When you keep a snake as a pet, it is important to understand the stage in their physical development known as "shedding" or "sloughing" of the skin. It
can be alarming to see your perfectly healthy snake begin to act or look funny
as it enters a shed cycle. If you know what to look for and how to care for your
snake when it begins this cycle, you will come to enjoy it as a normal occurrence
in your pet's life.
The first sign many new owners notice is that their normally
active snake is not showing itself as often, almost as though it is "hiding".
This is normal behavior for a snake about to enter a shed cycle. Shedding
is the process by which snakes periodically discard the outer portion of their
skin. This activity is under hormonal control and associated with growth. Most
snakes shed their skin 4-8 times per year. The frequency of shedding depends
upon many factors, including environmental temperature, frequency of feeding,
amount fed at each feeding, and the snake’s activity level. Young snakes
shed more frequently than older ones because growth is relatively rapid in the
first few years of life.
Healthy snakes usually have little or no difficulty with shedding
and tend to shed their skins in one entire piece. Exceptions to this include
snakes with injuries to the skin and/or scales resulting in scarring, and snakes
housed in enclosures with sub optimal temperature and/or relative humidity levels.
The stresses associated with shedding can be substantial. Sick
snakes, those suffering from malnutrition, or those whose health has been
directly or indirectly compromised by poor breeding, experience delayed
and incomplete sheds. These snakes tend to shed their skins in pieces.
In fact, many of the pieces remain adhered to the underlying skin and eyes (retained
The shedding process is preceded by a period of relative inactivity.
This period usually lasts 1-2 weeks, during which time the eyes begin to
exhibit a dull, bluish-white appearance. During this period, the snake's
vision is impaired, which causes them to be rather unpredictable and sometimes
aggressive. This is not a personality change in your snake, it is simply
trying to protect itself with its temporarily impaired vision. The skin
during this period tends to have an overall dull appearance. The underlying
new skin is soft and vulnerable to damage while the outer layers prepare to
The eyes again become transparent after 7-15 days and
shedding commences. A snake will make use of any rough objects or surfaces
within its enclosure to help shed the old skin. Shedding commences with
the skin of the head. Once the snake has loosened and dislodged the skin
surrounding the mouth and overlying the rostrum (nose), it then passes between
rough objects that can trap the loose skin and hold it as the snake glides out
of the "old" skin.
Discarded skin appears dry and tube-like or moist and crumpled in a solitary
heap. Many snakes defecate after a successful shed, or consume large quantities
Providing a shallow dish or pan of water large enough
for your snake to soak in will help him to have a good shed. A plastic
food container with an entrance hole ~ filled with moist sphagnum moss
or vermiculite makes an excellent "wet
hide box" for a snake in shed. This will help your snake to have a good
shed by providing humidity to the skin. A snake needs to use objects to
rub against to aid in rolling the skin down it's body. Clean driftwood, rocks
or similar cage furniture should be provided to help the snake shed.
In the wild, a snake is vulnerable to predators when in
shed. The captive snake still follows these strong instincts & should be
provided lots of privacy with only necessary handling. Going into shed
is apparently not a real fun thing for snakes and lizards. Most get rather
cranky during this time, with some individuals becoming quite aggressive,
objecting to being held or touched. The best thing to do is to respect
their ill-feeling as much as possible. If you need to get in and service
their enclosure, do it, but restrict actual handling to that which is
necessary. Handling should really be halted until the snake has completed
a shed ~ the new skin under the outer dermis to be sloughed is very delicate
and can be easily damaged by handling. It is okay to gently hold your
snake if you must move him or clean his house. This probably won't be
necessary since most snakes "hold" their
waste internally until the actual shed of the skin when they usually do
defecate. Before reaching in
and grabbing a handful of shed skin that is partially obscured by substrate
or furnishings, you might want to check it out first or wear
Snakes will also undergo color changes prior to a shed. The
second thing most owners notice is their snakes eyes look cloudy. Snakes
have a modified scale similar to the rest of their body covering called
a "spectacle" or "eye cap".
To aid the snake in separating the old skin from the new, glands in the
body secrete a fluid which runs between the two layers including under
the eye cap. This gives the eye at first a hazy look, gradually increasing
to a light blue color which completely covers the eye. Snakes in this phase
of the shed are termed "in
blue" or "opaque" referring to the eye color. This is roughly
the halfway point. The amount of time the whole process takes depends on
the species, the age of the animal, it's physical condition, it's living
conditions and other various factors.
As a rule babies and young snakes
will shed quite frequently as their bodies grow. Once a snake is full grown,
they may shed as little as twice a year. The condition of their skin is
another factor: snakes who suffer with mites, poor husbandry, bad sheds,
skin infections, burns or wounds will often shed more frequently as the
body tries to heal the skin. It is very important as a snake owner, to
make sure your snake has a "good
A good shed is when it is completely intact, and like an inverted sock
that has been pulled inside out.
A cautionary note of snake skin sheds: It is estimated that
between 16-92% of snakes carry one or more serotypes of Salmonella. Researchers
in one university laboratory found viable Salmonella organisms on skin
sheds that had been hanging in their lab for years. Since testing for Salmonella
is not very effective, use caution when letting anyone who is at high risk
for salmonellosis come into contact with snake skin shed or in contact
with anyone who has been handling shed skin.
While reptiles may still eat when in the very early phase of the pre-shed
period, as the period progresses they usually lose their appetite. Most
greatly reduce their food intake; others stop eating altogether until after
they have shed. Some snakes will not eat while their eyes are milky; some
will take a meal once the eyes have cleared but before they shed, while others
will not eat until after they shed.
Always check your snake's head shed to make sure that both
eye caps ("spectacles") have come off. If they have not, take steps
to removed the retained eye caps.
A problem shed is a shed that isn't happening like a normal,
healthy shed should. With a snake or any other reptile who is supposed to shed
in one piece, a problem shed would be a patchy shed. Instead of working the whole
skin off in one session, only bits and pieces come off, with lots of skin
retained on the body. A normal shed would be done within a period of several
hours or less from the time the shed is initiated; a problem shed goes
on for days or weeks with little progress. With lizards who normally shed
in pieces, a problem shed would be where it is taking too long, or where
skin is retained in problem areas, such as around toes, spikes, and tails.
A problem shed is a sign of an even greater, underlying problem. New snakes,
especially imports, typically have poor sheds their first one or two sheds
in captivity. The import and pet store process is less than healthy and
stress-free, and so their sheds reflect that period of prolonged stress
(psychological as well as environmental). Once they are housed properly,
treated for dehydration and parasites, and begin to psychologically acclimate
to captivity, they become healthier, and by the third shed, should be shedding
properly - quickly and in one piece.
The same problems may be seen in sick and stressed snakes,
especially imported ones. While their skin may normally come off in patches,
instead of the shed being completed within the usual 1-3 weeks it would
take for a healthy lizard, it may go on for months, with areas never shedding
at all. (I took in a savanna monitor one time who had five layers of shed
embedded on its back and head!)
When a problem shed occurs, or one that is too slow to start
or finish, you need to figure out why it is happening and correct the problem:
- Analyze environment - adjust heat, lighting, and photoperiods
if necessary. Make sure you have provided an ample space for
your snake. He may have outgrown his original enclosure.
- Analyze diet - check to make sure you are feeding at proper
intervals and that you are feeding the proper type of food
- Check for signs of illness or stress - make sure there are ample
places for him to get some privacy from prying eyes and bright lights
If the reptile has started, but not properly completed
a shed, you can help it along:
- For larger snakes, soak them in a tub of warm water
(85-88 F / 29-31 C) for 10-15 minutes, then begin gently rubbing their
- The old skin will start to balloon out and become easy
to get off as you rub gently with your fingers and thumbs.
- Always work in a head-to-tail direction.
- Pay close attention to the eye caps, tail, and vent. If the
eye caps won't come off, you will have to take steps to carefully and
safely remove them.