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As an exotic veterinarian, I am frequently asked about what reptiles make good starter pets for families and individuals. One that I always like to recommend is the leopard gecko. While there are many species of intriguing lizards, the leopard gecko is perhaps the simplest to keep and is, by far, the most popular type because these lizards are very docile, gentle and friendly. Originally found in Asia, India, and Afghanistan, these lizards are commonly bred in captivity for sale in the United States. Anyone interested in getting one should be sure that the lizard is captive-bred as it is illegal to keep wild caught geckos as pets. Captive-bred geckos are available from reputable breeders, pet stores and rescue groups across the U.S. As with any pet, if you are considering getting a gecko, you need to educate yourself about the unique needs of this fascinating animal before bringing it home. Here are some critical leopard gecko facts you need to know:
Leopard geckos don’t eat plants or other vegetables but must be fed live insects, such as mealworms, crickets, superworms, dubia roaches and waxworms, to stay healthy. So if you’re not into feeding bugs, a leopard gecko isn’t the right pet for you. All these insects are commercially available and should be fed a powdered, nutritionally complete diet, also available commercially, before being offered to the gecko — a process called gut loading. Simple gut-loading kits that include containers to house the bugs (and the proper food for them) are available in pet stores and online. Insects also should be dusted with a vitamin and mineral powdered supplement before being fed to the lizard to ensure the reptile is getting all the nutrients it needs. A simple rule of thumb is to feed adult geckos two average-sized insects per every inch of gecko body length. Insects should not be longer than the width of the gecko’s head. Adult geckos may be fed every other day, while young, growing geckos that have not reached the typical 8-inch long adult length should be fed daily.
Like other reptiles, leopard geckos are ectotherms whose body temperatures are determined by their environmental temperatures. Maintaining them at the appropriate temperature helps ensure that their immune systems and metabolisms function properly. Their tanks, ideally no smaller than 10 to 20 gallons of tank per gecko, should be heated with an over-the-tank heat bulb (shining through a secure screen on the top to prevent escape) to maintain a temperature gradient of 90°F at the warm end to no lower than 70°F at the cool end. Although in the wild, these animals are nocturnal and are exposed to little direct ultraviolet (UV) light, in captivity, many develop a potentially life-threatening condition called metabolic bone disease (MBD) from lack of adequate UV light exposure. Without UV light, captive reptiles do not make vitamin D in their skin, and D is necessary for absorption of dietary calcium. Consequently, they reabsorb calcium from their bones to function. Although the provision of UV light to leopard geckos is controversial as they are nocturnal in the wild and get little natural sunlight, a low level of UV a few hours a day seems to lessen the likelihood of development of deadly MBD.
In addition to heat and UV light, leopard geckos also need adequate humidity (of at least 50%, as measured by a humidity gauge, called a hygrometer, in the tank) to stay hydrated and to shed skin properly. Humidity can be provided by daily misting and soaking the gecko in a small dish containing a shallow amount of warm (not hot) water. The gecko should also be provided with an open shallow bowl of water in its tank, where it can crawl if it chooses to, and a hide box (an upside-down plastic food container with a cut-out for a door) containing moistened, commercially available moss or vermiculite that should be changed every few days so that it does not become moldy.
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