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“Help! My Ball Python Won’t Eat” – The Troublesome Habits of a Popular Snake – Part 1

Pet Ball Python, LucyAlso known as the Royal Python (Python regius), this smallest of Africa’s pythons is also the one best suited for captivity…one Ball Python lived at the Philadelphia Zoo for a record 47.6 years.  However, even long-term captives often exhibit the disturbing habit of refusing food for long periods.  This tendency is the source of a great many questions that I receive from both neophyte and well-experienced snake keepers.

Fasting as a Survival Mechanism


Ball Pythons inhabit some of the most hostile habitats in Africa and, due to cold temperatures or drought-induced shortages of prey, must sometimes fast for extended periods – much longer than other snakes.  From experience with other reptiles, it is becoming clear that circadian rhythms (“internal clocks”, in a sense) often govern behavior of captive animals many generations removed from the wild.  Unfortunately, there are no hard-and-fast rules.   Unlike some reptiles, which cease feeding in winter even if kept warm, Ball Pythons go on and off feed according to a schedule that only they understand!

Another point to bear in mind is that captives generally eat far more than wild snakes, and expend little energy in hunting, and so may eventually need to eat at less frequent intervals.

Judging Your Snake’s Condition

A fast of 3-4 months, or in some cases even longer, will do no harm if your Ball Python is in good weight – they are very effective at matching their metabolisms to food intake (Please see article below).  A good way to tell if a snake is too thin is to check for a protruding backbone.  This will appear as a distinct ridge along the back – quite visible and different from just the outline of the bone.  If this ridge is not evident, then try offering food every 10 days to 2 weeks, or consider using some of the techniques covered in Part II of this article.

There are a few tricks that sometimes induce reluctant snakes to feed. In Part II of this article we’ll discuss “scenting”, novel prey items, hiding food and other techniques that you can try.

Further Reading

An understanding of the Ball Python’s life in the wild is critical if one is to keep these fascinating creatures properly.  Please see my 2 part article, Ball Python Natural History, for more information.

Please see How Snakes Grow Despite Food Deprivation for the story behind snakes’ amazing abilities to survive and thrive during prolonged fasts.

Pet Ball Python image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Mokele


  1. avatar

    Hi Frank,
    I recently purchased my first ball python about 2 weeks ago. Samson is about 18 inches long, they said about 3 years old. He has a 30 gallon snake aquarium with all the things that was suggested by the pet store. I was instantly in love with him. He was shy at first but warmed up to me quickly. I can handle him and stroke his head without him even flinching. I tried to feed him for the first time last week, he wasn’t the slightest bit interested in eating. After reading your blog I wasn’t that concerned. My concern today is that Samson has been extremely quite for the last 24 hours. He is just laying in his hiding box. This isn’t his normal behavior. He usually I quite active when he sees me in the morning and of course in the evening. Should I be concerned with the change of behavior?

    • avatar

      Hi Jessie,

      Provided that your temperatures are correct (90 degree basking area, 75 degrees ambient) sitting still in the same position is actually perfectly normal behavior for a ball python. Sometimes mine don’t move for days. They are lie and wait predators – one of their main goals in life is to expend as little energy as possible and wait for food to come to them. We need to remember that reptiles, especially snakes do not experience the world in the same way that we do. Although it may appear that he is being “friendly” and enjoys the experience of being handled, it could actually be causing him stress. I recommend that you do not handle him python until it eats at least twice in a row for you.

      Also, 18 inches is pretty small for a 3 year old ball python. Unless he had been malnourished or underfed I would be willing to bet that he is actually closer to a year old. At that age some male ball pythons reach sexual maturity and go on a hunger strike around this time each year. They may seem hungry and roam their enclosure appearing to want out, but what they are really searching for is a mate.

      Let me know if you have any other questions,


  2. avatar

    Thanks Josh,

    He is back to moving around the pen again. The temps seem to be fine but I do have to spritz the cage once in awhile to keep the humidity up.
    I don’t think he is malnourished or underfed. His backbone isn’t noticeable at all. So I would guess you are right about the age. I didn’t think they knew for sure at the store when I asked.

    I will go with out handling him until he eats and hopefully that will help.

    Thanks again

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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