What is Abnormal Skin Shedding?
All reptiles shed their skin. In the case of snakes, the normal shedding of the skin, a process under hormonal control, is referred to medically as ecdysis. Ecdysis is commonly called sloughing or molting. Healthy adult snakes shed their skin on a regular basis, typically around once a month, though this may vary according to breed. Due to variations in the growth process, younger snakes may shed their skin every two weeks, while older snakes may only slough a couple of times a year. No matter the age of the snake, shedding is instrumental to its health, growth and life expectancy. A primary benefit to sloughing is the removal of parasites that have attached itself to the reptile. Unlike most types of lizards, a healthy snake will shed or "slough" its skin in one piece, including the eye caps. As that occurs, and when no further growth is possible, a new layer of skin grows beneath the old. Once complete, the old skin peels and leaves behind a snake-shaped “tube” of skin. An educated and experienced snake owner will recognize the steps and stages of a healthy shed. The term “in the blue” describes a snake that is soon to shed. When the snake is “in the blue,” you will observe the skin begin to lose its typical “shine.” The skin becomes increasingly dull, while at the same time the eyes become cloudy or take on a “bluish-grey” cast. At this stage, it is not abnormal to notice behavioral changes in the snake, particularly erratic behavior and signs of anxiety. Some aggression is natural. These nervous symptoms are frequently attributable to the fact that the snake loses its vision right before it sheds. After three to four days, the snake’s eyes lose the cloudy appearance. The reptile will move toward rough surfaces in its enclosure, and begin the sloughing process. For a healthy adult snake, the skin should peel from nose to tail, and become fully shed anywhere between seven to fourteen days. While the anxious behavior will subside, it’s important to not handle a snake in any stage of the slough. The snake will generally show no interest in eating, and there is no need to try to force food upon the snake. Interrupting any stage of this completely natural process may result in abnormal skin shedding. Properly remove the shed skin from the enclosure and scan the reptile for any remaining skin. It is important to make sure the eye caps were shed along with the rest of the skin.
Abnormal skin shedding in snakes is not a disease or health problem by itself; it is typically a sign of malnutrition, poor husbandry or an underlying medical condition.
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Symptoms of Abnormal Skin Shedding in Snakes
- Incomplete shed
- Sores from rubbing
- Skin in pieces
- Behavioral changes
- Difficulty moving
- Odd posturing
Causes of Abnormal Skin Shedding in Snakes
Abnormal shedding is not a disease in and of itself. It is an indication that the snake is not healthy, or that its well-being is somehow threatened or compromised. The two most common causes of dysecdysis are malnutrition and poor husbandry. Other causes include over-handling, mishandling or trauma. In the case of a medical problem, the snake may be afflicted with dermatitis or a bacterial infection. Mites or parasites also causes improper sloughing.
Diagnosis of Abnormal Skin Shedding in Snakes
An incomplete, or abnormal shed, referred to medically as dysecdysis, indicates that something is awry with the health or well-being of the captive snake. It may signify a nutritional deficit, improper temperature or humidity levels, the presence of skin parasites or bacteria, a change in reproductive status, a lack of sanitation and hygiene, or possibly the snake’s lack of comfort or satisfaction with its living conditions. The snake owner should evaluate his or her practices of husbandry, as well as the reptile’s environment. Overall, ecdysis provides snake owners with an excellent opportunity to monitor what is happening with the health and well-being of the reptile. There are numerous factors that may lead to dysecdysis, or abnormal shedding in snakes. Two of the most commonly seen reasons include malnutrition and humidity levels being too high or too low for the species of snake. One of the main reasons snakes shed their skin is to remove any parasites or collected bacteria. If the snake has mites, or a parasitic or bacterial infection, skin shedding will not properly occur. Other factors include some type of trauma that is causing pain in the snake, or else a type of “rebellion” due to being over-handled (a type of improper husbandry). If the snake’s environment is properly maintained and your husbandry practice is sound, dysecdysis suggests that there is an underlying medical problem. In the short-term, a snake may suffer from permanent skin damage. It’s imperative to have the snake evaluated for health problems by a veterinarian. Sometimes, a general veterinary practitioner will refer you to a reptile specialist.
The reptile specialist will evaluate the snake for a range of health problems, as well as the soundness of your husbandry practices. The evaluation will include a physical examination, fecal exam and blood testing, as well as a microbiologic work-up. If the snake has recently attempted or completed a shed, bringing a skin sample is recommended.
Treatment of Abnormal Skin Shedding in Snakes
The primary treatment for abnormal shedding in snakes is to identify why the snake is not completing such a natural process. Once the cause is determined, changes in nutrition or practices will be recommended by the vet. Additionally, not handling the snake may help to correct stress levels, and aid in the return to normal sloughing. It is commonly recommended to soak the snake in warm water. After bathing, wrap the snake in a towel, which may encourage sloughing.
Under no condition is it appropriate or safe to pull the attached skin. This may permanently damage the skin or even cause the reptile’s death.
Recovery of Abnormal Skin Shedding in Snakes
Instructions will be given according to the cause of the abnormal shed. Stay vigilant and document any skin changes. Maintain proper nutrition and humidity levels for the species of snake. Never leave a bathing snake by itself due to the possibility of drowning.