2. Home Sweet Home - A Python's Perspective
...... by Doc Rock
Abraham Maslow published his famous theory of human motivation in 1943, which is still very popular today. Maslow believed we are all driven by a hierarchy of needs. These start from basic physiological needs like water, food and shelter through to a higher state called self-actualisation. You know what I mean, watching your favourite TV show, relaxing with a friend, or just plain enjoying your python(s).
When a python is put in a new cage, unlike you, it is not self-actualising. In fact, it is probably at the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs! Initially, the greatest drive for most snakes will be to defend themselves, or to find safety and hide. So, in the hierarchy of python needs, the hidebox is an important aspect of any vivarium.
From a python’s perspective, the most relevant aspects of a hidebox are its dimensions (photo 1), the size of the entrance and its placement in the cage. Pythons like to hide in quite a tight, dark refuge. So, a large hidebox does little to make a small snake feel secure. A large entrance also makes a python feel less secure, but it must be large enough to allow the python to freely move in and out of the hide when it has just eaten a meal. As my snakes grow, I gradually increase the size of the hide box as shown (photo 2).
I never provide my snakes with separate heating for their hideboxs. In fact, I usually place the hidebox on the opposite side of the cage to the heat source because I prefer to let them seek heat from their basking site (photo 3). This means your snake at least will display itself from time to time and move around its cage. If you put a heat mat under the hidebox, it may lead to the animal rarely being seen and not becoming as tame as it might otherwise.
Today, there is a tremendous range of commercially made hideboxes which can greatly enhance the look of a vivarium. Providing they are easy to clean and meet the size criteria, any and all of them should prove an adequate contribution to your python’s home (photo 4).
It is important to allow a python time to settle in to its new surroundings before being too demanding of it (i.e. disturbing, handling and feeding). The time this takes might be a few minutes to weeks depending on factors such as age, physical status and temperament. In the wild, nearly everything from the size of a mouse upwards is a potential threat to a small python – dingoes, quolls, hawks, kookaburras, lizards, bigger snakes, people – so it is usually far more timid and easily stressed than a large adult. Black-headed pythons tend to relax and start exploring their vivarium more rapidly than for example jungle carpets. Some snakes are so sensitive that simply changing some cage furniture, such as a rock or branch, is enough to make them sulk for a few days, and others will take a new cage in their stride and be feeding before the day is out. You need to discretely observe your animal and use some of that snake empathy I talked about in a previous article.
Once your python has become familiar with the smells and surroundings of its new home, and is feeling relaxed, with the correct physical environment it then should begin to climb further through Maslow’s hierarchy towards complete python contentment.
But what is the right physical environment? If you have been involved with reptiles for any length of time, you will have found out by now that there are many differing points of view being expressed in the various books and by individual shops and enthusiasts. Hopefully, the following will help you make more sense of this often conflicting information.
Once a python is feeling safe and secure in its vivarium, its next priority is maintaining the right temperature. The temperature needs of a python vary depending on its physiological state and hormonal cycles. Therefore, it is necessary to provide a temperature gradient during the day so that the python can make its own choices. The extent of the gradient and the day/night temperature variation should ideally change over a year if you want your python to enjoy a change of season and perhaps even breed. The appropriate diurnal and seasonal variation differs between species and is a complex subject that is better dealt with in another article when discussing how to breed the various species of Australian python.
Unless a cage is very large, it is best to warm only one part of the vivarium – the basking site. This ensures the maximum gradient across the cage. There are two temperatures that really matter, the temperature of the basking site and the air/floor temperature. As a generalisation, you want the basking site to be 33-36 oC, and the air/floor temperature to be 20-30 oC. To successfully manage cage temperature you must use a thermostat. If you place the thermostat so that it accurately measures cage air temperature (NOT basking temperature), you can set this to say 28 oC. This means the basking site will stay on until the air temperature reaches 28 oC and then turn off. As temperature falls, the basking site turns on again and so on, providing periodic basking opportunities for your python. This should lead to more frequent basking when the room temperature is colder, typically in winter and in the morning (photo 5).
Unless temperatures are dropping down low at night (less than 20 oC), it is not necessary to provide night time heating. I prefer my pythons to undergo the natural diurnal temperature cycle. If you do decide to provide supplementary heat at night, my preference is to use a heat mat that produces a subtle broad heat to the vivarium so that it gently raises the floor and air temperature to a level that your python carries on its normal physiological processes, say 20-25 oC.
It is important that you understand the thermal performance of your python’s home. In the past, I used to do this by placing thermometers all over the cage and writing down what happened. Today you can buy non-contact temperature sensors (photo 6) that you simply aim, pull the trigger and note the digital read-out, allowing you to quickly temperature profile your cage at different times of the day.
Now comes the important part. Once you have set up your cage so that the basking site is operating, forget what you have read and what I have written here and watch your python’s behaviour. Let it tell you what it needs. For example, if your python is spending all its time curled up on the basking site, then the cage is not warm enough. If the snake is spending all its time pressed up in the coldest corner of the cage, then the cage is too warm. If the python never basks because the basking heat is only on for a very short period before the thermostat switches it off, then the heat is too strong (too many watts) or the cage lacks sufficient air circulation. If the heater has to be on all day to provide a reasonable air temperature, then the heat supply isn’t strong enough or the cage does not provide sufficient insulation.
When discussing cages with new python devotees, the first question I am usually asked is what construction material do I think is best for indoor vivariums - is it glass, plastic, wood or woven fabric mesh? Well the answer is yes, depending.
The first questions that should be asked are what type of python is to be housed, where in the home will it be kept and where is the home located?
The temperature environment surrounding your python’s home will determine the heating performance required by the cage. For example, a vivarium in a warm climate like Cairns or Darwin has few problems being raised to an adequate temperature, but providing a heat gradient and sufficient air circulation is more challenging. In cities with seasonal extremes like Adelaide and Melbourne, the problem in summer is keeping the animal cool enough and in winter the challenge is to provide enough warmth without spending a fortune on electricity, or creating a cage atmosphere more appropriate for making beef jerky than keeping a python (photos 7 & 8).
This effect is modified by whether or not you are keeping your python in a shed outside or in a living room which has an air conditioner in summer and a heater in winter. As a rule of thumb the colder the seasonal environment the more important the insulation properties of the vivarium, and the warmer the environment the more important air circulation becomes. A glass-fronted pegboard cage might be excellent for Darwin, but it is not great in a tin garage in Melbourne.
Hygiene is an important factor to consider when choosing cage material also. Unsealed wooden cages can be difficult to keep adequately clean. I much prefer plastic or glass at least on the floor of the cages. Living in southern Australia, I use wooden cages with glass trays, plastic cages and all glass vivariums quite successfully. If you are just starting off, my suggestion is that you seek advice from someone with experience at keeping pythons successfully in your area.
No matter what system you choose, a few words of warning regarding cage temperatures. Low temperatures take time to kill a snake and then it’s not because of temperature, but some secondary illness. High temperatures, however, will kill a snake very quickly. Do not let the air/floor temperature rise much above the mid-30’s oC. This means never put the vivarium in direct sunlight or in a shed/room that can get very hot. Diamond pythons are particularly sensitive to high temperatures. They can thrive and breed in temperatures 5 oC cooler than the ones detailed above. Maintain a diamond in warm to hot temperatures for too long and eventually you risk killing it.
It is important to understand the difference between air temperature and floor temperature too. Without adequate insulation the floor of a cage can be a lot colder than the air temperature. This means a python lying on the cage floor, or in its hidebox, might be experiencing effective temperatures that are a lot less than you think and which can adversely affect its health.
Appropriate cage size should be determined by the size and species of snake. In general, a cage length about half that of the python with a width and depth of half that again is adequate. Carpet pythons are ambush predators and scientific research has shown that they spend very little time moving about. I have found these cage dimensions work well for them. In contrast, snakes like black-headed pythons are a much more active predator and I like to give them about 15-20% more space than this.
Big is not necessarily better either when it comes to python cages. I have found that as long as the cage is thermally adequate, when it comes to feeding, growing, temperament and breeding, size has little effect on the performance and health of its inhabitants. In fact, some pythons will be more stressed in a large cage and not do as well. This can be particularly true of young, small pythons when put into a big empty cage. You are often better off housing the animal in a small enclosure initially where it can satisfy the first of its hierarchy of needs, feeling secure.
The availability of water and its influence on cage humidity is another factor that significantly affects a resident python. This requirement varies between python species and even animals of the same species from different areas. For instance, Centralian and Murray/Darling pythons are more tolerant of dry conditions than Darwin or Jungle pythons. If you have excess moisture and condensation in a cage, you risk dangerous skin infections. If the cage is too dry, your python will have trouble shedding and you may have to assist it remove stubborn skin.
Once again, the area you live in and the location of the cage will greatly effect cage design and water bowl placement. In the warm, humid northern parts of Australia, typically you are trying to minimise dampness, so air circulation is paramount and you are better off putting the water bowl in a cool part of the cage. In cold southern areas, heat retention and low humidity are the main issues. In my situation, I have found the best solution is to have the water bowl near the basking site in winter to warm it and add extra humidity and then to move it to a cooler part of the cage in summer.
The design of the water bowl is an important consideration too. It should be heavy enough so that the snake cannot easily move it around and tip it over - never put the bowl in a position where it can fall and damage your animal. Steep sides make it easier to fill and carry around without spilling the contents. The volume of the bowl should be sufficient to allow the snake to put most of its body in water if it decides it wants to soak. I prefer to have a bowl which provides a reasonable depth rather than just a large surface area. Of course, the surface area of the bowl will affect humidity too (photo 9).
The correct lighting requirement is a controversial subject that could be the focus of an article all on its own. Apart from providing a basking site, there is no concrete scientific evidence that snakes need artificial lighting in their cages to be happy and healthy, ultraviolet or otherwise. This is not surprising for what are mostly nocturnal animals. However, there are two significant effects of lighting that should be carefully contemplated when considering your python’s well being.
Firstly, supplementary lighting creates heat. If you live in a hot climate be careful of putting too much lighting in a cage so that it overheats. I use double fluoro lighting (a full spectrum and blacklight) in all my cages, but they are in a humidity and temperature controlled room. This set-up creates a very natural cage light and seems to help me marginally in breeding.
Secondly, I have seen pythons suffer serious health problems over the long term when subjected to lights continually over a 24 hour period. It appears that the lack of a photoperiod can disturb the hormonal cycles of the snake making it vulnerable to a range of maladies.
No matter what the set up you choose, I strongly recommend putting protective covers over your lighting and heaters (photos 10 & 11 ). Having kept hundreds of pythons over the years, I can assure you its only a matter of time until they wrap around that spot light or break those fluoros and do themselves damage (and when you are on holidays of course).
Hopefully, if you have now provided a safe and secure hidebox, the basking site is working well with the right temperature gradient, the humidity is appropriate and your snake is experiencing its usual day/night light cycle, home sweet home should be delivering most of what is physically needed to climb Maslow’s hierarchy towards python contentment.
Now for the final touches, you need to provide the right cage substrate and additional cage furniture. Cage substrate needs to be considered from both the python’s and your perspectives.
No matter what substrate you choose, cleanliness is paramount. The simplest to use is newspaper, which is sterile and easily and rapidly replaced. There are a multitude of other options like sand and bark chip that I have seen work very well (but beware off chemical additives) and commercially available mixes that can enhance the look of your vivarium. Each alternative requires varying amounts of work to keep dry, odourless and clean. The bottom line for the keeper is how important are aesthetics and how much time/opportunity do you have to maintain the setup.
The snake has a very different set of priorities. The first is that the substrate does not interfere with its health and eating. Sand can work well for some species like womas and black-headed pythons, but is a disaster with carpet pythons because it invariably collects around their mouths and they start ingesting it. Other substrates can do this too. No matter what you choose, watch your python carefully and assess the situation.
The second consideration, while important to your python, is often overlooked. Snakes move using the friction between their scales and substrate. If, for example, you keep the snake on newspaper there is very little friction to help it move and it can reduce the muscle tone and fitness of the snake. This is where cage furniture becomes important.
I use the unusual combination of tight fitting sheets of cardboard over sheets of newspaper because it is very quick and easy to clean and still can be aesthetically pleasing (photo 12). But cardboard is slippery like newspaper. To supplement this, I add pieces of slate under the basking lamp and on top of the hide box to provide varying surfaces to move over (slate also heats up well under a basking lamp) and EVERY cage has its own jungle-jim in the form of a secure multi-limbed branch for the animals to climb over and keep up their muscle tone. I find that muscle tone is also important to avoid constipation and egg binding.
In conclusion, while you might be enjoying self-actualisation at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy when you purchase and keep a python, the python’s vivarium must supply all its basic needs – security, warmth, water, humidity and exercise – for it to live a happy, healthy and long life. I’m sure, like me, most of you find it upsetting when you see a captive python in poor, inadequate conditions. When you do, it tells you a lot more about the keeper than the kept, don’t you think?