All snakes shed their skin on a regular basis, a process known as ecdysis, and usually they require no help from us to do it. They shed as they grow, to replace worn out skin, and to aid in healing any skin blemishes or wounds. The process is controlled by hormones, and normally goes like this:
- The snake pumps fluid between the old skin layer and the new one underneath. This separates the layers to make shedding easier, and also accounts for why a snake’s eyes go cloudy and their skin colour very dull. This is known amongst snake keepers as being ‘in blue’, and some snakes get very nervous as they are, in effect, temporarily blind.
- The eyes clear, but the skin remains a dull, dusty looking version of its normal self. Some snakes remain grouchy, and most will refuse to feed.
- Any time from a day or so to over a week later, the snake will actually shed its old skin. They first rub their mouth and nose along the ground or against a piece of decor to loosen the skin around the lips, and then proceed to roll it back over their head and crawl out of it. This usually happens at night.
- The snake keeper checks their pet in the morning to find a perfect shed either stretched across the vivarium or rolled up neatly like an old sock in a corner. The snake is beautiful and shiny again, and is usually ready for something to eat.
When your snake sheds, it’s always worth examining the shed skin to make sure it’s complete. Check to make sure that the end of the tail has shed, and the eyecaps; if either of these are missing, it’s time to check your snake. Sometimes the skin has just broken as the snake crawled out of it, but occasionally bits of skin are stuck to the snake.
Difficulty with shedding is known as ‘disecdysis’, and can range from the skin coming off in small chunks and scattering all over the vivarium to constricted tails and retained eye caps.
The reasons for poor shedding are varied, and if your snake has a bad shed it’s worth looking at your husbandry practices to see what the problem is. Don’t just buy a bottle of shed aid – find out why it happened!
- Make sure your snake is living in correct humidity. A forest floor/rainforest species will need higher humidity than an arid habitat species. If you don’t already have one, give your snake a humid hide or wet box. This is just a resin or plastic box with a snake sized hole in the lid that is filled with damp sphagnum moss or other substrate, and placed in the warm end. The snake has their own little sauna to retire to whenever they need it.
- Check your temperature, warm end, cool end, day and night. Incorrect temperatures mean that your snake cannot regulate its body processes properly, and this can lead to poor shedding.
- Look for parasites. External parasites (for instance, snake mites) can irritate a snake’s skin and cause it to shed badly. Internal parasites can reduce the snake’s vitality to the point where they cannot produce good quality skin. If in doubt, visit an exotics vet.
- Consider what your snake is eating and how often. Malnutrition can also cause poor shedding.
- Infections or irritations of the skin can affect the process. If you are concerned that either of these are a problem, it’s worth taking your snake to the vet.
- Old age. Husbandry has improved to the stage that many snakes are now living to be a ripe old age, which brings with it a whole new set of health problems. If you have an elderly snake, remember that (just like us!) they need a little more help with things they used to find easy.
Once you have identified the cause and (hopefully) corrected it, the snake itself needs attention. Assess how bad the shed has been, taking into consideration where and how much skin is retained. If it’s a few flakes here and there then it will be fine to leave them until the next shed, when they should come away with the next layer. If the tail is being constricted, there are a lot of strips of skin or the eyecaps have been retained, then further action should be taken.
- Bathe. Either in a well ventilated container such as a faunarium, carry box or RUB (or in the bath for larger snakes) put enough lukewarm water to cover the snake, but allow it to keep its head above water without straining. Put the snake in the water and leave to soak for 20 to 30 minutes, then left the snake out and gently rub with a damp towel. Any retained shed should slough off. Never leave a snake unattended during this procedure!
- Enclose the snake in a damp pillowcase with a damp towel, and place back in the vivarium. Be very careful if you choose this method; although it’s excellent for snakes that panic in a bath, remember that they cannot get away from any heat source while in the pillowcase so be very sure that they are at a safe ambient temperature. They can be left overnight, then lifted out and checked over in the morning.
- Be very, very careful with eye caps. If either of the previous methods do not work, then take your snake to see a specialist vet. Do not go rummaging on the internet for solutions! Both the above techniques can be repeated, but for eyecaps vet is best. Retained eyecaps can trap bacteria and lead to infections of the eye that can lead to permanent blindness, and any attempt to forcibly lift the eyecap can rupture the eyeball itself, with the same end result.
I cannot stress strongly enough that you SHOULD NEVER poke around with an animal’s eyes. (Or your own, for that matter!) Yes, there are eyedrops and various medications that can be used, but these should always be obtained and used under the guidance of an experienced specialist exotics vet. The internet is full of terrible advice that can lead to your pet suffering permanent blindness, excruciating pain, life threatening infections or all three.
As long as your snake is happy and healthy in a well set up habitat that meets its long term needs, then you should hopefully never see any problems with your snake’s skin. We are always available to advise you on husbandry matters, and can supply shedding hides, moss, and anything else your snake might need to ensure a complete, healthy shed.