Burmese originated from Southeast Asia, although they have become an invasive species in Florida. These snakes are magnificent animals with beautiful brown and black markings. They make fascinating pets for the right owner. However, they are not suitable for beginners and are generally best left in the wild. They are massive snakes, both expensive to keep and potentially dangerous. Owners have died due to handling mistakes with these snakes. It's not easy to find someone to take a giant snake if you can no longer care for it, and Burmese pythons are relatively long-lived.
Scientific Name: Python bivittatus
Common Name: Burmese python
Adult Size: 15 to 20 feet long, up to 200 pounds
Life Expectancy: Usually about 25 years
Burmese Python Behavior and Temperament
Burmese pythons are one of the five largest snakes in the world. Compared to other giant snakes, they are generally considered docile. Hatchlings can be skittish but are usually readily hand-tamed.
Handle these snakes frequently from a young age, or else they will be challenging to hold as they get larger. Touch the snake gently but firmly and be persistent if it resists at first. Avoid handling your snake for a couple of days after feeding, or it may regurgitate.
These semiaquatic snakes are aggressive feeders. If you only handle your snake or open its enclosure at meals, your snake may associate you with food. Decondition this association by frequently holding the snake. If it strikes at you, or worse, tries to wrap itself around you, it can inflict serious injury. Always have a second person present when handling or feeding pythons longer than 8 feet. It doesn't take long for a full-grown Burmese python to overpower a person. If your python begins to wrap itself around you, immediately unwind it starting at the tail.
These pets require a lot of care and maintenance including regular cage cleaning, daily water container changes, and two people to provide food at mealtimes when they reach adult size.
Housing the Burmese Python
A 55-gallon tank works for a younger snake, but as the snake grows, you will need a more extensive and stronger enclosure. After the first couple of years, options include custom built wood and Plexiglass cages or modifying a large closet or room for your snake. These snakes are excellent escape artists and are very strong, so housing for these snakes must be substantial—at least 8 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet tall, strong, and very secure.
For young snakes, a half log or other hide sold at the pet store will work—even a cardboard box will suffice—but as they grow, you will have to be more creative. Plastic storage bins make good hides for larger snakes, simply cut an access hole in one side and making sure there are no sharp edges.
Your snake will need a sizable, sturdy water container. For young snakes, a heavy dog water bowl will suffice. Adults will need a plastic storage container, kitty litter box, or infant bathtub. Plastic containers are light and can tip over, so use massive rocks at the bottom to weigh them down.
You will need to spot clean the bedding or floor of the cage whenever they defecate. Clean the entire cage once a month. Change the water and clean out the container daily. Disinfect the enclosure with a water and vinegar solution and change out the bedding.
Reptiles are cold-blooded creatures that need to self-regulate their body temperature by moving between warmer and cooler spots in their habitat. Native to the rainforest, Burmese pythons need a daytime temperature of 85 to 88 F with a basking area at 90 to 93 F. The temperature can drop to 78 to 80 F at night. Use spotlights, ceramic heat elements, and heating pads to maintain temperatures, but shield or engage the lights to prevent burns. For large snakes, a pig heating blanket is a good option for maintaining temperature.
These snakes need a 10- to 12-hour cycle of light (10 hours in winter, 12 in summer). If lighting is sufficient from the sunlight streaming in through your windows, that should suffice. If not, switch on an incandescent lamp for 10 to 12 hours and account for the heat it adds to the enclosure. You can automate lights on a timer. Most nocturnal animals or animals that live beneath the rainforest canopy do not need ultraviolet light, although it cannot hurt to use a UVB (5.0) fluorescent light in the enclosure to provide vitamin D3, which aids in calcium absorption.
Maintain a 50 to 60 percent humidity level in the enclosure. To add moisture, you can spray or mist the cage several times a day. A hygrometer or humidity gauge will help you check moisture levels. As long as there is a water bowl large enough for the snake to submerge completely, the humidity should be adequate. If you notice that your snake is about to shed, you can provide a humidity retreat by placing damp sphagnum moss in a plastic container with a lid and cut a hole large enough for the snake to climb in and out.
Substrate is the bedding or lining for the bottom of your pet's cage. For hatchlings, use paper towels or unprinted paper to line the enclosure. For bigger snakes, indoor/outdoor carpeting is easier to maintain; keep a few pieces on hand and switch them out when it is time to clean and disinfect. You can also cut linoleum sheets to size; they are easy to clean and disinfect.
Food and Water
Burmese pythons are usually good eaters. Hatchlings can be fed one to two times per week with mice or fuzzy rats. As the snake grows, you will gradually increase the prey size to rats and eventually, rabbits. The prey should be no larger than the width of the snake.
Adult snakes only need to be fed every two weeks or so. Feed often enough to maintain optimum body condition; you should not be able to see the snake's ribs. It's essential to be careful not to overfeed them, or you will end up with an obese snake. Signs your snake may be overweight include noticeable scale separation, sunken spine, or "fat wrinkles." If your snake goes on an eating strike, it is not necessarily an illness; some snakes do not eat during seasonal changes, before shedding, or if their cage is not warm enough.
Younger snakes can be fed in their cage as long as they do not have a loose substrate at the floor of the enclosure that they might swallow along with the food item.
A dish of water should always be available for both drinking and soaking. It should be changed daily or immediately if the water gets soiled.
Common Health Problems
One of the most severe ailments to afflict the python and boa family of snakes is inclusion body disease. This fatal virus can spread from one snake to another, and its symptoms include abnormal shedding, anorexia, constipation, tremors, and loss of motor control. Many snakes with this disease starve to death because they can't digest any new food, even if force-fed.
Like other reptiles, Burmese pythons are susceptible to respiratory infections and mouth rot, or stomatitis. A snake with a respiratory infection will breathe with its mouth open or wheeze. Mouth rot will show as a reddish discoloration around and in the animal's mouth.
It's essential to have an exotics veterinarian who specializes in reptiles check your Burmese python annually for any signs of disease; many don't show symptoms until the animal has been suffering for some time.
Choosing Your Pet
The most important consideration when choosing a Burmese python is whether or not you have the time, space, and patience to care for it. Many owners become overwhelmed, resulting in captive-bred pythons being released into the wild—this is illegal.
The best way to get a Burmese python is through a reputable breeder who can tell you of any health issues the snake may have. You can potentially find a reputable breeder through an exotics vet, a referral from another local snake owner, or a regional reptile expo.
You can expect to pay $300 for hatchlings or juveniles and up to $20,000 for rare, uniquely patterned adults (morphs) or proven breeders.
A healthy Burmese python hatchling will have its unique coloring as soon as it comes out of the shell. Babies have the distinctive Burmese look, so do not believe anyone who tells you otherwise. If a snake appears lethargic, has redness around the mouth, or keeps their mouth agape, these are signs of potential illness.
Similar Species to Burmese Pythons
If Burmese pythons interest you, you may want to look into related species:
Otherwise, check out other types of reptiles and amphibians that can be your new pet.
Viral Diseases of Reptiles. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Bacterial Diseases of Reptiles. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Owning a Pet Snake. VCA Hospitals.