Just like us, snakes constantly grow new skin cells and must shed the old ones. We shed our old skin cells continuously in small quantities but snakes shed their old skins in a continuous sheet (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 (every few weeks) while adult snakes shed less often sometimes only a few times a year or less.
Signs Your Snake is About to Shed
- Your snake's eyes will turn a cloudy, bluish color (the eye cap, a specially adapted scale which covers the eye, is loosened up in order to be shed along with the skin which causes this change). Just prior to shedding, the eyes will clear up again.
- The old skin on your snake becomes dull or hazy in appearance (sometimes the belly may appear a little pink at first).
- Your snake may hide more than usual and not want to eat.
- Your snake may become more skittish or defensive because it can't see well due to the shedding process. Shedding is very stressful on your snake.
- When your snake is ready to shed, he or she will seek out rough surfaces in the enclosure to help rub the skin off as well as water to soak in.
Caring for Your Shedding Snake
- Be sure to provide some cage accessories to help your snake rub off their old skin. Things such as clean driftwood and rocks (which should still be pretty smooth, no sharp edges) are common items used to aid in the shedding process.
- Make sure your snake has enough humidity in their enclosure. Provide a shallow dish of water in which they can soak and/or a humidity hide box (an enclosed plastic container with an entry hole just big enough for the snake to fit in and containing damp sphagnum moss). Your snake may spend more time than usual in these places during a shed.
- Avoid handling your snake as much as possible (gentle handling is okay if necessary but the process is stressful and the new skin is delicate and can be torn).
- If your snake goes off food don't worry. A healthy snake can go a couple of weeks or more without eating (larger snakes can go longer without food). However, if your snake wants to eat, it may be best to feed a smaller meal than usual to minimize the effort your snake need to digest a meal during the shedding process.
- When your snake has shed, examine the shed skin to make sure the shed was complete. Ideally, the whole skin will come off in one piece and the eye caps should be shed along with the skin (there should not be holes in the shed skin where the eyes were). If your snake has not shed the whole skin or the eye caps you may need to help them remove the retained pieces.
If your snake does not completely shed their skin (an incomplete shed is also called dysecdysis), it can signal to you that there are health concerns with your snake or problems with your husbandry (such as humidity levels or 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 and find the reason for the incomplete shed.
Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT