Leopard Gecko Habitat Care
Leopard geckos are amazing creatures and popular pets for excellent reasons. They don’t mind frequent, gentle handling and therefore can be a nice reptile for the beginner. They are fairly low maintenance and with proper care, feeding, and cage sanitation can live an average of 17 years (and some have lived to be as old as 30!)
Although technically a desert species, they actually inhabit grasslands and rocky shrub-steppe Middle Eastern and Indian ecosystems. The temperatures of their natural habitat in summer can range well over 110 degrees F in the summer. Heat and light are therefore critical to their wellbeing, but they must in the correct proportion.
Whether you are housing one gecko in a 15 gallon habitat (terrarium, vivarium, etc), or more in a larger habitat, thoughtful design and set-up of a low-maintenance living area is critical for proper sanitation that helps to insure your Leo’s health.
There are some excellent (and some not so excellent) suggestions on habitat design on the Internet. Explore numerous sources thoroughly and talk to experts, if you can, on the proper lighting, heating, and humidity parameters. As you review various sources of information, bear in mind several things: they do not live on sand, they do not store water in their tails (neither do camels), and they need 3 microclimates provided for them within their artificial habitat (a warm end, a cooler end, and a moist hide for shedding).
A steady diet of crickets, supplemented with superworms as an occasional treat (both of which can be ordered online), will suit them quite well. Fresh water is also a must. So when food, water, temperature, and humidity needs are met, what next? Housework! Now that you have created the perfect little home for your Leos, how do you keep it clean?
The first tip in reptile keeping is to have a sick bay ready. It doesn’t have to be grand, or an exact replica of the main habitat, but it is smart to be prepared. With any luck, your Leo will never need to use it as an actual sick bay, but only as a temporary waiting room while you clean the main crib. Just a generous Tupperware tub with a hide and an easy to clean substrate is enough for 2 hour use while cleaning. If your gecko needs long term isolation due to illness or injury and you have other Leos in the main dwelling, you may want your sick bay to be a little more complete, with moist hide water dish included. But for routine maintenance, first place your friend carefully in sick bay, being careful to pick him/her up by the mid-section, and never the tail, the reasons for which will be explained shortly.
Sanitation cannot be over stressed. A dirty habitat is not only smelly but may cause immunosuppression and thereby increase susceptibility to infectious diseases and parasites. Water dishes, moist hides, and substrate all need to be sterilized regularly. Some daily care is definitely required, such as clean water, food, and removal of feces and unused food items. Monthly sanitation is where your sick bay will come in handy. First, let’s look at the daily chores.
As with the care of any pet, it is important to supply a leopard gecko with clean water. Daily is best, but every other day is acceptable as they are arid lands creatures able to derive much of their metabolic water from their food, which in the case of captive lizards will be mostly crickets. A shallow dish that the lizard cannot drown in is best. A rock or small ladder can be added so that crickets can also leave the bowl without drowning and thereby fouling the water. Again, change water no less than every other day due to the temperature within the habitat (90o F) that Leos need to be most the comfortable and healthy.
Concerning habitat elements, choice of substrate is very important. Many pet store companies will try to sell you sand as a substrate for your Leos. They don’t live on sand in their natural habitat, so don’t put it in yours. Leos on sand tend to become impacted (gut blockage) and may eventually die. Buy a reptile carpet, or slate tiles, or a product like Eco-Earth instead. Tiles and carpet are the easiest to sanitize and then reuse.
A moist hide is an essential part of your Leo’s habitat. This important little compartment, that is kept at a higher humidity than the rest of the habitat, aids in proper skin shedding. Most experienced keepers place damp sphagnum moss inside a commercially available hide (if you make your own from a plastic tub be SURE to sand the edges of the entrance hole to prevent cuts in the geckos skin.) Higher humidity in the hide is important for if the shed skin becomes too dry it may stick to the gecko, causing health problems. For instance, a very common problem is old skin left on the feet, which can shrink and restrict the blood flow to the toes, causing the lizard (especially juveniles) to develop shortened or completely missing toes. In the same manner, drying skin around the eyes that is not properly shed can result in eye damage. Shrinking and tightening skin around the base of the tail can also result in autotomy or discarding of the tail.
Autotomy is a fancy word for tail drop. It is intended as a predator escape mechanism. The result is a raw stump at the fracture line that needs to be kept clean so that it can grow back safely without any complications from infection. The tail will seal itself within days of loss as the radial glia jump into action after separation has occurred. No interference with this process is necessary, but excellent sanitation is. If tail drop occurs, place your Leo in sick bay and sterilize everything. Here is where careful choice of habitat items and substrate can really come in handy. Remove tiles, moist hide, water dish, climbing rocks and even the sphagnum moss from inside the moist hide and either soak in a solution of bleach for 30 minutes or (my favorite) throw it all in a NSF approved dishwasher and hit the pot scrubber cycle. Even the moss can go in if contained in a mesh bag. The National Sanitation Foundation offers a list of dishwashers that they can certify as capable of providing the sterilization needed.
While the furniture is washing, do the house itself. Spray the sides and bottom (paying special attention to corners), with a bleach solution recommended for hospital use. Do not use scented bleach of any kind. Let the habitat sit for 30 minutes, wipe it down, and let it dry for another hour. Then reassemble your habitat with your newly sterilized furniture and place your Leo back inside. Leave him or her undisturbed for 48 hours (no handling) because he/she will be feeling a bit low. The tail contains energy reserves needed for fueling a flight response under circumstances where your Leo really needs to hoof it and the tail has stayed attached. When the tail does come off, it’s as if the booster rockets where jettisoned, so let your little friend rest and recover in their newly sanitized digs. Factoid…the tail actually comprises nearly 10% of the gecko’s body fat, according to South African gecko researchers Patricia Fleming and others. Dr. Fleming and her colleagues stated that tails seem to be packed with fats specifically dedicated as “fuel for running”. So tail drop will be experienced as a crash diet for a while, and those never make us feel on top of the world.
The text above mentioned the importance of a moist hide. While critical to proper shedding, it can also be a little bit of a sanitation problem. The moss should be lightly moistened daily, but should never be soaking wet. Overly saturated moss can become a problem in its own right by growing fungi which can affect a gecko’s skin and lungs. Again, removing the hide and its contents and sanitizing weekly in the dishwasher or sink will prevent fungal infections, as will managing the water content of the moss itself.
So to recap, food/water/misting of moss, and feces removal daily, sanitation of hide weekly, and the full Monty monthly. These measures will help keep your Leo happy and healthy for the many years of their life with you.