The death of a pet is always hard to take. But, with most ball pythons living for between 25-30 years it might be difficult to spot the signs of your snake reaching the end of its lifespan. How can you tell if your ball python is dying, or if it is simply ill or low energy?
Snakes, unlike dogs or cats, are naturally quiet, independent creatures who live without the need for constant human companionship or comfort. This makes it very difficult to tell when a ball python might be ill, and not knowing this might result in your ball python dying very suddenly and without any real warning.
There are many illnesses a ball python can pick up that could end up deadly, whether it is a respiratory disease or even anorexia. Some reasons for the sudden death of a ball python could be too high or low temperatures in its cage, dehydration, illness, or starvation.
Some key signs that a ball python might be dying include a lack of activity, pink or reddish skin, and the fact that the snake is not flicking their tongue.
Below are the most important twelve signs to look out for in your ball python that could mean it is seriously ill or dying.
I will also look at ways of avoiding some of the key illnesses and issues faced by ball pythons. Also, I will give you some tips on how to extend the lifespan of your snake.
1. Lack of Activity
Ball pythons are nocturnal creatures and spend the majority of their time burrowing or hiding under rocks. It is, therefore, tricky to determine whether or not your ball python is lethargic, or simply following its natural routine of staying still and out of sight for most of the day.
However, if your ball python shows symptoms of lethargy during times it used to be active, or if it simply lies limp when handled, it’s definitely a warning sign that something is wrong. If your ball python is on the older side (above 20 years old), there is a chance that the lethargy is a sign of old age and could mean it is reaching the end of its life.
If your ball python is still young, lethargy may occur after eating a big meal, or it could be a sign of an underlying issue such as disease.
2. Noticeable Weightloss and Lack of Appetite
If your ball python is sick, or nearing the end of its life, it will most likely stop showing interest in food.
No matter what prey is offered it will refuse to eat and this is, perhaps, the most important and dangerous sign to look out for in an aging or potentially dying ball python.
If a snake doesn’t eat for more than a month, it will begin to lose weight. As time progresses, it will have trouble with shedding, at times with pieces of skin still attached to its body. Another sign to look out for is the obvious loss of body mass to the point where you can see the bones of the vertebrae.
Refusing to eat may in itself lead to the ball python’s death due to starvation. If this is due to illness, it might be possible to have it looked at by a vet, but in the end stages of a ball python’s life there may be very little you can do to make it eat.
The signs of a dehydrated ball python are dry, wrinkly skin, and sunken eyes. If a ball python is left dehydrated and its environment remains unchanged, it will eventually die. If any of the symptoms mentioned above are noticeable in your ball python, it is imperative you make sure its enclosure has high enough humidity as well as ample water for drinking or soaking.
4. Not Flicking Its Tongue
Healthy snakes usually stick out their tongues every few seconds to discover and explore their environment. If a snake is sick or weak it may not do so at all. The lack of this behavior could mean there is something seriously wrong with your ball python, or it could be reaching the end of its lifespan.
This behavioral change is closely linked to lethargy. A ball python that no longer shows interest in its environment may be ill or need improvement in its care regimen else it may not survive.
5. Pink or Reddish Skin
Any unusual slightly red or pink coloring of the bottom of a ball python’s body may be a sign of sepsis. Sepsis, or septicemia, is a bacterial infection of the bloodstream. It is extremely serious and usually only appears in ball pythons that are extremely ill or near death.
If you find any such discoloration on your ball python’s belly, get it to a vet or exotic animal hospital immediately.
6. Bubbles Around Its Nostrils
Mucus bubbles around a ball python’s nostrils may mean it has a serious respiratory infection. If left untreated it could lead to death in not only ball pythons, but other snakes as well.
Respiratory illnesses are more common than you may think and are usually treatable if spotted early enough. However, if the symptoms are not identified early on, the illness may progress to the point where treatment would no longer be effective.
7. Swollen Mouth, Stargazing, and Pupils of Different Sizes
Along with a loss of appetite and poor balance, a swollen mouth, and pupils of different sizes could mean your ball python is suffering from Inclusion Body Disease (IBD). Another important symptom of IBD is stargazing, where a snake pushes its head up against the side of the enclosure and twists its neck. Source
IBD affects both boas and pythons and is a viral disease that is fatal. The virus destroys the snake’s immune system and the snake usually dies from another infection soon after.
After contracting IBD, which is usually transmitted from snakes who weren’t quarantined, or from someone touching the ball python after handling an infected snake, death could follow in mere weeks. There is no treatment for IBD in ball pythons, and it is recommended any snake showing the symptoms be removed from the vicinity of other snakes and placed in a separate enclosure in a different room.
In cases of IBD euthanasia may be recommended by a vet. If this route is not chosen by the owner, it is best to simply provide the snake with as much comfort and care possible until it inevitably dies.
8. Cold and Limp Body
Many times a serious sign of a ball python nearing death may be mistaken for the snake simply sleeping, or burrowing.
If you handle your ball python and it feels colder than usual, while also lying limp and unresponsive in your hands it might be very near death, or already dead.
At this point there is very little you can do if your aged ball python is still alive, other than offer palliative care and comfort until the end.
9. Breathing With Its Mouth Open
If your ball python spends a lot of its time with its mouth open and seems to be breathing from its mouth or having difficulty breathing, it might be another sign of a serious upper respiratory tract infection.
Despite ball pythons having two lungs, unlike many other snakes, respiratory illnesses are still a serious issue to look out for. This could be due to pneumonia or stomatitis (also known as mouth rot).
Once your ball python starts wheezing, or you hear gurgling coming from the snake’s mouth you need to get it to a vet immediately else it may not survive.
10. Unusually Colored Poop
Most ball python feces will usually consist of a typical brown or black part that looks like the poop of almost every other living thing around, as well as a chalkier part that may vary in color. This chalky part is known as the urate.
Green urates are usually nothing to worry about, but green poop could at times indicate infection.
The most important color to look out for, however, is red. Red-colored urates or actual feces usually come from blood, and not the blood of the animal your ball python ate. Keep an eye out especially for bright or vivid red which could indicate bleeding from the ball python’s digestive system. If left undiagnosed and untreated, it could cause the death of your ball python in a very short period of time.
A snake nearing the end of its life may have very runny poop with obvious blood in it.
11. Listless Behavior or Excessive Movement
Believe it or not, ball pythons could die from excessive stress. In captivity, this stress might come from having too many lights in its cage, or not enough places to hide or burrow.
If not rectified, the snake will start moving around a lot, looking for somewhere dark to hide itself, and if this is not provided it can eventually cause enough stress for a ball python up to the point of illness or death
It is important, therefore, to make sure your ball python’s enclosure is optimized for its comfort.
12. Rolling Over On Its Back
There is no solid scientific proof that a snake spending time on its back is ill or dying, however, there is anecdotal evidence that snakes may roll onto their backs to relieve pressure or pain they are experiencing as they are dying.
Many female snakes getting ready to lay their eggs will turn onto their backs to relieve the pressure. Ball python owners who have found their snakes dead and lying on their backs believe the snakes do it for the same reason.
If you notice your ball python, who is definitely not about to lay eggs, constantly flipping onto its back it might be a sign it is experiencing pain or pressure building up in its body. This could simply be due to it being sick, or it could be dying and trying to relieve the pain.
If you suspect illness, take it to the vet immediately, however, if the ball python is near the upper limits of its life expectancy there may be nothing the vet can do.
What Should I Do If I Think My Ball Python Is Dying?
As made clear above, the signs that a ball python is dying can at many times overlap with symptoms of illness. The most important thing to take into account here is the ball python’s age.
Most ball pythons bred in captivity, and cared for well, can live for up to 30 years. The oldest living snake in the world is a ball python who is currently estimated to be around 62 years old. Source
If your ball python is exhibiting any of the signs mentioned above there is a chance it may simply be ill, and in many cases, these sicknesses can be treated. If you own a young ball python and it shows any of the signs listed above, get it to a vet as soon as possible.
However, after about 25 years old, there is a chance that these symptoms could be a sign of your ball python reaching the end of its life. By then, there may be very little you can do if it has become ill due to old age. You could still take it to the vet to get checked, but it is very likely they may simply suggest extra care being offered to the ball python as it passes through the final stage of its life.
How Can I Prolong My Ball Python’s Lifespan?
The most important aspect of ensuring a long lifespan for your ball python is in its care.
If cared for properly, fed well, and housed in the right enclosure, many illnesses that could shorten their lifespan may be prevented. Below is a summary of the most important factors to be kept in mind to ensure your ball python has a long and happy life.
- An adult ball python should have a minimum 30-gallon enclosure.
- Make sure there are ample dark hiding spots for your ball python, whether under rocks or wood, or underground.
- A humidity level of between 40%-60% should be maintained. This ought to be increased during shedding.
- A constant source of fresh, clean, chlorine-free water should be provided for the ball python to drink or use for soaking.
- Always keep the temperature of the enclosure between 80 and 90 degrees.
- Do not leave a white light on for more than 12 hours a day. Use infra-red lights at night.
- You must clean and disinfect the enclosure and all its components on a weekly basis. The best disinfectant for this is a 1:10 bleach to water mixture. Leave everything to dry in the sun to ensure the bleach evaporates.
- Feed adult ball pythons once every two weeks.
If these guidelines, along with more specific points of ball python care, are followed it will ensure the comfort of your ball python as well as give it the best chance you can for a long, healthy life.
What Are Common Illnesses Contracted By Ball Pythons?
These illnesses may show up during your ball python’s lifetime. Most are treatable by vets or vet-administered medication.
- Stomatitis – otherwise known as ‘mouth rot’ its symptoms include pus or white discharge from the mouth, as well as trouble breathing. Stomatitis could be caused by poor husbandry or overcrowding.
- Parasitic Illnesses – caused by internal worms, or external parasites such as mites, can cause breathing problems, itching, and skin irritation amongst other symptoms.
- Dermatitis – this skin infection is common in ball pythons who are kept in too high humidity.
- Respiratory Infections – these could become deadly if not treated, and have varying symptoms depending on the source of infection. If a respiratory illness is suspected, take your ball python to the vet immediately.
What Do I Do With My Dead Ball Python?
My ball python has, unfortunately, passed away due to age or illness. Now what?
Most ball python owners choose to bury their snake in their garden but, if this is not possible, cremation or even a communal burying ground may be an option.
Some people even choose to compost their snakes, as a way of keeping the semblance of their natural lifecycle intact. Source
In nature, if a ball python dies and isn’t eaten, it will remain in the same place and eventually biodegrade and become part of the soil. By composting your ball python you would essentially be allowing it to end its life in the same way it would have if it were wild.
Due to a ball python’s extensive life expectancy, they often become life companions to their owners. It can, therefore, be an extremely upsetting occurrence when the time comes to say goodbye.
Knowing the signs that your ball python is reaching the end of its life may help you prepare yourself for its passing, as well as provide it with the proper care. In the same way, knowing your snake is ill will allow you to treat it at an early enough stage so as to ensure it lives the longest and happiest life possible.
It is notoriously difficult to notice symptoms of illness or signs of approaching death in snakes and ball pythons are no exception. That is why it is extremely important to pay attention to the overall wellbeing and happiness of your ball python so that you and your snake can spend the longest time possible together.