Snakes and lizards all periodically slough (shed) the outer layer of their skin following the production of a new one beneath it. Younger individuals slough more often, and the more rapidly the reptile grows, the more frequently it will slough. During the early stages of the skin sloughing process you may notice your reptile’s colour beginning to darken and lose its lustre. This condition usually lasts a few days to about a week and is brought about by the production of the new epidermis beneath the old. With the completion of this stage an oily, substance is secreted between the new and old layers of skin, freeing and separating the old skin. During this time the skin takes on a milky appearance, particularly on the underside, and in the case of snakes, over the eyes. During this `opaque’ or ‘blue’ condition, reptiles should not be handled or otherwise disturbed because the skin is particularly vulnerable to damage. In a few days this milky appearance will disappear and the reptile will be ready to slough. You may notice it moving about the cage, rubbing itself against whatever objects are available to assist in peeling the old skin off, either in large pieces (most lizards) or in the case of snakes, generally the entire skin in one piece. Snakes begin the peeling process at the snout and finishing at the tail (turning the cast skin inside out in the way a stocking is removed from a foot). Some lizards eat their cast skins.
Sometimes captive snakes and lizards develop problems during the sloughing process, and may require some help. If a week to ten days has passed following the conclusion of the `opaque’ stage, and the reptile has failed to slough its skin (or any large portions thereof), you should intervene. Place the reptile in a sealable, water¬tight container such as a clean plastic rubbish bin with a fastenable lid. Add luke¬warm water to a level that would just about submerge the reptile’s body. It will be able to hold its head above water to breathe and you needn’t worry about it drowning. You may find after an hour or so that the problem skin is beginning to come loose on its own accord, and if you return the snake or lizard to its cage it will manage to complete the job itself. If on the other hand, if, after several hours of soaking the skin still shows no sign of loosening, try gently rubbing it loose. Don’t force it if it doesn’t loosen fairly readily. Begin with the skin on the snake’s snout and chin, rubbing it in the direction of its tail to encourage the start of the peeling process. If you are very careful, and the skin easily peels, you can work the skin backwards to say, a few centimetres past the head, which should prompt the snake to finish the procedure once it is returned to its cage.
A word of warning should be made regarding the forced removal of unshed skin from a snake’s eye. The transparent skin that protects the eye in its ever open condition is called the `spectacle’. If the old spectacle doesn’t remove easily you could damage the eye permanently by forcing the new one off with it. In any event, the old spectacle will most probably be removed with the next sloughing cycle, and presents no immediate health problem to the snake. Spectacles that are left behind may be an indication of an infestation of snake mites, which bore through the edges of the spectacle, isolating it from the rest of the snake’s outer skin (more on snake mites in diseases section).