Undoubtedly one of many crucial factors that should be involved in the decision to have a reptile of any type is lifespan.
It comes as a great surprise to many new to Herpetoculture when they hear of tortoises that have been a part of a family for three generations or a turtle owned by an adult that has been around since early childhood.
Many exotic pet species have far longer natural longevity than traditional cats and dogs, often surviving greater than 40-60 years when kept in an appropriate habitat.
While this article will discuss primarily Ball Pythons, the expected length of life for any species must be considered for any potential new pet.
All pets are a commitment of responsibility for their lifetime, and an owner must be prepared to provide the best care they can for the length of that life.
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Generational Presence or Fleeting Friend?
When it comes to the ball python… how long do they live?
While there is not an existing study measuring the specific longevity of ball pythons in the wild, a report published in Nature in 2016 revealed conclusively that there is a significant increase in years lived in animals kept in captivity versus their wild counterparts.
The longest-lived ball python, a male at the Philadelphia Zoo, lived to be over 47 years old, while many of his brethren are known to live into their late 30s and early 40s.
Any new owner should be prepared for both the growth of their new pet and the length of time they will have that scaled friend in their home.
Owning a ball python, then, is something to be understood as a very long commitment!
Going The Distance: Giving Your Python What It Needs to Live a Long Time
One of the reasons ball pythons make such a wonderful pets is their potential to live a long life. And it is up to you as the owner to give them the BEST opportunities possible to meet the expectations of longevity.
The Nature article mentions that animals in optimal captive habitats lived far longer, healthier lives.
For your ball python, this all starts with proper husbandry, or the best care and keeping of your scaled friend.
A healthy, happy ball python has better chances of living a long time while a reptile plagued with mites, illness, and stress will see a shortened life.
The keys to good health lie in appropriate housing, a good diet, and enrichment
Home is Where the Housing Is
All snakes require an enclosure appropriately sized for the current length and expected growth of the snake.
Enclosures can vary from a plastic tub to a general glass aquarium to beautifully landscaped custom DIY habitats designed for your reptile.
We recommend a rough size of 10 gallons for a hatchling, 20 gallons for a young adult, and up to 30 gallons for an adult.
An easily cleaned substrate, or bedding, is ideal. This can include something as simple as regularly changed newspaper, reptile bark, or as complicated as carefully maintained bioactive soil.
Heat in the form of temperature control within the habitat is also important. Snakes are endothermic, meaning they gain most of their heat from the environment around them.
Because of their slower activity in comparison to rat snakes and other fast-moving reptiles, a heat rock or heating pad is NOT a good idea. Heat in the form of lamps outside the cage work best.
The ball python is nocturnal, meaning most active at night. In captivity, this can often mean waking up to the sound of clinks and thumps as it moves both itself and items in its enclosure around.
Giving it a comfortable, dark place to hide during the day will ensure a happier snake. Anything from a leftover Amazon box or plastic tub to a decorative log or ceramic hide can be used as long as it is easily replaced or easily cleaned.
Regardless of what you use to arrange the tank, be sure to also lock the enclosure itself.
Ball pythons are known to be clever escape artists, and nothing is more horrifying than to wake up and discover your snake has gone on an adventure without you … and then in-laws are expected at any moment for a visit.
Good Food at the Reptile Bed & Breakfast
Providing the correct diet is another important point in the health of your ball python.
With the exception of a few tiny snake species that eat insects, a majority of your species eat a wide variety of rodents/small mammals, amphibians, birds, and in a few cases…fish!
In captivity, the ball python will most commonly be fed live or frozen (thawed) mice or rats.
While the debate between feeding live, fresh-killed, or frozen is rather strong in the United States, other countries such as the UK forbid the feeding of live vertebrates to reptiles.
Among the veterinary and zoological communities, fresh-killed or frozen/thawed are the safest and most highly regarded options.
Feeding frozen/thawed rodents to your python not only eliminates the risk of your snake getting injured, but the risk of parasite infection is also removed as well.
Sometimes feeding a Ball python isn’t so straightforward. In fact, there may be unique circumstances that cause them to not eat. Fortunately, there are workarounds for hunger strikes.
A good meal is not complete without a good drink, and this is just as true for reptiles.
Snakes require freshwater changed regularly both to drink and to soak in. Cleaning and swapping out water sources regularly can reduce the risk of infection and contribute to a healthy, happy reptile.
A Good Bed, Good Food … and Great Entertainment!
In the zoo world, a word is passed around that encompasses an aspect of captivity that many forget – enrichment.
Stuck inside their enclosure or habitat all day without stimulation can cause them to feel bored and uncomfortable.
These long stretches without activity or interesting things can lead to health risking stress in highly active creatures such as mammals.
While engineering an escape for your snake to have a personal walkabout (slitherabout?) isn’t the ideal way to provide enrichment (especially if the in-laws are on the way over!), there are a number of great ways to provide additional entertainment for your ball python.
Naturally curious, they love to explore their surroundings. Swapping out items in the enclosure or rearranging the set up can be the first step.
Changing the texture of the bedding and providing novel (new) smells can be an exciting way to bring out the exploring behavior in your python.
The last item important to your snake’s longevity comes in the form of having a number of experienced reptile veterinarians for those times when your ball python’s health is a concern.
Not all veterinarians are created equal, and many are uncomfortable with handling reptiles.
The Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians is a collection of vets with a special interest in reptiles, has a directory of all practicing members.
Knowing where your closest experienced vet is before disaster strikes will save you and your scaled friend a lot of heartache.
Friends Forever – For a Long Time
With time, understanding, and dedication the life of your current or future ball python can be a long, happy one that spans decades.
Knowing and having all the basics before you bring that first scaled friend home will give you both a wonderful jump-start to a beautiful, long-lasting friendship.