One of the reasons why hognose snakes are popular beginner pets is because they are very handleable. And when done correctly, handling can be very good for your snake!
How to tame a hognose snake
The first thing you need to know is that you shouldn’t handle your new pet for about 2 weeks after bringing it home. This gives the snake an opportunity to settle in and get comfortable in its new environment.
Once your hognose is eating regularly, they are ready for handling. Take it slow at first, keeping initial handling sessions no longer than 5 minutes — but don’t return the snake until it is calm, which “rewards” “good behavior.” Once your hognose is calm in your hands, work up to 10 minutes, then gradually up to half an hour. Handling sessions should not exceed 1 hour.
To keep your hognose comfortable with human interaction, handle it 1-2x/week, but no more than 1x/day. It’s good exercise, but more often can stress them out, especially if your hognose is young.
Note that Easterns and Southerns may be more defensive/flighty than Westerns, so it’s better to restrict handling sessions to 1x/week for them.
How to hold your hognose
Before you pick up your hognose, wash your hands to make sure that you smell like a human. Hands that smell like a toad or mouse or otherwise may get bitten. Using a hand sanitizer like BAC-D is nice because it gets rid of germs and scents your hands, further lessening the likelihood of an accidental bite.
It’s likely that your hognose will be buried. Poke around in the substrate with a small snake hood or the eraser end of a pencil until you find it, then use the tool to lift the snake out of the substrate. This can help prevent getting bitten by a startled snake. If you are still worried about getting bitten, wear a pair of light gloves.
Use your hands to approach from the side, as approaching from above may scare your snake. As you lift it out of the enclosure, hold as much of its body in your hands as possible. Avoid grabbing the tail or restraining the head, which will stress them out.
Once the snake is out of its enclosure, hold it close to your body and gently guide its movements with your hands. Keep it away from your face, and avoid touching the head at first, as most snakes are head shy. This is something you can work on as your hognose gets more comfortable with being touched. Also watch it carefully. Hognoses can be quite active and may disappear if you get distracted.
Do not handle your hognose if:
- It has eaten within the last 48 hours
- It’s “in the blue” (about to shed)
What about salmonella?
Contrary to popular belief, salmonella infection from reptiles is very rare, and even less likely when you follow proper hygiene and husbandry protocols. Keep your snake’s terrarium clean, wash your hands thoroughly after each handling session, and you should never have a problem. More information on the relationship between salmonella and reptiles here.
Do hognoses bite?
Hognose snakes very rarely bite out of defense/aggression, preferring to bluff their way out of a threatening situation. But they’re not the brightest bulbs in the box, and sometimes they will bite their keepers if they mistake a human hand for prey.
If you do get bitten, don’t yank the snake off of you — this can injure them. One of the best ways to get a hognose to disengage on its own is to pour cold water on its face or use a little Listerine mouth wash. Treat the “wound” (it’s a series of pinpricks, really) with soap and water and you’ll be fine. If you receive a bite to a finger, remove any rings to avoid cutting off circulation in case of swelling.
Whatever you do — DON’T post a picture of the bite to social media! Snake bite pics aren’t cool; they’re dumb and damaging to the reptile community. Pictures like these only further fear and hate toward snakes, and give fuel to the people who argue for reptiles to be outlawed as pets.
While there are many things worse than a hognose bite, I can’t say that I’d let them bite me for fun, either. If you’re worried about getting bitten, wear gloves during handling. (Read more about what to do in case of a snake bite here.)
Let’s talk about hognose venom
North American hognose snakes are classified as “rear-fanged venomous,” but the venom is relatively harmless to humans. Some report no symptoms, while others will experience tingly, swelling, and/or itchy skin at the site. According to those who experience symptoms, the effects are decidedly unpleasant and not something to be provoked.
Heterodon venom is not considered medically significant, as there is no threat of tissue damage or loss of life. There has only been one known case of a medically significant bite, documented in “Local envenoming by the Western hognose snake (Heterodon nasicus): A case report and review of medically significant Heterodon bites” by Scott Weinstein and Daniel Keyler. The venom’s effects lasted 5 months before full recovery.
Some say that reactions to hognose bites are due to allergy, but this is a myth. Allergic reactions are systemic, and heavily involve the immune system. By contrast, the effects of envenomation tend to be restricted to the surrounding area and do not involve the immune system.
Another common myth about hognose venom is that it is a toxic saliva rather than a true venom. Hognose venom is produced by the Duvernoy’s gland and delivered via grooved fangs rather than the hollow ones we usually associate with venom, but it’s still a legitimate venom.
Puffing up, flattening the body behind the head, and loud hissing is part of a defensive display used to intimidate potential predators. This means, “Go away! I am big and scary and will hurt you if you keep messing with me!”
Many people mistakenly think that this behavior mimics that of cobras. However, defensive mimicry only works if it mimics something in the animal’s habitat. Hognoses and cobras inhabits separate continents, so this can’t be the case.
Hognose snakes will also occasionally emit a foul-smelling musk and/or expel feces to ward off a perceived threat. However they are less likely to do this than with some other species.
The North American hognose’s most famous defensive display, however, is its dramatic play-dead performance. The act includes rolling onto its back, violent spasms, and gaping with the tongue lolling out. If you attempt to right it, it will flip right back over (which is somehow more convincing…?).
Even their heart rate slows down to 3-15bpm (“Bradycardia during Death-Feigning of Heterodon Platyrhinos Latreille (Serpentes)” by Harry McDonald) — now that’s what I call committing to the act!