Solving Snake Shedding Problems

Poor shedding is the most common health problem snake keepers face. Sometimes poor shedding is chronic and a sign something is either wrong with the snake, or its set-up. When a snake retains its skin by the time its next shed comes around, the situation becomes more problematic. Let’s fix this!

How to tell when a snake is going to shed

Snakes shed out of their old skin as they grow. This includes the modified scales that protect their eyeballs. Everything goes. There’re obvious signs when a snake will soon shed. Their eyes glaze over in a whitish/blue color. If you look closely, their skin also demonstrates this hue during this period.

Sometimes a snake getting ready to shed becomes uncharacteristically defensive and may strike out at you. This is partly because they’re blind at this point. They may also show no interest in feeding or much of anything else. Instead, they coil up somewhere in the enclosure where they feel secure until shedding occurs.  This takes up to a week or so.

Snake shedding problems

Shedding problems can arise from many factors:

  • Too low of humidity: By far the most common cause for poor shedding is due to low humidity levels in the enclosure. I find this problem most prevalent during the winter when the heat is on. Forced air heating is very dry and humidity quickly dissipates not only in the room but also the enclosure of the snake. Later in this article, I will be covering how to create a humidity box which solves that particular problem associated with poor shedding.
  • Dehydration: Low humidity levels can go hand in hand with dehydration. Snakes should always have a bowl of water available to them. A water bowl also helps raise the humidity in their enclosure. Dehydration due to the absence of a water bowl can lead to poor shedding by itself. Snakes tend to drink water on a daily basis when it’s readily available. Dehydration eventually leads to other chronic health ailments. 
  • Stress: Stress causes many ailments for captive reptiles. Over-handling along with not having a proper place for the snake to hide are the most common reasons for stress among snakes. It’s no surprise that a stressed snake may develop poor shedding among other problems. 
  • Nutritional deficiency: Vitamin A deficiency is a cause of dysecdysis in reptiles.
  • Illness and disease: This could play out in many different scenarios. Identify the illness or disease the snake is suffering from and get it treated by a veterinarian who is competent in reptiles. When it comes to the need for medication, I cannot give advice. You’ll need an animal doctor to write a prescription.

Poor Shedding Solution

Snake shedding problem solved

Use the right substrate for the species of snake you keep

While I predominantly use paper towels as bedding for most of my snakes, there are times when they’re better avoided. Take the Amazon tree boa for example. Snakes which need higher humidity levels for shedding purposes do better in cypress tank mulch, repti-bark, or cocoa husk bedding which holds moisture.

Just be sure there’s adequate ventilation so the enclosure doesn’t get too wet. Oversaturation can lead to an upper respiratory infection, especially when the temperature is low.

Snake shedding hacks
A perfect shed from an Arizona mountain Kingsnake.

Retained snake shed

Sometimes a retained shed is as easy to treat as simply soaking the snake in a tub of water for fifteen minutes. When the snake’s skin is thoroughly saturated with water, gently peel off the dead skin. This can sometimes be accomplished with a single sweeping motion.

If the skin is dry enough to the point of decay, you may have to pull it off piece by piece. Be gentle, yet firm and proceed with confidence. Sometimes snakes get defensive during or soon after a shed. One thing is for certain, when you have completed the task and all the dead skin removed, you’ll have a much happier snake.

Keep something in the enclosure for the snake to rub up against when shedding

A simple stick or small branch will suffice. Any object that the snake can get a grip on. Sometimes they effectively use their water bowl to shed out of their old skin.

I’ve noticed that many snakes tip over their water bowl during a shed. This easily works to the snake’s advantage and I sometimes wonder if this is done on purpose, or if it’s accidental. It’s an interesting occurrence which occurs regularly in my collection.

This bullsnake will soon shed.
Cloudy eyes are a sign that this snake will soon shed out of its old skin. Watch for retained eye caps.

Retained eye caps and snakes

Now we’re getting into more serious issues. A retained eye cap is not a joke and poses a threat to the future of your snake’s well-being. The fix is usually not that difficult. First of all, the eye cap is actually a modified scale that protects the eye of the snake.

Under normal conditions, a snake sheds out the old scale protecting the eye. It simply pops off with the rest of the skin. A new scale is always ready to replace the old eye cap.

Two successfully shed eye caps
Two successfully shed eye caps.

Bullsnakes and retained eye caps

I find certain snake species more susceptible to retained eye caps. In my experience, retained eye caps are rather common with bullsnakes. Even when a bullsnake has no problem shedding the rest of its skin, one of the eyes retains a cap. The best way to tell if your snake has a retained eye cap is to look for cloudiness in the eye. 

I have my theory about why this happens with bullsnakes. As much as I love bullsnakes, they always seem unsettled. Even specimens that don’t bite are very jumpy, rarely staying still while being handled. They’re also overactive, always busy in their enclosure.

Bullsnakes also have a fast metabolism passing their last meal in about two or three days. I think that bull snakes rush through the process of shedding more quickly than other snakes. In doing so, a sloppy shed occurs sometimes leading to a retained eye cap.

Don’t allow a retained eyecap to go untreated

No matter what species of snake you have, be certain to fix this issue. It can eventually lead to the snake losing an eye. Some keepers allow the retained eye cap to go to the next shed hoping it pops off the second time around. That might be possible, but I’ve never tried it. I wouldn’t be willing to take the chance, it’s too risky.

How to remove a snake’s retained eye cap

Many techniques exist to remove retained eye caps. Some of them are more dangerous for the snake than just waiting to see if it pops off during the next shed. Some keepers attempt to pull the retained cap off with tweezers. Don’t do it! You could end up pulling the entire eye out of the snake’s head.

Another method uses a q-tip. While this method is somewhat safer, it’s still very stressful for the snake. Dampen the q-tip, then rub it up against the affected eye. Ideally, the q-tip will be abrasive enough to catch the cap and pull it off. While some people make this look easy, I never bothered with it.

This is how I deal with retained eye caps that works every time.

All-natural mineral oil is great for removing retained eye caps on snakes

I use all-natural mineral oil to remove retained eye caps. You can get it at just about any supermarket or pharmacy and it’s cheap. One bottle lasts a lifetime and it won’t hurt your snake in any way. 

Here’s what you do

Dip a q-tip into the mineral oil. Make certain it’s saturated. Then apply the q-tip with mineral oil directly to the snakes retained eye cap. Allow the q-tip to cover the entire eye cap including the corners. Be gentle and repeat a second time. Then, simply place the snake back in the enclosure and your job is complete.

There’s no pulling involved, just apply the mineral oil to the eye and wait. One treatment usually does the trick. In 24 hours, the retained eye cap should pop off by itself. If by the next day the retained eye cap is still present, repeat the same steps from the day before. It should definitely pop off after two treatments. I’ve never had to treat a retained eye cap a third time.

Make a humidity box for retained sheds

99.9% of the time when my snakes get stuck in a shed, a simple humidity box corrects the problem. I’m even talking about the really bad cases where the skin is so tight that it’s beginning to crease and fold. Can you imagine how bad the poor snake must feel at this point? Create a humidity chamber from a small shoebox.

How to make a humidity box for snake shedding.
A basic humidity box.

Step 1. Place several layers of paper towels in the shoebox and wet them with lukewarm water. While there shouldn’t be any standing water, make them wet enough that they’re saturated.

Step 2. Place the snake in the box and close the lid. You can also lay the wet paper towels over the snake if you choose. Then, simply close the shoe box and wait.

This sometimes takes an hour or so but usually takes less time for the snake to emerge completely free of its old skin.

There’s one extra point I must mention.

Don’t try this in a room where the temperature is cool. Do this in a warm room. I like to place half of the shoebox over the heat tape in their enclosure. This keeps it warm enough for the snake to get down to business. At the same time, don’t make it too warm that the snake overheats. 

How to easily solve a retained shed with a humidity box

Humidity box part 1
1. This Thayer's Kingsnake suffers from a retained shed.
Humidity box part 2
2. Place paper towels in a plastic shoe box and dampen them with a spay bottle.
Humidity box part 3
3. Put the snake in the shoe box and place it at the back of the tub that slides into the rack.
Humidity box part 4
4. The red arrows point to the heat tape on the inside of the rack.
Humidity box part 5
5. Place the tub back inside the rack. The shoebox is directly over the heat source creating more humidity.
Humidity box part 6
6. Wait a few hours and the snake emerges completely free of the retained shed.

Watch for the tip of the snakes tail!

Sometimes a snake (or lizard) sheds out of everything except the tip of the tail. Don’t allow any retained skin to accumulate here. Why? Because after another shed, the circulation in the tail gets cut off.

When this happens, the snake ends up losing the end of its tail. Manually removing the retained tail skin is easy to do. Simply allow the snake to soak for fifteen minutes and gently pull the retained shed away from the tail, leaving no dead skin behind. Rat snakes are susceptible to retained tail skin.

Conclusion

Shedding problems aren’t just annoying to the snake-keeper. They’re also extremely frustrating for the snake. One can only imagine what it must feel like to have old skin stuck to a growing body. It’s something that usually doesn’t solve itself.

For stuck sheds use a humidity box. This works for 99%of the time. For skin stuck to the tail or eye-caps, use either all-natural mineral oil or organic coconut oil. Remember, a little goes a long way so don’t completely submerge the snake in mineral or coconut oil.

How do you successfully deal with snake shedding issues? Please add your advice in the comments section below!

Snake Shedding Problems

Close Menu