How to Set Up a Leopard Gecko Enclosure
Are you getting a pet leopard gecko? As exotic animals, it’s important that they have an enclosure built to more or less replicate the conditions of their natural habitat. Otherwise, they can’t survive.
If you haven’t read our article “How to Care for Your Leopard Gecko” yet, start there. Once you’ve read that and have a basic understanding of what your pet needs from its environment, you’re ready to start setting up your leopard gecko enclosure.
Always set up a reptile enclosure well before you actually have the animal! This gives you more time to save up for the supplies you need, which in turn benefits your pet because you’re less likely to take shortcuts that may decrease its quality of care.
Step 1: Pick the Right Enclosure
Because leopard geckos are quite active and have the potential to grow up to 10” long, they should have an enclosure that measures at least 36”L x 18”W x 16”H, with larger being preferable.
The enclosure can be made of wood, PVC, or plastic, but it should be front-opening and there should be a mesh top for ventilation. The mesh top is also important for easy placement of the lamps you will be using.
If the enclosure doesn’t have opaque sides, you will need to cover them with some kind of opaque material to help your lizard feel secure in its environment. This can be as simple as construction paper or picture backdrop, or as elaborate as a 3D background.
Products we recommend (choose one):
Recommendations in this guide are specific to an enclosure measuring 36”L x 18”W x 18”H.
Step 2: Set Up Lighting and Heating
For a leopard gecko, you will need the following equipment to meet your pet’s light and heat needs:
- Heat lamp
- UVB lamp
- Heat mat
- On/off thermostat
The heat lamps should be placed on the right or left of the enclosure. The UVB lamp should be roughly half to 2/3 the length of the enclosure and placed on the same end, very close to the heat lamp so the beams of light overlap. All lamps should be arranged on the enclosure’s mesh top.
6500K lighting is not necessary for a leopard gecko enclosure unless you plan to use live plants as part of the décor.
Products we recommend:
- Fluker's Mini Sun Dome Lamp, 5.5"
- Zoo Med Repti Tuff Splashproof Halogen Lamp, 50w
- Arcadia T5 HO Forest 6% UVB bulb, 22”
- Arcadia ProT5 Lamp Fixture, 24”
Step 3: Quarantine Period
Your leopard gecko will need to be quarantined for 3-6 months to make sure that it’s healthy. This involves fecal testing for parasites, administering medication as necessary, and generally monitoring the animal for concerning symptoms. It’s best to maintain fairly minimalistic conditions during this stage for easy cleaning, as having a fully set-up, naturalistic enclosure can make quarantine more of a hassle than it needs to be.
All you need equipment-wise for a quarantine setup is a basking platform at the right height, two digital thermometers, food and water dishes, disposable or easily-cleaned substrate, and two hideouts or caves.
Make sure the basking platform (which will likely be the top of your gecko’s warm hide) elevates the lizard to the appropriate distance from its back to the UVB lamp for correct levels of exposure, as UVB levels get stronger closer to the bulb, and if too close or too far away, the lizard may get dangerously high or low levels of UVB. It’s ideal to buy or borrow a Solarmeter 6.5 if you can to double-check your basking distance and the UVI that your pet is being exposed to.
- Basking distance over mesh — 13-15”
- Basking UVI — 1.0-2.0
Place one digital thermometer so the probe is on the basking surface, and the other on the cool side of the enclosure. Temperatures should be as follows:
- Basking surface temperature: 94-97°F
- Warm hide temperature: 90-92°F
- Cool side temperature: 70-77°F
- Nighttime temperature: 60-72°F
If your basking temperatures are too high, now is a good time to dial them down as needed with a plug-in lamp dimmer or proportional thermostat. If you need higher basking temperatures, you will need higher-wattage basking bulbs.
Because leopard geckos are crepuscular, it’s also best practice to provide a warm hide. This can be as easy as placing a hide box or cave directly under the heat lamps. However, if the heat lamps don’t get the hide to 88-90°F, then you will need a heat mat roughly the same size as the hide under the substrate and an on/off thermostat to keep it at the right temperature. The thermostat probe should be placed inside the warm hide for accuracy.
You will also need a good disinfectant to maintain sterile conditions during quarantine. This can be as simple as a bleach solution (¾ cup bleach per gallon of water) or veterinary-grade disinfectants like F10SC and Clean Break.
Products we recommend:
- Paper towels
- Zoo Med Repti Rock Water Dish, Medium
- Exo Terra Gecko Cave, Large (x2)
- Exo Terra Digital Combometer (x2)
- Zoo Med ReptiTemp Rheostat
- Zoo Med ReptiTherm Under Tank Heater (U.T.H.), Small
- Exo Terra Thermostat, 100w
Step 4: Add Substrate
Once your leopard gecko has passed quarantine, you can finish setting up its enclosure. While the first phase of setup was strictly practical, now you can get more creative in designing something that will not only be more functional for your pet to use, but also more attractive to look at. This starts with substrate.
Your best option for substrate is going to be a fine-particle naturalistic substrate such as sand or a 60/40 sand/soil mix. You will need at least 3” of substrate for a proper digging medium, so for a 36”x18” enclosure, count on at least 34 quarts or just over 1 cubic foot of substrate.
For an enclosure with different dimensions, you can calculate the amount of substrate you’ll need by multiplying the length x width to get the number of cubic inches of substrate it will take for 1” deep of substrate. Then multiply that number by the desired depth of substrate, then convert the resulting number to quarts or cubic feet, depending on the metric you need.
Step 5: Add Décor
After you’ve laid down your substrate, replace the hides and water dish. Everything else is going to go around these staple items. This is the time to get creative! Try to more or less replicate the layout of a leopard gecko’s natural habitat as you arrange the décor. You can find habitat pictures on sites like iNaturalist and Flickr.
Make sure to keep your water bowl accessible and easy to remove, and to keep some open space available for the gecko to run around. However, keep in mind that leopard geckos generally need a good amount of cover to feel secure.
Stacking flagstones can make a nicely naturalistic basking platform. However, make sure to glue them together with cement or silicone so they don’t collapse and accidentally crush or injure your pet.
Magnetic ledges offer great lookout points for leopard geckos to survey their surroundings, and encourage climbing.
You don’t have to worry too much about mold in the semi-arid environment of a leopard gecko terrarium, so your options for wood are pretty broad. Mopani wood, cork bark, grape vine, cholla wood, and manzanita wood can all work. Whichever you choose, make sure the branches are large enough to support your lizard’s size, and low enough to the ground that it can’t fall too far.
Plants are a great way to make a leopard gecko enclosure more attractive, whether real or fake.
Live plants should be kept in pots to help keep the water close to the roots, unless the enclosure is bioactive (which this article is not covering). Use drought-tolerant plants tolerant of higher ambient temperatures and moderate to high amounts of light. They should also be nontoxic, in case your lizard eats a bug that nibbled on one of the plants. Some suitable options include:
- Air plant (Tillandsia)
- Carex grass
- Elephant bush
- Festuca grass
- Hens and chicks (Echeveria)
- Ice Plant
- Jade plant (Crassula ovata)
- Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia danicolor) (spineless)
For more safe plant ideas, visit The Tortoise Table.
Even after you’ve set up your leopard gecko enclosure, don’t be afraid to continue to adjust the layout! Occasionally changing object placement or adding new things can stimulate your pet to explore, and it’s always a good idea to adjust your pet’s enclosure as you continue to learn and understand leopard gecko husbandry better.
"Leopard Gecko, Eublepharis macularius Blyth, 1854" by Misenus1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0