Let’s begin by saying all snakes bite, no matter their strength, size, whether they’re venomous, or any other variable.
They don’t want to bite, contrary to what some people think, but they will if, by doing so, they will increase their chances of survival.
So, as a novice snake keeper, you want to learn as much as possible about your snake pet’s behavior and biting habits before getting it.
Today, we will take the ball python as an example, simply because it ranks among the most popular reptile pets today, aside from Burmese pythons, boas, and vipers.
Reasons Ball Pythons Bite
Ball pythons always have a reason for biting.
I may sound like Captain Obvious over here, but I often see people completely surprised that they got bitten by their beloved pet, seemingly out of the blue. I used ‘seemingly’ here because ball pythons never bite completely out of the blue.
There are always tell-telling signs that they’re going to bite, and simply failing to recognize them doesn’t mean they’re not there.
That being said, here are several potential reasons why ball pythons bite:
- Hunger – All snakes are more likely to bite when starving. This goes for ball pythons as well. Naturally, ball pythons can tell that you’re not prey, but they might think otherwise about your hand and fingers. Some of these hunger-related bites occur when attempting to feed the python by hand, which means that the bite itself is simply a mistake. Other cases involve your hands smelling like food (maybe you’ve handled a rat several minutes before), in which case the bite is intentional. So, it’s always wise to wash your hands thoroughly before going inside your python pen.
- Fear – Fear is the most basic instinct in snakes and wild animals in general. Ball pythons won’t necessarily bite if threatened from afar; instead, they will rely on hissing and defensive posturing to threaten any potential predators or unwanted visitors. But the snake is highly likely to bite if taken by surprise, in which case it might not have another choice. So, always make your presence noticed before going inside your snake’s enclosure. When in the wild, make noise wherever you’re going so that snakes and other animals can hear you from a distance and move out of your path.
- Stress – Stress is a common motif for captive-bred snake bites. Ball pythons can get stressed out in captivity for a variety of reasons. These include improper tank layout with not enough space, no climbing spots, no safe hiding spaces, improper or unstable living parameters, improper diet, parasites, causing discomfort and distress, improper or frequent handling, etc. All these factors may make the snake appear oversensitive, and that would generally be an accurate assessment. Ball pythons are sensitive, which goes for pretty much all snakes and even reptiles in general. They require precise living conditions, solitude, and stable parameters to thrive and remain healthy and happy.
- Illness – A sick ball python is a cranky and stressed ball python. No matter the health condition it’s dealing with, your python is more likely to bite when not well. Fortunately, you should be able to tell whether your python is sick. Some of the most obvious symptoms include lethargy, weight loss, lack of appetite, difficulty breathing, visible skin irritations, diarrhea, lack of poop, signaling constipation or impaction, etc. These symptoms suggest the need for immediate treatment to prevent the disorders from aggravating.
- Born aggression – It’s important to note that some ball pythons are simply more aggressive than others. Ball pythons are not copies of one another; instead, they are unique individuals with unique personalities. Your ball python may simply be too aggressive, and there’s really nothing you can do about it other than to keep your distance and exercise extra caution. Fortunately, this is rarely the case, as most pythons are docile and withdrawn.
As a closing note, understanding the risk factors when it comes to ball python bites will help you understand how to prevent such unpleasant incidents altogether.
Ball Python Bite Force
It’s very difficult to approximate a ball python’s bite force simply because they don’t use their bites to inflict damage.
Instead, they bite to hold the prey down for that split second they need to coil their bodies around it and begin the death squeeze. Overall, ball python bites are pretty much painless, but they will leave marks.
Ball pythons possess sharp, needle-like teeth covering the entire upper and lower jaw. These teeth are slightly curved toward the back of the mouth to prevent the potential prey from escaping.
The snake will use its teeth and anchors, keeping the victim in place as it constricts around it.
So, a ball python’s bite is typically painless, but you should be able to see the skin punctures. These aren’t generally too deep, but the wounds still need cleaning to prevent infection.
While the bite itself isn’t too harmful, you should be more concerned about the snake’s overall aggression instead. That’s because if the python is really upset, it might not stop at biting. It might also try to constrict you as it would any other prey.
Given that ball pythons can only reach 6 feet, you shouldn’t panic about being constricted to death, but the snake’s squeeze isn’t to be trifled with, either.
The Dangers of Ball Python Bite
We’ve just discussed that ball pythons have a relatively mild bite, so what other potential harm can come from it?
Interestingly enough, there are some real risks associated with a ball python bite, including:
- Infection – Even the smallest wounds can get infected, and the risk is considerably higher when the said wounds are animal bites. Snakes carry various bacteria in their mouths, which can easily cause infection. You should always clean the bite wound with warm water and soap and monitor the area for any signs of infection. Contact the doctor at the first sign of inflammation and fever, as you most likely require antibiotic treatment.
- Anaphylaxis – Anaphylactic shock is a real risk for those with extreme sensitivity to snake saliva. The same effect occurs in people with sensitivity to spiders, bees, or wasp bites, but anything can trigger an anaphylactic response. Even worse is the fact that you have no idea of your sensitivity to snake saliva up to the moment you got bitten. The main symptoms of anaphylactic shock include difficulty breathing, swelling in the face and neck, swelling of the airways, nausea, vomiting, feeling lightheaded, etc. In this case, you need immediate medical assistance.
- Psychological trauma – This is a real risk associated with snake bites and any other traumatic wild animal encounters. The result is the victim becoming irrationally afraid of snakes, making it impossible to handle one anymore. Many victims become so traumatized that they even refuse to go out in the wilderness anymore.
So, snake bites might not be dangerous as a general rule, but there are always exceptions to consider.
Prevention and Treatment of Ball Python Bite
First, you want to avoid the bite altogether, which is where the prevention part kicks in.
Here are a handful of tips in this sense:
- Polish your situational awareness – Always be on your guard when traversing the wilderness. You’re no longer in the middle of the civilized world but rather one that comes with great risks with every step you take. Keep your eye out for any movement or sound that could signify the presence of a snake nearby. Also, inspect the trees and branches you’re going by. Ball pythons are primarily arboreal, and you don’t want to walk face-first into one hanging from a branch.
- Understand the python’s body language – Take this piece of advice as a universal rule when it comes to dealing with wild fauna. You should always learn the animal’s body language to detect the early signs of aggression. You can tell that the ball python is aggressive if it coils in a defensive state, fixates you with its eyes, and hisses menacingly in your direction. This is the ‘stay away’ behavior, so you should stay away.
- Get some expert advice – Ball pythons are complex animals, so they don’t all function identically. I recommend speaking to a python expert to look into your unique case and provide recommendations that would apply to your situation.
So, what if all of these prevention tactics have failed, and you’re now dealing with a bite?
This is a very likely scenario if you’re a python owner since it’s almost impossible not to get bitten at one point or another.
After all, ball pythons can live up to 20 or even 30 years or more in captivity, enough time for you to become quite familiar with snake bites.
If that happens, here are some general treatment recommendations:
- Remove the snake – This may sound like an awkward recommendation until you realize that ball pythons are constricting snakes. So, they never just bite. They always bite and constrict at the same time. Since the likeliest bite place is the arm, the snake will naturally constrict around the arm for a plus of control. Your goal is now to remove the snake from your limb and place it back in its enclosure. Do it gently, with soft and calculated moves, not to agitate the snake even further. If the reptile is too large, ask for someone’s help.
- Clean the wound – Warm water and soap should be enough in this sense. The goal is to eliminate any trace of snake saliva, bacteria, and probably dirt that may have contaminated the wound.
- Monitor your symptoms – As we’ve discussed, ball pythons are typically not dangerous. In most cases, they aren’t even painful. Even so, always monitor your symptoms to make sure you don’t experience swelling, fever, or increasing pain from the bite site. If that’s the case, contact your doctor for targeted treatment.
If you’re worried about an allergic reaction or any potential complications, or if the bite itself is particularly painful, get professional help just to be sure.
Handling a Ball Python Safely
Learning how to handle a ball python safely is critical for preventing bites and keeping the snake stress-free.
In this sense, consider the following tips:
- Wash your hands – If your hands smell like food and your snake is hungry…you can see where this is going, right? Wash your hands with soap and maybe weak latex gloves just to be sure.
- Be calm – Your snake will be as calm as you are. The more agitated you are, the higher the chance that the snake will mimic your behavior. And you don’t want an agitated ball python with sharp teeth around your hands.
- Support the snake’s weight properly – Always use both hands (or at least 2 support points) when lifting the snake up. Especially if the snake is a heavy adult.
- Don’t squeeze or pull – Despite their apparent strength, ball pythons are actually quite sensitive, and you can hurt them if you’re being too reckless. Don’t squeeze or pull on the snake’s body; rather, hold and handle the animal gently.
- Gauge the reptile’s body language – We’ve already discussed this point previously. Learn to read your snake’s body language so you can prevent stress and eliminate the biting risk.
- Keep the handling session short – Snakes aren’t fond of handling and petting, ball pythons included. Only handle your snake for as long as necessary, nothing more.
- Have a plan B – Snakes are wild animals, so there’s always an element of unpredictability to contend with. Always have a backup plan in place in case your snake decides to get aggressive or attempts to escape your hold.
Abiding by these standards will improve your and your snake’s safety and comfort and will minimize the risk of biting considerably.
Dealing with the Emotional Impact of a Snake Bite
A snake bite can make for quite a traumatic experience, especially if this is the first time you’re experiencing it.
And especially when it comes from your own pet. In such a situation, you should consider the following approaches:
- Seek help – Never try to handle the situation on your own because it can spiral out of control fast. It’s important to share your emotions and experiences with a professional to find relief, comfort, and guidance. Seek help asap to mitigate the potential psychological downsides associated with such an unfortunate event.
- Practice self-care – Engage in joyful and comforting activities and practices like yoga, meditation, nature bonding, sports activities, etc. These provide you with a surge of endorphins, which aid in emotional and spiritual healing.
- Educate yourself – Learn the reasons why snakes bite, to begin with and understand reptiles’ biology and physiology. Educating yourself on these topics will help you understand that snakes don’t have malicious intents. They’re just acting the way nature designed them to.
- Exposure therapy – This is a form of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that exposes you to the source of your fear in a controlled setting. This will gradually minimize your fear and stress associated with the risk of biting.
- Prevent future bites – Learning how to prevent future bites will help you feel in control of the situation and imbue you with confidence and calmness.
It’s important to note that snakes never bite with malicious intent. They only bite when stressed or in situations where they perceive you as a threat.
The biting isn’t a sign of malevolence or aggression but rather one of fear and uncertainty. A calm, happy, and properly cared-for snake is less likely to bite.
Ball pythons are not aggressive, but they can bite, depending on the circumstance.
I hope today’s article has shed light on how, why, and when ball pythons can bite, so you can understand your pet’s behavior better.