Ultimate Red Tail Boa Care Guide
BOA CONSTRICTOR IMPERATOR

The following boa care information is intended to be a general, down to earth approach to the things we need to know to properly maintain our boa constrictors. There are many, many other publications that tend to delve very deep in every aspect and attempt to cover every possible situation that may arise. Sometimes to the point of confusion.  I will cover what has worked for me as well as other boa keepers. Also PLEASE note that this discussion covers Boa Constrictor Imperator, such as Colombian and Hog Island

 

Welcome to the Ultimate Red Tail Boa Care Guide. 

Boa Constrictors are unique and amazing animals. It is this fascination with them that has led to this care guide and my entire website.  I hope that the information that you find here will help with you day to day husbandry of boa constrictors, and help you in providing excellent care for your boa constrictor.

I would like to take this opportunity, up front, to challenge you to find a qualified exotics veterinarian before your boa purchase is made. If you already have your pet boa, then I challenge you to locate one NOW. It is so important that you know of a qualified exotics vet BEFORE you need one. This should go without saying, but care guides are good information, but there is NO substitute for a quality veterinarian. Please do not overlook this basic requirement.
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A Boa Constrictor's Basic Anatomy

Lets take a look at the parts of a Boa Constrictor.

Body : Boa Constrictors are cold-blooded reptiles, or Ectothermic. Their bodies are not capable of self-producing heat. They MUST get their heat from their surroundings, to ensure good health and digestion. This can come from the sun, rocks, or artificial heat sources such as heat pads, heat lights, or ceramic heat emitters.

Lungs:  Boa Constrictors have retained both the right and left lung, and both lungs remain functional.  This applies to all Boids (Boas and Pythons). Most snake species only retained the right lung.

Scales:  Boa Constrictors have smooth  "Scales" that  are actually not scales at all, but very tough folds of skin.  These "scales" allow the boa to grip surfaces as they crawl or climb. Ventral Scales are on the belly.

Backbone/Vertebrae:  A Boa Constrictor's backbone contains hundreds of vertebrae, each with a pair of attached ribs.  Each vertebrae controls one ventral scale. Shown in the picture are the ventral scales. A boa's movement is made by using these ribs.

Spurs:  Boa Constrictors also have the remnants of a pelvis, where hind limbs used to be attached, and now have only anal or cloacal spurs.  These spurs are much larger and more defined on males, and are used extensively during breeding.  Male boas have retained amazing control over these spurs. Click for larger pictures
 


Eyes:  Boa Constrictor eyes are generally colored to match the color and pattern of  the head.  You will often see what looks like the stripe on the side of the head continue through the eyes.  Boas do NOT have eyelids that can be closed.  The eye is protected by a clear eye cap or ocular "scale".

Ears:  Boa Constrictors do not have external ears.  Boas are almost completely deaf and do not "hear" sounds.  They can however sense vibrations and low frequency sounds that are picked up by the remains of an inner ear. For this reason, do not place things that vibrate such as stereo speakers, refridgerators, fans etc on or under the boas enclosure. This constant vibration would cause a stressful environment.

Mouth:  A Boa Constrictors mouth is adapted to the large prey items that it must swallow.  The lower jaw in a Boa Constrictor is not connected to the skull.  However the muscles and ligaments of the lower jaw allow it to drop down, and give it the familiar   appearance of being dislocated.  Using this ability the boa can use the upper and lower jaw to pull the prey item in.

Teeth: Boa Constrictors DO have teeth, and although these teeth are smaller than most animals, they can be pin sharp.  Boas have two rows of teeth on the top jaw, and a single row of teeth on the bottom jaw.  These small needle sharp teeth are curved slightly to help hold the prey item and pull it into the mouth.   Although baby boas will not hurt us with a bite, an adult boa bite can be extremely painful.


Tongue:  The infamous forked tongue of a Boa Constrictor is literally its eyes and ears.  The tongue is part of the floor of the mouth in front of the glottis or windpipe.  The flicking of the tongue picks up particles in the air and deposits them on the roof of the mouth, on the Jacobson's organ, where these particles are identified.   One single flick of the tongue can detect whether an item is prey, danger,  or a mate.

Glottis/Windpipe:  This extremely adaptive windpipe is what allows the snake to swallow prey items much larger than their heads.  It allows a boa to continue breathing  all the while swallowing their prey.   The windpipe is also used to warn enemies when threatened.  The boa will inhale a large amount of air, then exhale loudly by forcing the air out the windpipe.  This hissing sound should be translated as "Leave me alone".

Cloaca:  Located near the end of the tail, this is the vent area.  This is where the boa  can be probed to determine the sex.  It is also where the boa defecates and deposits urates.  It is also the place that  babies are delivered during parturition. If you look closely you can see the anal spurs on this male on both sides of the cloaca.

Tail:  Although it may seem that a boa constrictor is ALL tail, the tail is actually from the cloaca (vent area) to the tip.  Unlike lizards, boas cannot "lose" their tail and then regenerate it. Boas often wrap their tails around anything they can to ensure a good grip to prevent them from falling. Large boas are extremely strong and use their tails often to secure themselves. Click the image for a high resolution picture.


Sex:  Knowing the sex of the boa is often the most difficult thing to determine. Without the proper tools or knowledge to accurately test the boa, everything else is a guess. While some people may have good guesses, it is hard to know 100% without the proper testing. This is done by using a metal probe, that is inserted into the cloaca, and in the case of a male, inserted in the hemipene area. In males, this proble will go in very far, often 10 or 11 scale counts. While in females, the probe may only go in 3 or 4 scale counts deep. Probing should only be done by qualified or experienced herpers, because damage can be done if the procedure is done inaccurately.

Baby boas can be sexed by "popping". By holding the tail upside down and using both thumbs, you can apply light pressure with the front thumb, and by rolling the back thumb toward the cloaca, the hemipene(s) will evert (pop inside out) and actually pop out in clear sight. In babies this will also show a clear blood vein. Again, popping should only be done by qualified or experienced herpers.

    

Live Birth:  Boa Constrictors are Ovoviviparous, or "Live-Bearing" Snakes. Baby boas are born live.  This is in contrast to the majority of all other snakes, which are egg laying.   This aspect of husbandry requires even greater care while a female boa is gravid or pregnant.  We must ensure proper husbandry during this stressful time for the female.  Unfertilized ova will result in an orange, sweet potato looking "slug".  Some slugs are common during the boa constrictor parturition (birthing process).

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Unfertilized ova will result in an orange, sweet potato looking "slug".   Some slugs are often common during the boa constrictor parturition (birthing process).

 

 
Purchasing/Owning a Boa

The "impulse" buy! "He is sooooo cute"

This is too often the case. And although it is true, they are soooooo cute, we just need to be aware of what we are looking at when we see that cute 18 inch baby. Boa constrictors are not disposable pets, and they will by no means remain 18 inches. That is a typical birth size, but this little guy will quickly grow to 3 feet in the first year, and attain sizes of 7 or 8 feet or more. Also, this cute little guy can live 20 years or longer. So you should be prepared, from the beginning, to provide adequate space for a large boa, and be prepared to properly care for this boa for an extremely long time. Boa constrictors are showing up more and more in adoption agencies and placement services, because owners were unaware of the sheer size or space requirements.. They are truly amazing animals and the BEST possible pet snake, but we need to be aware of their requirements.

How large will my red tail boa constrictor become?   

Red tail boas will generally grow to an average length of  7 or 8 feet and can live to ages of  25 to 30  years in captivity.  Your actual size will be directly proportional to the amount of feeding.  For example, you could feed your boa a smaller sized rodent every two weeks, and the boa may never grow larger than 4 1/2 to 5 feet.  On the other hand, if you were to feed aggressively, then your boa may achieve a size of 10 feet or longer.  There have been reports of 12 foot boas weighing 80 pounds!

WARNING*** A note on power feeding. This is an unwise method used by some people to achieve rapid growth in their boas. This is done by offering prey items that are too big for the comparible size of the boa, offering several prey items in a row (often helping the boa eat by placing the next food item actually in the boas mouth as it is swallowing the previous, which causes the boa to continue swallowing the next item), and often these boas are fed on a quick turn-around schedule. Let me just say that Power Feeding is NOT recommended because in almost EVERY case it shortens the life of your boa drastically. Boas powerfed from birth generally die very young at 4 or 5 years of age.) Jeff Ronne talks about his early efforts in breeding boas and the fact that EVERY boa he powerfed died before the age of 5 years.

What color should my Colombian Red Tail boa be?

What makes these snakes so wonderful is their vast coloration and patterns. Typical red tail boa constrictors will appear with a tan/brown body with darker brown/black "blotches" or saddles. The tails will range, from blood red ,to the more common copper/rust coloring. With price ranges from $75 to $10,000, the colors and patterns are almost endless. The more popular genetic morphs are Albino, Salmon, Snow,  Hypomelanistic, Pastel, Ghost, Narrow Saddled, Jungle, Anerythristic, and Arabesque.
What do the different types of genetic morphs really mean?     

Please see Explaining the Boa Constrictor Morphs located on my website.

My boas tail is not red now, will it ever be?

Unfortunately not.  With common boa constrictors, the color of the boa's tail at birth will determine the general coloration of the tail.  Boas do tend to show nicer body and tail colors with each shed while they are young, and any highlights (pink and orange) they exhibit will tend to come out more as the boa gets older, but with few exceptions, boas actually become somewhat darker in coloration as they grow older.

With the new selective breeding programs we are starting to see results that shatter some of the common boa conceptions. There are albino, pastel and hypomelanistic traits being selectively bred today that can and do get better and better as the boa matures. Although these traits often do not include coloring of the tail, it does include the overall coloring of the body.

Are red tail boa constrictors tame or aggressive?

The most impressive characteristic of a Colombian Red Tail Boa Constrictor is that when they are properly maintained, they are perhaps the most docile (tame)  and even tempered snake you could have for a pet.  Frequent handling early will ensure that your boa will remain docile throughout its life.  10 foot adults can be as docile as an 18 inch baby.

As with anything else, we must use common sense. If a boa is opaque (in a pre-shed state), or just fed, then it will not want to be handled, and may display defensive postures. With very few exceptions, a boa that is very defensive or aggressive, will generally have other problems that are causing this behavior.  Especially boas that were not purchased as babies, or boas that have been sold and resold.  Mistreatment, inadequate housing, wrong temperatures, and feeding problems, could all affect the overall attitude of a boa.  That is why I recommend that you purchase a captive born baby boa whenever possible, and purchase from a reliable breeder/retailer.
Please keep in mind that this care sheet is for Boa Constrictor Imperator.  Other "True" Red Tail Boas (Boa Constrictor constrictor), such as the Bolivian, Suriname, Guyanan, tend to be slightly more aggressive and less docile, but if obtained as a baby, can be just as gentle as a BCI.

How should I handle the boa constrictor?

You should always support the boa's body with both hands.  You should avoid quick and fast movements when approaching the boa.  Don't approach directly at the head.  Remember they sense heat, so I approach at the tail to mid body, and as soon as I move them a little they know it is me and it is safe to get them out.  Avoid holding the boa where it restricts it's movement. Use one hand to support the head area and the other hand and arm to support the mid to rear body area.  Large boas may become frightened during handling if they feel like they may fall.  Boas over 6 feet should not be handled alone.  Always make sure that a second person is in the room any time you are holding a large boa.  Remember that if you intend to keep your boa as a pet, and for it to remain a docile pet, it will be necessary to handle your boa 2 to 3 times a week.   These sessions can be short but should not be overlooked.

Can I house more than one boa in the same enclosure?

This is one of the most often asked questions that I receive. I will first say that I believe that DIFFERENT species of snakes should NEVER be housed together, such as a boa and a ball python. The chance for disease spread, including IBD, are too risky. It has also been my opinion over the years that "If you cannot afford a second enclosure, then you cannot afford a second boa". Although this sounds very harsh it is actually based on a lot of experience and feedback.

It has never been a question of "CAN" two snakes exist in one enclosure.... It is done all the time. Healthy baby boas can be raised together for a long time, often without incident. BUT it is WHEN something happens that you need the extra enclosure. And IF you are 100% on top of every husbandry issue, these 2 snakes could live 20 years, have 300 babies (if male and female ,) and never have a health related issue. You know... "And they lived happily ever after"

However, in the real world there can and will be many different things happen that will cause them to "REQUIRE" separation. Whether this is simple feeding times, sickness, a bite, a burn, a regurgitation, etc etc, there will be times when they must be separated to allow recovery time. Back to the male/female issue. If the female becomes gravid, you will need somewhere for the male to be for 4 or 5 MONTHS. Although people house boas together all the time, I believe boas should only be housed together during breeding cycles. There are too many factors that require individual housing space. I will list some of the most common issues requiring separation here.

1. Feeding. This presents a huge problem if you think you can feed both boas at the same time in the same enclosure. NEVER feed 2 boas in the same enclosure! PERIOD. They must be separated into temporary containers for feeding purposes. An attempt to feed both at the same time in the same enclosure could result in a situation where they both attempt to strike and constrict the same prey item, which could result in one of the boa becoming constricted itself. This is not a situation you want to find yourself in, because boas are much stronger than you think and seperating them will not be a simple task. You can not separate anything from a 6 foot or larger boa. They are too strong.

2. Sickness, Diseases, Mites, Ticks, etc. It is really simple. If one boa gets one of these, then BOTH boas get it.

3. Stress. Most often overlooked, stress related issues can result from competition for the "best" basking area, or the "best" hideaway. If it is two males housed together, there may be a dominance issue. Stress factors result in lowering the immune system capabilities, therefore allowing sicknesses to be easier to "catch".

4. Record Keeping. If you intend to track individual records for each boa, housing them together creates a problem. Knowing which one shed, which one pooped, which one regurgitated, etc etc becomes problematic.

5.Breeding. If your intent is to breed your boas later in life I believe they should be separated up until the time of breeding introduction. Many people believe that boas that are housed together for life, a male and a female, are much less likely to produce offspring. I know it happens from time to time, in different situations, but the odds go down. After extended periods of separation, it can simply be the introduction of the male into the females enclosure that initiates the breeding cycle.

6. Quarantine. When the second boa is brought into your home, it needs to be quarantined. EVERY boa should be separated in a different enclosure and separate room if possible, for a 3 month period. Again, any sickness or mites will spread from boa to boa like wildfire, including IBD. All it takes is one mite from a sick boa biting the other boa and presto, both boas are now sick. Also quarantine would be necessary anyway if one of the boas got sick, or regurgitated, so the need for the second enclosure is already there.

If you cannot afford a second enclosure or do not have the additional space for a second enclosure, then you cannot afford another snake.

Are red tail boa constrictors messy?

Yes! Boa constrictors can be very messy when they defecate/urinate. Although this can be as infrequent as once a month or so, it still can be a chore to clean up.  Full size adult boas can defecate as much as a full grown dog!! And boas can deposits huge amounts of urates a couple of times a month.  They also tend to deposit urates at one time and then defecate another time.  You can spend a lot of time cleaning up after your boas, especially if you have multiple boas.

Defecation and Urination.

Boa constrictors pass waste through the cloaca at the base of the tail.

Defecation, in the form of feces, contain only the parts of the food items that cannot be digested by the acids in the stomach, such as the rodent hair, as well as the normal waste products. These feces should be in the form of solid, dark stools. This type of stool is a sign of good health. However, any sign of bad smelling, running, or off color stools, may be a sign of intestinal problems, and your veterinarian should be contacted.

Urination, in the form of urates, appear in the form of a white chalky, sand-like substance are the results of the ability of boas to conserve water. If boa have access to fresh, clean water, then sometimes these urates will be accompanied by a lot of liquid as well.

     

Will my red tail boa strike at my face and hands?

We know that anything is possible, but let me say that my experience is that when our boas are climbing around, up our arms, around the neck, in our shirts, etc, that our boas are NOT any threat to strike. My boas are handled a lot, and my kids "wear" our boas as hats, ties, etc.. When the boas are like this I have never seen any threat. 
The situations to avoid should be common sense. If your boa is curled up in your hand or curled up in a corner and you approach it real fast with your other hand, or you bring your arm and boa up towards your face real fast. This may cause a defensive action from him. Guess who's fault this would be... Yep! Yours! The best tip is to slowly approach from under or level with the boa. Not from above. 

And of course we should NEVER handle our boa when we have just fed them, and still smell like a mouse or rat ourselves.  99% of people that get bit by a boa is because of something they did wrong. The other 1% is just a fluke.
Let your boa explore as you hold him. They will get used to this and even love being held.

How can I tell the difference between a defensive posture and  a "laid-back" posture?

The easiest way is to look at the pictures below. The pictures of a normal coil in a resting boa are the two on the left. Notice the circle that the boa makes with its body. This is a normal posture for a boa. Now the boas on the Right. These are boas that are in a defensive posture. Notice the double "S" position of the neck in these two pictures. Also notice the raised head. Approaching these boas from the front or top could result in a defensive strike.  Also boas that want to be left alone will sometime make a loud hissing noise. They will suck in a tremendous amount of air, and then force it out. This sound means if you come near I will bite. This posture may occur if the boa is completely opaque and cannot see out of its eyes, or if the boa has serious health problems. Being aware of these postures will keep us all from accidentally getting bit.

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Heating/Temperature/Humidity

What temperature levels should I maintain in my boas enclosure?

Please pay very close attention to this section. This is the MOST important requirement for the long term health of your boa. Enclosure temperatures.  These are tropical animals and should be maintained within a tropical temperature range of 80 - 92F.   My enclosures are maintained at an ambient temperature of 82 F. A basking area with temps in the low 90's is also always available. This allows the boa constrictor to thermoregulate, and control it's own body temp. It must have a place where it can go to "warm" up and a place to go where it can "cool" down.

**Important** This seems to be where the majority of confusion comes in to play. People have different meanings or understandings of ambient and basking temperatures. Since I am suggesting that BOTH of these temperature gradients are required to ensure proper thermoregulation, I thought these definitions may help. Also since a lot of this confusion stems from the definition of ambient and basking temperatures, let me produce some definitions that better translate the two words. Here are a couple of dictionary lookups.

Ambient
(a.) Encompassing on all sides; circumfused; investing. Existing or present on all sides.
(b.) Something that surrounds or invests; as, air . . . being a perpetual ambient.
(c.) Environmental or surrounding conditions

Basking
(a.) To lie in warmth; to be exposed to diffusing or productive heat.
(b.) To warm by continued exposure to heat; to warm with difussing heat.

So with those dictionary explanations in mind, this is MY understanding of these 2 terms and the basis for how this care guide is written, and they are:

Ambient. The ambient temperature is AWAY from the heat source. This is the temperature reading of the AIR. It should be taken on the cool side of the enclosure AWAY from the heat source.  This ambient temperature of 82 F applies to the air inside your enclosure.

Basking. The basking area, or the side of the enclosure with the heat sources, will be 90 to 92.  This measurment is taken on or under the physical heating devices, such as a CHE or Heat Mat or Heat Lamp. A temperature gauge should be temporarily positioned in the basking spot in order to obtain this reading.

Summary: Unless you are breeding your boas, This temperature range should be maintained YEAR ROUND!  Your boa should NOT feel cold when you take it out of its enclosure. However they should not feel hot either. The comparison is that a boa's temperature will be an average of 83 or 84 degrees. Your body temp is 98.6. Therefore holding a boa should be a little cooler than your own temp and never hotter. MOST health problems associated with boas are temperature related.

Important! Location of Heat Sources. It is best to have all heat sources on one end of an enclosure. For example, if you use an Under-the-tank Heater (UTH) and an overhead Ceramic Heat Emitter (CHE), then they should be on the same side of the enclosure. This arrangement should provide not only the correct basking temperature, but also create the proper ambient temperature on the other or "cool" end of the enclosure.

What humidity level should I maintain in my boas enclosure?

The humidity level should remain between 50 and 60 % at all times.  The difference between 50 and 60 % is actually geographical.   Areas like Texas should be around 60%.   California should be around 50%.  This humidity level is extremely important to the health of our boas.  It insures proper shedding and health.

Ways to increase your humidity include;

1) Misting down the boas periodically. This can be done by placing hot water in a spray bottle and then spraying down the boas with it. The hot water actually becomes just warm when it is sprayed. Test this on your arm. This warm water really helps the boas. This is a great way to help raise humidity and it also helps the boa during shed cycles.

2) Placing a water dish closer to the heat source. This will add to the evaporation process and aide in the humidty level. You should also provide another water dish in the cool end.

3) Covering all or part of the top of the enclosure. People that use the aquarium style glass enclosures with the standard screen top, often have trouble maintaining heat and humidity. Try covering at least half of the top with a piece of box cardboard with pencil sized holes poked in it. This often helps immediately in raising the temp and humidity.

4) Place a moist or wet towel inside the enclosure. People that use the aquarium style glass enclosures with the standard screen top, often have trouble maintaining heat and humidity. Try temporarily placing a wet towel inside the enclosure to help raise the humidity. New products such as HumiMats, are products that absorb water and slowly evaporate that water over a period of two weeks. These would be a better soultion than a towel.

I use a heat lamp with a regular light bulb, does it provide enough heat?

The only way to really know is to use thermometers at both ends of your cage.  It should provide the temperature range listed above.  The danger of only using an incandescent bulb is that it must remain on 24 hours a day to provide heat.  Our boas really need 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark.  Constant light will cause stress to our boas.  You need to purchase another kind of heat source, such as an under the tank heat mat or a CHE, so that the light can be turned off at night.

Important! Do not disregard the fact that boas require a day/night cycle. Make sure you supply the proper heat sources, so that any light source can be turned OFF at night.

Should I use a heat rock or a heat cave device?

NO!  You should never use a heat rock or heat cave because they are very prone to "hot spots" and baby snakes will not know when to get off and will be seriously burned.

Important! Boas will burn themselves on these devices. Not a matter of if, but when.

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Lighting Options

It is my personal belief that boa constrictors do not REQUIRE any artificial light source.  Boa constrictors get all the nutrients they need from their prey items.  The only light provided to my boa constrictors is the incidental light that comes in through the windows during the day.  My boas have no light source of any kind during the night.  Providing a light for daytime display purposes so you can show off your beautiful boa is perfectly fine. Just be sure that the light source can be turned off at night.

Incandescent--These regular light bulbs, can provide a good source of heat and adequate light for displaying your boas.  Care should be take to ensure the boa can NOT come into contact with the bulb and that the bulb is always OFF during the night time hours.  Light bulbs should NEVER be your only source of  heat. There are many varieties of bulbs. Heat lamp, red, black, etc etc.
Florescent--Probably the most widely used light source for snakes.  These long slender bulbs fit most aquarium type hoods and fit on most enclosures.  These bulbs provide the best display light for showing off your boas.  Again this light source should be OFF during the night time hours.

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Full Spectrum-- Although full-spectrum lighting is not required for a boa constrictor, it is possible they may benefit to a slight degree from it. Normally in the florescent bulb section, most full-spectrum bulbs fit the regular florescent hoods used on aquariums.
 

Caging/Enclosures

What things should I get with a "Starter Kit" Setup for my baby boa constrictor?   Here are the minimum things you should purchase as part of a starter kit.

Glass Cage/Enclosure--Aquarium style enclosures should be at least 20 Gallon LONG size for a starter kit.  You should purchase as large as you can afford to start with because the 20 gallon size can be outgrown by the end of the first year. Also all glass enclosures can be difficult to maintain the proper heat and humidity levels. Many people struggle to get the correct temperatures. Glass enclosures also tend to be harder to clean and large ones can be quite heavy. These should be your LAST option, not your first or second. I do NOT recommend these type enclosures for boa constrictors. Please read my section on Enclosures

Screen/Top--Make sure your screen top can be tightly secured. Boas are escape artists.  It should clamp on or slide on and lock. The screen top adds to the difficulty of maintaining the proper environmental conditions because the warm air escapes out of the top. Covering all or part of the screen with cardboard or a towel sometimes helps maintain the proper levels.

Custom made enclosures. Plastic or melamine enclosures are more suited for boa constrictor care. Especially units with built in heat. These enclosures are great for keeping the proper temperatures and humidity levels, as well as they are much easier to clean. These type units should be your FIRST option.

Plastic enclosures such as the one pictured, from Jeff Ronne, are extremely lightweight and easily transported, moved, and cleaned.


Heater--  Under tank heaters are a MUST for these aquarium type enclosures. These flat heaters attach to the bottom of your glass aquarium and will provide much needed warmth to the bottom of the enclosure. Advanced and custom made enclosures can use Flex Watt Heat Tape as well.

Again, do NOT use heat caves or heat rocks! They can and will burn small boas.

This picture on the bottom left is FlexWatt. FlexWatt brand heat tape, currently made by Calorique, can be purchased from the finer online reptile herp stores. Although this requires some custom installation, it works great and lasts and extremely long time.

Top of Enclosure Heat Lamp--Some "kits" come with a clamp on heat lamp - I do not like these, but if you use one of these for additional heat and a basking spot, then you should purchase a Ceramic Heat Emitter instead of using a light bulb. Our boas REQUIRE a period of darkness each night, so a light bulb that has to remain in the ON state in order to supply the proper heat levels should not be the only source of heat.
Ceramic Heat Emitter (CHE) - These emitters do not have a light source of any kind, yet provide a great heat source.  They will provide ambient heat as well as a basking spot.  CHE's will cost about 20 to 25 dollars, but last a very long time.
If your are currently using a Heat Lamp (bulb) device, then I recommend switching to a CHE instead.
Thermometer - You will find out that you really need 2 thermometers for your enclosure.  One for end with the heat sources and one for opposite/cooler end.
They should be mounted where you can easily view the temperature day or night. Humidity gauges may also be required to determine a proper environment. 
Water Dish - This water bowl needs to be large enough for the entire boa to soak in. Young boas will do this quite often. This crock style bowl is very thick and very heavy and is hard to dump over. Other ceramic "dog" style heavy duty dishes work well also. Larger enclosures should provide 2 separate sources of water, one on the hot end, and one on the cool end. This prevents the boa from having to compromise the level of heat required, when water is needed. Please read the section of Fresh Clean Water
Substrate-- Several different types of substrates are available. From plain newspaper to expensive coconut bark, there is a lot of choices. Please see the substrate section of this page for some better explanations and examples.
Branch or Hideaway-- Most baby boas will utilize something to climb on or hide under.
Grapevine/wood or similar product will work well. There are also several kinds of synthetic caves and logs in many shapes and sizes. The ability to climb or hide gives the boa a certain feeling of security.

What size enclosure will I need to keep a juvenile red tail boa constrictor?

Probably the most common snake enclosure is the all glass, aquarium type, cage with a sliding screen top. Although these "starter kits" are popular, they will be more than likely be outgrown by the end of the first year.  I tend to tell people to take the initial cost of their setup and prepare to triple it, because if you start out very small (20 gallon or 20 long size) then you WILL have to purchase newer and larger enclosures. So if an aquarium style is the only style available to you then if possible go ahead and purchase the largest size you can afford at the very beginning, so you should get at least a 55 gallon size. It will last a much longer time.

I believe the aquarium style all glass enclosure to be the worst possible choice for snakes. I also believe that these aquarium style enclosures should be the LAST option purchased. Also as I have stated before, I also think the all glass enclosures is a bad investment. The glass makes it hard to control the proper environmental conditions. The number #1 problem on my forums and email is maintaining the proper levels of heat and humidity. 95% of these are from aquarium style enclosures.

Manufactured or custom built enclosures are by far the best way to go. If custom building an enclosure avoid unfinished wood and porous surfaces because these surfaces are difficult to clean and disinfect, and the humidity and water spills could damage it.  You will need an enclosure that is, at a minimum, 4' X 24" X 24" to accommodate the full grown adult. I can promise you this. It will be much cheaper to buy the bigger one now, than to buy 2 or 3 different sizes throughout the span of the boa's growth.   Some people may tell you "wives tales" about being too large for a boa, but I don't buy into the stress theory from being too large.  That sounds like nonsense from someone that could not afford the larger size. The stress syndrome is caused from the opposite. Too Small.  If the boa cannot stretch out, or climb around, or get "away" into a hideaway, you are causing very much stress on the boa.

Custom made manufactured plastic caging is my favorite. Extremely light, easy to clean and most offer built in heat sources. I prefer black, just my favorite color. These are also easily stackable and offer greater use of space.

Remember large or proper sized enclosures have ample space to install hideaways, shelves and things for the boas to use if they feel vulnerable.

What size enclosure will I need to keep an adult red tail boa?

A general guideline is that the enclosure be at least 3/4 as long as the animal's body and width at least a third of the animal's length. If you are only interested in the aquarium type glass enclosures, then you will probably need at least the 100 Gallon size with a latching top.  These guys are escape artists, and adults are extremely strong, so ensure that you use the proper style top. Custom built caging, such as plastic cages or melamine caging, offers the best solution for keeping adult boas. They are generally large enough, strong enough, and have built in doors for escape protection. 4' X 24" X 24" is probably the minimum size requirement, with a 6' X 24" X 24"perfect size for the entire boas lifetime.

Other than heating devices, what objects should be in the enclosure?

FRESH, CLEAN Water
You will need a sturdy, heavy water dish with fresh clean water.  This water dish should be made of a heavy ceramic, or heavy plastic, to help prevent the snake from tipping the dish over.  It should be large enough for the entire boa to fit in. Young boas will often soak their entire bodies in their water dish.  You should check the water daily, because boas will often defecate in the water dish. Also another important consideration is that if your enclosure is large enough, you should use more than one water dish. I think the best method is to place the large water dish (Large enough to soak in) in the middle of the enclosure and then place a small water dish in the cool end of the enclosure. This smaller dish should be too small for soaking, and therefore would be used primarily for drinking.

**SOAKING** Also a behavior notice. Boas will often soak in the water dish and this is a natural behavior. However, boas will also "escape" to the water dish for other health related issues. If your boa is constantly soaking, then you should immediately check for the prescence of mites, and also double check your temperature, because if the boa is too hot it will spend a lot of time in the water.

HIDE BOXES
You should also provide a hide box.  Especially for the juveniles.  Hide boxes can be purchased or made from a number of  products such as shoe boxes, Tupperware style containers, etc. Another popular form of hide box is a raised shelf. A raised shelf provides a great means of security for boas, and they will often spend the majority of their time on the raised shelf.

What should I use to clean my enclosure?

You should use a solution of water and 10% household bleach.  You MUST remove the boa from the enclosure during the cleaning / disinfecting process.  It is extremely important to thoroughly clean the entire enclosure with the water/bleach solution.  Then the enclosure MUST be rinsed thoroughly with clean water to remove the bleach residue. Then completely dry before returning the boa to the cage. ***Warning*** Bleach is a very residual product. Be sure to completely rinse after use.

There are also new products on the market now that have been created for this purpose. They can be found at on-line herpetology websites.

The above cleaning should be done at least once a month, or sooner is warranted. You should spot clean you cage and the water supply DAILY.

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Substrate

What should I use for a bedding material in my enclosures?

Substrate is one of the most important parts of the boas environment. It should be checked and spot cleaned DAILY. Dirty substrate is another cause of  health problems in our boas. There are several kinds of substrate recommended for boa constrictors, and I will cover the most popular here.  In the end, you should use the most beneficial one for you.

DO NOT let the substrate become or stay completely soaked with water. Misting is fine, but a completely wet substrate is bad for the boa, and can lead to belly rot and other health problems.

1.  Newspaper:  The most economical method of substrate is to use newspaper.  Newspaper is readily available and easy to clean and replace. This substrate is probably delivered to your door every day. I still use the newspaper substrate to this day.   I have in the past used one modification. I use about 1 inch of 100% plain clay kitty litter (no perfumes, no additives, just plain clay), and about 10 to 15 layers of newspaper on top of the clay.  It is extremely effective.  The down side is it is NOT visually appealing. I do not currently use this anymore due to number of cages.
2.  Natural Bark Products:  Tree bark, and crushed Coconut shells are becoming popular substrate options, and are becoming readily available at most pet stores. The coconut shell product is not actually tree bark at all but completely crushed coconut shells. It has been proven to be harmless to reptiles. I do not recommend feeding on ANY wood chip or bark product. Bark type substrates can be spot cleaned but not as easy as some other substrates. It tends to resist molding better than corn cob, but is harder to change out when it is time to replace. The down side is the danger that if you feed your boa in its enclosure, it could ingest some of  the bark accidentally when eating its food item. This could cause blockage problems. Wood shavings are more visually appealing. The chance for accidental ingestion and possible internal blockage are just not worth it. Do NOT feed on this type substrate.
3.  Wood Shavings:  Shredded Aspen, Cypress Mulch or  Pine shavings can also be used as a substrate.  CEDAR should NEVER be used.  It is toxic to snakes! Shredded Aspen is the preferred choice of herpers everywhere and is one of the most commonly used substrates. I use cypress mulch with my baby boas, it works great and holds humidity well. Although many people use pine shavings, I do not recommend it. Aspen is proven to be more effective and also proven to not be harmful to reptiles. Some people believe the oils and fumes from pine shavings can be damaging to snakes.. Wood type substrates can be spot cleaned but not as easy as other substrates. It tends to resist molding better than corn cob, but is harder to change out when it is time to replace. The down side is the danger that if you feed your boa in its enclosure, it could ingest some of  the shavings accidentally when eating its food item. This could cause blockage problems. The chance for accidental ingestion and possible internal blockage are just not worth it. Do NOT feed on this type substrate.
4. Corn Cob (Shredded):  Corn cob can also be used as a substrate.  Corn cob is visually appealing and is easy to spot clean. The biggest problem with corn cob is that is will mold and mildew very fast. Also there is the danger that if you feed your boa in its enclosure, it could ingest some of  the corn cob accidentally when eating its food item.

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5. Indoor/Outdoor Carpet: You can cut two or three pieces of indoor/outdoor carpeting to fit the exact size of your enclosure.  This provides the availability of a clean spare when it is time to clean. The down side is every time you need to clean, you must replace the entire piece of carpet.  Then you must thoroughly clean and dry the soiled piece of carpet to be ready for the next cleaning.
 

Feeding

What should I feed my red tail boa?

While I believe the ULTIMATE food source for boa constrictors is RATS, the following have been listed as food sources for boa constrictors: Mice, rats, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs and rabbits. The best feeding rule I can offer is to feed smaller items early.  As a guideline, the size of the prey item should not be greater that the girth of the boa at mid body. Don't push the limits on your boa. Newborns should be fed "fuzzy" or just weaned mice or "pinkie" rats.  And then graduate with the growth of the snake.  If you feed prey items that are too large, you are asking for the boa to regurgitate! This can lead to many health problems, and even regurgitation syndrome.

Larger boas may be better suited if fed rabbits. Some boas would take several large or jumbo rats in order to get enough. In that case one large rabbit would be better. Rabbits can also be order frozen, then thawed the same as rodents.

I strongly recommend to feed frozen/thawed rats. Please click Feeding Frozen/Thawed Rats

Should I feed Live, Fresh Killed or Frozen/Thawed?

I feel strongly that we should feed ONLY Fresh Killed or Freshly Thawed rodents. Although many, many boa owners buy live mice/rats and feed them live, I do not agree with that method.  I have many reasons that I detail in another article. Please click Feeding Frozen/Thawed Rats . If you feed live, you are asking for serious bite damage and are opening your boa up to many parasites that live in the live prey.

How often should I feed my red tail boa?

The following are recommendations for feeding your boa. I recommend ONE Item per feeding. Following these important guidelines will ensure a LONG healthy life for your boas. Boas should NEVER be powerfed, a process where you place a second or third rodent in the boas mouth as it is swallowing the previous rodent, thus forcing the boa to swallow yet another rodent. Powerfeeding has been used to grow boas to lengths of 6 feet by the end of the first year. And although people have successfully "grown" boas this fast and some have successfully bred female boas at 18 months of age, it is almost without exception that these boas live less than 5 years. Powerfed or overfed boas are generally easy to identify because their heads appear to be abnormally small in comparison to the body size.

Remember healthy and properly fed boas can live 20 years or longer. Follow these guidelines.

Pinkie

Fuzzy

Baby boas        18 to 22 inches   - Newborn to 3 months     
Should be fed pinkie or fuzzy rats.  They can be fed one food item every 4 to 5 days.

Weanling

Small

Juvenile boas  -   2 to 3 feet           -  3 to 12 months             
Should be fed Fuzzy or Pre-weanling rats. They can be fed  one food item once a week. (7 days)

Medium

Large

Yearling boas   -   3  to 4 feet          -  1 to 2 Years                 
Should be fed a Weanling/Small/Medium rat every two weeks.  You can use the smaller prey items such as a Weaned/Small rodents to maintain a smaller in size adult boa, or the Medium rodent for a larger sized adult boa..

Jumbo

 

Adult boas        -   4 feet and up     2 Years and up           
Should be fed a large to jumbo rat depending on length and girth.  I feed adult  females and males every two weeks, however the rat size offered to adult males and females differ in size, with females receiving Large/Jumbo rats and males receiving Small/Medium size rats.  This keeps them compatibly sized.

Rabbits may also be a better choice, depending on the size of your adult boa.

Rat Photos and Sizes by Jeff Ronne--TheBoaphile

If you follow these normal feeding guidelines, and that is ONE prey item at a time, your boa will grow to an average of  7 feet.  How you change from these normal guidelines will also change the overall size of your boa.

I recommend placing the frozen/thawed food item in the feeding enclosure and leave it overnight.  If the item is not eaten by morning, then remove and discard the item, and try to feed a fresh item another time.

Never handle rodents and then handle a snake; you can be mistaken as another food item. You should develop feeding habits that allows you to prepare the food items without exposure to the snakes, as in another room.  Remember the number one cause of bite is because the snake thinks you are a prey item, especially if you still smell like a rodent.

Reluctant Feeders may have to be offered a "live" prey item, but this should be a last resort. If you find you must feed live, you should closely monitor the situation until the item is completely dead. Many boas prefer to eat at night or with lights off. You may have to try a variety of rodents and sizes.

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Shedding

My boas eyes are milky white, what is wrong?

Nothing.  This is a normal part of the growth cycle and is called Ecdysis or shedding. This will take place throughout the entire life of the boa. Boa constrictors shed their outer skin or epidermis. The milky look is a pre-shed state we call opaque. It is caused by secretions that start loosening the old skin in preparation for the shed cycle. You will also notice that the entire boa seems to be a darker, dull color.  This will last several days to a week, before you notice the boa returns to almost its normal color. Then the boa will shed its skin. This is a very stressful time for your boa.  No attempts to handle or feed should be attempted during this time.  You should mist the boa several times with warm water during this shed cycle.

How often will my boa shed?

This is strictly determined by the growth rate. Baby boas may shed once a month, while adult boas may only shed 3 or 4 times a year.

Also wanted to mention that their are a number of reasons that boa constrictors go into a shed cycle. Although normal time and growth is reason enough for shed cycles, other things cause boas to go into shed cycles as well. Stress related events such as moving or new housing can cause them to go into a shed cycle. Breeding situations often cause very unusually timed sheds. For example, even if a female has just shed, placing her in with a male during breeding season, will likely cause her to enter another shed cycle. Also ovulation in females causes yet another, often extended, shed cycle. This post-ovulation shed is a welcome sign for boa breeders.

My boa partially shed, but it was in many pieces and some skin remains on the boa. What do I do?

Your boa should shed in 1 continuous piece of skin! However, if it doesn't it is a problem that results from the lack of HUMIDITY in the enclosure.  Humidity should be 50 to 60 % at all times. To avoid this problem in the future, you need to mist the snakes with a handheld spray bottle. Fill the spray bottle with HOT water, and by the time you spray the mist will only be lukewarm to the snake.  I mist any boas in the pre-shed cycle every day. Spray them down good, and they will shed perfectly, every time.

Now for the snake that has remaining skin after a shed.  The quickest thing to do is to soak the boa in a tub of lukewarm water for about an hour.  This will generally loosen any remaining skin.  There are also products available, like Shed-Aide, that you add to the water to help with problem shedding.

 

 

 

 

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What are the eyecaps everyone talks about?

Eyecaps are the clear scales that cover the eyes.  These eyecaps should come off with the shed skin every time the snake sheds.  It is important to check every shed skin, even if you have to "unroll" it to visually check the eyecaps.  Failure to shed the eyecaps can cause infections around the eyes. 

My boa  YAWNS a lot, why is this?

The yawn is used in two different situations for our boas.
1st, boas will often yawn when they are getting ready to shed. This yawning is actually a "stretching" of the skin on the head area, to start the loosening of the skin so they can start the shed.

2nd, boas will yawn almost everytime after they have eaten. Some snakes may have problems "popping" back into place, but most resolve this problem by yawning. So the next time you see your boa yawning, it is more than likely just re-situating his jaws. I have seen many times where only one side of the jaw
will "snap" back in place at first until finally the other side will "snap" back to return the jaw to normal.

This concludes the Ultimate Boa Constrictor Care Guide. I would appreciate any comments, suggestions, corrections, etc etc.Please let me know how I can make this care guide STAY the ULTIMATE CARE GUIDE.

This care guide is the copyrighted property of Clay English and RedTailBoas.com. The PDF can be downloaded from the link provided below. The PDF file cannot be edited or revised in any manner. The logo and credits must remain in place at all times. This online version of the care guide may be printed or used as long as it remains unaltered and is used or printed in it's entirety. Copyright 1998-2008 - Clay English - www.redtailboas.com - cenglish@redtailboas.com

Online guide - Version 3.0 Last Update - March 2008

Other Resources
One of the best resources for information is the RedTailBoas.com Community Forum. An online interactive way to learn about these amazing animals. Register and join today for FREE and start learning immediately.

I also recommend the following books for extended reading.

 

The Boa Constrictor Manual Philippe de Vosjoli / Jeff Ronne Herpetocultural library
Boas, A Complete Pet Owners Manual Doug Wagner Barron's
The Guide to Owning a Red-Tailed Boa Glen Drewnowski TFH Publications
Copyright 1998-2008 Clay English RedTailBoas.com All rights reserved.
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