It's perfectly natural for snakes to shed their skins on a regular basis and it's actually an important factor in their health. When your snake begins to shed, it's a very stressful time. You can ease some of that by learning the signs that your pet is about to shed, then take a few steps to ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible.
Why Do Snakes Shed?
Snakes constantly grow new skin cells and must shed the old ones. While humans constantly shed skin cells in small quantities, snakes do it in a continuous sheet. The process is called ecdysis, which simply means molting or shedding an outer layer.
The timing between sheds depends on several factors, including the age of the snake as well as its growth rate and environment. Young snakes that are growing rapidly shed frequently—every few weeks—while adult snakes shed less often, sometimes only a few times a year or less.
Signs of an Impending Shed
If you observe your snake carefully, you'll notice a few signs that it's about to shed. These are completely normal and nothing to be concerned about:
- Your snake's eyes will turn a cloudy, bluish color. This is because the eye cap—a specially adapted scale that covers each eye—has loosened up so it can be shed along with the skin. It becomes sort of a temporary filter over the eye and just prior to shedding the eyes should clear up again.
- The old skin will begin to look dull or hazy. At first, you may also notice that your snake's belly appears a little pink.
- Your snake may hide more than usual.
- Your snake's appetite may decrease or it may not want to eat at all.
- Your snake may become more skittish or defensive, especially during the stage when it can't see well.
- Your snake may seek out rough surfaces in the enclosure to help rub the old skin off. It may also look for water to soak in.
How to Prevent Shedding Problems
To help relieve some of the stress your snake is experiencing, there are a number of things you can do during the shedding process:
- Provide cage accessories to help your snake rub off its old skin. Clean driftwood and rocks are commonly used. You just want to make sure they're smooth and have no sharp edges.
- Ensure the enclosure is humid and provide a shallow dish of water where your snake can soak. You can also add a humidity hide box, which is a plastic enclosure containing damp sphagnum moss with an entry hole just big enough for the snake to fit through. Your snake will likely spend more time than usual in the box during a shed.
- Avoid handling your snake as much as possible just before and during a shed. If you need to handle it, do so gently as the new skin is delicate and easily torn.
- Don't worry if your snake refuses to eat. Depending on the species, a healthy snake can go for a couple of weeks or more without eating, and larger snakes can go even longer. If your snake wants to eat, it may be best to feed it a smaller meal than usual so more of its energy is directed toward healing rather than digesting.
- Examine the shed skin and your snake to make sure the process is complete. Ideally, the whole skin will come off in one piece. Look to see that the eye caps have been shed as well; there shouldn't be holes in the skin where the eyes were. You may need to remove any retained pieces.
Incomplete or Abnormal Sheds
An incomplete shed is called dysecdysis. If your snake doesn't completely shed its skin, it may have a habitat or health problem:
- Dysecdysis might be due to husbandry issues. If you have provided your snake with surfaces to rub against, check the enclosure's humidity levels, temperatures, and the substrate and make any necessary adjustments.
- It may be a sign of a health problem, such as an infectious disease, internal or external parasites, internal abscesses, or a nutrient deficiency. These should be discussed with your veterinarian as soon as possible.
- Retained eye caps can occur with an incomplete shed but may also happen when the rest of the skin is shed intact.
If you need to help your snake shed, be sure you're familiar with safe skin and eye cap removal methods or visit your exotics vet to have it done. In any case, it's best to explore the reason for any shedding problems so you're better prepared for the next shed and your snake stays healthy in the meantime.