Care of Leopard Geckos
LEOPARD GECKOS (Eublepharis macularius) are gentle, hardy, long-lived lizards that have fascinated beginner and advanced reptile keepers alike. Their ease of maintenance, moderate size, and attractive appearance have earned them high praise and popularity in the pet industry.
Originally native to the deserts and dry rocky plains of Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan, leopard geckos are now well established in captivity following decades of large-scale commercial propagation. As a result of selective breeding, several color and pattern varieties of leopard geckos are available. Wild-caught animals are occasionally available but are fairly uncommon.
Basic External Anatomy and Behavior
Unlike many other geckos, leopard geckos possess movable eyelids. They lack the adhesive lamellae on their feet that enable many other geckos to cling to glass or walls. Instead, on each digit is a small claw, suiting them well to a terrestrial lifestyle.
The dorsal body color is light to dark yellow with numerous black spots and blotches. Large tubercular scales are present on the rear of the head, back, tail, and extremities.
The ventral skin is plain white, and the colors and outlines of some abdominal organs and eggs in gravid females may be seen through this translucent surface.
Juveniles have a banded black and yellow pattern, with stronger contrasts and brighter colors than adults. In adults the large tail serves as a significant fat reserve.
Adult males have a V-shaped row of enlarged pre-anal pores which produce a waxy secretion, and prominent hemipenal bulges. Females lack prominent pores, having only very small pre-anal pits. Hemipenal swellings are absent..
A leopard gecko should not be caught or lifted by the tail; its body should be fully supported when it is handled. Leopard geckos have the capability of autotomy, or self-amputation of the tail, which they will execute when restrained or stressed excessively. A lost tail will take several months to grow back, and regenerated tails are never as aesthetically pleasing as the original. Replacement tails are usually shorter, with a simpler arrangement of scales and colors and a shape resembling the lizard’s head.
Leopard geckos can be housed in groups provided there is only one adult male per enclosure. At least 200 square inches of floor space is recommended for a group of 2-3 animals, with a cage height of at least 6 inches. The cage should be easy to clean with a screen top for adequate ventilation. Standard 10-gallonaquariums or plastic containers as well as larger aquariums emphasizing horizontal floor space work well as enclosures.
Acceptable substrates include paper towel, newspaper, orchid bark, or fine sand, although the latter is controversial. Coarse sand, corncob, and walnut shell should be avoided, as they have been implicated in gastrointestinal impactions. Feces should be removed regularly and substrate replaced as necessary.
A moist hide box filled with damp sphagnum moss, cypress mulch, or vermiculite is especially important for both security and proper shedding. While these animals are well adapted to a dry climate, the lack of a moderately humid shelter will make a leopard gecko prone to dysecdysis (shed retention). A common shedding problem is retention of skin around the toes with subsequent toe loss. This is especially true in leopard geckos that are not provided with a moist shelter. Skin shedding occurs at regular intervals, and leopard geckos generally consume the shed skin
Most Common Disorders of
Metabolic bone disease
Loss of digits
Rectal or hemipenal prolapse
Poor aim when catching prey
Body length 7-10 inches
Average body weight 45-60 g
Maximum body weight 100 g
Average lifespan 10-15 years
Maximum lifespan 30 years
Age of sexual maturity 10 months
Ambient daytime temperature 75-80°F
Ambient nighttime temperature 65-75°F
Preferred optimum temperature zone 84-88°F
Clutch size 2
Breeding season January-September
Number of eggs laid per year 6-16
Incubator temperature 78-92°F
Incubator relative humidity 75-100%
Incubation period 6-15 weeks
Heating and Lighting
Leopard geckos fare best at temperatures in the mid-80s°F. A gradient of temperatures should be available in the enclosure, from 70°F on the cool end to 84-88°F on the warm end. Heat should be provided by a heat pad, heat tape, or basking light. Avoid hot rocks or direct contact with heating elements or light sources. For healthy geckos, a nighttime temperature drop is also important. UVB or other supplemental lighting is not essential to these primarily nocturnal lizards but can be used to enhance the aesthetics of the vivarium and may have a health benefit at low levels.
Leopard geckos feed primarily on live moving insect prey. Other commercially available diets have recently emerged, including dried or canned insects and frozen prepared meats; however, leopard geckos need to be conditioned to feed on these items, and some are hesitant to adapt to them.
The diet may consist of commercially raised crickets with smaller numbers of silkworms, roaches, mealworms, superworms, waxworms, and other live insects. Large leopard geckos will also con sume baby “pinkie” mice and other lizards, but these food items are not required. Prey items should be fed a high quality diet (“gut-loaded”) for at least 24 hours before feeding them out.
Live prey may be offered in shallow containers, which will prevent meal-worms from burrowing, reduce cricket dispersal in the enclosure, and reduce accidental ingestion of substrate.
Appropriate-sized prey items should be offered every 1-2 days for juveniles, and 2-3 times a week for adults. As a general rule, feed crickets with a body length no greater than the length of the gecko’s head and about half the width of the head. Feed no more than the animal will consume within 15 minutes, which usually amounts to 4-6 food items. Beware that hungry juveniles housed together may nip toes or tail tips off their cage mates.
Clean fresh water should be provided in a shallow container and changed daily.
A jar lid full of calcium powder should be available in the enclosure at all times and will be particularly relished by breeding females. While vitamin and mineral supplementation
is controversial, leopard geckos will tolerate a wide range of supplementation regimens. Dusting prey items with a calcium supplement is probably beneficial. Prey are dusted daily for juveniles and every 2-3 feedings for adults.
Annual Veterinary Visit Physical examination should reveal:
- Alert and responsive attitude
- Bright colors and a fat tail ~ Normal alignment of maxilla and mandible when mouth is closed
- Digits free of old adherent skin
- Nose and eyes clear of discharge
- Eyes of equal size, not reduced or enlarged (“bug-eyed”)
- Clean pink oral cavity
Normal feces are dark and firm and are deposited in one corner of an enclosure (defecatorium). Sticky, soft, or excessively malodorous urates and feces may indicate a gastrointestinal disorder. Fecal analysis for parasites should include both a saline wet mount and a flotation. White urates are prominent in these normally dark droppings.
As juveniles, there is little visual difference between male and female leopard geckos. Interestingly, leopard geckos undergo temperature-dependent sex determination, which means the sex of the gecko can be predicted based on the temperature at which it was incubated as an egg. In temperatures from 78-82°F, the great majority of hatchlings will be female; from 85-87°F, there will be fairly equal ratios of males and females; and around 90°F, one can expect mostly males.
As adults, males have a V-shaped row of enlarged pre-anal pores along their inner thighs, whereas females have only small pre-anal pits. Males also have paired hemipenal swellings at the base of the tail, which females lack. Males are slightly more heavy-bodied and robust with a broader head and thicker neck than females.
What Every Leopard Gecko Owner Should Know
- Quarantine new geckos in a separate area of the house for at least 30 days.
- House only one adult male in a group to prevent fighting.
- Ensure a gradient of temperatures in the enclosure, from 70°F on the cool end to 84-88°F on the warm end.
- Heat should be provided by a heat pad, heat tape, or basking light. Avoid hot rocks or direct contact with heating elements or light sources.
- Avoid coarse sand, corncob, and walnut shell as a substrate.
- Mist the hide box substrate daily, which promotes normal skin shedding.
- Avoid picking up a leopard gecko by its tail.
- Prevent free roam of the house and exposure to cats, dogs, or other predators.
Blood Collection and Anesthesia
Blood collection from leopard geckos is challenging, because excessive immobilization for venipuncture may cause them to drop their tails. Sedation using isoflurane is recommended for improved restraint, to prevent autotomy, and to obtain a cleaner and more accurate blood sample.
A small induction chamber (mask, clear plastic bag or small plastic container) is filled with 5% isoflurane and the gecko is left undisturbed for 10-20 minutes or until its righting reflexes are lost. Blood collection sites include the ventral abdominal vein, ventral tail vein, or cardiac puncture.
Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Most in the US are now captive bred
Choose a gecko that appears alert and if possible one that you see feeding. Make sure the gecko is captive bred and not imported.
Adults attain a length of around 8 or 9 inches. Most adults have a yellow background with brown spots. Juvenile geckos have a predominantly striped pattern that fades to the spotted pattern with age. They also have a very obvious outer ear and eyelids. Their feet lack an adhesive lamellae (meaning they can’t walk up vertical services).
An aquarium is a perfect home although many people have success with plastic sweater boxes. As terrestrial species, a long aquarium is ideal. A 20 gallon long aquarium is adequate for 3 or 4 geckos. Make sure that you only have one male per enclosure because they fight otherwise. The substrate can be anything from sand to newspaper. Sand creates the most natural setup, and you can buy playground sand from any hardware store. Occasionally incidental sand ingestion leads to a blockage, so my preference for substrate is newspaper. Rocks and logs can make the terrarium more natural looking and they provide your lizards with places to climb. A hide box is also recommended to keep the lizard(s) feeling secure.
Lighting and Temperature Leopard geckos are a nocturnal species so UV lighting is not necessary. A simple spotlight/ceramic heat bulb with the appropriate wattage can provide both daytime light and heat. Daytime temperatures should be roughly in the 90’s under the heat source, with a gradient of lower temperature (80’s to room temp) as you get further away from this high zone. Nighttime temps can go down in the low 70s. It’s best to provide any reptile with a temperature gradient in order that they can regulate their temperature by moving into or out of different temperature areas of the habitat. Under-tank heating pads and hot rocks don’t generally raise the ambient air temperature in the tank and their surfaces often produce extremely high temperatures.
Feeding and Watering
Leopard geckos will thrive on insects. A staple of crickets along with occasional waxworms and mealworms make a good diet. To add a better variety cockroaches can be used along with “field sweepings” from pesticide free fields. Adult geckos can also be fed an occasional pinkie mouse. Juveniles can be feed every day and adults every other day. Supplementation is a must for leopard geckos. Two supplements should be used: one that is just calcium/D3 and another that is a reptile multivitamin. Juveniles should be supplemented at every feeding and adults at every other feeding. Gravid females should also be supplemented at every feeding to make up for the large nutritional depletion caused by egg laying. These supplements are best delivered by “dusting” directly on the insects that are fed. Simply put the insects and the powder in a plastic bag and shake. Also, be sure to feed the insects a high quality diet so as to “gut-load” them and increase their nutritional value. It is better to feed them in a separate container to reduce the chance of impaction due to ingesting the substrate in the aquarium. This also allows better monitoring of how much each gecko is consuming.
A shallow water dish should be provided at all times. It should be cleaned and changed daily to prevent bacteria and fungus growth. Allowing leopard geckos access to a moist area is a good idea that aids in shedding. A hide box with vermiculite or sphagnum moss works well. Even though they come from arid climates their burrows tend to have moderate humidity. Make sure that the overall cage isn’t wet or overly humid.
Leopard geckos are relatively easy to breed. One male will mate with several females so people tend to keep them in groups of one male to 3 or 4 females. Pregnant females can usually be detected because of a bump on each side of her abdomen. If provided with a laying box females will tend to use it. Something like a cool whip tub with a hole cut in the side that is filled with moist moss or vermiculite will provide an attractive place for the females. Females will usually produce multiple clutches of eggs during a breeding season. The eggs should be removed and incubated in vermiculite with a 1:1 ratio of water to vermiculite by weight. A plastic shoebox inside of a ten gallon aquarium makes an adequate incubator. If incubated at 85 degrees they should hatch in around two months. A higher incubation temperature will produce more females although this may result in overly aggressive females. The newborn geckos will not eat until after their first shed (usually about a week). They can then be started on appropriately sized insects. It’s also best to house them separately (plastic shoeboxes) See section on reproduction for more detailed information..
With so much captive breeding going on the price of leopard geckos has decreased dramatically. In pet stores they still usually cost between $60 and $70.
Sexing Leopard Geckos
There is very little sexual dimorphism (appearance) between males and females. In general, males are more heavy-bodied than females, with broader heads and thicker necks, and have a V-shaped row of pre-anal pores at the ventral aspect of the thighs. These pores exude a waxy substance. Hemi-penal bulges can be seen at the base of the tail of sexually mature males. Females have pre-anal pores which are not filled nor exuding the waxy plugs. Some experts can sex juveniles as early as one month of age with some degree of reliability (using a 10X magnifying glass).
Temperature-Dependent Sex Determination in Leopard Geckos
Studies have confirmed that the sex of leopard geckos is temperature dependant. If the eggs are incubated at a temperature of 79F, virtually all of the offspring will be female. At a temperature of 85F, one can expect roughly equal numbers of males and females. At 90F, the great majority of the hatchlings will be males. At 92F, the hatchlings are virtually all males. Females that have hatched from eggs incubated at high temperatures, called “hot females”, will be unusually aggressive and demonstrate male behavior traits, making them unsuitable for breeding. When large-scale breeding is the primary goal, selecting for females is preferred because they can be kept in groups.
Male leopard geckos are harem breeders. Ideally they should not be kept with no less than 3 females. Being territorial and aggressive over breeding rights, two males should not be kept together. Females generally get along with other females and males, but should always be monitored because there can be incompatibility. Incompatibility may result in outright attacks, or more subtly preventing (actively or through intimidation) others access to food, sleeping, basking, etc. When this occurs, the individuals must be housed separately.
This is an overview of leopard gecko care. Some recommended reading is:
Brant, Bill. “Leopard Geckos” Reptiles, pg. 16-22, April 1994.
Coborn, John. Snakes and Lizards…Their Care and Breeding in Captivity. Tetra Press. 1987.
de Vosjoli, Philippe. The General Care and Maintenance of Leopard Geckos and African Fat-tailed Geckos. Advanced Vivarium Systems.1990.
Seufer, Hermann. Keeping and Breeding Geckos. T.F.H. Publications, Inc. 1991.
Husbandry for leopard gecko
I recommend pet stores not sell insectivorous pets unless or until they can provide 10-20 kinds of insects to feed them. Here in the US I recommend www.zoofood.com for soft billed bird/insectivore fare. It takes work to convince a healthy insectivore to eat it, harder yet for an ill specimen.
The “Corn Dog” Method of Carnivorous Lizard Dietary Improvement (THIS DOES NOT REFER TO IGUANAS)
Nearly all carnivorous lizards (eat only animal food sources, not plant sources like omnivorous iguanas) eat a wide variety of foods. Even the purely insectivorous (eat insects) species rarely eat only one type of insect and no other. Many lizard feeders, however, come to rely on crickets and/or mealworms as the sole diet. The main reasons for this are that crickets and various types of mealworms are readily available. There are a wide variety of insects in the usual insectivore’s environment, and nature rarely allows an insectivore to make her diet of only one favorite food. In addition, arboreal (tree dwelling) lizards such as geckos usually encounter only the softer types of food such as caterpillars(yummy and juicy, with minimal chitin) and flying insects which rely on flight for protection instead of a hard shell.
There was once a nice little book out there called “Live Foods for the Terrarium and Aquarium” published by TFH publishers (number PS-309) which any pet shop could order for you. Soft grubs are available from a company called Grubco. If you call them at 1-800-222-3563 they will accept your credit card number and place your standing order for Wax Worms or other low chitin succulents to be delivered to your door as often as weekly. In addition, serious zoologists use the Carolina Biological Supply catalog for sources of wingless fruit flies and the like. They can be reached at 1-800-547-1733. Zoos are using an artificial diet called “Insectivore Fare”, formerly “Reptile Fare” from Reliable Protein products (760-321-7533 or firstname.lastname@example.org). Here’s where the “corn dog” system comes in. In order to convince an insectivore to eat artificial diet, I recommend that you begin by using the “shake ‘n bake” method, that is, take your crickets or mealworms, moisten them and apply powdered Insectivore Fare by shaking in a bag. When you have the pet used to the presence of the insectivore fare in its diet, become more aggressive and make little Corn Dogs. That is, the mealworm or cricket is the hot dog, and the Insectivore Fare is the coating. It takes a bit of practice with the insectivore Fare, moistening it just enough to make it doughy and applying it to the “hot dogs”, one at a time. The last steps involve a bite size mass of Insectivore Fare with perhaps a head or leg sticking out, and finally the Insectivore Fare alone, without the “hot dog” (insect) at all! A client recommended drying some Fare and powdering it, then sprinkling the powder in a wet insect to cause it to adhere. Try that and let us know how well it works for you. If you feel a need to apologize to the mealworms or crickets, do it now. If need be, use cotton string attached to the food bit and wiggle the food like a fisherman would do to attract a fish to bite. It worked for Christy, who advises dancing the stringed food along the cage floor. Sometimes little cricket or mealworm “spread” on the outside of the Insectivore Fare makes it more familiar to the pet. Be persistent because it takes time to change the diet.