Some species of geckos, like leopard geckos, have an interesting defense mechanism where they will "drop" their tail when they feel threatened or you grab their tail. Tail loss can also happen for a number of other reasons and tends to be more common in younger geckos.
Tail dropping is a natural phenomenon and your gecko should come through it just fine. While the tail is growing back, however, there are a few things you can do to ensure it does so in the healthiest way.
Why Do Geckos Drop Their Tail?
Many gecko owners are surprised by a tail drop when they try to grab their gecko by the tail or hold too tightly when the gecko is 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. If your gecko drops their tail, it is important not to panic.
Though it is a natural process, tail dropping will put stress on a gecko, and potentially impact its health. For this reason, it's important that you look at the circumstances that led up to it so you can try to correct any problems for the future.
In the wild, this tail loss has a very good purpose. The movement distracts potential predators and allows the gecko to get away while the predator is left with just the tail.
In captivity, the gecko is relatively safe. However, it is possible that other geckos are bullying one gecko, which could trigger the defense mechanism. If you have more than one in an enclosure, it's a good idea to separate the potential victim, hopefully before they lose a tail.
Tail Gets Stuck
Whether it was a little too curious or just got caught in the wrong place, it is possible for a gecko's tail to get stuck or trapped by something in the cage. Whenever you set up a new enclosure, try to avoid very tight places and any potential falling objects that can do harm to your gecko. It's also a good idea to do a safety check periodically, which is a good habit to get into on cleaning day.
Stress and Fear
Both stress and fear can go along with the feeling of being threatened or bullied, but they can be separate as well. Loud noises, bright lights, or other startling things, for example, can affect your gecko's well-being and potentially lead to tail dropping.
Additionally, the environmental conditions of the gecko's enclosure can be a source of stress that could contribute to tail loss. For the healthiest geckos, ensure the temperature and humidity are in the optimal range.
Illness and Infection
If no other cause can be found for your gecko's tail drop, it may be due to an illness or infection. Whether the infection directly affects the tail area or is just a stress-related symptom to an unrelated illness, it's best to call your vet.
How It Happens
Tail dropping is a type of defense called autotomy. Many other animals exhibit this behavior, so the term is used anytime an animal drops a body part.
Gecko tails are specifically designed to drop. Inside the tail is a special connective tissue that creates a location where it can readily break off when needed. When this happens, 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 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 it 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.
Usually, geckos deal with tail loss well on their own. However, there are a few things that you can do to ensure the whole process of loss and regrowth goes smoothly:
- Use paper towels instead of bedding after your gecko drops their tail. Loose bedding can get into the body 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 maintain cleanliness.
- Isolate a gecko with tail loss from other geckos. Other geckos may bully a gecko that has dropped their tail even if they have always lived with them.
- Watch the tail stump for signs of infection. Consult your exotics vet if there is any swelling, redness, or discharge at the site of the tail loss.
- Evaluate the environmental temperatures and humidity to make sure your gecko's enclosure is ideal. Tail loss and regrowth is a stressful time for geckos and you will want to make sure conditions are as comfortable as possible during the healing process.
- Make sure your gecko is eating well. After the loss of a tail, you can increase the amount of food you normally feed them since the stress can cause your gecko to deplete their fat storage. However, make sure crickets (or other prey items) that are not eaten within 15 minutes are removed from the tank, otherwise they may try to nibble on your gecko's tail site.