The word ‘regurgitation’ has to remind you of the movie Anaconda, at least for a split second. And I would understand why; the regurgitation scene is quite disturbing, which is exactly how it plays out in reality as well.
Even more, interestingly, it’s not only anacondas that can regurgitate but all snakes.
So, today we will discuss ball pythons and their ability to eliminate undigested food. Why do they do it, and what does that tell you about the snake itself? Let’s check it out!
Understanding Ball Python Digestion
Ball pythons are carnivorous reptiles, like all snakes, and can consume fairly large prey, including jumbo rabbits, quails, squirrels, and even monkeys. The prey’s size and type depend on the python’s size and native ecosystem.
To understand the snake’s digestive system, we must first assess the distinct characteristics that separate ball pythons from other species:
- Medium size – Unlike other python species, like the Burmese one, ball pythons are relatively small, up to 5 feet for females and no more than 3 feet for males. This reduced size prevents ball pythons from consuming excessively large prey.
- Slow metabolism – All snakes have a slow metabolism, but ball pythons take it up (or maybe down) a notch. These pythons can take approximately a week or 2 to digest their meals, despite being rather small in size.
- Short digestive system – Ball pythons have short digestive systems, which means they cannot handle large meals or overly-frequent feedings. The standard adult ball python can only eat once every 7-14 days, while juveniles tend to eat more often due to their higher metabolic rates.
The digestive process itself is fairly complex and revolves around several phases, such as:
- Phase 1: Ingestion – This describes the act of ingurgitating the prey, which uses the combined efforts of the jaw muscles, teeth, and esophagus contracting to force the meal down the hatch. Pythons eat their meals whole, which is typical snake behavior.
- Phase 2: Stomach – The ingested food reaches the stomach intact, where it comes into contact with the digestive juices. These have a pH of 1-2, which means they’re acidic enough to break down bones, hair, feathers, and hooves. The second phase of the digestive process can last approximately several hours to a day, depending on the prey’s size.
- Phase 3: Small intestine – This is the area where the food leftovers are broken down even further by the bile and the digestive molecules produced by the snake’s body. These aim to break the meal into molecules, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream. This is possible via the capillary system present in the intestine’s walls, absorbing the essential nutrients directly.
- Phase 4: Large intestine – This is where the nutrient-deprived food residues end up and are transformed into fecal matter. The large intestine will also absorb the water, producing feces and urine, which the snake will eliminate when the time is due.
Keep in mind that ball pythons take a long time to digest their foods. A large enough python can go for months without eating anything if the previous meal was sizeable enough.
So, you should adjust the snake’s feeding pattern to its specific behavior.
What is Ball Python Regurgitation?
Regurgitation is simply the act of eliminating the food back the way it came. Interestingly, regurgitation isn’t the same as vomiting, although they look basically identical.
However, learning the differences between them can help you understand what’s causing the behavior and provide your snake with proper care.
To put it simply, a regurgitation is a voluntary act. The snake expels the food voluntarily for a variety of reasons like stress, fear, predator attacks, etc.
The act of regurgitation can cause a variety of health issues, including dehydration, stress, and tissue damage.
Vomiting, on the other hand, is not voluntary but reflexive. Vomiting is often the result of sickness or digestive issues that cause the elimination of the stomach’s content.
This includes food matter and digestive fluids, whereas regurgitation only eliminates the food.
Causes of Ball Python Regurgitation
Ball pythons can regurgitate for a variety of reasons, such as stress, overfeeding, improper feeding, or the environment.
Stress is the most popular cause of regurgitation, not only in pythons but all snake species. The problem is even more impactful when it comes to pythons due to their slow digestion and the need for peace and solitude after eating. Your snake may appear less energetic and even lethargic for several days after eating, which shouldn’t worry you.
It’s just the snake conserving energy and directing it toward the digestive system. Bothering and stressing the snake during this time may cause it to regurgitate its meal.
There’s no denying that part of the charm of having a snake pet is seeing it feeding on live food. This causes more inexperienced snake keepers to overfeed their snakes and provide them with live food more frequently than they should. The problem is that the snake will not eat if it’s not ready.
If you insist on keeping the prey in its enclosure, the reptile may stress out and regurgitate because of it. More importantly, it will still not eat, even after regurgitating, because it’s in a stressed state. So, learn your snake’s feeding preferences and stick to them.
When it comes to ball pythons, the notion of improper feeding refers to providing the snake with live prey, oversized prey, or prey that’s too small. The live prey part is fairly easy to understand. The snake may suffer injuries during the subduing efforts, which may then cause discomfort, forcing the snake to regurgitate.
If the prey is too large, the reptile won’t be able to swallow it properly. So, it will have wasted all its energy killing and attempting to swallow it to no avail. If the prey is too small, the snake won’t be full, so it may be tempted to regurgitate to eat a larger food item.
Improper Environmental Conditions
This is a standard problem with snakes, causing a variety of issues, regurgitation being one of them. Snakes require specific living parameters to digest their food in peace. Temperature is key here; if it’s too cold, the snake’s digestive system will slow down even further, making digestion impossible. The snake will regurgitate as a result.
The same happens if the enclosure is too small or lacks hiding areas, both of which will stress out the reptile. And we’ve already discussed the link between stress and regurgitation.
While these are the main reasons for regurgitation in ball pythons, you have a variety of other potential issues to consider. These include health problems like parasites, bacterial infections, respiratory infections, or problems relating to the digestive system.
In short, if your snake regurgitates its meal and you can’t tell why to contact your vet for a more in-depth assessment of the situation.
The Difference Between Regurgitation and Poop
The difference between regurgitation and poop is fairly obvious. Regurgitated meals and poop both exit the snake’s body via opposite ends. Snakes only regurgitate their meals through their mouths, while the poop comes out through the cloaca.
Knowing this difference is useful if you can witness the snake doing one or the other. But what if you don’t observe the snake’s behavior directly and instead get a large mass of animal matter to explain? In this case, you verify the product itself.
The byproducts of the 2 actions are vastly different. Regurgitated meals tend to be either intact or partially digested, depending on how far into the digestion the regurgitation has occurred.
Poop, however, only consists of completely digested matter and is usually fairly solid and compact, with some urine present.
It’s important to note that the snake may also poop undigested elements like bone or hair, depending on the snake’s age and size. The reptile’s digestive system may not have matured yet, so it may not be as effective as an adult’s.
Prevention and Treatment for Regurgitation
Here are some tips on how to prevent ball python regurgitation or how to address the problem, if it already happened:
Prevention is the best approach to regurgitation because it allows you to skip the treatment phase altogether.
To prevent regurgitation in ball pythons, consider the following tips:
- Prevent overfeeding – Learn your python’s meal and feeding preferences to prevent overfeeding. You can gather information about the snake before buying it, as well as afterward, as you get more accustomed to the snake’s eating pattern.
- Keep environmental parameters stable – Temperature, humidity, and lighting conditions should be ideal for your snake to digest its food properly.
- Ensure optimal housing conditions – Ball pythons generally look to hide after eating. This is a natural behavior for all snakes because the digestive process takes time, during which the snake will exhibit low levels of energy. This makes the reptile more vulnerable to predators. So, for its state of mind, you should have at least one properly-sized hiding area for a plus of comfort and safety.
- Choose the prey carefully – I say avoid life prey at first, at least until your ball python becomes accustomed to its new home. Even after that, if you’re going to feed live prey, go for rabbits or guinea pigs than rats. Rats can be more aggressive and dangerous, for instance.
The treatment should consist of the following approaches:
- Remove the food – You should remove the regurgitated food immediately to prevent further stress and bacterial accumulation.
- Ensure sufficient water – The snake should have a source of clean water available. This helps with proper hydration because dehydration is often associated with regurgitation.
- Give the snake space – Your python will most likely not eat for the following 1-2 weeks after the regurgitation episode. Provide the reptile with at least as much time until the next meal.
- Address the underlying issue – Figure out what’s caused the python to regurgitate in the first place. Take the snake to a vet if you cannot diagnose the problem yourself.
Regurgitation is a real issue because it disrupts the snake’s routine significantly. Not only will it cause stress and dehydration, but it can also lead to nutritional deficiencies due to the reptile not eating anything following the episode.
You will have to wait at least one week until you can try feeding your python again.
Take this issue very seriously and consider my today’s prevention tips to avoid the problem altogether.
If that doesn’t work, rely on an experienced vet to fix the problem and keep what you’ve learned for future use.