Shedding Skin in Snakes

A Stressful Time for Snakes

Old snake skin shed off a python
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Snakes naturally shed their skin on a regular basis. It's a very important process in their health and well-being, and shedding is very stressful for the snake. You can take some of the stress off your pet snake by learning the signs that they're about to shed and take steps to ensure it goes as smoothly as possible.

Why Do Snakes Shed Their Skin?

Snakes constantly grow new skin cells and must shed the old ones. Humans shed their old skin cells continuously in small quantities but snakes shed their old skins in a continuous sheet. It is a process called ecdysis.

The timing between these sheds is dependent upon several factors including the age of the snake, their growth rate, and environmental factors. Young, growing snakes shed frequently—about every few weeks—while adult snakes shed less often, sometimes only a few times a year or less.

Signs

If you pay attention to your snake, you'll notice a few signs that they're going to shed soon. This is all normal behavior, so it's 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 which covers the eye—has loosened up in order to be shed along with the skin, becoming sort of a temporary filter over the eye. Just prior to shedding, the eyes will clear up again.
  • The old skin on your snake becomes dull or hazy in appearance. Sometimes, you may also notice at first that the belly of your snake appears a little pink.
  • Your snake may hide more than usual.
  • Your snake's appetite may decrease or it may not want to eat.
  • Your snake may become more skittish or defensive because it can't see well due to the shedding process.
  • When your snake is ready to shed, it will seek out rough surfaces in the enclosure to help rub the skin off. It may also look for water to soak in. 

How to Prevent Shedding Problems

To help relieve some of the stress on your snake, 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 (which should be smooth, with no sharp edges) are common items used to aid the shedding process.
  • Make sure your snake has enough humidity in its enclosure. Provide a shallow dish of water in which it can soak. You can also give your snake a humidity hide box, which is an enclosed plastic container containing damp sphagnum moss with an entry hole just big enough for the snake to fit through. Your snake may spend more time than usual in these places during a shed.
  • Avoid handling your snake as much as possible just before and while it is actively shedding. Gentle handling is okay if necessary but the process is stressful and the new skin is delicate and can be easily torn.
  • If your snake refuses to eat, don't worry. Depending on the species, a healthy snake can go a couple of weeks or more without eating and larger snakes can go even longer. However, if your snake wants to eat, it may be best to feed a smaller meal than usual. This can help minimize the effort your snake needs to digest a meal during the shedding process.
  • When your snake has shed, examine the shed skin to make sure it was complete. Ideally, the whole skin will come off in one piece. Also, look to see that the eye caps were shed along with the skin; there should not be holes in the skin where the eyes were. If your snake has not shed the whole skin or the eye caps, you may need to help remove the retained pieces. These can lead to behavior problems or infections, so it is important to inspect both the shed and your snake. 

Incomplete Sheds

An incomplete shed is also called dysecdysis. If your snake does not completely shed its skin, it can be a signal to warrant some concern:

  • It may be a sign of health problems that you should discuss with your veterinarian.
  • It might be due to issues with your husbandry. Be sure to check the enclosure's humidity levels and look for external parasites like mites or ticks.
  • Retained eye caps (where the eye caps are not shed along with the skin) may occur with an incomplete shed but they may also occur even if the rest of the skin was shed intact.

Be sure to follow safe skin and eye cap removal methods if you need to help your snake shed. It's also best to explore the reason for the incomplete shed so the next shed will go more smoothly and your snake remains healthy.