There are several varieties of boa constrictors found in the pet trade, including red-tail boas (Boa constrictor constrictor) and northern boas (Boa constrictor imperator). These snakes are native to parts of North, Central, and South America. Their care is fairly similar, and they tend to do well in captivity. While boas are generally quite docile in temperament, it is important to respect their inherent strength. Just as they constrict around their prey, they can wrap themselves tightly—and painfully—around you. However, with regular handling most boas learn to be comfortable around people. In fact, they can become quite tame and calm pets. And they are fairly low-maintenance snakes that don't need much in terms of daily care once you get their housing and feeding routine down.
Common Name: Boa constrictor
Scientific Names: Boa constrictor constrictor, Boa constrictor imperator
Adult Size: 8 to 10 feet long
Life Expectancy: 20 to 30 years on average
Boa Constrictor Behavior and Temperament
Boas are typically active, alert snakes. They might hiss or bite if they feel threatened, but consistent handling usually will make them tame and not so defensive. It’s important to know how to hold a boa, so it feels secure. One hand should be under its body near its head, and the other hand should be under the back half of its body. The boa might loosely wrap itself around you for added support, but it typically won’t constrict unless it feels alarmed or like it’s falling.
Housing the Boa Constrictor
While baby boa constrictors can be housed in glass aquariums, larger snakes will need a custom enclosure that's either commercially purchased or constructed at home. Boa constrictors are very powerful and will escape if given the chance, so enclosures must be secure. A good enclosure size for an adult boa constrictor is around 6 to 8 feet long, 2 to 3 feet wide, and 2 to 3 feet tall. The minimum size is around 10 square feet of floor space for a single snake.
Hide boxes are essential to make your snake feel secure. A minimum of two hides should be provided in the enclosure, one at each end of the temperature gradient. Hides can be half logs, commercial reptile caves, upside-down plastic containers with a hole cut in the side, or even cardboard boxes. Make sure they are not much larger than the snake, as a close fit will help the snake feel safe. They should be cleaned or replaced when they become soiled.
A cleaned and sterilized tree branch that's heavy enough to support the snake's weight should also be provided in the enclosure. Soak it in a bleach solution, rinse it very well, and dry it thoroughly before adding it if you got it from outside. Store-bought driftwood can also be used.
Boa constrictors come from tropical climates, so warm temperatures in their enclosures are essential. During the day, a temperature gradient between 82 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (28 to 32 degrees Celsius) should be maintained. Also, a basking spot of 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit (32 to 35 degrees Celsius) should be provided. At night, temperatures can drop to 78 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit (26 to 30 degrees Celsius).
The temperatures in your snake's cage are critical, so accurate thermometers with measurements in several locations of the enclosure (the warm end, cool end, and basking spot) are a must. A combination of incandescent bulbs, ceramic heating elements, and heating pads can be used to maintain the temperatures. Any bulbs or heating elements in the enclosure must be shielded to prevent burns, to which snakes are quite susceptible. Hot rocks should never be used.
Boas generally do not need any special UV lighting. Their diet should provide them with the vitamin D that they would produce from the sun's UV rays in the wild.
Maintain a humidity level in the enclosure of around 60% to 70%. Keeping a bowl of water in the enclosure can help to raise the humidity level, along with misting the area. The snake will likely climb into the water bowl for baths, so make sure it's sturdy and big enough. It should be cleaned regularly, as snakes will often defecate in the water. Shedding snakes can especially benefit from a bath to aid in the natural process.
A variety of materials, or substrates, can be used to line the bottom of boa constrictor enclosures. The substrate can help to mimic the snake's natural environment, and it will maintain some humidity. For young snakes, lining the cage with paper or paper towels is often the best option for easy cleaning. For adults, paper can also be used, as well as reptile carpet. The benefit of carpeting is pieces can be cut to fit the enclosure, and a soiled piece can be replaced with a spare while the soiled piece is cleaned and disinfected. Some owners also use reptile bark, though it can be expensive. Wood shavings are best avoided due to irritation concerns and the potential for accidental ingestion and impaction.
Food and Water
Young boas should be fed more frequently than adults. Small snakes can be fed every five to seven days, intermediate snakes every 10 to 14 days, and fully grown snakes every three to four weeks. Adjust feeding to maintain a good body condition in your snake. And keep in mind that many snakes in captivity are overfed, so obesity can be a problem.
Hatchling snakes can be fed mice and rabbits (one per feeding) as they grow larger. An adult boa constrictor will eat a few rats for a meal or one rabbit every month. Never feed a snake a prey item larger than its widest body part.
Moreover, avoid handling your snake for at least 24 hours after a meal, or regurgitation might occur. Boas generally like to hide with their prey to eat it. So don't be surprised if your snake disappears into a hide box with its meal, and you don't see it for a while.
Feeding time is when the most care is required for handling boa constrictors (as with any other snake). Do not feed by hand, as this increases the risk of accidental bites if they mistake fingers for food. And wash your hands well after handling food, or the snake might strike at your hand. A handling stick can help to push the snake away from the cage door at feeding time to prevent problems.
Common Health and Behavior Problems
The most serious disease that can affect boa constrictors is inclusion body disease, or IBD. This is a fatal retrovirus that's similar to HIV in humans. An infected snake can appear healthy, as the virus can lay dormant for several years.
Symptoms of IBD include a boa breathing with its mouth open, poor appetite, and excessive amounts of saliva. In advanced cases, IBD can cause snakes to lose control of their bodily movements. Housing your boa constrictor in separate enclosures from other snakes is a way to prevent the spread of IBD; it can be transmitted from snake to snake via mites, which carry infected bodily fluids.
Boas are also susceptible to respiratory infections, mostly resulting from insufficiently heated enclosures. The signs of a respiratory infection include wheezing, nasal discharge, and holding its head up for long periods. If you see a foamy substance coming from a boa's mouth, this might be a sign of pneumonia, which requires immediate treatment.
Finally, poor husbandry practices can lead to scale rot and blister disease in boa constrictors. Blister disease can appear like burns on the snake's skin and is usually caused by overheated cages or a lack of humidity. Scale rot usually indicates a breakdown of the immune system. Both of these skin conditions require treatment by a specialist.
Choosing Your Boa Constrictor
When you are ready to purchase your pet boa constrictor, know how to identify a healthy snake. Some of the signs include:
- Firm and muscular body
- No loose folds of skin
- Tongue flicking
- Clear eyes
- No signs of a retained shed (check the eyes and the end of the tail)
- No visible external parasites
- Clean vent
- Healthy scales with no brown or curled edges
- No wounds on the skin
- Reacts to handling by coiling firmly (but not tightly) on the hand/arm and eventually relaxing a bit
As with other reptiles, it's best to choose a captive-bred specimen, and boa breeders are fairly easy to find given the animal's popularity. Captive-bred boas are generally healthier and more docile than their wild-caught counterparts. The prices can widely vary, depending on the type. But many varieties commonly kept as pets cost around $50 to $200.
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Red Tail Boas. Cascade Kennels
Simard, Jules et al. Prevalence Of Inclusion Body Disease And Associated Comorbidity In Captive Collections Of Boid And Pythonid Snakes In Belgium. PLOS ONE, vol 15, no. 3, 2020, p. e0229667. Public Library Of Science (Plos), doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0229667