Many animals, including humans, shed their skin. Snakes will normally shed their skin in one piece. If they have difficulty in removing all or part of this skin serious problems and even death may result. Normally, when a snake starts the shed (slough, dysecdysis) process, its pattern and colors become dull with a grayish-blue overcast. When this happens the eyes cloud over to the point where you may not even be able to see the dark pupils. This condition is called by herpetoculturists "being opaque." It is caused by a secretion coming between the outer and under layers of skin loosening the outer layer of skin. When the skin layers are prepared for the shed, the opaque condition subsides and the skin pattern and colors look normal again. Within a few days after this clearing of colors, the snake should shed, hopefully in one piece. If the snake does not shed soon after the clearing of the colors, the secretion between the two layers of skin will dry and virtually glue the old skin onto the snake's body. If the entire body is covered for an extended period of time, the snake will probably die. If parts of shed skin remain, the snake may be able to survive until the next shed, which will probably occur sooner than normal. If just a portion on the end of the tail remains, it will probably constrict that section of the tail as the skin dries, cutting off circulation, and causing that part of the tail to dry up, die, and eventually break or drop off. Snakes do not regenerate their tails, so the animal will be mutilated for life.
As a rule, skin problems including wounds, diseases, etc., will increase the frequency of shedding. Presumably this is part of the healing process.
PREVENTING SHEDDING PROBLEMS
Why does a snake have problems shedding? There are theories suggesting a number of factors including poor health, dehydration, low relative humidity, keeping the environment too dry, etc. It could be one are all of these plus some other unknowns in any given situation. How can this problem be prevented? An easy method is to record when your snake is in the opaque condition. When the clearing of the opaque condition occurs, you should expect a shed within the week.
PROCEDURES FOR DEALING WITH PROBLEM SHEDS
If a partial shed occurs, we should assist the snake out of any remaining pieces. Look for the piece of shed from the head and verify that they eye "caps" have been shed. If they haven't, look for a loose piece of skin attached to the eye cap and lift up gently and pull away from the eye orbit. If no skin is available, use a finger and gently push across the eye, forcing the cap to slide into the eye orbit on one side, but exposing the edge of the cap on the other side. Hook the exposed edge with tweezers or your finger nail. Lift up and off. The cap should lift out with very little pressure. If too much time has passed and the eye caps are "glued" in place, leave them. It is better not to risk permanent injury to the snake's eyes. The snake should be alright, even though partially blind, until the next shed.
For the rest of the body with skin left, pretend that the skin is a woman's stocking. Find the edge nearest the head and roll it back towards the tail. If it seems to be stuck, it keeps tearing, or you suspect that an entire skin is still on the snake when it should have been shed off, find a round-bottomed container which the snake, when coiled in it, goes around twice. Put ventilation holes in the top, add water to a depth of one half the thickness of the snake, and place the container where it will be 82°-88°F. It may take only one hour or it may take 24 hours, but the soaking and the friction caused when the snake crawls on its own body should remove the skin. Do NOT put the snake in a cloth bag then soak it in a shallow container. The material can soak up the water to a point where it excludes air passage and the snake can smother. It is imperative that shed problems are cared for immediately on baby milk snakes. Within a matter of 24 to 48 hours, they can go from healthy looking to dehydrated, to being on the verge of death. If the snake looks dehydrated (in fact this appearance is caused by the crinkling and adhesion of the old skin onto the new one), don't wait a week until after the opaque condition clears, start the soaking immediately.
Perhaps in the wild when milk snakes are opaque they retreat to some moist underground hide-away which prevents any shedding problems. In the wild, a snake can also bask in the sun so the ultraviolet light can kill any bacteria on the skin. In captivity, if we keep milk snakes too damp for extended periods of time, they end up getting skin disorders. However, a temporarily damp cage or a hide box containing a wet substrate, if made available during the shedding process, may significantly reduce the potential for shedding problems.
By closely monitoring your snakes and keeping records of when they turn opaque, you should be prepared to soak them when necessary and prevent any shedding problems.
MONITORING SHEDDING IN BABY SNAKES
It is important that you carefully monitor shedding in baby milk snakes. For keepers and breeders interesting in keeping detailed records, a record card can be placed on the top of each shoe box. When you see an opaque snake, record it so you can monitor its shedding progress. If it doesn't shed soon after the eyes clear, this will alert you to a problem. Baby milk snakes often have trouble shedding their skins when kept too dry, on the other hand, keeping them too wet can cause skin diseases. If a baby snake has problems shedding, you may have to soak it to help it shed. Baby snakes dehydrate quickly, and this "monitoring system" will save you many snakes you could easily lose to shed problems if you were to wait until they looked dried and wrinkled. I usually put snakes having problems shedding into the cage water dish with a small amount of water (a level approximately half of the thickness of a snake). Replace the lid with one that has only small ventilation holes and leave the snake to soak for a few hours to overnight. Do not place the water container directly over the heat tape area. If the skin hasn't come off during the soaking period, it should at least be soft enough that you should be able to easily remove it by hand.
As a general rule, if a snake's eyes have cleared up and a week later it hasn't shed, you should strongly consider soaking it.
FREQUENCY OF SHEDDING
Snakes shed several times per year. A baby milk snake on a rapid growth feeding regimen may shed 12 or more times per year. Five to six times per year is normal for older milk snakes that are being cooled over the winters for breeding. When snakes are being cooled (hibernated) they still get opaque and they still clear up and shed, but the whole process goes much slower. It may take over one month from being opaque to shedding. If the snake looks dehydrated, but maintain it at the cool temperature at which the snake is being kept. Do not warm it up to soak and then return it to the cool condition.
THE EFFECT OF PHYSICAL TRAUMA DURING THE SHEDDING PROCESS
If a snake's skin is torn while opaque, or before it is ready to shed, it can be a serious problem. The skin underneath will be sticky and obviously not ready to be exposed. A small area will usually dry, scab over, then after two sheds become scarred. If the skin is accidentally torn, an antibacterial ointment can be applied to the wound. To avoid an accident it is best not to handle opaque snakes.
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