Shedding is a natural process for both snakes and lizards to help them grow larger by slipping their old skin in favor of a new one. Most lizards rely on consuming their sheds for nutrients necessary for proper health and growth, but do snakes do the same? Do snakes eat their own shed?
Most snakes in the wild will not eat their own shed. It is more common for pet snakes to eat their old skin simply due to food availability; however, snakes are not naturally programmed to eat their shed like lizards are.
Even though it is not as nature intended, it is not impossible to witness your pet snake consuming his freshly shed skin. This act is known as keratophagy.
A number of different species have been known to eat their sheds in captivity. The more common ones include garter snakes and California king snakes, while other rarer sightings include milk snakes, corn snakes, hose-nosed snakes, and hognose snakes.
Although captive snakes are more likely to eat their shed than wild snakes, some species who are opportunistic feeders or live in areas with a low abundance of food will readily consume their own dead skin. In fact, there are even a few reported cases of snakes consuming other sheds that are not their own.
All in all though, these instances are not the norm. Given a healthy snake in its natural environment with no confounding variables, that reptile has no reason to eat the skin it has just shed.
If snakes are not programmed to eat their sheds, what would possess them to do such a thing? We’ll investigate why snakes eat their shed, whether or not there are benefits to doing so, and if you should be worried about your snake eating its own shed.
Why Do Snakes Eat Their Shed?
Keratophagy in lizards is the rule, not the exception; however, keratophagy in snakes is the exception rather than the rule. What exceptions would give your snake an excuse to eat its old skin after shedding?
Young snakes who are shedding for the first time need to figure out the best way to get rid of their old skin during the shedding process. The shed doesn’t simply fall off; a snake must wriggle around and use its mouth to aid the process of removal.
Just like a baby learning to take his first steps, a young snake may not be very efficient at shed removal his first time around. Therefore, it is not uncommon for newbies to consume part of their shed in the process of trying to get it off.
Some snakes may eat their shed because their senses haven’t fully returned to normal. During the shedding process, a snake’s vision is impaired due to a secretion of fluid that helps them remove the old skin. If a snake cannot properly see, it may believe its shed is food and go after it.
Shedding can be an energy-consuming and stressful process. Some snakes handle better than others. More sensitive snakes may continue to feel stressed or even threatened by anything new to their environment even after they have completed their shed. As a result, they may consume the old skin as a way to remove a potential threat or out of confusion.
Lastly, although snakes are carnivores, eating meat to sustain themselves, some snakes are not picky about what their meals look or taste like. King snakes are opportunistic feeders and will eat just about anything you put in front of them if it vaguely resembles food – including their own shed.
Although wild snakes don’t typically eat their own shed because they have the freedom to hunt after the process is complete, pet snakes do not have the same luxury. Shedding can utilize a lot of energy and most snakes will be extremely hungry after the event. If you don’t feed them right away, they will turn to the only source of food available – their shed.
Even some wild snakes have been known to eat their shed due to lack of food availability, although this scenario is much rarer than snakes in a captive environment.
Are There Benefits to a Snake Eating Its Shed?
Unlike lizards who may gain some much-needed nutritional benefits from consuming their own shed, the benefits a snake can gain from eating its shed are minimal by comparison.
If there is no other food available whether in the wild or more likely in captivity, snakes can benefit from the presence of the old skin by having something to consume. It may provide a little protein, but nothing compared to the normal diet of rodents and other creatures.
An additional advantage to a snake consuming its own shed is the removal of parasites from its enclosure. If a snake had parasites residing on its old skin, by eating it a snake can effectively eliminate the population of parasites since these little critters are only meant to survive on the outside of the snake, not in their guts.
What Should I Do If My Snake Doesn’t Eat Its Shed?
If your snake doesn’t show any interest in eating its shed, you should remove it from your snake’s enclosure. In the wild, a shed would be eaten by another animal such as a reptile or small mammal, or even used as a deterrent for other predators who may avoid a “snake-guarded” nest.
Watch as these squirrels ingeniously mask their own scent by using a rattlesnake shed to smell like their predator:
However, there are no squirrels handy in your snake’s enclosure to utilize the shed and it is likely to collect unwanted bacteria, only serving to risk your snake getting sick. Even if you know your snake generally likes to eat its shed and you don’t want it to, try to remove it before they attempt to consume it.
If your snake has started eating it, don’t try to take it away. Just let him eat what he will and make sure to remove any unconsumed pieces from his tank just like you would his regular food.
Should I Worry If My Snake Eats Its Shed?
There is really nothing to worry about if your snake does eat its own shed. Although snakes are not biologically built to consume their old skin, there is little harm in them doing so. You may want to just keep a close eye on your reptilian buddy to make sure he digests it all right and resumes eating like normal afterward.
The digestive tract of a snake is designed to accommodate large, dense prey so the papery thin skin of an old shed may give your snake a little stomach trouble. If you are concerned about your snake’s eating habits or behaviors after consuming his old shed, contact your vet to see if there’s anything that can be done.
Herpetologists are still puzzled about why snakes choose to eat their shed, but there seems to be some effect of being in captivity. Most wild snakes will not consume their old skin since the more beneficial food is readily available. However, pet snakes and those kept in captivity at zoos display a higher likelihood of eating their old sheds.
There seems to be little benefit from doing so, but there really isn’t any harm either. Whether it’s a factor of hunger, stress, or simple inexperience, you shouldn’t be too alarmed to catch your snake making a meal out of the skin he just slipped. In fact, he may be letting you know that he’s ready to eat something more substantial after his shedding ordeal.