There are three separate species of hognose snakes - the eastern, western and southern. Of the three, the western species (subspecies: plains, dusty, Mexican) is by far the most commonly kept in captivity. Its natural range is from west Texas across to New Mexico, and northward into southern Canada. There are also isolated populations in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas. The eastern hognose has an extensive range, from Minnesota eastward to southern New Hampshire, south to Florida and west to Texas and Kansas. [NOTE: The Eastern hognose is a species of Special Concern in New York State and may not be collected/possessed without special permit]. The southern species can be found in North Carolina through Florida, and west to Mississippi.
In general, hognose snakes are stout bodied animals that do not achieve great length, as adults attaining anywhere from 14 to 40 inches, depending on the species (eastern hogs are the largest, southern hogs the smallest). Females tend to grow larger than males. They are active during the daytime (diurnal), and will burrow into loose soil or sand to escape climatic extremes. Their natural prey are toads, and their characteristic upturned snout assists them in digging up buried toads. Hognose snakes are not constrictors; rather, they are rear-fanged and possess mild venom that enables them to overcome toads preparatory to swallowing them. Their venom is not known to be toxic to humans, and in fact hognose snakes have mild dispositions and rarely, if ever, offer to bite their captors. Hognose snakes have been known to put on a defensive display which includes hissing, hooding its neck, inflating its body and, if all else fails, rolling over and playing dead, with its mouth agape and tongue hanging out. Most hognose snakes in captivity do not display this behavior once they become accustomed to their circumstances.
Choosing your snake - First, it should be emphasized that in all cases you should attempt to acquire a captive bred specimen. There are several reasons for this - first, captive bred animals are almost always healthier than their wild collected counterparts, being generally far less likely to have been exposed to such maladies as internal and external parasites and other diseases. Also, captive bred animals usually adapt more readily to being kept as pets. Finally, the plentiful availability of captive bred snakes reduces the necessity to collect wild specimens for the pet trade, thus relieving the pressure on the natural population. Because hognose snakes depend on toads as their primary food source, in areas of the U.S. where toad populations are declining the snakes are also suffering from declining numbers. Therefore it is better to leave these snakes in their natural environment.
Your next choice will be whether to purchase an adult or hatchling snake. Although there are arguments to be made on both sides, it is generally better to start off with a hatchling for several reasons. First, there will be a wider variety to choose from. You will also know its age and, if buying directly from a breeder, its genetic background, which will be important if you intend to breed the animal in the future. You will be virtually assured that it has been captive bred, since very few hatchlings are wild collected. Finally, you will have the satisfaction of watching your snake grow and mature into its adult size.
Whether you are buying a hatchling or an adult, there are several items you should check to attempt to determine the animal's health. Check that it appears alert and responsive as you handle it, making sure that it flicks its tongue in and out to check out its environment. Also check its body weight and muscle tone - it should not appear emaciated or have its ribs protruding, and should not have visible scars or "kinks" in its spine. Ask if it has been feeding regularly. Check its vent, called the cloaca, to make sure that it appears dry and closes properly. Try to listen to its breathing - if it appears to be wheezing or if mucous is present around the mouth, this may be a sign of respiratory infection. The mouth should close tightly and not display any scars or lesions. Finally, check the animal for the presence of any external parasites such as mites or ticks.
Housing - The most important point to emphasize is that hognose snakes, in fact all snakes, are amazing escape artists, and if there is even the slightest opportunity to escape, they will certainly find it. Make sure the lid is tightly fitting and well fastened. Hatchling hognose snakes can be maintained in small enclosures such as a 12 x 6 inch cage, until they are a year old. Adult hognose can be maintained comfortably in a 20- gallon tank, or equivalently sized cage. In addition to the standard fish tanks with screen covers, there are a variety of cages built specifically for snakes on the market. Whatever cage you choose, how you set up your enclosure depends on whether you are maintaining multiple cages for several snakes and trying to maximize efficiency, or whether you desire to make the habitat more esthetically pleasing from a human perspective, but each should have the following minimum requirements:
Feeding – Hognose snakes, like all snakes, are 100% carnivorous. As mentioned above, toads are the favorite food of hognose snakes in the wild. In captivity, you obviously do not want to keep an animal that feeds exclusively on toads, so insist on obtaining a snake that is feeding on mice. If necessary, if your hognose refuses mice once you get it home, you can use a process known as "scenting", which consists of taking the mouse and rubbing it against a toad (live or dead) so that the mouse smells like a toad. Since snakes hunt mainly by scent, this often will "trick" them into eating mice. Probably one of the main reasons that the western species has emerged as the most popular of the hognose snakes is that it is the easiest of the three to get to accept mice. Hatchlings will start off by feeding on pinkie mice. The best method for feeding hatchlings is to place the snake and the pinkie in a small deli cup, which forces the snake to concentrate on the food item. Occasionally a hatchling hognose will insist on live pinkies, but ultimately you will have to switch it over to pre-killed - since hognose snakes are not constrictors, they would have difficulty subduing a larger rodent that was capable of defending itself. As your snake matures, it will graduate to fuzzies, crawlers, and then small and/or medium mice. Larger hognose snakes are able to consume fully grown adult mice. A general rule of thumb is to select a food item that does not exceed one and a half times the girth at the snake's mid-body section. When feeding hatchlings in particular, exercise caution with respect to the size of the food item. Never feed a snake a prey item that is too large, because a hungry snake will often consume the animal only to subsequently regurgitate it. It is better to err on the side of caution - if you are not sure, feed two smaller items rather than one that may be too large. Once the snake has eaten, it will usually crawl off to the heated side of the cage and remain there for several days digesting the meal. Try not to handle the snake for 24 - 48 hours after they feed. Feeding schedules differ with respect to hatchlings and adults. For hatchlings, you can feed them as often as twice a week to as little as once every ten days. With adults, once every 7 to 14 days would be sufficient. If you are breeding your snakes, you probably want to feed the female more often in the weeks before breeding commences to prepare her for the rigors of laying eggs.
Breeding – Hognose snakes breed readily in captivity, and if you choose this aspect of the hobby you can potentially accrue greater satisfaction from keeping your animals. There are several varieties of hognose snakes available in the captive bred market, including albino and hypomelanistic morphs. A word of caution - before contemplating this step, make sure you are prepared and equipped to take care of the hatchlings that could result. Breeding snakes is an extensive subject not undertaken by the novice, and for more information we recommend reading as much as possible on the subject.
This care sheet is by no means intended as a comprehensive guide to hognose snakes. For further information, read as much as you can about these beautiful reptiles.
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