Get to Know the Leopard Gecko
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:
1. Live insects are a must!
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.
2. Heat, light and humidity are key!
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.
3. Say no to sand!
Sand is not a good choice for cage bedding, as it is indigestible and can lead to gastrointestinal (GI) impaction. Gravel, walnut shells and wood shavings also are all poor choices for geckos since these materials can also lead to GI obstruction if ingested. Paper-based bedding, such as recycled paper pellets, shredded paper or plain newspaper are better choices, as paper is usually digestible if consumed.
4. They’re not just spotted!
Leopard geckos commonly have yellow skin and dark spots, but they also come in various colors (“morphs”) with various pattern variations. Tangerine morphs have dark spots with mostly orange rather than yellow skin, while snow morphs have white skin with dark spots. Albino morphs have white skin without spots. Patternless, blizzard or hypomelanistic (defined as having fewer than 10 spots) morphs have few to no dark spots. Whatever the color morph, once a gecko owner has one morph, it’s tempting to collect a whole variety of others. Females may be housed together, but adult males may be territorial and fight, so they shouldn’t live in the same tank. It’s not a good idea to house male and female geckos together, as they will likely breed.
5. They snack on shed skin!
Most reptile lovers know that leopard geckos regularly shed their skin as they grow, with juvenile geckos shedding more frequently than adults. However, many people don’t know that geckos actually eat the skin they shed. When they’re about to shed, their skin turns white, and as soon as it comes off, they consume it all. No one is quite sure why they do this. Theories include the need to replenish the large number of calories expended from the act of shedding, plus the desire to prevent predators from knowing they’ve been there by leaving no trace behind.
6. Their tails regrow!
One cool feature of leopard geckos is that their tails, typically very thick from fat they store in them, can regrow if broken off. Geckos have evolved this ability for tail release and regrowth — a process known as autotomy — as a defense mechanism in case a predator catches them by the tail. Once released, the piece of tail can twitch for half an hour, distracting the predator, while the gecko runs away. For this reason, never hold or restrain a gecko by the tail or it could snap off in your hand! If this occurs, the lizard should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible to ensure that veterinary care isn’t warranted.
7. These lizards have lids!
Leopard geckos not only are longer than other gecko species, with adults reaching 8 to 11 inches in length, nose to tail tip, but also, unlike other species of geckos, they have eyelids. While eyelids can help keep foreign objects, like bedding, from getting stuck in geckos’ eyes, without adequate humidity in the tank, eyelids sometimes interfere with shedding, trapping small bits of the shed skin directly over the eyes. This trapped skin can inhibit vision and may need to be removed by the owner or a veterinarian if it doesn’t fall off with increased humidification of the tank.
8. Their teeth regrow!
Leopard geckos actually have 100 teeth that fall out and are replaced every 3 to 4 months. A smaller replacement tooth develops right next to each full-grown tooth so that a new tooth is right there when the old tooth falls out.
9. These lizards live long!
Leopard geckos live an average of 6 to 10 years but some have been reported to live as long as 20 or more years. So if you aren’t prepared to have a long-lived pet, a leopard gecko may not be right for you.
As you can see from these cool facts, leopard geckos are fascinating lizards. They can make great pets for people willing to meet their needs, but they aren’t right for everyone. If you’re considering one as a pet, be sure to consult a reptile-savvy veterinarian first. Get to know this gecko and decide whether this unique lizard, with its distinct requirements, is right for you.
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