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Leopard Gecko Care Sheet
By Steve Sykes

Table of Contents  Printable Version
(Click link below to skip to a section)

1. Housing
2. Substrate
3. Heating
4. Shelter
5. Shedding and Moist Shelter
6. Water
7. Food
8. Vitamins
9. Cage Maintenance
10. Hibernation
11. Recommended Reading

Leopard geckos are undoubtedly one of the best reptile pets available today. They are easy to care for, extremely docile, do not require a large cage, easy to breed, and come in a staggering array of color morphs. I have been breeding leopard geckos since 1995 and have produced thousands of leopard geckos over the years.

I have designed this detailed care sheet with the beginner reptile keeper in mind, for whom this may be your first reptile pet. If this describes you, congratulations, you have made a great choice! More advanced leopard gecko breeders will also find this information useful because it is always interesting to hear the various ways people take care of their animals and the experiences they have had.

HOUSING
One or two adult leopard geckos can be housed comfortably in a 10-gallon aquarium. Of course they would appreciate a larger cage, so you might want to consider a 20-gallon long or 30-gallon, especially if you may want to expand your collection or consider breeding. A screen top for the aquarium is not necessary to prevent your leopard geckos from escaping because they do not have toe pads that would allow them to climb glass, but you may consider purchasing one for other reasons. I strongly recommend you get a screen top if you have cats or small children, as both could be hazardous to the health of your leopard geckos. A fine-mesh screen top may also be important to you to prevent crickets from escaping the aquarium by climbing the strips of silicone in the corners.

Multiple female leopard geckos can be housed together (if approximately the same size), but sexually mature males are territorial and will fight. A male and multiple females can be housed together without problems, but they should not be introduced until they are of a safe breeding size (45 grams for both males and females). If you purchase a young male and female leopard gecko and plan for them to live together in the future, you must raise them to adult size separately. Males grow faster and get larger than females, and a drastic size difference can develop if young males and females are housed together. The larger animal (male) is better able to compete for food, often stealing it away from the smaller animal (female) or terrorizing them away from the food. Additionally, males become sexually mature at a smaller size than females, and will breed with females as soon as they are able to reproduce. I have heard of female leopard geckos as small as 25-30 grams laying eggs, but breeding at this size is often too stressful and can cause health problems, in addition to reducing the female's lifetime reproductive potential. To put this in human terms, a 13-year-old girl can have kids, but it is just not a good idea!

If you are raising multiple females together in one cage be mindful that sometimes one female grows faster than others, and as discussed above can out compete smaller cage mates for food. If a drastic size difference does develop you should separate the largest animal from the smaller ones.

SUBSTRATE
Sand is the best substrate for subadult (at least 5 or 6 inches in total length) and adult leopard geckos. I recommend Play Sand (purchased from hardware stores such as Home Depot) because it has been screened and washed. Do not use industrial sand or sand blasting because it contains a lot of dust that can be harmful to your geckos.

Be sure to check the grain size of the play sand before you buy it. Only use extremely fine sand (grain size 0.5 mm or less). In early-mid 2002 I started to have problems getting the right size sand from the local Home Depot. I am not sure if they changed suppliers or localities for mining sand, but the grain size was three to four times larger (1.5-2 mm) than usual. Since grain size was much larger, I was only able to use it with adult leopards. Recently I have observed grain size to be quite variable between different palettes of sand at Home Depot, all labeled Play Sand (Quikrete brand). The picture below shows three different grain sizes of sand packaged as Quikrete play sand. The pile on the left is extremely fine and suitable for juvenile leopard geckos; the other two piles are much coarser and only suitable for adults. (Click on photo to enlarge)

I do not recommend using any of the calcium sands that are sold for use with reptiles. The grain size is often much larger than 0.5 mm, and the amount of calcium that they could absorb from ingested sand is negligible.

Young leopards should be kept on paper towels until they are 5-6 inches long. Leopard geckos are very active feeders, and usually end up ingesting some of the substrate in the process of catching a cricket. Young leopard geckos have narrower digestive systems than adults, and it is easier for their system to become blocked if they consume sand.

I have talked to other leopard gecko breeders who have said they raise their babies on sand with no impaction problems. Sand is a lot easier to "spot clean" than paper towels, so I decided to experiment raising some of my babies on sand. I put two hatchlings on sand, and they appeared fine for two weeks. One day I opened their cage and one of the babies didn't look happy and was acting very lethargic. I picked her up and her entire belly felt very hard with all the sand she had ingested. The other baby had also ingested a considerable amount of sand, but not as much as the lethargic gecko. Both geckos were able to pass the sand in their digestive systems, but the heavily impacted gecko required numerous doses of mineral oil down its throat and up the other end. Moral of the story, just to be safe don't use sand until they are 5-6 inches!

HEATING
All reptiles require a temperature gradient that will allow them to select the temperature that best suits their needs at that moment. Sometimes your leopard geckos will want to heat up, other times they will want to be cooler. The best way to heat your gecko enclosure is with an under-the-tank heater. I recommend the Zoo Med Repti Therm U.T.H. These come in various sizes; choose the one appropriate for the size of aquarium you are using. The heat pad should be placed all the way on one side of the tank, creating a thermal gradient. You can peel the back of heat pad and stick it directly onto the aquarium, but once you stick it to the tank it cannot be removed (if the tank breaks or you decide to use it on a different cage). I have found it works equally well to place a piece of wood or book under the tank of a proper thickness that it will push the heat pad directly against the glass. Heat tape is another alternative and it works equally well for heating leopard gecko enclosures.

You should have a thermometer available to check the temperature gradient of the enclosure. I do not recommend you purchase a fancy dial-type reptile thermometer that sticks to the side of the tank, as these are more expensive than what you need and will only give you the temperature of the air inside the tank. It is more important to know the surface temperature of the areas where the gecko actually resides. I recommend stainless steel backed aquarium thermometers that you should be able to find in most pet stores.

A thermometer of this type will allow you to take the temperature of the sand surface at various places within your gecko's cage, most importantly the hot spot above the under-the-tank-heater. You should know these temperatures and check them at least every two weeks. The warm side of the cage should be at 90° F. If you find the warm side of the cage is hotter than 90° (which is often the case with the Repti Therm U.T.H.) you can decrease the temperature by using a lamp dimmer (Lutron Lamp Dimmer, available at Home Depot). I recommend using the type that allows you to just plug in, rather than the type that requires you to cut the cord for the under tank heater.
 

Leopard geckos are typically not active during the day and DO NOT require a basking (heat) light or any UV bulbs. They prefer to remain in a dark hiding place during the day, and bright lights constantly shining in their eyes can stress them out. I have seen instances where people who have used basking lights on their leopard geckos have caused them to become stressed to a point where they stopped eating and the geckos eventually died. Red bulbs are better because red light is invisible to leopard geckos, but you should be able to meet the heating requirements of your leopard gecko with an under-the-tank heater alone.

Hot rocks or heat stones are another alternative for heating that you will commonly see for sale at pet stores, but I do not recommend using them with leopard geckos (or any other reptiles). These are ceramic rocks with a cord coming out of it (leading to central heating element). The hot rock does not allow you to control the temperature of the stone; it just heats to whatever temperature was set by the manufacturer. When I was younger I used heat stones for years with iguanas and never had any major problems. But I have heard horror stories and have seen pictures of reptiles that have been burned by hot rocks that have malfunctioned or ran too hot. Again, you should be able to provide the necessary heat for your leopard geckos with an under-the-tank-heater alone.

SHELTER
Leopard geckos are nocturnal, and in the wild they remain hidden under rocks or other debris during the day. For these reasons, they appreciate some sort of shelter to hide in during the day. The shelter can consist of may things: paper towel roll, small cardboard boxes (bottom third of a cracker or cereal box), small plastic cottage cheese or margarine containers, or the white deli cup you brought your gecko home in (if you bought your gecko at a reptile show). Each of these shelters should have a hole cut on the side large enough for the gecko to enter. It is good to have several shelters in your cage, one on the warm side, one on the cool side. There are a lot of choices available if you want to get a fancier shelter for your gecko. Many different shelters are available at your local pet store or reptile show including ceramic caves, half rounds of wood, or you can fashion your own hiding place out of loose rocks attached together with silicone caulk (used for constructing aquariums). If you do make a rock cave with loose rocks, be very sure that it is sturdy and will not collapse and crush your gecko.

SHEDDING AND MOIST SHELTER
Leopard geckos shed their skin like all reptiles and amphibians, and leopards shed their entire skin all at once. Frequency of shedding varies, depending on the age and growth rate of the gecko. Babies shed much more often than adults. You will know when your gecko is preparing to shed because its colors will get duller, and then it will turn whitish immediately before the shed. Leopards usually eat their entire skin in the process of shedding. This strategy is important for wild leopard geckos for two reasons. First, they expended the energy to make the skin; they aren't just going to let it go to waste! Second, bits of lizard skin in an area may tip off predators that they are in a good place to hunt tasty lizards.

Usually the gecko is able to pull the shed off easily, but sometimes they have problems, especially if they do not have the proper humidity during shedding. You should always check your gecko after it has shed to make sure it was able to peel all the skin off. Leopard geckos often have problems with removing skin from their toes. If shed skin is not removed promptly from a toe it will become constricted, and as the lizard grows the toe will become constricted to the point where the shed skin can cut off blood flow to the toe. If this is not caught in time the toe can die and fall off. This is not a big problem, as it usually heals quickly, but I think they are happier with all their toes!

A moist shelter should be provided so your gecko can have access to high humidity when it is shedding. I have found leopards usually prefer the moist hiding place, even when they are not in the process of shedding. The moist shelter can consist of a small plastic container. A plastic cottage cheese container with a hole cut in the side works well, or you could use a Rubbermaid sandwich container with a hole cut in the top. I typically use peat moss as the bedding in the moist shelter, but cypress mulch (Zoo Med Forest Floor Bedding) works equally well. You want to keep the peat moss or cypress mulch moist, but not sopping wet. Below is an example of a 1.8-quart Rubbermaid container that I use for moist shelters and egg-laying boxes for my adult leopard geckos. This is a group of female Rainwater albino hets and a Rainwater albino male. Note: container top was moved for this photo.

If you do find your gecko has some retained skin after shedding, you need to lend a helping hand. Place the gecko in a small plastic container lined with warm, wet paper towels. Put a top on the container and let the gecko sit for 30 minutes. High humidity will develop in the container and this should loosen the skin enough to allow you to remove it easily with a pair of tweezers. If the skin has not loosened enough for it to be removed easily, leave the gecko in the container for another 30 minutes.

WATER
Leopard geckos come from a dry environment, but require some humidity and water. Water should be made available two or three times a week. I use plastic bottle tops from Gatorade, large Aquafina, and 1-liter Mountain Dew bottles for water dishes. I typically use the shorter Gatorade tops for smaller leopards, and the larger Aquafina and Mountain Dew tops for larger leopards. Although these may not be the most decorative water dishes, they are the perfect size for leopards, free, and easily replaceable. Larger, more decorative water dishes can be used, but they usually become dirty very quickly (harboring bacteria) and require a rock in the center to prevent crickets from drowning. Plastic bottle tops have the benefit that they usually dry out or are tipped over in a day or two, preventing bacteria from multiplying in the water dish. I recommend placing the water dish on the cool side of the cage; otherwise the water will evaporate too quickly.

Young leopard geckos should be misted occasionally. I recommend misting the entire cage once or twice a week, especially if you notice your gecko is preparing to shed its skin. The misted water should have all evaporated within 24 hours.

FOOD
Leopard geckos will eat many kinds of live prey items including crickets, mealworms, superworms, wax worms, and even pink mice (a.k.a. pinkies - baby mice only a few days old).

CRICKETS vs. MEALWORMS
I have raised many generations of leopard geckos on a primary diet of crickets, but made the switch to mealworms in 2003. I use large regular mealworms (not giant mealworms or superworms), for subadults and adults, and medium size mealworms for babies. I resisted this switch for quite a while, but am now a firm beliver in mealworms. I have been very impressed with the growth and weight gains I have seen since I switched to mealworms.

The ultimate decision for what to feed your geckos is yours. I will discuss the pros and cons of crickets and mealworms below:

CRICKETS

Pros:
1. More active so more stimulating to the geckos.
2. Crickets are nutritionally superior to mealworms, containing more moisture, protein, calcium, and vitamin C than mealworms (information from Grubco).
3. Exoskeleton is thinner, so may be easier to digest.

Cons:
1 . If you buy them in bulk you need to worry about providing food and water for your crickets or they will die.
2 . Uneaten crickets will annoy your gecko, crawling on it or chewing on its toes or tail.
3 . Hungry crickets will often eat gecko feces in the cage, ingesting any parasite eggs or oocysts (stage in the life cycle of coccidia and crytosporidium that is shed in feces; basically an egg). These crickets will now carry these parasite eggs in their stomach, and when the gecko eats these crickets those eggs will hatch inside the gecko, increasing the parasite load in your gecko (see page on lizard health for more about this).
4 . The number of crickets in the cage needs to be limited for the reasons listed above. (#2 and #3), so you need to feed your geckos at least twice a week, if not more often.
5 . They stink!
6 . They get loose.
7. They chirp.

MEALWORMS

Pros:
1. They aren't very active and can't climb or jump, so no escapees.
2. If you buy them in bulk you can refrigerate them for weeks until you are ready to use them, so no worries about providing food and water.
3. They are contained in a dish until they are eaten, so they are not annoying the gecko or eating gecko poop and reinfecting the gecko with any parasite eggs.
4. Since they are not annoying your gecko you can leave a constant supply in the cage, which may allow you to only feed once a week if the food dish is large enough.
5. No chirping, yeah!

Cons:
1. You need to provide a feeding dish for the mealworms, so something else to clean and deal with.
2. The exoskeleton may be more difficult to digest.
3. Crickets are nutritionally better.
4. Mealworms will bury into the sand if they escape from the feeding dish.
5. Mealworms are less active than crickets, so less stimulating as food items.

I use plant saucers for my mealworm dishes, 6 inch size for larger cages, 4 inch size for smaller cages.

It is extremely important to gut load your mealworms before you feed them to the geckos. I allow the mealworms to feed on carrots and/or prickly pear cactus for at least 24 hours before I feed them out. I also put a small amount of Cricket Gut Load ILF (manufactured by T-Rex) in the mealworm dishes. This product is 10% calcium, and it also contains other good stuff like alfalfa meal, bee pollen, spirulina algae, haemotococcus algae, kelp meal, and marigold extract. The mealworms crawl around in the gut load and eat it, and the gecko will consume some in the process of catching the mealworms. A major benefit of providing the gut load in the dish with the mealworms is that they will always be gut loaded, even days after you put them in the dish.

I also recommend providing a small piece of carrot in the mealworm dish, which will provide a moist food for the mealworms. I have found providing the carrot makes the mealworms more active in the dish, crawling around and feeding, which makes them more stimulating to the geckos.

Switching my geckos from crickets to mealworms was not as difficult as I had expected. I found the young leopard geckos adapted to eating mealworms from a dish much faster than adults, but the adults learned eventually when they got really hungry. A piece of carrot in the mealworm dish will help in the process, as it will make the mealworms more active, and thus more interesting to your geckos. It also helps to provide a ramp of some sort up to the edge of the mealworm dish to increase the chance that your geckos will stumble upon the mealworm dish.

Some people say that you should not feed mealworms to your geckos because there is the possibility that the mealworms can eat their way out of the stomach of a gecko. This is absolutely, 100% not true!!! A customer of mine once called me frantically after hearing this old wives tale from an employee at their local pet store. The pet store employee told them they need to pinch off the mealworm's head before feeding them to their geckos. Not true! This is also a problem because geckos require live prey! I go through 150,000-200,000 mealworms a week, if I had to pinch all those heads it would be a full time job!

WAXWORMS AND PINKIES
Wax worms are very high in fat, and are useful to help a skinny or sick gecko gain weight. They can also be fed as part of the normal diet, but should only be used as an occasional treat rather than a mainstay of the diet. You should think of wax worms as junk food for geckos, or "gecko crack" as I have heard them referred to by other breeders!

Many adult leopard geckos will also eat live pinkies. I feed pinkies to my breeding females; both during the breeding season and after the season to give them additional calories to regain weight they lost from laying eggs. I have found that some females will refuse pinkies before they begin breeding, but once they start laying eggs they will eat as many as they can fit in their stomach (usually two or three).

OTHER FEEDING CONSIDERATIONS
It is difficult to feed your leopard gecko too much, but it is possible for a gecko to become obese if fed on a high fat diet (too many wax worms or pinkies). A healthy, well-fed leopard gecko will store fat in its tail and they can utilize this fat during the breeding season or during hibernation. Mealworms should be provided in a shallow dish at all times. Crickets can be offered daily if you want to spoil your gecko, but a minimum of twice a week.

If feeding crickets you should only feed as many crickets as your gecko can eat in 10-15 minutes. Pre-feeding time is a good time to spot clean your cage, picking out any feces or dead crickets in the cage so these are not eaten by the crickets.

It is important to select the proper prey size for your gecko. Smaller geckos need to be fed smaller prey items than larger geckos. The general rule of thumb for selecting the proper size of crickerts is the cricket should be no longer than the length of the gecko's head. For hatchling geckos this usually means 3/8-inch crickets (cricket age 2 weeks, maybe 3 weeks old), for juvenile geckos ½-inch crickets (3 weeks old), and subadult geckos can handle smaller adult crickets (male crickets are generally smaller) by the time they are 6 inches long. Note: cricket size varies by sex, but it can also vary greatly depending on your cricket supplier.

VITAMINS
Gut loading is very important. "Gut loading" is defined as filling the gut of prey items with nutritious foods before they are fed to your geckos. Remember the old saying "You are what you eat"; a more nutritious prey item will make for a healthier gecko.

For gut loading crickets I recommend Flukers High Calcium Cricket Diet or T-Rex Cricket Gut Load ILF, and give them pieces of orange or carrot to eat as well. If you are buying one or many dozen crickets from the pet store, put the crickets in a separate container with the cricket gut load and orange slices for at least several hours before you feed them to your geckos. Feed only as many crickets as your gecko can eat at one time, or the crickets will pass the nutritious food and fill their bellies with gecko feces or dead crickets they find in the gecko cage.

See the section on mealworms above for my recommendations on gut loading mealworms.

Vitamins are also very important for your geckos. I (and many, many other breeders) recommend Miner-All vitamin supplement (made by Sticky-Tongue Farms). Miner-All comes in two types, "I" and "O". "I" is for indoor animals and contains vitamin D3. "O" is for outdoor animals and does not contain vitamin D3. Since leopard geckos are not basking lizards (such as bearded dragons), it is important to use the "I" to provide them with vitamin D3 in their diet.

The typical method of administering vitamins to your geckos (if feeding crickets) is the "shake and bake" method. Put a small amount of the vitamin supplement in a jar, plastic bag, or other small container, place the crickets in the container, and shake until the crickets are covered with white powder. This should be done immediately before you feed your geckos because the crickets will clean themselves and remove the powder. Juvenile leopard geckos require a lot of calcium and vitamins during the growing process, so food items should be coated with vitamin powder at each feeding. Non-breeding adult geckos do not require as much calcium, so supplementation twice a week is sufficient. Egg-laying females require a lot of calcium; so all prey items should be dusted with vitamin powder.

I also provide a shallow dish (jar lid, Gatorade bottle top, etc.) with a small pile of Miner-All "I" vitamin supplement for my geckos at all times, in addition to gut loading. This is very important. Believe it or not, the geckos will literally lap up the vitamin powder from the dish if they need it. I rarely see my geckos eating the vitamin powder from the dishes, and you may never see your gecko eating it, but they will.

CAGE MAINTENANCE
Leopard geckos only require minimal routine cage maintenance. They are fairly clean and usually poop in only one corner of the cage. A sand substrate allows for simple spot cleaning of feces and dead crickets, and this should typically be conducted at least once a week. The sand substrate should be dumped and the entire cage (including water dishes, cage furniture, etc.) washed and sterilized with a mild bleach solution (1 part bleach: 9 parts water) or Nolvasan (diluted to robin's egg blue) at least once every four months. You should be able to order Nolvasan through your vet or a local feed store
. If you see many small bits of feces mixed throughout the sand it is definitely time to clean the entire cage.

Paper towels do not allow for easy spot cleaning, and should be replaced entirely once a week. Sterilization of the entire cage is not required each week, but should be done at least every four months.

HIBERNATION
Hibernation is a natural part of the yearly cycle for leopard geckos, but it does not appear necessary for pet geckos to hibernate. It is perfectly fine to keep heat on your geckos throughout the winter season, and they should eat, drink, and be active through the winter.

But, maybe you are planning on breeding your geckos or would just like a break and choose to hibernate your geckos. Simply turning off the under tank heater is often enough to hibernate your geckos, as they can be hibernating at 70 degrees Fahrenheit (as low as 55-60 degrees is fine). During the hibernation period your geckos will eat less, drink less, and be less active. They can remain in hibernation for up to three months without losing much weight because their metabolism has slowed, requiring less energy. You can choose to feed your geckos occasionally, but only feed lightly. If your geckos do not want to eat during this period that is fine, remove uneaten crickets so they do not annoy your geckos.

At least several times during the fall and winter I get emails from concerned leopard gecko keepers who have noticed their geckos are eating less. This is normal, and is the result of the temperature fluctuations in your house from summer to winter. I would not worry as long as the gecko is maintaining a fairly constant weight, normal feeding should resume in the spring.

RECOMMENDED READING
The Leopard Gecko Manual. 1998. Authors: Philippe de Vosjoli, Roger Klingenberg, Ron Tremper, and Brian Viets. Publisher: Advanced Vivarium Systems, Inc. 85 pp.


 
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Owner: Steve and Debra Sykes (916) 62-GECKO (624-3256), 10AM-10PM PST
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