dysecdysis
Snake Health

My Snake’s Eye Caps Won’t Come Off – What Should I Do?

Eye caps, also known as brilles or spectacles, are specialized scales that sit over your snake’s eyes. When it’s time to shed, your snake will naturally shed their eye caps along with the rest of their old skin. However, sometimes, pieces of shed – including old eye caps – can remain stuck to your snake. Over time, this can lead to health problems in snakes.

If your snake’s eye caps won’t come off, you should raise the humidity in the vivarium. If that doesn’t work, give your snake a warm bath or place it into a damp pillowcase. The moisture should help to loosen any of the stuck shed. You can then try gently removing the eye caps with a moist Q-tip, a piece of tape, or your finger.

We’re going to look into dysecdysis (shedding problems) in snakes. You’ll find out what dysecdysis is, what causes it, and how you can tell if your snake’s eye caps are stuck. We’ll then look at how you can remove your snake’s stuck spectacles at home.

What Is Dysecdysis in Snakes?

Almost all animals shed their skin. Some, like most mammals, shed their skin constantly in tiny flakes. Others, like snakes, have to shed their skin all at once, to make room for new growth.

Snakes are designed to shed all of their skin in one go. They start at the head, pressing their nose up against something rough until it starts to peel off. Then, they wriggle out of their skin like a leg coming out of a stocking. When they’re done, you should see one long piece of dead skin, with no holes or missing bits.

Sometimes, though, shedding doesn’t go so well. A problem shed, that leaves bits of skin stuck to your snake, is called dysecdysis. The most common symptom of dysecdysis is retained eye caps.

Your snake’s eye caps are clear, round scales that cover the eye. They are also known as ocular scales, brilles or spectacles.  As snakes don’t have eyelids, the eye caps serve to protect the eye from dirt and harm.

Like every other scale on your snake’s body, the eye caps must be shed and replaced with new ones every now and then. When dysecdysis occurs, though, the old spectacles can remain stuck on your snake’s eyes.

If left there, this could eventually lead to snake eye problems. According to a study in Veterinary Pathology, this could include inflammation (swelling) and bacterial infection.

What Causes Stuck Shed in Snakes?

Dysecdysis and retained eye caps in snakes are usually a sign of an underlying problem. This could be a medical problem, such as a disease, but more often than not it’s down to poor husbandry.

1) Lack of Humidity

By far the most common cause of stuck shed, including retained eye caps, is insufficient humidity in your snake’s vivarium.

All snakes require a certain level of humidity in order to thrive. The specific figure will depend on which species of snake you keep. Western hognoses do well at 40%; boa constrictors, on the other hand, require 70% humidity. If the humidity level in your vivarium does not reach the minimum for your snake’s species, this can result in dehydration.

Dehydrated snakes often have trouble shedding their old skin. This is because the skin is dry, and sticks to the new layer underneath, making it harder to remove. Raising the enclosure’s humidity above its normal level as your snake goes into shed is the best prevention method for dysecdysis.

snake's shed has gone wrong

2) Lack of Rough Surfaces

In order to start the shed off properly, snakes require at least one rough surface in their vivarium. This could be a wooden hide box, a rock, a log or some kind of decoration. They will use this to nudge their nose up against, to tear a hole in their old skin and start the shedding process.

If you keep your snake in a smooth glass-walled vivarium with nothing but a round plastic water bowl and hide, they may struggle to get their shed started successfully.

3) Poor Nutrition

Most species of snake fare best when fed whole mice and rats. These contain sufficient calories, macronutrients and micronutrients to keep your snake in top condition.

Though some snakes – such as garter snakes – may also happily eat insects, fish or even eggs, these aren’t considered “complete” foods and they cannot subsist on them alone.

If your snake hasn’t been eating correctly – either because you’re feeding him incomplete food, or because you aren’t feeding him often enough – this can result in dysecdysis, as well as a number of other health problems.

4) Parasites or Illness

Ectoparasites – that is, parasites which live on the outside of your snake’s body – can also cause problems shedding. Snakes which are infested with mites or ticks often exhibit dysecdysis as one of their symptoms.

Dysecdysis can also, in rarer circumstances, indicate the presence of an underlying disease or condition. For example, dysecdysis can be a symptom of inclusion body disease in boas and pythons, according to the American Society for Microbiology. Other signs of illness can include:

  • Anorexia (refusing food)
  • Stress, defensive behaviors, and aggression
  • Reclusiveness (hiding for longer than is usual for your snake)
  • Regurgitation and vomiting
  • Bathing in the water bowl for many hours at a time

If your snake is displaying any of the above along with his shedding problems, get him checked out by a veterinarian.

What are the Symptoms of Retained Eye Caps in Snakes?

A successful shed should come off of your snake in one solid piece. If you notice any pieces of dried, dull skin stuck to your snake’s body, this is a sign of dysecdysis.

But, how do you tell if your snake has retained eye caps? Firstly, check the shed skin itself. At the head end, you should notice two clear, circular scales where the eyes of the snake would be.

These are the eye caps. If they aren’t there, search your snake’s vivarium thoroughly. It could be that the spectacles came away separately from the main shed.

No sign of the eye caps anywhere would suggest that your snake has retained them. Examine your snake’s eyes, paying attention to:

  • The texture of the eye. The eye should appear round and plump. Any dimpling or wrinkles on the surface may indicate the presence of old eye caps.
  • The color of the eye. If your snake has retained eye caps, his eyes may look grey and foggy. Retained eye caps have an opaque sheen to them; healthy eyes are dark and clear looking.
  • The scales around the eye. A retained eye cap may be accompanied by dried skin in the groove between the eye and the surrounding area.

Any of the above may indicate that the old spectacles are still present. If you aren’t sure, it’s best to get the opinion of a professional, as some of the above symptoms could have other medical causes (such as dehydration).

How to Remove Your Snake’s Stuck Eye Caps

Even the most caring of snake owners will experience retained eye caps every once in a while, so don’t worry. It’s quite easy to get the humidity wrong in your snake’s enclosure, and it only takes a small error for your snake to experience dysecdysis.

Treatment, fortunately, is quite straightforward. There are 4 main steps you can take to help your snake’s eye caps come off.

1) Increase Humidity

To start with, increase the humidity level in your snake’s vivarium. Ways to do this include:

  • Adding an extra water dish into the vivarium, or moving the current one to the warm end
  • Misting the inside of the enclosure with water once per day (including the sides, any enclosure decorations, and your snake’s body)
  • Adding a humidity box to the vivarium. This is simply a small plastic tub, large enough for your snake to curl up inside, with an entrance hole cut out of the side. Fill the tub with damp sphagnum moss, or damp paper towels. Your snake will likely discover it himself, and hang out inside for several hours.

This usually works better as a preventative measure than a treatment, but there is a chance that your snake’s stuck shed will come free by itself with increased humidity. Check on your snake over the next couple of days. If the eye caps are still there, proceed to the next step.

snake retained eye cap treatment

2) Run Your Snake a Bath

Next, try bathing your snake. The moisture and steam given off by the warm water can work wonders for stuck shed.

Use a large plastic tub with air-holes cut into the lid, and fill it up to around chin-height for your snake. He should be able to poke his head out of the water to breathe. Aim for the water to be around 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (any hotter than this could scald your snake).

Place your snake into the tub and secure the lid. Leave it alone for around 20-25 minutes to soak. When you remove the snake from his bath, gently run a damp washcloth over him. The eye caps should come off easily.

3) Use a Damp Pillowcase

If the bath hasn’t worked, the next step is to try a damp pillowcase.

Take a clean cotton pillowcase and soak it thoroughly in warm water, the same temperature that you used for the bath. Wring the pillowcase out so that it remains damp, rather than dripping wet. Then, place your snake inside.

Secure the end with a clip, hair tie or string, so that your snake can’t get out. Don’t worry – cotton is breathable, so your snake won’t suffocate.

Place the pillowcase, with your snake inside, into a plastic tub. Your snake will naturally move around inside the pillowcase, pressing his body up against the damp cloth. This will help to loosen any stuck shed. After about 20 minutes, take your snake out.

4) Remove the Eye Caps Manually

At this point, it’s your snake’s eye caps may have come off by themselves. Examine your snake’s eyes thoroughly. If they’ve come away, you’ll notice that your snake’s eyes look bright, clear and plump (just like normal). You may even find the eye caps (which almost look like small contact lenses) in the pillowcase or bathtub.

However, if you are certain that the eye caps are still present, you can remove them manually. There are three main techniques:

  • Use a moist Q-tip. Either soak the Q-tip in warm water, or add a dab of petroleum jelly. Gently rub it against the eye to coax the eye cap away, while holding your snake still with your other hand.
  • Alternatively, gently press a piece of masking tape to the eye cap and pull it away. The eye cap may stick to the masking tape.
  • Wearing a disposable latex finger cot to create some traction, use your finger to gently rub the old eye cap away from the new spectacle underneath.

Do not attempt any of the above if you don’t feel comfortable, or you aren’t sure whether the old spectacles are still there.

What If My Snake’s Eye Caps Still Won’t Come Off?

If you have tried all of the above, and your snake’s retained eye caps still won’t come off, don’t keep trying to pull at them. You may end up hurting your snake, or even pulling away the new spectacles which your snake has just grown underneath his old ones. This can cause permanent snake eye problems, including blindness.

It’s very rare that a warm bath and soaking in a pillowcase won’t help retained shed to come off. But if this happens to you, we would recommend taking your snake to an experienced veterinarian. They will be able to determine whether he has retained eye caps, and will be able to help remove them.

Ultimately, if you are not able to remove your snake’s stuck eye caps, don’t worry. When your snake next goes into shed, it’s likely that both sets of eye caps will come off together. Keep moisture levels high when you notice the early signs of shed, and provide your snake with a humidity box.