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‘Stick tail’ is a generic description for a gecko that is losing body mass. It is most noticeable in leopard, crested, and fat-tailed geckos which is a sign of disease or illness.
A fat-tailed gecko and a leopard gecko should have a fat-tail. But when the tail is not fat, it’s a sign that the gecko is losing weight throughout the body. And as the concerned owner, you will see this weight loss first occur in the tail, where body fat reserves are stored.
While stick tail is not a disease, it can be indicative of a number of underlying problems. Sometimes the problems are easy to identify. Which is good, because sick tail can be deadly.
And at first, it's easy to think that this leopard gecko just needs some more crickets introduced into his diet. But a lack of food isn't the cause. Cryptosporidium is the most common cause. And these one-celled organisms may infest the stomach mucosa, but can also find their way to other areas of the gastrointestinal tract. It can be difficult to diagnose . But these fecal hitchhikers are very hardy, and even resistant to many commonly used disinfecting agents, including diluted bleach. Further features of this organism include the oocyst surface receptors. These play a role in ensuring that this parasite stage is close to the host target tissue in the small intestine” (Leitch and He, 2011).
Infected geckos will exhibit weight loss (stick tail), and may even develop secondary bacterial infections in the GI tract. It is not self-limiting, therefore your Leo will never be able to just get over it, or become immune, as they might with a bacterial infection. In addition to weight loss signs of diarrhea, regurgitation, lethargy, and grayish poop can be symptoms.
The oocysts may very likely be shed into a water dish from time to time, where they will be waiting to infect other members of the habitat or to re-infect the original host. Unfortunately, current anti-protozoal medications for geckos are not particularly effective. Your veterinarian can advise you on proper courses of action and prognosis. But they may not always have good news. Because mortality is high, and it is contagious. For these reasons, Crypto-positive animals should never be bred or sold to other reptile owners. Potential buyers of Leo’s (or any pet reptile) should be aware of this condition and only purchase their new pets from reputable breeders.
If you will be taking your new acquisition home to live with other reptiles, some time spent in ‘sick bay’ (30 days of observation) would be prudent if you have ANY doubts as to the animal’s health (or better yet, don’t buy it). If you do observe any of the above symptoms occurring, including the beginnings of stick tail, collect feces and take them to your vet for analysis. They will run or order a Polymerase Chain Reaction test for Cryptosporidium DNA. The cost for this will run about $50. And that’s just the beginning.
The veterinarians at the Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital state “To date no effective cure for this infection has been found. Treatment by Paramomycin has shown to decrease shedding of infective cysts and control clinical signs for many animals, but eventually treatment fails and clinical signs return. Research is ongoing to find better alternatives for therapy and there is hope for better treatment options on the horizon (2018).
If you have had the misfortune to purchase an infected gecko, you absolutely must keep that individual isolate from any other reptile pets. If you did not realize the disease was present, remove the individual to your sick bay and sterilize all surfaces and furniture with strong (3%) hydrogen peroxide. This may prevent other exposed reptiles from contracting this disease. After the initial sterilization, good sanitation as usual is adequate.
For this ailment, it is plain that prevention is the best medicine.
Other endo-parasites that can trouble your Leos are:
- Hookworms – Geckos infected with hookworms may have slimy, mucous-filled stools. Cleanliness is the best prevention for hookworms. Treatment of this endo-parasitic disease often be dealt with using an over the counter wormer such as Panacur. Consult a veterinarian on dosage.
- Coccidia – can sometimes be difficult to diagnose, but can be successfully treated with a coccidiostat such as Ponazuril.
- Roundworms – roundworms are white worms that resemble spaghetti noodles. Good husbandry first, then wormer if needed is the recommendation.
- Tapeworms – these are visible to the naked eyes and are usually transmitted from stools of infected reptiles. Good husbandry and an appropriate wormer should solve the problem.
Although this is not an exhaustive list of endo-parasites (those that can live inside a gecko) it does hit most of the major criminals.
Fortunately, ecto-parasites, the ones that live on the outside, are uncommon in Leos. They can get mites, however, tiny little arachnids that look like moving specks. If your Leo is submerging most of his/her body in their water dish much more than usual, suspect mites and perform a visual examination. If you see them, they do need to be dealt with immediately with a recommended spray or soak. Then the habitat needs (of course) special attention to rid it of mites, which are ingenious at laying their microscopic eggs in places you thought you had cleaned, and yet they still survived. Normal sterilization in the dishwasher or sink will take care of the furniture, but all organic substrate must be discarded. It’s just too difficult to eliminate the eggs otherwise. There are acaricides (mite killing agents) on the market that seem effective in getting into those hard to reach places in large terrariums/vivariums but be very sure that they DO NOT contain pyrethrums or permethrins, which will kill your reptiles outright.
Any one of the endo-parasites that causes your Leo to lose body condition can lead to stick tail, which may eventually lead to tail drop. This is less likely with mites, unless your pet is so miserable that they lose body condition from discomfort, which can also end in tail-drop. It pays to observe for Leo daily and notice any changes early in the process.