Leopard Gecko: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Leopard Gecko

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A popular beginner's reptile, the leopard gecko, is an easily handled, small lizard from Afghanistan, Pakistan, northwest India, and Iran. Compared to other lizards, they require minimal care. They have perky personalities and make movements that are interesting to watch. Leopard geckos are commonly yellow, white, and spotted with black dots. Hatchlings are striped and gradually change to the spotted appearance. There are several colorful and patterned morphs or variations. Certain colors are more desired and valuable, while the typical wild-type or normal coloration is readily available and most affordable.

Species Overview

Common Name: Leopard gecko

Scientific Name: Eublepharis macularius

Adult Size: 8 to 10 inches including tails

Life Expectancy: 20 or more years in captivity

Leopard Gecko Behavior and Temperament

Leopard geckos, affectionately called leos, are generally easy to care for. They do not require a lot of cage maintenance, and they are hardy and forgiving if their environment is not perfect.

Leopard geckos are nocturnal, ground-dwelling geckos that are generally docile and easy to tame. They do not have the sticky toe pads like other geckos, so they do not climb walls, but unlike other geckos, they do have eyelids.

Leopard geckos are not prone to biting and are usually slow-moving. They are known to be very vocal, especially when they are hungry, and they make chirps and squeaks.

When you first bring home your leopard gecko, you can socialize it by gently handling it. They will tolerate a certain amount of contact, but don't overdo it, or your leopard gecko may become stressed. 

Geckos use their tails to communicate. If you have more than one leopard gecko in an enclosure, keep an eye out for tail-waving. It's a slow, back-and-forth motion. The gecko often raises it, too. This sign means a leopard gecko feels threatened and is about to attack, so separate them right away. 

Leopard geckos also are tail rattlers, similar to rattlesnakes. If you see your gecko rattle the tip of its tail rapidly, that means your leopard gecko is excited to eat or to mate.

And just like a lot of other lizards, when they feel threatened, leopard geckos can self-amputate their tails as a defense mechanism.

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Housing the Leopard Gecko

A 15- to 20-gallon tank is large enough for two to three leopard geckos, but there should only be one male per habitat, and only keep males and females together if you want to deal with breeding. Old fish tanks that don't hold water anymore also work perfectly well for leopard geckos.

Provide half logs as hiding and climbing space. Commercial reptile caves and simple cardboard boxes are also good options. A damp hide box can help with shedding.

Spot clean the cage once a day to remove feces. About once a month, take everything out, throw out the substrate, and scrub and disinfect the cage and all the items in it to reduce the buildup of bacteria.

Heat

You can use a regular white light incandescent heat bulb to provide a basking spot during the day. A red heat bulb, blue, or purple heat bulb, or ceramic heat emitter can provide supplemental heat at night.

Undertank heating pads work for heating, but they may not be the most effective for regulating your gecko's temperatures properly. If your gecko burrows down to the glass surface of the tank, an undertank heating pad might cause burns. Never use hot rocks.

As coldblooded creatures, reptiles need to regulate their own body temperature. Reptiles like a range of temperature or thermal gradient, so they can adjust their body warmth. Provide a daytime basking spot of 88 degrees Fahrenheit (31 degrees Celsius) with a thermal gradient down to about 75 Fahrenheit (around 24 Celsius). At night the temperature can drop to a range of 70 to 75 Fahrenheit (21 to 24 Celsius). Make sure your gecko is not exposed to any drafts, and do not place the tank next to a window or door.

Light

Being nocturnal, leopard geckos are most active at night and do not require a lot of UV lighting. In the wild, these creatures are also active at dawn and sunset and get UV exposure at those hours of scant sunlight. A small amount of UVA and UVB light (2% to 7%) can go a long way to keeping leopard geckos healthy and may reduce the risk of metabolic bone disease.

Your lizard will need incandescent lighting and heat from that source to mimic the sunlight. In the summer, give them about 14 hours of "sun" per day. And, in winter, the lizard will need about 12 hours of that light. For ease of care, you can automate the cage lighting by putting the lights on a timer.

Humidity

These lizards are a desert lizard, so they do not need a highly humid environment. If the humidity is too low (below 20%), the gecko might have trouble shedding. Keep the humidity level about 30% to 40%, which is similar to the humidity level in your home. You can use a regular screen top, coupled with the heat source, to keep the environment dry. To check on the humidity level, get a hygrometer or humidity gauge for the cage.

Substrate

Young leopard geckos shouldn't be kept on a sand substrate, even if it is calcium sand. They may ingest the sand and suffer an intestinal blockage. Paper is absorbent and easy to change, and indoor/outdoor carpet works well, too.

Avoid wood shavings, since they can cut your gecko's tiny feet. The volatile oils in the wood shavings may be irritating. Whatever substrate you use, make sure your gecko is not ingesting it.

Food and Water

Leopard geckos are insectivores. Feed a variety of crickets, waxworms, and, in moderation, mealworms. On occasion, you can try to feed a pinky mouse to an adult gecko. To make sure that your gecko does not ingest any substrate, you can feed your gecko in an empty tank.

Juveniles need to be fed several crickets every day. Adults can skip several days between feedings. Before you feed the insects to your pet, they must be gut-loaded or fed a nutritious meal 24 hours before feeding. You will also need to coat the insects with a calcium/vitamin D3 supplement before you feed them to your lizard. To do so, put the crickets or worms in a ziplock bag with some of the powder supplement. Shake the bag quickly and drop the insect into the tank with your lizard. Hatchlings and juveniles need the calcium/vitamin supplement at every feeding; adults only need it at every other feeding.

Provide a shallow dish of fresh water for your leopard gecko at all times. The water bowl will help add some humidity to the enclosure, and your gecko will drink from the bowl. You may even find a gecko voluntarily soaking in its water bowl.

Common Health Problems

One of the most severe conditions that can affect leopard geckos is metabolic bone disease. Just like humans, geckos become ill if they don't get enough calcium and vitamin D. Metabolic bone disease causes painful spine and limb deformities. Signs of this disease include poor appetite and tremors. 

If you notice your gecko developing armpit bubbles, these are not dangerous. They are a sign that your lizard is storing something. These bubbles can contain fat, vitamins, protein, calcium, or other minerals and are common in overweight geckos. Usually, these bubbles go away when the lizard returns to a healthy weight.

Leopard geckos also are prone to gastroenteritis, which comes from a bacterial infection. If your gecko has watery stools or its tail shrinks, these may be signs of gastroenteritis. This condition is potentially fatal but is treatable if caught early.

And like other lizards, leopard geckos that are undernourished or live in a cage with insufficient moisture may develop dysecdysis. This condition, which looks like dry skin, causes the gecko to have difficulty shedding and can affect its vision. 

Finally, leopard geckos are susceptible to a variety of respiratory infections, including pneumonia. Wheezing or bubbles of mucus around its nasal passages and mouth are a sign that your leopard gecko is having respiratory problems. 

All of these conditions should receive treatment from an exotics veterinarian who specializes in reptiles.

illustration of leopard geckos as pets
Illustration: Nusha Ashjaee. © The Spruce, 2018

Choosing Your Leopard Gecko

Since they are long-lived lizards, be sure you're prepared to care for a leopard gecko for an extended time. These highly popular pets are readily available, but it's always best to purchase geckos from a reputable breeder which can cost $20 to $40. Rare morphs may cost up to $100. You might be able to find a good reptile breeder at a reptile expo or reptile show near you.

When choosing your pet, look at its tail. It should be plump and fat, preferably as wide or wider than the space between the gecko's shoulders. Its eyes, nose, and mouth should appear clear and not runny. It's vent, or opening for urinating and defecating, should look clean and not swollen.

Different Species of Geckos

If you are interested in pet geckos, check out:

Otherwise, check out other types of reptiles and amphibians that can be your new pet.