As with all animals, snakes need to change their old skin cells for new ones to grow. Unlike other animals, who shed small amounts of skin, snakes shed in an uninterrupted sheet, a process called ecdysis.
Recognising an impending shed
A week or two before shedding, the snake may seem quieter, be inactive and look thinner. During this time the skin becomes dull and its eyes turn in to a cloudy and bluish colour. The animal hides more and may be more temperamental (due to loss of sight).
After a few days, the eyes become clear again and the snake begins seeking out rough surfaces in its enclosure to help rub the skin off. That marks the beginning of the shedding process, which starts from the nose and goes down to the tail, like a sock being turned inside out. In total, it takes from seven to fourteen days.
Normally, they will shed routinely a few times a year (some even once a month), especially when they are young and they are growing rapidly. The frequency depends on many factors: species, age, nutritional and reproductive status, health condition, the temperature and humidity of enclosure.
There are many reasons for an incomplete or improper shedding process, called dysecdysis. This is a symptom of another problem and not a primary one. The most common reasons are related to poor husbandry and/or nutrition, but also health problems such as mites, skin infections, trauma, stress of over-handling or other underlying problems.
A complete shedding should include the transparent scale, called spectacle or eye cap. Retained eye caps may also occur even in a complete shed skin and can harbour bacteria causing infection and restricted vision. They are easy to remove but always require an experienced assistant. Old shed can also cause skin infections and constriction to appendages like the tip of the tail.
Care for your shedding snake
- Provide objects in the enclosure such as rocks or branches to help rub off the skin.
- Ensure a proper environmental humidity and temperature for your species. Offering a water dish that has a large surface area, which may aid evaporation and increase enclosure humidity.
- Soak the animal in shallow warm water in a flat container for an hour a few times a day to hydrate the skin, always under supervision.
- Avoid handling the animal when it shows signs of an impending or active shedding.
- Force-feeding is not necessary even if the animal goes off food during the whole process.
- Do not remove the old skin without expert supervision.
- Examine the shedded skin after the process to make sure that it was complete.
If your animal does not shed for over four months or shows signs of dysecdysis, it should be checked by an experienced reptile veterinarian.
With thanks to Dr Cristian Segura D.V.M at Modern Veterinary Clinic.