Kenyan (East African)Sand Boas Care Sheet
By: Denise Loving
"With thanks to Jennifer Reynolds"
The sand boas are a group of generally small boids, mostly Asiatic, although some species
are native to Africa and one species even ranges into Europe. They are related to the rosy
and rubber boas of North America, and together they make up the group called the erycine
boas. The East African (also known an the Kenyan) sand boa is in build a typical sand boa,
but colored orange or yellow with chocolate-brown to black splotches. The belly is white or cream.
In the wild, East African sand boas range through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Chad, Niger,
Yemen, Tanzania, and Somalia. They eat small rodents and lizards, which they catch by
lying in wait nearly buried in the dirt or sand until a potential meal walks by. They may also
search out rodent nests to dine on the young.
Male sand boas only reach about 15 inches in average length and about 70-100 grams in
weight. Once they reach adulthood, at about 15 months of age depending on feeding
schedules, they frequently eat very little, especiallly in the summer breeding season. The
females will generally reach about 22-30 inches, with 24 being about average, and will weigh
in the neighborhood of 250-350 grams.They are much stockier than the males, who are rather
stout snakes themselves. They can live well into their teens, with the record for a closely
related species being over 30 years.
When you dig your sand boa out of its cage you should slide your hand through the substrate
so that you lift the snake from underneath. In the wild its predators would attack from
above, and your pet may be so scared that it jerks or even snaps if approached from above. If
your sand boa does snap at you it generally won't hang on (unless it thinks you are food
because you smell like a mouse) and will frequently not even break the skin. Just wash any
wound well and watch for infection. I have been bitten by a snake much larger than a sand
boa, and a paper cut hurt worse!
Housing your sand boa is relatively easy. Males can live their lives in a 10 gallon aquarium,
and for a female a 20 gallon or better a 20 long is quite sufficient. If you have the room a
larger terrarium can be nicely decorated and give your sand boas plenty of room. Sand boas
can be housed in small groups, but if you have mixed sexes you should avoid this once they
near maturity unless you want babies. They traditionally breed in the summer, but I had a
pair breed in January and when the female was only 20 inches and 200 grams. I got a small
litter of 3 nice babies, but I didnít want to put that much strain on my young female.
Another housing possibility is a plastic sweater box. This is cheaper but less attractive. The
lid should be drilled for ventilation, or a soldering iron will also melt holes quickly. Care
should be taken that humidity doesn't build up too much. Juveniles will climb in an attempt
to explore (read escape) and can get through very small holes. It is a good idea to use hot
glue to line the inside of the lid of a sweater box with fiberglass screen to prevent escapes. If
you do this you can make much larger holes for the best ventilation. You should also make
sure to use clamps or large rubber bands so that the snake cannot force the lid off and escape
that way. Binder clips from an office supply store work well for this.
The substrate that I use is Desert Blend Lizard Litter, which is crushed walnut shells. It
is not too expensive, and because the sand boas are desert animals who produce dry waste it
seldom needs to be replaced. A depth of one-and-a half to two times the thickness of the
snake is fine, and too much makes the cage harder to manage without adding anything for
the snake. Playground sand is also a reasonable substrate, but it tends to be more dusty.
Shredded aspen is safe, but some sand boas seem to prefer feeling the weight of a denser
substrate. If you use aspen you need more depth than with a denser substrate. This also
applies to the regular Lizard Litter, which is made from the stems of the kenaf plant. Never
use cedar shavings, which are toxic to reptiles, or pine shavings, which may be. Both Lizard
Litters and shredded aspen are generally available at most stores which cater to herp needs.
The cage needs heat at one end, most economically supplied from beneath. I recommend a
human heating pad, which can be bought at a drugstore for under $15. If you are using an
aquarium use something like small wooden blocks to lift the tank so that it doesn't rest
directly on the heating pad, and there should be one end of the cage that is unheated. You
also need a thermometer - one from a pet shop should cost about $5 and will do the job.
Place the thermometer in the substrate over the heating pad. It should be between 90 and 95
degrees F. If it gets too hot even on low (and heating pads vary greatly) either raise the tank
more or place newspapers between the pad and the tank to regulate the heat. The other end
of the cage should be approximately room temperature, in the 70s. If the snake spends all the
time on the cool end you might want to lower the temperature a bit, but they should have a
place to go that reaches 90F in the daytime. If they don't have a place to get warm they can
get respiratory infections and digestive disturbances. The warm-end temperature can drop
into the 80s to the high 70s at night as long as it reaches 90 during the day.
Sand boas live in primarily arid areas, but in the wild they would seek out humid
microclimates. You should give them this ability by supplying a humidity box. This will
greatly assist them in shedding properly, and many seem to enjoy it even when not in shed. Mine
frequently will stay in the humidity box for days, and seem very relaxed when checked on.
A humidity bos is a plastic box with an access hole cut in the lid, half filled with slightly damp
green sphagnum moss (not the milled brown kind). You could also use damp paper towels. These
can be disposed of frequently, while the moss can be dried out and reused as long as it is not
moldy or soiled. Put the humidity box where it straddles the end of the heating pad. Check
it frequently for mold or droppings.
Sand boas do drink water, and should have access to fresh drinking water at least
periodically. If you use a screen-topped tank you can keep a small water dish constantly
available on the cool end. If you use a plastic box you may want to only place a small water
dish in with the snake at night 2 or 3 times a week. This is to avoid excess humidity
building up where the snake can't escape it. When I put my sand boas back in their cages I
frequently put their heads over the water dish and am sometimes rewarded by getting to
watch them drink.
That does it for the mandatory furniture. You may want to try laying a piece of plate glass
with smooth edges on the substrate and see if your sand boa will burrow under it and lie
where you can see him. They like the feeling of something over them and don't seem to
realize that it is transparent. They don't need hide boxes since they usually bury themselves
in the substrate or use the humidity box, but they may use a low one at times. A flat piece of
tree bark works well.
You could also landscape your pet's home if it large enough with potted succulents (remove
to water), driftwood, a ceramic water dish molded to look like a rock pool, or other items.
You can disguise the humidity box by burying it and covering the top with a flat piece of
bark or a similar object. Remember that sand boas will move things around as they burrow,
and won't make use of any climbing opportunities, unless it is to escape!
Young sand boas will be eating young mice, which you can purchase frozen. The rule of
thumb is to feed a meal which is about as big around as your snake at mid-body. For sand
boas that means that babies get pink mice and adult males get fuzzies, with a mature female
able to eat hoppers or small adults. Some may prefer smaller prey than what you think they
may take. You should never feed in the cage, as ingested substrate can cause death. The
Desert Blend Lizard Litter says that it is safe, but why take a chance? (It probably is quite
safe for some lizards, who, unlike snakes, can digest the cellulose in the shells.) Sand boas,
being mostly nocturnal, feed best at night. I feed in a cloth snake bag, which can be placed in
the cage for warmth and safety. To thaw a frozen mouse place it in a cup of hot tap water for
10-20 minutes until it is thoroughly thawed and warm. My sand boas don't seem to care if
their mice are wet, but you can thaw them in a sealed plastic bag, or skip the water
altogether and wrap them in a heating pad. Microwaving is hard to control, and an exploded
mouse isn't much fun to clean up. Place the warm mouse in the snake bag, wash your hands
so you don't smell like a mouse, add the sand boa, and leave undisturbed for a couple of
hours. If the mouse is still there when you check you can leave it overnight. Instead of using
a snake bag you can place the mouse and snake in a deli cup, but sand boas seem to feel
more secure with the feeling of the bag over them and usually eat more readily. If you use a
deli cup you might want to put in a piece of damp paper towel that they can hide under. The
pinkies and fuzzies that young sand boas eat are not old enough to damage your snake and
so can be fed live without harm to the snake, but that is a matter of personal ethics (and
economics - frozen is generally cheaper.) Older mice can kill a snake if they get lucky (and
your snake unlucky.)There are very few sand boas that will only eat live prey. Sometimes a
neonate will insist on live for the first few feedings, but if given one live and one pre-killed
when they are hungry they will usually switch fairly easily.
Babies should be fed every 5-7 days, and adults every week to every month, depending on
the snake and the size of the meals. It is hard to get babies actually fat, but there is a belief
that feeding baby snakes a lot so they grow fast will shorten their life spans. On the other
hand, a hungry snake may be grouchy and if kept underfed they will always be stunted.
Watch your snake, and adjust the amount and frequency of food as necessary. A fat snake
will have distinct gaps between the scales, making it look stretched. If this happens cut back
a bit - obesity shortens lives for snakes as well as humans. If your sand boa consistently
refuses food it may be stressed from too much handling. Try leaving it alone more to see if
that will bring back its appetite. You should not handle your snake unnecessarily for 24
hours after eating, as it may regurgitate. If it does regurgitate, wait a few days before
feeding again, so that the irritation to the esophagus has a chance to heal.
Your snake may refuse a meal because it is in shed. You will know this by the dulling of the
color, and your snake may be more jumpy. If they seem jumpy they should be handled as
little as possible until they have completed their shed, and if fed should only be offered small
meals. This prevents a large meal from stretching out the delicate new skin and causing
injury. Many snakes will not eat until the shed is complete.
The shed process usually lasts between one and two weeks. The skin will look dull for a few
days to a week, then it will look almost normal, but a close look at the belly shows that it
looks slightly yellowish instead of white. A few days after this the snake will shed,
frequently in the evening. If the snake does not shed completely you can place it in a damp
cloth snake bag placed inside its cage for a few hours. This usually does the trick. If there
are a few stubborn spots you can apply a little contact lens wetting solution, let it soak, then
gently peel the skin off.
You should check the shed skin if possible to see that the eyecaps have shed. If they are
retained for more than a couple of sheds they can damage the eye. If your snake retains an
eyecap you should first try the damp snake bag. If that doesn't work you can take a piece of
scotch tape or masking tape (not something as sticky as duct tape) and reduce the stickiness
a bit by sticking it to your finger a couple of times, then gently placing it over the eyecap and
lifting. If this doesn't work please consult a herp vet. People have blinded their snakes by
trying to use forceps to remove retained eyecaps. If you provide a humidity box there is
every likelihood that your snake will never have a bad shed.
SANITATION AND HEALTH
Your snake cage will be easy to clean. Sand boas produce their uric acid in a solid form as a
small white lump of urates. Their feces are also dry and not terribly odorous, unless left in
the humidity box for some time. The humidity box should have fairly frequent cleanings,
every week to two weeks if not soiled. Of course if it is soiled or the moss molds it should be
cleaned immediately! The rest of the cage is easier. I just throw away the lumps I find in
the substrate as I search for my snake, and replace the substrate and clean the cage about 2-3
times a year. If you use aspen or other substrate it may need to be replaced more frequently.
You can disinfect the cage and furnishings with a 10% bleach solution or a commercial
disinfectant like Quatricide. All of these must sit on the surface for 10 minutes
to be effective. Make sure to follow directions and rinse thoroughly. Pinesol has ingredients
that are toxic to reptiles, so avoid it and similar products.
Your sand boa, just by being a reptile, may be harboring a strain of Salmonella. A few
simple precautions in handling your pet will make sure this never causes any problems.
Never let your snake crawl on the kitchen counters, and use the bathroom for washing the
cage and furnishings. Don't kiss your snake, or let it tongue-flick your lips. Wash your
hands well after handling, or use a disinfectant gel. Disinfect any surface that your snake
touches which may touch food. Infants and people with impaired immune systems should
probably not have contact with any reptiles, but chicken from the supermarket causes far
more cases of salmonella than do pet reptiles.
If you get a new snake it should be quarantined for six months, to prevent transmission of
parasites and diseases. Sand boas are normally hardy snakes and seldom get sick, but
symptoms such as excess mucus, gaping to breath, repeated regurgitation, or anything else
out of the ordinary should be investigated by a herp vet. Remember, if you have any
questions ask someone - the only stupid question is the one not asked!
For more information on the Internet, see the Slither and Boa mailing lists, at
or the newsgroup
rec.pets.herp. Melissa Kaplan has a web site
with a great deal of herp information, including
a list of herp vets
. There is a page dedicated to sand boas and their relatives at
which has information and pictures. If you are
interested in breeding see "The Reproductive Husbandry of Pythons and Boas" by Ross and
Marzec. My e-mail address is
firstname.lastname@example.org and if you write I will try to
answer your questions or refer you to someone who can. Give the subject line "sand boas"
so I donít delete it as spam!
Copyright 1997 Denise Loving