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Pet Blood Pythons

Blood Python article courtesy of Reptiles Magazine, January 2003
by Robyn Markland- Pro Exotics Reptiles (reprinted with permission of the author)

I used to be scared of the Bloods. Back in my early days (1993, not  exactly an "old timer") I didn't have a feel for snakes at all, much  less the aggressive, nasty, face grabbing, sewer spewing, temperamental Blood pythons! But they were a part of our new collection at Pro Exotics, and Chad Brown, my partner in herps, thought that they were one of the snakes of the future.

My early attempts at handling the  Blood pythons were marked by fear (mine), hesitancy (mine), no  confidence (mine), and a throttling death grip (also mine). "Stop  throttling the animal!" was the instruction hollered my way on more than a few dozen occasions.

Back then, I was a full believer in the  Blood reputation. Everyone that I knew was scared to death of these snakes, and most of the specimens, fat, scarred, ornery, wild caught  specimens, really did their part to reinforce that reputation. Whenever I worked with those particular animals, I knew that I was going to get  bit, or get "showered", one way or the other, I was going to pay the  price.

But then with time, things changed...

The more time I spent with the reptiles, snakes in particular, I started to  understand that the problems that I encountered were largely my own problems. I saw confident keepers around me, Chad, Kamuran Tepedelen,  handle the "monsters" with a confidence and assurance that seemed not only easier, but with a better understanding between themselves and the  animals. I began to realize that the "nightmare" of working with the  Bloods was more so my own baggage, and less the actual attitude and aggressiveness of the animal.

At this point in my reptile career, I can more fully appreciate the subtle differences between different types of snakes, I can more fully appreciate a more subtly complicated  animal like a Blood python, and WOW, the Bloods are some wonderful  creatures!

That is not to say the Bloods are a great beginner python however. I certainly do feel that the Blood pythons are a hearty, predictable, easy to handle snake, but you have to maintain perspective, these are still by no means corn snakes.

The Blood  pythons are generally a shy, defensive baby. They can be easily stressed, and often react to that stress by not eating, having bad sheds, and just generally not thriving. This is why they are not really a beginner snake, but rather for an intermediate keeper that has a couple of solid "snake years" under his/her belt.

You have to be able  to read and react with this animal. Bloods are not corns, or Burms, where a strong personality, feeding response, and heartiness will help bail you out of ignorant mistakes. With a Burmese python, you can fudge  the temperatures a bit, you can go without a hide spot, and offering  rats OR mice will often get you a strong instinctive feeding strike. You can have less than ideal conditions with your Burm, and the animal will tolerate it for quite some time before really making you pay the price. You cannot make these same simple mistakes with baby Bloods.

If your temperatures are not within an ideal range, or if you fail to offer such a basic need as a proper hidespot, your Blood can turn a negative  corner very quickly. An experienced keeper should be able to "read"  their animal and interpret what is being offered, and correct the situation quickly. An experienced keeper knows how important cage  temperatures and hot spots can be, and they have detailed knowledge of  the temperature layout of each given cage. An experienced keeper knows how to quickly and properly acclimate a newly received python, a period  that is very important when working with a brand new baby Blood python.

The most common stress that I hear about from new Blood python owners is that very acclimation period after receiving a new baby through  overnight delivery (this period is stressful for both the snake, and the new owner).

When receiving a new animal, it is best to have a  cage setup and ready, with the proper temps, hidespots and water bowl all prepared. You cannot expect your new Blood python to simply "settle  in" when you haven't even balanced out your heat pad, overhead light, and substrate, or you haven't bothered to pick up a new water bowl and  hidespot yet. Do your homework and be prepared, your new Blood python is going to have no patience for your mistakes.

At Pro Exotics, we set up our Blood python babies as simply as possible. You want to  eliminate as many negative variables as possible in order to maximize the effectiveness of your acclimation period.

Once again, Blood  python babies are more sensitive, and insecure, than other popular pet  snakes, so they do best with simple, tight, confining cages that offer  security and sense of protection and well being. We like to start out  our babies in Sterilite sweaterboxes. These cages are 11 inches wide, 16 inches long, and about 4 inches deep. For the first few months of acclimation, your baby or juvie will do best in a tighter setup, as  opposed to a wide open 55 gallon tank or 3 ft cage.

We use newspaper for a substrate, and we provide a water bowl, as well as a 6 inch deli cup filled with moist sphagnum moss. A proper hide spot is also important, and for baby Bloods, 4-6 inch clay plant bases work very well in providing the tight, dark, confining hide spot that snakes seem most comfortable in (see the FAQ on PE's Hide Spot Theory).

We have used different substrates in the past, most recently cypress mulch. While the Bloods do indeed do well in a higher humidity environment,  too much humidity, too much wetness, can do just as much damage as good. Time and time again, we return to a simple paper substrate, as the animals just seem to thrive on a dry, clean, simple surface. In order to increase the humidity in the cage, and offer a moist retreat for the animal, we offer a "hide spot" filled with moist sphagnum moss, and the Bloods are left to choose the preferred substrate for themselves,  spending time in each.

Temperatures for the Blood pythons are pretty straightforward. For the babies, we use heat tape on our  sweaterbox racks to provide a hot spot in the very low 90's. The ambient temperature during the day stays in the low to mid 80's, and our night time drops dip down into the high 70's.

For our adult Blood  python setups, we use Vision caging, in both the 4 ft. (48"x18"x24") and 4 « ft. (54"x18"x36") size. Newspaper substrate again, but in these  cages we use multiple hide spots, a water bowl, and a large sphagnum  box. We use Helix radiant heat panels to create a mid 90 degree basking spot, and our ambient temps again run in the low to mid 80's. Our hide spots (tight! dark! form fitting!) are split to either side of the cage, with the water bowl in the middle. This allows for the adult animals to choose a comfortable and necessary temperature (either warmer or  cooler) and yet still feel safe and secure in a solid hiding spot.

Be careful when using the sphagnum setup for your adult Bloods for a number of reasons. You don't want it to get too wet. First of all, they  have a much larger body mass than the tiny babies. This means that they  have more reserves to rely on in terms of hydration. Over the years, we have found that you are more likely to run into problems with TOO MUCH humidity (skin problems, blistering) rather than too little. We also have a naturally high humidity in the cage as it is setup anyway. We  have heat coming down from above, a water bowl that is constantly evaporating and adding moisture to the environment, and an entire facility filled with reptile cages that mimic this same setup. It all  adds up to a snake room that is generously warm and humid, even for those on "dry" newspaper setups. When you only have a couple of cage  setups in a common living room in your home, you may indeed have to take steps to bring the general humidity up in your environment. But if you  have ever walked into the facility of a large breeder, with hundreds of cages, you are familiar with the thickness and humidity of the  environment.

Another important factor in keeping our Bloods hydrated is our soaking program. We soak our adult Bloods once a week  for about an hour, in Rubbermaid sweaterboxes filled with room  temperature water (keep in mind that our room temperatures are low  80's). This regular soaking helps keep the animals well hydrated, and  also keeps sheds going smoothly, and Blood python skin in tip-top shape. No stuck sheds, no retained eyecaps, no ring tail, our regular soaking program is an important part of our husbandry program, and we use it for many other reptiles in our facility as well.

Baby Bloods start  feeding well on appropriately sized rodents, but they seem to be most fond of rat pups. We offer the babies pre-killed rat fuzzies for a first meal, sized so that the girth of the pup is about the same as the girth of the baby Blood at its widest point. After two or three meals, we  switch over to frozen/thawed rats, as we feel that is the safest, and most economical choice for our babies. Pinkie mice are for baby corn snakes, baby Bloods take a good sized rat fuzzy (or small adult mouse) as a first meal.

That first meal comes before the first shed. Somewhat unusual in the snake world, baby Bloods can take up to three or four months before going through their very first shed, so we offer a first meal at a more traditional one to two weeks after hatching.

Baby bloods can be pretty defensive, and it is fairly easy to get them fired up. Offer the prey item on a pair of hemostats, holding it steadily in  front of the nose of the Blood. They are much better shots than baby Ball pythons, and will typically hit the prey item within a few seconds  of presentation. For those shyer animals that won't take it from the  hemostats, we place the rat pup (pre-killed) in front of the opening of the hide spot, and leave it to be eaten in the quiet of the night.

Feeding can be the most frustrating part of acclimating a newly received baby  Blood, and there are a couple of steps you can take to improve your animal's feeding response.

First of all, buy your new baby from a reputable breeder! The initial effort and work that goes into a newly hatched baby Blood is very important to the future success of each  hatchling. Buy your animal from a breeder that is offering well started babies, feeding weekly on either rats or mice, and try to get an animal  that is at least 2-3 months old, so that it has had 6-8 solid meals  before it arrives at your door.

Now lots of dealers will tell you what you want to hear, and it can be difficult to pick the right one to do business with, but use your best judgment. A good breeder should be  able to tell you everything about your new animal. Hatch dates (within a week or two if it is a farm hatched baby) feeding schedules, proper  temperatures and husbandry, etc. Never buy an animal from an individual  or store that cannot give you specifics on how to properly care for that animal, or someone that tells you to "go ask Pro Exotics/VPI/Python Pete how to set this up" (we hear that all the time). Buy from someone with a solid reputation and lots of experience, so that in case you do have any troubles with your animal, you have a solid reference to fall back on and get help from.

Once your have received your new Blood python baby, place it in its new home (already temped out and ready to  go, right?!?). Let it settle in for a few days before messing with it too much. This acclimation period is important. Let the animal find its  new favorite hidespot, and let it explore its cage in the dark (and safety) of the night. Only handle the animal for cleaning or health  purposes, as your interactive handling will come later.

Your next step will be to start on your feeding schedule. We feed our baby Bloods once a week, and that is a fine maintenance diet that will start your  new baby growing strong. Once the animal has had a week or so to settle  in, pick your regular feeding day, whether it be every Friday, or every Tuesday, and offer your first meal.

At Pro Exotics, we feed  thawed rats to our baby Bloods, and thawed prey items would be our first choice for our customers to start with. Offer the prey item on a hemostat as earlier described, and have patience!

A new cage, a  new hidespot, a new owner, maybe even a new dog sniffing around every morning can be very stressful for a newly acquired snake, it can take a  few moments, or a few days, before your lovely new beauty stirs up the  confidence to strike at a prey item on the end of a long, stainless steel claw (I know you are not dumb enough to hold the rat in your  fingers.).

Take your time in offering the prey item, try not to rush the snake. Bopping a common boa on the head with a thawed mouse will often get you a solid feeding strike, doing the same with a baby Blood will get you nothing but one scared reptile. Hold the rat steady and still in front of the nose of the animal, "following" it around for a moment if need be. Give it a three or four minutes, and if you get no  response, try again later.

Evaluate any failure. Is your baby Blood in shed? Does it have good hidespots in its cage for security and a sense of well being? Does it look active and alert in the first place? Or does it look more scared and frightened? Would you have better  success feeding in the dark and quiet of the night? Is your prey item fully thawed and freshly appealing? All of these details can play a  factor in eliciting a strong feeding response.

If you don't get a strong initial response, there are a couple of things to try right  away. The first is not to rush the animal. Try your initial feeding only once a day, or once every three days. Offering a prey item to a  stressed out snake four times a day for a week straight is going to set you back, not move you forward.

Also try feeding at night. Baby  Bloods are a shy snakes, and while you might WANT to actually see them  eat, they most likely DON'T WANT you to watch. They are most vulnerable to predators in the middle of a meal, so take your predatory nosiness in the living room, and let your baby eat at its own pace in solitude.  Another simple trick along these same lines is using newspaper to cover the glass of the animal's enclosure. Taking away most of the outside visual movement can help to settle a rattled Blood python's nerves. Once you have had three or four successful meals, you can start to pull away the paper, and your newly confident snake should continue to thrive.

While we have found that 95% of our baby Bloods prefer rats for food, some babies may show a preference for mice. Mice and rats smell completely  different to most snakes, and they may prefer one over the other. Check  with your breeder for specific details on previous feeding techniques and offered prey items (rats or mice) for your particular animal, but after a couple of weeks, if a rat pup gets you no response, try an appropriately sized mouse in a future attempt.

Working with a stubborn feeder, or an anorexic animal, is largely dependent on the  skill of the keeper. In most cases, the reasons a snake won't eat have  more to do with improper setup, care, and basic husbandry, than they do  with health problems, and it is your job as a keeper to learn to read your animals and react to their needs accordingly. Feeding baby Bloods  may be a breeze at Pro Exotics, but an unfamiliar and intimidating  nightmare for a neophyte keeper who has previously only worked with two  voracious corn snakes.

Once your new baby has had half a dozen  meals, you should be able to start your personal interaction. Feeding strongly for 6-8 weeks is a good sign that the animal is really starting to acclimate, really starting to settle in to its new environment. It  is important to reach this stage in the acclimation process before too  much handling, as being in your hot little hands is an entire new stress again for a Blood python.

Most Blood python babies are pretty  jumpy. They have a short period of patience, and they will be eager to  let you know of their discomfort or displeasure. Baby Bloods may hiss,  bite, or "spray" (or perhaps all three) to let you know that your time  is up. While it is not very pleasant to deal with these "personality  traits", it really isn't difficult either.

A simple leather glove will work wonders when handling your babies. A leather glove hides the  heat of your hand, leaving a fired up baby very little to target and  strike at, and it also protects your skin in the event of a defensive bite.

Most of the baby Bloods will give you a window of  opportunity to work without too much trouble, and during your acclimation period, you will have to learn to take advantage of it. When handling a Blood python, baby or adult, you have to have the confidence to disregard hyperbole and old school reputation. VERY few Blood pythons will react violently when picked up properly, confidently and  safely.

Start by picking up your animal (baby or adult) at the mid body. Use a "scooping" motion with one hand and either support the middle weight of the animal (with an adult), or the majority of the  balanced weight (for babies and juvies). Your other hand should support the second half of the animal, above the tail. Bloods can be very head  shy, and when you start to cheat a little, by grabbing at the head, or  trying to "support" the high neck, you are asking for trouble.

Many neophyte keepers (myself formerly included) find an overwhelming desire to "control the head". That is the part that bites, right? That is the  most common mistake. If you actually try and restrain the head of the animal, you will only accomplish two things. First, you will make the  animal VERY defensive, and actually start to encourage a strike, and  secondly, simply trying to "hold" the head can start the animal into  violent twisting convulsions, and with your ever tightening "throttle grip" (trying to maintain some type of control), you will put the animal in a dangerous situation where you may actually snap the spine of the animal. There are ways to subdue and control Blood pythons under the necessary circumstances (typically medicating or probing for sex), throttling the animal and having it flop about in the air is not one of  them.

If you "hold" (support is a better word) your baby properly, you will have a minute or two of angelic sweetness to do your  business. Place the animal in a holding container for cage cleaning, or  soaking, or whatever the current task is, and get to work. If you insist on holding the animal for a longer period, they will typically run out  of patience, and start on their three "options of discouragement" (hiss, bite, or spray) to get your clueless butt to return them to their home. Between you and I, I would rather take a rather harmless bite from a baby Blood than get sprayed in the chest (or face) with hot sticky yuckies. Understand and accept this nearly universal acclimation process, and you and your baby Blood will get along famously.

A  series of successful (strong) feedings is a significant step. A series  of successful (uneventful) cage cleanings is another. As time rapidly passes, your new animal will become much more familiar, and comfortable, with your daily interaction, and at that point you can begin to handle the animal for longer periods, with little or no concern for fits of  defensive behavior.

Few reptiles are as visually impressive as a full sized adult Red Blood python. All of our adult breeder Bloods are a complete joy to work with. They are one of the most popular snakes in  our facility, and every employee has come to really appreciate the  Bloods for what they are, a good sized snake with overwhelming,  impressive beauty. None of our adults are "mean" or "aggressive", they  are in fact all quite tractable and predictable, and while they will  never be "corn snake tame", they are as easy to hold and carry ("Don't throttle it! Don't throttle it!") as any of the other boas and pythons that we have in the collection.

The Blood python babies are more challenging than some snakes, but with the right approach, the right understanding and appreciation for the animal at hand, they reward a  committed keeper with the full reptile experience, going from a feisty  and fat youngster, to a full bodied (okay, fat) impressive, tame adult, with a subtle personality that simply cannot be communicated in words.  Blood pythons will always be a favorite at Pro Exotics, and I am just glad to have the opportunity to work with such a wonderful, complex reptile.
c 2002-2003 Pro Exotics Inc

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