Guide to Pet Geckos

Geckos are charming pets for the prepared owner

Leopard Gecko
David A. Northcott / Getty Images

The gecko is a small to medium species of lizard that is found in the more temperate and tropical regions of the world. Geckos are more commonly found around the equator and in the southern hemisphere although a few species of gecko are found north of the equator in warmer regions.

Geckos are found in a wide variety of habitats in these warmer parts of the world including rocky deserts, mountains, jungles, rainforests, grasslands and even in urban areas.

They can be rewarding, entertaining pets, but require specific care to ensure they stay healthy.

Geckos vary in size, but usually grow up to 10 inches long; some breeds get up to 20 inches. The average gecko lifespan is six to 10 years, but many males live 10 to 20 years.

Behavior and Temperament of Geckos

There are thought to be over 2,000 different species of gecko found around the world and it is widely believed that there are more species of gecko that are yet to be discovered. Geckos are found in a wide variety of colors and have various different markings on their bodies depending on the species of gecko.

Most geckos are nocturnal, which means they are active at night. (don't plan to keep your gecko's cage in your bedroom, because they may wake you up). There are some varieties of gecko that are active during the day, including the aptly named day gecko. They're not terribly vocal, but some geckos make noises such as chirping, barking, and clicking when they are defending their territory or attracting a mate.

They're not usually aggressive unless two males are housed together. It's best to separate male geckos, because they may attack each other with little warning. 

For the most part, geckos are pleasant, docile pets. Most of them prefer not to be handled by humans too frequently; it can cause them stress which can result in health problems. It's rare for a gecko to bite, but there are some breeds that do, such as the tokay. If a tokay gecko sinks its teeth in, it can be painful.

Geckos come in a variety of beautiful patterns/colors depending on the species. The gecko most commonly kept as a pet is the leopard gecko; it’s a good starter reptile that’s also popular with experienced owners. 

Housing a Gecko

Geckos need to be kept in tanks that have branches available for climbing, and plants of some kind (artificial can be used). Most geckos will spend nearly all of their time climbing. It's important to provide hiding spots for a pet gecko; use materials like cork bark or half logs, and choose hide spots base on the size of your gecko. 

To line your gecko's cage, use substrate such as coconut husk or orchid bark, both of which retain moisture and will not be harmful to your gecko if ingested. Paper towels can also be used, but try to use paper towels that have not been bleached or that have ink designs on them. 

Be sure your tank has a secure lid because geckos are strong and will try to escape if they have the chance. 

Heating 

Aim for temperatures between 70 and 90 degrees in your gecko's tank. For most breeds, no UVB-emitting bulbs are necessary (as they are with some other reptiles) since most geckos are nocturnal. An incandescent bulb can be used for heat during the day, but a nocturnal reptile bulb or ceramic element should be used at night.

Humidity in a gecko's enclosure should be kept at about 70 percent by misting, but don't let it drop under 50 percent. 

Feeding and Care

Leopard geckos do not eat plants or vegetables - live insects are a must. The best food to use is mealworms or crickets, but you can treat your pet to waxworms or superworms once a week if you wish.

All insects must be first given a nutritious powdered diet for at least 12 hours before being fed to your leopard gecko. This process is called "gut loading,” and it is very important to the health of your pet. Leopard geckos are long-lived compared to some reptiles. 

However, as always, know what you are getting and what will be needed to provide a good home for a gecko. The requirements and difficulty of care will vary with different species, as will temperament.

Never grab a gecko by the tail, as they will often drop their tails (a natural defense against predators). If this should happen, however, don't worry. It will grow back, although it may have a different shape and/or color. The gecko should be well fed and ideally separated from any cage mates until the tail has regrown.

Common Health Problems

Like most lizards, geckos are susceptible to stomatitis, also called mouth rot. It's as gross as it sounds, and needs to be treated as early as possible. You'll notice a reddish discoloration around the gecko's mouth, and possibly an ooze that looks like cottage cheese, which is pus. 

A gecko that is wheezing or drooling may have a respiratory infection. Geckos also are frequently afflicted with parasitic infections, both internally and on the surface of their skin. Parasitic infections on the skin will look like a red rash; you also may notice your gecko has trouble shedding. 

Internal parasites, which usually need to be diagnosed by a veterinarian can cause sluggishness, changes in appetite, and unusual droppings. 

All of these conditions are treatable if caught early. If you're planning to get a gecko, make sure you. 

Choosing Your Gecko

If you want a pet gecko, it's best to acquire one from a reputable breeder. You should aim for a captive-bred gecko; if you take in a wild-caught gecko you won't know what diseases or ailments it may be carrying. 

Look for a gecko that has clear eyes, skin without dry patches, and a healthy appetite (try to watch it eat if you can, to ensure it doesn't refuse food). If you're very careful, the best way to determine a gecko's health is to pick it up. Most breeds will try to nip or bite you because this annoys them, so be sure to hold it behind its head.

In general, gecko bites are relatively small affairs, but the larger breeds may be able to afflict some damage, so be cautious. And be gentle so you don't stress out the gecko too much.

Different Species of Gecko

If you're interested in pet geckos, here are a few breeds to consider: