Leopard Geckos ~ A Comprehensive Care Guide.
(This guide accompanies our Basic Reptile Care Guide)
The Leopard Gecko, commonly referred to as a ‘Leo’ is one of the more commonly kept species of pet reptile. It originates from the rocky desert areas of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. Leopard Geckos have been successfully kept and bred in captivity for over 30 years. It is available within the hobby in a form that closely resembles its wild cousins or as one of a multitude of morphs. Morphs are the result of selective breeding to develop natural colour and pattern traits along with naturally occurring genes such as Albinism, Snow or Eclipse genes. (We will discuss morphs in more detail elsewhere on the website.)
For the purpose of this ‘care guide’ it is enough to say that Leopard geckos are available in a variety of colours or patterns, as albinos or in a form close to nature’s original design. However despite all of these morph variants, the care requirements are common to all Leopard Geckos kept in the captive environment.
The Leopard Gecko is often described as a nocturnal species, however it would be more accurate to consider it a 'crepuscular' species. Crepuscular species are most active at dusk and dawn. Being insectivorous, Leopard Geckos feed on a wide range of invertebrate pray. Terrestrial in nature, the Leopard Gecko is not an accomplished climber and is considered a ground dwelling gecko.
Leopard Geckos are one of the ideal ‘starter reptiles’ but remain popular with even the most avid reptile keeping enthusiast. The care needs of a Leopard Gecko are quite simple in comparison to some species however if the care they receive is inappropriate or incorrect it can result in suffering or death of the gecko. The guide that follows is based on our own experience working with this species for close to a decade.
With appropriate care and loving attention a captive Leopard Gecko should live for many years. In fact it is important that you realise that a well-cared for 'Leo' can live for over 20 years!!!
Many of our Leos seem to welcome periods out of their enclosure, enjoying a wander and resting on a hand or climbing up to a shoulder.They do seem to like a bit of personal attention. Generally Leopard Geckos tolerate handling well and can become surprisingly tame. They can also develop distinct personalities and characters. Like most animals their behaviour is often driven by their stomachs and in the Leos case a hope for a treat such as a plump and juicy waxworm, roach or locust.
Please read this care guide in conjunction with our ‘Basics of Reptile Care’ Guide. We are adapting all of our species guides to encompass the ‘Five Needs’ outlined in the 2006 Animal Welfare Act (Section 9). Although we have tried to create a comprehensive care guide with information that works for our animals we strongly urge you to carry out further research and reading before buying your first gecko.
The Need for a Suitable Environment.
Enclosure: For the pet Leopard Gecko a simple wooden vivarium makes a perfect display tank. The wooden vivarium is much easier in regards to maintaining temperatures than the ‘all glass’ display tanks. For a single Leopard Gecko the minimum enclosure size is 24 inch x 12 inch (larger if possible). For two Leopard Geckos a minimum of 36 inch x 18 inch (larger if possible). It is claimed by some that Leopard Geckos do not move around very much so do not need large enclosures. We have previously kept Leopard Geckos in massive display enclosures and there is absolutely no doubt, they will make use of the available space. However there is more to think about than the space for your gecko to move and exercise when we consider vivarium size.
It is essential that your Leopard Gecko has an enclosure large enough to create a thermal gradient so that it can maintain an appropriate body temperature. The smaller the enclosure, the more restricted the thermal gradient. If the gecko cannot regulate its body temperature by moving across a thermal gradient it will suffer and potentially die.
Unlike you or I, or any other 'warm blooded' animal, reptiles can not generate their own internal temperature and they do not have any inbuilt ability to regulate their body temperature. If we get too hot we perspire, too cold we shiver. Reptiles can not do this and are dependent on their environment for warming up and cooling down.
For reptiles, obtaining the optimal internal body temperature is of more consideration than simple comfort. It is vital for enzyme and metabolic activity within the reptile including the process of digestion.
We can not stress enough the need for a good thermal gradient within the enclosure. If a reptile can not achieve optimal internal temperatures it will suffer, its lifespan will be shortened and it will prematurely die. Please give your reptile an enclosure large enough to establish a good thermal gradient.
One of the bachelor pads over at Smirks.
Home to a single male Leopard Gecko.
Dimensions 24" x 18"
Heatmat 11" x 11"
Controlled by Mat Stat.
Extra space has been created with two
Heating: Heating of the enclosure is in our opinion, best achieved, with a heat mat covering approximately a third of the enclosure. For a wooden vivarium the heat mat is placed inside the enclosure at floor level below the substrate. It is vital that the heat mat is controlled by a thermostat to prevent burns to the gecko, risk of fire and to save in electricity usage.
Temperatures should be monitored with an accurate digital probe thermometer.
We have found that the optimal temp directly on the substrate over the heat mat is 33c. The cool end of the vivarium should be room temperature to a minimum of 25c. We maintain our enclosures at this temperature constantly. However it is possible with the new generation thermostats to provide a drop in the warm end temperature at night.
(Please refer to our Basics of Reptile Care Guide to learn how to set up your heat mat and calibrate your thermostat.)
Arcadia leads the way in UV lighting. A variety of lamp options are available to the hobbyist. Their excellent compact bulb range is ideal for the smaller vivarium.
Lighting: Leopard Geckos have been kept successfully in captivity for 30 years without the provision of UVB lighting providing they receive the correct mineral and vitamin supplementation. However recent research suggests that Leopard Geckos in the captive environment can benefit from supplementary UVB lighting in combination with vitamin and mineral supplementation. (The safe use of UVB in combination with mineral and vitamin supplementation is explained in our Basic Reptile Care Guide.) For now it is suffice to say providing 2% or 5% UVB for your Leo is perfectly safe and if you are able to offer UVB please consider doing so.
If you do use UVB lighting it is essential that your gecko has adequate hides to retreat completely away from the light if it desires. Vivarium décor should create areas of shade in the enclosure.
UVB lighting should be used in controlled time periods of 12 hours per day (10 hours or less in winter) using a timer
Although we have said UVB is safe for Leopard Geckos, special consideration should be given to its use with ‘light sensitive’ albino strains. Some of these find any form of bright light uncomfortable and UVB is likely to cause distress to these animals. Your gecko supplier should advise you if the gecko you purchase is ‘light sensitive’.
A low wattage red or blue ‘pygmy’ bulb, led light or specialist moonlight bulb will allow you to watch your geckos night time activities without disturbing it.
The natural habitat for Leopard Geckos. Alluvial soil, compacted clay, gravel, rock and scrub vegetation. Leopard Geckos are often housed in enclosures lined with fine sand. This is a totally unnatural substrate for them and can be hazardous to the health of the gecko.
Substrate is the term used for the material covering the floor of your
enclosure. Contrary to popular belief Leopard Geckos do not originate from
sandy desert. They live instead in areas of heavily compacted clay and dust
covered rocky desert. We strongly advise against the use of any form of
particulate substrate, i.e. sand, chippings, gravel. Leopard Geckos are lunge
feeders and when they strike their prey can inadvertently pick up and ingest
granules of particulate substrate. This can be a contributing factor towards
the serious and life threatening health problem of impaction.
For young Leopard Geckos we recommend the use of kitchen roll as a substrate. For adult Leopard Geckos, a more aesthetically pleasing substrate may be achieved with thin slate tiles or vinyl flooring. (Drape the vinyl flooring over a warm radiator for a couple of weeks to rid it of any fumes before use.) The advantage of these substrates is that they are very easy to clean and disinfect.
Cage Furnishings: A minimum of three hides are required including a ‘moist hide’. These can be bought commercially made or constructed from plastic cartons or upside down plant pot saucers. The hides should be big enough for the gecko to retreat fully into but small enough to provide security. One hide should be placed at the warm end of the enclosure and one at the cool end.
The moist hide should be located midway along the thermal gradient.
A moist hide will be used when your gecko is coming into shed. It can be made easily from something like a plastic tub margarine tub with an entrance hole cut in the lid. It can be lined with damp kitchen roll, sphagnum moss or eco earth and should be sprayed daily to keep it moist. When you can see your gecko is coming into shed, move the hide so that it is partially touching the area of the heat mat. This will increase humidity which will help your gecko shed more easily.
Your gecko will also need a small water dish, a small dish for calcium powder and if you are feeding it mealworms, an escape proof mealworm dish. Coffee jar lids, tea light holders etc can be used as alternatives to the commercially available reptile dishes.
Small naturalistic leopard gecko enclosure. This image is taken from the internet. There are many examples of superb enclosures to inspire you.
Vivarium Décor: Décor can be used within the vivarium to create a stunning display tank. The use of cork bark and silk /plastic plants, pieces of stone etc can contribute to a very eye catching enclosure. However décor has more than aesthetic value. It can provide extra places for the gecko to hide, low surfaces to climb, abrasive surfaces for times of shed and enclosure enrichment. If you are using UVB lighting, décor plays a vital role in creating areas of shade and providing your gecko with a photo gradient within the enclosure.
Enclosure Maintenance: Your Leopard Gecko will eventually establish a daefecatarium, an area where it ‘poops’ each night. Once this area is established it can be covered with a folded square of kitchen roll. Leopard Geckos produce solid and relatively dry faeces with a white pellet of urate (basically solidified urine) attached. A daily spot clean of the enclosure should include removal of the faeces and replacement of the soiled kitchen roll. We recommend that the enclosure is cleaned weekly with a reptile safe disinfectant such as F10. We also advise that the enclosure and furnishings receive a deep clean, again using reptile safe disinfectant each month.
Following enclosure maintenance or handling of your gecko it is of course important that you wash your hands with soap and water.
Need for a Suitable Diet.
Leopard Geckos are insectivores and will eat a wide range of insects and invertebrate prey. Mealworms are one of the most popular feeders for Leopard Geckos however, although we advise leaving a bowl of mealworms in with your gecko at all times, variety is the ‘spice of life’. It is also very important from a nutritional perspective. Crickets, roaches, locusts, silk worms, wax worms, calci grubs can be purchased either on line or from most reptile stores.
It is vital that all feeder insects, apart from wax worms and calci grubs, are ‘gut loaded’ for 24 hours prior to feeding them to your gecko. Please refer to our Live Food Care Guide for information regarding gut loading. We cannot emphasise enough the importance of good nutrition in regards to keeping your Leopard Gecko healthy.
We should also point out that wax worms should only be given as an occasional treat. They have a very high fat content but little nutritional value. They are however a favourite treat for a Leopard Gecko and they can become hooked on them to the extent they will refuse all other food.
Correct mineral and vitamin supplementation is also vital to the wellbeing of your Leopard Gecko. We have tried several vitamin and mineral regimes but the only one that has given us complete confidence in regards to meeting our geckos vitamin and mineral requirements is 'Repashy Calcium plus'. This finely balanced formula is the result of extensive research and contains all the vitamins and minerals your gecko needs. It is used to dust every feed.
Repashy products are available in many UK reptile stores. Alternatively you can purchase these products on line. 'Lilly Exotics' is the UKs leading 'Repashy Super Foods' on line supplier. Please visit our links page for contact details.
We also provide all of our Leopard Geckos with a small dish of pure calcium powder. Leopard Geckos would naturally look for calcium deposits in the wild if they sensed their calcium levels were low. This calcium source can be provided by simply placing a bottle top or small dish filled with pure calcium powder within the enclosure.
Water should be available for your Leopard Gecko at all times. A small water dish should be placed at the cool end of the enclosure and it should be replenished daily. We use filtered water for our geckos. If you do not have access to filtered water, tap water will suffice. However tap water should be allowed to stand for 24 hours so that any chlorine in the water supply dissipates.
Leopard Geckos do not require spraying with water or routine bathing.
Need to be able to exhibit Normal Behaviour Patterns.
In terms of reptile ownership and Leopard Gecko care this is perhaps a rather vague need. It is argued that a captive reptile could never truly exhibit normal behaviour patterns. The same argument could just as easily be applied to ALL animals kept in captivity including cats, dogs and other conventional pets. This should not deter us from attempting to create conditions where our reptiles CAN display normal behaviour patterns.
Environmental conditions must be appropriate for your Leopard Gecko so that it can thermoregulate. Being ectotherms, Leopard Geckos need to be able to move between areas of warmth and cool to regulate their body temperature. If conditions within the enclosure are incorrect they will NOT be able to exhibit normal ectothermic behaviour.
Leopard Geckos are nocturnal, or more accurately crepuscular. They need a distinct day and night lighting cycle. Without this they would not be able to demonstrate nocturnal or crepuscular behaviour. They need areas of shade, areas to get completely out of the light. Without these, they cannot exhibit normal behaviour patterns.
Although a Leopard Gecko can live happily on a diet consisting solely of meal worms, such a diet denies it the opportunity to hunt for prey. For this reason we recommend that the regular mealworm diet is supplemented with crickets, roaches or locusts. It is fascinating to watch a Leopard Gecko capturing its own food rather than it simply dipping into a bowl of pre captured food.
We would encourage you to research the natural behaviour of wild Leopard Geckos and as far as possible create conditions within your geckos enclosure that allow it to behave as far as possible in a way similar to its wild cousins.
Need to be Housed With or Apart from Other Animals.
Leopard Geckos live in loose colonies. They do so because of the environment supporting their needs rather than any desire to be part of a community. In the captive environment it is perhaps better to consider them as a solitary animal who will at times tolerate the company of another Leopard Gecko.
Male Leopard Geckos will fight and there is absolutely no doubt that males should not be housed together.
A male and female Leopard Gecko if housed together will eventually breed placing the female under considerable stress and you with the dilemma of what to do with the eggs she lays. (Please read our article on reptile breeding for information regarding the issues associated with your geckos breeding.)
Housing female Leopard Geckos together does sometimes work but there is absolutely no guarantee that they will 'get along' permanently. Often females are instantly and totally intolerant of another female or they become aggressive to another female even after a considerable period of time living together.
We would advise anyone starting out as a Leopard Gecko keeper to keep their geckos in individual enclosures. Leopard Geckos can inflict serious injury on each other, even death. We will talk to you privately about co habiting Leopard Geckos but as this guide is primarily aimed at the novice keeper our general advice is for your gecko to live a life of happy solitude.
Faint chevron of dimples. No open pores. No significant bulges.
Chevron of open pores that are secreting a brown waxy substance.
Defined hemipenal bulges.
Is your gecko a male or female? Your supplier should hopefully be able to tell you the sex of your gecko if you buy a youngster. If you have purchased a gecko of 8 months or older you should be able to tell its gender quite easily. The photographs above show the difference between a mature male and female Leopard Gecko. The male has a chevron of open pores that are actively producing a brown waxy secretion. He also has pronounced hemipenal bulges.
The female has a faint chevron of dimples,no secretions and no significant bulges.
Do you know the number for your vet ?
The Need to be Protected from Pain, Suffering, Injury and Disease.
When considering the health needs of your Leopard Gecko it is perhaps best to begin by looking at a healthy Leopard Gecko. A healthy Leopard Gecko will have bright eyes without any discharge and its mouth will have no visible signs of trauma or infection. There should be no significant overbite or under bite when the jaws are closed. Its nostrils and ear holes should also be free of discharge.
The adult Leopard Geckos body should be well filled without being overtly obese. Its limbs should appear straight without swelling at the joints or bend in the bones. Its toes should be intact, each toe being tipped by a short claw. It should be able to support its own weight and move around with ease.
The Leopard Geckos tail serves as its main fat reserve and should be plump and full, thicker at the base with a gentle taper. (Regenerated tails do not have this defined shape and taper.) The skin of your Leopard Gecko should have no cuts, abrasions or lesions. Occasionally you may see small sacks that appear to be filled with air or fluid behind the front legs. These are transient in nature and of no real concern. They are thought to be endolymphatic calcium sacks, a place where your gecko can store a reserve of calcium.
The gecko’s faeces should be solid, dark in colour and tipped with a lump of white urate. Leopard Gecko faeces do not normally have an offensive odour. (The exception to this being the post shed poop which is often grey in colour, a little looser and a little bit smellier than normal). Blood or mucous in a Leopard Geckos faeces is a clear sign of underlying illness needing urgent investigation and treatment.
The gecko should become active when disturbed and providing enclosure temperatures are adequate easily roused. It should not appear disorientated or display neurological symptoms such as circling as often seen with Enigma morph Leopard Geckos.
It is a good idea to weigh your gecko on a regular basis with a set of digital scales. We would suggest weekly for the first 6 to 9 months of your geckos life then on a monthly basis. In the first 6 months of life your Leopard Gecko should show a steady weight gain and size increase. This tapers off over the next few months and by the age of 12 months your gecko will probably have attained full size. If you monitor your geckos weight on a regular basis you may be able to spot any health problems before symptoms become obvious. A fluctuation of 10% in body weight is of no concern, however if your gecko shows a significant or consistent weight loss then further investigation is required.
If your gecko does become ill or sustains an injury, as its owner you have a 'duty of care' to get it an appropriate level of help. For minor concerns it may be appropriate to contact the gecko’s breeder, the store you purchased it from or to seek advice from Internet reptile groups or forums. For animals obtained from us you are more than welcome to contact us at any time for advice. It does not matter how long you have had the gecko, how old it is, we are here to help.
In the event of a serious illness or injury, if your gecko is collapsed or unresponsive there is little value in seeking help from the Internet. You need specialist help in the form of a vet.
It is a very good idea to have the contact details for your vet before the need arises. Unfortunately some vets charge a little more for treating reptiles as they are considered ‘exotics’. It is possible to insure your gecko, paying a monthly premium to cover veterinary expenses. Alternatively, and our recommendation, is that you put a little amount away each month to build an emergency fund for your gecko.
One of the key words in the last of the ‘Five Needs’ is protected. We have mentioned in the other ‘needs’ the importance of a correct environment, a thermostat to protect your gecko from burns, the correct nutrition etc. etc. By following these measures you will be going a long way towards meeting the ‘need to protect your gecko from pain, suffering, injury and disease.
Rather than writing a list and explanation of the health problems a Leopard Gecko can experience we ask that you read our guide to common reptile ailments.
Thank you for reading this comprehensive Leopard Gecko care guide. We hope it proves useful towards giving your gecko the best possible care. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you wish to discuss any of the content or if you require further information. If you spot something we have missed or any errors in the guide, please drop us a line.
We are committed towards promoting 'responsible, caring and ethical' reptile ownership. We are delighted to help and advise any keeper towards giving their geckos the best possible care. You do NOT need to have purchased a gecko from us to gain our help. Please visit our contact page for details of how to reach us. We will reply to your messages at the earliest opportunity.
Finally we would like to wish you many years of successful gecko keeping and the happiest and healthiest of reptiles,
Grinning Gecko and Smirks.