The Western Hognose Snake (aka Plains Hognose Snake) has no shortage of personality and spunk, an active little diurnal snake most well-known for its defensive behavior. Western hognose are thick-bodied colubrids with an upturned snout, used in the wild for digging and burrowing underground. Females are significantly longer and thicker-bodied than males, often reaching lengths of around 2-3 feet, whereas males remain around 1 to 1.5 foot long. Sexing is typically very simple, with females generally having a short and rounded tail whereas males have a long tail that tapers to the point.
When threatened, this colubrid has many techniques up its sleeve, typically beginning with loud hissing and the flattening of the neck and upper body (very much like a cobra). This snake will lash out and strike with a closed mouth, hitting the threat with its flat blunt upturned snout. In a last effort to avoid the threat, western hognose will death feign or ‘play dead,’ rolling onto its back while sometimes also emitting a musky odor from its scent glands. These behaviors are strictly defensive and often seen more frequently in younger snakes or animals that have not been regularly handled.
Housing for western hognose snakes is completely dependent on age and size of the animal, hatchlings or young snakes will thrive in smaller containers or cages. Shoe box sized enclosures (such as Sterilite 6 Qt or similar 5-6 Liter containers) are ideal for hatchling or younger animals. Juveniles and males will do well in a 15-16 Qt container or something of similar size (10 gallon) while large males and adult females will do well in 28-32 Qt tubs (20 to 30-gallon enclosures).
Cage decor and furniture is optional, a western hognose will need a heavy bowl that cannot be tipped over and a properly sized hide box. Humidity should be kept between 30% and 50%, too much humidity can lead to respiratory infections while too low can lead to shedding issues. Small moist hides can be temporarily added to enclosures to aids in shedding but should be removed when no longer needed. Western hognose should not be housed together nor with other species, hognose are opportunistic hunters and have been known to cannibalize one another.
There are many options for substrates and these choices are often dictated by the age of the animal. Hatchlings are best kept on paper towels or newspaper, as this provides for a sterile environment with no risk of accidental impaction from ingesting bedding stuck to prey items. The most common choice for juveniles and adults tends to be shredded aspen or chipped products (such as sani-chips), this option is easy to clean and allows for natural burrowing behaviors. Paper products (such as Carefresh) are also options yet I found them to be very dusty and dry, often lowering the humidity too far in my region. I would like to note that hognose should never be kept on cedar or pine bedding as these can cause respiratory damage in reptiles, sand and rock are also substrates that I would not recommend for use with western hognose snakes.
Lighting and Heat
There are many ways to provide western hognose with the proper heating and lighting, from belly heat to incandescent bulbs. Whether you choose to use heat bulbs in a tank or heat tape in a racking system, a thermostat is always recommended for use with your heating elements. Thermostats regulate temperature and ensure that temps do not reach unsafe levels, here at LFGH we utilize heat tape controlled by Vision and Spyder brand thermostats. The basking spot for western hognose should sit at 90º F, with the ambient cage temperature ranging from 78º F to 82º F.
Western hognose snakes are diurnal by nature, being most active during the daylight hours, and thrive best when given access to natural lighting. This can be accomplished with full spectrum lighting or natural window lighting (given windows are available and well-lit each day). In darker environments LED lighting can be extremely beneficial to maintain a good 12-16 hour day/night setting for diurnal species.
Hatchlings should be fed twice per week, juveniles every 5-7 days, and adults every 7-10 days. Hatchlings should be established feeders on f/t rodents prior to purchase as they can be challenging to feed initially, we do not release snakes until they have taken 6 or more meals on unscented f/t pinky mice, Snakes should be fed appropriately sized meals, determined by the head size and girth of the individual. At LFGH we recommend feeding smaller more occasional meals than larger ones, this has proven to decrease obesity, increase activity, and support a stronger feeding response in our animals.
Occasionally young or stressed animals can refuse food, especially if they are in a new environment. This can be completely normal behavior and should be considered prior to attempting scenting. Scenting can be done to persuade stubborn hognose to take a meal, here we do not attempt to scent hatchlings until they have refused at least 5 meals. In the event scenting is needed there are many options available; frog, tuna, salmon, and Vienna sausage are the most commonly used.
Bites and Reactions
Western hognose snakes have a Duvernoy's gland, this gland produces a mixture of toxins that are secreted into the saliva. While not a true venom, this saliva acts to inhibit and begin the digestion process of its prey. As a rear-fanged snake, the saliva is injected through several large maxillary teeth found towards the back of the mouth.
Western hognose snake bites are not very common and typically occur from an over zealous feeding response. Some individuals will experience pain, swelling, or itching at the location of the bite, but some have little to no reaction. Benadryl (or other antihistamines) and washing the bite thoroughly may decrease or alleviate some symptoms. Feeding with tongs or hemostats will decrease the likelihood of accidental bites and avoiding handling for 24 hours prior to and after feedings.