If you’re planning to get a pet lizard or snake (or already own one) you may be curious to understand a little more about one of their most fascinating biological processes – shedding their skin. Skin shedding is perfectly natural for reptiles, but it can look bizarre and almost painful to us, so let’s learn a little more about how this works.
Reptiles periodically outgrow a layer of skin throughout their lives, shedding their old skin in patches or sometimes in one whole piece, as with snakes. When their old skin layer is ready to shed, it peels off their body, leaving behind a paler reptile-shaped shell and a healthy new layer beneath.
The shedding process can be clean and smooth or a little patchy and incomplete depending on the species and their care such as improper humidity, lighting, and malnutrition. To help you understand more about reptile shedding, let’s answer a few common queries from why and when shedding occurs to what you can do to help your pet reptile shed as effectively as possible.
What is It Called When a Reptile Sheds?
The process of skin shedding in reptiles is known as ‘ecdysis’ which derives from the ancient Greek term ‘ékdusis’ meaning to ‘strip’ or ‘take off’.
The familiar signs that your pet reptile is getting ready to shed include:
- Skin becoming duller and paler in color
- Eyes begin to turn cloudy and blue
- They no longer like to be held or petted
- They have a decreased appetite
- They may begin hiding more often than usual
Why Does a Reptile Shed?
Because reptile skin doesn’t grow with them and accommodate their development like a human’s elastic, stretchy skin, reptiles cannot grow unless they say farewell to a layer of skin every now and again. Without the ability to shed, their skin would become tighter and tighter until it started to give way with painful results!
So reptiles will shed or molt their skin and expose a new layer underneath, This not only enables them to grow larger in a comfortable way but shedding their old skin layer also allows them to get rid of mites and other parasites feeding off them.
Humans shed their skin all the time, it just happens so gradually that we barely notice it (other than when dust starts to accumulate in our home!).
What Helps Reptiles Shed their Skin?
Warm water is a key ingredient to help with reptile shedding as this humidifies and loosens the skin, making it a lot easier to peel off. So to help your pet reptile shed more effectively, let them soak in a tub of warm water a few times each day during their shed. You can also mist them with warm water. This is especially helpful for tortoises as it helps you cover their entire shell evenly.
As well as bathing your reptile in warm water, you can also encourage the shedding process by building them a humidity hide box. This is a box or tray that is placed inside their enclosure that acts as a micro-climate of extra humidity by containing damp substrate like sphagnum moss and other materials. Your reptile will love the hideaway element too as they love to be left alone while they’re in the shedding process.
Never help your reptile to shed by pulling off their old skin layer. As well as the fact this may cause them some distress and sensitivity, removing old skin forcibly instead of letting it naturally shed will actually cause injury to the new skin layer forming beneath. This is because as yet undeveloped keratinous scales lie just beneath the old, so hurrying along the shedding will disrupt the growth of healthy, new skin.
What is Reptile Shed Made Of?
In the case of a snake shedding, the old dead skin layer is made up of scales that contain keratin (this is the same protein that our hair and nails are made up of).
This is much the same for all reptiles though from tortoises to a gecko or iguana, the tough outer layer is made from keratin and sheds either in patches like tortoises (shedding in sections on their neck, legs, and shell) or in one whole piece like snakes (leaving behind one whole snake-shaped ‘tube’ of dead skin), replacing all the scales on their body.
Do All Reptiles Shed?
Yes, all reptiles shed their skin as they develop since their skin lacks the elasticity of mammalian skin which adapts with their increasing size. Reptiles can’t grow and develop healthy new skin without being able to shed.
When Do Reptiles Shed their Skin?
Healthy reptiles will normally shed between 3 to 6 times per year as adults and will shed much more frequently when they are younger as they are still developing and growing at a much faster rate. A less healthy reptile, however, will shed less frequently than normal.
The entire shedding process can take around 1 to 2 weeks in total and the speed of shedding will depend on the reptile species, size, age, health, and environmental factors such as humidity levels. Every reptile species requires a certain humidity range within their enclosure – tortoises, for example, enjoy humidity levels set between 70-100% whilst many snakes prefer levels around 50-60%.
Unlike lizards and tortoises which stop growing after 1 to 7 years, snakes continue to grow for their whole lives and so they never really stop shedding their skin until their death.
Is it Painful for Reptiles to Shed?
Shedding isn’t necessarily painful for reptiles, but it may be itchy and irritating for your pet, especially if they shed in patches or are struggling to shed their entire dead skin layer for longer than normal. As above-mentioned, there are plenty of practical things that owners can do to make the process more comfortable for them such as providing extra humidity.
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