Home | Reptile and Amphibian Health | Assisting Snakes During “Dry Sheds” and other Skin Shedding (Ecdysis) Related Problems: Soaking and Commercial Shedding Aids

Assisting Snakes During “Dry Sheds” and other Skin Shedding (Ecdysis) Related Problems: Soaking and Commercial Shedding Aids

 

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.

Soaking Pools

Ribbon SnakeAn 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).

Leucistic Burmese PythonThe 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!).

Arboreal Snakes

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.

Soaking Containers

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)

Crotalus durissusSome 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.

 

141 comments

  1. avatar

    Hi,

    I’m a new ball python owner, so I did really bad at keeping the humidity level, it usually varies a lot from 20% to 75% every day. I don’t know how to keep it at a certain level, will a fogger work? Also, I have owned it for a little passed a month and I believe he is pretty young. He started to rub his face against log for a week but didn’t show further signs of shed, should I be worried? How often do young python normally shed? Thank you sooo much!!! P.S. The temperature for hot spot is usually at around 80F.

  2. avatar

    Hi Frank,

    About a month ago I purchased a Brazilian Rainbow Boa, she’s about 4 mos. and she’s just completed her second shedding with me. About a day ago I noticed the tip of her nose appears to have a crusty appearance, but more smooth crusty and not flakey. It’s like her nose was more brown before (she’s an anery) and now its tan/cream-ish in color. Not sure if this is a shedding issue or something systematic. I’m worried about RI… I feel like I can’t see her nostrils like I should and they’re clogged or something? I will try soaking for a period in the meantime awaiting your response, since I feel she is not doing so herself..

    I reside in New England: I keep her enclosure around 80 degrees F, well the warm side at least, and her humidity is regularly 85%. I use cypress substrate and moss, she has her hideout place, a climbing branch for fun and an adequately sized water dish. I never really see her soaking in water unless she’s doing it while I’m sleeping, she’d rather lay under moss and cypress. I do however keep her water bowl on the warm side to try and keep humidity up since that’s a hard factor to maintain my given climate. Is the water too warm for her?

    Also, she hasn’t eaten for me yet. It’s been almost one month since I’ve had her. I’ve tried several times, I was told she’s eating fuzzies but I can only find them frozen and I’m wondering if she’s not super impressed with the whole frozen/thawed idea. I feel like she’s had enough time to adjust to her new environment so I don’t know if that’s the issue? She seems happy and active, just not interested.

    Gosh, I feel like a bad mom, and I know I have a lot of concerns but any of your expertise would be so greatly appreciated!

    • avatar

      Hello,

      If the area near her nostrils id just a bit of dried skin form the last shed it will most likely come off next time, and should not cause any trouble. respiratory infections are unrelated…you would see a variety of specific symptoms. Skin growth, fungal infections etc. need vet attention, but usually, in that area, dry skin is involved.

      Ambient temperatures should be 80-85 F with a basking site of 90 F; the low temps could be depressing its appetite; please see this article for more on basic care, and let me know if you need further info.

      1 month of non-feeding is not a concern, especially for a new animal. frozen rodents are fine, used by many major zoos and does not affect acceptance (despite the “theories” you may read online!). rainbows are notorious for accepting 1 food item for a time, then refusing in favor of another. You can experiment with rat pinks, rat pups , pink mice, fuzzies, bu raising the temperature should be the first priority. Best, Frank

  3. avatar

    I have a ball python. His shedding cycle was normal until the actual shedding process. He had started at it and had gotten off the eye caps, but from his head down still needs to be shed. Parts of his belly has come off from crawling in his cage. He hasn’t madea move to shed the rest off. I soaked ghim sprayed ghim, even put him in a wet pillow case. I gave him enough moisture to shed but he won’t continue. He just sleeps like he already did shed. What can Ido to help him

    • avatar

      Hello Sabrina,

      The eye caps are most important. If the rest cannot be removed by hand (you’ll need a helper, and some shedding aid or olive oil) you might try confining the snake to water overnight as outlined in the article. The only holdup might be temperature, if it is cold where you are. You’ll need a way to keep the water at 75 F or higher,. Please let me know if you need more info, frank

  4. avatar

    Is it ok to feed my snake during dry shedding? I haven’t fed him in a while and i don’t want him to starve.

    • avatar

      Hello Barbra,

      If the snake has shed and there are just some skin pieces remaining, then it can be fed…but it’s almost impossible to starve most snakes, so don’t worry about that! they adjust metabolism to suit food availability), best, frank

  5. avatar

    I’ve been having the same problems as Sabrina with my ball python. There’s still aa lot more skin left over. Is it possible to pull it off for him? And how would I use the olive oil on him? Plus can he be fed in his state?

    • avatar

      Hello mark,

      Olive oil is used to lubricate the skin, making it easier to remove via tweezers; you’ll need someone to restrain the snake also. Best to try soaking overnight first, as described in the article. If you’re going to remove the skin, wait until that is done before feeding..not good to disturb a snake after a meal. best, Frank

  6. avatar

    My spider ball python is going through his first shed while being under my care and it’s a very patchy, broken up shed. He can’t seem to get the rest off and also the caps over his eyes just won’t seem to budge I don’t know what to do its been a couple of weeks since he started shed and he still has a bit to go, any pointers or tips I can use to help him out??

    • avatar

      Hello Yesenia,

      The best option would be to soak overnight as described in the article. But if the eyecaps remain after that, a vet visit would be advisable, as they are not east to remove manually w/o experienced help. Please keep me posted, frank

  7. avatar

    Hi frank i just got a beautiful male baby ball python and he is about 22 inches. He is just now going through his first shed with me and he is my first snake so i dont really know what to do other than not mess around with him. I would love it if you gave me some great tips to help him out with his shed. Also, the humidity in my tank is always around 10% and I’ve heard that its supposed to be higher than that so i would also love it if you gave me some tips on how to get the humidity higher.

    • avatar

      Hello Alex,

      There’s nothing to do while the animal sheds unless the shed is incomplete. They are native to arid habitats, and generally do fine at low humidity levels as long as provided a water bowl large enough for soaking. You can spray the cage lightly each day, and more heavily when the snake becomes opaque, but they usually shed fine. If you wish, you can also provide a hide box stocked with moist sphagnum moss, as well as a dry hide. please let me know if you need more info, frank

  8. avatar

    Thanks so much for the info. It helps out alot and i am very thankful considering i dont know anything but the basic stuff mainly. And i have now fed him 3 times and he sat in the same spot and didn’t move for 2 to 3 days and when he finally did move there were what looked like green pellets and some white stuff on the bark. I know they poop and stuff but is it supposed to be green like it is?

  9. avatar

    Hey Frank, I’m glad I found someone willing to answer questions as there seems to be some dispute over what I’m trying to find out. I am thinking of purchasing a rat snake and I know they are supposed to be kept in a dry environment as humidity is bad for them. Some sites say that during shedding, spritzing them with water to aid the process can help but other sites say you should never spritz your rat snake as the humidity is bad for their lungs. What is the best way to help a rat snake if they are having a dry shed?

    • avatar

      Hello,

      The name ratsnake is used for many species, not all of which are related, so please feel free to send me the name; ..but only some of the Asian species..i.e. red-tailed ratsnake, need humid environments, andf even they also need dry areas. Others can be sprayed, daily, as long as the terrarium dries out within an hour or so..most are from temperate regions and experience rain, storms etc; only a few desert-adapted types, i.e. the Trans Pecos ratsnake, need very dry environments. As long as they have a bowl large enough to soak in, shedding is usually not a problem. best, frank

  10. avatar

    Hi, I have a white lavender albino yellow headed reticulated python, she is 8 months old and 6 feet long. She has done fine with sheds so far, I use coconut mulch for thensubstrate, two heat pads on the aquarium it is a 250 gallon glass aquarium, with a custom lid and a heat lamp for the warm side. The warm side stays about 85-88 degrees F and the coloer side stays about 78-80 degrees F. She has a large container she can soak in and cover her entire body. I change her substrate once a week but clean up when ever she defecates. She she last night and this morning her she’d wasn’t complete so I picked her up and she was very upset and but me twice this has never happened but I don’t normally handle her after sheds or feeding. The underneath of her from the tip of her tail to about 8 inches in are a pinkish red and where the shed stopped coming off she was bleeding some. I soaked her in the bath tub for a hour and then soaked her in 1% Betadine solution for 20 minutes I patted her dry and put triple antibiotics ointment on the area. Do you know what this could be I have had over snakes but nothing ever happened to any of them except a vet told me one died of old age. Thanks for your opinion/help!

    • avatar

      Hello Brent,

      A vet visit is advisable, as you’ll need antibiotics if an infection (skin or other) is involved, and complete diagnosis in not possible at home. Re biting, do not rely on snake’s former behavior etc, they are always liable to bite. Please let me know if you need help locating a vet, best, frank

  11. avatar

    Also I forgot to add that I have a repti fogger and with that the humidity on average is about 65-75% humidity, I have both analog and digital hygrometer and thermometers in the set up at both the hot and cooler side.

  12. avatar

    I have a central American red tail boa.. We got him about 7 months ago. He was eating perfectly fine. But lately he hasn’t been wanting to eat.. It’s been about 4 months. Saturday morning we went to where we bought him and spoke to a snake specialist said it might be that he wanted live mice so we tried it. He ate it in a heart beat BUT the mice has been stuck in his mid-section for 2 days and we caught him twisting himself like crazy I don’t know what is going on. We have a female also but she is doing perfectly fine and is growing as she should be. Him on the other hand has not grown actually he seems too tiny and he’s older than the female. And he has no force he doesn’t grip onto anything he falls off the plants we have for him.. Can you help?

    • avatar

      Hello Elizabeth,

      please consult a vet rather than pet store for such problems…live mice are never necessary for boas, bites leading to infections will always result in time. Fasts are not a major concern…if in good health, they all take dead mice once hungry enough.

      The symptoms you describe can indicate a wide range of health concerns, that can only be diagnosed via vet exam, please let me know if you need help in finding a reptile vet, best, frank

  13. avatar

    I have a baby ball python I purchased at a pet store 2 weeks ago. He has eaten once and I have a fairly humid aquarium tank and the temperature has been roughly 88 degrees during the daytime. I believe he shed fairly recently at the pet store but I noticed some scales on his belly seem loose. When I hold him up to the light it looks like little pieces of his skin are sticking up like they are either part of an old shed or he has rubbed up against something rough. He doesn’t have anything rough in his tank, and I feel like I would have noticed this earlier had it been a problem when I bought him.

    • avatar

      Hello Leigh,

      Unshed skin can lay pretty flat and stay un-noticed until the snake moves about, catches scales on something..I’ve seen this in many individuals. If it’s limited to that area, you can leave, will come off at next shed, or try moistening with olive oil etc and see if you can remove. Redness, or loosening of actuarial skin itself should be checked by a vet. They are from arid habitats, o not really need a humid tank per se, and must be able to stay dry most of the time…you can spray the tank in the AM; a water bowl large enough for soaking and, if needed, a cave with some damp sphagnum when it becomes opaque, should do the trick. Some more info here, let me know if you need anything, frank

  14. avatar

    Hi Frank,

    I recently got a seven year old, 4 and a half foot long normal corn snake. The day I got her, her scales seemed to be fine. It’s now a little over a week later and she appears to have dandruff on her scales. They do not look like mites. She also has a scale on the middle of her head popped up. Not the scale itself but it looks like she shed it off. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong. If the humidity is too low, what are some ways I can raise it? She is active and nothing seems to be wrong besides the scales.

    • avatar

      Hi Destiny,

      They usually do fine in dry conditions, low humidity as long as there’s a water bowl for soaking. You can spry the tank each AM, but it would be best to have the animal seen by a vet, as there are a number of skin problems unrelated to dry sheds etc., and it’s not possible to diagnose by symptoms, etc. let me know if you need help locating a local vet, best, frank

  15. avatar

    Hi Frank,

    I have a new Kenyan Sand Boa who is just under a year old. I acquired her a month ago, and within days she began to develop an extremely rough, white tail. A small patch has also developed on her head. She denied food just over a week ago and I assumed she began the shedding process, so I did not attempt it again this week. She has begun to hide under her rock, which she did not do before (it is located on the hot side). My mother and I have also begun to mist her and the enclosure very occasionally and she has enjoyed taking baths in her water dish on her own. However, over the last week, she has not become any more cloudy or shown any other signs of an advancing shed. I have a picture, but cannot post it on here so for my website I gave a link to my post on a forum where I ask the same question that includes the picture. Thank you.

    • avatar

      Hello Cydney,

      It’s difficult to judge from photo, but if skin is changing slowly, over time, it may be best to see a vet…perhaps a fungal infection or other skin condition, although this is not common; wait a bit more – this is not typical prior to a shed but hopefully that is all that is involved ans it will clear after shed. let me know if you need help in finding a vet, best, frank

      • avatar

        Hi frank. My ball python has been “shedding from like 3-4 weeks and hardly any skin has came off. Just little tiny patches from when he has moved. Do you know if I have to worry or if he’ll be okay

  16. avatar

    I don’t suppose you could help me with a 6 year old leopard gecko that I just acquired? As far as I can tell she is pretty healthy other than she is a little small for her age. The main problem/question that I have is about her eyes. They both look so cloudy and she can’t open them in the morning. I had some gentamicin drops left over from another lizard that I tried but it seemed to irritate her so I stopped it. However, her eyes look so much better after using the antibiotic drops. I purchased a shedding aid spray and it says it’s ok to spray on retained eye caps (which I am fairly certain is what’s wrong with her eyes but not 100% sure). If her eyes only have a portion of retained shed is it ok to use this spray on them? Thank you for any help you can offer.

    • avatar

      Hi Christy,

      The shed aid would be safe to spray on the eye lids, but there can be several reasons for cloudy eyes, and if caps are retained they may not come free with spray alone…retained lid liners are a different concern, and cannot be treated at home. I would not use an antibiotic w/o an ID of what micro-organism, if any, is present. A vet visit would be your best option…let me know if you need help in finding a local office, best, frank

  17. avatar

    Hi,

    I found your articles are very helpful! I still have a little question: the level of humidity will always cause log getting mouldy, will that be bad for pythons? Sometimes he will rub against it before shedding, I’m afraid that the mould will cause infection or something. Thanks you so much!

  18. avatar

    Hi Frank,
    I read through most of these and seemed to have gotten a lot of the information I’ve needed. However, my albino prairie king is extremely feisty and difficult to really examine. I’ve had it approximately two months and it is young, just not sure how young. Anyway, the first shed in my care was seemingly great. One solid piece, did not see any holes or missing pieces.
    I have two questions in regard to this shedding process. What’s the best indicator for an albino prairie king starting to “blue?” It’s color is making it difficult for me to notice, and in fact I didn’t realize it was shedding until I came home to the skin in the tank. It’s always feisty so the behavior really wasn’t an indicator.
    Lastly, is it normal for the eyes to appear two different colors and/or shapes? I thought it was a retained eye cap but I’m not seeing any excess skin around the area. Soaking has provided no help, as I’ve tried this multiple times. Is it just normal for one eye to have a completely different shape/color?

    • avatar

      Hello John,

      Color mutations make it very difficult to access shedding..it is usually a matter of a very subtle change. Most will cease feeding just before shedding, but that varies among individuals.

      I have observed snakes with eyes as you describe…especially common in albinos, etc.

      Enjoy, Frank

  19. avatar

    Frank, I acquired an Indonesian Vine Snake which I love. I soon realized that she does not self-shed or assist in the shed in any way. Other than the plentitude of advice you’ve laid forth regarding soaking, anything specific to the Indo that I should employ?

    Sean

    • avatar

      Hello Sean,

      There are several species sold under that common name, but all do best at high humidity levels, but with a warm dry area (beneath bulb, i.e.) and ample air circulation as well. They tend to have difficulty shedding in arid terrariums. heavy misting or perhaps a small humidifier may help. Sphagnum moss added to branches and substrate, and kept damp, is also useful.

      During dry sheds, try confining the animal to a container with plenty of damp sphagnum…preferable to soaking, which may be stressful, but you can soak if other methods do not work.

      Let me know if you need more info, best, frank

  20. avatar

    I have a ball python, he has shed very nicely on the left side but the right side is still flaky! Even is right eye. Hes been in shed mode for almost 2 weeks! I see where you have told others to soak there snake.. But how? My snake hates being in the water? Any suggestions? Please keep in mind this is my first!

    • avatar

      Hi there,

      Ball Pythons are notorious for having bad sheds, so don’t feel too bad. The easiest way to go about soaking a snake is to use a clear container with a lid so that they can’t get out.(make sure to poke air holes in it). I usually use clear Rubbermaid containers. Fill the container so that there is just enough water to cover the whole body of the snake. It is very important that you fill the container with lukewarm water; using water that is either too hot or too cold could hurt the snake. It’s totally normal for the snake to flail around for a minute or two when introduced to the water. Sometimes it helps to put a wash-cloth on the bottom of the container so that the snake has something textured to “grab” on to. Either way your snake will calm down after it realizes that it cannot escape, but isn’t going to drown. Let it soak in the container for about 20 minutes, then try gently rubbing the stuck pieces with your fingers. Most of it should just slough off without much effort. If there are spots that will not come off easily, re-moistening that section can help.

      Make sure that you are also misting the enclosure every day to keep humidity up when you see that your snake is going to shed. Adding some dampened moss to to your substrate or under a hide can also help with this.

      Good Luck, let me know if you have any more questions

      -Josh

  21. avatar

    I have owned several snakes over the years, and I sadly just lost one. It was a Sunbeam snake (Xenopeltidae is I believe the scientific name). I had her for almost a year, and she has eaten and shed fine for me, usually shed about once a month like clockwork (she was growing a lot). Then about a month ago she had what seemed like a normal shed, and she always wants to eat the next day. I fed her but then she threw it back up. It did not look like it digested at all. She has never done this before but all the research I did said to give her space and quite and let her be. But a little less then 2 weeks later she shed again. Another full shed. This was very strange, especially since she had not eaten. Then another roughly 8 days later she looked like she was trying to shed again. This was a couple days ago. I was worried cause she was getting skinny at this point and I never heard of a snake shedding so much. I have kept her with water but handling her when she sheds stresses her out badly and I did not want to make things worse. Plus the other two sheds, while to close together, were complete (eyes were totally clear and all skin was off, mostly in one piece). The sheds did not seem to be the problem. She died this morning though. I really do not know what happened, but I want to understand so it does not happen to any other snakes. Thank you.

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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