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Captive care of the Boa Constrictor Subspecies.

Ophelia, female albino Bci

What are Boa Constrictors and how are they different from Pythons?

Boa constrictors are a species of snake common in the pet trade. In nature, they range from northern Mexico, throughout most of Central and South America, and as far south as Argentina. There are many subspecies of Boa Constrictor, but for the sake of simplicity, this care sheet focuses on the two most common:

Boa Constrictor Imperators (or BCI for short) are the most common boas. They include all the Boas from Central America, the Caribbean Isles, and Colombia. While Colombian Boas are the most common species available, many of the Central American species are gaining popularity. Colombian Boas reach a maximum adult size of 6-7 feet for males and 7-9 feet for females. Some of the localities of BCI reach smaller sizes such as the popular Hog Island boa. Males of this locality rarely (if ever) exceed 6 feet.

Boa Constrictor Constrictors (or BCC) are also known as "True Redtails". They range from western Colombia through Guyana, Venezuela, and Suriname. They tend to be larger with maximum adult sizes ranging from 7-9 feet for males and 8-12 feet for females. Their colors tend to have higher contrast and their tails do tend to be a bit redder than BCI. I have heard reports of them being slightly more aggressive than BCI, but I have never actually observed this behavior. It is generally held that BCI make better first Boas.

Pythons are "Old World" snakes meaning they come from the Eastern Hemisphere. They range from Africa, throughout Asia, and on into Australia. The main biological difference between pythons and boas is that pythons lay eggs and boas give birth to live young.

The average life span of a boa in captivity is 20 - 30 years. Healthy boas will live this long in captivity with proper care.

What kind of enclosure is needed to house a Boa Constrictor?

In the wild, boas are "semi-arboreal" meaning they spend part of their time on the ground and part of the time in trees. In captivity, you will rarely see a boa climbing, but I suggest providing branches for them anyway. Driftwood is wonderful for this. The rule of thumb for boa enclosures is to provide 1 square foot of floor space per foot of snake. An enclosure that is 1-2 foot high provides adequate height. For newborn snakes, a shoebox sized Sterilite or Tupperware box is adequate. For boas up to 3 feet in length, you can use a 20-gallon long aquarium. Larger snakes need larger enclosures, and a snake up to 7 foot in length can live happily in a 4-ft X 2-ft X 2-ft enclosure. There are several types of enclosures available. Many sizes of aquariums exist to suit your boa's needs, and there are several manufactures of Reptile enclosures using materials like wood, melamine, or plastic. I am personally sold on the plastic enclosures offered by Jeff Ronne. You can see them at www.boaphileplastics.com.

How do you heat the enclosure?

Heating the enclosure can be accomplished a variety of ways depending on your style of enclosure. A human heat mat placed under half of the enclosure and set on low or medium is usually all it takes. You can also use incandescent lights, ceramic heat emitters, or radiant heat panels. The goal is to get the air temperature to have a gradient of 86-88 on the warm side and 78-80 on the cool side. This way your snake can control his own temperature simply by moving to various sides of the enclosure (called thermoregulation). Nighttime temperatures should fall approximately 4 degrees on both sides. An accurate thermometer is a must. I would suggest placing a digital thermometer 1inch above the substrate on each side of the enclosure.

How do I get the humidity right?

The Humidity should be between 50-60%. This can be accomplished a variety of ways. I suggest putting a large water dish on the warm side of the enclosure. When the water evaporates, you get instant humidity. You can also mist the air under a heating lamp if you need added moisture. A thermometer with an onboard hygrometer to measure the humidity in the enclosure can be purchased at your local Radio Shack or pet shop.

What type of substrate should you use?

There are many acceptable types of substrates available. Do not use Cedar bark, Pine bark, or any substrate containing cedar or pine oils. These types of substrates are harmful to the skin and respiratory systems of reptiles. If you decide to breed your own rats or mice, they should also not be kept on this type of substrate.

Aspen shavings make a good substrate as does cypress mulch. If you use a loose substrate such as these it is very important that you feed your snake in a separate enclosure to assure that they do not accidentally ingest any of the substrate.

Astroturf or reptile carpet is a good substrate, but it needs to be cleaned and disinfected frequently. You should always have enough on hand to replace the substrate quickly when it becomes soiled. It is also a bit expensive and should be replaced when the tips of the "grass" begin to fray.

Newspaper and paper towels work wonderfully as a substrate. They are not as attractive as the other options, but they make a great substrate because they are relatively cheap and easy to replace.

What do I use for lighting?

Boas, like most other snakes, do not need any special lighting. If the front of your enclosure is clear, the ambient light from the room should be sufficient. There should be a photo period of definite night and day. This can easily be attained by keeping the lights in the room or on the enclosure on an inexpensive timer.

What do I feed a Boa?

In captivity, boas should be fed pre-killed or frozen/thawed mice or rats. Feeding live mice or rats to your snake is a very bad idea. There is no end to the injuries that the prey item could cause the snake. It is more humane to dispatch the rodent by snapping its neck than allowing the snake to constrict it. Snapping the neck is quick and painless to the rodent. Constriction takes 1-2 minutes before the rodent is dead. I do this by putting the rat in a pillowcase and swinging it against a wall.

The size of the mouse or rat should be equal to the girth of the snake. Younger snakes under 4 feet in length should be offered one meal per week. Larger snakes should be fed every 2 weeks. Offer the rodent in a separate enclosure such as a large plastic tub with a lid that can be purchased at Wall Mart or Target. I would suggest offering the animal using long tongs or hemostats. If the snake does not eat immediately, leave the snake and the pre-killed rodent alone for a few hours. The snake should get the idea.

My Boa is aggressive! What do I do?

Handle the bad boy every chance you get. The best way to calm an aggressive snake is to hold them so they have the opportunity to get used to your smells. The only reason a snake will bite you is if they think you are food or feel intimidated. If you have just handled a rat, mouse, bunny, gerbil, or any other small furry critter, it is a very good idea to wash your hands before handling your boa. If you do get bitten, it is truly no big deal. Treat the wound the same way that you would a paper cut. At the time of writing, I was bitten by one of my boas just this morning. It is around mid day and there is not even a mark left to prove it.  When handling you must not try to control the way the snake moves.  Restricting or controlling its movement will only serve to make it more defensive.

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