The body language of a ball python will tell us when it is scared, stressed, happy, or even sick.
They are one of the easiest snakes to have as a pet and unlike dogs or cats, ball pythons have no way of communicating with us.
Ball pythons have no eyebrows, eyelids or complex mouth movements that show us expressions, so we rely on ball python’s behaviors and body language to understand them.
It’s important to remember that every ball python has its own personality, so these behaviors and meanings can vary by each snake.
Even so, these behaviors can give you an idea of what your ball python’s actions actually mean.
Let’s look at some behaviors that can help you understand your ball python.
Ball Python’s Body Language and Meanings
|When a ball python is relaxed and calm, it is a sign that it is happy.|
A calm ball python will exhibit no signs of stress or anxiety. Their muscles will be relaxed, and they will move slowly, with the occasional tongue flick.
|Suddenly moves head backward||A ball python will flinch backwards when it gets startled or scared. |
Most ball pythons don’t like being touched anywhere on their head.
When touched on the head or nose, a ball python will suddenly move their head backwards. This means your ball python is head shy, as are the majority of them.
It’s a quick movement that indicates your ball python doesn’t like that touch.
Some ball pythons will tolerate it, especially if they’ve been pet on the head enough times to know there’s no danger, but the majority will always flinch when touched.
|Crawling quickly||When scared, ball pythons crawl quickly as a fleeting movement. A sudden flinch backwards indicates fear, but a ball python crawling quickly indicates that they are constantly afraid until they slow down or stop.|
I’ve seen ball pythons crawl quickly when picked up or placed in water to soak.
This behavior indicates that your ball python is uncomfortable. They usually calm down once they realize they aren’t in danger.
|Heavy breathing||It’s hard to see a ball python breathing, but there are times when you’ll see them puff up and down as if they are breathing heavy. |
Ball pythons will breathe like this when they are alert which you commonly see as they’re waking up and assessing their surroundings.
Luckily this body language doesn’t mean anything serious and they’ll eventually relax.
|Tongue flick||Tongue flicking is the most natural and common behavior a ball python does.|
The tongue flick is a way for ball pythons to understand their surroundings by gathering particles in the air and processing them through something called a Jacobson organ.
They’ll do this when they are hungry and hunting to search for their food since it’s their way of “smelling”.
Ball pythons will flick their tongues when they’re curious, too.
The only time I’ve seen them stop this behavior is when they’re sleeping.
|Nose rubbing or face rubbing||Out of discomfort, ball pythons will rub against objects. It could be that they’re scratching an itch or that their skin’s outer layer is becoming too tight.|
Ball pythons begin their shedding process by rubbing their nose or face, in particular.
Ball pythons shed their skin from their noses to their tails, just like any other snake. They’ll begin by rubbing their nose and face against surfaces such as their enclosure walls or a hide until the skin gradually pulls back.
Nose and face rubbing is not a cause for concern unless they continue to behave in this manner after they shed.
|Hiss||We’ve all heard snakes hiss. Most snake species do this to ward off predators.|
When a ball python is in distress, it hisses. It’s a warning, though I’ve never seen a ball python strike after hissing.
Ball pythons are among the most docile snakes kept as pets. Striking is one of the last defenses a ball python will employ if it believes it is in danger.
Their hissing does not always result in a strike. They are more akin to empty threats.
I’ve heard tame ball pythons hiss when they’re taken out of their comfort zone (their enclosure). A ball python’s hiss, in my opinion, is more of a sigh than a warning.
|Stiffness||Ball pythons are essentially muscle covered in scales. As a result, we can tell a lot about them by how tense their muscles are.|
When threatened or on the defensive, ball pythons tense up. I wouldn’t recommend picking up a tense ball python, but if you did, they’d remain stiff.
When you pick them up, they become stiff. This is done so that they can be balanced and supported.
Ball pythons will also stiffen up in order to “buck” you. If they feel something uncomfortable on their lower body, they will stiffen their body to push it away.
It’s similar to the way we would kick.
|Yawning||Ball pythons yawning is a normal behavior after they have finished eating. Fun fact: ball pythons don’t yawn when they’re sleepy like we do. |
Another reason ball pythons yawn as a way to get more air into their windpipe. This usually happens when there is a more serious underlying issue with your snake.
Respiratory issues will cause your ball python to yawn as they try to breathe more air.
Yawning is a concern if you see it consistently, at other times besides after a meal. Usually this symptom is coupled with another symptom like stringy mucus in their mouth. This could be something serious and should be discussed with a local vet.
|Puffed up bodies||As previously stated, ball pythons do not have many defenses. They attempt to intimidate predators by puffing themselves up.|
This behavior is similar to heavy breathing. It appears that a ball python takes a deep breath and holds it in order to puff themselves up.
When scared or threatened, ball pythons will puff up their bodies. They should eventually relax, but be cautious because this indicates that they are very uncomfortable with whatever is going on around them.
|Periscoping||Many snakes, including ball pythons, will raise their heads and remain there. This is known as periscoping.|
Periscoping is a behavior shared by many snake species, but not all ball pythons will engage in it.
It’s just your ball python taking in their surroundings.
They usually do it when they’re relaxed, so don’t be alarmed if your ball python periscopes. Because their neck is already extended, they can’t even strike from that position.
|Balled up||Ball pythons are known for curling into a ball. When they are scared, they use this to defend themselves.|
When a ball python curls up defensively, it will be tightly curled with its heads protected in the center of the ball it forms.
This is usually done by young ball pythons, though some adults will do it as well. They usually relax and move out of that position after a while, but I’ve seen some ball pythons stay in that position for longer than a few minutes.
|S-coil||A ball python s-coil is the position they get in before they strike. |
Ball pythons frequently put their necks in an “S” position, but the s-coil before a strike is a little different. The “s” shape a ball python makes before striking is rigid and they will lock eyes on whatever it is they intend to strike.
|Not eating||Unfortunately, food strikes are common in ball pythons. A ball python will go off of food whenever they feel like it even if you have them on a diligent feeding schedule. |
Ball pythons not eating is nothing to be concerned about unless they lose a significant amount of weight after many missed feedings.
There are even times when both males and females will stop eating during breeding season.
|Blowing bubbles||Blowing bubbles is never a good sign for a ball python. If your ball python has bubbles in its nose then there is thick mucus in their airways. |
A study done on ball python respiratory infections showed symptoms of oral mucus, wheezing, and audible breathing with weight loss.1 Bubbles in the nose and mouth confirms your ball python has oral mucus.
If you see any signs of this take your ball python to the vet right away to get checked.
How to tell if my ball python is…
There’s no real way to understand a ball python’s emotions. There isn’t even proof that ball python’s have complex emotions like happiness, sadness, or anything beyond their basic needs of survival.
We can, however, say that ball python’s are the closest to “happy” when they are content and not in fear.
A “happy” ball python is one that is relaxed, well-fed, and has all of its needs met.
Ball pythons don’t have very many complex emotions but we can tell if one is stressed by their behavior.
We can tell animals are stressed when they are antsy especially if it’s not an ordinary behavior.
Ball pythons are timid creatures and spend most of their time in burrows hiding. A stressed ball python will be moving around constantly searching for something.
It’s normal for ball python’s to explore their enclosures a bit, but if you see them doing this outside of their normal behaviors, it calls for some concerns.
Be sure to check temperatures and humidity to make sure there is nothing that can cause your ball python stress.
Because ball pythons lack brows, their mouths can’t make complex movements, and they lack vocal chords, it’s difficult to understand their emotions.
However, we can tell when a ball python is scared.
Fear is a natural instinct in all animals that helps them survive in the wild. If animals were fearless, they’d be easy prey for any predator.
When a ball python believes it is in danger, we can tell. Ball pythons will flee if they feel threatened, so this is an indication that a ball python is scared.
Ball pythons have no eyelids so it’s hard to tell when they’re sleeping. I’ve had ball pythons for many years and still don’t know every time a ball python is sleeping.
When ball pythons sleep they don’t move much. They will be curled up, most likely in a warm spot, and not moving or flicking their tongue.
Once they wake up they’ll move, stiffen up or start flicking their tongue.
A ball python will show signs of hunger if they are constantly searching for a meal. This looks like your ball python crawling around flicking their tongues more often than normal.
Ball pythons are opportunistic eaters meaning they’ll eat whenever they’re given a chance.
There have been studies done on ball pythons that found that they become full around 6 hours after their meal and after 24 hours they become hungry again.2 If this study proved anything for us it is that ball pythons are almost always hungry.
This doesn’t mean that your ball python should be fed every day though and it’s all relative to how big their meal is.
Ball pythons will become obese if fed too much.
Anything abnormal – a sick ball python will act out of the ordinary. This is why it’s beneficial to understand your snake’s normal behaviors.
Once you have your ball python long enough, you’ll notice patterns in their behaviors and actions.
Any behavior out of the ordinary could be something serious. One of the most common illnesses for a ball python is a respiratory infection which can cause oral mucus, wheezing, and audible breathing with weight loss.
If you have suspicion your ball python is sick, it’s always good to contact your local vet.
Ball pythons are creatures with simple emotions. As far as we know, ball pythons only have the instinct to eat, sleep and reproduce.
While creating this dictionary of ball python behaviors, it’s obvious that ball pythons can feel much more than hunger and lethargy.
Observing your ball python and getting to know him/her will help you understand them in ways that this post can’t.
Remember that every snake is different and these definitions may not be true for your one-of-a-kind ball python.
- A case report of reptile-associated nidovirus (serpentovirus) in a ball python (Python regius) in Taiwan, Wen-Ta LI, Ming-Shiuh LEE, Yi-Chia TSENG, Ning-Ya YANG, https://doi.org/10.1292/jvms.20-0166
- Torben P. Nielsen, Magnus W. Jacobsen, Tobias Wang, Satiety and eating patterns in two species of constricting snakes, Physiology & Behavior, Volume 102, Issue 1, 2011, Pages 110-114, ISSN 0031-9384, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2010.09.001.