The leopard gecko, Eublepharis macularis, has become one of the most popular reptiles in the pet trade. These gentle, hardy, and long-lived lizards are suitable for both amateur and experienced herpetologists. Originally native to the deserts and dry plains of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, the vast majority of leopard geckos now available in the pet trade have been bred in captivity. Adults are typically 7–10” in length and weigh 45–80 grams. The top portion of the body is usually yellow, while the bulbous tail is often bluish. Black spots cover all but the underside of the body, which is white. It is not unusual to be able to see the liver or other organs through the thin, light-colored skin of the belly. Selective breeding efforts have resulted in several color mutations entering the pet trade that differ from the standard pattern. Unlike most other geckos, leopard geckos have true eyelids and lack the adhesive pads on their toes that would allow them to stick to glass or walls.
Adult leopard geckos are relatively easy to sex. Males have a “V”-shaped row of pre-anal pores with waxy plugs that sits just in front of the vent. They also have prominent bulges at the base of the tail that house the hemipenes. Females have only small pre-anal pits without waxy discharge and lack the hemipenal bulges.
A standard 15–20 gallon aquarium can comfortably house one or two adult leopard geckos. Larger groups can be kept together provided that the aquarium is large enough with multiple hiding spots and feeding dishes. More than one male should not be housed in the same enclosure as they are prone to fighting. Many options are available for the substrate or bottom lining of the cage. Most of these should be avoided. Sand, wood chips, and corn cob bedding all have the potential to cause impactions if accidentally ingested. Additionally, wood chips, corn cobs, and other organic substrates like peat moss can retain too much moisture, leading to mold problems. Indoor/outdoor carpeting is an acceptable choice, but may be difficult to clean properly. The best option usually is to use newspaper or paper towels to line the aquarium. They are cheap, easy to clean, and unlikely to cause problems with impaction or mold.
While leopard geckos come from a dry climate, these primarily nocturnal lizards spend much of the day hidden in burrows or rock crevices, which are naturally higher in humidity. A similar “humidity spot” should be created in the enclosure. Access to these higher humidity areas is particularly important during shedding. A humidity spot can be easily constructed from any plastic container with a lid, such as a Tupperware container or large margarine tub. Cut a small entrance hole, about 2–3” in diameter, into the side of the container. Line the bottom of the container with wet sphagnum moss. The moss should always stay damp to maintain the humidity in the container.
Heating and Lighting
Like all reptiles, leopard geckos are ectotherms, or cold-blooded. Their body temperature is determined by the temperature around them. For this reason, the enclosure should have a temperature gradient, including a warm basking area. An incandescent bulb with a dome reflector can provide the heat source for the basking area. The temperature in the basking area should be 90°F, while the coolest parts of the enclosure can be in the low to mid 70s. Nighttime heating can be provided by the use of red bulbs, ceramic heat emitters (which produce no light), or with under the tank heating pads. White lights should not be left on at night as this will disrupt the gecko’s normal nocturnal behavior. It is generally considered that leopard geckos do not need supplemental UVB lighting due to their nocturnal nature. If you do choose to provide a UVB light source, it should be a low percentage UVB bulb (2%). The lights can be plugged into simple appliance timers to ensure that your geckos receive regular light and dark cycles.
Leopard geckos are insectivores, meaning they primarily eat insects. It is best to offer a variety of prey items to help avoid nutritional deficiencies. Crickets, mealworms, wax worms, roaches, and fly larvae are commonly available. Larger leopard geckos may even accept the occasional pinkie mouse. Be sure to offer appropriately sized food items. Prey that is too large can lead to impactions and digestive problems. A good rule of thumb is that the prey should be no larger than the distance from the tip of the gecko’s mouth to the area between its eyes. Prey items should be “dusted” or coated with calcium/vitamin D3 powder prior to feeding them to your geckos. Juveniles or breeding females should have their prey dusted at every feeding, while most healthy adults will only require the dusting at every other feeding. A shallow bowl of calcium powder should be provided in the enclosure, as many leopard geckos will readily lap up the dry powder. Whenever possible, prey items should be gut-loaded. This involves feeding the insects a high quality diet for several days prior to feeding them to your geckos to maximize their nutritional value. A shallow bowl of water should be available at all times and changed daily.
Common Health Problems
- Intestinal parasites—A number of worms and protozoan species can be found in the intestines of geckos. Many of these are normal inhabitants, but several can lead to digestive problems and loss of appetite. A fecal test can screen for unwanted parasites.
- Metabolic bone disease—Secondary to diets that are too low in calcium or too high in phosphorus. Can result in decreased appetite, constipation, lethargy, weakness or paralysis, weak bones often with multiple fractures, and even death. Regular supplementation with a calcium/vitamin D3 supplement will help to prevent this disease and related problems.
- Egg binding—Also secondary to decreased calcium levels. Females need calcium to make egg shells and to help the muscles in the oviduct contract to lay the eggs. Eggs, often with irregular or misshaped shells, are unable to pass, creating a life-threatening condition. Egg-bound females should be seen by a reptile veterinarian immediately. Females should have their calcium supplementation increased during breeding season to ensure they have adequate body stores.
- Shedding problems/dysecdysis—Patches of old skin that should have been shed are retained often around the toes or eyes. Bands of retained shed can constrict the toes, cutting off circulation, leading to death and loss of the toes. Retained shed in the eyes can lead to chronic irritation and infections. Providing a “humidity spot” in the enclosure will help to prevent shedding problems.
- Tail loss—Leopard geckos can shed their tails to help them avoid predators, a process called autotomy. While the predator is distracted by the writhing tail, the rest of the gecko scurries away. The tail will eventually grow back, but is often shorter and typically has a less intricate color pattern. Leopard geckos should never be handled or restrained by the tail.
- Sand/substrate impactions—Any substrate or bedding material that is small enough to be ingested can potentially lead to impaction, even if it is supposedly “digestible.” Bedding is often accidentally consumed when hunting prey items, especially crickets. Use of substrates like newspaper or paper towels will prevent this problem.
- Prey bites—Uneaten prey items, especially crickets, may bite resting geckos. These bites may become inflamed or infected, leading to loss of toes or swollen abscesses. Crickets that have not been eaten should be removed from the enclosure to prevent unwanted bites.
- Stomatitis/mouth rot—This is an infection inside the mouth. Pus and scabs can usually be seen around the lips and gums. Stomatitis is often a secondary problem that arises when other illnesses or improper husbandry conditions have weakened the gecko’s immune system. While antibiotics are usually needed to clear up the infection, it is also imperative to correct the underlying problems that lead to the stomatitis in the first place.