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What You Need To Know About Keeping Large Constrictors


burmese python photo

Burmese Python

Lianne McLeod
The constricting snakes, commonly referred to as "boids" (members of the the taxonomic family Boidae) are a diverse group of snakes. There are several varieties kept as pets; some are okay for beginners and some definitely are not. These snakes share a common trait of killing their prey by suffocation, but there are significant differences in habitat, natural history and care requirements. While the terms boa and python often bring to mind large killer snakes, this is not the whole picture. While there are large and potentially dangerous snakes in this group (more on this later), smaller docile members of the family can actually make quite engaging pets. Allowing for differences between individuals, some are quite curious, active and easily tamed.

Unfortunately, there have been a number of cases where large pythons have caused serious injury and even death to humans - some children and some adults. These have happened with very large constricting snakes, and are certainly isolated events. However, the risks are there, and proper education and precautions are necessary to prevent tragic incidents. A length of eight feet is often recognized as a safety threshold - any snake that reaches an adult length of more than eight feet requires a very secure enclosure and experts often recommended that two people be present to handle such large snakes. In fact, is is a good idea to have a person for for each 4 feet of snake; for example, 3 people to handle a 12 foot snake and 4 people for a 16 foot snake. Feeding is a vulnerable time for owners of large snakes and it is recommended that there at least be other people present when feeding to assist if necessary (most of these snakes only eat once every 10-14 days or less). Burmese pythons are generally gentle but are extremely large and powerful snakes, and have been involved in fatal incidents. Red tailed boas (commonly known as boa constrictors) are not as large but are still powerful and not recommended for beginners. Reticulated pythons grow very large and have a reputation for nasty temperaments, and if kept at all are only suitable for very experienced handlers. Recommended reading includes:

Other important considerations, other than size, include the source and the needs of the animals. Captive bred snakes are preferred over wild caught - they are usually more tame, less nervous, less stressed and less diseased. It may also be easier to feed them, especially killed prey. The nervousness factor becomes increasingly important as the size of the snake increases - it is much safer to have a tame, docile python at feeding time. The tree pythons and boas tend to have stricter needs for housing and humidity/environmental control, so can be more of a challenge than the terrestrial species. The best contricting snake for beginners is the ball python. These are somewhat notorious for refusing to feed in captivity: ensure your snake is captive bred and if possible ask the seller to demonstrate how it feeds. Other important things to consider: the longevity of the snake (for example a healthy ball python can be expected to live 30-40 years) and who will care for your snake if you must go away (snake sitters can be hard to find).

There is a significant variation in the care and housing arrangements between the different species so readers should seek out specific care information for each species. All these snakes are carnivores, and most experts recommend that killed prey be fed. Not only is it easier on the owner but there is no risk of the snake being bitten or otherwise injured by the prey (a mouse or rat can inflict significant injury on a snake if given a chance).

Finally, an important disease of boids: inclusion body disease. This is a virus which is fatal in pythons and boas who exhibit symptoms. It is impossible to tell for certain if a snake has been exposed (and some snakes are asymptomatic carriers) and it can take months for signs to appear. Do not buy an apparently unhealthy snake, and if you have snakes at home already, quarantine new arrival for a minimum 3-6 months (and always be sure to wash hands between handling snakes). For more on the disease and it's prevention, I recommend reading this:

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