The shedding process of a snake is fascinating to watch for pet owners. Other species of animals don’t shed their skin in the same way as snakes and reptiles. It’s completely different.
Each snake has scales and skin over their eyes that must be shedded. To learn more interesting facts about a snake’s skin, and why they need to shed it, continue to read this guide.
- 1 Why Snakes Shed Skin
- 2 The Snake Shedding Process
- 3 Snake Shedding Q&A
- 4 Interesting Snake Shedding Skin Facts
- 5 What Happens After a Snake Sheds Its Skin?
Why Snakes Shed Skin
Why do snakes shed their skin, and why do they shed it in one go? It’s because of the unique properties of their skin, which is entirely different from ours.
Scientific research has been performed because it’s incredible that nature has managed to create something like snakeskin. A paper in the Journal of the Royal Society looked at the structure and mechanical properties of snakeskin, pointing out that “snake integument (the outer scales) consist of a hard, robust, inflexible outer surface … and softer, flexible inner layers.”
It’s like a suit of flexible armor that protects the snake from the rough, hard ground or bumpy tree branches. Bear in mind that their body is always in contact with the ground, or with a tree branch, or something—anything. Without a hard outer layer, they would go through so much wear and tear that they’d be covered in cuts.
Picture wearing a suit of armor all day and night, and growing consistently year on year (bear in mind that snakes never stop growing, long into adulthood). If you weren’t allowed to take it off, it would get too tight for you. It could get so tight that it would cut off your circulation and make it almost impossible for you to move around.
What Is It Called When Snakes Shed Their Skin?
Snake shedding has many different names. Of course, the most common is shedding. But depending on who you’re talking to, you can also call it:
- Molting, like how dogs and cats molt their fur.
- Sloughing (pronounced ‘sluffing’) which means the same as shedding, or removing.
- This is the biological term for snake shedding which is used by vets and scientists.
There aren’t multiple ‘kinds’ of snake shed. Not only that, but all snakes shed in the same way, and prefer to get all of their skin off at once.
The Snake Shedding Process
The process of shedding skin takes the snake a while and has many steps. It tends to last between 9 and 14 days, depending on many factors including the activity level of your snake, the humidity, the temperature, and their size.
Do bear in mind that while all snakes follow the same steps, some snakes shed quicker/more slowly than others. This is just a general guide, though.
How Do Snakes Start Shedding?
The first step of the process doesn’t involve the skin peeling away. It starts as the snake’s skin begins to turn dull. This is day one of the shedding process. It’s the first sign that you’ll notice.
If you look at a healthy snake, especially after they last shed, they have gleaming scales. Before they start to shed, this shine disappears, and their scales take on a dull appearance.
It looks like the difference between gloss paint and matt paint. This dullness progressively gets ‘worse’ the further along in the process your snake gets.
You might also notice that your snake’s belly starts to turn light pink. A pink belly means one of two things. It can mean either that they’re about to shed, or that they’ve been burned by something, usually a heat mat that’s become too hot.
If your heat mat isn’t malfunctioning, then it means your snake is about to start shedding. But she still has a long way to go. She has to get through the blue phase first.
What is the Snake Blue Phase?
Afterward, you have what’s called the ‘blue phase.’ You’ll notice it after about three days, and up to the end of the first week (i.e., seven days from when their scales became duller).
Two fundamental changes characterize this phase:
- Your snake’s skin will continue to get duller as time goes by. As we said, it’s the difference between gloss paint (nice and shiny) and matt paint (less colorful and more faded).
- Your snake’s eyes will turn either blue, milky, or a milky blue. This is the origin of the term.
This is easily the most recognizable part of the process because the change to your snake’s eyes is obvious. You’ll also notice that your snake becomes less active.
While your snake is ‘in blue,’ it’s best not to handle them or feed them by hand. Snakes tend to be grumpier when they’re in the blue phase, both because they don’t want to move or be moved, and the fact that they can’t see correctly.
If your snake were in the wild, it would be more vulnerable since it can’t see. As such, your snake will spend more time than usual in their hide. Do your best not to disturb them, because they’ll get defensive if you do.
Even changing their water bowl can cause them to strike, because they interpret your hand as a threat. Don’t worry, though, because it won’t last long.
My Snake Stopped Shedding
After the blue phase, your snake’s eyes will clear up. If you notice that they have, you might think that they’ve already shed. Their eyes clear up, and even their body starts looking a bit more like usual, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that the snake has changed their mind about shedding. But they haven’t.
This is a normal part of the shedding process and takes place between about 7-10 days.
How Does a Snake Start Shedding?
A few days after their eyes and scales clear up, your snake will start to shed in earnest.
They start by rubbing their head against things. You’ll see them rubbing their face against the glass or plastic of their vivarium, or a stick or rock in their enclosure.
The point is to split the skin around their face. When they have, they’ll start making the hole bigger, and trying to wriggle through it.
Once there’s a hole, they’ll curl themselves around rocks, branches or anything else with a rough surface. As they wind their way around things, they’ll pull the skin back like they’re peeling a banana.
The skin will come off. In a successful shed, the skin will come off quite quickly, and in one piece. It can take a matter of minutes. But if the shed goes badly, there are things you can do to help.
Snake Shedding Q&A
That’s the whole process from start to finish, but there’s still more to learn about snake shedding.
When Do Snakes Shed Their Skin?
Snakes typically shed their skin at night. As such, owners often miss when it happens. This is because snakes are nocturnal meaning that they’re not just awake but more active at night. The more active they are, the more easily they can remove their skin.
That being said, it’s not impossible to catch your snake ‘in the act’ at any time of day. If you know they’re about to shed, then you can even bathe them and help them peel using a towel afterward.
Do Snakes Shed Near Where They Live?
If you found this post because you frantically searched for ‘snake shed skin in my house!’, then here’s your answer: the snake is probably still around somewhere.
Snakes often shed near where they live. They don’t have a preference either way. Of course, if they’re your pet snake, then they don’t have a choice, do they? But if you find the skin of a wild snake, then you should double check your attic and wardrobes to make sure one isn’t in there.
Snake Shedding Problems
Snake shedding problems are mostly to do with humidity and the amount of moisture your snake can get in its skin. If the air and their skin are too dry, the snake will only be able to peel their skin piece by piece. This can lead to them getting tired and aggravated from the extra effort.
The main problem, though, is if they can’t shed two specific parts of their skin. These are the eye caps and the tip of their tail. If they’re not able to shed these two parts, it can lead to health complications which we go into more detail on later. Suffice it to say that if they don’t shed these parts of their skin, it can cause them to go blind or even die prematurely.
Will Snakes Eat While Shedding?
Long story short, some snakes will, and some snakes won’t.
Many don’t because of their decreased activity levels. When you try to offer your snake food, they might get a little defensive and not want to see you. Because they can’t see properly, they’re a bit more wary than usual. But even if they can smell the food you’re offering them, they might not eat. Don’t worry, because they’ll have an appetite afterward.
Presumably, this is because they’re already too big for their skin. Eating more would make them more uncomfortable. That being said, some snakes will happily eat throughout the process.
As always, do what makes your snake comfortable. If they don’t want to eat, don’t feed them while they’re shedding. Wait until afterward. Only if they don’t eat afterward—and only if they don’t eat for a while—should you start to worry.
Do Snakes Eat Their Shed Skin?
Some lizards, such as geckos and bearded dragons, like to snack on their skin while they’re molting. It contains minerals and proteins that lizards consider too valuable to waste. It also helps to cover their tracks, hiding them from predators.
However, we don’t see this behavior in snakes. They crawl out of their skin and slither away, leaving the skin where it was. So, why don’t snakes eat their skin?
There are two main reasons. Firstly, they don’t need to. Snakes get all of their nutrients from the animals that they prey on. Depending on species, this could include rodents, amphibians, lizards, birds, and even fish.
Snakes swallow their prey whole. They digest practically everything, from muscle tissue to skin, organs and even bones. The only thing they can’t digest is keratin (hair and claws). Their food provides them with all the calories, fat, protein and micronutrients that they need.
After swallowing a meal, a snake can subsist on it for weeks or months if they need to. According to Zoology, snakes can go up to two years without eating, by controlling their metabolism so that they don’t lose weight.
Shed snakeskin contains a negligible amount of nutrients. For all the effort that the snake would need to put into eating it, it wouldn’t be worth it for the snake.
Secondly, even if a snake did want to eat its skin, it wouldn’t be able to. Lizards can tear their skin into pieces, chew it and swallow it bit-by-bit. This isn’t how a snake’s digestive system works. They have to swallow prey whole.
Shed skin is too lightweight to eat whole. If they tried to swallow it, it would likely break apart, or not be heavy enough to move down into their stomach.
How to Help a Snake That Can’t Shed
If your snake is struggling to shed their skin, the reason is that the humidity level isn’t high enough. The lower the humidity—and the less water they have in their skin—the more difficult it will be to peel away.
You can help by doing the following:
- Purchasing a humidifier that keeps the humidity at a certain level
- Regularly spraying inside their vivarium
- Putting more water around them, e.g., in their water bowl
If you tried these ideas, but your snake still can’t shed easily, you can try bathing them. Place your snake in a bowl of water that’s the same temperature as their vivarium (typically about 80 degrees Fahrenheit).
Let them swim around for 15 minutes at most. Make sure that wherever they bathe, they can easily poke their head out of the water. You should also use pure, filtered water either purchased or made using a home filter. This prevents parasites and infections.
Once they’ve bathed, take them out of their bowl/the bath. Hold them in a soft towel and let them move about freely. Their skin should slough away easily.
Interesting Snake Shedding Skin Facts
Snake shedding and reptile shedding is a unique facet of nature. So, let’s discuss it further.
1) Does a Snake Ever Stop Shedding Skin?
Snakes never stop shedding their skin.
Hatchlings will go through their first shed in the first week of their life. They grow quickly, and they have to shed their skin far more often. Once a snake is old enough to mate, they’re considered to be an adult size. And in the wild, that’s about as big as a snake can get. But snakes can live much longer in captivity. That’s twenty or thirty years, compared to less than ten.
Snakes grow much more quickly when they’re young. They reach adult size quite quickly, but as mature snakes, they’ll start to grow slower than they used to. A hatchling snake might shed once every ten days, whereas an adult might shed once every two months.
This also depends on the rate at which you feed your snake. The more you feed your snake, especially as they’re initially growing up, the quicker they’ll grow and the bigger they’ll get before they reach maturity. This, of course, results in them shedding more often.
2) Snakes Shed Their Eye Skin
Snakes don’t have eyelids like humans. If there were nothing over their eyes to protect them, they would get covered in dirt and dust. Remember the last time you got dust or gravel in your eye? It would be like that all the time.
To stop that from happening, snakeskin covers a snake’s entire body. That includes the eyes. When a snake sheds, you can see the part of the skin that covered the eyes. It’s a little darker to the rest of the skin. It’s imperative that your snake sheds this part of their skin.
Sometimes, after a bad shed, they can’t quite get rid of it—it’s stuck on. This can cause complications, and make it harder for your snake to see.
You also have to be careful that your snake sheds the skin on the very end of their tails. This, like your snake’s eye caps, can get stuck after a bad shed. The problem is that the end of their tail is very sensitive to constriction and a lack of blood flow. Over time, this can cause necrosis and even death.
3) Snakes Aren’t Slimy
For some reason, movies and books seem to think that snakes are slimy, sticky creatures. Are snakes slimy? Not at all. They’re always dry unless they’re out in the rain.
All it takes is a little logical thinking. If you lived on the ground, slithering along, would it be helpful if you were slimy? Not at all! Things would get stuck to you, you’d move more slowly, and you’d almost always be dirty.
Snakeskin is dry and smooth, but not slippery. You can feel their muscles under their skin too, which is impressive, especially if you’re holding a constrictor.
Snakeskin is still strong, dry and smooth after it’s shed, too. That’s why it’s so popular for accessories and clothing. So, the next time somebody asks you whether snakes are slippery and squishy, you can tell them what snakes are like.
4) Rattlesnakes Aren’t Born with Rattles
Have you ever wondered how rattlesnakes make their rattling noise?
They’re not born with a rattle attached to their tail (and, yes, they’re born not hatched from an egg!) Instead, they develop their rattle over the years, every time they shed. When a rattlesnake sheds, they attach an empty, dry section to their tail.
The next time they shed, they add another. These small, hollow keratinous sections scrape against one another. And because a rattlesnake can shake their tail fifty times in a second, it makes a loud and frightening buzzing noise.
The most interesting thing is that Colubrids (like rat snakes/corn snakes) can make a similar noise, even without a rattle. Instead, they vibrate their tail against the ground to scare away predators. Almost all North American snakes share this same trait, because of their common evolutionary ancestry.
5) Shed Skin Might Be Contagious
If you notice that your snake has shed, don’t just reach in and grab it to take a look.
The first reason why is simple. Many snakes poop right at the same time as they shed. This is most likely because of their increased movement, as well as the fact that they’re wriggling and contracting their muscles a lot. So, if you reach in to pick up their skin without a glove, you might be in for a nasty surprise. That being said, you should be able to smell snake poop from a mile off.
Either way, poop isn’t the worst of your problems. Snakes and squamates generally (a group including snakes, lizards, and amphibians) are carriers of salmonella. This applies both to wild squamates and captive ones, so that includes your pet snake.
According to a paper in the journal Pathogens, a study found that 83.3% of captive lizards were positive for salmonella. This rate varies between studies, but even so, it’s a worrying thought.
In total, reptiles and snakes cause 11% of cases of salmonellosis in people under 21. That applies whether they’re wearing their skin, or they’ve shed it. So be careful.
What Happens After a Snake Sheds Its Skin?
You’ll notice that their scales look much shinier. It’s like if you buy something new at a store. At first, it’s shiny and clean. If you use it every day, it becomes grubby and scratched without you even noticing. That’s what snakeskin is like, but snakes can make a brand new skin for themselves every week or every month. Your snake’s colors will be brighter and more beautiful than usual.
You may also notice that your snake becomes more active once they’ve shed. This is in contrast to the lethargy you might see in the period leading up to their shed. To go along with this period of increased activity, your snake may also seem hungrier than usual. It would make sense since now they’ve shed their skin, they can afford to eat more and grow more, too.