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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.

Symptoms of Abnormal Skin Shedding in Snakes

  • Incomplete shed
  • Sores from rubbing
  • Skin in pieces
  • Behavioral changes
  • Stiffness
  • Difficulty moving
  • Odd posturing
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Abnormal Skin Shedding Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

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Ball python

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One Year

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Unknown severity

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Strange Shedding

My ball python is shedding in patches and the patches look strange, as if the scales of the shed were flaking of individually. He recently suffered a minor bite from mouse we fed him, and we are trying to switch him too frozen/thawed.

Sept. 27, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Michele K. DVM

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Thank you for your question. I apologize for the delay in my response, this venue is not set up for urgent emails. Since I cannot see your pet, it would be best to have them seen by a veterinarian, as they can examine them, see what might be causing this, and get treatment if needed.

Oct. 13, 2020

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Common redtail boa

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Three Months

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Unknown severity

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Shed Skin Crumpled Up Into A Ball

My snake recently underwent a shedding. I skipped a week of feeding while he was in the shredding process. When I found the shed skin, it was crumpled up into a ball instead of a long piece. Is this a bad sign?

July 26, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Michele K. DVM

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Thank you for your question. I am not a snake expert, but that does not strike me as a problem. If he is doing well otherwise and is acting normally, I think you are safe just monitoring him. If you are not sure, it would be best to have a veterinarian take a look at him and make sure he is okay, as there are many reptile experts that practice snake medicine. I hope all goes well.

July 26, 2020

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Cleo

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Ball Python

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1 Year

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Mild severity

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Mild severity

Has Symptoms

Red Line Up His Belly

My 1 year ball python has a reddish brown line up his belly approximately 2 inches long. His tail has become crusty. He is also started losing scales one by one. He shed 3 weeks ago. He is not as active but has eaten in the past week.

July 26, 2018

Cleo's Owner

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It is difficult to say specifically what the cause is here, but I would be concerned about scale rot; sometimes a smaller line on the ventral abdomen cranial to the vent may just be the umbilicus but the crusty tail is concerning. You should visit your Veterinarian for an examination to be on the safe side. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

July 27, 2018

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Zilla

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Honduran milk snake

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15 Years

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Mild severity

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Mild severity

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Incomplete Shed

Zilla has been in a constant shed for the past couple of months.(maybe 5 or so) It seems that’s she is struggling to fully shed, pieces of skin will stay for a long time until she is in shed again about 2 weeks later. My sister has been taking care of her and feeding her two mice every other week; before hand I was feeding one mouse every week. Her humidity has been about 40-60 consistently throughout my care and under the care of my sister. She hasn’t acted in any strange manor or stopped eating. Please help!

May 9, 2018

Zilla's Owner

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Dr. Michele K. DVM

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Zilla may have a medical condition that requires treatment for her shedding, or this may be normal for her. Without seeing her, I can't comment on whether she is having a problem, unfortunately, and it would be best to have her seen by an exotics veterinarian who can look at her and give you an recommendations for her treatment.

May 10, 2018

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Monty

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Ball Python

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3 Years

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Mild severity

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Mild severity

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Not Eating
Incomplete Shed

My ball python hasn't eaten since February and he isn't shedding completely and hasn't for a few months now. We have tried a bath. We have tried an Olive oil soak. We have tried not handling him for a few weeks. We have tried smaller rats. We have tried everything. He ate once during his supposed hibernation periodbut we're incredibly worried about him. He is like a child to us. Please help us understand what's going on. Thank you so much, Danielle, Ozzy and Monty Taylor 🐍

April 5, 2018

Monty's Owner

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A loss of appetite may occur leading up to and during shedding (also may occur during winter months), the incomplete shed may be due to an underlying disease or condition and you should visit a Veterinarian familiar with herpetology to examine Monty to be sure there isn’t anything else to be concerned with. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM www.reptilesmagazine.com/Snake-Care/Incomplete-Abnormal-Snake-Shedding/

April 5, 2018

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Yuki

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Ball Python

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2 Years

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Moderate severity

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Moderate severity

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Shed In Pieces

My 2 year old BEL ball python just had a very strange shed. She lives in a 36x24x18 PVC enclosure, ambient heat on the warm side at 86, hot spot of 90, cool side 79ish. Heated with an RHP. Humidity usually ranges between 68-85% depending on the amount of time since I changed the substrate, which is changed monthly. It starts very high, then slowly drops, and at 65% I will rehydrate a bit. So her humidity is good. She just shed, and it was in a billion little pieces. I didn't see her shed, I just found it in the back of her enclosure, all in one area (so she didn't slither all over the place looking to get it off). She had zero stuck, nothing remained on her when I got her out of her hide this morning. Just this shrapnel shed in the back area. Any ideas what could cause this? She's never had anything but a single piece shed before. No new snakes entered my home, no mites, I haven't been around any other animals.

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Kingston

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Ball Python

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8 Years

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Mild severity

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Mild severity

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Not Eatin

He has not are in 6 weeks last 2attempts he took rat bit, wrapped but not swallowed. Spit out now he is shedding I think due to milky eyes. He seems to be loosing weight so I don't understand if he is about to shed.

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Noodle

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Corn Snake

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5 Years

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Mild severity

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Mild severity

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Frequent Shed

My 5 year old corn snake is in frequent shed, 3 already in quick concession since the beginning of the year, a tiny cap of skin had been left on the very end of his tail from the first one and thought it would eventually fall off however the 2nd she'd came on quickly and another layer had formed over his tail, I used cotton wool to soak it and carefully managed to slide it off no problem however he's instantly went I nto another shed so I'm worried he's got an underlying issue, his moods are fine and he was quite happy for me to take care of his tail, does stress cause this? I've only had him a year so worry it's something I'm doing and I follow instructions from his old owners to the letter. Any advice would be well appreciated

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Maddox

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Red Tail Boa

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6 Months

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Serious severity

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1 found helpful

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Serious severity

Has Symptoms

Not Eating
Abnormal Shedding

Maddox has stopped eatting on his own, but has taken force feeding formula in the past with no issue. He has been in the process of shedding for about 2.5- 3 months. He has been able to get the shed off of most of his body including his head and eyecaps. Although except for patches near the middle of his back and down. He is still super sweet, and has not let this affect his attitude. We are starting to become even more worried because it appears that he is even starting to shed his actual scales. We have tried soaking him in warm water to see if that would help, but unfortunatly that does not seem to be working. We are really at a loss at what to do for him, and we are very worried. This is also his first shed with us and we don't know what we are doing wrong. the humidity stays in the 70-80% range, and our other snake that is kept in the same conditions is doing perfect. We do have it arranged that he will be going to see a vet in the following week. We would just really appreciate any answers as to what may be wrong with our boy. Thank you.

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