Tail injuries and tail loss are frequently seen in Leopard geckos. They are often the result of falling, crashing and fighting injuries.
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The tail is the prolonged section extending past the attachment of the back legs. In Leopard geckos, the tail is partially flexible and its main purpose is to store fats and to aid in communication with other Leopard geckos. The tails of Leopard geckos can also act as a protection mechanism by being expelled in the case of danger.
The innermost structure of the tail consists of vertebrae (called the caudal vertebrae) which is an extension of the spinal cord. When a section of the tail breaks off, it usually happens at a section between two vertebrae.
Leopard geckos can injure their tails, which can lead to it being broken off. The tail can also be expelled spontaneously.
Tail injuries in Leopard geckos
The tails of Leopard geckos are can be injured in a couple of ways. Although tail injuries in Leopard geckos are not frequently seen and/or is not frequently a major problem, preventative and management measures could aid in minimising the risk for complications.
A Leopard gecko’s tail can be injured in any of the following ways:
- Pulling or twisting from incorrect handling
- Bites from other Leopard geckos
- Dropping the tail (autotomy)
- Falling from a height
- Crushing between enclosure furniture or the door of the enclosure
- Constriction from dry non-shedded pieces of skin
Many tail injuries in Leopard geckos will result in the loss of the tail. The entire tail, or only a part thereof, can break off. Fortunately, when this happens, the tails of Leopard geckos are designed to withstand serious complications such as infections, pain and severe blood loss. In many cases, the tail will grow back.
‘Tail dropping’ in Leopard geckos (also known as autotomy or autoamputation(32)) is when the tail is cast-off in the case of danger. An example of this is in the case of being chased/attacked by a predator. Autotomy is a natural protection mechanism for Leopard geckos. Although this probably happens more frequently as a result of a physical insult on the tail itself (e.g. the tail being grabbed or bitten), Leopard geckos can spontaneously drop their tails too.
A Leopard gecko’s tail has fracture points and muscles that connect the tail with the spine. Fracture points have weaker connections between them and will break more easily than the rest of the spine. This allows the tail to break more easily in certain areas with less trauma and consequences.
When in danger, the tail muscles will contract which cause enough pressure for the closest fracture point to separate — causing the tail to fall off at that point. After a Leopard gecko dropped its tail, the constriction of the muscles will restrict blood loss and fold over the exposed spinal area to serve as protection.
First aid for Leopard geckos with tail injuries
Although doing nothing will often yield similar results, there are a few things Leopard gecko owners can do in the case where the tail has been injured and/or has broken off. Surgical intervention or excessive interference often causes more damage in the form of delayed healing and hindering the tail’s regeneration(32). The main aim during this period is to stop the bleeding, prevent infection and to allow the Leopard gecko to rest while recovering.
The first thing to do in the case of a Leopard gecko tail injury is to separate/isolate it from other Leopard geckos. It is best to transfer the injured Leopard gecko to a clean, separate enclosure. The isolation enclosure should be cleaned and disinfected frequently.
Droppings should be removed daily. The best substrates to use in isolation enclosures are news- or brown butcher paper. To reduce the risk for infection even further, the enclosure should be disinfected with a disinfectant that is safe to be used in Leopard geckos.
Isolation should continue until the tail wound has fully closed up(32).
The remaining stump will bleed very little but appears as an open wound(32). In the rare cases where there is still active bleeding shortly after the injury has happened, light pressure can be applied using clean non-sticking cotton wool or wound dressing. It is important to handle the Leopard gecko securely, but correctly during this period. Pressure should be applied until the bleeding has stopped. In these cases, further consultation with a reptile friendly is highly advised and can be life-saving.
Allow the injured Leopard gecko to rest. Reduce handling to a minimum.
Recovering from tail injuries
It can take five to eight weeks for a lost tail to fully recover(32). After healing of the wound has taken place (seen as the formation of a knob within 3 to 4 weeks after the injury), the tail tissue will start to enlarge and grow into more or less the old tail structure. Some tails will be shorter than the original one.
After the injured tail has grown back, a fairly distinctive line will be visible where the tail has broken off. The original bony vertebrae will grow back in the form of cartilage(57).
During the recovery period, injured Leopard geckos should be handled as little as possible. Handling should be restricted to moving between containers for cleaning purposes and too quick, close inspections. The feeding of free-roaming crickets should be avoided as it may cause further trauma to the open wound(32).
For a Leopard gecko not having a tail means not having additional fat and water reserves(32). As the tail grows back, the Leopard gecko needs to replenish its fat reserves. This makes it very important to feed injured Leopard geckos dayly(32). During this period both foods high in protein (e.g. crickets and silkworms) and in fat (e.g. mealworms) should be offered. Crickets can be offered by assist feeding.
During the recovery period, guidance from a reptile friendly veterinarian will always have benefits. A veterinarian can help prevent and address complications and can often help with additional medicines that might be needed.
Owners often see tail-loss injuries in Leopard geckos. Common causes include incorrect handling and other tail injuries. Fortunately, a lost tail will grow back over time and basic isolation and good hygiene practices will allow a speedy recovery. When a Leopard gecko has lost its tail, owners need to make sure they are being fed every day.
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