Caring for the Leopard Gecko
The leopard gecko (Eublepharis macularius) is currently captive bred in large numbers across the United States. It is a beautiful, inquisitive and fascinating lizard to care for and can be an excellent pet reptile. However, like other reptiles, it has specific husbandry requirements.
The leopard gecko is a nocturnal lizard species that dwells in rocky dry habitats of Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwest India. They spend the day sleeping under rocks or down in burrows. Adults are usually between 7 (17.8cm) and 11 (27.9cm) inches in length and can live more than 20 years.
Leopard geckos have a range of sounds they can emit that sound much like barks, growls and screeches. In their natural habitat they eat insects, spiders, smaller lizards and young rodents. They have a large rotund tail used for storing fat, which helps them survive periods of drought. Wild leopard geckos have a banded pattern as hatchlings, which changes to a spotted pattern as they grow. Due to several generations of captive breeding, leopard geckos are now available in a variety of colors and patterns.
Captive-bred juveniles can be skittish at first, but with gentle handling two to three times per week they usually calm down. Take care not to grab or squeeze their tail, since it can break off. It will grow back, but it won’t look the same. To pick up a leopard gecko, gently use your hands to scoop the lizard up. Don’t try to force the lizard to accept handling. With a little patience, captive-bred leopard geckos make calm, easily handled adults. Once they have calmed down, you do not have to maintain a regular handling regimen.
A 10-gallon aquarium will house a juvenile or an adult leopard gecko. If you wish to use a larger enclosure, keep in mind that these lizards are terrestrial. Length and width are more important than height. Even though they are not known for their climbing ability, a secure lid should be in place to keep other items out. Since they are nocturnal, overhead lighting is not needed. Leopard geckos do not require full spectrum bulbs and exposure to UVB light. In fact, bright lights intimidate them. If you wish to illuminate the cage, a single cool white fluorescent bulb will work, or if you use an incandescent bulb, make sure it is low wattage.
Even though leopard geckos come from a dry, hot region, they are found under rocks in cool, damp burrows. A temperature range of 70 F to 85 F is best. If kept too cold they won’t eat or will have digestion problems. If kept too hot they will suffer heat stress. To monitor the temperature use a thermometer that can be moved around inside the cage to take readings at different locations. If the lizard is kept in a cool or air-conditioned room then you must have some kind of heat source. Do not use a “hot rock.” The leopard gecko has very thin scales on its stomach, which may be burned or scarred by the surface of a hot rock. An under tank heater placed at one end of the cage can provide the necessary heat. The leopard gecko will then have a temperature gradient and can choose the level it prefers. If your heat source is a low wattage incandescent bulb, make sure it is anchored securely on top of the screen lid.
Newspaper, paper towels, plastic turf or cage carpet, are the safest choices for the bottom of the cage. If kept on sand, corncob, bark, wood shavings or other particulate substrates, it is possible for the lizard to ingest these items accidentally and become impacted. While not a common occurrence, this is still a serious problem to be aware of.
Substrates that consist of calcium sand may cause long term dietary problems. Hatchlings and juveniles require extra calcium in their diet but adults do not. Adults that ingest excess calcium can have long term health problems.
Water Dish and Hiding Area
Leopard geckos cannot swim very well and a large (or deep) water bowl could be dangerous. They require a shallow water dish with the water level no more than one inch deep. Change the water and clean the dish at least once a week. A leopard gecko requires some type of hiding area. This instinctive behavior can be fulfilled many ways. Paper towel rolls, plastic tubs, hide boxes and artificial plastic caves all work. If real rocks are used they must be glued together and secured in such a way that if the cage is jostled, they will not collapse upon the lizard.
The ideal situation is to keep one leopard gecko by himself, since they do not get lonely or require social interaction with their own species. In fact, the healthiest, best looking, and longest-lived specimens are those raised and kept alone. If you plan on keeping multiple animals together, there are many situations to watch out for.
All cage mates must be similar sized. A large leopard gecko will eat a small leopard gecko if given the opportunity. There should only be one male per cage, because adult males are territorial and will fight with each other, inflicting serious injuries. Similar sized females usually can be kept together without problems. However, if you see signs of aggression, separate them.
A leopard gecko suffering from another’s aggressive behavior may become thin and consistently hesitant to feed; he may sleep outside of the hiding area away from others; or he may have visible bite marks or scuffed skin on its head.
Young leopard geckos should be raised apart. When young geckos fight over food, one of them can lose a tail or a foot. Another reason is that young animals are difficult to sex. You may not realize that you have two males in the same cage until it is a problem. If a male and female are raised together, the male might breed the female prematurely, which can stunt her growth and shorten her life.
Leopard geckos periodically shed their skin. When you see the lizard’s skin become pale with a white sheen, it is about to shed. The leopard gecko often eats the skin as it sheds, but this is normal behavior.
If you see remnant skin still on the lizard after the shedding process, he may need some help. Mist him lightly with room temperature water. When misted they usually protest with a loud screeching sound, but they are not hurt, just annoyed. A more effective solution is to keep damp sphagnum moss in their hide box.
Remember that wild leopard geckos spend their days sleeping in cool damp burrows. If kept too dry, they will have problems shedding skin from their toes and their tail. This unshed skin will constrict the flow of blood to these areas, which can result in their loss.
Crickets, mealworms, superworms and waxworms are all acceptable food. A leopard gecko can swallow a food item slightly smaller than his own head. Insects caught outside might have pesticide contaminants, so buy or raise your own. When feeding crickets to your lizard, place only enough in the cage that will be eaten within 30 minutes. Once the leopard gecko is full, it will ignore any excess crickets. Later these extra crickets will climb on, stress out and even bite the lizard. This can lead to infections and other problems. Some adult leopard geckos eat pinkie mice.
It is important to use a calcium supplement to dust the gecko’s food. This dusting should occur every feeding when they are young, and every third or fourth feeding when they are adults. This is critical to their growth and health. For optimum long-term health, use a separate multivitamin supplement in addition to the calcium. Keep calcium and multivitamins in your freezer to extend their shelf life.
Single juvenile geckos can be fed as much as every day or as little as once a week. Young geckos caged together should be fed at least every other day, so they don’t nip at each other’s tails. Adult animals usually eat once a week but will sometimes fast for a few weeks or even a month. This is normal, as their metabolism is slower than a juvenile’s metabolism. As long as their tail remains thick do not worry.
If any of the following occur, take your lizard to a veterinarian:
- The tail becomes thinner and thinner
- Injuries resulting in swelling or bleeding
- Not eating, swollen stomach
- Bloody or excessively runny stools
- One or both eyes remain closed
- The tail is accidentally broken off and does not stop bleeding right away; pus and signs of infection within a few days of the break