Some species of geckos, like leopard geckos, have an interesting defense mechanism where they will "drop" their tail when they feel threatened. Many gecko owners see this happen when they try to grab their gecko by the tail, or if they are holding them too tightly when they are trying to escape. The dropped tail will actually wiggle and twitch on the ground as though it were still attached to the body of the gecko. In the wild, this tail loss and movement distract potential predators and allows the gecko to get away while the predator is left with just the tail.
Being grabbed or threatened aren't the only reasons a gecko might drop their tail. Tail loss can also happen for a number of other reasons and tends to be more common in younger geckos. Some other reasons for a tail to be dropped are:
- Being bullied by other geckos in the same cage
- Tail getting stuck or trapped in something in the cage
How Does a Gecko Drop Their Tail?
Tail dropping is a type of defense called autotomy (many other animals also exhibit this behavior) and if your gecko drops their tail it is important not to panic. Gecko tails are designed to do this and have special connective tissue inside them that creates a location where the tail breaks off readily. If a gecko drops their tail, the blood vessels to the tail will constrict and very little blood loss occurs. This is helpful if you are trying to tell if your gecko dropped their tail, or if they lost it due to trauma because very little blood will be found if it was dropped.
Eventually, a gecko that drops their tail will regrow a new one but this new tail won't look exactly the same. The new tail is usually shorter, colored differently, and blunter at the end than the original one, but it can vary from species to species.
What Should You Do if Your Gecko Drops Their Tail?
Usually, geckos deal with tail loss well but there are a few things that you can do to ensure the whole process of tail loss and regrowth goes smoothly:
- Use paper towels instead of bedding after your gecko drops their tail. Loose bedding can get into the body from where the tail was attached and lead to infections. Switching the substrate to paper towels until the tail is regrown can help keep this tail area clean. Change the paper towels often to keep up with the cleanliness.
- Isolate a gecko with tail loss from other geckos. Other geckos may bully a gecko that has dropped their tail even if they always live with them.
- Watch the tail stump for signs of infection and consult your exotics vet if there is any swelling, redness, or discharge at the site of the tail loss.
- Evaluate your environmental temperatures and humidity to make sure the enclosure in which your gecko lives is ideal. Tail loss and regrowth is stressful to your gecko and you want to make sure conditions are ideal. An improper environment can be a source of stress that could contribute to tail loss in the first place.
- Make sure your gecko is eating well. After the loss of a tail, you can increase up the amount of food you normally feed since the tail loss is stressful and your gecko will deplete their fat storage. However, make sure crickets (or other prey items) not eaten within 15 minutes are removed from the tank otherwise they may try to nibble on your gecko's tail site.
Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT