WHY WON'T MY HOGNOSE EAT?
The most common question we receive is 'why won't my reptile or hognose snake eat?'
Sometimes reptiles can be finicky eaters and hognose are no exception. There are many factors that can lead a reptile to slow down or even completely stop eating all together. We are going to talk about feeding problems as well as tricks and tips to get your hognose feeding in no time!
Shipping and Acclimation
The process of packing, shipping, and arriving in a new environment can be extremely stressful on reptiles and in many cases they will not eat for some time following arrival. This is completely normal behavior, it can take days to weeks for reptiles to acclimate to their new enclosure and feel secure enough to take food. I recommend giving your hognose at least 5 days to acclimate (without handling) before offering a meal, do not be surprised if the first meal you offer is regarded with defensive behaviors such as hissing or head butting. Some individuals will readily take a meal on the first try while others may require additional time to calm down and feel safe.
Contact the breeder or seller first, obtaining history on the animal is a great start when addressing feeding problems. Often you can learn the details behind how the breeder or previous owner was feeding; from time of day, feeder type, temperature, scenting, and so on. You might be missing a key detail that the reptile is accustomed to during feeding time.
If your animal is not responding to tong feeding you can try 'drop feeding' by offering the meal on a small plate or dish placed near the hide. I typically recommend giving them a few hours of privacy alone with the feeder before removing.
I often see feeding issues arise due to husbandry problems, the most common being an over-sized enclosure. Hognose can easily become overwhelmed and defensive when given large enclosures. Check with your breeder and see what size enclosure the animal is used to, you may have to offer something smaller to make them feel more secure. I have seen changes in bedding type, hide locations, and even water bowl depth elicit a feeding halt, especially in younger animals. Contact your breeder and ask for details on how they were being housed, you may have to replicate a prior enclosure and make small changes as the animal becomes more tolerant of your presence and more comfortable in the new environment.
Weather and Brumation
Many reptiles will slow their feeding or stop eating come mid to late fall in preparation for brumation (regardless of whether you want them to or not). Some individuals will continue feeding normally throughout the season while others may stop completely and burrow down for the winter. DO NOT PANIC! This is normal behavior, most reptiles that brumate will do so mid to late fall and during this time will not eat, but will still occasionally come out for water. I want to stress that if your animal stops eating during this time DO NOT FORCE FEED! Never force feed an animal unless directed by a licensed exotic veterinarian.
Brumation behavior will often include digging, burrowing, decrease in activity level, disinterest or refusal of food, and aggressive or defensive postures if disturbed. If you do want your animal to brumate you can try raising your ambient temperature and basking temperature as they often drop slightly during colder months. Monitor your temps and try to keep them stable, this may work but often once these behaviors start there is little you can do to stop them.
If your animal has decided to brumate and will not be swayed otherwise just check on them a few times per week and ensure they are healthy and maintaining weight well. Keep your enclosure clean and ensure the animal has fresh water available at all times as they will still drink during this time. If you notice any changes such as dramatic weight loss or lethargy, seek veterinary care immediately.
Stress and Behavior
Stress can be a contributing factor for both feeding and behavioral problems, often shipping can cause stress but other actions can also contribute and should be minimized. Actions such as handling, feeding styles, and proper husbandry can create and/or minimize stress, especially in newer animals.
Handling is a prime example, I do not handle my snakes (of any species) the day prior to or following a meal. Handling your hognose before feeding can increase the possibility of accidental bites and also cause unnecessary stress on the animal. Handling can be a wonderful way to build trust but be aware that excessive handling, especially prior to or immediately following feeding, can lead to stress and feeding problems.
Feeding style is another great example, some hognose like a wiggly moving feeder and are more than ready to chase the prey item with an open mouth while others may prefer a calm, sedentary prey item. Some hognose respond well to overhead tong feeding while others may become defensive and insecure with items overhead. I often recommended starting very calm and seeing how the animal responds, open the cage slowly and remain still as you offer the meal, moving the feeder more if you notice interest. Too often do I see people offering a wild wiggly mouse to a scared and unsure reptile
I probably sound like a broken record, but improper husbandry will create stress and can lead to feeding problems. Doubling checking your temps and/or equipment will ensure you are offering the proper heat gradient and enclosure.
'Scenting' is a fairly common practice that involves adding a different scent to a feeder in the hope of eliciting a feeding response. This is typically accomplished with fish scents (often salmon or tuna), frog or lizard scent, or Vienna sausage. If you have your animals feeding history see if they have required scenting in the past, if you do not try to contact your breeder for scenting advice or recommendations. I do not recommended changing feeder type unless necessary but some owners will want to change an animals diet, while this can sometimes be done, it will take time and patience and should not be rushed. If you purchase an animal that is feeding on frozen/thawed small mice you need to ensure you have that feeder in stock for your animal. Too often I see people buy hognose and then want them to immediately switch to snails, frogs, or fish. You can certainly offer new meals and treats for a more varied diet, but expecting an animals to switch suddenly may not work for that animal.
When scenting dip or rub your feeder on the new scent, if you have a tiny dish or bowl sometimes soaking for a few minutes will work very well. You may need to try several scents to get the right one, every animal is different.
Small bits of boiled egg or fish (salmon or tuna) can be given as treats but these also work great to get stubborn feeders active again. Sometimes a little treat or variation can get them feeding again.
My best advice for scenting is to contact the breeder first, every one is a bit different and methods can differ. They may know exactly what scent has worked on that animal in the past. If you cannot contact them most breeders will be more than willing to offer advice and tips. There are many forums and Facebook groups dedicated to hognose care and breeding as well.
This one may seem a little silly, but it is important to understand that some animals will not eat during a shed cycle. You will notice your hognose starting to get paler or cloudy looking, sometimes they will look wrinkly as well. We call this 'blue' as the eyes and belly will often look completely blue in color. If your animal is actively shedding you can try to offer food, but many animals prefer to be left alone during this time. In the wild hognose would stay hidden and secure until they finished a shed cycle, you may observe a decrease in activity until they have finished a shed as well.
You may be able to help speed up this process by offering a moist hide during this time. A small container or hide filled with damp moss or paper towels can be added to the enclosure, often this little boost of humidity will aid in shedding and be very appreciated. Remove the moist hide once the animal has shed, as too much humidity can lead to respiratory problems.
Illness and/or Disease
Just like any other animal, hognose can develop illnesses and contract parasites. A hognose refusing a meal or two is no big deal, but watch for other behaviors that may coincide with disease or sickness. A hognose that refuses to eat and has other additional symptoms will need to be seen by a licensed exotic veterinarian. Here are some things to watch out for:
Runny or bloody stools, regurgitation, weight loss.
Respiratory problems such as wheezing, sneezing, drooling, bubbling or wet nose, open mouth breathing.
Examine the animal for scale/shedding problems, wounds, or bites that may also be present.