Leopard Gecko Introduction
Leopard geckos are nocturnal lizards found in desert environments in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and parts of India. Unlike other geckos, Leopard's lack adhesive lamella and have tiny claws instead which gives them an advantage in sandy environments. This also prevents them from climbing up surfaces easily so they primarily live on the ground and do not climb. They are unique from other leopard gecko species as they can move their eyelids.
Leopard Geckos are one of the most popular lizard pets. They are hardy, easy to maintain, require little space, and have long life spans which make them a perfect companion for individuals and families. They make great first pets for those new to reptiles. Leopard geckos can live to be 20 years old or older if their owner takes care of them properly by making sure they have proper nutrition, habitat, and monitor for health issues.
Leo's only eat insects, so their diet isn't complicated like other reptiles like our Beardie friends and they are very docile and can be handled without worrying about aggression.
Determining the Age of Leopard Geckos
There is no easy way to determine the exact age of a Leopard Gecko since their growth rate and size is dependent on their husbandry, genetic traits, health, and food intake. Its not uncommon to see a Leopard Gecko's colour change as they age. Mack Snows, for example, will develop a yellowish colour as they age. Most baby Leos will have bands on their body instead of spots. As they get older the band will separate and will develop into spots. This will usually happen when the Leopard Gecko is one year old. So if your gecko still has bands and not spots, the chances are he/she is still less than a year old.
Finding the Gender of A Leopard Gecko
Sexing leopard geckos is a fairly easy task. However, you should know that you cannot sex a Leopard Gecko until they are about 10 month old, or old enough to be sexually mature. Generally male Leopard Geckos will have a broader head and will weigh more. However, these are not considered reliable methods to determine the gender of a Leopard Gecko and it is recommended to use other sex characteristics.
Not all Leo's will show the same sex characteristics. Some Geckos will have more gender identifying characteristics than others, so when sexing a Leopard Gecko keep this in mind. The best way to determine the sex of a Leopard Gecko is to look at their underside, where their tail meets the body.
Male Leopard Geckos
The following are the characteristics of male leopard geckos:
- The back of their thighs have femoral pores. Both male and female leopard geckos will have femoral pores, but the male's pores will generally be larger. Although this is a gender trait, it is recommended to use other gender identifying characteristics which are easier.
- The preanal pores are generally more noticeable and are more of a V-shape. Preanal pores allows the males to excrete a waxy substance. Both male and female leopard geckos have preanal pores, but the pores in females are so small that you will have trouble finding them, whereas males can easily be seen.
- The base of their tail will have two hemipenal bumps/bulges. Only males will have these two bumps and once leopard geckos reach sexual maturity it is the easiest way to determine the gender.
Female Leopard Geckos
Females are identified by having a lack of male characteristics. So when sexing female leopard geckos you look for the following:
- Their femoral pores are extremely tiny and almost appear to not exist. The femoral pores will run along the outside of the female gecko's back legs.
- Their preanal pores are also very small and can be difficult to find. The preanal pores are located above (towards the gecko's head) the vent and are usually in a V-shape.
- Their base of their tail lacks hemipenal bumps/bulges. This is generally the best indication you have a female leopard gecko. When male leopard gecko's reach sexual maturity they will develop two bumps beneath the base of their tail and females will not have these bumps.
Leopard Gecko Tanks
Since Leopard Geckos are ground animals and rarely climb, the tank will need to be long and wide (not tall and narrow). You will need to make sure that your gecko cannot easily climb out of the tank, so a tank with glass sides would be a good choice as they cannot climb glass. Do not use wire or mesh cages for your Leopard Geckos. Wire cages will not hold heat and are easy to escape from, they also pose a risk of the Leopard Gecko getting his/her foot or toes stuck in the wire. Leopard Geckos do not require a large tank, this can make it more difficult for your Leopard Gecko to find the heat source and their hide.
Tank Covers and Lids
You will need to cover your tank with a wire/mesh lid. This lid will help to keep unwanted insects, pets, or children from getting into the tank and it will also support the lights for your Leopard Gecko. Avoid getting a glass, plastic, or any other type of solid lid. These do not provide adequate ventilation.The lid needs to be a screen-type cover that will allow fresh air in and out of the tank. Solid tank lids will cause the temperature and humidity in the tank to increase to unsafe levels.
Number of Geckos for the tank size:
- One Gecko 37L
- Two Geckos 56L
- Three to Four Geckos 75L
Like any reptile, it is best to mimic the cycles of their natural environment. Since leopard geckos are naturally from the middle-east, in the summer they should have 14 hours of light, followed by 10 hours of darkness and in winter they need 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness. When you do transition from summer to winter hours, try to do it gradually in 15-30/minute intervals per week for a total of 4-8 weeks.
It is best to use automatic timers for your lights because it can sometimes be inconvenient if you're busy or you may forget to turn on/off your Gecko's light. Automatic timers are inexpensive and can save you time and frustration. Leopard Geckos are nocturnal, they should not be exposed to bright white lights or UV lights. Bright lights can make them feel stressed.
The type of daytime light that you use is not very important, as they are nocturnal, they don't bask in the light like other reptiles. However, keeping proper heat in your tank is important. It is not recommended to use the natural light coming in through your windows as the light source for your Gecko's tank as it will not provide consistent light in cycles which Geckos are used to. Lights are available which will not blind your Gecko which bright white light and still provide consistent cycles.
Again, since Leo's are nocturnal you should not use any type of bright lights, especially during night because that's when they are most active. Providing the correct amount of heat is important for Leopard Geckos, infrared heat lamps will provide your leopard gecko with heat overnight and are specially designed to use with nocturnal animals as the light's colour doesn't affect Leopard Geckos.
Humidity is important for most reptiles and is important for leopard geckos as well. Improper humidity can make it more difficult for them to shed properly, cause hydration issues, or increase the chances of leopard geckos getting an infection.
The leopard gecko's tank humidity should be 20%-40%. You should use a hygrometer (humidity sensor) so you can monitor your Leopard Gecko's tank humidity levels. If your humidity is too high, try increasing airflow to the tank and provide a smaller water dish. If the humidity is too low, try adding a larger water dish or moist moss to the tank (specifically for Leopard Geckos). Leopard Geckos will also need a humid/moist hide to help them when they begin to shed.
Leopard Geckos cannot generate their own body heat, they rely on the temperatures of their environment to keep them warm. Because of this, it is critical that your leopard gecko's tank is has ideal temperatures. Improper temperatures can cause digestion problems and serious health issues. Like we recommend with other lizards as well, it's best to try to create a heat gradient (a hot side and a cool side) in the tank. This way there is a smaller chance of the Leopard Gecko overheating or becoming too cold since he/she can easily move to either side of the tank for a change in temperature.
Generally the basking area will be the "hot side" of the tank. The basking area should be 31-32°C. This is important because Leopard Geckos require higher temperatures to properly digest their food. The cool side of their tank should be between 23-26°C. Do not let the max temperature get above 34°F, as that is considered too hot for your Gecko.
In nature, Leopard Geckos will emerge at night when it's not as hot and will lie on warm rocks which were heated by the sun throughout the day. To mimic this, you will need to lower your tank's temperature to 21-23°C. Your Leo will, however, need a warm spot to lie on. You can do this with an infrared heat lamp (a special type of light that doesn't affect nocturnal animals).
You should have two thermometers for your tank, one for the hot side and one for the cool side. This way you can make sure that both are within acceptable temperature ranges. If you use a digital thermometer you will have the added benefit of being able to see the max and min. temperature for each side.
Substrate is the bedding/flooring you will place in your leopard gecko's tank for him/her to walk on. You have to be careful because substrate that consists of very fine particles (such as sand) can easily be ingested by geckos which can lead to serious health issues such as impaction.
There are risks of using sand as it's generally too fine/small for Leopard Geckos to safely live in. Leo's are very curious and through exploring their tanks can ingest sand. Substrate ingestion can lead to impactions which can be a serious health issue in lizards that oftentimes requires medical care. Impaction can easily be avoided by using other substrates.
Tiles and flat stones will mimic the natural environment that Leopard Geckos thrive in. They are cheap, look nice, are easy to clean, and have zero risk of impaction so using stones or tiles is a great choice.
These are easy to maintain and are common because you can easily clean the tank by replacing as necessary.
Reptile carpet is specially designed flooring for reptiles that looks nice and has zero risk of impaction.
Leopard Gecko's hides are an important part of their environment. It is where they will seek shelter from the light, heat, and from anything that frightens them such as other pets or people entering the room.
The hide can be just about anything as long as they can fit in it comfortably and it provides the security they need. It should have an opening and enough space inside that they can feel secure. If you have multiple Leopard Geckos, you may want to get a larger hide so they can all fit within it.
There are three different types of hides that leopard geckos use. It is best to have all three types of hides, but if you don't have enough space you can "make do" with a warm hide and a moist hide (that acts as a cool hide as well). Each of these hides has a specific purpose and is outlined below.
This hide should be placed on the hot side of the tank. It will be where your Leopard Gecko may go to digest their food or if they are feeling too cool it will provide a place where they can warm themselves without feeling exposed.
The cool hide is the opposite of the warm hide and should be placed in the coolest part of the tank. As Leo's cannot regular their body temperatures, they may occasionally get too hot and will need to cool down. The cool hide provides shelter in a cooler environment so they can easily cool their body.
The moist hide should be designed to be much higher in humidity than other hides. When Leopard Geckos begin to shed they need high amounts of humidity to prepare their skin to soften it so it sheds more easily. The moist hide should not be placed on the hot side of the tank because the heat will cause evaporation which lowers the humidity levels within the hide. To keep the hide moist, you should keep the substrate in the hide itself moist. You can do this by using damp moss or damp paper towels. Be sure to check the moisture of the hide each day to make sure it hasn't dried up.
You can add other items to your Leopard Gecko's enclosure to make it seem more natural or more attractive. The following are the most common tank accessories:
We do not recommend the use of heat pads for any lizards as the chances of them burning their undersides are extremely high.
Live or artificial plants can be used to provide extra security when your gecko is out of its hide. Leopard geckos don't eat vegetables, so you shouldn't be too concerned about it eating the plant, however if you do decide to use live plants make sure they are non-poisonous plants for Leopard Geckos. If you're debating between a live or fake plant, just know that live plants may look better but they can be a bit more messy and can increase the humidity levels of the tank.
Rocks and Logs
You can also put rocks or small sticks/logs into the enclosure to give your gecko places to perch or climb on. Remember that you should thoroughly clean any rocks to remove all dirt and bacteria and if the rock has a sharp side/corner you should try to smooth it out before putting into the enclosure. You should also strip all sticks of their bark and make sure that there are no parasites on or in them. Some people will place sticks/wood inside their oven at a low heat for 20-30 minutes to make sure all the parasites are dead.
Food and Water Bowl
You will also need to get a food and water bowl for your gecko. Your gecko will need fresh water every day and if you see a drowned insect or fecal matter in the bowl you should change it immediately. The water bowl shouldn't be too deep because it will restrict the geckos access to the water and can pose a drowning hazard.
Leopard Geckos will eat anything that moves/wiggles in front of them. You should only feed your gecko live insects (most Leo's won't eat dead prey). It is difficult to overfeed Leopard Geckos, since they store their excess fat in their tail, but it is possible. So if you feel your Leo is gaining a lot of unnecessary weight, you may want to cut back on their feedings or remove any fatty insects from their diet.
You should feed your Leopard Gecko late in the day or early in the evening, since that is generally the time they start hunting in nature. There is no ideal routine to feeding Leopard Geckos since each gecko has different eating habits.
- Geckos that tend to overeat - Feed them a set amount predetermined by you to prevent them from becoming overweight.
- Geckos that are active and maintain a healthy weight - Feed them as much as they can eat within a 15-20 minute period.
- Geckos that are stubborn eaters - Feed them normally, but leave a food dish with worms available in their tank so they can eat later if they get hungry.
Leopard Geckos have been known to change food preferences as they get older, so your gecko may love crickets one week and hate them the next. Because of this many owners will mix up their diet with a combination of crickets, worms, and other insects to keep some variation in what they eat.
When feeding your Leopard Gecko you will want to put any worms into a feeding bowl or a shallow dish that they can easily reach. You should put the crickets in their tank and place them as close to your gecko as possible so they will see the prey. Some owners will only place 2 crickets in the tank at a time because it can be hard to re-catch the crickets if your Leo decides they aren't hungry after all. If you have remaining crickets in the tank and your Leo is done eating, you should remove the crickets. Crickets will crawl onto your gecko and will sometimes bite the tip of your gecko's tail so it's best to remove them from the tank to save them for another feeding.
Don't Feed Insects that are Too Large
Insects can be too big for your Leopard Gecko to safely digest, so it's up to you to make sure they are the correct size before feeding. The general rule of thumb is to not feed your gecko any insects that are longer (in length) than the space between their eyes.
For example, below is an estimate of cricket size and the leopard gecko's age:
- Hatchling geckos – 3/8 inch crickets (crickets are 2 weeks old)
- Juvenile geckos – ¼ inch crickets (crickets are 3 weeks old)
- Adult geckos – smaller adult to adult sized crickets
Most Leos will stop eating when they're full, but others will try to keep eating. If your gecko seems like they are eating too much you shouldn't overfeed your gecko because it can cause them to gain unnecessary weight and it can lead to them regurgitating their food. If you're concerned your Leopard Gecko is eating too much you can tell by how large they are. Like people, Leopard Geckos which are overweight will start to develop are large stomach and will start to store fat in other areas of their body (besides their tail).
Here are a few general rules regarding overweight geckos:
- Their stomach area should be mostly flat, unless they've just eaten a meal.
- Their tail should not be wider than their body.
Safe Insects for Leopard Geckos
Leopard Geckos will eat just about any bug that crawls in front of them. However, not all insects are safe or healthy for your gecko to eat.
Below is a list of the most popular insects that owners will feed their Leopard Gecko:
Crickets – Crickets are probably the most popular insect fed to Leopard Geckos, they are healthy and are easy to purchase. When feeding crickets to your Leopard Gecko you should make sure that they are not too large to digest.
Mealworms – Mealworms are another Leopard Gecko staple which are easy to get and are healthy. When feeding mealworms you should choose ones that have freshly molted so they are easier to digest.
Waxworms – Waxworms should only be fed to Leopard Geckos occasionally as treats (once or twice per week max) because they are high in fat and can become addictive to some geckos.
Roaches – Roaches are healthy and tasty for Leopard Geckos.
Insects You Caught Outside or In Your Home – You should never feed your Leopard Gecko any bugs that you've caught yourself. The reason is because wild insects may contain parasites that can infect your gecko if eaten. Besides parasites, many bugs will also contain trace amounts of pesticides which can be toxic.
Vitamins and Minerals
Your leopard gecko will need vitamins and minerals to remain healthy. The best way to ensure your gecko gets enough vitamins and minerals is by gut loading and dusting the insects you're feeding him/her.
Gut Loading – Gut loading is where you feed the bugs nutritious food before you give them to your leopard gecko to eat. There are many cricket feeds available that are perfect for gut loading. It is recommended to gut load your insects 12 hours before feeding them to your leopard gecko. This way the insect will still have the nutritious food in their body.
If you're using mealworms you should gut load them with carrots 24 hours before feeding. You can also place some of the cricket gut loading food into the dish containing the mealworms so they will eat some of that too. Some owners that leave mealworms in their leopard gecko's tank all day will leave food in the dish for the mealworms to eat. This way the mealworm is gut loaded whenever the gecko decides to eat them.
Dusting – Dusting is where you purchase a dusting powder (such as a calcium and vitamin D3 supplement) and dust the feeder insects in the powder before your Leopard Gecko eats them. It's easy to dust the insects by placing them and a small amount of dusting powder in glass jar and gently shaking it until the bugs are lightly coated with the powder. After you dust the insects you should immediately feed them to your Leo, otherwise the feeder insects may clean the powder off themselves.
Leopard Gecko Behaviour
When a Leopard Gecko is surprised or startled they will sometimes make a high pitched squealing sound. They do this to startle you long enough that they have time to escape. This is most common with younger leopard geckos but can happen occasionally with adult geckos too. Many owners claim that squirting a Leopard Gecko with a misting bottle will sometimes make them squeal, we have experienced this ourselves with our baby Leopard Geckos.
Leopard Geckos will bite the tails of other geckos when mating or to show dominance. If you place two males or two females in the same tank and they begin biting each other tails and using defensive tail shakes, separate them immediately because they are being aggressive. Generally, you should never put two males in the same tank, but sometimes you can accidentally get a male gecko thinking it is a female gecko.
There are a few different tail wiggles/shakes that leopard geckos will use:
Slow Tail Shakes – When a Leopard Gecko shakes their tail slowly, they are telling other geckos that they are there and are aware of their presence. Normally the gecko will lower themselves to the ground and will shake their tail slowly. Sometimes this can also be a sign that the Leo is excited.
Fast Tail Shakes – Male Leopard Geckos will usually shake their tails rapid if they are put in the same presence as female Leopard Geckos. This tells the females that there is now a male in the area and that he is aware of the females being there.
Defensive Tail Shakes – Leopard Geckos will drop their tails if they are ever threatened so the prey will go after their tail instead of the gecko. As you can imagine, Leo's will shake their tail to divert attention whenever they feel threatened. Generally the gecko will lower their body to the ground and will point their tail up slowly wiggling it. They will often have their head arched up staring at the threat.
Leopard geckos may also use a defensive tail shake if they are unsure about another gecko. If your gecko is making this gesture when you are near them, do not try to pick them up because they may try to bite you. Instead, you should let the gecko know that you are not a threat. You can try standing there until the gecko relaxes or you can slowly place your hand into the tank, away from the gecko so they can investigate it or hide. Eventually your gecko will become used to your presence.
Excitement Shakes – You will usually see this type of tail shake when the gecko is hunting bugs/eating. Usually it is more common in younger geckos, but adult geckos will do it every now and then. When this occurs the gecko will raise their tail and slowly move it from side to side, and then when they are about to attack the insect they will quickly shake their tail before attacking.
Leopard Geckos have a Jacobson's gland, which allows them to sense objects and their environment by flicking their tongue (much like a snake does). It is not uncommon to see your Leopard Gecko flick his/her tongue to familiarise themselves with new items in the tank.