Burmese python Care

Python molurus bivittatus

Burmese pythons

Burmese pythons, image by Arno & Louise Wildlife

Burmese Pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) are amongst the 6 largest species of snake in the world with wild individuals averaging around 12ft (however 19ft is not unheard of) and captive bred even longer.The Burmese Python is technically a subspecies of Indian Python (Python molurus) and despite its name isn’t limited to Burma. Burmese Pythons have been very popular both in the pet trade and the leather industry owing to their attractive coloration; dark blocky polygons on light tan (not too dissimilar from the markings of a giraffe). As well as being significant in terms of length, Burmese Pythons are also heavily built snakes (the world’s heaviest living snake is the ironically named “Baby”, a 27ft Burmese who ways and astonishing 403lbs!). Like many large constrictors they are excellent swimmers and in some localities they are considered to be semi-aquatic. As with many reptiles, females average greater sizes than males (Male average: 10-13ft. Female average: 13-16ft).

Burmese Pythons as pets

It is preferable, if possible, to obtain juvenile specimens in order to find out their habits and thus avoid stupid feeding errors (SFEs) and other such mistakes before they become truly dangerous. Burmese Pythons have a reputation for docile dispositions (though WC specimens can be a handful) often taking to handling much better than similarly sized constrictors; however! They also have a reputation for very strong feeding responses and this, combined with their large size, is not a combination to be taken lightly! A fully grown Burmese Python is an animal with the potential to kill you and you must never forget this. Burmese Pythons are what you make them; if you only interact with your snake at feeding time and never handle, don’t expect it to be tame. It is also important to note that Burmese Pythons can grow very quickly (10ft in one year is reported) and that life expectancy is 20-30 years. Burmese Pythons should only be considered by experienced reptile keepers (preferably with some experience of other large constrictors) with the time, money and space to make the commitment. If you have the slightest doubt about any of these factors do not get one. Far too many of these beautiful animals have been released into the wild or given up to animal shelters by irresponsible owners who didn’t know what they were getting themselves into.

Geographic Range

Burmese Pythons have a very large natural range extending all over southern and South-east Asia (across India, Nepal, Western Bhutan, South-east Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, North continental Malaysia, Southern China, Java, Southern Sulawesi, Bali and Sumbawa.

As previously noted, they’re fantastic swimmers and are often found in Marsh lands, swamps, grasslands and woodland. Burmese Pythons are also notable as one of the most notorious invasive species in America. Burmese Pythons released into the wild by people no longer will to look after their animals (and escapees in the wake of Hurricane Andrew) properly have, in South Florida, not only survived but formed breeding populations. This snake poses a very profound danger to this highly fragile ecosystem (which is already under huge pressure from housing developments etc.). Some reports have suggested that Burmese Pythons may be capable of establishing themselves over 1/3 of the USA however these reports have cast this into doubt and suggest they’re limited to the Everglades.

Burmese python housing

Being large stocky snakes it is important to adhere to “length should be half that of the snake’s; the width should be a third of the snake’s length,” rule of thumb (i.e. for a 12ft individual its enclosure should measure approximately 6ft x 4ft). Height is not of too much concern with Burmese Pythons. When they’re younger they will climb if they have the option, however as they get older their size and build makes this a rather less common venture. As a general metric, a fully grown Burmese Python should be absolutely fine in a tank 3ft in height. One of the most important features of any enclosure is that it is big enough to allow the snake to thermo-regulate. That is to say, it must be both big enough for a gradient to exist and also big enough for the animal to get its whole body in the area of different temperature.

A very important factor to consider with regard to housing your Burmese Python is the growth rate. Though I newly hatched individual may be able to live contentedly in a enclosure that is 15 inches long, this state of affairs will not last. For this reason you must be prepared to re-house your Python very rapidly and have the ability to suitably see to its needs should it fulfil its potential and reach 10ft in one year. It is also important to remember that all snakes are escape artists; furthermore Burmese Pythons are some of the strongest snakes around. As a result, enclosures should not just be exceedingly sturdy (something to bear in mind when building your own) but should also have some kind of lock as well.

When constructing your own enclosure many materials are suitable. Wood, Plastic and Glass are the most common. It is important when using wood to ensure that it is treated and sealed; failure to do so can a result in a number of problems both in terms of the strength of your tank and the health of your snake (through the growth of fungi, mould etc.).

Further thought should be given to cleaning the enclosure. It may be desirable to build a fantastically unorthodox tank of bizarre dimensions and landscaping but will this ultimately compromise the hygienic standards you keep? Remember if something is difficult to do you are likely to do it less often. The health of your Burmese Python is the number one priority.

Leaf insect

Albino Burmese python, image by San Diego Shooter

Decor

The two most important things to provide any snake are hides and water. You should have at least one hide at each end of the enclosure so the snake is never forced to make a choice between temperature and security. Ideally the hides provided will be big enough that the snake can fit its whole body inside, but small enough that it will be able to feel the walls all the way around itself. It is worth remembering that insecure snakes are aggressive snakes. Water is important to many large constrictors and the Burmese Python is not an exception. In the wild they spend much of their time immersed, especially as they get larger. Water should be provided in the form of a bowl or some other similar container and ideally should be big enough for the snake to soak its whole body in. It is surprising how profoundly the psychology of a snake can be changed simply by giving them the option of soaking themselves (and the accompanying security gained). It is not entirely necessary for the snake to be able to fully submerge, but if it has the option it will indulge it.

Other decor is largely up to you. Young Burmese Pythons spend a lot of their time in the trees and if given the option, they will climb. It is also a good idea to provide some objects that the snake can rub against whilst in order to help it to slough. A word of warning when considering plants as decor: the snake will have no regard for it and may crawl over and destroy them; they must be guaranteed to be free of parasites; they must be safe for the reptile!  They may die in the environment provided.

All decor will require cleaning on at least a monthly basis (The tank should have a comprehensive clean out once a month). This includes disinfecting all items, changing substrate etc. Depending on your substrate you may do this more often. Additionally water bowls should be cleaned at least once a week (water changes maybe 1-2 times a week) and spot cleaning should be done as opften as possible (at least every 3 days). 

Substrate

When it comes to substrate there are a lot of options. It is sensible to start out on newspaper, paper towels or butcher paper at least to begin. These substrates are easy to replace upon being soiled (and considering the defecations of Burmese Pythons, this is a strong advantage!) but additionally are very good when trying to establish whether or not the animal has any kind of parasites. The only real disadvantage of newspaper is that it is quite boring to look at. If you want a more visually exciting substrate there are a number of options. Low maintenance options include Astroturf or indoor/outdoor carpet. An advantage of these substrates is that they are easy to clean, can be custom cut to size and are much more attractive than paper. Should you decide to use one of these options I would recommend getting at least 2 pieces cut so as to always have one in use whilst you clean the other. More decorative substrates include Coconut fibre or shredded Cyprus.

NEVER use cedar (avoid all wood shaving based products) as the oils are toxic to reptiles. Similarly gravel, sand mulch etc have been known to cause a plethora of problems (skin problems, respiratory infections etc.). Aspen is also inappropriate for larger snakes.

The substrate you choose will affect the feeding methods you can employ and this is a very important factor with Burmese Pythons (or indeed any large constrictor). If you have a loose decorative substrate it would be inappropriate to feed your snake within the confines of its enclosure as it may ingest the substrate and this can cause digestive problems and intestinal blockages. Bear in mind that having to transfer an 8ft+ snake to a different enclosure in order to feed it could be very problematic. If you plan on using a biological substrate it is also important to consider how much more easily things such as mould/parasites etc. can become established. If this is a choice you make it is vital that you pay extra-attention to these potential problems in order to put a stop to them early.

Temperature and humidity

Temperature is extremely important. As with all reptiles Burmese Pythons do not generate their own heat and thus rely on their environment to provide them with correct body temperature. Incorrect temperatures can inhibit a snake’s ability to digest its food, suppress its immune system, cause stress and ultimately death. It is therefore essential that you not only provide the correct range of temperatures, but also that you keep a close eye on them.

The temperature range required by Burmese Pythons is about 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the basking area and 80 degrees Fahrenheit at the cool end. Temperatures can be allowed to fall slightly at night (no cooler than 74 degrees Fahrenheit really). There are a number of ways providing this heat: Light-bulbs, heat lamps, heat mats etc. What is more important is that that it is delivered in a safe and controllable way. The first rule of any heating apparatus is that it must be used in conjunction with a thermostat. No exceptions. As well as using a thermostat you should be sure to monitor the temperature within the tank as well. Place thermometers at either end so you can monitor the hot and cold ends and adjust your heat sources accordingly (put thermometers on the floor of the tank as this is where your snake will be spending most of its time). It is also an absolute necessity that any heat source that could potentially harm your snake is covered (i.e. all heat lamps or light bulbs some form of caging around them). Additionally if you have heat mats inside the tank (ideally you won’t), mount them on the wall; all it takes is for your Burmese Python to tip its water source and minor damage to the seal and electrocution becomes a real possibility (for both of you).

Some heat sources are not appropriate under any circumstances. Hot rocks are inappropriate for large snakes as they can often end up lying on them for extended periods of time and burning (hot rocks do not have a brilliant reputation anyway and I personally would avoid them). Electric Blankets were another method that hobbyists would employ to heat the vivariums of large reptiles, however due to their reputation as fire hazards and the inconsistent nature of the how they deliver heat these are best avoided. Safety is the name of the game, and it pays to have a well insulated enclosure as the ambient temperature will be much more consistent.

Humidity

Burmese Pythons come from Asia rainforests where humidity is high; however they can be kept at room humidity (raised when they’re sloughing). Some people suggest humidity of 60% (80% when sloughing) and whilst this is fine, it is not absolutely necessary. You will know if the humidity in your tank is too low as sloughing will become a problem for your snake (it will be fragmented and may require you to manually soak and remove excess skin).

Extra humidity can be provided via misting manually (i.e. spraying water over the tank), placing the water bowl over/under the heat source (it is important to make sure you do not let the water levels drop too low when doing this) or through the use of a humidity box. A humidity box is a customised hide containing sphagnum moss (or another water holding material) which has been dampened in order to provide a humid micro-climate. Though these are not a standard requirement for Burmese Pythons, you may find them of use when dealing with gravid females that you expect to lay soon.

Feeding Burmese pythons

When dealing with large constrictors it is important to remember that this is the most dangerous part of ownership. The vast majority of deaths associated with large boas or pythons have occurred during the feeding of the animal. Do not take this activity lightly and try to condition your snake appropriately from a young age.

Burmese python showing its mouth

Burmese python showing off its mouth, image by wildxplorer

As with all large constrictors it is ideal to have options as to where you open the tank (i.e. sliding doors that allow you two sides of entry). It is riskier to open the enclosure on the side the snake is occupying when presenting food as it gives you no time to gauge its reaction and no chance of getting out the way of potential responses.

It is important to remember that Burmese Pythons (and indeed all snakes) go into a hunting “mode”, once in this mode you can ignore all previous characteristics that snake had; it is now a killing machine. Often Boids get the scent of prey and simply strikes at anything warm, be it the heat source, the food item or you. For this reason it is important to never feed a snake with your bare hands: always use tongs or some other long handled gripping device; failing to do so can at the very least result in a nasty bite, at the very worst result in serious injury or death. Once your Burmese Python is 7ft+ it is wise to have a partner to assist in the feeding. Other basic rules also apply: Do not feed when the snake is sloughing; do not handle the day after feeding; if food is regurgitated reduce size, wait a while digestive enzymes to be replenished (if problem persists may be indicative of more serious problem).

Burmese Pythons should be fed once or twice a week on an appropriately sized rodent. Hatchlings can start on adult mice; as the snake gets larger a rodent of proportionally appropriate size should be offered; at 3’ the snake is large enough to eat weanling rats; at 4’ it should be able to eat adult rats. A fully grown Burmese Python will be able to eat large rabbits and pigs. The food item should be heated in order to replicate a living prey animal (don’t use a microwave!) and may require you to imitate the animals movements (just a bit of a shake) in order to stimulate the snake’s interest. With smaller food items you can defrost them over a few hours just by leaving out (then heating for 10 minutes on a heat mat) or by placing in warm water. Do not use a microwave to defrost or heat up food items, for one thing this can cause hot spots within the item that may cause damage to the snake internally and for a second it can cause the item to explode, which is disgusting.

Some hobbyists suggest removing Burmese Pythons from their regular living quarters in order to feed them. The logic behind this is that it will stop your Python from associating the opening of the tank with being fed. This is all well and good but could become very problematic once your snake reaches a significant size (good luck moving a 15ft Python that has just eaten back to its tank). Another way of avoiding this kind of conditioning from occurring is ensure you interact regularly with the python outside of feeding time.

It should go without saying that you need to avoid smelling like your Burmese Python’s dinner at all costs! This includes approaching the animal after handling anything that could be considered a prey animal, living or dead. Be aware of what your clothes have been in contact with (was the cat sat on your lap earlier? Did the dog jump up at you? Etc). Even if you aren’t feeding the snake, keep an eye on it. After a while you should be able to notice when the snake is in “hunting mode”. Keep a look out for tell tale signs (sharp head movement, tongue flicking at increased intensity, stealthy movements) whenever you open the enclosure. Better safe than sorry.

Breeding Burmese pythons

The most important thing to consider before attempting to breed your Burmese Pythons is whether or not they are sexually mature. Typically Males will be ready at between 7-9ft and females at 9ft+. Both snakes should be of a good weight and in excellent general health.

The first step is to cease feeding and reduce the temperatures of your snakes. Day time temperatures can be dropped to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and night time temperatures to 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Light period should also be set at 8-10 hours a day. This will cause the snake to go in to a state called brumation which isn’t too dissimilar to hibernation.

After a week or so begin increasing the temperatures and humidity (misting once a day should be enough). This is the point where you can introduce the female to the male.

If the male is interested in the female it will be very noticeable. He will attempt to line up along the length of her body and stimulate her with his spurs. It may take numerous pairings for the female to be impregnated. After a week or so they can be separated. At this point you can begin offering food again, but keep it small (the female is unlikely to feed it pregnant).

Roughly a month after successful copulation you should see ovulation. You will know when your female is ovulating as she will swell up (almost as if she has eaten a football). Following this will come her pre-lay shed and within a month she should lay.

Once she lays you have the option of either letting her incubate the eggs naturally or taking them from her and incubating mechanically. If you choose the latter it will be necessary to retrieve the eggs from her (it may be preferable to put a towel over the head of the female to reduce the stress on her during this process). Having done this you should clean the enclosure thoroughly in order to remove any scent of the eggs (it may be worth cleaning her as well).  At this point you can start offering normal meals to her again.

The female should lay between 8-30 eggs which should be incubated at 70-90% humidity and 88-90 degrees Fahrenheit in a medium of vermiculite, perlite or similar. The eggs should take roughly 75 days to hatch.

When your eggs hatch all that is required is to clean them up and separate them. After their first shed they will be ready for their first meal. 

Burmese Python with its mouth open

Burmese python, image by Arno & Louise Wildlife

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