Basic Leopard gecko care

General Leopard gecko care

This article is tagged to be infromative to veterinarians too. The information is not a substitute for advice from your veterinarian.

Leopard geckos are nocturnal and cathemeral lizards naturally from dry Savannah areas. They spend most of their time hiding away and prefer to be active when they need to eat. When their basic care requirements are met, they are hardy and a pleasure to keep.

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Introduction

Keeping Leopard geckos as pets is relatively easy when compared with some other lizards (e.g. Bearded dragons). They need little space, basic environmental furniture and substrates and are easy to feed. Leopard geckos are often acquired when they are still babies.

Various Leopard gecko accessories and other care items are available online (e.g. Amazon.com), from specialised pet shops and general hardware stores.

Leopard gecko development

Hatchling and baby Leopard geckos are 1 day to about 4 months of age, whereafter they will reach the juvenile stage until they are about 18 months of age. Sexing is possible after three months of age(30). Adult Leopard geckos are 18 months and older, but if they are properly fed they should reach adult size and breed within their first year(30). Although sexual maturity is reached as early as 3 to 5 months in males and 9 to 10 months in females(34), breeding should only be allowed when then they are adults.

The lifespan of Leopard geckos in captivity ranges between 20 to almost 30 years (avg. ~25 years).

Male Leopard geckos will have prominent femoral pores and paired hemipenal bulges at the vent area (situated at the bottom of the base of the tail).

Housing

The enclosure

The enclosure is the container that is used to house the Leopard gecko. They can be in the form of glass tanks, cabinets, large plastic storage containers and commercial reptile enclosures termed ‘vivariums’ and ‘terrariums’. Enclosures that are set up in a natural way to keep Leopard geckos and other desert/savannah reptiles are called terrariums.

A single Leopard gecko can be housed in an area as small as a 10-gallon tank / 30 x 30 cm / 12 x 12 “, but bigger is better. One or two Leopard geckos can be housed together in an ADDIS (35 x 25 x 15) cm / (13.7 x 10 x 10) ” container with the correct setup. A 20 gallon / 30-50 ℓ / (61 x 23 x 33) cm / (24 x 9 x 13) ” glass tank, “Pal pen™ “or “Desert den™” can also be used to house one to a few Leopard geckos. The floor space should increase with at least 25% for every gecko added after that.

REPTI ZOO 10 Gallon Reptile Tank (20" x 12" x 10")

REPTI ZOO 10 Gallon Reptile Tank (20 x 12 x 10 ” / 50 x 30 x 25 cm). Available from Amazon.com

Even though Leopard geckos are not known to climb, the top of the enclosure should be closed off to prevent predators from interfering. Sliding screen tops are popularly used and can also be used to rest overhead lamps.

Male Leopard geckos should not be housed together, as it will often cause fighting. One male can be kept alone, with one or up to five females. Leopard geckos should be quarantined before introducing it to other, established Leopard geckos.

The substrate

The substrate (or bedding) is what is placed on the floor of the enclosure. Good bedding substrates include newspaper, paper towels, white or brown butcher paper and carpet. Particulate substrates such as sand, fine gravel, wood chips, crushed walnut shells, eggshells, fine grade bark, perlite, corn cob and alfalfa pellets can be ingested and should be avoided. Large pieces of driftwood, bark or rocks can be used for hiding and decoration (see later).

Zilla Reptile Terrarium Bedding Mats

Zilla Reptile Terrarium Bedding Mats. Available from Amazon.com

Sand is a very popular substrate for Leopard geckos, but should be used with caution or not used at all. If an owner insists on using sand for its natural appeal, coarse grade sands, silica sand and calcium-enriched sands should be avoided. When sand is used as a substrate, stool and activity need to be monitored for signs of sand ingestion.

To make the enclosure floor a little less fragile, layers of newspaper can be used to separate the floor and the substrate layer.

Hiding areas

It is essential to supply adequate hiding areas for Leopard geckos to hide and sleep in. Hide areas can be supplied in the form of custom made decorations and/or commercial hide boxes and caves. In addition to one or more hides, Leopard geckos will also need a humidifying shelter which will aid in the process of skin shedding and in increasing the environmental humidity. A common way to make a humidifying shelter is by using a waterproof plastic container with a hole cut in the lid and a layer of peat/sphagnum moss or vermiculite that is wetted with an equal amount of water as substrate. The substrate should not be soggy wet, but feel moist by touching it.

Required maintenance

Daily maintenance

Feeding (see later), cleaning food and water containers, replacing water, removing of faeces and old food residues. Fortunately, Leopard geckos are defaecatorial, so cleaning their faeces (poop )is relatively easy.

Monthly maintenance

Enclosure cleaning and substrate replacement. Cleaning and sterilisation of enclosure decorations, hiding areas and equipment.

Yearly maintenance

Used electrical equipment, their wiring, switches and plugs should be replaced or inspected and tested by a professional electrician at least twice a year.

The environment

Temperature

Leopard geckos are ectothermic (relying on external heat sources to keep their body temperature at a suitable level) and poikilothermic (having a variable body temperature). The recommended temperature range for Leopard geckos is 25–30 ºC / 77–86 ºF(23) with a drop of about 8 ºC / 46 ºF in the evenings. In the case where these day and night temperatures cannot be supplied naturally, electrical heating equipment will be required.

Electrical under tank heating is commonly used and includes commercially available heat mats, heat pads or heat strips. Overhead electrical heat lamps can also be used as an external heat source in larger enclosures. Some overhead lamps will supply heat and lighting at the same time.

Electrical equipment should be situated in such a way to only emit about a third of the enclosure’s floor surface and should be secured. Direct contact with heating equipment should be prevented. Underfloor heating can be placed under the enclosure or below the substrate. Some sources recommend that under tank heating should not come in direct contact with glass(30).

Tikaton reptile heat mat (variable sizes)

The Tikaton reptile heat mat has build-in temperature control functionality and is available in variable sizes. It is perfect to be used as under-tank heating for Leopard geckos. Available from Amazon.com

Leopard geckos will thermoregulate by moving towards or away from the heat source. Temperatures can be measured by using a thermometer directly on top of the substrate and/or can be controlled using a thermostat. Heat rocks/hot rocks can result in ventral burns(30) and should be avoided.

REPTI ZOO Reptile Terrarium Thermometer

The REPTI ZOO Reptile Terrarium thermometer can read the temperatures in the recommended temperature range of Leopard geckos. Available from Amazon.com

Cold winter conditions force Leopard geckos to brumate(30). During the winter months, a two-month winter brumation period can be stimulated by dropping the temperature to 10 – 18 ºC / 50 – 65 ºF(30).

Lighting

Being crepuscular(50), Leopard geckos spend their days hiding while resuming intermitted activity at dusk and dawn. In some cases, natural room light will be enough, but if not or when the enclosure is used for display purposes (e.g. terrariums), artificial lighting – usually done in the form of overhead electrical lighting – needs to be supplied. Some light bulbs can also be used for heating, but if this is not the case then non-heat emitting light sources such as LEDs, energy savers, fluorescent tubes or low power (<40 Watt) incandescent bulbs can be used.

Lighting can be installed on the inside of cabinets, the inside of aquarium lids or placed on top of a screen mesh lid in the form of an overhead lamp. Optionally, some keepers go as far as installing infrared night lighting that will not affect the normal behavioural patterns of Leopard geckos(52).

Controversy exists over whether Leopard geckos need ultraviolet (UVB) lighting or not. As long as enough vitamin D3 is supplied(30)(32), Leopard geckos do not seem to require UV lighting(30) or they can tolerate the absence of UV lighting(32). One study found that when UV lighting was supplied that Leopard geckos had increased shedding patterns and suffered from signs consistent with sunburn(30). Although this is the case, some authors still recommend it, but at low intensities – i.e. 5%(32)(50). Although evidence also exists that Leopard geckos will benefit from UVB, some authors still do not promote its use(50). The author of this article also does not promote the use of UVB lighting for Leopard geckos. If UVB lighting is used, lower intensities are safer and preferable and keepers must ensure enough hiding and dark areas. The beneficial properties of UVB are lost when it is filtered through glass and plastic. Extra care must be taken with albino, leucistic and other non-pigmented colour morphs.

Day length (photoperiod)

The photoperiod is the amount of time per day that visible light is supplied (i.e. daylight time). In the case where artificial lighting is used, this can either be done by supplying 12 hours of light, or 13 hours during the summer and 11 hours during winter. At night, all visible lighting should be completely dimmed or infrared (IR) lighting can be used. IR lighting is believed not to interfere with the photoperiod of Leopard geckos(52). Both the lighting and heating can follow the same time patterns. Commercially available electrical timers can be used to automate the light cycle and create a more natural environment.

Zoo Med Repticare Day Night Timer

The Zoo Med Repticare Day Night Timer is perfect to control the photoperiod of Leopard geckos. Available from Amazon.com

Environmental enrichment

Leopard geckos are generally happiest when kept in a furnished enclosure. Apart from hides (mentioned earlier), the environment can be enriched with enclosure furniture such as rock, decorative pieces of dried wood, plastic plants, etc.

Fluker's Repta Vines (various types)

Fluker’s Repta Vines (various types). Available from Amazon.com

Feeding

Leopard geckos insectivorous and should be fed every to every other day(30). Crickets and mealworms should be the main foodstuff fed to pet Leopard geckos. Other foods include Dubia roaches and other feeder cockroaches, Phoenix worms, waxworms, silkworms, Trevo worms and sometimes pinkies/nestling mice. Baby Leopard geckos need small to medium-sized insects. The size of the food should be gradually increased according to the size of the Leopard gecko. A good measure of the length of the feeder insects is by using the length of the space between the Leopard geckos eyes.

If the gecko is shy, leave one or two insects in the enclosure until the next morning. Refrain from feeding grasshoppers and Superworms. Fly ants can be collected annually and be fed. Feeding should take place within the enclosure where the Leopard gecko is adapted to the immediate temperature. Feeding platforms and large food bowls will prevent the accidental ingestion of pieces of substrates.

Zoo Med Reptile Rock Water Dish (various sizes)

The Zoo Med Repti Rock water dish comes in variable sizes and is perfect to used as food/water dishes for Leopard geckos. Available from Amazon.com

A shallow water container with clean fresh water should always be available.

Supplementation

Good calcium support for Leopard geckos is vital(30). Feeder insects should be gut-loaded with an appropriate mineral/vitamin supplement and should be dusted two to three times a week with a calcium/vitamin D3 combination powder. Mealworms, waxworms and pinkies are good sources of fat. Because of their fat tails, Leopard geckos can consume a lot of fat to be stored for future emergency use. An ad-lib supply of powdered calcium/vitamin D3 supplement as ‘lick’, should be supplied in a small shallow dish or lid for additional calcium needs.

Handling

Larger, adult Leopard geckos should be handled with two hands. They can be picked-up by scooping one hand under the belly while supporting the rest of the body with the other hand. The Leopard gecko can be allowed to rest on the palm of your hand while your fingers are gently curled over its back.

Baby Leopard geckos can be picked-up by using your hand to make a ‘cage’ around the body. Tame baby Leopard geckos can also be encouraged by a gentle shove to go and sit in your hand before ‘caging’ your fingers around the body.

Health

Common health-related problems in pet Leopard geckos include worm infestations, Cryptosporidium infections, sand impactions and mite infestations. Many health-related issues are due to incorrect husbandry, unhygienic enclosures, improper feeding and insufficient vitamin/mineral supplementation. The spread of infectious and/or contagious diseases can be prevented by quarantining for at least 3 months.

Regular health inspections with a reptile friendly veterinarian are vital in the continual health of pet Leopard geckos.

Conclusion

This article outlines the basics of keeping a pet Leopard gecko. Although it’s a good start, there are many other factors to consider to keep a Leopard gecko healthy and happy. Make sure to follow us to stay up to date with our latest articles.

References

Cited references

For URL links, see the Reference article page.