Why Do Reptiles Shed Their Skin, and How Can You Help?
Why Do Reptiles Shed Their Skin, and How Can You Help?
Written by Mariah Healey, ReptiFiles.com
The information in this article is not intended to replace professional veterinary advice.
One of the most recognizable characteristics of reptiles is their ability to shed their skin, particularly with snakes. Shedding is so unique that snakes are associated with healing and immortality in some cultures! More importantly, however, shedding is a regular and essential event in every reptile’s life, whether they shed their skin one piece at a time or all at once. This means that it is your responsibility as a reptile keeper to make sure your reptile is shedding properly.
How Shedding Works
Shedding is a lifelong, continuous process of phasing out aging skin in favor of healthy new tissue. Humans actually do something similar, but on a much smaller scale. We’re constantly losing dead skin cells and strands of hair.
Reptiles generally do it in large patches or all at once. Snakes and some lizards (including geckos and some skinks) will shed their skin completely at regular intervals. Lizards, turtles, and tortoises shed less regularly, and often in patches rather than the whole body all at once, at less regular intervals.
The stages of shedding can be described as follows.
- Resting Phase: scales appear normal
- Beginning of Renewal Phase: scales turn dull
- Renewal Phase: scales become even more dull, snakes’ eyes turn cloudy/milky
- End of Renewal Phase: scales and eyes clear up 3-4 days before shed
- Shedding Phase: old skin is removed and discarded/eaten
Over the course of this cycle, the layers of new and old skin separate via an enzymatic reaction, and separation is further facilitated by lymph being pumped between the layers. Because of lymph’s essential role in this process, this is a big reason good hydration is critical to your reptile’s ability to shed properly.
Why Shedding is Important to a Reptile’s Health
Shedding plays many roles for reptiles. The most well-known of these roles is that it makes room for growth in young reptiles. However, there’s more to shedding than just growth:
- maintaining health skin and scales
- accommodating weight gain
- “tightening” after weight loss
- getting rid of external parasites
- facilitating wound healing
Geckos tend to eat their own shed skin, which aside from helping prevent predators from finding them, also helps them recoup lost nutrients!
Dangers of Improper Shedding
When your reptile doesn’t shed successfully, it has “stuck shed”. Sometimes this is only a minor problem, but it can also be a major problem if the stuck shed is an eye cap, or around an extremity like a toe or tail. This problem becomes exacerbated if the reptile experiences multiple unsuccessful sheds.
In these cases, the old skin constricts around the area until blood flow is cut off and the toe/tail dies. Best case scenario, the affected area falls off. Worst case scenario, the affected area turns gangrenous and poisons the reptile to death. We can assume that either way, it’s likely to be painful.
How to Make Sure Your Reptile is Shedding Properly
Pay attention to humidity levels. If you don’t have a digital hygrometer in your reptile’s enclosure, get one and make a habit of checking it daily. Familiarize yourself with what average humidity levels your pet is most comfortable at.
Maintain average humidity levels appropriate to your pet’s species. This can be done by misting, fogging, pouring water into the substrate, or through a combination of methods. Fogging in particular is best done at night with distilled or R/O water and when connected to a humidistat to prevent it from soaking your enclosure.
Provide a humid hideout. This is a good way to make sure your reptile always has somewhere to go when it’s feeling a bit dry or needs to prepare for shedding. Even desert species are known to utilize humid burrows as a method of staying hydrated and minimizing water loss. This hideout should be lined with moistened substrate and placed in the middle to cool part of the enclosure.
Make sure your pet is eating and drinking enough water. Dehydrated, pelleted, or powder foods and inadequately hydrated feeder insects can contribute to dehydration. You should also make sure that your pet always has access to an appropriately-sized water dish. This may be a small, shallow dish for sipping, or a tub large enough for soaking.
Leave it alone. Reptiles don’t seem to feel very well when a large or full-body shed is coming on, so when you see that your reptile is looking dull, leave them be for a few days until it’s over. Reptiles can be flighty, cranky, and even bitey during this time, as they know instinctively that they are particularly vulnerable to injury and subsequent infections when they’re in shed.
After shedding is over, give them a once-over. Check your reptile’s entire body for signs of stuck shed, especially around the toes and tail. If you notice stuck shed, putting them in a humidity box or a shallow, lukewarm soak (depending on what’s more appropriate for your species) can help soften and loosen the stuck skin.
Shedding is a normal, routine part of your reptile’s life. When it doesn’t go well, it means that something is off about your pet’s husbandry, or in some cases, its health. Paying attention to your reptile’s shed cycle will help your reptile live a healthier life, and makes you a better reptile owner.
For more information on dehydration in reptiles, please see our article: Dehydration in reptiles - How to prevent it and keep them hydrated appropriately.
- Josh Halter