The Psychology of Problem Feeders – Get your Ball Python eating again
Justin Kobylka / February 12, 2014
Volumes could be written about Ball Python feeding habits and their finicky ways… for a new keeper, the long feeding breaks they sometimes take can be quite unsettling. It is really hard for people who eat 3 meals a day to relate to an animal who may go 6 months without a meal.
When I first began working with Ball Pythons I had a female go 13 months without a meal (with no visible health problems) before finally kicking back in and becoming a model citizen again.
As a BP breeder, these long feeding breaks are an major obstacle to your goals, especially when its a key animal in your breeding plans. I completely understand! Over the past 10 years I’ve put together all sorts of tricks to work your snakes through these long breaks. I won’t be listing them all here, but rather the framework through which to tackle these issues.
Key concepts – Understanding how Ball Pythons feed in the wild:
This is critical! Every species has a unique, built-in instinct. We want to get inside their heads and work that instinct to our advantage (and theirs!).
19 yo Justin in Benin, West Africa
I lived in Benin, West Africa for almost a year from 2000-2001. Although my time there was not Ball Python related, I did get a chance to see them in their natural environment. They are reclusive animals, you can’t just go for a walk and stumble onto one. They spend the majority of their time underground in rodent burrows or abandoned termite mounds (which there are a LOT of). This gives them two advantages: Safety from predators and access to small mammals to eat.
Ball Pythons are ambush hunters, which means they don’t search out and chase down their prey. They will crawl into a rodent burrow or other tight spot and eat any rodent that doesn’t flee fast enough (I’m convinced this is where they get the instinct to pin rodents to the side of their caging sometimes. I imagine them in a rodent burrow with one rodent in their mouth and 3-4 pinned against the walls / tunnel.)
Photo I took in 2000 of a large termite mound in Benin, West Africa.
After the burrow is clear (or maybe it already was empty) a Ball Python will set up camp at the bottom and wait for more rodent visitors to arrive. If the snake is to continue to eat well in that burrow it is dependent on one very important thing… smell. The burrow can’t smell like a snake. If it does, no self-respecting rodent is going to risk it.
Ok stay with me here… When a Ball Python poops in a burrow, its really compromises its ambush position. A shed skin does the same thing. They are an advertisement to rodents that this burrow is occupied by a predator. I believe this is why BPs will often hold their bowel movements for long periods and also will almost always combine shedding with pooping. Once a shed or poop has been made, the BP will need to find a new place to occupy if it wants to eat. Think of this as “leaving its scent behind” and emerging in the best possible position to catch prey again.
Applying this to captive Ball Pythons:
A few years ago I began experimenting with doing a complete bedding change every time they had a bowel movement (not just spot cleaning). I additionally scrubbed the tub well enough to remove any residual smell. My thought was this would simulate leaving their smell behind and being in a new hunting environment again. The results were significant. Across the board (rack), animals who were freshly cleaned ate dramatically better with fewer skipped than those that were spot cleaned. This was especially true if they had shed prior to cleaning.
The next test was to combine the heavy cleaning with a rack & tub change. I moved any persistent problem eaters to a fresh, clean tub in a different part of the rack or even a rack across the room. This resulted in some of my toughest feeders slamming rodents at the next feeding opportunity.
Contrary to popular knowledge, moving a non-feeding animal to a different size or shape tub or a different substrate type altogether will often further improve results. The more dramatic the change seems to the snake, the more likely it will view it a good feeding opportunity.
Now, my routine on cleaning days involves identifying which snakes are entering an extended fasting period (3 skipped feedings or more) and move them to a different clean tub in the rack, even if their bedding is already clean. If they continue to refuse I will move them to a different sized tub (both smaller or larger tubs will often work). This is extremely effective for me. It means that a snake might move to a different spot 5 consecutive weeks or more before beginning to eat again. Its a very labor intensive process, but the results have been well worth the work. Very long feeding breaks are extremely rare.
The concepts in the above paragraphs will over-time solve 90% of poor feeding issues by moving your animals more quickly through their refusal periods. However, this strategy is no silver bullet, Ball Pythons still naturally take feeding breaks and there will always be difficult animals. The goal is make sure that these natural breaks don’t extend into habitual refusal.
BP refusing? Make your move, then be patient:
In my opinion, refusing food is habit forming. Look at it this way, Ball Pythons typically have a strong natural instinct to eat. However when they go off feed and week after week you offer them a rodent and they refuse, you are reinforcing a non-eating habit. This is why I try to get very proactive when a snake begins to refuse food. If I can’t get it eating relatively quickly I will only sporadically offer food so as not to reinforce non-eating habits. Its better have it refuse 8 meals over 4 months instead of 25 meals over that same period.
Take yourself out of the equation:
Snakes are extremely vulnerable to predators while eating. Their primary defense (their mouths) is full and useless while eating. They also lose a lot of mobility in the process.
Many problem-feeders can be traced to the fact that they are shy animals and may just be nervous with a huge human (potential threat) standing over it while eating. If you have ever made a sudden movement or startled your Ball Python while eating and it spit out the meal, it is because they are freeing up their mouth for defensive purposes.
Minimizing your involvement with feeding is key with these animals. Try coming into to the room after the lights are off, stay out of sight (if the enclosure is clear). Let the rodent smell be in the room for a bit so your Ball Python can be prepared for the opportunity to eat, then drop the rodent into the enclosure in such a way that the snake isn’t aware of your presence.
This is especially difficult to accomplish with frozen / thawed feeding, which I believe is why some BPs strongly prefer live prey. It is the human component that hurts the F/T feeding percentages….
This is also the #1 reason that removing your Ball Python from its enclosure to feed it isn’t very effective. Although it is often repeated, there is no benefit to feeding in a different enclosure.
Try offering a different prey type:
Offering a different prey item can really work, but is also a double edged sword. I feed rats exclusively my Ball Python collection because it provides a single prey item for them to learn and eat their entire life. You can feed one rat to them as hatchlings and one rat to them as adults.
Many times I’ve fed a mouse or ASF to an animal that hadn’t eaten in 4 months and then the very next week it went right back on rats… it just needed a jump start. BUT… your BP may also become dependent on the new meal type and you’ll find yourself offering an adult BP 10 adult mice per feeding (expensive and very time consuming!) Because of this, I only recommend a different prey item after you have exhausted other options.
Sometimes putting your animals together and letting them breed will stimulate feeding. In the female, I believe this triggers a biological instinct to add critical weight for the purposes of producing eggs.
This can work with both males and females, however I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re truly interested in getting a clutch from the animals you pair up, as sometimes they will surprise you even if the animal size or timing isn’t ideal.
I hope these concepts are helpful and maybe will help you get creative in your own efforts.