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How to Care for Your Leopard Gecko

How to Care for Your Leopard Gecko

 

Introduction

Leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius) are mid-sized, nocturnal, terrestrial lizards native to semi-desert and arid grassland areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and surrounding countries.

Leopard geckos have stout bodies, short limbs, long, narrow digits, a large head, and plump, segmented tails. Unlike most other geckos, they do not have sticky toe pads, and they do have eyelids. Their normal pattern is mustard yellow with copious black spots, hence its common name. However, selective breeding in captivity, however, has resulted in a large variety of patterns and colors (“morphs”).

Leopard geckos are generally docile, tolerant of humans, and fairly hardy. This makes them a good choice for beginners or people looking for a lizard that doesn’t mind handling.

Enclosure

How much space do leopard geckos need?

A single leopard gecko should be housed in no smaller than a 36”L x 18”W x 18”H enclosure, or a 40 gallon tank. Many sources recommend 20 gallons, or even as small as just 10 gallons, but these recommendations are based on outdated standards. 36” x 18” x 18” are the minimum dimensions recommended by experts, although some take it further and recommend 36” x 24” x 24” instead.

In other words, 40 gallons is the minimum, but if you can provide a larger enclosure, they will appreciate it!

Can leopard geckos be kept together?

Cohabitation (keeping multiple leopard geckos in the same terrarium) is not recommended, and may result in fighting if attempted. This is particularly the case for males housed together, but housing a male with a female is also not recommended due to the fact that the male is likely to harass the female excessively.

Can leopard geckos be kept in tubs?

You may have seen people on YouTube who keep dozens of leopard geckos in plastic tubs on shelves. This may seem convenient, and even the pinnacle of keeping leopard geckos as pets. After all, at first glance, the geckos seem happy and healthy enough. And what more could they need? They’re small, terrestrial, and nocturnal. 

But the fact of the matter is that tub/rack systems are simply not enough to fulfill the minimum requirements for acceptable welfare in leopard geckos. Leopard geckos kept in tubs long-term are more likely to suffer from muscle weakness, obesity, and related health complaints.

Leopard gecko quarantine procedure

Note that it’s best to quarantine your new leopard gecko first. Quarantine is the practice of keeping an animal isolated and under sterile conditions in order to reduce the potential spread of disease. 

Even if you don’t have other reptiles that could potentially get infected by anything the gecko might be carrying, maintaining quarantine conditions for the first 3-6 months will enable you to more easily monitor for concerning symptoms and more easily treat them as well. You can do this with the enclosure that you plan to keep the gecko in long-term, or you can do this with a large plastic tub. As long as it is set up appropriately, a tub can make appropriate short-term quarantine housing.

Some rules for successful leopard gecko quarantine:

  • Keep the gecko in a separate room from other reptiles.
  • Do not use the same equipment for the new gecko as for your other reptiles.
  • Fully disinfect the enclosure weekly.
  • Get the gecko checked by an experienced reptile veterinarian and treated for parasites if needed.
  • Observe for symptoms of disease or illness.

A leopard gecko should be completely healthy before being transferred out of quarantine to its long-term setup.

Lighting

Do leopard geckos need UVB?

Leopard geckos are crepuscular, which means that they are most active at night, particularly around dusk. Technically leopard geckos can survive without UVB lighting as long as they get supplemented with vitamin D3, but the fact remains that they can’t thrive without it. Aside from helping provide a day/night cycle, UVB is also good for your gecko’s overall wellbeing.

It’s best to provide low-strength UVB lighting as part of your gecko’s enclosure. The best UVB bulbs for leopard geckos housed in a 36x18x18 terrarium are:

  • Arcadia Forest 6%, 18”
  • Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO 5.0, 12”

The UVB bulb should be housed in a reflective T5 HO fixture such as the Arcadia ProT5 or Vivarium Electronics. Place the fixture on the basking side along with the heat lamp. The basking area should be 12-14” below the lamp to give your gecko the right amount of UVB.

UVB is blocked by glass and plastic, so you can’t give your gecko UVB by placing its terrarium in front of an open window. This can also make your enclosure dangerously hot by creating a greenhouse effect! Also make sure that the fixture your UVB bulb is in does not have a clear plastic or glass bulb cover.

Lights should be on for 10 hours/day during winter, and 14 hours/day during summer to simulate seasonal changes in day length. Alternatively, you can use a smart timer to sync your gecko’s lights to your local sunrise and sunset times.

How to measure UVB for a leopard gecko

UVB strength is measured by UV Index, or UVI. This is most accurately done with a device called a Solarmeter 6.5. When you hold the Solarmeter vertically on the basking area at the height of the gecko’s back, the device should read between 1.0-2.0.

Factors such as the density of the mesh over your enclosure and the exact fixture you’re using can affect exactly what basking distance is needed to achieve the right UVI.

Does light blind leopard geckos?

A common concern expressed about using lights in a leopard gecko enclosure is that their eyes will be damaged, and they may even go blind. This is a myth and nothing to really worry about. Although leopard geckos are crepuscular and more sensitive to light than lizards that are primarily active during the day, they’re perfectly capable of handling exposure to sunlight in the wild, and sunlight is much brighter than reptile lamps.

What about leopard geckos with red eyes? It’s true that these geckos are particularly sensitive to light, so using plant grow lights in your setup might be more irritating to them. However, the most important thing is to provide plenty of shade opportunities. As long as plenty of shade is available, the gecko will be able to photoregulate according to its own needs.

Heating

What basking temperatures do leopard geckos need?

Leopard geckos should have a basking surface temperature of 94-97°F, as measured by a digital probe thermometer with the probe placed on the basking surface. Warm hide temperature should be between 90-92°F. There should also be a cooler area on the opposite side of the enclosure that stays between 70-77°F. 

Provide heat for your gecko by imitating the sun with a halogen heat lamp placed on one side of the enclosure. Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective. Place the gecko’s warm hideout/cave below the heat lamp. 

For best results, the basking surface should be a flat piece of rock like flagstone or paver stone. The rock also creates a natural source of “belly heat”. This rock should be placed on top of a black plastic box hide to create the warm hide.

Heat sources should be turned off at night. Nighttime temperatures can drop as low as 60°F.

How to make a warm hide

Leopard geckos are crepuscular, which means that they’re primarily active at night, and sleep during the day. This also means that they are not active baskers. While they occasionally bask out in the open, it’s important to also provide a secondary “basking” location where the gecko can warm up during the day while staying hidden.

The warm hide should act like a burrow that gets warmed by the sun during the day and retains a gentle warmth for the gecko to use as needed. If the heat lamp is not enough to get the warm hide to an appropriate temperature, use a heat mat connected to a thermostat to control the warm hide temperature. The heat mat should be slightly smaller than the hide itself, and the thermostat probe should be placed inside the warm hide.

Heat lamps vs heat mats

Heat mats have been historically the most popular method of providing warmth to nocturnal, terrestrial lizards, and they can work as a primary heat source in undersized enclosures. However, the fact of the matter is that they often fail to warm the air in appropriately large and well-ventilated enclosures, increasing the risk of the gecko getting burned by excessively prolonged basking. Heat lamps are far more effective at both warming the surfaces beneath them and increasing the air temperature of the enclosure.

Some assert that heat mats are necessary because leopard geckos require “belly heat” in order to digest properly. This is a myth. Heating from above can be just as, if not more, effective in promoting healthy digestion and metabolism in nocturnal species as heating from below.

Humidity

What humidity levels do leopard geckos need?

Leopard geckos need a low-humidity environment with access to a humid microclimate for best health. Average humidity should be 30-40%, as measured by a digital probe hygrometer with the probe in the middle of the terrarium. However, you will also need to provide a humid hideout lined with moistened substrate or sphagnum moss and placed in the middle of the enclosure.

How to make a humid hide

Keeping a humid retreat available for your gecko available at all times is important to keeping them well-hydrated. The humid hide in your enclosure will function as a burrow would in the wild, offering a cozy, secure spot for your pet to hang out while minimizing the risk of dehydration. It is especially essential for a gecko preparing to shed its skin.

Use an enclosed, easily washable container for your humid hide. There are many attractive pre-made options for humid hides, such as the Exo Terra Gecko Cave and the Zilla Rock Lair. For a DIY solution, try a tupperware container with a hole cut out for an entrance. This should be lined either with a dampened paper towel or sphagnum moss to create humid conditions inside the hide. Paper towel should be replaced every 1-3 days, and sphagnum moss needs to be changed out every 2-4 weeks.

Will humidity give your leopard gecko a respiratory infection?

Although leopard geckos are commonly perceived as a desert species, that doesn’t mean they can live without water, or that they require bone-dry conditions. In fact, this is a good way to make your pet severely dehydrated! This is one of the reasons why conditions such as impaction and gout are common complaints with this species.

Only being exposed to consistently wet conditions with poor hygiene, poor ventilation, and/or low temperatures is likely to cause a respiratory infection in leopard geckos because this increases pathogen concentration and weakens their immune system. 

Substrate

What substrate is good for leopard geckos?

Substrate covers the floor of your gecko’s terrarium and helps make the enclosure more attractive, but it also helps maintain higher humidity levels and provides something for your gecko to dig in. Solid substrates like slate tile and terrarium mats are popular because of the common myth that geckos will get impacted if housed on a “loose”-type substrate (this only happens when the animal is already unhealthy due to poor husbandry). If you’re nervous, you can certainly use a solid substrate, but they have some significant disadvantages:

  • Solid substrates need to be scrubbed frequently
  • Solid substrates don’t cushion the animal’s joints
  • Solid substrates offer no enrichment value

It’s ideal to use a substrate that imitates the “substrate” that the reptile naturally lives on in the wild. For leopard geckos, that means it should be sand or sandy soil. It should have small particles, hold moisture well, and be loose enough to dig in.

We recommend the following substrates for leopard geckos:

Substrate should be at least 4” deep and completely replaced every 3-4 months. Remove poop and urates daily, along with contaminated substrate.

Is sand safe for leopard geckos?

Solid substrates like slate tile and terrarium mats are popular in the leopard gecko community because of the common myth that leopard geckos will get impacted if housed on a “loose”-type substrate (this only happens when the gecko is already unhealthy due to poor husbandry). If you’re nervous, you can certainly use a solid substrate, but they have some significant disadvantages:

  • Solid substrates need to be scrubbed or replaced frequently
  • Solid substrates don’t cushion your gecko’s joints
  • Solid substrates offer no enrichment value

It’s ideal to use a substrate that imitates the “substrate” that leopard geckos naturally live on in the wild. And in the wild, they are known to live on rock, sand, sandy soil, or even dry forest floor. Yes, wild leopard geckos may occasionally accidentally ingest small amounts of substrate, but they’re perfectly capable of passing it.

In other words, natural sand is perfectly safe for use as a substrate for healthy leopard geckos. However, avoid sand “substitutes” like calcium sand, vitamin sand, crushed walnut, etc!

How to clean a leopard gecko enclosure

When you replace your leopard gecko’s substrate, this is also a good opportunity to completely clean out the entire enclosure:

  1. Remove your gecko from the enclosure and place inside a temporary, escape-proof holding container. 
  2. Remove all substrate and décor.
  3. Vacuum and wipe down the enclosure to remove leftover particles.
  4. Apply a reptile-safe disinfectant to the floor and walls of the enclosure and let sit for the disinfectant’s recommended contact time.
  5. Meanwhile, soak branches, rocks, hides, and other decor in a disinfectant rated for porous materials for the recommended contact time.
  6. If required, rinse the enclosure and the accessories with clean water to remove disinfectant residue. Allow everything to dry.
  7. Pour new substrate into the enclosure. Mix in water until uniformly moistened but not wet.
  8. Arrange décor.
  9. Reintroduce your gecko to the clean setup.

F10SC, CleanBreak, and bleach solution (1:10 dilution) can be used for disinfecting porous materials. The same can be used for nonporous materials, although the concentration of bleach solution should be changed to 1:50.

Can leopard geckos have a bioactive setup?

Yes! 

As a semi-arid species, leopard geckos are definitely compatible with bioactive when it’s done properly. Bioactive setups can work great with leopard geckos because it gives them plenty of substrate to dig in and a more diverse humidity gradient. Plus, bioactive eliminates the need for routine total cleanouts, tends to have a fresh, earthy smell; and is generally very attractive to look at.

On the other hand, bioactive setups can be inconvenient with leopard geckos because the vivarium needs at least one month to get established before adding the lizard, and CUC critters are likely to get routinely eaten. Moisture levels can also get dangerously high if the enclosure is not well ventilated or if you use plants with high watering requirements. Setting up a bioactive enclosure is also usually more expensive than other options, and it’s best practice to partially replace the substrate on a regular basis to help reduce pathogen concentration and keep the soil healthy.

To create a bioactive setup for your leopard gecko, you will need all of the usual supplies mentioned in this article, as well as:

  • bioactive-ready desert substrate mix
  • clean leaf litter
  • live, nontoxic succulents
  • semi-arid CUC (Clean Up Crew) organisms to maintain the soil

If it’s your first time setting up a bioactive vivarium, it’s best to use a commercial bioactive substrate mix, such as Bio Dude or Josh’s Frogs, rather than mixing your own, as this reduces your likelihood of error. Appropriate CUC for a leopard gecko vivarium include dwarf white isopods, powder orange/blue isopods, springtails, mealworms, superworms, and death-feigning blue beetles.

Décor

What décor can you use in a leopard gecko terrarium?

It’s terribly boring for a gecko to be stuck in an enclosure with nothing in it except substrate and food/water bowls. It doesn’t matter how big the enclosure is if you don’t put things in it for your pet to use and interact with. 

At bare minimum, you will need three “caves” for the gecko to hide in. However, it’s best to include other items, such as:

What live plants can be used with leopard geckos?

Leopard geckos are insectivorous, so they’re not likely to nibble any live plants you decide to use, but their CUC and feeders might. It’s safest to use only nontoxic plants in the enclosure for this reason. To prevent injury, they must also be spineless. Here are a few options that work well in a brightly-lit, moderate- to low-moisture environment:

  • Aloe
  • Christmas cactus
  • Echeveria
  • Elephant feed
  • Festuca grass
  • Gasteria
  • Haworthia
  • Iceplant
  • Jade plant
  • Mother of pearl plant
  • Opuntia (spineless variety)
  • Sempervivum

Note that larger plants are usually sturdier and more resilient.

Food

What do leopard geckos eat?

Leopard geckos are insectivorous, which means that they need a diet of insects in order to get the nutrition that their bodies need. How often these geckos need to eat depends on age: Juveniles should be fed daily, and young adults fed every other day/every 3 days. Adults whose tail is fatter than their neck can be fed every 5 days.

One meal should be 2 appropriately-sized bugs per 1 inch of your leopard gecko’s length, or however much they can eat in 15 minutes.

Feeder insect options for leopard geckos

Here is a list of leopard gecko feeder insects that you can use as part of your feeding rotation:

Do leopard geckos need dietary supplements?

You will also need calcium and vitamin supplements to prevent your gecko from developing a deficiency. We recommend Repashy Calcium Plus LoD, lightly dusted on all of your gecko’s feeder insects.

How to provide drinking water for your leopard gecko

Of course, don’t forget a small water bowl for your gecko to drink from! Change the water daily and scrub the bowl with a reptile-safe disinfectant weekly, or whenever it becomes soiled.

Handling

Do leopard geckos like to be handled?

Few reptiles actually “like” to be held, but leopard geckos tolerate it well. Don’t grab the gecko from above — instead, approach from the side and scoop from below. Support as much of its body as possible, especially its feet. Start with very short handling sessions in the beginning, then gradually make them longer as your gecko becomes more accustomed to you.

How to tame your leopard gecko

Taming your leopard gecko means teaching it to trust and feel comfortable around you. This requires consistent positive interactions to build the trust relationship. While a negative experience or two won’t ruin your taming efforts, it can slow them down, so it’s best to be consistent. It’s best to encourage your pet to come out of the enclosure and climb onto you on its own, rather than forcibly grabbing it. Avoid removing it from its hiding places, as hides are supposed to be safe, private places.

Using treats, or tong-feeding, is a great way to bribe your pet into interacting with you and learning to trust you!

Enrichment ideas for leopard geckos

Enrichment is what good zoos use to keep their animals happy, active, and engaged. Some say that reptiles are too stupid to benefit from enrichment, but this is false. Reptiles, including leopard geckos, can absolutely benefit from enrichment when it is provided in appropriate ways for a nocturnal, terrestrial lizard.

Here are some ideas for enrichment activities that your leopard gecko is likely to enjoy:

  • Rearrange the enclosure. If total overhauls are too stressful, move one thing every so often at your gecko’s pace. For some individuals, that may be once a month, for others they might like once a week.
  • Puzzle feeders. Try putting a bug in a puzzle ball or hanging a bouquet of greens from the ceiling!
  • Scatter feeding. Rather than offering all of their food in one bowl, try putting it in various places around the enclosure or letting them chase their food, depending on what feeder you’re using.
  • Supervised explore time outside of the enclosure. Make sure to keep them away from situations that you can’t get the gecko out of, and be particularly careful if you want to take them outside. For outdoor excursions, it’s best to use a pen to prevent them from running off.

Health

Signs you need to take your leopard gecko to the vet

Veterinary care is an important part of having any pet, including leopard geckos. If you notice any of these signs or symptoms, make an appointment with an experienced reptile vet to get them checked out immediately.

  • Noisy breathing
  • Mucus discharge from the mouth/nose/eyes
  • Persistent lethargy
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Persistent lack of appetite
  • Straining/inability to defecate
  • Large patches of missing scales
  • Open wounds
  • Swelling or bumps anywhere on the body
  • Sudden, unusually aggressive behavior

Leopard geckos should be taken to the vet shortly after you bring them home, and then at least 1x/year for a general checkup and parasite check.

Outside of that, if you are concerned about your pet’s health due to a change in their appearance or behavior, don’t go to the internet for medical advice — book an appointment with a professional! You can find an experienced reptile veterinarian near you at ARAV.org.

Resources

This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please do further research with high-quality sources to obtain additional information on caring for this species. Here are some great sources we recommend:

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