Sometimes, a snake will be reluctant to feed for its new caretaker. This sheet is intended to help your hognose snake you’ve recently purchased from me resume its regular feeding habits.
Knowing a snake’s previous feeding habits, back to hatching/birth, is helpful in diagnosing feeding issues, so the breeder of the snake in question can (or should, anyway) be very helpful in suggesting corrections to care. Snakes purchased from local shops, online retailers, or flippers (a person who buys an animal in the retail market only to resell it shortly afterwards) can be very difficult to troubleshoot since their individual history isn’t known.
What causes snakes to refuse food?
Reluctance to feed by established snakes — that is, snakes that have accepted at least their first few meals of unscented rodent prey — is typically due to one (or more) of these reasons:
-- the snake is currently in a shed cycle,
-- the snake is entering a brumation phase,
-- the snake is uncomfortable in its enclosure because of enclosure design, temperature or humidity,
-- the snake is offered a prey item that is has an unfamiliar smell/taste/appearance, or is presented in an unfamiliar way,
-- Disease or injury.
Snakes preparing to shed often will hide (typically in a moist hide), become easily agitated, and refuse to eat. While snakes are ‘blue’ (milky-appearing, especially over the eyes, as the skin prepares to shed) food shouldn’t be offered. It isn’t always easy to tell if a snake is preparing to shed simply by appearance, but this stage of shedding normally lasts less than two weeks, so simply providing a moist hide box half filled with slightly damp sphagnum moss and waiting two weeks is a good idea if the snake hasn’t recently shed. Consulting the snake’s records (which I provide at the time of sale) can help determine if the snake is possibly due to shed.
Brumation (hibernation) is the winter rest phase of temperate reptiles such as hognose snakes. Even captive snakes that are not intentionally provided with reduced light and temperatures for the purposes of cycling for breeding sometimes reduce their willingness to feed during the winter months. Consulting the snake’s feeding records (and the calendar) can help to figure out if the snake is attempting to brumate.
Unsuitable enclosure or environmental parameters
Snakes in general are fussy about their surroundings, and hognose are no exception. The majority of feeding issues in established snakes can be successfully addressed by providing an acceptable enclosure. An enclosure for a hognose snake should have the following features.
-- Security, from the snake’s point of view:
All-glass enclosures often lead to failures to feed, likely because the snake both feels ‘exposed’ and at the same time constrained as it cannot cross a barrier it doesn’t fully comprehend (glass or, frequently, screen). Nose rubbing is common at night, and excessive hiding at other times. Both fish tanks and ExoTerra-type vivariums are relatively poor choices for hognose snake housing. Translucent tubs (Rubbermaid/Sterilite or specialty reptile tubs such as Vision) make good enclosures, as do PVC display enclosures such as those made by Animal Plastics. Both types are available in the correct sizes for hognose snakes, and maintain a sense of security for the animal. The enclosure should not be too bright; ambient room light is sufficient, and should be on a roughly 12 hour cycle of light and darkness. Heat lamps that emit visible light (of any color) may not be tolerated by all snakes; heat pads supply sufficient heat in properly designed enclosures, though a radiant heat panel (RHP) can be a good option in PVC display enclosures.
-- Adequate furnishings:
A hognose snake minimally requires a warm hide box over a thermostatically controlled heat pad, a cool hide box at ambient temperature, a moist hide box containing damp sphagnum moss, some sort of substrate (which can be particulate like aspen shavings or a sheet like textured kraft paper or newspaper), and a small water bowl. The hide boxes should be just large enough that the snake can coil in them, but not so large that the snake doesn’t touch all the sides when coiled. Replacing the hides with larger ones as the snake grows is required — most snakes will need at least three sizes of hide boxes as the grow.
-- Proper temperature, humidity and ventilation:
The enclosure for a hognose snake should have an overall temperature of slightly higher than room temperature — in the high 70s F. One third (or so) of the bottom of the enclosure should have a temperature of about 90 F. The warm hide should be on the warm end of the enclosure, and should hold heat inside (again, to about 90 F). Temperatures are best measured using an IR temperature gun (any model or style will do, and the cheaper models work as well as more expensive ones for reptile use). The heat pad in a tub, or RHP in a PVC display enclosure, will warm the rest of the enclosure to the necessary ambient temperature. Maintaining this temperature gradient in a glass enclosure is much more difficult, especially for those of us in cooler climates where room temperature regularly drops down to the 60s F in winter. Humidity for a hognose snake should be low. Measuring it is not necessary, but if you do over 60% should be avoided. Ensuring adequate ventilation by drilling/melting holes or adding vent inserts to tubs and display enclosures, using only a small water bowl (on the cool end of the enclosure to minimize evaporation), and maintaining a completely dry substrate helps to keep the humidity low. For this reason among others, the current “bioactive” craze is not at all helpful for keeping hognose snakes healthy.
Unfamiliar prey items
-- On scenting:
Hognose snakes are not natural specialists on rodent prey. Captive hognose snakes need to be trained to take domestic rodents. This is normally the task of the breeder. Consulting the feeding records of your snake will show what the snake has been eating, and how often. Once a hognose snake is regularly eating unscented domestic rodents (either live, or prekilled, or frozen and thawed, according to its preference) it is very, very unlikely that it will need to be retrained. Attempts to scent food for a reluctant snake typically fail to help, though do run the risk of getting the snake hooked on an inconvenient food source or even one that is impossible to obtain regularly. Under no circumstances should a casual hognose keeper feed or scent with any wild collected reptile or amphibian, alive or dead.
-- Prey quality:
Some snakes don’t adjust well to rodent prey that is freezer-burned or otherwise old, dirty, wet, or even has been fed a different diet. Trying prey items from a few different sources (shops, online vendors, local rodent breeders) can help to troubleshoot feeding reluctance. Thawing frozen rodents at room temperature on a tray (not in water) is recommended. Raising the temperature of the prey above room temperature is unlikely to help, as hognose don’t seek out warm bodied prey as a rule.
-- How prey is offered:
Some snakes are quite particular about how a prey item is presented. Some prefer prey offered with tongs (“teased”), some eat from a flat dish, others will eat only from a bowl (some snakes — hognose especially — push their food around before swallowing and may lose it in the substrate if not fed from a stoneware crock or other bowl). I have had snakes that will only take prey off their overturned hide box, or from the top of their moist hide. Again, consult the breeder of the snake for history information.
Prey type: most hognose snakes will accept frozen/thawed mice. Others prefer freshly killed mice, others (somewhat rarely) will accept only live mice. Rarely would a hognose prefer rats, although many will accept them. Some snakes that typically accept frozen/thawed prey but are a bit uncomfortable with their current situation or are still acclimating to it may be more likely to accept a freshly prekilled rodent. It is best to begin by offering food in the way the snake is accustomed.
-- Prey size:
A prey item somewhat smaller in diameter than the snake’s body is typically acceptable. Food that is much too small or too large may be ignored, although individual snakes may have odd preferences that their history will show.
Disease or injury
If all of the environmental requirements are met, the snake is not shedding or attempting to brumate, and the prey selection and presentation are not the issue, it may be that a vet check is in order. Snakes will respond to stress (as that of moving to new quarters and adjusting to the habits of a new caretaker) by succumbing to opportunistic infections. A period of inappropriate temperature, humidity or ventilation can precipitate illness as well. When selecting a vet, it is well worth the effort to seek out a specialized exotics vet. A vet familiar only with mammals (dogs, cats, common small animals) is unlikely to have sufficient experience to diagnose reptile ailments accurately. A vet who is a member of the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians (ARAV) would be the best option. You can search for one here:
Local herpetology societies/clubs can also make recommendations on qualified local vets.