Care of Leopard Geckos
Erica Mede, CVT, Photos by Melissa
Borden where noted, and photos/Health by Susan Horton, DVM
Also known as Leos,
the Leopard gecko, has become a popular pet in the United States due
to their docile temperament and relative ease of care. Native to the
southern portion of Asia (mainly Afghanistan, parts of India, parts
of Iran, and Pakistan), this crepuscular lizard is commonly found
scurrying across the ground. They are active at night or during the twilight hours, but
will occasionally bask in sunlight. The
rocky, dry grasslands skirting the desert regions are home to this
species. Despite a partially desert existence, Leopard geckos do
brumate naturally in the wild during the cold season when
temperatures hover in the 50’s. Most of the Leopard geckos found
in the pet trade are captive bred and even come in fun colors and
patterns called "morphs".
As hatchlings, these lizards measure only
2-3 inches long and reach an adult length of 8-11 inches. Their
small stature, visually appealing yellow and white coloration with
black spots (normally, although young geckos may be more striped),
and life span of 10-20 years makes Leopard geckos an ideal pet for
many apartment residents. The skin on the back has a bumpy texture
from the nose to the tail tip whereas the abdomen is surprisingly
smooth and nearly transparent. This species is capable of autotomy
("tail dropping") when frightened to distract potential
predators. "Dropped" tails will grow back although the
pattern may not match exactly and it will not have the bumpy
In captivity, leopard geckos have been known to live over
20 years with proper care. They become sexually mature between
16-24 months, but may not be ready to breed until their third
geckos make wonderful pets. The
are generally very docile, and can learn to accept handling.
They rarely bite, and tend to move slowly once acclimated
to their surroundings. They
tend to hide during daylight hours.
geckos have eyelids that can blink.
They have toenails, and cannot climb glass.
Captive Cage Requirements:
Ultraviolet B is required to maintain healthy leopard
geckos. The best
source of UVB is the
sun, but special bulbs, (fluorescent such as Reptisun 2.0) can be
purchased from a reptile shop.
The fluorescent bulb must be placed no more than 12 inches
from the basking site, and should be on a timer to provide about
12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness.
It must be replaced every 6-9 months, because even though
the visible light is emitted, the UVB fades.
Light bulbs with a screw –in attachment end (even those
sold as “full spectrum” bulbs) provide heat, but not UVB.
The exception is the mercury vapor bulb.
It emits UVA and UVB radiation and heat.
These bulbs are to intense for gecko habitats. There
is significant debate over whether Leopard geckos require UVB for
maintaining health but it is recommended by Chicago Exotics to
help prevent issues with egg laying and prevent secondary
nutritional hyperparathyroidism (also known as metabolic bone
Leopard geckos are
easily maintained in 15-20 gallon glass aquariums or other
enclosures of a similar size. Two geckos can be kept in a 15-gallon
enclosure so long as both are female or one is male. Two males will
fight and stress each other out. A 20-gallon tank can comfortably
house 3 geckos. A ratio of 2 – 3 females to one male is prefered.
Other options for enclosures include
sweater box style containers that can be modified for ventilation,
heating, and lighting. Some breeders and owners of larger
collections will keep their geckos in rack systems that can be
purchased or fabricated. Leopard geckos are predominantly
terrestrial with a weak climbing ability which should be taken into
consideration during enclosure selection.
A naturalistic terrarium can be
created for Leopard geckos using live potted plants such as
Sansevierias, grasses, and bromeliads which stay relatively small.
Fake plants can be used safely and give the same effect as natural
plants. Potted plants should always be herbicide and insecticide
free in case of accidental ingestion of the plant or soil by the
reptile. Plants are not only aesthetically pleasing to owners but
offers enrichment and security for the geckos in the
enclosure. It is ideal to supply as much shrubbery and foliage as
Hides in the forms of rocks caves (not heat caves),
small cork logs, and other creative hides should be placed in at
least two locations in the enclosure. Preferably, one hide area
should be provided on the warm end and one on the cooler end to
promote thermoregulation with minimal stress on the animal.
Branches, bark, and some small rocks should be added to
the enclosure for enrichment and basking purposes. Geckos are
naturally found running along rocky terrain with tufts of grass.
Leopard geckos are a crepuscular species and will enjoy basking at
a water dish that is large enough for the whole gecko to soak its
body. Lizards often
defecate in their water, so it must be replaced daily and the dish
disinfected at least once a week. Periodically,
fresh, warm water soaking is recommended to aid in shedding as
pictured below. The water should be shallow and never
leave your lizard alone while soaking.
Picture by Melissa Borden
The humidity in the Leopard gecko enclosure should be
kept at 30-40% with a humid hide box offered during shedding to
prevent issues. Misting once or twice a day can keep the humidity
level and provide necessary hydration along with the water dish.
Some may learn to drink from a water dish while others will lick
droplets off their skin and enclosure furnishings.
Pictured above is a Leo who
had retained sheds on his toes. The retained sheds cut off
circulation to his toe tips causing the toenail beds to die.
This is from improper humidity.
Retained sheds and sand
bedding can lead to serious eye problems. Dr. Horton also
feels that Vitamin A deficiency also adds to this problem.
Two thermometers should be utilized to ensure that the
proper temperatures are being maintained. The cool end of the
enclosure should have the thermometer an inch above the substrate.
The thermometer on the warmer end of the enclosure should be at the
level of the basking site. A thermostat will also prevent accidental
burns as well as provide a stable temperature.
Day time temperatures are typically maintained at
78-85°F with a basking spot of 86-90°F. The basking spot should be
situated ideally with a rock over the under tank heater or heat
cable and directly underneath the basking light. When using under
tank heaters or heat cable to increase the ambient temperature of
the enclosure care must be taken that the animal never contacts the
heating element itself or the glass/wire/plastic directly over it. A
thermostat must be used on all under tank heat sources and a layer
of substrate must be provided over the enclosure floor to prevent
At night, the temperatures can drop as low as 70°F but
are best maintained between 72 and 75°F. If the ambient temperature
in the room the reptile is in drops below 70°F, it is recommended
to utilize the under tank heaters, heat cable, or a ceramic heat
emitter (which does not give off visible light).
Picture by Melissa Borden
Leopard geckos are primarily
terrestrial but they do not burrow or dig. The
bottom of the enclosure should be covered with something safe and
easy to clean. An excellent substrate to use for
a gecko enclosure would be indoor/outdoor or reptile carpet or felt
which are more aesthetically pleasing than newspaper and easier to
clean than paper towel. All are excellent choices for a
hygienic cage set-up. Plants can be potted in top soil only to avoid
accidental ingestion of toxic materials. If a more naturalistic
enclosure is desired, research should be done on the animals true
natural environment. This species does not live on loose sand alone.
Sand should be avoided to prevent accidental ingestion and life
threatening impaction as well as ocular issues. Calcium based sand
at the pet stores are not a safe product for Leopard geckos.
geckos will eat bedding made of small particles, do not use them.
Never use sand, wood chips, mulch or gravel.
many sources claim that sand is a safe substrate, it has been
found impacted within the stomach and intestines of leopard geckos
after death. Pictured below is
a prime example of why we don't recommend sand. Dehydration,
retained sheds, conjunctivitis, sand impaction, all due to this
sand. This poor fellow was adopted by one of our technicians
and nursed back to health!
The Leopard gecko is a true insectivore enjoying small
roaches (such as Dubias), small silk worms, small meal worms, small
crickets, and small red worms ("red wrigglers"). A rule of
thumb for feeding geckos is the food item offered should always be
live and only half the size of the geckos head. Hatchling and young
geckos should be offered 2-3 food items once a day and adults should
be offered roughly what they can eat in a 10 minute period every
Leopard geckos are entertaining to watch when they feed
as they will stalk their prey in the enclosure, swish their tail,
then strike very much like a leopard would. Feeder insects should be
appropriately gut loaded by offering them dark leafy greens such as
kale or endive and carrots (for added vitamin A) 24-48 hours before
feeding to the Leo. This method of gut loading helps keep the prey
items alive longer. Always remove uneaten food after an hour.
Please, do not leave a dish of calcium powder in their
enclosure. This can be dangerous as over doses are possible. If
there is a concern that not enough calcium is being offered, a UVB
light should be utilized.
below is a healthy Leo with a nice chubby tail!
leopard geckos require calcium with D3 supplementation three times a week, and a high quality reptile
multivitamin once a week. These
should be dusted on insects just before offering to the lizard.
Non-breeding adult leopard geckos will do well with weekly
calcium and twice monthly multivitamin supplementation.
Although best thought of as display specimens, leopard
geckos will learn to tolerate routine handling once they reach 6-8
months of age. When
handled regularly, they will begin to move more slowly and will
not struggle. Leopard
gecko skin is very delicate, so care must be taken to prevent
injuring the animal. Finally,
because all reptiles all are potentially infected with Salmonella
bacteria, which can be transmitted from reptiles to humans,
routine cleanliness and hygiene are essential.
tail" is another term for Leos that are too skinny.
Pictured here is a Leo with
pathologic fractures at all of the arrows. He has MBD. This
can be cured with proper diet, lighting, and TLC!
Young leopard geckos can
suffer from Secondary nutritional hyperparathyroidism (MBD).
They will have rubbery jaws and limbs. This problem is
related to improper diet and lighting. Retained toe sheds is
also a common problem. This retained skin must be gently
removed before it cuts off circulation to the toe tips.
Parasites of the intestinal tract can be a big problem. If
your gecko has diarrhea, it needs to be checked for internal
parasites. Most of these can be treated with
medication. The exception is cryptosporidium. Cryptosporidium
is a type of protozoan parasite that has become very common in
many leopard gecko colonies. There is no effective treatment
for it. Geckos usually are found with skinny tails and
diarrhea. Occasionally, the may vomit. Never mix new
geckos into established colonies until they have been checked out
and in quarantine for at least 6 months.
Leos will drop their tail when threatened,
pulled, or traumatized. Avoid ever putting pressure on the
tail! It will grow back as pictured below.
A new bud of tail growth occurs in a few
weeks after the tail has fallen off.
Hemepene prolapse or abscess as pictured here
are common problems seen in male Leos. These problems
require a trip to the veterinarian to fix! The sooner the
better the outcome!
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to
provide helpful service to you and your pet. If you have any
questions, give us a call at 847-329-8709.
In loving memory of Squesshy!
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