Ecdysis refers to the process by which reptiles shed their outer skin, a process that occurs regularly with growth and wear. Some species of reptiles shed an entire layer of skin as one whole piece, whereas other species shed several small pieces at a time.
Dysecdysis refers to incomplete or abnormal shedding. Improper or difficult shedding can be caused by a number of environmental and dietary issues, but reptile owners can be prevent it by practicing good husbandry and making sure that their reptiles are in good health.
The following common signs indicate that a reptile is about to begin shedding:
- Loss of or decrease in appetite
- Slightly translucent and dull skin
- Opaque eyecaps
- Increase in irritability and aggressiveness
When a reptile is shedding, its ability to gather and process sensory information (sounds, tastes, and especially sights) is hindered, making the reptile very vulnerable to predators and other potential hazards. This vulnerability explains the increase in irritability and aggression that a companion reptile might display during ecdysis—the reptile is just acting to protect itself. Because handling a reptile in this state can cause the animal stress, it is best to handle a companion only when absolutely necessary while it is shedding.
The humidity level within a companion reptile’s housing system plays a significant role in how easily and comfortably the animal will shed. The specific humidity at which an environment should be maintained depends on the species of reptile and the type of natural environment it would live in. In general, humidity levels below 35 percent and above 70 percent will cause problems for a reptile. When humidity levels are below 35 percent, reptiles experience dry skin and have difficulty shedding. When humidity levels rise above 70 percent, reptiles become more susceptible to skin infections.
When a companion reptile’s color becomes dull or gray, slightly increase the humidity in its housing system to aid in shedding. You can also mist the reptile’s habitat daily with lukewarm water. Some species might benefit from having access to a soaking container or a structure lined with moist sphagnum moss that the reptile can crawl inside.
Reptiles often rub against objects in their environments to help them shed. These objects are often large, moderately abrasive rocks or other structures that have a rough surface. Providing these structures, as well as keeping humidity at the appropriate level, will help a companion reptile shed comfortably and quickly.
Dysecdysis can be caused by a number of environmental and health issues, including the following:
- Low humidity
- Lack of abrasive surfaces
- Decreased thyroid function
- Skin parasites
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Infectious diseases
If a reptile is experiencing abnormal shedding, it will often have the most difficulty shedding the skin on the eyes, tail, and digits.
The amount and type of treatment a companion reptile will require to help with the shedding process will depend on how severe the problem is. If there is only a small amount of skin that will not slough off, you might be able to treat the problem yourself. If, however, dysecdysis has been occurring for an extended period of time, it is best to have a veterinarian examine the reptile. The veterinarian will be able to determine if the dysecdysis is due to poor husbandry or an underlying health condition. At that time the veterinarian will be able to advise you about how to improve the reptile’s environment and how to treat dysecdysis at home.
Often, increasing the humidity in a reptile’s enclosure or gently soaking the reptile in warm water will help to remove any skin that won’t come off. Do not use water that is too hot, as it could burn the reptile’s skin. The water temperature should remain between 77°F and 82°F. After removing the reptile from the bath, allow the animal time to try to remove the skin on its own. If the reptile cannot remove the skin, use a gauze sponge to gently pull on the shedding skin.
Never try to remove shedding skin that will not easily come off. If you attempt to remove stubborn skin from your reptile, you can cause serious damage and trauma to the reptile’s digits, limbs, skin, and especially the eyes. If you cannot easily remove the skin by using a gauze sponge, it is best for your reptile that a veterinarian removes the skin.
Like most health conditions, it is much easier and less expensive to prevent dysecdysis than it is to treat it after it occurs. You can prevent shedding problems and many other health issues by providing your companion reptile with the appropriate type of environment and by making regular visits to your veterinarian to ensure the reptile remains healthy.
Lisa Karr-Lilienthal, Ph.D., and Kaycee Points, University of Nebraska-Lincoln