Every snake owner knows that as their pet grows it will shed its skin. Normally, this process is accomplished quickly, easily, and without any issues. However, some snake species are prone to “bad” sheds or problem sheds where the entire skin does not come off in one neat, tubular piece.
Because incomplete sheds can become a health issue for a pet snake of any species, we’re dedicating this article to explaining what we do to remedy this problem at the Backwater Reptiles facility.
The Ideal Shedding Process
A normal shed occurs when a snake’s skin comes off in one single, tubular, opaque piece. It’s a very cool process and when your pet snake has completed a shed successfully, you actually have a really cool souvenir.
When a snake sheds its skin normally, the process is referred to as ecdysis. When the process doesn’t go smoothly and the skin sheds in flakes, pieces, or fails to come off properly in any way, the proper term becomes dysecdysis.
You can tell your pet snake is preparing to shed its skin because not only will its behavior change, its physical appearance will also change.
Many snakes will go into hiding prior to shedding. They will retreat into their hide box and tend to stay pretty immobile most of the time. They might also become aggressive or refuse food if you offer it. But don’t worry. If you notice your snake has become lethargic, you can also detect changes in its physical appearance that will tell you that your pet is not ill, but just preparing to shed.
Prior to shedding, snakes will develop grey, cloudy looking eyes. You will also notice that their skin appears duller in nature. For instance, many snakes have shiny, iridescent scales. You will be able to see them become less brilliant in color and the iridescence may disappear altogether.
Side note: When you notice the signs that your snake is preparing to shed, you should handle it as little as possible. You also should avoid feeding as odds are the snake won’t eat the food being offered anyway.
Often times, your pet snake will shed without you even being aware of the process. You might notice a change in behavior and appearance one day, go to sleep, and wake up the next morning with a clean tube of snake skin waiting for you in the cage.
Solution Number One – Giving Your Pet Snake a Bath
If you do notice that your snake has shed some skin but not cleanly, the first solution we’d recommend would be to provide a large soaking dish within your snake’s cage if there is not already one provided. Often times problem sheds are caused by lack of humidity, so providing a bowl or water dish where your snake can go to naturally remedy the problem is a good place to start.
But what if you have an arboreal snake that doesn’t necessarily enjoy a good soak? Well, then you may just have to help the snake by giving it a bath or confining it to a sealed container with water for a time.
We recommend manually giving the snake a bath only if you know your snake has a pleasant temperament. You don’t want to try bathing and removing stuck skin on a grumpy snake.
If your snake is small enough, calm enough, and receptive enough to a manual bath, then fill a bowl or basin with lukewarm water. You want to be careful the water is not too cold or too hot as you don’t want to shock the snake’s system. Carefully immerse the snake in the water while making sure its head doesn’t get submerged. Many small snakes will let you hold them and dip them in the water. You can also dribble water over the snake while holding it if your snake doesn’t enjoy being in the water fully.
While manually bathing, it’s also useful to massage the snake’s body where the problem skin resides. Generally, once the skin has moistened, it will loosen naturally and you can gently rub it off.
If your snake is too large for the manual bath method or gets grumpy easily, then obtain a container with a lid that is large enough to hold your snake. Fill the container with enough lukewarm water so that your snake is submerged as much as possible but does not have to swim. You don’t want your snake to drown!
Once your container holds the appropriate amount of water, it can be helpful to place a rough object in the pool with the snake. This is because the snake will rub against it, either intentionally or unintentionally, and this will help remove the remaining skin. We’d recommend a textured rock or brick – just be sure there are no sharp edges for the snake to injure itself on.
The final step is obviously to place your snake in the container and shut the lid so that it has no choice but to hydrate. We always recommend standing by or placing the container somewhere it is always visible. It is never wise to leave a soaking reptile of any kind unattended, despite taking all the proper precautions.
If all goes well with the confined soak, you should be able to gently slough off any remaining skin pieces very easily after about fifteen to thirty minutes without harming the snake.
Solution Number Two – Putting a Rough or Coarse Object in the Snake’s Enclosure
Sometimes all a snake needs in order to complete a tough shed is something rough to rub itself against.
If you’ve noticed your snake soaking itself, placing a rough object in the cage is probably the easiest and most low maintenance solution.
Just like with the manual bath/soak method, a textured stone or a piece of brick can work wonders. As previously mentioned, please be sure that even though the object is rough that there are no sharp edges for the snake to cut itself on.
Once the object is in the cage, keep a close eye on the progress of the snake. If the problem skin still isn’t fully coming off, you can always try a confined soak or manual bath to finish off the process.
Solution Number Three – Use a Commercial Shed Aid
If all else fails, there are actually commercially produced reptile shed aid solutions that can assist your snake through a tough shed.
These products are essentially “snake conditioners” and can be used in conjunction with the soak/bath method.
You can use the products by adding them to the snake’s bath itself, or you can lightly coat your snake after it has had a bath to help remove any remaining skin pieces.
We’d like to make note that we prefer the natural method of lukewarm water because nine times out of ten, this method will eliminate any stuck pieces of skin.
Troublesome Eye Caps
One aspect of problematic sheds that we’d like to touch upon specifically is what to do when your snake doesn’t properly shed its eye caps. Just for reference, the eye caps, or spectacles as some like to call them, are the scales that cover the snake’s eyes. Because snakes lack eyelids, they have a special scale to protect and keep their eyes moist. This scale can often stay put during problem sheds and can require special tactics to remove safely.
Retained eye caps can occur with both normal and problematic sheds. If you notice after any kind of shedding that your snake’s eyes are still cloudy, you might have to intervene and remove the eye caps yourself.
Because your snake’s vision will be impaired, sometimes it will make the necessary efforts to remove the retained spectacle itself. You may have to do nothing at all. We recommend making sure there are rough surfaces for the snake to rub on within its enclosure and waiting a day or two after noticing the problem. If the eye cap is still present, then you should make efforts to remove it manually.
Make sure that you are confident and comfortable handling your pet snake before you attempt to remove retained eye caps by yourself. It requires patience, confidence, and a knowledge of your snake’s mannerisms and temperament.
The first thing you should do is to moisten the eye cap. Because snakes don’t like to have their heads submerged under water, we recommend dribbling lukewarm water onto the affected eye cap and allowing it to sink in as much as possible. Next, gently rub the eye cap with a q-tip or fingertip. Make sure you have a light touch. This is simply to attempt to begin the process as you will usually need tweezers to completely remove the eye cap.
After you’ve softly rubbed the retained cap enough that you can see an edge, very carefully grip the loosened edge with your blunt tweezers. Please don’t use sharp or pointy tweezers because if your snake jerks or moves, it could spell disaster. Very slowly remove the retained spectacle using the tweezers. Don’t pry – if it is not coming off with gentle manipulation, it needs to be moistened more or your snake might need to make a trip to the vet.
Make sure to monitor your snake’s behavior closely during this entire process. Many snakes will sit calmly through the process, but others will not like you being that close to their head and may start to show signs of aggression, even if they are normally well-behaved.
It will take some time and lots of patience, but with proper moistening and effort, you should be able to remove the eye cap safely.
Side note: If your snake has several layers of unshed eye caps (usually only happens with poor husbandry habits), or if it is known for being aggressive, it’s probably best to take the snake to your local veterinarian. They will be able to properly anesthetize the animal and remove the eye caps during that time.
Preventing Future Problematic Sheds
The number one reason why snakes have issues with shedding is that their enclosure is not humid enough. Although different species from different habitats will obviously require different humidity levels, most species tend to need anywhere from fifty to seventy percent humidity.
Once you have determined the proper humidity level that is required for your species of snake, there are several things you can do to maintain this humidity.
The number one thing is to make sure your snake has a water dish! This should be common sense as snakes do actually drink water, but having water present in the snake’s immediate environment is key. You can also place an under the tank heating mat directly underneath the water source to help speed evaporation and therefore increase humidity within the cage.
Another option is to include a moisture box in your snake’s home. What this usually entails is creating a separate hide box and filling it with a substrate that retains moisture well such as sphagnum moss or moist paper towels. Be sure to check your moisture box frequently for mold though as you don’t want to unintentionally create a toxic environment for your snake.
And lastly, instead of altering the humidity levels within the snake’s cage, you can actually change the humidity within the room itself. Just go to any drug store or big box retailer and buy a humidifier. A hygrometer can help you measure the humidity in the room to make sure it is at the proper level for your snake.
Helping Large or Temperamental Snakes Through Problem Sheds
If your snake is very large, or if it has a bad temper, it might simply be wisest to take the snake to the vet to assist with an incomplete shed. This is particularly true if you are having trouble with retained eye caps.
However, this is pretty much going to be up to the discretion of the owner. Most snakes will put up with a certain level of handling, even if they do have a testy disposition.
We would however recommend that you wear leather gloves or some other form of protection if you know that your snake is prone to biting.
Snakes make wonderful pets, but like all reptiles, it’s very possible that you will have to deal with an incomplete or problem shed at some point during your snake’s life.
This article is intended to help out should your own pet snake encounter this issue as well as help prevent this issue from occurring in the first place.
If you have any other tips or suggestions for how you’ve helped your own snake through a difficult shed, feel free to leave them in the comments section.