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When Do Garter Snakes Shed Skin?

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Garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) are a common species of snake found in the United States, Canada and parts of Mexico. These agile reptiles typically measure between 20 and 30 inches long. Although commonly recognized for the three yellow or red stripes that run down their bodies, garter snakes have distinctive appearances depending on where they live. Like other reptiles, garter snakes shed their skin as they grow.

Overview of Shedding

As garter snakes grow, they must shed their skin. Unlike other creatures like humans, a snake's skin does not grow along its body. Its scales are made of keratin, which is the same protein found in our fingernails. When garter snakes slither along the ground, their scales scrape on rocks, dirt and other debris. This movement is important to help snakes shed their skins. Snake skin usually sheds off in one continuous piece, starting around the lips and ending at the tail.

Making Room

Younger garter snakes grow rapidly as they feed on prey items such as insects, amphibians and earthworms. As they grow, they have to shed their skin approximately every four to five weeks. As they mature and grow into full-sized adults between 2 and 4 years old, the amount of shedding declines since they are not growing as rapidly. Mature garter snakes shed a few times each year, due to wear and tear on their keratin scales. In a healthy garter snake, the entire shedding process takes a little longer than one week.

Reptile Routine

The initial shedding process involves the garter snake secreting a milky fluid that helps separate the new skin from the old skin. To tell when a garter snake is ready to shed, watch his behavior. A garter snake hides and won't eat since he is blind when he sheds, and he will usually be moody. When ready, a garter snake rubs his mouth on the ground to help push up the older skin. He then slowly makes his way out of his old skin by slithering along the ground, encouraging the skin the retract inside-out as it comes off in one piece.

Shedding Struggles

If your garter snake is having difficulty shedding, place some small, rough rocks in his tank. When he slithers over the rocks, this should help drag the old skin off. Other shedding problems include bits of unshed skin, such as around the eyes or tail. If left untreated over several shedding periods, this can lead to blindness and a stubbed tail. You can help your scaly friend shed his skin more easily by increasing the humidity of the tank using a tank humidifier. You can also encourage shedding in difficult areas by pulling the old skin gently away using your fingers.