Caring for the Boa Constrictor Snake
This page belongs to our "exotic pets series" articles which are not dedicated to fish, but in this case to caring for snakes known as Boa Constrictor! You're welcome to share your experiences at the bottom of this page!
The Boa Constrictor snake has to be one of the most well known names that people can relate to when discussing these creatures. They are a very large snake, some adults reaching up to 13 feet, females tend to be larger then the males, the average length balancing out to up to 10 feet for a female with the males maxing out at an average length of 8 feet. They are closely related to the Anaconda snakes but definitely do not reach such a large size when they mature.
They are to be found in many areas of Central America as well as the North and South of America, populations are also to be found on the Caribbean islands.
It is recognised that there are several sub-species but for the purpose of this article we will discuss the general care of the Boa Constrictor as a whole and their unique characteristics cover all of the sub-species.
As the name suggests they kill their prey by constricting them but they also pack a powerful bite when the prey is initially grasped. Once a firm hold is achieved they then wrap their bodies around the prey squeezing them until the victim suffocates as it is unable to breathe.
One of the most noticeable features has to to be the shape of their heads, it is arrow shaped and there are distinctive stripes that run along the top of the head. Body colouration can vary from the locality of the specimen but the most common background colourations tend to be brown, grey or cream, this is broken up with saddle colours of red or brown that are more pronounced towards the rear of the body and certainly at the tail.
The Boa constrictor in the wild is a bit of a loner, they do not live together in groups but individual specimens will live a solitary life only meeting other Boa constrictors during the breeding season. They will become extremely tame when kept in captivity, captive bred specimens should have no fear of humans and soon recognise their keeper, this makes them a very popular choice for keepers but they are not recommended for young keepers due to their size.
They can tolerate a wide range of habitats but prefer to inhabit the tropical rain forests with trees and fauna providing excellent camouflage for them, but Boa constrictors can also be found in arid sandy deserts where there is very little cover, they not only inhabit trees and high places but also find out burrows that have been created by small mammals to use as their home and a hiding place when looking for food. They are a very patient hunter, often waiting for hours for a victim to come along but once food is in sight, they can move quickly striking out and grasping their prey so that their next meal cannot escape.
Care for these snakes in the home is not too difficult but if given the incorrect living conditions they can take on a pale and washed out appearance, provide the correct conditions and they will be long lived and display a magnificent colouration.
When purchasing your Boa constrictor always examine the snake, make sure that there are no lumps on the body and that there are no sores around the rear vent or around the mouth, the eyes should be clear and the snake when first picked up should be sniffing the air with its tongue.
Caring for the Boa constrictors
One of the major tasks in keeping your Boa long lived and healthy is providing the correct living conditions, the size of the enclosure should be large enough to allow your snake to move around freely ans also allow you to get your hands in there when performing the regular cleaning tasks.
Smaller snakes are usually kept in glass aquariums with a suitable lid, don’t forget that snakes are excellent escape artists so you may even have to weight the lid down as they are also strong creatures. A 20 gallon tank will house a juvenile specimen but for larger specimens many keepers will construct their own enclosure by using a wood frame with perspex sides, if built correctly these enclosures will last for years, do not forget these snakes do grow very large so minimum size for an adult should be at least six feet in length and two feet in width.
A suitable substrate will need to be used , this can be simply old newspaper or even paper towelling, old carpets have been used by many keepers and these first choices make keeping the substrate clean a lot easier as they are easily removed and replaced with a clean substrate. If you wish the enclosure to have a more natural look then you can also use cypress bark but you will need to keep a close eye on this when it becomes soiled and replace it on a regular basis.
For a longer term substrate you can also use old linoleum or even astroturf, the astroturf can also give quite a natural effect.
All snakes need a place to hide away so you will need to provide this, it doesn’t have to be anything spectacular, an old cardboard box upturned will suffice or a plastic container. As long as the hide is only slightly larger than the coiled size of the Boa it will be ideal, the Boa needs to feel snug in its hide, if it is too large then it may not settle. Make sure that an entrance is provided that is large enough for the snake to enter with ease ans also make sure that the hide gets cleaned on a regular basis, if using an old box this can simply be discarded and replaced with a fresh one.
A water bow must also be provided, not only will your snake take the occasional drink but they also love to bathe. Because of this the water bowl should be large enough to allow for the bathing but it must also be secure, a wider and shallower bowl is better suited for this purpose. Do not overfill the bowl, snakes can drown if the water depth is too high, replace the water on a daily basis as the snake may also use the water bowl as a toilet and foul the water.
Boa constrictors also love to climb so the addition of some branches will help to exercise your Boa, the branches should be cleaned thoroughly before using them and they must be able to support the weight of you snake. They will need to be fixed securely in the enclosure to prevent them from toppling over.
Boa constrictors come from tropical climates where the temperature is high as is the humidity, this will need to be replicated in the enclosure. The temperature needs to be kept at a range between 28-32°C (82-90°F), during the night time the temperature will probably drop by a few degrees but never allow it to drop to low. Any artificial heating must be thermostatically controlled and it must also be situated in a safe position to prevent your Boa from getting burns from the direct heat.
Heat mats can be used but rather than placing them under the floor of the enclosure it may be better to mount them on the outer side of the back of the enclosure, the heat mat should be placed at one end only as you need to provide a warm area and a col area, allowing your Boa to decide in which area it wishes to be. The more common method used nowadays is to place a light bulb at the top of the enclosure to provide the heat. Heat lamps are more efficient but as with the heat pads must be controlled by a thermostat. Any bulbs that are used must be covered over with a guard to protect your snake, many units are now sold with the guards already fitted.
To monitor the temperature in the enclosure place a reliable thermometer at each end, this makes life easy to keep a close watch on any temperature fluctuations and also to ensure that the thermostats are set at the correct level.
As mentioned above the humidity is also important and does need to be kept at a high level to keep your Boa happy. You should aim for a humidity level of at least 60% and there are several ways to maintain this. Regular spraying of the enclosure will help with the humidity as will adding another water bowl inside, slightly dampening the substrate lightly can also be a method that is used by some keepers but never leave the substrate soaking wet. If too much humidity is escaping from the enclosure you can partially cover the top of the enclosure over but make sure that there is still ample ventilation inside. Like the temperature, the humidity can also be monitored by the use of a reliable monitor that are quire cheap to purchase and these will produce a digital readout of the humidity level.
Feeding the Boa constrictor
Feeding your Boa constrictor is not a difficult task, the size of the food is relative to the size and age of your Boa constrictor. Juvenile Boa will be quite happy with a diet of “pinkie mice or baby rats, the food should be freshly de-frosted or freshly killed, feeding live food can run the risk of the prey biting back with their teeth especially when the Boa matures and larger foods are offered. The size of the meal should be no larger than the size of the girth of your snake at the mid point. As the snake grows and matures adult rats can be used as a food source, for very large Boa some keepers will even feed young rabbits.
Boas up to 3 months old should be fed once every 4-5 days, over 3 months but less than 1 year old should be fed once every week with young rats. Over a year old the feeds can be reduced to once a fortnight with adult rats , if feeding young rabbits a feed of once a month will also be ample. Take care not to overfeed your Boa or they will become obese and never prepare the food with bare hands and then handle the snake. The smell of the food will be on your hands and your Boa may mistake your hand as a food source and attempt to bite you, wear surgical gloves when handling the food and place it overnight into the enclosure, if the food has not been eaten by the morning then remove it.
Shedding the skin
Boa constrictors like all other snakes can only grow by shedding their skins, the skin is not elastic to allow it to stretch with the growth so is discarded from time to time allowing a fresh skin to emerge. This is technically known as “Ecdysis” and occurs at a faster rate with juvenile specimens as their growth rate is much faster than with more mature specimens, while the shedding process is occurring the snake is sometimes referred to as being in the “blue” condition. With juveniles the skin may be shed once a month where older snakes may only shed their skins 3-4 times per year. The Boa may darken in colour while the shedding is taking place and the snake will be placed under a certain amount of stress until the shedding is complete, because of this do not attempt to handle the snake and stop feeding until the old skin has been shed completely. The eyes may take on a misty appearance as the old skin starts to peel and the Boa will secrete fluids that help to loosen the old skin, misting on a more regular basis will also aid the shed by keeping the snake moist. Use warm water in the misting bottle as cold water can shock the Boa and if the shed is successful without any problems then the old skin should be shed in one compete piece. If there are certain patches of the old skin that appear to be fast then bathing the snake should help to dislodge these, never attempt to pull off the old skin manually as the new skin underneath may not be ready yet and you can cause sores and injuries to your snake.
Breeding the Boa constrictor
As expected, to breed these snakes you must have a male and female boa constrictor, this may seem an obvious fact but sexing these snakes is not that easy so acquiring this skill early on in your knowledge of caring for these snakes will certainly prove to be useful. Experienced keepers will know how to sex the Boa so purchasing from these keepers does pay dividends especially if breeding is your long term plan.
The most common method of sexing is to use a metal probe that has been lubricated, this is then inserted into the cloaca of the snake and the length that it can enter without a lot of pressure will determine the sex. With females the probe may only enter a few millimetres but with males the probe will enter a lot deeper.
If you have adult specimens of the same age then females are expected to grow larger than the males but this method cannot be as reliable as with using a probe.
The female is introduced to the male but this does not always mean that breeding will take place, you may have to introduce the snakes several times before the male shows any interest in the female. When he does show interest he will wave his tongue all over the female but she will try to escape away from him, he will then follow her in the enclosure until she stops the escaping. The male will then entwine his tail around the female’s and attempt to insert his hemipenis into her cloaca, this can last for a few minutes or a matter of hours, there are no set rules on the courtship time.
Even if breeding has taken place, you cannot guarantee that it was successful but signs of the female being gravid are a growth in the size of the girth and the female may suddenly lose her appetite, keep offering her food even if she does refuse it most of the time, there will be times when she may accept it. A gravid female may also darken in colouration and lay with her belly on the side. The average gestation period is approximately just over 120 days and when it comes to the time of giving birth the female will deposit the eggs with are made up from a leathery shell that the young need to emerge from using their egg tooth. There may be some eggs that are infertile and these are known as “slugs”, do not remove these straight away until you are definitely sure that there are no young inside.
The hatchlings are free spirits from the start, they only remain with their mother for a few hours in the wild, they will not eat for the first couple of weeks and after this time they will shed their skin for the first time, this is when the first feeds should be provided.
For the health of the juveniles it is wise to give them a clean when they first hatch and snip the cord and tie it off. The cord site should then be treated with a suitable antiseptic powder that is available from most reptile stores.
Health problems you may encounter
Regurgitating can be a very common problem with the Boa and is often a result of too large a food being offered to the snake, it can sometimes be the result of incorrect conditions inside the enclosure. Occasionally the snake will regurgitate but this should not happen on regular basis. Feed smaller foods and improve the cleanliness of the enclosure, make sure that the temperature and humidity levels are in the correct range.
Unfortunately condition s in the enclosure are also ideal conditions for bacteria to thrive, respiratory infections can occur where the snake may gasp when breathing or a liquid discharge can be seen from the mouth and nostrils, digestive problems from a bacterial infection can show symptoms such as diarrhoea or a loss of appetite. Antibiotics are the best cure for these problems so a visit to a qualified veterinary surgeon is advised.
Mites can be another problem, they are not always visible to the naked eye especially if they are juvenile mites but the adults can be seen as red spots under the scales of the snakes. They tend to feed on the snake blood during the night hours so even if you cannot spot them in the daytime they may be hiding in dark corners of the enclosure waiting for their next feed. They can be eradicated by the use of a parasitic spray but to be totally sure that they have been eradicated completely the veterinary surgeon can inject the snakes to clear them up. A good cleaning of the enclosure on a regular basis and the use of the spray around the enclosure should allow you to keep these pests away.
Boa constrictors are a long term commitment and do grow to a large size, make sure that you have the budget and the facilities to care for these snakes correctly, if not it is definitely not worth trying to cut corners. Much better to leave them to experienced keepers to care for if you cannot do this yourself.
If handling the snake always act in a confident manner so that the Boa learns to trust you, startling your snake with sudden movements will make your snake nervous and can cause stress to your snake.
If you are unsure about a potential health problem with your snake always take them for advice to a veterinary surgeon who can help you and deal with any potential problem quickly.
Always wash your hands after handling, all reptiles can pass on diseases if hygiene is not observed correctly.