Snakes have a variety of behaviors and physiological mechanisms that you should get accustomed to if you plan on getting one as a pet. One such behavior is the skin shedding one, where the snake removes its old skin regularly.
Some snakes shed every week, while others take longer breaks between sessions. The shedding frequency depends primarily on the snake’s age and size, as younger snakes shed more often due to growing faster.
But why exactly do snakes shed, and what actually happens during the process?
Let’s have a look!
Why Do Snakes Shed Their Skin?
Snakes shed their skin as part of the growing process. All reptiles undergo shedding or molting, as it’s more commonly referred to, including lizards and tortoises.
The shedding process initiates when the snake’s body becomes too large for the old skin to contain it anymore. So, the old skin will begin to dry out and separate from the newly-formed skin layer underneath.
At that point, the shedding process will begin, during which the snake will remove the old layer and either discard or eat it. But we’ll discuss this in more detail shortly.
The Stages and Symptoms of Shedding
Snakes let off similar symptoms when shedding, including:
- Lack of appetite – Snakes may refuse food several days to 2 weeks before the shedding ensues. Make sure that there aren’t any other symptoms that may suggest another cause for the lack of appetite. Snakes may refuse to eat for a variety of reasons, including stress, sickness, parasites, etc.
- Lower activity level – The snake will exhibit lower activity, but it shouldn’t appear lethargic. Lethargy is usually characterized by both low activity and overall apathy, as the snake is less interested in what’s happening around it. Snakes that prepare to shed should still be alert, despite their low activity levels.
- Hiding behavior – Snakes always look to hide when shedding because this is a sensitive period in their lives. The shedding process leaves them vulnerable to predators, so they carry this defensive behavior in captivity conditions as well. Make sure that your snake has a comfy, safe spot to retreat to during shedding, and give it the space it needs.
- Behavioral changes – Your snake will most certainly become increasingly irritable and aggressive as the shedding time approaches. So, try not to interact with it during this time.
- Appearance changes – The snake’s appearance will change visibly from one day to the next. The reptile may lose some of its colorings and appear duller, with faded colors. The skin may also appear drier and with a worn-out look compared to its usual state.
No single symptom on this list is indicative of shedding when taken by itself. But if several or all of them are present, that’s a pretty done deal.
When it comes to the shedding process itself, there are several stages to consider. 3 to be more precise:
- Pre-shedding – This is the phase where all the symptoms we’ve discussed begin to show up. As the shedding time closes in, you may also notice your snake’s eyes getting cloudy.
- During shedding – The entire shedding cycle typically lasts approximately 1-2 weeks, depending on the snake’s size and age, among other factors. As the shedding begins, the snake will retreat to its safe spot and begin the grueling task of removing the old skin. The shedding always begins at the head and continues down as the reptile rubs its body against various rugged surfaces to aid with the process. Rocks, wood, and branches are always useful in this sense.
- Post-shedding – The snake should resume its normal behavior and appetite soon after the shedding completes. Its body will look brand new with more vibrant colors and shiny and young skin.
However, what I’ve described here is the dream scenario where the shedding process goes without incident. So, let’s discuss the potential incidents that we’ve left out so far!
Problems Caused by Shedding
Unfortunately, there are several shedding-related problems to be aware of.
- Incomplete shedding – There are several potential reasons for this, including inadequate temperature and humidity and calcium deficiency. Incomplete shedding refers to parts of the old skin remaining stuck to the snake’s body. This can lead to infections and gangrene, so it can be a serious issue.
- Retained eye caps – Snakes also shed the subtle skin filters that cover their eyes. These are called eye caps and can sometimes remain stuck for all the reasons we’ve already mentioned. In that case, you need to contact your vet to prevent eye infections and even blindness.
- Infections – Abnormal shedding can cause skin infections, which can turn deadly fast. The main concern is the skin getting stuck around the tail or mouth, which can cut the blood supply to the area, leading to tissue necrosis. These issues are the result of improper environmental parameters, especially low humidity, causing dehydration.
Your snake may also stress out during shedding if environmental parameters are not right or you interact with it during shedding.
Helping Your Pet Snake During Shedding
Fortunately, you can assist your snake with the shedding process to some degree. Unfortunately, things are more complicated than they seem.
I recommend contacting your vet if anything goes the wrong way rather than trying to fix things on your own.
However, there are some tips to help you assist the snake during shedding in some cases:
- Manage environmental parameters wisely – Make sure that the temperature, humidity, and lighting are right for your pet snake. You’re looking for optimal parameters and stable living conditions to ensure successful shedding. Also, clean and sterilize the habitat at least a week prior to shedding to remove parasites and bacteria and eliminate the risk of infections.
- Use lukewarm water – A gentle soak should help moisturize those problematic areas with stuck skin. Provide the snake with a water bowl for proper hydration, and use a piece of soft wet cloth to tap the snake’s body gently. Focus on the areas with stuck skin. The lukewarm water should provide the hydration necessary to remove the skin residues safely.
- Remove residues of old skin – You can remove these manually, but this is a more sensitive approach with a lot of variables to consider. Firstly, you might not want to intervene if your snake is venomous or extremely irritated. Secondly, you want to be extra gentle and cautious about it. The stuck skin may be really stuck, in which case forcing the matter can lead to open wounds. If the skin doesn’t come off easily, don’t push it.
- Monitor the process – The shedding process can last for several days, depending on the snake’s size and any complications that may arise along the way. I recommend monitoring your reptile during this time to detect any issues early on.
Ultimately, I say always contact your vet in case of shedding problems. The shedding process is a matter of precision and gentleness, and a professional’s assistance may be invaluable for preventing any complications along the way.
All snakes shed in order to grow, and they’ll do it for their entire lives. Granted, the shedding frequency will drop with time as the snake’s metabolism drops accordingly.
Learn your snake’s shedding routine and behavior, and monitor the animal during the shedding cycle to make sure everything stays on the charts.