Vidr, sitting in her new home.
Leopard Gecko (Eublepharis Macularius) was first described in 1854, by zoologist, Edward Blythe. Named for their inherent "true eyelid", leopard geckos are truly distinguishable from the other subfamilies of geckos. One of only five gecko species, in fact, to maintain eyelids.
These fantastic herps are native to the south-Asian, Pakistan region, found as far as north-west India and Iran. They live in a generally rocky and grassy ecosystem that has hot and humid temperatures averaging around 85F - 90F in the summer, and as low as 50F in the winter. Due to the fluctuation between temperatures, leopard geckos have adapted a fat and water storage system in their tails. These same tails should never be yanked on or pulled upon as the leopard geckos have also adapted to caudal autotomy or the ability to drop their tails if threatened or if caused pain. Once a tail has dropped, it will regenerate, but is often stumpy, and never regenerates with the same beautiful freckles and colors as the original tail.
In the colder, wintry months leopard geckos will be found buried in the earth, in a sleep-like state known as brumation (a sort of semi-sleep or reptile "hibernation"). During the warmer seasons, leopard geckos can be found roaming in the dusk and twilight hours, having received their energy ectothermically from the heated earth and stones in which they hide during the day. It is due to this type of energy reception, that leopard geckos do very well without heat lamps and enjoy under-tank heating pads, as long as the heat within their enclosure falls into the healthy range of 85F - 90F daily.
True insectivores, leopard geckos of the wild will hunt moths, spiders, crickets, and any other insects that may catch their attention. It is for this reason that only live food should be offered, and in good variety. While it is not known exactly how leopard geckos obtain calcium and D3 in the wild, it is important for owners to recognize the importance of a complete diet, and to take responsibility of any consequences that arise from a dietary imbalance. Leopard geckos have keen senses of sight, smell, and taste, and make the most amusing hunters when kept in captivity. An off-spectrum light, or reptile moonlight (a blue bulb), offers great assistance to leopard geckos in captivity. While an off-spectrum light is not necessary, it has an added benefit of imitating moonlight and allows for better hunting.
When sexing your leopard gecko, it is very important to know an approximate age. If your leopard gecko is under one year of age, it may be difficult or impossible to properly sex. Wait until your leopard gecko is approximately 1 year and 3+ months before attempting to sex. As with humans, each leopard gecko will develop at different ages, and you do not want to cause damage or distress to an animal that has not reached puberty.
Proper sexing of a male leopard gecko involves very simple visual inspection. You should see a proper hemipenal bulge just above the tail and below the genitalia slip, as well as some hemipenal pores along the bottom-side of the belly. Males will often be seen wagging their tails or even dancing about their enclosure. This is a male leopard gecko's way of spreading his pheromones to attract females and to frighten off other males.
A female leopard gecko will involve simple visual inspection as well. There should be no hemipenal bulge at the base of the tail, and just above the genitalia slip, there should be some very fine, almost invisible hemipenal pores. These pores will not be as arrow-shaped as the male leopard gecko's, but will be spread apart. Also, female leopard geckos will often lay blank eggs (if no male is in the enclosure). This indicates maturity and the ability to procreate.
Visual Sexing Reference:
It is important to mention at this time, that male leopard geckos should never be housed with other male leopard geckos. While considered happy in solo situations, leopard geckos actually do remarkably well in colonies. Colonies often involve one mature male and several females. Males placed with other males, however, will fight and become aggressive toward each other (often until one dies), no matter the size of the enclosure or the amount of females available at any given time.
I personally, have a very large enclosure (80 gallon wide) that currently contains 1 male (Loki) and 5 females (Vidr, Mani, Dagr, Ragnarok, and Sol). I also have a separate enclosure for a separate breeding male (Eira) and a third enclosure for offspring (Vetr and Auga). Offspring can be kept together as long as they are all approximately the same size, once a hatchling becomes larger than its siblings, it ought to be removed immediately and placed in a separate container. Larger offspring will often out-eat the smaller offspring, and can even grow quickly enough to eat the other offspring.
A female who becomes pregnant, is known to be holding or clutching. Due to the massive amounts of calcium required during this period of a female leopard gecko's life, it is important to keep powdered calcium available in a shallow bowl within the enclosure at all times. If calcium is needed, the female leopard gecko can then lick the powder up without further concern.
It is also important to boost humidity levels at this time. As the female leopard gecko approaches egg-laying and nesting, she will need a humid-hide box. A humid-hide can be made from Tupperware with a hole cut into it and dampened moss, paper towels, or substrate placed into the bottom. I like to spray the humid-hide every week and often leave it over the middle of the heating pad in order to maintain humidity. Not only does the humidity provide moisture to your reptile while she's laying, but it gives her a place to hide and also assists in helping her to shed. That being said, a humid-hide should be present for both male and female leopard geckos.
Visual Reference of a Humid-Hide:
The life-span of a leopard gecko (on average) is approximately 20 years. With good care, healthful diets, and the comfort of heat and humidity, your leopard gecko should do exceedingly well. In fact, in the pet store business, it is important to note that if your animal has an average life-span of 20 years, and you only get 16 years out of it, then you did a great job.
However, as with all pets, it is important to know that leopard geckos are very capable of getting sick or carrying illnesses too. While some illnesses may be zoonotic, it is important to know what they are, how to recognize them, and how to treat them. It is also important to know how to recognize a healthy animal when making your first purchase.
Healthy animals will have vibrant skin color; healthy feet and toes; a fat and chunky tail; clean eyes, ears, and nose (not runny or dripping fluid); will be active (remember, leopard geckos sleep, so have a breeder or caregiver give you the run-down and visual show); and will breathe easily. If anything else is spotted, such as blotches, discoloration, missing limbs, etc., walk away from the purchase.
While being extremely hardy animals, leopard geckos should always be quarantined for 3 months, prior to being added into an established colony. They should also be monitored for infection, worms, and other diseases that may not be prominent within the first few weeks of ownership. I cannot express the importance of quarantine enough: until you have loved, learned, and lost, you might just never really know.
Moving forward, it is important to recognize and become familiar with common leopard gecko diseases, as well as the available treatments:
Leopard Gecko Diseases:
- Gastroenteritis: Often seen as diarrhea, this is caused by a leopard gecko living in very unsanitary conditions. Normal stool should be solid/firm, well-formed, and with a small white portion of solidarity.
Treatment: A trip to the vet is necessary in order to acquire proper medication (often, metronidazole).
- Coccidia: A parasitic protozoan that lives off of the intestinal lining of your leopard gecko.
Treatment: A trip to the vet is usually needed in order to determine coccidia count in your leopard gecko's fecal matter (so take a fresh sample with you). Often, it is treated with Panacur, but will need veterinarian consultation on the matter.
- Metabolic Bone Disease ("MBD"): Occurs when a leopard gecko does not receive enough calcium and D3. This deficiency can occur while in utero, and can lead to spongy bones, deformities, twitching, and tremors. Treatment: Treating this disease can be long-term and difficult, and may require a visit to an exotic vet. Calcium D3, and Vitamin A can be added to the diet to increase absorption.
- Anorexia: Can be caused by a list of things: stress, unsanitary conditions, illness, etc. Treatment: Usually involves force-feeding and even the occasional visit to a vet. Note: force-feeding should be your absolute last resort.
- Dysecdysis: An incomplete diet can lead to skin shedding issues, often which lead to skin becoming hard or impossible for your leopard gecko to shed properly. Skin shed issues require immediate dietary correction, as well as vitamin supplements. Treatment: To avoid infection, soak your leopard gecko in lukewarm chamomile tea for 20 - 30 minutes. This will loosen the shedding skin as well as cleanse any potentially damaged skin of bacteria. You can also add a few droplets of mineral oil to the chamomile tea, to help moisturize the dry skin. Vitamin A is most-often needed to help with skin issues, so be sure to increase all vitamin and Calcium/D3 intake by adding it to the leopard gecko's water and food.
- Dystocia: Also known as 'egg-binding', this is when a female leopard gecko is unable to lay her eggs (eggs should always be laid in pairs, 2 at a time, every time). Treatment: For the first few days you can try soaking your female in lukewarm water for 20 - 30 minutes. You can also boost her calcium intake by adding it to her water and food. However, if the eggs are not laid quickly, your leopard gecko may stop eating and become sick enough to die. If she does not lay within a few days of recognizing this issue, take her to a veterinarian immediately.
- Stomatitis: Also known as 'mouth rot', is recognized by swelling, infection, and a cheesy-like substance growing from the face. Treatment: A veterinarian will be necessary in order to provide you with a list of antibiotics and injections.
- Pneumonia: A respiratory infection that is severe, caused by bacteria in the lungs. This occurs when humidity is high but the temperature of your leopard gecko's enclosure is too low. Pneumonia will become present when you see mucus and bubbles from the nose, as well as hear respiratory problems. Treatment: Usually fixed when temperatures are adjusted to the proper heat setting required (85F - 90F). May need a follow-up at the vet, if symptoms do not disappear quickly).
- Impaction and Prolapse: Impaction is caused by substrate being consumed by a leopard gecko (particularly loose substrates, such as sand) and forming blockage within the stomach and/or intestine. Impaction can lead to a very painful death if not treated. Treatment: The best treatment is to soak your reptile in lukewarm water for 20 - 30 minutes for a few days, and supply mineral oil to your reptile, via the mouth. If defecation does not occur within a few days, a trip to the vet will be necessary. Prolapse occurs for the same reason (substrate is poor or unsuitable) but will produce itself as a massive hernia-like ejection of the reptile's body. Treatment: A trip to the veterinarian is absolutely necessary. Your reptile will need antibiotics and require special care.
- Cryptosporidiosis: Commonly known as 'crypto', is a fatal disease for leopard geckos. It is nearly impossible to recognize and diagnose, and treatment is painstakingly difficult. Leopard geckos that have a 'pencil tail', or consistently skinny tail should not be purchased for this reason. Regurgitated food, 'pencil tail', and runny stool are all very closely related to crypto. However, this parasite is so aggressive, that within weeks, the liver will become damaged and internal bleeding can become present. It is for these reasons that leopard geckos thought to have contracted crypto get humanely euthanized. Treatment: None available over the counter, nearly impossible to treat.
While the above information is just that, information, it is important to know that all leopard geckos, no matter the morph, the breed, or the age, all make wonderful pets. They are very calm, cat-like creatures that reflect great personality and intelligence. Curious and innocent, they love to play in tubes, climb on small plants, and investigate new toys placed in their enclosures. Even simple toys, such as plastic balls with bells on the inside can captivate these critters for hours at a time. Once you have owned a leopard gecko, you just might never go back.
GENERAL CAGE SET-UP:
- Substrates: Coconut fiber for adults (2+ years) is highly recommended. Sand (yes, even ReptiCal/CalciSand) is NOT recommended for health reasons. For juveniles and hatchlings, paper towels or reptile carpet is best.
- Heating/Lighting: Controlled heating pad should be set to the "High" setting. Temperature on the warm side of the tank should be around 85F - 90F where the leopard geckos are at (so don't measure the temperature at the top of the tank where leopard geckos aren't hanging out). Lighting should be an off-spectrum moonlight (blue) bulb. Be sure to read the package and buy the correct sized bulb for your tank.
- Tank: 1 - 2 leopard geckos fit well in a 20 gallon glass tank with a screen top. 3-4 leopard geckos fit well in a 40 gallon. 5+ leopard geckos do best in an 80 gallon or larger. Screen top is a must, because these little guys make great escape artists.
- Hiding places: Even if you use a cup, give your little guys a great place to hide. They like to feel safe when they are sleeping, just like humans do.
- Food: Crickets, wax worms, mealworms, silkworms, phoenix worms. Any of these insects are great to feed your leopard gecko, just make sure that the food you are feeding to them can fit in the space between your leopard gecko's eyes, and that all food is gutloaded and dusted.
- Humid Hide: Tupperware with a hole cut out on the side or the top, filled with moist sphagnum moss, paper towels, or substrate.
- Water Dish: Is a necessary item. Check the water daily to make sure that there is no waste deposited into their drink.
- Dish for Calcium: All leopard geckos should have access to fresh calcium in a dish. Calcium with D3 is a great powder to add to crickets, while Calcium with Phosphate (no D3) is an excellent calcium to leave sitting in a dish.
- Temperature Gauge: Be sure to purchase a temperature gauge for the inside of the tank. This will help you monitor the appropriate temperature range for your reptiles and allow you to adjust as needed.
Remember: The tank should be set up with both a "hot" side and a "cool" side. This means that one side of the leopard gecko enclosure should have the light and the heating pad, and the other side should have things like food dishes, water dishes, etc. Items such as hiding places can be distributed on either side or in the middle, and the humid hide should be set on the warmer end of the tank. Your temperature gauge should be set in the middle and on close to the bottom of the enclosure, where the reptiles dwell.
TERMINOLOGY:- Herp(s): Also known as "Herpet", refers to the term: Herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians. Owners of reptiles and amphibians who fall ill should seek the care of an exotic vet, often known as a herpetologist.
- Brumation: "Winter Sleep": the act of a Herp hibernating during wintry months and in colder climates. Also, to brumate: the act of sleeping prior to mating season, in order to boost sperm count in males (most often seen with bearded dragons).
- Ectothermic: The ability to absorb thermal heat from surrounding objects such as rocks, the earth, the sun, and so forth. It is for this reason that reptiles should never have a direct heat source placed within their enclosure, as reptiles and amphibians both, do not sense an immediate temperature, but rather absorb their energy slowly. A direct and immediate heat source within a Herp's enclosure is the most common cause for a burns, injuries, and even death amongst Herps.
- Off-spectrum Lighting: Off-spectrum refers to the spectrum of light that a Herp is capable of seeing and recognizing. Yellow (or basking) bulbs are recognized by all Herps, while blue (or moonlight) bulbs are not capable of being seen by some Herps, such as leopard geckos. Red bulbs (or Intense Heat) bulbs, are brighter, but do not offend specific Herps, such as snakes and White's tree frogs. Please note: off-spectrum bulbs, not matter the type, require changing at every 6 month interval. The filter used to create UV and UVB filters for your animal are designed to fade and will disintegrate at the end of 6 months. Always check your bulbs!
- Caudal Autotomy: The ability to 'drop' or release their tail from the body if threatened or if caused pain. In the wild, leopard geckos have natural predators such as foxes, large frogs, snakes, and other large reptiles. If threatened, it is easy to release a tail and let it drop. Once dropped, the tail will remain animated for approximately 30 minutes. This allows leopard geckos the opportunity to escape while the dropped tail wiggles around. It is theorized that the weight lost by dropping a tail also allows for a faster escape.
- Hemipenal Bulge: A clearly defined bulge at the base of the leopard gecko tail (where tail meets body) that indicates the maturation of the male leopard gecko's testicles.
- Hemipenal Pores: An arrow-shaped row of well-defined pores located on the belly of a mature male leopard gecko. These glands are deeper and more pronounced on the male leopard gecko, and also allow the male leopard gecko to spread his pheromones and mark his territory. Female leopard geckos will also maintain hemipenal pores that are less visible and are more widely spread apart.
- Zoonotic: The ability to pass illness, parasite, infection, or disease from human to animal, or from animal to human.
- Gutloaded: Feeding the crickets, mealworms, wax worms, silkworms, etc., prior to feeding your reptile. This guarantees that if your crickets ate spinach, then your leopard gecko will eat spinach too, and get a little extra vitamin A in their diet.
- Dusting: When you drop a desired powdered supplement into the bag of crickets or worms, shake them lightly, and 'dust' the insect prior to feeding your leopard gecko.