Snakes are famous for their unusual manner of skin replacement – a process known as shedding.
But in truth, shedding is not an unusual phenomenon. Most animals shed their outer surfaces over time. And did you know you’re shedding skin cells at this very moment?
The difference is that unlike you, who shed on a relatively ongoing basis, snakes shed their skin in dramatic, punctuated fashion. They crawl out of their entire outer covering in a matter of minutes or (rarely) hours.
We’ll delve into the subject of shedding below and explain the process in greater detail. We’ll be focusing on ball pythons here, but the broad strokes will be similar for most other species.
It is important to understand that the shedding process does not always go well. Snakes occasionally have poor sheds, which can – in some cases – cause serious health problems. So, we’ll also discuss some of the husbandry implications related to the shedding process, so that your snake will have a better chance at problem-free sheds.
Shedding: The Basic Process
The shedding process unfolds in a relatively predictable fashion.
The first thing you’ll likely notice is that your snake’s skin starts to look a bit duller than normal and his eyes may begin to look blue (snake keepers refer to snakes in this part of the process as “in the blue”). This is caused by a layer of fluid that builds up between your snake’s outermost layer of skin and the one immediately beneath it. This fluid will help the old skin to slide off relatively easily.
This stage in the process normally lasts for about 5 to 7 days, but it varies. During this time period, your ball python may be more secretive than normal. He’ll often refuse food during this time, and he may be more defensive or nervous than usual.
As shedding time approaches, you’ll typically notice that your snake’s eyes (and, to a lesser extent, his body skin) will clear up a bit. A day or two later, you’ll likely start to see your snake crawling around the enclosure. You may even notice that he’s rubbing his nose on things in the habitat. He’s doing this to help cut the outer (old) layer of skin near his lips, which will allow the shedding process to commence.
Once the outer layer on his face begins to peel away, he’ll begin crawling out of the old skin. He may weave his body through any climbing branches present or around his water bowl to help create the friction necessary to facilitate the process. The process may take as little as 10 minutes or as long as several hours.
Once the snake has completed the shedding process, he’ll typically regain his appetite and typical demeanor. Additionally, his coloration will normally appear very bright and bold.
Husbandry Implications: What Do You Do When Your Snake Sheds?
If your snake is in perfect health and you’re maintaining his habitat in an ideal manner, you shouldn’t have to do anything differently during the shedding process. But perfect health and ideal husbandry conditions are exceptions and not the rule. This means that snakes occasionally experience problematic sheds in captivity.
So, keepers often implement a few basic strategies to help ensure their snake’s shed cycle goes smoothly. This includes the three steps detailed below:
1) Increase the humidity in the habitat.
Proper hydration is crucial for problem-free sheds. You can address this in part by simply making drinking water available at all times, but it is often helpful to increase the overall humidity in the habitat during shed cycles too.
You can do this by simply pouring some water in the substrate (assuming that you are using a substrate like cypress mulch or orchid bark that won’t rot quickly). However, it is often easier and more effective to mist the enclosure with a spray bottle full of room-temperature water.
Spray down the substrate, habitat furniture and the enclosure walls. A little spritz of water won’t harm your snake, but try to avoid spraying him in the face, as most serpents find this very jarring.
2) Temporarily withhold food.
Many ball pythons will refuse food while they’re in the middle of a shed cycle, but some will continue to accept food. Experienced keepers may continue to offer their snake food while he’s undergoing a shed cycle, but it will typically be wise for beginning keepers to simply withhold food until the process concludes.
Feeding a snake during a shed cycle doesn’t create any serious health risks, but the constriction process may cause portions of the soon-to-be-shed skin to rip. This can make the snake more likely to have a bad shed. Additionally, the same thing can happen if you feed your pet an unusually large meal.
Accordingly, it is simply wise to wait until your snake’s next regularly scheduled meal. A healthy ball python can skip a meal or two without suffering any ill effects.
3) Refrain from handling the snake unnecessarily.
As mentioned earlier, snakes are often quite defensive during shed cycles. This is thought to be partially due to the fact that they may become temporarily blind during the process (when their eyes are blue). So, they’re rarely interested in being handled during this time. If handled anyway, they can experience significant stress, and they’re more likely to respond by hissing, defecating or biting.
Accordingly, it is simply wise to leave your snake alone while he’s undergoing a shed cycle. He’ll likely remain in one of his hiding spaces for the bulk of this time anyway, so just allow him to rest undisturbed. It’s still a good idea to check on him about once per day, by simply lifting the hide box, giving him a quick visual inspection, and then lowering the hide box back down over him gently.
Common Skin Shedding Problems and Solutions
From time to time, ball pythons may experience problems during the shedding process. A few of the most common issues that may arise are discussed below.
One of the most common shedding problems ball pythons experience occurs when they shed incompletely. Typically, the skin will break at some point around the python’s body, which allows some portion of it to slip off. However, the other portion of the skin will remain attached to the snake.
Skin that sticks to the main portion of your snake’s body is generally not an emergency situation. Often, the snake will simply get rid of the retained skin during his next shed cycle. However, it is typically wise to try to remove the retained skin when possible, to help reduce the likelihood of infections or other skin problems from occurring.
Retained Eye Caps
A snake’s eye is covered by a clear scale called the spectacle. Normally, this scale is shed along with the rest of a snake’s skin, but at times, it can remain stuck to your snake’s eye. This can be a pretty serious issue, which you won’t want to ignore. In some cases, retained eye caps can cause infections to set in and ultimately lead to the loss of vision.
Nevertheless, you should never attempt to remove a retained eye cap manually. Instead, you can try some of the gentle soaking techniques discussed below. If this doesn’t prove successful, you’ll simply need to take your snake to the vet for assistance.
Stuck Skin on the Tail
Bad sheds can occasionally cause a snake to retain the skin wrapped around the tip of his tail. This isn’t as dangerous as retained eye caps, but it can prevent blood from flowing into the tail tip. This can lead to infections and the loss of the tail tip, if not properly addressed.
Ball pythons have pretty thick tails, so retained skin in this area isn’t as common as it is with some other species. It’s also fairly easy to address with ball pythons by simply moistening the area thoroughly, and then trying to roll the retained skin off the tip of the tail.
Just be sure not to apply too much pressure or force anything – if the skin doesn’t come off with a bit of water and gentle pressure, just take your snake to the vet for assistance.
Retained Skin Near the Vent
A snake’s vent serves as the opening to the reproductive, urinary and digestive systems. It is characterized by a single, flap-like scale on the ventral surface of your python, near the tail (in fact, the vent marks the beginning of your snake’s tail).
Skin occasionally sticks around these areas during poor shed cycles. Because this skin may remain connected to the delicate tissues inside the vent, great care is required when trying to remove it. Typically, it is wisest to use the soaking techniques described below and allow the snake to work the retained skin free himself.
If, however, your snake is unable to do so after several days, you’ll want to make an appointment with the vet to have it removed.
Soaking Your Ball Python: The Best Way to Correct Shedding Problems
No matter what type of shedding problem your snake has, you’ll always want to begin addressing the issue in the same way: By allowing your snake to soak in a small amount of room-temperature water for a while. This will often soften any retained skin, allowing it to slip free easily, and it will also ensure your snake is well-hydrated.
To soak your snake, you’ll need a small plastic container (such as a plastic shoebox). Drill a few ventilation holes in the lid to allow air exchange, and then pour a small amount of room-temperature water in the box.
Ideally, you’ll want the water level to barely cover your snake’s back. Do not add so much water that your snake is forced to swim or struggle to keep his head above water. You want him to be able to lay comfortably and simply relax in the water.
You can leave the snake in the water for about 15 to 30 minutes, and experienced keepers may safely do so for much longer periods of time. Just be sure that the water is not allowed to become too cool and monitor your snake frequently to ensure he is safe and comfortable.
Often, you’ll find that the retained skin releases on its own – you may even see it floating around in the water. However, if the skin is still stuck to your snake’s body (not including his eyes or vent area), you can apply gentle pressure to help work it free. Do not force the skin to come off – if it doesn’t release easily, simply return your snake to his enclosure. You can soak your snake again in a day or two and try the process again.
Preventative Measures: Avoiding Problematic Sheds in the First Place
As is probably obvious, the best way to deal with poor sheds is to avoid them in the first place. Fortunately, by implementing a few important husbandry practices, you’ll be able to give your snake the best possible chance to enjoy complete, problem-free sheds.
Maintain Proper Humidity Levels
The single most important husbandry parameter for enjoying problem-free sheds is likely habitat humidity. Adequate humidity levels help keep your snake’s skin pliable and ensure proper hydration. In fact, you can even maintain slightly higher-than-normal humidity levels during the week or so that your snake is shedding.
Improper humidity levels are undoubtedly one of the most common reasons captive ball pythons have poor sheds. This likely happens in part because novice keepers misunderstand the ball python’s natural habitat. Ball pythons are found in a few relatively arid regions, but in such locations, they spend a lot of time underground, in vegetation, and inside termite mounds. This helps surround them with wetter air and therefore prevents many of the shedding problems captive ball pythons experience.
Just be sure that you don’t overdo things – excessively wet habitats that are dripping with water may encourage bacterial and fungal growth. This could lead to health problems for your snake.
Ensure Your Snake Remains Well Hydrated
Well-hydrated ball pythons usually shed well, as long as their habitat is not excessively dry. So, always be sure that your snake has a bowl full of fresh water.
Most ball pythons will readily drink from a water bowl and keep themselves hydrated. However, it is occasionally wise to implement a regular soaking schedule, just to give yourself a little more wiggle room with regard to your snake’s hydration level.
Provide a Damp Hiding Spot
All snakes should have access to at least one hiding spot. However, it wise to provide snakes with an additional hiding space during shed cycles (some keepers – including the author – often do so all the time). The first hiding space should be kept relatively dry, but the second hide should be damper and serve as a high-humidity retreat.
You can accomplish this in several different ways. If you use a particulate substrate, such as cypress mulch, you can simply dampen the substrate beneath one of the hiding spots. However, it is more common for keepers to provide a small plastic box filled with damp moss or paper towels.
Just be sure that you keep both hides, especially the damp hide, clean so that they don’t begin to harbor mold or bacteria.
Maintain Good Enclosure Hygiene
Poor habitat hygiene can cause snakes to suffer from a variety of skin problems, including poor sheds. Accordingly, it is imperative that you keep your snake’s habitat clean at all times.
This means performing a daily visual inspection. Remove any urates, feces or bits of shed skin you may find, and be sure to wash your snake’s water bowl very regularly. Additionally, you’ll want to completely empty the enclosure, wash it with soap and water, and refill it with a new substrate about once every month.
Don’t forget to wash (or regularly replace) any furniture you keep in your snake’s enclosure. This includes hides, plastic plants, and any climbing branches present.
Keep Your Snake’s Stress Level Low
High stress levels can cause snakes to suffer from poor sheds, as well as a host of other health problems. Therefore, keepers are wise to help keep their snake as stress-free as possible at all times.
This means not only ensuring that your snake always has access to a hiding space, but also that the hiding space you provide is the appropriate size. Snakes don’t want gigantic, spacious hiding spaces – they want a cavity into which they can cram their bodies. Ideally, they prefer to feel the hiding space on all sides of their body.
It is also important to keep unattended children, pets and any other potential sources of stress away from your snake. Additionally, be sure to limit the amount of time you spend handling your pet, as excessive handling can cause him to feel stress. As a rule of thumb, handle your pet no more than about 10 to 15 minutes each day (and for some individuals, even this level of interaction may prove stressful).
You simply have to observe your snake carefully and reduce the amount of time spent handling him if he displays signs of stress.
Ball Python Shedding FAQs
We’ve tried to explain the basics of the ball python shedding process above, but there are a few common questions keepers often have we’d like to address specifically. See our answers to some of these common questions below.
How often do ball pythons shed?
The rate at which ball pythons shed varies based on a variety of factors, including age, size, growth rate, and health status. They typically shed most often while young and growing quickly. Some ball pythons may shed about once each month during the first year or so of their lives.
Mature ball pythons typically shed much less frequently. Some may shed three or four times each year, while others may only shed once or twice in a calendar year.
Can you feed a ball python who is shedding?
Experienced keepers can often feed their ball pythons during shed cycles without causing problems, but there’s no compelling reason to do so. Additionally, because it can cause problems, beginners are typically wise to simply wait to feed their snake again until after he’s shed completely.
Why is my ball python’s shed longer than he is?
The skin between your snake’s scales is fairly elastic, but you won’t often notice it except when your snake feeds on large prey items. During normal circumstances, your snake’s skin will remain relatively tight around his body. However, once shed, the skin between your snake’s scales can relax, thereby allowing the shed skin to stretch.
Generally, shed skins can be about 10% longer than your snake’s body.
Why are ball pythons prettier after they shed?
Over time, your ball python’s outer layer of skin becomes coated in dirt, dust and debris. The scales can also become scratched by your snake’s normal, day-to-day activity. Both of these factors can cause your snake’s colors to appear dull over time.
However, when your ball python sheds, these dirty and damaged scales are jettisoned, and the fresh, new, brightly colored scales beneath become visible. This causes freshly shed ball pythons (and most other snakes) to look their best.
Shedding is a bit unusual relative to our human experience, but it isn’t difficult to understand, and the husbandry challenges it presents are usually pretty easy to satisfy. Just be sure to monitor your snake frequently so that you’ll notice when he’s entering a shed cycle and make any husbandry adjustments necessary to help him enjoy problem-free sheds.
Fortunately, ball pythons aren’t especially prone to shedding problems, and many keepers will be able to avoid them entirely.