Updated: August 3, 2022 by Jennifer Munsell
Ball pythons (also known as royal pythons) are one of the most popular pets in the reptile trade. They are also one of the most popular snakes for beginner reptile enthusiasts. However, if you are a beginner, you may understandably be a bit overwhelmed at all of the different substrates to choose from when setting up your snake’s enclosure.
Substrate is the ‘bedding’ in your snake’s enclosure. Ball pythons are terrestrial and native to tropical habitats, so they need substrate that is comfortable and retains moisture very well.
Many pet shops will tell you which substrate to use, but they won’t always tell you why or give you many options. In this guide, we review five different substrates for ball pythons. We’ll also go over their key features, pros, and cons to help you make the best choice.
Your ball python’s substrate needs to fit the enclosure you have set up for it as well as your own needs and capabilities when it comes to care and cost! Substrate is definitely not a one-size-fits-all kind of topic.
Read on to learn more and find out which substrate is the best fit for your snake’s setup!
Our best product pick for ball python substrate would be bioactive bedding, and Josh’s Frogs is one of the best brands on the market for reptile supplies in general. Bioactive bedding simulates your snake’s natural habitat closely and is incredibly attractive. Once you get the hang of setting up a bioactive enclosure, it is simple to maintain and is perfect for most ball pythons.
Presenting… The Best Substrates for Ball Pythons
1. Bioactive Bedding: Josh’s Frogs BioBedding Tropical Bioactive Substrate
A bioactive substrate is exactly what it sounds like: biologically active. The substrate has live insects in it, it can support plant life, and it mimics the natural habitat of your snake. This is because it contains a drainage system as well as natural soil which helps regulate the environment.
The bioactive enclosure can be slightly difficult to set up and maintain in the beginning, however, once you get the hang of it, it will be an absolute pleasure. Bonus, it looks amazing, especially if you have your ball python’s enclosure on display!
- Looks natural and is very attractive
- Can have live plants with minimal extra maintenance
- Live plants help balance the humidity
- Does not need to be changed monthly, which cuts down on both costs to you and stress for your ball python
Bioactive enclosures do not have to have their bedding completely thrown out once a month like others on this list (and most other substrates in general). If the substrate is set up and maintained properly with the appropriate drainage layers and has a clean-up crew of isopods and insects, then the bedding can last for years, and all you’ll need to do is top it up every couple of months!
As I just mentioned, bioactive substrate is mostly cleaned and maintained by a clean-up crew! Clean-up crews are made up of little bugs and arthropods that are not harmful to your ball python and perform specific jobs. Springtails, isopods, and superworms all live in harmony in the substrate and eat your snake’s poops, process the bedding to keep it fresh and healthy, as well as aerate it and help any moisture to drain properly without developing mold.
Along with the actual substrate, you will need to purchase the isopods, springtails, or superworms separately to add to the enclosure. These can also be purchased from various online distributors or local breeders.
Mites are definitely not part of this elite crew, though, and you will need to examine your bag of substrate carefully to make sure none managed to make their way in before putting it in the enclosure.
The bioactive bedding will also need to be misted with warm water daily to maintain humidity levels. Ball pythons need high humidity and fairly high temperatures, which means their enclosures need to be misted often. Consider adding some sphagnum moss to the bedding mixture to help it retain moisture.
- Holds humidity very well
- Aesthetically pleasing because it is natural looking
- Very healthy for your snake and any live plants
- Does not need to be changed often, which cuts down on costs and stress
- More expensive to set up than most other types of bedding
- Needs to be carefully maintained, which can be tricky for beginners
Bioactive substrates help your snake live a more natural life when they are in captivity. Ball pythons need high humidity because they are native to tropical regions in Africa. The humid nature of a bioactive substrate, its low cost, and its attractive natural appearance makes it the ideal candidate for ball pythons.
2. Cypress Mulch: ZooMed Forest Floor Bedding
Cypress mulch is also commonly called forest floor bedding. It is composed of the bark of cypress trees that has been broken down into small bits. As ball pythons in the wild naturally live on a tropical forest floor that is very similar to cypress mulch, it’s an excellent choice of substrate for pythons in captivity.
Additionally, cypress mulch is very easy to use and set up in your snake’s enclosure. It is natural-looking and is a perfect option if you are wanting a natural look with high humidity but without the maintenance needed for a bioactive enclosure.
- Looks very natural, which is great if your snake’s enclosure is on display.
- This substrate retains moisture and high humidity levels very well, which is necessary for ball pythons.
- Cypress mulch is a completely natural product, so you do not need to worry about any plastic or other potentially harmful debris getting into your bally’s system and causing impaction.
If you don’t want to bother with bioactive substrate but still want a natural, aesthetically pleasing setup, this substrate is a great alternative.
Some natural bedding options can contain small, sharp pieces of wood in them that can pierce your ball python’s skin, which is always a concern for reptile owners when shopping for substrate. However, cypress mulch does not have this issue, so you can count on it being splinter-free and rest as easily as your scaly friend will on their comfy new bedding.
Unfortunately, due to the size and weight of adult ball pythons, cypress mulch can become packed down easily. This means it is not ideal for burrowing or nesting. Your ball python will need clutter in the form of branches, logs, and hides in their enclosure in order to feel safe and hidden. However, you can prevent the substrate from becoming packed down by manually loosening the bedding every couple of days.
- Holds moisture well
- Not prone to developing mold
- Easy to clean
- Completely natural
- Be aware that some buyers have found a few mites in the bags; to remedy this, spread out the mulch and bake it on a low setting in your oven to kill off any lingering mites
- The substrate can become compacted and be tough on your snake’s sensitive belly
Cypress mulch is an excellent option for ball pythons because it retains moisture very well and looks and feels very natural. It is a great choice if you want a substrate that looks and feels great but lacks the hassle of a bioactive enclosure.
3. Coconut Coir/Fiber/Husk/Chips: ZooMed Eco Earth Loose Coconut Fiber Substrate
Coconut coir/fiber/husk/chips is another great substrate option for ball pythons because it also holds humidity well. This coconut fiber substrate by ZooMed holds its shape as a substrate but does not easily become hard and compacted, which means your bally can easily burrow in it to feel more secure, warm, and comfortable.
Coconut substrate is also cheap and very easy to maintain for beginners as well as seasoned reptile owners. Due to the unique nature of coconut fiber, it is not prone to molding or going bad under high humidity levels, which makes it ideal for ball pythons.
- Coconut fiber holds moisture very well and promotes the high humidity levels ball pythons need to thrive
- Coconut substrate needs to be spot cleaned daily of any poops, pees, shed skin, or food.
- The entire lot of substrate will only need to be replaced every six months if you keep up with spot cleaning.
- Coconut bedding has a natural appearance as well as being healthy for your ball python.
- If the coconut gets completely soaked in water it will expand and eventually break down.
Coconut fiber/husk/coir/chips are a softer option than some other natural substrates such as orchid chips and wood chips. Therefore, your ball python will feel comfortable and be safe moving around in it.
The coconut also smells really good, which helps neutralize the natural musty odor of ball pythons. We all know how bad snake poop smells, and coconut bedding helps break down the poop and the smell!
- Breaks down your ball python’s natural musky odor very well
- Maintains high humidity levels well
- Breaks down poop and pee
- Completely natural
- Needs to be replaced every six months and spot cleaned daily
- If it is left unchecked and becomes too moist, humidity levels can creep too high
Using coconut products like ZooMed’s EcoEarth as a substrate for your ball python is an ideal way to simulate the natural tropical habitat they belong to while minimizing the amount of clean up you will have to do.
4. Orchid Bark: Fluker Labs Repta-Bark All Natural Bedding
Orchid bark substrate products like Fluker Labs’ Repta-Bark are yet another popular natural bedding option for ball pythons. The orchid bark pieces hold humidity well, which is essential for ball pythons to thrive in captivity. What’s more, the large pieces of bark do not get compressed and packed together by ball pythons’ heavy bodies, which is ideal for a ball python enclosure.
This type of substrate is also easy to keep clean because it is a loose substrate, but its individual pieces are on the larger side compared to most other loose substrates. When you spot clean every day, all you need to do is pull out the contaminated pieces of bark, toss them, and replace them.
- Orchid bark is a natural product and is eco-friendly as it breaks down over time in water.
- Using orchid bark is ideal for younger ball pythons since the substrate’s larger pieces present less of an impaction risk.
- The orchid bark is anti-fungal in nature and will help keep your ball python healthy and free of fungal infections.
As mentioned above, the orchid bark pieces are relatively large and do not create dust. This means it is the ideal substrate for young ball pythons as they cannot swallow the substrate accidentally. However, once your snake becomes large enough that they are able to unintentionally swallow the pieces, then you will need to feed it outside of the enclosure or swap over to another substrate.
- Absorbs fecal matter and other waste
- Holds humidity well
- Absorbs bad odors
- Completely natural
- Needs to be replaced every month
- Not ideal for large adult snakes
- Some buyers complain of mites
Fluker Labs’ Repta-Bark is an excellent substrate for younger ball pythons because it looks great, holds humidity well, is dust-free to protect your snake’s respiratory system, and is antifungal in nature.
5. Paper: Bryco Goods Brown Kraft Paper Roll
The best budget bedding option for any reptile is actually just plain paper! You can use various types of paper, including newspaper, paper towels, butcher’s paper, or kraft paper to line your ball python’s enclosure with.
Kraft paper is fairly heavy-duty, which means it is absorbent and will absorb pees and water spillages fairly well. However, because your ball python’s enclosure will need to be quite humid, you will need to change the sheets at least once a week regardless of messes.
Once the paper has a mess on it, you simply need to remove it, throw it away, and put down another piece.
- Kraft paper is cheap and readily available in big box stores or from online distributors.
- Kraft paper is very absorbent and is quickly replaced.
- Kraft paper is completely recyclable, so it is environmentally friendly!
This already cheap option is made even cheaper if you buy it in bulk as a huge roll and just cut it down to size as you need it. This means you can re-cover the bottom of your bally’s enclosure for years at a very low cost.
Kraft paper is twice the weight of normal copier paper. This makes it very durable in addition to being absorbent, which is great because ball pythons are very active and inquisitive snakes and will regularly end up slithering around their entire enclosure.
- Can be bought in bulk extremely cheaply
- By far the cheapest and most readily available substrate option
- No risk of ingestion or impaction
- Completely customizable to your enclosure
- Does not look natural
- Does not hold humidity well
- Needs frequent cleanings
- Not the most comfortable substrate for a ball python’s sensitive skin
Using Bryco Goods’ kraft paper as a substrate for a ball python is a cheap yet effective and surprisingly durable option. With this substrate, you will keep your enclosure clean and your ball python happy without breaking the bank.
The best budget bedding for your ball python would be newspaper, paper towels, kraft paper, or even butcher’s paper. This is by far the cheapest option on this list, and it works surprisingly well as a substrate. It is easy to clean and easy on your back pocket. It is not the prettiest option, but it does get the job done!
How to Choose the Best Substrate for Ball Pythons
The following are some things you should consider when choosing a substrate for your bally.
What Does Your Budget Look Like?
You need to consider the size of the enclosure and how expensive it would be to fill it with substrate.
Ball pythons can get very large, so their enclosure size requirement will increase. Since you will need to fill the enclosure floor with a couple of inches of substrate, this can become quite expensive when you add it all up at the end of the day.
Different kinds of substrate need to be changed more or less often than others. Therefore, you should analyze how much you are able to spend on refreshing, replacing, and topping off the substrate in your bally’s enclosure.
How Old Is Your Ball Python?
Younger ball pythons are more prone to accidentally swallowing pieces of their substrate. This means that hatchling and juvenile ball pythons should be put on a substrate that does not have pieces that are small enough to swallow.
Most hobbyists keep their juvenile ballys on paper and then move them to more natural substrates once the risk of accidental swallowing has passed.
What Does Your Ball Python Prefer?
When you put substrate in your ball python’s enclosure, see how they react to it! Ball pythons will have their own preferences for the material they spend most of their lives on.
If you find that your ball python does not leave its hide when you have cypress mulch down but is very active when you put down coconut coir, then you should use coconut coir in the future.
If your ball python is living with substrate that makes it unhappy or uncomfortable, then it will be stressed out and unhappy. Unhappy ballys often refuse food and may have a shortened lifespan.
What Is Your Experience Level?
The more experience you have at taking care of snakes in general means that you are more in tune with their behavior and husbandry requirements, and are able to make changes where necessary.
Therefore, the more experience you have means you can tackle substrates that require more upkeep, such as a bioactive substrate.
Bedding You Should Avoid
For the safety and health of your ball python, avoid using substrates that are dusty, full of mites, grow mold, or have pieces that are indigestible
FAQs About Substrates for Ball Pythons
Why do ball pythons eat their bedding?
Ball pythons, like any other reptile in captivity, can accidentally ingest their bedding or part of the substrate in their enclosures. This usually happens while they are eating. The simple solution to this is to feed your snake in a separate container or on a clean dish so they don’t pick up any substrate while eating.
However, sometimes snakes, especially hatchlings and juveniles, will also ingest substrate because they are bored. Ball pythons need a significant amount of mental stimulation to prevent boredom.
Does the type of substrate I use for my ball python have an effect on its shedding?
However, if you use a substrate that does not support humidity, then you will need to set time aside to soak your snake in warm water during shedding time. Providing plenty of textured surfaces for your snake to rub their body against in their enclosure will also help ease the shedding process.
The Best Ball Python Substrate Is…?
While there are plenty of excellent options on the market, the best substrate for your ball python will depend on your enclosure setup, your budget, and you and your snake’s personal preferences.
However, even though all the options on this list are great, I highly recommend using either bioactive bedding like Josh’s Frogs Biobedding if you want something natural-looking and comfortable that retains humidity well or, alternatively, Bryco Goods’ Brown Kraft Paper Roll if you’re on a budget.
Make an informed decision, remember that there is no single right answer, experiment a bit, and see what you prefer. Good luck with your snake’s habitat and substrate setup!