Hognose snake Care

Eastern Hognose (Heterodon platirhinos)

Eastern Hognose snake by Manrus

Hognose snakes are rather odd looking snakes – you either love them or you hate them. These colubrids are characterized by their “hog like nose” which makes them very distinguishable. This nose is actually an enlarged up turned scale which aids the snake in digging through soft dirt in search of amphibians such as frogs and toads - their primary foodstuff in the wild.

Hognose snakes actually consist of three genera which are quite divergent from each other (ie they separated a while ago in evolutionary terms), they are generally grouped together by hobbyists and taxonomists. Heterodon are predominantly found in United States and northern Mexico. Leioheterodon are the Madagascar hognose snakes, and Lystrophis are the South American or tri-colored hognose snakes. The most commonly kept hognoses, the Western hognose (Heterodon nasicus), Eastern hognose (Heterodon platirhinos) and Southern hognose (Heterodon simus) all belong to the Heterodon genus.

Hognose snakes are small and chunky in appearance, and they are very attractive. Generally speaking they reach 2-3ft, however 1ft and 4ft are not unheard of, so these are quite a variable species. Females are generally a good deal larger than males. Colouration is highly variable in hognose snakes, however they are most commonly lightly coloured, with light orangey brown blotches sitting upon a lighter beige background. There are also a number of colour morphs available in the hobby – since the recently surge in their popularity morph breeders have started to cultivate colour morphs.

Whilst hognose snakes usually take to handling well and are generally very docile snakes it is important to remember that they do carry mild venom. Hognose snakes are rear fanged – this means their fangs are toward the rear of the mouth so in order to actually inject any venom in to you they have to have a real good chomp on your arm (bite reports for hognose snakes often report them almost chewing at the arm). That said, the venom is harmless to humans unless you are allergic, then it can be life threatening (but the same can be said for bee’s, or nettles, or peanuts, etc. So try to keep things in context). When hognose snakes show aggression they generally simply puff up in a cobra like fashion and do what are known as false strikes or head butts. They will look as if they are striking at you, but their mouths are closed. They are simply “fronting” for want of a better term, trying to scare you off with fake attacks.

Hognose snake fact: One of the characteristic traits of hognoses is that when they feel threatened they play dead in a rather comical way. The hognose will flip on to its back and lay perfectly still, often with its mouth slightly open. They have also been known to produce a foul smell to further put would be predators off eating them. So concerned with keeping the act up, if you pick them up and turn them back over, they will instantly flip themselves back on to their backs and carry on playing dead. This strategy is a particularly powerful defence mechanism because many of the hognose snakes natural predators will not eat carrion.

Eastern Hognose (Heterodon platirhinos)

Hognose playing dead by Natalie McNear

Hognoses make great pets due to their size, attractiveness (ok ok ok, not everybody finds them attractive, they’re very much like marmite – you either love them or you hate them and I happen to love them).  Whilst they are certainly not difficult to keep, I probably would not recommend them as a first snake, they make an ideal second snake for somebody with a little general experience under their belt.

Hognose snake housing

Due to their small size hognose snakes do not need a large vivarium. A single adult hognose will be more than happy in a 2x1x1ft (Length x Width x Height) vivarium. Babies should be kept in smaller enclosures with the size increased as they grow. Storage boxes from DIY shops work fine for this purpose. If you opt for a converted aquarium make sure you buy a secure lid, snakes are very good escape artists.

Adults can be kept in converted aquariums, storage boxes from DIY shops or, my personal favourite are wooden vivariums. They are attractive, can be stacked (which becomes important when you come to realise just how addictive this hobby is) and they are quite insulated so hold temperature well.

You will need to provide a hide in both the warm end and the cool end of your hognose vivarium (see the heating section of the care sheet for more info on temperature gradients), you can use all manner of things as hides. Empty cardboard boxes (ie empty tissue boxes and the like) with a hole cut in the side make good – if a little unattractive options. Curved cork bark is another more natural option, as is a coconut husk with a hole in – you can either buy these commercially or make your own using a coconut and an electric jigsaw cutter. Up turned plant pots (and plant pot bases) make great options for hognose snake hides too, simply cut a hole in the side of them and you’ve got a hide. There are also a tonne of commercial reptile hides which are perfect for hognose snakes, I personally like the exo terra range.

Hides need to be just the right size to make your hognose snake feel secure. This means ensuring the hide is big enough for the snake to curl up in comfortably (ie it doesn’t need to cram itself in there) but not so big that the snake feels insecure in there. In short, the hide should be ‘snug’.

In addition to the hides you will want to provide a water bowl from which your hognose can drink and take the occasional dip if the snake fancies it. The water should be changed atleast every other day, however daily is much better. In terms of options for your hognoses water bowl, there are a number. Something as simple as a plastic bowl works fine, as does a small dog/cat water bowl. There are also a number of commercially available reptile water bowls which do well and a perfectly suitable for hognose snakes.

Beyond this you can add decor to make the vivarium look more natural and add a few interesting elements for your hognose snake to explore. Things like fake (or even real) plants add interest, as well as a few sturdy low lying branches for your snake to clamber on. Hognose snakes aren’t great climbers but on occasion they will have a go.

If you collect your branches and climbing objects from outside it is essential that you sterilise them and ensure there are no parasites, bacteria etc on them. To do this you can scrub them in a chlorine/bleach and water solution and then leave them to soak in clean water for at least 24hours. It is essential you leave them to soak in clean water to remove any traces of the bleach. After it has dried out then give the piece of wood a good smell (also get a friend to do it too to make sure) to ensure there is no trace of a bleach or chlorine smell to the wood. If there is, you need to soak it again. Another option for sterilisation, and one I prefer, is to scrub the item using clean water and then place it in the oven for a couple of hours at a relatively low temperature (gas mark 3, 160c is my preferred temperature). This will kill off any parasites, bacteria etc.

For the substrate in your vivarium there are a few options for your hognose. For youngsters, juvenile, and quarantined individuals kitchen towel or newspaper are a far superior option. They are sterile and allow you to keep a close eye on your snake – looking for problems with the stools, etc. They also offer little to no risk of impaction. They are however very visually unappealing so should be avoided if you’d like a natural looking set up.

Hognose snakes like to dig (hence their adapted nose scale) so a substrate which allows them to do this to a certain extent is preferred. Eco earth/coconut fibre are great options. They are a great consistency for burrowing and allow your hognose to tunnel and burrow to his/her hearts content. Another option is aspen shavings, they aren’t quite as natural looking as the aforementioned options but they are very clean, have a nice smell (in my humble opinion). The big advantage of aspen shavings is they hold their structure well, ie if your hognose tunnels through the tunnel is likely to stay there rather than collapse, meaning your snake can have something of a network of tunnels s/he has dug out.

Feeding Hognose snakes

In the wild hognose snakes feed primarily upon amphibians such as frogs, toads and the odd salamander. Whilst amphibians make up the majority (>50%) of their wild diet they are rather opportunistic and will eat rodents, lizards, eggs and the juveniles have even been known to insects. One of the theories as to why hognose snakes are rear fanged is that frogs and toads often inflate themselves to avoid predators, having rear fangs allows better grip and envenomation of such prey.

In captivity, a diet of amphibians is less than practical so you should feed your hognoses a diet consisting entirely of rodents. These are readily available as they are bred on enormous scale as the main foodstuff for the reptile and bird of prey industry. It can sometimes be difficult to get hatchlings to take rodents initially so when buying one, make sure to buy from a reputable breeder who can show you breeding records and better still, show you your hognose consuming a rodent.

A simple way of encouraging your problematic baby hognose to take a mouse if it is refusing to is to scent the hognose with either a dead toad, lizard or a small piece of fresh trout from your local fish monger. If you visit a pet shop and ask nicely they may have a recently deceased toad/lizard you can use, or if you go to a fish mongers and ask nicely they might let you have one of the waste bits of fish (ie head, tail, etc) cheap/free which you can use for scenting. Once you have your hognose feeding upon scented rodents, continue this for a few feeds gradually reducing the degree to which to scent the rodent until the snake is happily taking unscented rodents.

When determining the size of the food item for your hognose, you should feed items which are no thicker than the snake at its thickest point – which considering these are rather thick set snakes means they can take surprisingly large food. Hatchlings will take pinkie mice right off the bat and should be fed one every 3-4 days. Increase the food size accordingly as the snake grows gradually progressing to adult mice (or even jumbo mice or small weaner rats for particularly large specimens). Juvenile snakes should be fed every 5-6 days and adults every  7-10days.

Use common sense when feeding, if your snake is looking particularly lean then you should consider either feeding large food items or feeding slightly more often. If on the other hand your snake is visibly getting fatter than you should reduce frequency of feeding.

If you find your snake isn't feeding properly, find out why, and what you can do to start your snake feeding again.

Western Hognose

Beautiful western hognose by mcwetboy

Temperature and humidity

Hognose heating requirements are quite simple. As cold blooded animals (like all reptiles) they use external temperatures to regulate their own internal body temperature. In order to allow them to do this you need to provide your hognose snake with a temperature gradient. In short, they require a heated warm end and a cool end which is about room temperature or there abouts.

The easiest way to do this is with a reptile heat mat which is attached to a thermostat (all heating equipment should always be attached to a specialist reptile thermostat). Position the heat mat under the vivarium so that no more than 40% of the bottom of the vivarium is heated by it. Set the temperature on the heat mat to be approximately 88-90f. Please note that thermostats can be inaccurate by a few degrees and so a degree of trial and error is required before you know what temperature to set your thermostat at to achieve the proper required temperature. So long as you provide a proper warm end you don’t need to worry about the cool end of the vivarium so much.

Alternative heating methods involve bulbs and ceramic heat emitters; these must be used in conjunction with the appropriate thermostat and must, without exception, be protected using a guard. They get extremely hot and can cause serious (potentially fatal) burns to your snake.

Humidity wise, hognose snakes are pretty easy going, normal room humidity in most climates (40-50%) is perfectly fine for them. When you notice your hognose snake is about to shed its skin – this is characterized by a slight dulling of the colouration and milky coloured eyes – you should raise the humidity by giving a light misting once a day until the snake has shed its skin. Make sure ventilation is sufficient so that excess moisture does not stay in the vivarium for more than a few hours.

Handling Hognose snakes

Hognose snakes are generally known for their good nature. Some individual, in particular hatchlings and young juveniles may be a little ‘hissy’ and puff their hood up and perform false strikes as previously mentioned. Generally however they tame up very well with a little patience. If you buy a hognose from a pet shop or reputable breeder it will quite possibly already be over this “bitey phase”, this is particularly true when bought from breeders.

When handling your hognose snake it is important to be gentle and support the body at all times (remember these are heavy bodied snakes for their size). Make sure you approach them slowly and from the side – try to avoid approaching from above as many natural predators approach from above so your hognose may be a little more nervous.

Hognose snakes are very inquisitive and will enjoy exploring you, moving through your hands and arms etc and generally having a good look around. Handling is probably beneficial to hognose snakes as it not only provides a change of surroundings (and therefore some mental stimulation) but it provides exercise – lack of exercise can be a particular problem with snakes in captivity.

Western Hognose handling

Beautiful western hognose by katepc

Breeding Hognose snakes

Breeding your snakes is a fantastically enjoyable and rewarding experience. Hognose snakes aren’t too difficult to breed providing you go about things in the correct manner. Most importantly, you need to make sure your snakes are of sufficient size and weight to breed. This is of particular importance when it comes to the females – if they are too small then egg production can be too taxing on their body leading to complications such as egg binding and general health deterioration. As a rule of thumb, before attempting to breed females should be approximately 250g and no younger than 2years of age.

Before breeding your hognose you must brumate them – this involves dropping the temperature over winter to encourage them in to a hibernation like state before gently raising it come spring to return them from their slumber and have them ready to breed. Generally you should brumate your hognose snakes at a temperature of approximately 14-15c for a period of about 8 weeks. Care must be taken to ensure there are no gut contents in the snake before you start brumation. The best way to achieve this is to stop feeding the snake for approximately 3weeks before you begin the progress of brumation. Once this is done you need to gradually drop the temperature in the vivarium over the course of a few weeks from their normal temperatures down to the brumation temperatures. Obviously no food should be offered during this period and your snake should be left undisturbed with the exception of changing the water every other day (doing your best to avoid disturbing the snake).

After the 8 weeks you can gradually increase the temperatures again over a similar time frame to when you decreased them (ie gradually increase over the period of about 3 weeks). After this you will need to feed up your breeding individuals in order for them to gain weight and get in to breeding condition. Feed your breeding individuals a large meal every 7 days during this phase.

You should introduce your breeding hognose specimens together around June-July as this is when they would breed in the wild. Introduce the female to the males enclosure and leave them together for a week or two. During this time they will mate multiple times, if you are lucky you might get to see copulation yourself. Make sure the hognose snakes are well fed and you keep an eye on them as there is a marginal risk of cannibalism during this stage.

After you have separated your breeding snakes you will need to up the feeding with your female to aid egg production. Make sure you offer a large food item every 7 days. During this period you should also add an egg laying box to the females enclosure. This can be as simple as a plastic tub with a few inches of damp vermiculite in it, and with a hole cut in the side of the tub. This tub should be big enough for the female to comfortably fit in.

The female will lay 6-22 eggs (give or take) which should be removed for incubation as soon as they have been laid. The female is likely to be very hungry after this so a few days after you have removed the eggs you should begin her usual feeding regime again.

The eggs should be incubated in damp vermiculite at temperatures of 25-27c, after which they will hatch in 50-65 days (this is both temperature dependant, and dependent upon the individual snakes genetics).

Hatchlings (which if I may say, are absolutely adorable!) should be housed separately in small DIY storage tubs (RUBs). A few days after hatching they will shed their skin for the very first time,  a week after this happens they will be ready for their first ever meal. Hatchlings can be reluctant to try pinkies initially as they are not a “natural” food source. If this is a case try scenting with a dead frog, toad, lizard or piece of fresh trout from the fish mongers.

Good luck and enjoy your hognose snakes, they are fantastic little snakes!

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