Hognose Snake Care Guide
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Western Hognose Snakes are some of the easiest snakes to care for. They are timid, and can commonly be found hiding in their habitat. But although timid, they are still unique, and have their own habitat, feeding, and sanitation requirements. If you're having challenges with your hognose snake, feel free to ask our experienced reptile community for some tips on proper care.
Introduction to Hognose Snakes
- Hognose snakes will grow 3' Long
- They require 78-90 degress F in their habitat
- They like to hide
This gentle and incredibly amusing snake comes in several varieties. The most popular in herpetoculture is the Western Hognose Snake. But there's also the Eastern and Southern Hognose variety. These snakes can reach a length up to 3 feet (4 feet for the eastern Hognose, which is slowly entering the pet trade as well). Hognose snakes are thick-bodied, and easily distinguished by their upturned snouts, and their big round eyes with human-like pupils. They naturally occur in some very attractive color morphs, from a dusky charcoal to a coral pink.
Playing Dead as a Defense Mechanism
These snakes are erroneously referred to as puff adders. Not because they belong to the venomous adder family (they don’t), but because of their theatrical behavior when faced with a threat.
When startled, the hognose snake will suck in air, spread the skin around its head and neck like a cobra, hiss, and proceed to lunge close mouthed, and strike forcefully, sometimes repeatedly, at the enemy. If this doesn’t work, they ‘play possum’, feigning death. The snake rolls over onto its back, mouth agape and tongue protruding.
If this doesn’t work, and they are turned right side up, well, then they are just out of tricks, so they just turn themselves back over, play dead again, and hope the intruder is too stupid to figure out what just happened. For their keepers, this display is hysterical and a favorite house parties gag to amaze friends. Unfortunately, this death scene may be accompanied by the release of a foul-smelling musk from anal glands located on either side of the cloaca (party over).
Hognose Snake Tank Set Up
These snakes need room to move, but not too much, as this can make them feel insecure. A juvenile hognose will do well in a 10 gallon reptile tank for a couple of years. At 2 1/2 years old, your snake will have more than doubled in length and will be sexually mature. At this point, a 20-30 gallon tank is advised. These snakes are poor climbers, so most keepers have had the best success with a horizontally oriented tank, rather than a vertical arrangement. The basic elements of the tank should include a suitable substrate, a hide, a warm and a cool side, and a water dish.
Most beginners’ tanks will have a glass bottom. Some advanced models may have a false bottom with some sort of screening to allow feces and urine to sift down. If you begin with a simpler, solid bottomed affair, you should place paper towels on the bottom of the tank. Then, add a thick layer of wood shavings. Many snake keepers recommend aspen shavings. But many do like cypress shavings just as well. Aromatic woods such as pine and cedar should be avoided as they can cause lung and eye irritation.
A dense (3-4 inches) covering of shavings provides a light and sanitary bedding that the snake will often disappear under as an alternative to its hide. These snakes really like to burrow, in fact that is what the upturned snout helps them to do.
Safe Hognose Substrate Practices
It is advisable to provide an insulating layer such as felt or reptile carpet under the glass and on top of the heating mat to be certain the snake will not burrow under the bedding and fall asleep on top of a too hot mat and overheat itself. Snakes can and will choose to rest in an area that ends up being too hot for their safety. As the temperature increases, they don’t always feel it in time to move to a cooler spot. It is up to the keeper to carefully test and retest all surfaces several times weekly to keep your snake safe.
For these diurnal snakes, full-spectrum lighting should be provided 14 to 16 hours per day during the spring and summer, with a reduction of 8 to 10 hours during the autumn and winter. There are a range of full-spectrum lighting and timer products available at local pet retail outlets that will fulfill the requirements of your Western hognose, such as the Zoo Med Repticare Day Night Reptile Timer to measure the photoperiod.
Like humans, snakes get most (but not all) of their vitamin D3 from the animals that they eat. So they don’t absolutely have to have UVB lighting as a source. However, most conscientious keepers don’t take chances and assume that now and then the snake may not get enough D3 from their food, especially if their food is vitamin D deficient.
Another benefit of providing a UVB light source, such as a 6% T5 Arcadia Forest bulb or a 10% T8 Zoo Med Reptisun fluorescent tube, is the fact that while UVA and UVB wave lengths are invisible to us, reptiles can see them like an extra color in the rainbow. Many keepers have observed more activity and overall better health in their snakes after adding UV lighting. A tube that covers ½ of the habitat is more than sufficient, in fact that is all that you should provide. These burrowing snakes get less exposure to direct sunlight in the wild than you would think at first, so don’t overdo it.
Hognose Snake Habitat Temperature
Provide your hognose with a basking spot at a temperature of 88 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit and a surface temperature of 78 to 80 degrees on the cooler side. In fact, nowhere in the habitat should the ambient temperature be less than 75 degrees. This is a heat loving species at home on the baking sands of the desert Southwest, so don’t assume it’s warm enough. Keep it warm but not blistering. It’s important to take readings at the surface of the warm side, the cooler side, and any basking areas.
For temperature measurement, a digital laser thermometer is a worthwhile investment. Keepers need to remember that the ambient temperature of the room can affect the temperature of the habitat, so frequent readings are strongly recommended. Do not place the habitat close to a window that allows direct sunlight to strike it, for this will turn your snake’s home into an oven and bake your friend in no time flat.
Most experienced keepers recommend an under-tank reptile heating mat, especially for night time usage. Remember not to place the hide directly over the mat, unless you have monitored the temperature for at least one week before introducing your snake to the habitat. Half way between the cool and warm sides is best short term until you are really confident in the temperature gradient.
A further note on temperature is that a consistently cold environment of less than 70 degrees F throughout the habitat will encourage brumation. Brumation is more or less the equivalent to hibernation in mammals. It is a reaction to insufficient heat necessary for normal activities. Brumation can be deliberate, and is useful if you are attempting to breed hognoses, or it can be accidental due to heater malfunction. In captivity, brumation is not strictly necessary for health and may actually cause your pet to be unnecessarily lethargic, with a greater than normal tendency to hide and refuse food. This is yet another reason why temperature monitoring regularly is really quite important.
Although this species is used to some fairly hot conditions, they also prefer above average humidity levels. A normal hognose snake habitat should have an average humidity of 30-50%. But if your hognose snake is starting to shed, then 60-65% is needed for a couple of days. During shedding It can be challenging to keep the humidity up in a habitat with a screen top. Reptile foggers are the best way to accomplish this. But there are other methods that are as simple as using a spray bottle. Ultimately it is up to the individual keeper’s preferences and life style.
If your snake is shedding and you choose to mist your snake twice daily, be sure to spray the entire habitat lightly with warm water, not just the snake. To spray your snake with cold water is just asking for a traumatized animal. If you must be away for the day and it looks like your guy/gal is beginning to shed, you can supply a second source of water, such as a second bowl or damp sphagnum moss. For a second water source, warm water is again essential.
Because the humidity level throughout even large habitats will be more consistent than temperature gradients, an hygrometer attached to the side of the enclosure will take the guess work out of managing humidity. Be mindful of the fact that warm baths in a habitat with solid top (not screened) may create unsanitary conditions favorable for the growth of molds, so careful observation of what works may take a couple of weeks.
A successful keeper knows that temperatures and humidity levels are never constant in a hognose snake habitat. So good monitoring and frequent care for your beloved hognose snake will prevent problems.
It's important to offer a large hide, and one that is easy to clean and sanitize. The hide width should accommodate a coiled body of the hognose snake. A hide that is too big, however, will not be used, as hognose snakes like a cozy spot that they almost wedge themselves into.
Plastic hides and branches may look tacky, but may be the most practical, depending on your lifestyle. Cork wood looks nice and natural, but it is very difficult to clean. Dishwasher safe hides and bowls are the easiest by far. If you do decide on cork wood as an attractive and snake friendly hide, I would replace it every year. Otherwise, you can try what some reptile keepers do and bake the wood at 250 degrees F for 2 hours to sanitize.
Hognose Snake Feeding Schedule
The best time to fee your hognose snake is in the late morning. However, do experiment with times and techniques. Some keepers report that hognose snakes can be finicky and require a great deal of encouragement to eat. Others have said that their snakes strike eagerly at anything that moves. Keepers with the later kind should feed dead prey using forceps for safety.
Unlike most snakes, a hognose snake will grab the prey anywhere on the body, and not worry about the head. For this reason, there is sometimes a bit of overshoot that can land bite on the keeper’s hand. Although these are technically non-venomous snakes, their saliva does contain an irritating enzyme that can make the bite site red and itchy for hours. If you do get struck, soap and water followed by Benedryl applied to the bite should do the trick.
How often you feed your snake depends on how old it is. Baby snakes don’t even start to think about food until they are two to four weeks old. Once they do, they generally need to eat about twice a week. More frequent feedings will encourage them to grow faster. As your snake gets older, he/she will not need to be fed quite as often. As with all snakes, do not handle your guy/gal for at least 24 hours after feeding.
The use of a separate feeding enclosure is a subject of debate among fanciers. Some feel that a separate feeding enclosure may not be strictly necessary, but it can sometimes be helpful. One argument in favor is that using a different habitat for feeding times can help to keep the main enclosure cleaner and more sanitary.
A separate feeding enclosure may also be necessary if you are housing more than one snake in a habitat (not recommended) or if you use a substrate that can possibly be ingested. Others feel it is unwise to move the snake to a strange environment, expect it to perform a natural behavior immediately, and then expect it not to throw up when it is handled for the purpose of placing it back in its main home. I have always fed right inside the main habitat.
What will you be feeding your hognose snake?
This depends on how old he/she is. A very young snake can only manage pinkies for quite a few months. After that they will graduate to fuzzies, and then hoppers. Here's how to distinguish between the different ages for mice:
- Pinky: A pinky is a newborn mouse. Ranging from one to three grams in weight, depending on where you purchase them. They have no fur and are high in protein.
- Fuzzy: A fuzzy is a slightly older baby mouse, with the beginnings of fur. They are slightly bigger in size and weigh around 3-5g.
- Hopper: The next age stage. These are around 5-9g in weight and are fully formed, but not fully grown.
And here's some facts about Rats:
- The rat equivalent of a pinky would be a ‘rat pup’. These are slightly bigger in size, around 5g.
- The rat equivalent of a fuzzy is called a ‘fluff’. And around 10-25g in weight, so quite a substantial difference.
- The rat equivalent of a hopper would be ‘weaner’ rat, at around 25-50g.
The size of the prey you choose will depend on whether or not the snake can both swallow and digest it. When in doubt, consider the width of the diner. That is, prey should be no wider than the widest part of the snake's body. Choosing prey that is too large, if it is actually swallowed, can result in regurgitation at the very least (if you’re lucky), with injuries, seizures, partial paralysis, gut impactions, and death being unpleasant possibilities as well. Adult rats are therefore not appropriated food items for this smaller species of snake.
Should you feed only rodents to Hognose Snakes?
Not necessarily. Everyone enjoys a change of pace and an older snake can be offered day old chicks now and then. Does the prey have to be alive? Some keepers believe that the live prey offers the ability for the snake to perform natural behaviors. Others claim that this is nonsense and that a rich environment and positive interaction with a human handler should provide sufficient stimulation.
Here are the advantages of pre-killed, frozen dinners over live chow:
- Live prey can be too active for young snakes.
- Sometimes dinner bites back. Attacks by live prey can permanently disfigure your snake. Injuries caused by live prey can include lacerations to the snake's mouth area and eyes. Cutting through his/her tongue sheath is not uncommon.
- Attacks by live prey can traumatize your snake, and it can be very difficult to get that snake to feed on that prey item again.
- Pre-killed offerings can last in the freezer for up to six months. Remember to thaw it completely in the refrigerator and warm it to slightly above room temperature before feeding it to your snake. Do not use a microwave for this.
Tricks to tempt your hognose snake into eating pre-killed meals:
Use tongs or hemostats to dangle the prey and "dance" it around the cage to make it appear alive and entice the snake to strike at it.
Sense of smell is very keen in most snakes. Make sure the prey is warmer than room temperature; it will smell more appetizing to your snake that way. You can also pith (pierce) the braincase of the prey with a pin or nail to release even more enticing odors (yum).
How To Clean a Hognose Snake Habitat
Cleaning the habitat is fairly easy and should be done lightly once a week, thoroughly once a month. Weekly light, sanitation is very important to pick up snake shit. If left to collect over a period of time, snake shit can encourage an unsanitary living environment, and it can smell pretty terrible.
- Daily: Spot remove any feces that you see. Use tongs.
- Weekly: Remove and dispose of the top 1 inch of bedding and replace with fresh.
- Bi-weekly: Place dishwasher safe furniture and water bowl in the dishwasher every two weeks.
- Monthly: Remove everything, and spritz the habitat interior with 10% bleach solution. If the terrarium is glass, spray sides with vinegar after the bleach has been applied and removed and wipe down for better visibility. Do not use bleach stronger than a 10% solution and do not place your snake back inside without wiping down all damp areas after it has soaked in bleach for ½ hour. After wiping down, wait another ½ hour, install fresh substrate and reposition the sanitized furniture. Only then should you place your snake back in. This is one time where a separate container for you snake is handy. A Tupperware box with tight fitting lid, a thick rumpled terry cloth towel in the bottom, and a warm location (or you can but the box right next to the aquarium/vivarium, remove the undertank pad from the underneath the primary habitat and slip it under the secondary holding container) are all that is needed. If using supplemental heat beneath a Tupperware or other plastic box, be sure to slip a hand towel over the heating element so it does not come into direct with the plastic. Also, preheat the box for at least 10 minutes before placing the snake inside.
Proper feeding and sanitation can help to prevent most common illnesses in hognose snakes. For example, blister disease is associated with damp, filthy environments and effects the bottom most scales, the scutes, that are in constant contact with the filth. The scutes develop a reddish appearance and if untreated they become swollen and infected by bacteria and fungi. The habitat must receive a comprehensive cleaning immediately and the snake must see a vet, who will probably administer an injectable antibiotic, followed by a course of topical treatments administered twice daily (by the owner).
Other conditions such as mouth rot, respiratory infections, and fungal infections are often a function of a dirty environment. Mouth rot is a very common outcome of a filthy habitat. It is often first noted as a pus lined mouth, or bubbling nostrils. When this is discovered the animal should see the nearest veterinarian immediately. Antibiotics and mouth rinsing twice a day may be required.
Most respiratory problems are also rooted in poor husbandry. Douglas Mader, DVM states that “If a reptile is not housed at its POTZ (preferred optimal temperature zone) it can become stressed. Over time, this will depress the animal’s immune system, predisposing it to disease”. One of those diseases is pneumonia. This is why correct heating combined with correct sanitation is critical.
Respiratory infections can be lingering and often fatal, so prevention is the best cure. Hognose snakes kept in overly humid conditions seem to contract respiratory ailments more often than those kept at the correct level (no more than 50% for western, no more than 60% for eastern and southern subspecies, except briefly during molting). Correct humidity will make the need for habitat maintenance a little less frequent, so monitor frequently and save yourself any extra cleaning.
Hognoses are delightful ophidians and deserve the best care you can provide. In turn they will provide you with many years of amusement.