The Growing and Shedding Iguana
By Catherine E. Rigby-Burdette
Last revised August 1997
Unlike the sleek snakes who generally shed in one long inverted piece or the tidy little newts who eat their shed "body suits" -- iguanas shed in flaky pieces and normally do not eat the remains.
When an iguana is about to shed, the coloring over the shedding area dulls and may appear grey-white. It later becomes a more pronounced white and peels back into translucent papery wisps.
Close examination of the shed pieces of skin reveal the tiny individual scales. The shed piece may be darker in areas where the iguana has darker coloring -- for example, a piece of tail shed might have white and beige bands where the iguana had green and brown bands.
Note: The papery brown tympanum above the large jowl scale (subtympanic scale) is normally papery looking, do not pull this off!
The iguana may be uncomfortably itchy, scratch with his hind legs much like a dog in an attempt to slough off, rub his head on objects to loosen the skin, puff his eyes out until he looks quite comical and absurd, go into hiding and refuse his food until the ordeal is over. If he has a sensitive stomach while it is shedding he may adopt a funny way of walking -- scrabbling about on all fours, or dragging his stomach along the ground back and forth in an effort to rub it all off.
Expect the iguana to shed all his life as he grows. Some iguanas are in continual full sheds and it is not unheard of for an iguana to start shedding again at his head before his tail is done from the last time around!
The size of his sheds will also grow, and may feel rougher. You may find yourself with an itchy red rash from handling your iguana -- not all of these are necessarily allergic reactions. While some people are allergic to their iguanas and have to take special precautions, other people will find their "rash" is really an abrasion wound from rubbing the iguana against the grain. The sides, belly and tail are particulary rough areas in older iguanas. If you pet the iguana from the head toward the tail you will be ok -- you are working with the grain. If you try to pet the iguana from the tail to the head, you are going to get hurt.
Iguana scales overlap each other slightly. Some iguana have keeled scales, where the scale itself has got a "ridge" or "bend" and these parts can also do some scratching to tender human skin. It is rubbing backwards over these "overlaps" that causes an abrasive sensation. Wearing protective clothing like jeans and long sleeved shirts will help minimize "iguana rash." If you do get hurt, wash the area carefully and apply an antibiotic ointment like Neosporin.
HOW TO HELP THE IGUANA SHED WELL
Misting the iguana with plain water from a plant mister will help keep his skin moist as well as give him an opportunity to drink. Commercial products are avaialble but don't work any better than plain water and are more expensive. Iguanas do not absorb anything through their skin! Providing a pan of water in the cage will boost the humidity. A too-dry environment may cause the iguana to shed improperly. Bathing him in the bathtub in a warm bath (85 deg. F) and allowing him to swim will also help keep his skin moist and alleviate his itching.
If you take hot showers, bringing the iguana to sit in the bathroom while you shower so he can enjoy the steam might help his shedding.
Gently tearing or cutting the "flaps" with a small pair of scissors might make him less raggedy looking, and this is ok to do. Just be careful not to pull any shed that is not ready to come off for it may injure the iguana and expose him to possible infection. If the skin does not rub off gently, it is not ready to shed. Do not force it!
Providing him with branches, towels or other objects in his cage that are safe to rub on will provide him with things to scratch on when he cannot reach with his legs. Keep his claws trimmed so he does not injure himself in his anxious scritching and scratching.
The spikes, fingers, toes, and tail are often trouble spots for the iguana to shed succesfully. Although a swiming the bathtub can resolve most of the problems, sometimes extra steps are needed to prevent the accumulation of sheds and the cutting off of blood to the area. If it is not taken care of, the area past the restrictive shed can wither, become gangrenous, and/or die.
After bathing the iguana you can apply baby/mineral oil or aloe vera gel to the troublesome spot keep the area moist. Continue to bathe him and re-apply the solution until the shed finally comes off.
Sometimes bent or previously injured spikes can be difficult to shed. You might have to carefully nick the shed skin near the base of the spike with a small pair of scissors. Then when the iguana is bathed, try to work some water up between the spike and layer of shed to try to loosen it.
For some reason, exposure to extra sun has helped my iguanas through particularly rough shedding periods although I can't tell if it is because of the increase in heat or just a general improvement over their shed-cranky moods!
If trouble persists, check with your veterinarian to make sure the situation is not something more than just troublesome shedding.
If the iguana has been playing in his food or poop, and has become dirty, you can give him a warm bath in the tub (85 deg F) and add either Betadine or Nolvosan to disinfect his skin. If you do not disinfect his skin and your iguana is crawling on you or your home, he can spread poop germs around. It is a good idea to give the iguana a drink before the bath so he does not try to drink his bath water. Add enough Betadine to turn the water a weak tea color (approx 1:40) or add enough Nolvosan to turn the water a light blue color. Some herpers even use diluted Listerine bath , but you have to be careful not to get it into eyes or it will sting.
Tough spots can be worked loose with a q-tip or a soft baby's toothbrush.
Iguana's may have food stuck in thier teeth or be shedding their teeth. A damp Q-tip will rub that off pretty easily. Check the insides of the nostrils and remove acumualted salt deposits or "boogers."
Don't use regular soap. It is too drying for the skin. If you need something "soapish", try to use Nolvosan. Remember to wash and disinfect the tub after the iguana has had his bath!
Special thanks to
Houdini and Christa for mailing me the huge hunk of belly shed so I could see Houdini's surgery scar. I never know what my mail will bring!
"The Growing and Shedding Iguana"
© Copyright 1997 Catherine E. Rigby-Burdette
All rights reserved.
Comments or suggestions always welcome!