Boa

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The boa is a large, visually-impressive snake that is relatively easy to handle and commonly kept as a pet. Learn more about this species in the following articles:

Natural History

Native to Mexico, Central America, and South America, boas are members of the family Boidae. All members of this family have certain characteristics that are different from the snakes in other families. For example, boas have vestigial hind limbs and fully functional left and right lungs.

Boas range in color from very light to very dark, with subspecies that thrive in the rain forest tending to be darker than those that thrive in the desert. They almost always have pale brown heads with one wide dark brown stripe at the back of the head that tapers into a fine line on the snout. Another wide stripe is generally located behind each eye, and there is a brown blotch in front of each eye.

Boas are ovoviviparous, which means they give birth to live young, and each litter averages between 30 and 50 young. Newborn boas are just over a foot long, but they will eventually grow to be 10 to 12 feet long.

Feeding

Making sure your boa gets the nutrition he needs is a very important part of maintaining his overall health, and his growth rate is directly connected to what he is fed and how often he is fed. It is a good idea to offer your snake several small items as opposed to one large one. The larger his food is, the more likely it will be regurgitated. As a general rule, a boa's food shouldn't be much longer than two or three times the width of his head, or no wider than the snake's mid-body girth.

How often to feed depends upon your snake's metabolism, but juvenile boas should always be fed more often than adult boas. Your boa should be at least a little hungry before he is fed (one indication of hunger is increased activity), so if he shows no interest at all in the prey, you may want to hold the meal off for a while. It is common for juvenile boas to be fed twice a week, older boas once a week, and adult boas once every week to three weeks. Both overfeeding and underfeeding can be dangerous to a boa. You should never feed so often that he becomes obviously overweight, and you should never feed so rarely that he becomes underweight.

Boas eat a wide variety of prey, including mice, gerbils, rats, rabbits, and chickens. You will have to decide whether to feed your boa live or pre-killed food. Generally, a boa will kill its prey by constriction. He will bite the prey to hold it in place and get it into position. He will then wrap himself around it and tighten his grip on it every time the animal exhales, eventually suffocating the prey. Then the boa will grasp the prey's nose and begin swallowing it, head first. They do not chew their prey, but rather swallow it whole.

All snakes should be willing to accept live prey, as this is the form of food that is most natural for them. Monitor the feeding situation closely, however, as live prey can injure your boa. If he does not eat within one hour of the food's introduction, remove the prey from the cage and try again in a few days.

Pre-killed prey is often considered to be the more humane type of food. Pre-killed prey is frozen and must be thawed to room temperature before feeding it to your boa. Some snakes are unwilling to accept frozen prey, but they may possibly by enticed if you hold the prey with a pair of tongs (never with your hand!) and gently wiggle it in front of them. Once he is interested, a snake will generally strike at frozen prey and go through all the motions of killing it before actually eating it.

Housing

In the wild, boas are found in a wide range of habitats, from rocky desert to rain forest. In captivity, you will want to mimic as much of the natural environment as possible.

By the time a boa reaches adulthood, it will need a terrarium that is at least 4 feet long and 3 feet high. Although this sounds like a large terrarium, it really isn't, considering adult boas are usually at least 10 feet long. Boas are generally lethargic creatures that don't need much more exercise than what they get at feeding time, so they don't require a particularly large terrarium.

Because boas are so strong, the construction of the terrarium is very important. A wooden frame works well, with a bottom made out of marine plywood that absorbs water well. Three sides of the terrarium can also be plywood, but the front should be made out of glass or acrylic for easy viewing. The cover should be made of screening and should have a strong lock. There are many possible terrarium designs, in all different shapes and sizes and made from all different materials, so think carefully about which is appropriate for your boa. Once the terrarium is ready, find a place to put it, preferably a secluded corner that is not in direct sunlight or next to an air conditioning unit or vent.

The bottom of your boa's terrarium should be covered with a substrate (bedding). Paper towels (dry and not colored), pine shavings, wood chips, bark mulch, or recycled newspaper are good options. Cedar shavings should not be used, as they can affect the snake's lungs and cause skin blisters. Anything used as a substrate must be absorbent to keep odors to a minimum. It also must be large enough to not stick to food items and be accidentally ingested.

The terrarium should contain a heat source to help maintain a temperature between 84° and 90°F. Keep a thermometer in the terrarium to assist you in monitoring the temperature. Heat sources should be limited to one area of the terrarium so that the snake can cool down if necessary. However, the air cannot become too cool or respiratory diseases will likely develop. Overall heating can be provided by strips of electrical heat tape placed on the bottom of the outside of the terrarium, or by large heating pads placed under the substrate.

Your boa terrarium should also include a warmer area where your pet can bask, often a flat rock. This area is usually heated by an incandescent bulb, fitted into the cover of the terrarium, out of the snake's reach. Incandescent bulbs get extremely hot and can burn your snake if contact occurs. Basking lights are normally left on for about 10 hours each day.

When considering lighting for your boa's tank, keep in mind that every snake has its own lighting preferences. Some snakes will flourish with only basking lights in the terrarium, while other snakes will need additional fluorescent lighting. While no terrarium should be kept in complete darkness, many snakes do just fine with only basking lights, getting additional light from other lighting in the room or indirect sunlight from a nearby window.

Just like humans, boas sometimes need a little privacy. To make sure your boa has a place to hide, you will need to supply his terrarium with a hide box. It should be large enough for your snake to be able to curl up in it, but it shouldn't be too big or it will make your snake feel insecure. A variety of hide boxes are available, including ceramic boxes and small, hollowed logs.

Every terrarium should also contain a water bowl. In addition to being a source of hydration for your snake, boas like to soak in their water bowls. Make sure that it is heavy enough that it won't flip over if he tries to slither into it or over it. Also, keep an eye on the bowl and make sure to change the water as soon as it looks the least bit dirty, even if that means changing it two or three times a day.

As soon as you've finished setting up the terrarium, you should develop a maintenance schedule. The terrarium should be cleaned at least once every two weeks. A thorough cleaning should include cleaning the actual terrarium, removing and disinfecting the water bowl and decorations, and changing the substrate.

Health Care

Mites and Ticks

Mites are very tiny creatures that are usually found on and under a snake's scales, on the rims of the eyes, or around the vent. They come out of their hiding places at night and suck the blood of their host, which can cause a snake to become anemic. Mites are also thought to be disease transmitters. They can be difficult to spot, but their silvery droppings give them away, normally appearing on the snake and in other places. Mites multiply very quickly and can do significant damage to your snake's health if left untreated.

If your Boa has mites, place him in a covered container with shallow water for three or four hours. While he is soaking, thoroughly clean and disinfect his cage and everything in it. Remove the snake from the water and dry him before returning him to his cage.

Ticks are not as small as mites and can be found between a snake's scales. They can be removed by swabbing them with a bit of rubbing alcohol and then grabbing them with a pair of tweezers.

By disinfecting branches, rocks, and other natural items before placing them in your Boa's cage, you will be able to avoid most mites and ticks. You should also isolate a new Boa before adding him to your collection. The easiest way to prevent a mite or tick infestation is to plan ahead and take precautions.

Mouth Rot

When a snake's throat and lung become infected by bacteria or fungi, it is called mouth rot. Symptoms include red, inflamed gums, refusal to eat, frequent opening of the mouth, and the formation of a whitish exudate in the mouth. If your snake has mouth rot, place him in a hospital tank and raise the temperature to about 88°F with a cooler spot of about 80°F. A visit to the veterinarian should follow soon after.

If you think your snake is sick, don't hesitate to take him to the veterinarian. Be sure that your veterinarian is comfortable with boas and familiar with common ailments and all of their possible treatments.

Dysecdysis

Dysecdysis is a word used to describe a variety of shedding difficulties. It occurs when a snake attempts to shed but some old skin is retained on some part of the body, quite often the eyes. This skin will harden and cause improper shedding cycles in the future. Eventually, multiple layers of leftover skin will develop and will cause the snake to be virtually blind.

Whenever your snake sheds, you should inspect him closely to make sure all old skin has come off, particularly in the eye area. If a piece has remained, remove it by carefully swabbing the eye with a cotton swab dipped in warm water. Then, use a pair of tweezers to pluck at the edge of the skin until it breaks free.

Getting Started

Making sure you have all of the supplies necessary for taking care of your boa is the first step toward giving your snake a healthy, happy life. The following list, while not exhaustive, suggests some of the most important items:

Cage (an aquarium with a secure lid or a wooden terrarium)
Heat Source (an undertank heating pad and a basking light)
Substrate
Hide box
Water bowl
Food (rodents or other small animals, live or pre-killed)

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