The most important way you can help your ball python shed is to maintain the right amount of humidity in its enclosure.
It can also help to give it a soaking bowl, letting your snake decide when and how to use it.
In this article we will tell you everything you need to know and when, how, and why ball pythons shed their scales, along with what to do in problem situations.
Shedding in Ball Pythons
Ball pythons and other snakes are famous for the way they renew their skin.
Every few weeks, all of their scales—even the transparent scales that cover their eyes—peel off, usually in a single piece. The new skin is exposed as the old skin is lost.
The truth is, there is nothing unusual about shedding skin. Humans also shed millions of skin cells every day as new cells emerge from the skin’s basal layers.
The difference with snakes is that the snake’s entire skin sloughs off to reveal new skin at the same time.
In snakes, shedding skin is a dramatic event. The entire shed will take just a few minutes to at most a few hours.
The problem with shedding in ball pythons, as well as in other pet snakes, is that it does not always go well.
Incomplete shedding can cause serious health problems for your snake.
If you understand the shedding process, you will be better able to intervene when your snake needs your help with a shedding problem.
What Can You Do to Help Your Ball Python Shed?
Shedding comes naturally to every snake. Healthy snakes in ideal habitats don’t have any problems with this process.
However, not every snake is healthy and no matter how hard you try, your snake’s habitat may not be perfect.
Just about every ball python in captivity occasionally has a problem shed.
There are several things you can do to prevent shedding problems for your ball python.
Increase the Humidity
Ball pythons need both humidity and hydration for problem-free sheds. They need constant, relatively high humidity, between 55 and 60 percent.
For pythons, humidity below 50 percent dries out their skins. Old skin becomes brittle and may break off instead of pulling off in one piece.
Small bits and pieces of skin can stick to your python, especially over their eyes.
On the other hand, sustained humidity of over 60 percent invites bacterial and fungal infections of the skin and mouth (mouth rot).
A relatively easy way to make sure your ball python gets adequate humidity for its shed, without getting too much, is to spray its substrate (preferably cypress mulch or orchid bark, in the bottom of its cage) with a spray bottle until it is just moist.
The mulch should not be dripping with water. Spray down the outside of the hide and any climbing limbs or silk plants in the enclosure, too.
Try not to spritz your snake while you are making its habitat moist. Snakes especially don’t like getting s[rayed in the face.
Withhold Food Until the Shedding Is Complete
Some ball pythons will accept food when they are getting ready to shed their skin, but many will not.
It is a good idea not to feed your python when it is getting ready to shed.
Ball pythons constrict their food, suffocating it before they eat it.
Constriction, when the skin is loosely attached to the snake’s body, can cause it to tear. Torn skin may not peel off during the shed.
Also, after your snake feeds, it needs to move around to loosen its skin, but it would need to stay as still as possible to digest a meal.
Don’t worry about making your snake wait for its meal so it can shed. Healthy ball pythons have a store of body fat that can sustain them for a week or two if their food is late.
Don’t Handle Your Ball Python Any More Than Necessary
When your snake is “in the blue, that is, its eyes are blue because of the fluid beneath its scales, it is blind.
A snake that cannot see you may not know whether you are a friend or foe if you suddenly stick your hand in its cage. It may strike at you.
Shedding time is an especially important time to remember the basic rules for handling snakes:
- Wear gloves to protect your hands and fingers.
- Open the enclosure slowly. Give your snake a few seconds to recognize your scent.
- Approach your snake from the side, not from above. Don’t get in a hurry to pick it up. In nature, predators swoop down from above to attack snakes. Your snake instinctively defends itself against sudden motions from above its head.
- Pick your snake gently by the middle of its body. Picking it up behind its head will upset it, and may tear skin so it does not shed properly. There are similar problems with picking up your snake by the tail. Grabbing your snake by its head or tail may cause it to react by hissing, biting, defecating, or releasing smelly musk.
But it’s better not to pick up your snake at all. Just let your ball python rest in its hiding place undisturbed.
It’s OK to lift up its hide box, slowly, once a day for a quick check, but once you have taken a look, gently lower the hide box or hiding log to give your snake the privacy it needs.
Add a Soaking Bowl in the Ball Python Enclosure
A soaking bowl is a second dish of water in your ball python’s enclosure for it to moisten its skin, if it wants to.
This bowl is separate from the water bowl, because it will be contaminated with E. coli and Salmonella bacteria the snake picks up by slithering over its own feces.
You should wear gloves when you remove or handle the soaking bowl.
Soaking bowls are for prevention, not treatment. When you need to treat a shed gone bad, then you should use a different soaking method we describe below.
Common Shedding Problems in Ball Pythons
All ball pythons occasionally have problems shedding.
Fortunately, there is usually something you can do to help without having to take your snake to the vet.
The most common problem when ball pythons shed is incomplete shedding.
The skin breaks at some point on your ball python’s body, so it cannot come off in one piece. Part of the snake’s skin will come off, but some will be stuck in place.
Usually, it’s OK if you don’t take any emergency action when your snake doesn’t shed completely.
The skin that doesn’t come off with one shed will come off next time.
However, if your snake is comfortable enough with handling that you can gently pull off the skin it doesn’t shed, you may prevent infection or other problems.
Don’t try to remove skin if more than a gentle tug is required. Leave the skin in place for the next shed, or take your snake to the vet.
However, if your snake has the next problem, then you or your vet must take care of it.
Retained Eye Caps
You probably have noticed that snakes don’t have eyelids. Instead, they have clear eye caps that protect their eyes but never close over their eyes.
Sometimes the eye caps don’t come off when your ball python sheds. Retained eye caps can become a serious health problem for your snake if its eyes get infected.
Do not try to remove retained eye caps manually. Instead, try this simple soaking technique:
Find a Tupperware container just large enough to hold your snake. Poke 8 or 10 air holes in the lid. Place your snake in the container, and add just enough room-temperature water to cover its back.
You don’t want your snake to struggle to breathe. Do not cover its nostrils. Do not use this method if it has some kind of respiratory problem that forces it to breathe through its mouth.
Let your snake stay in the water for 15 minutes.
With a little luck, retained eye caps will simply float away. If this method does not work, again, do not try to pull off retained eye caps.
Instead, take your snake to the vet.
What Ball Python Owners Need to Know About Shedding
After you have had your snake for two or three months, you will begin to notice a predictable pattern with shedding.
One of the first things you will notice is that your snake’s eyes may be “in the blue.”
As the scales all over your snake’s body, including your snake’s eyes, start to loosen, the eyes begin to look blue.
This blue color is due to a buildup of fluid between the older, outermost layer of skin and the newer layer of skin beneath it.
Accumulated fluid helps the old skin slide off more easily. This fluid looks blue against the background of your snake’s eyes.
In ball pythons, the lead-up to shedding lasts five days to a week. While your ball python is getting ready to shed, it may want to hide more than usual.
It is highly unlikely to accept food if you offer it, although it will continue to drink water. Your pet may be more defensive or “snappier” than usual.
When it’s almost shedding day, your ball python’s skin will look more transparent than usual. Your snake will start crawling around in its enclosure.
Your ball python may start rubbing its nose on its climbing limb or its cork hiding tunnel, or against the glass or plastic walls of its enclosure.
Once your snake has broken through the layer of old skin around its lips, the shedding process can get underway.
Peeling off the skin around the face begins the shedding process.
Your ball python will crawl out of its skin, using any rough objects or its water bowl to gain traction against the old, dead skin.
In just a few minutes, your snake will be back to its old self. Its skin colors will be bright and bold again, and chances are that your snake’s appetite will suddenly return, too.
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