10 minute increments every 3 days
What Not To Do
One of the most common mistakes new owners make is spending too much time handling their Ball Python, or moving too quickly around them. This can cause distress, especially if the snake is new. Signs that you may be handling your snake too often or carelessly are:
- Fear aggression
- Hunger strikes
Always pay attention to your snake’s behavior and body language to ensure they are comfortable!
Not only should you watch your Ball Python’s body language, but you should also pay attention to changes in their appearance. Shedding is a time when your snake may be more irritable, fearful, or confused. Their eyes cloud over and turn a bluish-gray color during this time, making it harder for them to see.
When I notice my Ball Python is going into shed, I stop handling her and increase the frequency of misting to make sure she stays hydrated.
Another common mistake is handling your snake too soon after feeding. Ball Pythons are typically fed larger meals and therefore take a few days to digest. Within the first 24 hours after feeding, they have a higher risk of regurgitation.
Personally, I like to wait 2-3 days to make sure my Ball Python has had enough time to digest its meal.
Knowing how to approach a Ball Python, how to read their body language, and when to give them space is important. Ball Pythons generally have good temperaments, so just be patient and you will soon have a new best friend.