Considering that the leopard gecko has only been bred as a pet in the United States for the last 30 years, it is impressive that it has become one of the most popular reptile pets. It is commonly given as a pet for children because they are a relatively easy reptile to care for, and they are easily available and quite cheap. While pets can be a fantastic way to build responsibility in children, the leopard gecko, like all pets, is still a living, breathing animal so make sure your children are fully prepared to commit to around 10 years of daily care. Some leopard geckos live as much as 20 years!
Leopard Gecko Behavior
Leopard geckos are nocturnal reptiles. This can mean a lot of their more interesting behaviors happen when you are asleep. However, there are plenty of other behaviors that make the leopard gecko a great pet.
First of all, they are ground dwelling reptiles because they usually come from desert environments. They don’t have sticky pads on their toes that other geckos have for climbing. As they don’t climb, this makes them much less likely to break out and run away. They are also generally slower and not prone to biting. This makes them very manageable reptile pets.
Similarly, leopard geckos are more comfortable being handled than the average reptile. You must train them into becoming accustomed to handling, however. Steps for training your leopard gecko into becoming sociable with humans include:
- Wait for them to become adjusted to their environment
- Start training when they are more than 6 inches in length
- Bring them to the floor, perhaps in a shoe box.
- Let them crawl through your fingers for about 10 minutes
- Put them back in their habitat
- Repeat once a day for about a week
- Never grab their tail
The reason you must never grab their tail is because, like many geckos, their tails fall off when they feel threatened. Leopard geckos regenerate their tails in approximately 40 days. As interesting as this behavior is, it is quite rare in captivity as they rarely experience the same levels of danger.
Another interesting tail behavior trait in leopard geckos is tail rattling. Similar to a rattlesnake, they will rattle their tail when they are excited. This might be when they are enjoying their food, or wanting to mate.
A third interesting tail behavior is tail waving.They do this when they feel threatened. It is important to understand this behavior if you have two geckos sharing a tank. If one starts to wave their tail, they are being stressed or bullied by the other.
To avoid this, you should also know that two male leopard geckos will fight so should never share a home. Similarly, a male and female will breed so don’t let them share a home if you don’t want them breed. Most owners invest in two female leopard geckos for exactly this reason.
Leopard Gecko Habitat
Leopard geckos are relatively small lizards. They start at 3 or 4 inches as babies, but only grow to approximately 8 inches, with males slightly larger at 10 inches. This means you do not need to invest in a very large habitat. A 20 gallon tank should be sufficient for one or two geckos, which is their preferred living conditions.
You can use a variety of materials for the tank, some owners even use a plastic storage box or an old fish tank. Just make sure the material is sturdy and can withstand the high temperatures you will need to make the environment. You will also need a screen top that supports the necessary light fixtures as it will provide good ventilation, while stopping the occasional escape attempt.
You should add substrate, rocks and logs for a little bit of light climbing, and a hide box to this environment. Substrate helps you to deal with waste products, such as fecal matter and shedding. For young geckos, it is worth avoiding anything they could accidentally consume because it can cause health problems such as impaction. Potential substrate options include:
- Pea gravel
- Artificial turf
- Flat stones
The hide box should be filled with vermiculite or moist moss as your leopard gecko will use it to help them shed. Hide boxes become particularly important if you want to breed your leopard gecko. A pregnant gecko will use the hide box to lay their eggs. Decorative plants can also be a pleasant addition.
As with all reptiles, you need to pay extra special attention to lighting, humidity and temperature. The aim is to replicate their natural home environment. For leopard geckos, this is relatively easy compared with other reptiles because they are nocturnal and won’t need a UVB light for basking. You can use a normal low-wattage bulb instead. Remember to only keep this on for 12 hours at a time or you might confuse your leopard geckos.
Temperature is also slightly less complicated. You must, however, understand that reptiles do not regulate their own temperature. They thermoregulate, which means you must provide them with two zones of temperature that they can move between as and when they need to.
Leopard geckos need to have their highest temperature in their hide box, so keep their hide box at the same end as your basking spot. This end should be around 88 or 90 degrees. This means the other end of their habitat should be kept at 75 degrees. While this is close to room temperature, do not rely on this. It is best to use an under tank heating pad, unless your gecko is likely to burrow down to it and burn themselves. Do not use heat rocks as they can burn your pet, and use several thermometers so you can reliably check your leopard gecko’s environment at a glance.
Last of all, leopard geckos also do not require much control in terms of humidity. Unlike many other reptiles who can need a constant humidity of 60%, which requires constant spraying and misting, the leopard gecko only needs a humidity of over 20% to healthily shed its skin. This can be relatively easy to maintain, but don’t forget to keep an eye on it!
Leopard Gecko Diet & Nutrition
Feeding your leopard gecko is another aspect that is fairly standard and highlights why they make such a good beginners’ reptile. Essentially, leopard geckos must be fed live insects. Commonly used insects include:
Feeding your leopard gecko is not as simple as putting live crickets in their enclosure, there are three important steps for providing them with a healthy and balanced diet. These steps are: gut loading, dusting, and feeding.
1. Gut loading
If you are unfamiliar with the term ‘gut loading’, it is the best method for feeding the insects you keep for feeding your reptiles. Essentially, it involves feeding your crickets or mealworks with a diet that is also nutritious for your reptile. You should feed the crickets nutritious food that is beneficial for your leopard gecko between 12 and 24 hours before feeding time. What constitutes nutritious insect food depends on which insect you are feeding to your reptile, but some common gut feeding advice includes:
- Using commercial powdered diets
- Using other commercial feeds, such as gel balls
- Using chick or hog mash
- Feeding carrots for mealworms
- Feeding non-acidic fruit and vegetables
- Avoiding broccoli and spinach
Another step to maximize the nutritious benefits of your leopard gecko’s food is to dust the insects with supplements. These supplements are full of important vitamins and minerals like calcium. A great method for dusting is to place the insects in a bag, add the powdered supplements and then gently shake to coat. Make sure not to add too much, as excess powder can get into your gecko’s eyes.
Some owners provide their leopard geckos with supplements in the same way they provide water. You can put a small jar of the powder in their enclosure for them to help themselves to when they need it. Most geckos should know how much they need naturally. However, you should keep an eye on their intake and look for symptoms of deficiency or imbalance.
After you have done all this, you are ready to feed the insects to your leopard gecko. Growing hatchlings and young geckos will need a few crickets a day, but once they become adults they can be fed once every two or three days.
As a general rule, their portion size should offer them two normal-sized insects for every inch of their length. An 8 inch adult leopard gecko, for example, would need a diet of 16 insects offered to them every other day. If your gecko seems over fed or regularly does not finish their meal, try reducing either the regularity of feeding to every three days or reducing the number the insects you are offering them.
To make sure that your leopard gecko is getting enough hydration, you should ensure there is a constant source of drinking water by providing a shallow dish that is never empty. They may also bathe in this water, so it must be changed frequently. Leopard geckos take to drinking from a dish quite easily, but if you are worried that your leopard gecko is not getting enough water, you can try spraying their food with water before serving it.
Leopard Gecko Grooming & Hygiene
The golden rule of reptile care is wash your hands! You should wash your hands before you handle them, after you handle them and after you touch anything they have touched. Reptiles carry a salmonella risk. While getting salmonella from a reptile is quite rare, it does make hand washing absolutely essential. You should also keep them away from anyone with a weak immune system. This includes young children, pregnant women, and anyone struggling with an illness.
Another common issue with reptiles is shedding. As we’ve already touched on, leopard geckos need a hide box to help with their shedding process. Their process is quite quick and tends to come off, more or less, all at once. Young geckos shed more frequently as they grow, but other than that it can be difficult to predict when shedding will occur. Skin that is about to shed gets darker and then turns white.
It is also common for leopard geckos to eat off their skin and some of their shedding. This is perfectly natural, and occurs as a means of replenishing the energy that they lost in the process of shedding. Mostly, you do not need to worry about the shedding process, it will happen naturally. However, if your leopard gecko does not have enough humidity, it can stunt their ability to shed. If you suspect your gecko is about to shed, double check the humidity and, if in doubt, use a spray bottle to increase the humidity.
Keeping your leopard gecko’s environment clean is vital. Hygiene care can vary from reptile to reptile, so it is worth researching the best advice, even if you have looked after other lizards in the past. If you want to give your leopard gecko good quality care, at least once a day you should:
- Remove feces
- Remove shedding
- Remove dead and live feeder insects, particularly as live uneaten insects can try to attack your gecko
- Replace the water with fresh water
- Remove and clean any furnishings that came into contact with fecal matter
Similarly, you need to do a deep clean of their habitat once a week. This involves:
- Removing and disinfecting the furnishings and decorations with reptile-safe disinfectant
- Disinfecting and scrubbing the enclosure
- Replacing the substrate with fresh substrate
Remember that your leopard gecko is nocturnal. While you may be able to clean your other lizard’s enclosures any time during the day, you should exclusively clean your leopard gecko’s environment in dusk or the early morning. Cleaning their environment during the day risks damaging their sleep cycle and causing them stress.
Leopard Gecko Common Health Problems
A final key aspect of caring for a beloved pet is learning about their greatest health risks. This allows you to recognize symptoms as early as possible, which could just save their lives. You may even be able to avoid the illness in the first place through adequate preventative health care. Some of the most common health issues that arise with the leopard gecko include:
Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)
If your leopard gecko does not get enough crucial minerals, they may not have the building blocks needed to support their body’s development. A common example of this is a deficiency in calcium and vitamin D that can lead to Metabolic Bone Disease. Symptoms of MBD, include:
- Physical deformities, particularly around the spine and limbs
- A reduced appetite
MBD can be a very serious health issue, and you should visit a vet to get advice on how to re-balance their vitamin and mineral intake. It isn’t always as simple as feeding them more. They may need changes to their environment to help them synthesize the supplements.
There are many ways that your leopard gecko can suffer from infections, such as through untreated wounds. A very common bacterial infection in leopard geckos, however, is gastroenteritis. It causes their stomach to become inflamed. Symptoms to watch out for include:
- Watery stools
- Shrunken tails
Gastroenteritis can be fatal. You should go to the vet as soon as you suspect that something is wrong. Your vet will be able to confirm the diagnosis and prescribe treatment.
Many reptiles can suffer from poor shedding issues. Your leopard gecko may struggle to shed its skin when there is not enough humidity in their environment, or when their diet is lacking important nutrients. Poor shedding can also cause constrictive damage of limbs. If you are concerned that your leopard gecko is not shedding properly, watch out for:
- Shedding taking significantly longer than 24 hours, which is their average shedding time
- Dry skin
- Becoming timid or cautious due to poor vision
- Unexplained bumps and scrapes that may be due to poor vision
You may be able to help a leopard gecko that is comfortable being handled by giving them a warm, gentle shower. The warmth and the water should help with any humidity-based issues. If this does not seem to help, or if you are unsure, you should take them to the vet. The vet should be able to safety remove dangerous skin, and can advise you what the cause of the health issue may be.
Natural parasites often live in geckos and they get along with each other just fine. But sometimes a weakened immune system can result in problems with these parasites. They may also catch new parasites. Parasites can exist without symptoms, but a problematic parasite may cause:
- Smelly feces
- Runny feces
- A bloated belly
- Weight loss, particularly if they are still eating the same amount or more
Parasites need to be treated by a vet. Different parasites may require different treatments, and your vet will first need to diagnose the exact parasite and then prescribe the medicine and dosage.