The boa constrictor (which encompasses a variety of localities and colour morphs) is a large snake that requires a reasonable amount of space as an adult so must be researched and carefully considered. The lifespan of those in the boa constrictor family is typically 25-30 years, so a boa constrictor is a lengthy commitment. This, along with their size, and confident nature with a high feeding response makes us class boa constrictors as an intermediate snake. It is possible to keep this snake as a first time reptile pet, but you definitely need to research and where possible actually handle and experience an adult boa constrictor so you’re fully aware of their potential.
Meet the Boa Constrictor
There are two main species of boa constrictor referred to as “boas” and their care is very similar. The main species sold in the pet trade, boa imperator is a Columbian species and is sometimes called the Columbian Boa, Common Boa, or Columbian Red Tailed boa. This gets confusing when you consider that boa constrictor constrictor, a separate species, is known as the True Red Tailed Boa, or frequently refers to the locality, for example Guayana Red Tailed Boa constrictor.
Interestingly, boa constrictor imperator was reclassified as Boa imperator in 2009, but is still referred to as boa constrictor imperator by the pet trade. DNA sequencing found that there was a 5-7% genetic divergence between boa constrictor constrictor and boa constrictor imperator, which was enough to move it into it’s own genus. I’m referring to the common boa as boa imperator as this is the name now used in scientific journals, and no doubt will filter it’s way into the pet trade, although we can often be slow to move with change!
What’s the difference? You might ask. The first difference is that boa constrictor constrictor, or “bcc” as it is shortened to commands up to 10x the price. As such unscrupulous dealers often refer to their common boas as “red tailed boas”. If you are spending the full price of a bcc it’s important to be sure you are getting what you are paying for. BCC’s also reach larger sizes than boa imperator (BCI) and are known for their striking colouration and red / cream contrast on their tail. Care (other than size) is the same for both species; but it’s important to have an idea of the potential size of your animal before purchasing so that you can be sure you’ll have enough space to house it as an adult.
So now let’s talk about Boa imperator – the common boa. The average size is from six to ten feet in length, with females being on the upper end and males on the lower. However, there are now a wide variety of boa constrictors in captivity that fall within the same species but are from dwarf colour lines, and also from dwarf localities. It is now possible to get captive bred boas in the UK that will reach as little as three to four feet as adults – but it’s important that you are buying these from a reputable source as once again, it’s easy for unscrupulous sellers to mislead and the last thing you want to do is buy an animal labelled as a dwarf reaching four feet in length and find out as she grows that she’s going to hit nine feet! Always buy from a shop or breeder with a good reputation and that you trust and ask about the size and locality of both parents.
When it comes to colour morphs there are now an amazing variety of different colour boa constrictors available in captivity; the care is considered to be the same. I’ve covered boa constrictor colour morphs near the bottom of the article!
Boa Constrictor Housing
Due to the massive variety in sizes it can be hard to determine exactly what size an adult boa will need for an enclosure until they have attained some adult growth. Generally speaking a 6 foot x 2 foot x 2 foot or an 8 foot x 2 foot x 2 foot is considered adequate for most adult boas; although very large females may need larger and if you can provide more space then you’ll see more active behaviour. Dwarf boas are usually fine in a 4 foot or 5 foot x 2 foot x 2 foot as adults. Hatchlings or juveniles can start in smaller enclosures – just make sure you have the space and finances to upgrade to their adult size within two to four years.
Our 48x24x24″ Boa Constrictor Setup is a great place to start.
- Corn Snake, Royal Python, Boa Constrictor Setup (48 x 24 x 24″)£215.00 – £299.00
- Wooden Vivarium from 24″ to 72″£65.00 – £200.00
Heating and Lighting
A small basking area should be provided of around 33C (90F), whilst the overall ambient of the vivarium should be around 26c-28c (80-85F). We recommend using a low wattage light bulb to create a natural photoperiod and providing the majority of your heat through a ceramic heat bulb. This must be controlled with a thermostat and covered with a guard to avoid burns.
We do not recommend heat mats with boa constrictors. As a heavy bodied snake, they can put a lot of pressure when lying direct on a heat mat which can cause burns even if a heat mat is controlled with a thermostat. In addition, heat mats cannot obtain the desired temperatures in large enclosures. Ceramic heating elements heat the air rather than the ground and this creates a more natural and stable source of heat as well as being available in a wide range of strengths to suit larger enclosures.
Controlling Temperature – Thermostats – A thermostat controls the temperature of the device it is attached to. These are simple devices that can help maintain the temperature at optimum, which helps with the overall health of the animal. Both extremes of hot and cold can be very damaging to reptiles, as they cannot regulate their own body temperature like mammals. A thermostat is an essential piece of equipment for the responsible owner.
Measuring Temperature – Thermometers – In the best case scenario you will know what the temperature is on the hot and cold end of your tank as thermostats can fail or be inaccurate, so you want to take manual readings regularly.
Whilst UVB is not a requirement for a healthy boa constrictor, we now recommend UVB as best practice with all snakes, including nocturnal species. New studies are constantly improving reptile care, and we are using research from Arcadia Reptile which shows the benefits to health, including appetite, activity and colour when using UVB. You can either use a UVB tube with controller, or an all in one UVB kit.
Your UVB bulb must be guarded because a snake will wrap itself around the tube, which can both damage the tube and burn the snake. The exact percentage and size will depend on your vivarium, but a low percentage UVB designed for forest dwelling species will be fine. In the case of a large vivarium this doesn’t need to cover the entire size of the vivarium, having UVB that covers a partial section will still allow the snake to choose its location and to gain some benefits.
Substrate and Decor
Boas originate in tropical and subtropical areas around the world, and the vivarium should be set up to reflect this. Whilst a simple enclosure can be created with just a newspaper and a few hides, we strongly recommend you try to create as natural an environment as possible. A substrate that will hold some humidity is good, such as orchid bark or a coco fibre mix, although many people keep boa constrictors successfully on aspen as well – just make sure if aspen gets wet you change it. Whilst adult boa constrictors will rarely climb due to their girth and weight, hatchlings are quite happy to explore their surroundings. Generally speaking one or two sturdy branches or logs will be adequate but if you have unused height, you could consider adding additional shelves, ropes or ramps.
Hides should be provided on both hot and cool ends, allowing the snake to thermoregulate. A large water bowl should also be provided.
Housing Boa Constrictors Together
Snakes don’t have social needs and adding two snakes to an enclosure means you need a lot more space and hiding places. Although you may think that snakes cuddle up together, this is actually usually because they are competing for the most popular spot. It can already be quite difficult to provide adequate space for an adult boa constrictor, having more than one to a tank makes this task more complex, and there are no benefits for the snake. We’d highly recommend housing boa constrictors separate unless specifically intending to breed. You should never house boa constrictors with any other species of snake.
Handling your Boa Constrictor
When considering boa constrictors, it’s important to bear in mind their weight. A lot of snakes can reach 6-8 foot and be slender, but the boa constrictor is a heavy bodied, muscular snake. An average female weighs between 10-15kg, but some have been recorded at weights of up to 45kg – that’s 100lbs, or the weight of a small human being and they are very strong. Even a small boa constrictor requires a bit of strength to handle and shouldn’t be handled by children unsupervised. If you’re worried about size then males are considerably smaller and are generally easily handled by an adult, or an older child / teenager with supervision.
We recommend you have a snake hook if you have a large snake like a boa constrictor. If your snake is unwell or needs to be removed and they don’t want to be, for example if they’re being defensive or aggressive but need to be cleaned out or checked over the health reasons, then you will need a hook to manipulate them into a safe position. This is another reason this is not a beginner species, as using a hook takes some practice. Getting used to it when the snake is a hatchling is a good idea, and we’re happy to show new buyers how to use one.
You should always support the weight of the snake, but if your snake is defensive or aggressive, you can control the head with a firm grip behind it, ensuring that the pointy end is always away from people!
Boa constrictors can be a little viv defensive at times, and also have a high feeding response. This is part of why we call them an intermediate species. They are not naturally aggressive towards humans, in fact most boa constrictors are very tame and happy to be handled, but do require an owner that can judge snake body language and react appropriately for safe handling, so it helps if the owner has some experience with snakes. Our worry with adult boa constrictors is not that they will do you any injury, but simply that they may end up neglected which is why we try to make sure new owners understand the potential of an adult.
Feeding your Boa
Boa constrictors usually have big appetites and are easy to feed on defrost mice and rats of appropriate sizes. Hatchlings will eat every week, whilst a fully grown adult may only take one large prey item every 2-3 weeks. They are usually strike feedings who then constrict, so we’d always recommend you feed with tongs and not fingers, to avoid any misunderstanding – your hand is warm and they feed based on scent and temperature more than sight.
Boa Constrictor Localities and other Sub species
In addition to there being two main species of boa constrictor (constrictor and imperator) sold in the pet trade, there are also a variety of other sub species as well as some localities. A locality boa is one that is the same scientific subspecies as another, but comes from a specific part of the world that has resulted in selective breeding for certain traits. Most dwarf boas are naturally occurring localities that have been line-bred in captivity to continue the size trait, for example.
Boa constrictor constrictor
True Red Tailed Boa, with localities occuring such as Colombia, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad and Venezulea.
Common Boa, with many different localities including some dwarf species such as Crawl Cay, Hog Island, Sonoran, Corn Island, Costa Rican, El Salvador, Panama and Venezuela. Some of these may only get to 3-4 feet in length!
Boa constrictor longicauda
Peruvian Long Tail Boa. This species is available in the UK but in fairly small numbers. A fairly small species that rarely exceeds 6 foot, with a very dark black and white or black and gold colouration and arrow-head shaped head markings.
Boa constrictor occidentalis
Argentine Boa. A larger subspcies of boa, with females averaging 10ft. It is occasionally available in the UK pet trade, but the size makes care more complicated. It has a distinctive brown and beige contrasting pattern that makes it look quite different to the common boa.
There are also several other species of boa constrictor which are less seen in the pet trade, some of them are very rare! Unfortunately many localities and subspecies are mixed. If you are paying for a specific locality, make sure you trust the person you are purchasing from, have seen the parents if at all possible (this should be possible from breeders, but not from shops) and make sure you have a receipt stating what the snake is should you need to find a new home for it in the future.
The reptile trade does have unscrupulous dealers and they may capitalize on the fact that it can be difficult to visually identify some localities or subspecies. I’ve personally heard quite a few stories about people paying a lot of money for dwarf boas that turn out to be common boas reaching 6-8 foot, so always do your homework and make sure you trust your seller.
Colour Morphs and Genetics
Boa constrictors, like most snakes, have some recessive genetic traits and some co-dominant traits. There are now quite a lot of colour morphs available in the UK pet trade, including:
Cream, white, yellow, lacking in melanin. There are T+ and T- albinos as well. This stands for tyrosinase positive or negative. In the UK you’ll most often hear two different strains of albino discussed, Sharp albino, which is T+, and Kahl strain which is T-.
Anery lacks red pigment, resulting in a boa that is grey/silver, white and black. They may have some lavender tones in them.
A relatively unexplored mutation that affects patterning, forcing the saddles to form into block-type shapes. There are some rumours of Super Aztec having neurological problems, that may be caused by inbreeding, so research thoroughly if looking at obtaining one of these relatively rare boa morphs.
This is a genetic trait but is from Central American (El Salvador) locality boas, resulting in Blood Boas being considered dwarf species, rarely exceeding 5foot in length for females. They are a deep red/brown colouration.
The ghost is a combination of anerythistic (recessive) and hypo (co-dominant) for a snake that is similar to anerythistic but with even more lighter colouration and a silver tail.
Hypomelanistic boas come from two lines, Salmon and Orangetail. In the UK I’ve only really ever seen Salmon lines and most Hypos are Salmon. This is a co-dominant gene that results in lighter and bright colouration as the black pigment is missing. Super Hypo or Super Salmon is an extreme version of this, when both parents passed on the Hypo gene to the offspring.
Jungle is a pattern gene that is co-dominant. It results in variable saddles with aberrant patterning.
The Leopard boa is a Sonoran Desert boa morph. They are very dark, with variable patterning and often have no defined saddles, rather having a series of dots or dashes. Because these are dwarfs, they rarely exceed 5 foot.
Motley is a colour morph mutation that results in clean patterning with circular saddles and stripes or dot-dashes on the sides.
Snow (Double Recessive)
Snow is a double recessive morph consisting of albino and anerythistic which removes most of the colour, resulting in a white/grey boa constrictor.
Snowglow / Moonglow (Double Recessive/Co-Dominant)
Snowglow is a triple combination, the double recessive Snow (Albino and Anery) plus hypo. The sharp strain of albino is called a Snowglow, whilst the Kahl strain is called Moonglow.
The Sunglow combines the recessive albino gene with the co-dominant hypo gene for a brighter form of albino with more intense orange colouration.
Breeding Boa Constrictors
If you’re interested in breeding boa constrictors then this information might be useful to you. We’ve been breeding boa constrictors at Reptile Cymru for about ten years now. We only breed one to two litters a year, enough to supply our customers. As in the pictures above, we primarily focus on albino and sunglow lines, although in the past we have bred motleys, anerythistic and ghost morphs as well.
We recommend waiting until boa constrictors are at least three years to breed them. Males can reach sexual maturity as young as 18 months, but females need to be both a good age and a healthy size and weight. Breeding a female too young can result in permanently stunting her growth, a lower chance of live offspring or smaller clutches, so it’s not worth rushing a female who isn’t ready. Wait until four years if you’re not sure!
A seasonal drop in temperatures will help encourage boa constrictors to breed. In October drop the temperatures in your enclosure slightly. This is not the full brumation that most colubrids go through, but a small drop to a cool side of 75F and a hot side of around 82F. It is still safe to feed your boa constrictors at these temperatures, but they often will refuse food, especially males. I’d recommend feeding a much smaller prey item than usual and not as often. Fresh water should still always be available. Defecation is likely to be a bit slower than usual, but should still be fairly regular.
Introduce the male and female for a few days, then separate for a few days to a week. This is what actually stimulates the growth of the egg follicles, and is a step that many boa constrictor owners can accidentally skip. Repeat this up until March, at which point the temperatures are returned to normal. Continue introducing them in March, April and May, during which time the female will ovulate and become gravid.
After ovulation, a litter will be live born inside a membrane which they will immediately break out of, in 4 months time.
The litter size is very variable and can be anywhere from 10 up to 50, but with an average of around 15-20 babies. You are likely to find some of the babies are stillborn, and some may be “slugs”, which are infertile eggs. The birthing process will be quite messy and smelly, the baby boas will be slimy! We separate the babies from the mum, but don’t be tempted to wash them off – this is valuable nutrition for them. I affectionately call a litter of baby boas the angry goo pile.
Keep the babies in a humid tub together until they start shedding (7-10 days), and then separate them out into individual tubs. These tubs must have a hot and cold end at the normal temperatures for keeping boa constrictors, so if you’re thinking of breeding, make sure you have the space and equipment to house them correctly.
The babies should begin eating defrost fairly readily about a week after their first shed, and after a few months, you’ll be able to sell them to new homes. Breeding can be a lengthy and costly endeavour and finding homes for a large litter of boa constrictors can be challenging, so ensure you’ve really thought it through before beginning.
I hope you’ve found my care guide to boa constrictors helpful. I’ve tried to cover everything you might need to know about housing, temperatures, feeding, handling, morphs and genetics, but if you have any questions at all about boa constrictor care then leave a comment, message us on Facebook or drop us an email!