Over the last one and a half decades, I have kept and bred many hundreds of pythons from many different species, subspecies and local forms. When I first started, very little was known about snake health at an amateur or professional level in Australia and most knowledge had to be hard won through the school of experience.
Today, a lot more is known and there are a growing number of vets that you can trust to provide excellent advice and service. However, prevention is by far the best cure with reptiles. Their slow metabolism often leads them to get sick over a protracted period and in turn they can be very slow and stubborn to return to good health again. Prevention requires the keeper to be constantly observant and to have enough basic knowledge to know what to observe.
The purpose of this article is to try and summarise the most common problems and to provide this as a guide for those of you who are happy to learn from another’s mistakes. In writing this, I am assuming that you have read my article “Home Sweet Home – A python’s perspective” that describes proper cage setup.
Before getting down to the nitty-gritty of python health issues, I will first make a brief detour to the important subject of selecting a python. When entering into a long term relationship, most of us spend considerable time getting to know our partners well and thinking it through carefully before committing. Pythons can live for a quarter of a century or more and so you could easily find yourselves in a snake relationship that outlasts the average Australian marriage in the 21st century! Surely then, the decision to enter into this relationship should be carefully considered too before making a lasting commitment? Certainly, choices about the type of python(s) people keep can significantly affect the final health and happiness of both the keeper and the kept.
Individual pythons of any one species can vary considerably in their temperament. However, some generalisations can be made about each species that are useful when deciding what type of python suits an individual’s particular situation and desires.
When entering into a new person-snake relationship, some of the decision criteria include (a) how much experience do you have and how confident are you with a snake (b) how much money do you want to spend on the animal and vivarium (c) how much room do you have and (d) is this acquisition to be solely a pet, an animal you hope to breed or part of a collection?
If you are brand new to the hobby and not yet confident of handling a large predator belonging to the family Boidae, I would suggest that your first animals should not be too big, too feisty or tricky to keep. This would make you wary of the following pythons:- Black-headeds, Amethystines (Scrubbies), Waters (especially the often aggressive NT variety) and Olives. Also, you should probably be cautious of Jungle (smallish but often nervous and temperamental), Coastal (can get very large and sometimes be a bit wilful and temperamental) and Darwin Carpets (a smaller carpet but may be a bit on the snappy side) - although I have seen all produce some exceptionally lovely captive animals. Unless you have an outside vivarium, I would not suggest a Diamond Python as a first snake either, because of a problem called “Diamond Syndrome” which I will discuss later.
In my experience, by far the easiest carpets (and probably pythons) to keep in captivity are the Inland (also call Vic or Murray-Darling Carpet) and Centralian (often simply referred to as Bredli from their species name Morelia bredli) (photo 1&2). Bredli can get quite large and tend to be little bit more feisty than Inlands, but when cared for well, both can grow to become lovely docile animals that are happy to display themselves all day. If you want to learn how to breed, again in my experience there is nothing more forgiving than an Inland Carpet, with Bredli coming a close second.
Woma pythons would have to be one of the most delightful, well behaved pythons in captivity (except at dinner time) and often a favourite with the ladies (photo 3). Each year my wife insists on taking over the total care of our woma hatchlings and I know of a couple of other breeders that experience this phenomenon too. However, with a retail price of between $1,500 and $3,000 they are not exactly a beginners snake.
This leaves the Children’s python group which includes three readily available species, the Large-blotched or Stimson’s python, the Spotted Python, often referred by its scientific species name maculosa, and the Children’s Python named after the English naturalist J. G. Children. (To learn more about the Children’s and carpet varieties you can explore our photo gallery).
Personally, I love the Childrens Group and have a collection of 5 varieties. They almost always have a lovely temperament and are small and easy to keep. Because they do not need much room, you can have a whole collection of different varieties from the desert through to rainforest habitats in the area it takes to keep one large carpet (see photo 4). There is, however, one problem that you need to be mindful of when buying one of these snakes. When small, they can be very hard to start feeding on mice. I have had animals refuse to feed voluntarily for 3 years! Some will only feed on birds. Some will only feed when near starving. All need to be kept in warm conditions (floor, air, hide box and basking site) to feed well all year round. However once feeding well on mice and providing they are kept warm (say an air temperature of 25 to 31 oC), they will flourish with a bit of care. So, buying an animal from a reputable dealer or from someone who can prove the animal is feeding well is an absolute must.
Whenever possible, I recommend buying a young snake, rather than an adult. Young snakes are generally much better at settling into a new environment, they don’t come with ingrained bad habits and are easier to train. If you are not confident with snakes, although they are often more snappy, snakes under 12 months old are less threatening to the keeper and any bites will be minor so you can gain confidence more easily. If you are to enjoy your snake and it is to be well cared for in its new home, it is imperative to develop your skills so that you are purposeful and confident when handling your animal (see my article "Home Sweet Home - A Python's Perspective).
Returning back to Python health, I have found that the majority of problems emanate from the following five areas; temperature, feeding, stress, shedding and accidents.
Temperature was covered in my last article, but I will mention it again here with regards to keeping diamond pythons. A little over ten years ago, I raised two beautiful pairs of Gosford diamond pythons to three and a half years of age. Within 3 months of each other, they all died a horrible death which included problem shedding, nervous twitches, muscle spasm, star gazing and loss of appetite. This was my first introduction to “Diamond Syndrome”. At the time, I spent a lot of money trying to work out exactly what it was. I sent tissue samples to the four quarters of the globe and interviewed many keepers of Diamonds in my search of a “cure”. Recently, I was in the USA and found that this is still a major problem there (as it is in Europe). In Australia, most of the large Diamond breeders I know use outside cages to avoid the syndrome.
Without going into all the details, it appears that the problem is one of temperature and its effect on the hormonal cycles of the snake. I have now kept and bred Diamonds inside my home in vivaria successfully for many years. My oldest snakes are 10 years old and beautifully healthy. I keep none of them in the snake house, but house them all singly inside the coldest rooms of my home. Their cages are large with single source heating running off a thermostat set at 18 oC in winter and 25 oC in summer. Most of the area within their cages is at ambient air temperature which is a good deal below these thermostat settings. Bottom line is, Diamonds like it cool and need a change of season to be healthy if you are to keep them inside.
Feeding the right amount of the right food is fundamental in growing a healthy python. When feeding your snake, it is important to remember that its metabolism is nothing like that of a mammal. Reptiles are extremely energy efficient; up to 100 times more so than mammals of a similar weight. I have caught many pythons in the wild and as a rule they are far skinnier than anything normally seen in captivity. In the wild, pythons would feed infrequently and are subjected to periods of feast and famine. Their hinged jaws and body musculature enable them to eat relatively large prey. Generally, in this Darwinian world where only the fittest survive, python prey would be carrying very little excess fat also.
Consequently in captivity, we commonly feed our snakes too much food that contains too much fat. So what is the right food and the right frequency? Having graduated from the school of experience, I never feed my snakes large fat rodents now, only young lean adults. If ever you want to convince yourself not to feed your snakes large rats, cut an old rat open and marvel at the mass of white fat bodies, then imagine your python trying to digest them. What is even more unpleasant is cutting open the average captive snake and seeing the massive stores of fat tissue clogging up their internal organs.
Over the years I have found that the snakes least sensitive to fatty food are the Inland and Centralian Carpets and the snakes most sensitive are the Womas and Black-headed Pythons. Diamond and Jungles sit somewhere in between these extremes and are among the more sensitive of the Carpet Pythons. The symptoms of excessively fatty food in snakes can vary from sudden death through fatty liver disease to a slow lingering death where the snakes start passing a dark green pigment that stains everything it touches. This is bile and I have yet to see a python make a complete recovery once it starts to do this from too much fatty food.
So, how much food should be fed and how often? This question is a bit like “how long is a piece of string” because it depends on the type of snake, its genetics, temperature regime and so on. However, as a rule of thumb we feed our young, growing snakes about 10% of their body weight each meal and adult snakes about 3-5%. You are better off feeding two small items than one large one, if you want to assist digestibility. In their first year of life, we feed our snakes once every 5 to 7 days. As another rule of thumb, we do not like our growers to shed more often than once every 6 to 8 weeks and if they do we reduce our feeding rate. Likewise, if they are shedding only once every 12 to 14 weeks we increase their feeding rate a little. We feed adult snakes a conservative sized meal once every 2-3 weeks and are happy if they shed only two to four times a year. Females that we are preparing for breeding, we feed once a week.
One way to tell if a snake is growing too quickly is to look at head size in relation to the body. Apparently, the bones in a snake’s head can’t grow as quickly as those in its body. I’m sure in the wild this is usually not a problem, but in captivity I have seen pin-headed snakes with massive bodies. My advice is to avoid this if you want your python to have a long and healthy life. While there is a lack of rigorous scientific evidence, it appears that snakes that are grown too quickly are prone to organ stress, early organ failure and a shortened lifespan.
On a number of occasions I have also seen animals that have been fed too little. In some extreme cases I have observed stunted 3 and 4 year old carpet pythons being fed only one or two mice monthly. If this is maintained, you will end up with a snake that will stay stunted and probably be a finicky eater to boot.
Of great concern to many owners is a pet python that stops feeding. This can happen for a number of reasons, the most common being that the snake is preparing to shed its skin. Many pythons will not eat for a week before they go into shed and for a few days afterwards, so that they do not eat for up to 20 or more days. This is nothing to worry about. Pythons can go for many months without eating. I once saw a skinny, wild-caught, female carpet python lay a clutch of eggs whereby she lost a seemingly impossible 30% of her body weight and then did not eat for almost one year afterwards without any apparent harm to her health.
Pythons will stop eating if their environment starts to get too cold. This is particularly true of the Children’s Python Group. They must be kept warm to maintain feeding. In addition, Childrens are very prone to “switching off” in autumn and then refusing to eat again until spring no matter what you do. This is normal behaviour and not uncommon in pythons. I have found that Woma Pythons are particularly prone to this trait in early to mid autumn too. Sometimes pythons also stop feeding during the breeding season (usually winter to early spring), especially when snakes of the opposite sex are around. If a snake is in the mood for love, as well as going off their food, they will often endlessly pace their cage and push their cage furniture around.
But what if the snake is not shedding, it’s not a seasonal effect, it’s not cold, the snake has always been a good eater, it has not been stuffed with fatty food and it still will not eat? In this case, you need to examine your python more closely.
The first thing I do is check any faecal material for consistency
and smell. It should be normal smelling and not runny. If necessary,
you can push the belly scales just below the cloacal area of the snake
to squeeze out material to check for smell (photo 5). If you find
there is an unusual, strong odour, or the cloaca is looking messy
and not clean and shiny, you probably have some form of protozoan
(small, free-living, single-celled animals) or bacterial infection.
If you find this problem, do not hesitate to see your vet as soon
One last pointer while on the subject of food and that is regurgitation. I have had the problem very rarely and usually it has been caused by either handling a sensitive snake too soon after a meal, or from too large a meal for the cage temperature which in turn has been the result of a faulty heater being overlooked. However, if handling or temperature is not the cause be careful. There are a number a nasty problems that cause regurgitation, some contagious, so isolate the animal, perhaps raise the temperature a little and see a vet if it continues.
Most feeding and disease problems in captive pythons can have their origins traced back to stress. During the early nineties, when genuine captive animals were hard to obtain in Australia, we used to have nothing but problems with non-feeders and snakes with nasty gut infections. Since keeping only captive bred pythons that we have raised ourselves to be relaxed and happy, all these problems have stopped completely.
The bottom line is that if your python ends up with a mouth infection, some form of enteritis (gut inflammation and infection), or stops eating for no apparent reason, chances are these are secondary symptoms and it is suffering from a form of stress. Some of the common causes of stress are incorrect temperatures, insecurity caused by lack of privacy, constant lighting, too much handling/interruption, or frequent loud music/thumping/banging. Providing the cage setup is maintaining the right environment, when left in peace there is no reason for your captive bred snake to be suffering stress. However, if you suspect the animal is stressed, it is important to find out the cause before its health deteriorates. Check all the heaters to make sure they are functioning correctly, listen to see if the heaters or lights have started buzzing or vibrating through aging or faulty parts, find out if anyone else is opening the cage or incorrectly handling the snake, examine the animal thoroughly for signs of illness or accidental damage (as described above) and try to work out the source of the stress.
A frequent source of stress and health problems in pythons can be shedding or ecdysis. Shedding tends to be more problematic in winter when heaters are on and the air is dryer. When snakes enter their shed cycle, they produce a milky proteinaceous fluid under the old skin to help free it and separate it from the new skin. This gives the snake its milky appearance, most apparent in the eyes. Shortly before shedding they reabsorb this fluid and suddenly appear normal, so that it’s easy to think you have missed their shed and to start looking for the old skin. When the air is too dry, the old skin can become stuck to the surface of the new skin causing lots of potential problems. Handling a snake when it is milky can also cause shedding problems and even damage the new skin so that scars are left.
Incomplete sheds are a health hazard to your snake. They can provide an environment for bacteria to accumulate and tend to make successive sheds more difficult. Every time a python sheds you should check it thoroughly. In particular, check the sides, along the ridge of the back, the belly, under the chin, the eyes, the area around the cloaca, the tip of the tail and anywhere the snake has previously injured itself. If you find skin that will not come off with gentle assistance and a damp cloth, you will need to soak the snake in a container of warm water (a starting temperature of 34/35 oC is ideal) with a dash of liquid detergent added to help wet the surface of the skin. The water level should be far enough below the lid to allow the snake room to breath for the 20 to 30 minutes it takes to soften and moisten the surface of the animal enough to gently ease the old skin off (don’t worry all pythons are excellent swimmers). Be very careful easing off eye scales. If they do not come off easily with the gentle aid of a fingernail, stop and see a vet. Don’t forget to check the tip of the tail. If skin is allowed to accumulate on the tail, the covered area will die with time (Photo series 7 & 8).
Last but not least of the five main causes I listed for python ill health is accidents. The most common of these include - burns from unprotected/malfunctioning heaters, “immovable” objects falling on the snake, serious rat bites (don’t ever leave a live rodent in a cage with a snake), snakes falling from high, open cages and escaped snakes being trodden on or shut in doors. My advice is do not say “it won’t happen to me” because accidents happen to everyone with snakes. Make sure that Murphy’s Law cannot apply to your cage when it comes to lights, heaters and cage furniture and that you always double check that the vivarium door is closed.
Here are a few more accidents I have seen over the years for you all to ponder on - putting two snakes together during feeding so that one eats the other and they both die, a python messing on a thermostat control which shorts and blows the animal’s tail off, accidentally putting two sexually active males together so that one rips the other literally to pieces (photo 9), or a python twisting a heater cover enough so it gets its head jammed and roasted.
In closing let me stress that cleanliness and biosecurity are foundations of good husbandry. Keep your cages clean, use disinfectant (we use common bleach to clean up snake messes and methylated spirits and bleach when disinfecting a whole cage – photo 10) and remember to check the python’s hide box regularly to make sure it isn’t lying in a mess which can rapidly lead to serious skin infections. Be very cautious when introducing new pythons to a home with existing snakes. There are some really nasty diseases that are very contagious and incurrable. Always isolate new animals completely so that they cannot contaminate existing stock. If you come across snake mite, deal with it immediately (see Snake Mites by Simon Watherow in Reptiles Australia Vol 1 Issue 3). Just remember, when it comes to snakes, if it can go wrong it probably will. You cannot be too careful.