Shedding problems, collectively referred to as “dry sheds” by herptoculturists, are a not uncommon occurrence in snake collections. As I’ve never encountered a wild snake bearing unshed skin, despite having handled innumerable specimens, I am led to believe that establishing proper environmental conditions in captivity helps greatly in avoiding problems in this area.
An important first step is providing an adequately sized pool for soaking. Although some snakes will not make use of a pool, most, even some highly arboreal species (i.e. red-tailed ratsnakes), will. Snakes that frequent moist habitats, such as the ribbon snake pictured here, should always have access to a large pool and dry basking sites (even highly aquatic species are prone to fungal infections if unable to dry off).
The leucistic Burmese python pictured below is over 20 feet long and nearing 21 years of age. She resides in an exhibit that I recently refurbished at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in NYC – her pool measures 5 feet square, and is 4 feet in depth, allowing her to completely submerge (not an easy feat in a private collection!).
For arboreal snakes that might be reluctant to soak in a pool, such as green tree pythons, emerald tree boas and garden tree boas, maintaining the proper ambient humidity (while providing adequate air flow) is important. Extra misting is usually necessary when these snakes are ready to shed.
Most shedding difficulties can be resolved by confining the snake in water overnight. Keep the water at a level which allows the snake to breathe without having to swim, and provide a brick or rough stone for it to rub against when loosening the old skin.
Snakes so confined will try to escape their unfamiliar surroundings, and very often rub their snouts raw if a screen top is used. I have found ventilated plastic garbage cans to be perfect for soaking snakes – be sure to secure the top with duct tape and/or bungee cords.
Moss as a Shedding Aid (High Strung, Desert and Arboreal Snakes)
Some species or individuals are simply too high strung to tolerate confinement in a bare pool of water. I have found this to be true for black racers, certain garter snakes, coachwhip snakes, eyelash vipers and Neo-tropical rattlesnakes (pictured below). Note: Eyelash vipers and rattlesnakes were under my care in zoos, and, being venomous, are not suitable for private collections.
For other species, standing water seems to be such a foreign element that confinement to it causes extreme stress. Among this group are African egg-eating snakes, vine snakes, patch-nosed snakes and rough/smooth green snakes.
These snakes and similar species do very well when confined to containers of damp moss instead of water. They usually burrow right into the moss, finding security and moistening their skins in the process. When provided with a rough stone, they most often shed by morning.
Commercial Shedding Aids
Specially formulated shedding aids are now available and are proving to be quite useful, especially when paired with the foregoing suggestions. Some individual snakes have difficulty with every shed – for these, you can apply the shedding aid once the snake has become opaque (once the eyes cloud over).
Checking the Eye Caps
After a problematical shed, be sure to check that the old eye caps (technically known as the brille) have been shed. This can be difficult to ascertain, so please seek the advice of an experienced snake keeper if you are unsure. Retained eye caps can be removed with the aid of mineral oil and a fine tweezers, but again this is not an undertaking for one inexperienced in the procedure.