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Which Reptile is Best for Beginners: Leopard Geckos vs Bearded Dragons
Why are Leopard Geckos Good Pets for Beginners?
Leopard geckos are always a good choice for reptile beginners. They are easy to find at your local pet store or reptile show and come in an array of patterns and colors, referred to as morphs. One leopard gecko can be kept in a 20-gallon tank from infancy to maturity. These geckos live a fairly long time though (10 to 20 years in captivity), so if your young child is wanting one, be prepared to care for them yourself or rehome them eventually when your child goes off to college.
Leopard geckos can be easily handled, don't often bite (but if they do it doesn't hurt), and are a good size for children to hold: not too small and not too heavy. They are, however, a shy species and do not tolerate rough handling by youngsters well.
Leopard geckos seem to take pride in keeping and staying clean at all times. You will find that most of them poop in one spot every time, therefore, making it a lot easier to spot clean and keeping the cage floor cleaner overall. Some new owners who are finicky will find this a very nice feature of this pet. When spot cleaned daily, this pet and its housing will not emit unpleasant odors.
Will Get to Know their Pet Parent
When first acquired, leopard geckos can be a little wiggly and snappy, but are quite easy to tame. In approximately 30 days of consistent, gentle handling, they will settle into a bond with their humans and seem to enjoy being held, although this can vary a little from individual to individual.
Some can become quite affectionate although it is wise to remember that they are fairly fragile and have to be handled with care, and should not be handled by very young children. They are great for older kids, though.
Their housing needs are elementary and a 20 gallon tank will suffice for their entire lives, including juvenile stages, unlike some geckos that require a small tank to begin with, and then upgrading the size as they approach maturity.
Eating Schedule and Diet
We wrote this detailed guides on how many insects you should feed your leopard gecko:
- how many crickets for my gecko?
- how many superworms for my gecko?
- how many dubia or discoid roaches for my gecko?
- how many black soldier fly larvae for my gecko?
This pet is fairly convenient for owners with a busy lifestyle once they have progressed beyond early childhood (the owners and the pets). Leopard geckos that are under 6 months in age have to eat every day, so leaving them home alone for longer periods of time is not possible. But once they’re over 6 months and they start eating less, which is what most leopard geckos do as they get older, then you can leave them home alone comfortably for as long as three days. For people who travel for extended periods, pet care will be needed.
The prices of their food will vary, so it’s impossible to let you know how much that will be a month, but all of their food options are usually pretty cheap, so you don’t have to worry about that being too much if that was ever a concern.
Dietary needs are one of the ways that leopard geckos differ from beardies. Although beardies are carnivorous when growing, they become omnivorous as adults. Clean leafy greens, fruits, and assorted chopped vegetables are all on the menu, in addition to the occasional serving of crickets or dubia roaches. Leopard geckos are strictly insectivorous (carnivores that specialize in consuming insects only). This means that live foods will need to be provided more often and at a bit more expense than adult beardies.
Because their poos and pees are so little and are usually in one spot within the tank, cleaning out their tank isn’t something that has to be done very often at all. Once a week is enough unless housing two females together, then cleaning every other day is advised.
Leopard geckos are mostly nocturnal (they’re actually cathemeral, meaning that they can be active day or night). They prefer nighttime activity, but may need occasional exposure to UVB rays in order to produce Vitamin D3 needed for bone integrity. Supplemental light in addition to a properly balanced diet in order to prevent metabolic bone disease is advised by many experienced keepers.
This arid land species definitely requires toasty temperatures within its habitat, including a basking spot that reaches around 92 degrees F. Supplemental heating and a temperature gradient within the habitat make management of this species a little trickier in this regard than beardies.
Certain leopard gecko morphs are susceptible to a neurological disordered named Enigma Syndrome (ES), after the Enigma color variation. Enigma Syndrome (ES) is a neurological disorder that affects the balance and cognition of leopard geckos. The severity of this genetic mutation ranges from relatively mild symptoms, such as ‘star gazing’, head tilting, and occasional circling to debilitating effects such as seizures, ‘death rolls’, and incessant circling in place. This disorder seems to be unique to Leos, and is not suffered by bearded dragons.
Why are Bearded Dragons Good Pets for Beginners?
Also an arid land species, Bearded Dragons are an excellent choice for the beginning reptile keeper. These animals are a diurnal, sun-loving species who prefer to bask in the morning and late afternoon hours need even higher temperatures than leopard geckos. They can grow to a length of 24 inches from snout to tail tip and live up to 14 years, with proper care. They are twice as large and twice as heavy as a leopard gecko.
Tank Size and Space
This pet will require more space than a leopard gecko. A 55 gallon tank is required for this pet at maturity. These are primarily terrestrial animals that enjoy climbing a little, but they are not arboreal. Therefore a horizontal tank is highly recommended for their comfort and maximum growth.
Temps - Higher than Leopard Geckos
Provide your dragon with a basking spot with a temperature of 95 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and an ambient temperature of 78 to 80 degrees. In fact, nowhere in the habitat should the ambient temperature be less than 75 degrees.
It is also important to give your dragon a choice, so most keepers provide heat on one side only. This is one aspect that differs from leos, who do not thrive in temperatures that hot. In the wild they tend to avoid the heat of the day by emerging at night, whereas beardies are diurnal hunters adapted to some very hot temperatures.
Humidity Needs - Similar to Leopard Geckos
An average humidity of 40% is needed. This is much lower than many reptiles require, but the bearded dragon variety most popular in the pet trade is not a tropical species, but more of a desert dweller. Excess humidity on a regular basis can lead to disease. Humidity can be elevated to 55% when the beardie is molting, but should then be lowered again after shedding is complete, including the tail, toes and head. This environmental parameter is no different than that required for leopard geckos. This makes managing humidity requirements similarly convenient for either one of these pets.
Lighting Needs - UVB all the way
The bearded dragon is one of those lizards that must have regular exposure to UVB light. Direct sunlight is actually the best option, but many apartment dwellers cannot provide a separate outdoor sunning cage for their dragon. If your dragon does not have access to bright sunlight, a special light will be required to provide the UVB wavelength. Referred to as ‘black lights’ they are readily available through many pet supply outlets. A bearded dragon must have UVB provided, whereas leopard geckos may or may not. Experienced reptile keepers argue this point about leos with one another, but all agree that beardies require UVB lamps that are changed out every 6 months.
Bearded Dragon Diet
Diet is one of the biggest way that these species differ from one another. Bearded dragons are omnivores, which means that they will need to eat both live food (insects) and veggies/greens/fruit. Young bearded dragons will mainly eat live insects. But with age (after around 10-12 months old), they need to eat mainly vegetables and greens, and bugs only 2 times/week. Many can be tempted into eating pelleted foods formulated especially for them which contain 20% protein or higher and have vitamins and minerals built in. This is the height of convenience for busy keepers.
We wrote this detailed guides on how many insects you should feed your bearded dragon:
- how many crickets for my bearded dragon
- how many superworms for my bearded dragon
- how many dubia or discoid roaches for my bearded dragon
- how many black soldier fly larvae for my bearded dragon
All new keepers need to bear in mind that a young beardie’s diet should be composed of approximately 85% insects, with fruits and vegetables making up the remaining 15%. So each meal should be comprised of about 50% live insects, 20% worms, and no more than 15% vegetable matter. This ratio will flip when this species reaches maturity. It is the bearded dragon’s tremendous rate of growth when immature that drives the need for so much protein. They can double in size within the first three months, and then the growth rate slows. Leopard gecko growth tends to be slow and steady until 8 months of age. Both species reach sexual maturity at 12 months.
Calcium supplementation should be added to the food weekly and a multivitamin supplement every 2 weeks, weekly for juveniles of both species. Regular dusting of prey items with a supplement such a ReptiCal is most important for young dragons and leos. Keep in mind that BSFL do no need to be dusted with calcium due to their natural level of calcium.
Sanitation Requirements - Bearded Dragons Need more Cleaning
Daily Spot Cleaning
Sanitation is another way is which these reptiles differ. Frequent cleaning of the tank is necessary because of the prodigious amount of poo that dragons will excrete into their environment. Spot cleaning of the substrate may be an every other day task. Because they go all over the place, and not in designated location, monthly sanitation will be necessary. This will not be needed for leos more often than every 2-3 months if the animal is healthy with no signs of illness, and the toilet area is spot cleaned every three days or so.
Metabolic Bone Disease
When it comes to health and susceptibility, beardies seem to fall prey to metabolic bone disease more often than leos do. This may be because as a nocturnal species, leopard geckos need less UVB. Either species can suffer from this, however, if poor husbandry deprives them of either proper lighting or proper nutritional supplementation. The symptoms will be similar, with disfiguration of the spine and decalcification of the jaws, resulting in tooth loss, the most notable signs of an advanced problem. With either species, the degeneration can often be halted, but seldom reversed.
Long Term Family Pets
With good care, both species exhibit a similar lifespan of 10-20 years. Really well cared for leopard geckos can sometimes reach 20 years of age, whereas beardies tend to expire at around 15 years, even with the best of care.
When it comes to owner preferences, constraints and budgets, here is a handy breakdown by issue.
Bearded dragon: Bearded dragons really do look like small, adorable dragons. They have a beard that they can puff up when feeling threatened. There are many various morphs – white, gold, red, yellow, striped and more. Wild type morphs tend to have more brown and black accents than most of the morphs.
Leopard geckos: leopard geckos are truly beautiful. They have dots on their body, a thick tail and beautiful eyes. There are many leopard gecko morphs, even with different color of the eyes and no spots at all.
Leopard Geckos or Bearded Dragons?
Both bearded dragons and leopard geckos are beautiful, and it will be a matter of personal preference only.
Bearded dragon: Bearded dragons are truly diurnal. This means that they are active during the day and sleep at night. That will be a positive point for people who have children or who also don’t stay up at night.
Leopard gecko: Leopard geckos are generally crepuscular, which means that they get active mostly during twilight. This is a time of day when the sun goes down, and before it rises again. There are strong indications that some leos will adopt a cathemeral habit, either voluntarily or with encouragement through handling and altering lighting regimes. These individuals seem to be equally comfortable sleeping either day or night as required.
Depending on your lifestyle, either a cathemeral leopard gecko or truly diurnal bearded dragon may be more suitable for you. Owners without small children who need to get to bed early may prefer leos, but their loosely nocturnal habits are not necessarily a constraint.
Bearded dragon: We wrote a more detailed guide on the cost of bearded dragons. But here's a quick summary:
Baby bearded dragons need to eat 2-4 times a day, which will go down to once a day after reaching maturity at around 12 months old. Beardies in the wild can go without food for several days, but in captivity should be fed 4 days a week. Babies should be fed 3-5 times per day. This requirement can incur some unexpected expenses and inconvenience for new keepers who are not prepared for this fact of beardie husbandry and are constantly running out of food. As adults, their diets will be less expensive than a leo, but the energy required for sufficient heating will be greater.
Leopard gecko: Leopard geckos are obligate insectivores, which means that they need to eat live bugs. Also, you can rarely supplement the diet with freeze dried insects, since live bugs should be the main source of food. Young leopard geckos will need to eat once a day, and adults over 12-18 months old – once every two days. However, adult leopard geckos can go one week without food if required. Since their temperature needs are more moderate, UVB is optional, however, and food can be withheld for adults every so often, maintenance costs are about the same.
Costs will be commensurate for maintenance for both species, and purchase price will depend upon the morph that is chosen. Both beardies and leos of a wild type coloration can be acquired for around $40-$50. Exotic morphs, such as an all black leo, can cost $2,000. In general, for the most common morphs of both species, a purchase price of $200 to $300 should be budgeted for.
Bearded dragon: Bearded dragons are truly fun and amusing pet lizards. They all have unique personalities, love spending time with their owners after bonding, and love snuggling or sitting on their owner’s shoulder. They seem to have a natural desire and affinity for tactile interaction with their owners. Many love to travel and have a favorite perch on the dashboard for short road trips. They are a fairly curious and secure animal when properly socialized.
Leopard gecko: Leopard geckos also have unique personalities, and are interesting to watch and bond with. Most leopard geckos are docile, but not all will become fans of handling. They also tend to be shy. You can also do various activities with your leopard geckos, though. Most leopard geckos are tolerant of gentle handling. However, leopard geckos are not very suitable for children, especially those that get easily scared. Leopard geckos are delicate and can drop their tail if handled incorrectly. Their skin is also more delicate than a beardie’s.
Bearded dragon: Young bearded dragons can live in a small 15 gallon terrarium for up to 1-2 months only. An adult bearded dragon will require a 55-70 gallon tank that is at least 36 inches long. A 40 gallon breeder tank is a bare minimum, so at least 55 gallons is important for a stimulating environment. This pet choice means setting aside more household space than a leo will require.
Bearded dragons require a hot basking spot with constant temperatures of 92-110 degrees Fahrenheit (33-43 Celsius). Also, they need a high output UVB tube that runs 50-80% of the tank.
Leopard gecko: Adult leopard geckos will require 20 gallons at a bare minimum, with 30 gallons or more and extra furniture helping to create a more stimulating environment. For small apartment dwelling owners, leopard geckos definitely require less space than bearded dragons. Both will need wide horizontal tanks, and not vertical ones.
Leopard geckos don’t have the specific heating and lighting requirements of a beardie. As long as the room with the tank is warm, and depending which part of the country you live in, supplemental tank heating may not be needed at all except for a basking spot with a temperature of 83-92 degrees F.
Humidity needs are the same for both, around 40%.
Ability to live communally
Bearded dragon: Bearded dragons must live on their own. Cohabitation of any genders almost always causes problems and injuries. Bearded dragons really enjoy having their own space and get territorial. Your bearded dragon can live a happy life on its own and will not get lonely.
Leopard gecko: Two female geckos can be housed together if the habitat is large enough. As with most reptiles, solitude is preferred by members of both sexes.
To summarize: both types of pets are awesome and attractive. Owner family composition, dynamics, and scheduling will have a bearing on the choice between these two equally nice, but somewhat different, types of pets.
For people with some money to spend on a comprehensive set-up, with a bit of room and older children who want an animal to interact with a lot, a beardie is probably the best choice until very young children are older. For busy people who work long hours outside of the home, a hatchling or very young beardie is probably an unwise choice, and a nice adult rescue would be preferable.
For busy adults with no children in the home, or senior citizens with very little space in their own living quarters, a leo would make a lovely choice. Their tidy habits, smaller size and docile yet shy temperament may be the perfect match for an older person who enjoys more watching than touching. Acquisition of food may be more of a concern for this owner than for an adult beardie, although they will not need to be fed as often. For owners that travel a lot, a beardie is not a good pet to leave alone for several days, whereas a leo can tolerate a bit of neglect. A well-nourished leo will have reserves in its fat tail to assist it with surviving times of lean, while a beardie has no such calorie safety net. A gecko with stick tail will temporarily need the same amount of daily feeding and monitoring as a beardie.
Once a potential owner has analyzed their own situation, there are plenty of pets to be acquired from reputable breeders, as well as awesome rescues in need of a new, loving, and carefully prepared home.