Question: My Corn Snake seems to have trouble shedding. The skin comes off in ragged pieces and sometimes he has trouble shedding the eye area. Is there anything I can do to help him? Will it hurt him if I help by gently pulling the skin off?
Answer: Medically, this condition is called dysecdysis, but in simple terms, improper shedding will suffice. In almost every case this condition is a symptom of a problem, not a primary problem. In other words, nearly all cases are the result of improper husbandry or handling issues. It is found in both snakes and lizards.
Husbandry factors which may cause dysecdysis include low cage temperature, lack of adequate humidity, improper nutrition and not having the proper cage furniture for the snake to rub its skin on. You should check each of these areas for problems. The place to start is to know what the requirements in each of these areas are for your snake. You can go to our Reptile Care at a Glance Chart to find the requirements for your pet. Once you have the requirements you would also need the tools to monitor the requirements, especially temperature and humidity as these are often the cause of this malady. A good dual temperature and humidity gauge will always tell you if you have a problem. A rough rock, hide or rough piece of wood or branch will also help the snake in rubbing the old skin off. Once the factor causing the problem is corrected the shedding should return to normal.
In some cases handling the snake during its shed cycle can cause damage to the skin and cause it to come off in patches. Your snake should develop a blue film over the eyes during the shed cycle and during this time the snake should not be handled.
In the instance when you have the problem of a bad shed before you it is important to treat your snake. The dead skin needs to be removed as it can harbor many disease causing organisms such as mites, bacteria or fungi. However, do not rip the skin off yourself as this may damage the fresh new skin below if done improperly. For snakes or lizards, the best way to remove tattered skin is to soak the animal in tepid water which is just deep enough to cover the animal’s body but not deep enough to drown it. It is very important to never leave a soaking reptile unattended. After soaking apply a good shed aid to the entire body. Then release it back into its tank with all other husbandry areas set up properly. Sometimes it will take two or three soakings to remedy the situation, but, be patient. In situations where soaking is impractical you may gently, but very thoroughly mist the snake or lizard and follow the same instructions.
As the snake or lizard sheds always check the skin over the eye which is called the spectacle or eye cap. These eye caps act as clear eyelids and protect the cornea of the eye from damage. If they are retained during the shed the eye may become infected. These retained eye caps can be hard to remove and the best action is to use the soaking or misting technique discussed earlier and let the snake take it off itself. In an emergency you can hold a moist rag over the the eye caps for about 15 minutes. Then allow the head and eyes to dry. When dry, gently press a piece of Scotch tape onto the retained eye cap and very gently pull the tape off. If there are no other complications, the eye cap should come off. If it does not come off easily then it is time for a veterinary consultation as there is probably a complication of some sort involved.
If all of the requirements of handling, heat, humidity, food and furniture are taken care of then problems with improper shedding in pet reptiles should be minimal.