enclosure size ~ why it matters
As humans we tend to think bigger is better, we want the best for our animals so we automatically assume a large enclosure is the way to go. In reality, for a shy species, having too large of an enclosure can lead to stress, attitude issues, and hunger strikes.
We have experience working with hundreds of Western Hognoses, which gives us a bigger picture of common issues and not so common. It seems like 8/10 times a non-eating hog is caused by being homed in too large of enclosure size, usually coupled with not enough supplied hiding areas, which tells us that smaller enclosures are better for this species.
To put the needs of the animal before our own we have to think from their perspective. Tall enclosures mean 'attacks from above' by natural predators such as birds. Enclosures with not enough hiding places, plants (fake or real) logs, leaf litter etc. will have the animal feeling that they are once again exposed to all kinds of predators. Western Hognoses are by no means high on the natural food chain. Many different kinds of predators eat them in the wild, so they have to be on edge and use their surroundings to survive.
We also don't like tall enclosures for this species, or for Kenyan Sand Boas, as both love to climb, but they are not as good at it as they think they are. Falling often and hard is a good way for snakes to break ribs or cause other injuries. Yes, they do this in the wild, but many animals do not make it in the wild and as caretakers, it is our responsibility to provide safe environments for our animals.
Throughout our website, printed brochures, and care agreement we talk about the importance of enclosure size and that it is imperative to gradually size up as the animal grows. We do not say this for our benefit or yours, but for the sake of a happy, healthy, animal that will thrive and stay eating for you.
It has been documented that in the wild hatchlings often stay in or near the burrow/nest for the whole first part of the year, waiting for the weather to improve, and for their natural prey to become available. This would explain why babies especially become overwhelmed in large enclosures.
Some very outgoing individuals can gradually be moved to larger sized set-ups, but ones who are shyer, which is often displayed by being quick to hiss, bluff strike, and hide, are far better off in smaller enclosures and may take longer to up-size.
We often get asked the following two questions:
"What if I divide a large enclosure so they can only access a portion and then gradually take that away?" The problem with this method is it opens larger issues. How is the reduced portion being adequately heated with a correct 1/3 heat gradient? Chances are it won't be as the under-tank heat source would be set up to accommodate the full size of the tank. We have heard of animals escaping the reduced portion and end up in the large area, and not be able to get back to their water etc. All in all, it's more hassle than just planing to gradually size up. (We will always let our clients know what size of the enclosure is needed for their new animal.)
"If I just add lots of foliage and things for them to hide under, then they can be in a large enclosure, right?"
Sometimes you can luck out and provide enough hiding areas, combined with an outgoing individual that you can get away with this, but more often not, we have seen animals in those situations who yes, stay eating, but they just hide ALL the time. This is not natural and is a sign of stress. We have noticed that the only time our Western Hognoses stay buried or hidden for more than a couple of hours is when they are stressed, egg-laying, need medical attention, or too cold.
This species is very often found on the surface of fields near water. They take breaks all through the day napping in burrows that other animals have dug, under logs, tangled in the grass etc. Western hognoses are not like Kenyan sand boas, who stay buried a great deal of the time.
We have sold outgoing animals who hardly hiss and hear back from clients about how cute it is that they are such a hissy noodle. We know right away that they did not follow our care guide for size set-ups. That is how much a large enclosure can immediately affect the behaviour of these animals. A couple of gentle questions later almost always proves this to be the case. Please remember these animals don't constantly hiss, bluff strike, play dead, etc. for fun or to be aggressive, rather they do it out of stress. They are using the tools they have to survive. Think of Western Hognoses as being prone to anxiety.
We have noticed, as have other breeders that male Western Hognoses are more prone to going off of food. Especially at different times of the year, brumation season, and breeding are the main two. Males, in general, tend to be a bit more flighty, quicker to spook, and quicker to go off food when stressed. Don't worry we have an easy fix for this.
Our method for working with well-established males who go longer than a month not eating is to first assess if there is anything physically wrong, recheck all the husbandry, things like temperatures etc. if all of that is normal we then temporarily down-size that male into a smaller enclosure.
We allow them to adjust without offering food for a week or two. (These animals can naturally go many months without food without losing weight or having any ill effects) By week three they almost always start taking food readily again. We keep them downsized for a while longer just to make sure they have been properly re-kickstarted. Sometimes this is only for a couple of weeks. With males who are problematic or are underweight, or recovering, we will keep them downsized for longer, then re-introduce them to their old enclosure size, which is usually the mid-size we recommend on our care sheets.
We very rarely house adult male Western hognoses in anything larger than a 10-gallon set-up. It has only been a few very large males who were also very outgoing. We almost always opt for the mid-size.
So as scary as all of this may sound, some of my top favourite Western Hognoses have been males, and we have found in general they can make some of the best pets. It is very easy to get these animals eating again, without having to resort to scenting, force-feeding or other methods. I always recommend downsizing first.
To read our care sheets, and or more about Western Hognoses and eating issues you can find a detailed section on our website under the "care information" heading.