Tokay Gecko Care Guide - The Critter Depot

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Tokay Gecko Care Guide

tokay gecko care guide

Table of Contents

Ask an Expert

Tokay geckos are beautiful and amazing.  But they are not recommended for beginner keepers.  If you are an owner, or are considering becoming one, we have a likely Tokay Gecko forum that can help answer your questions.  Our forum is moderated by knowledgable zoologists, who can help guide you to provide wonderful care for your Tokay Gecko. 

Can I get an intro on Tokay Geckos?

Inhabiting much of Southeast Asia and the Philippines, these large, nocturnal geckos are ubiquitous in many areas and well known for their nighttime vocalizations of  ‘to-kay, to-kay.’

Because of the exotic pet trade, these reptiles have accidentally (and purposefully) been introduced to areas outside of their natural range.

Tokay Gecko Invasion

tokay gecko care guide

Invasive populations have established themselves in Florida, Belize, Martinique, and Hawaii, where they are considered a pest that preys on the eggs of sensitive native bird species.

How long can Tokay Geckos live?

For the dedicated keeper, they are an intelligent, inquisitive creatures and with correct care and housing can live 10 years or more in captivity.  And some have been reported to live 20 years.

Males vs Females

Captive bred morphs are available in a number of stunning colors, even snowflake. Females are smaller than males at about eight to 12 inches and are slightly less colorful. They are generally less aggressive and can sometimes be housed together with another female as juveniles.  However, established adult females that have laid eggs in a cage often attack and injure or even kill any new females added after sexual maturity is reached. Males must always be housed separately from other males. 

Are Tokay Geckos great for beginner reptile owners?

These are not a great species for beginners as they are high-strung, territorial, and famous for biting.

Tokay Geckos will Bite!

They perform two types of bites. One is intended as a warning where a male lizard stands his ground when your hand invades his territory (the enclosure). Although generally ferocious in presentation, little damage is usually inflicted.

The second type of bite is truly deep, defensive bite, intended to inflict pain in no uncertain terms. This bite is often both painful and long-lived, as they will grip and hold on like the proverbial bulldog. Tokays have incredibly strong jaws and sharp little teeth. The best course of action under these circumstances can be difficult for a beginner or a child to manage.  The victim should just release their hold on the gecko and place their hand and gecko back onto its usual enclosure. And then wait for the beastie to let go. Easier said than done, but this approach does greatly limit the wounding of the bitten area. These are very intelligent lizards, and soon they will get the point and let go.

For a keeper who has a great deal of nervous energy or who is short on time to provide correct socialization and develop a bond of trust, this gecko may prove to be less rewarding than a crested or leopard gecko.  If frequent handling is not the point of owning this particular species, then they may prove to work out just fine for even the most timid of amateur keepers. Just remember to keep a hands-off philosophy.  

Crikey!  His Tail Fell Off!

For the bolder or more experienced keeper, or those that wear gloves, it is important to always bear in mind that this species is autotomous, and will lose their tail if grabbed, even if only around the torso.  This voluntary release is a response to a perceived threat. It will grow back in about three to four week’s time, but the animal will require extra protein and increased privacy while doing so. Better just to avoid the whole tail drop thing and if you simply must handle your tokay, do everything around him or her very, very slowly.  

How do I handle my Tokay Gecko?

The number one rule of tokay handling is to build trust with the animal over time. If you are determined to tame this beast, you cannot just grab it behind the head and manhandle it. Experienced and successful keepers of tokays that can be handled begin by coaxing the animal out of its hide and onto a flat palm.  Keeping the hand flat and under the lizard generally prevent receiving a bite.

Once accustomed to the hand, lift the hand while keeping it level and hold it over your head. Human gaze can be intimidating to this creature, so by putting the lizard above you, it may decide that your hand is a good place to collect its thoughts. Once your gecko is regularly sitting on your hand, lightly stroke the underside of its tail with your other hand. As the gecko calms, you can eventually bring it down to body level while still stroking the underside of its tail and very gently coax it to walk from the back of one hand to the other. A walking gecko is a very good sign that the animal is relaxing in your presence. Once you can get your tokay to walk on your hands or arm, observe whether it licks as it walks, tasting its environment. If you see this, you are on your way to having a truly friendly and trusting tokay. 

Do these initial exercises for only a few minutes each session, every other day.  At the conclusion of each taming session, calmly and slowly put the lizard back into its cage. The first few times they are placed back into their enclosure they may freak out and bolt, launching into the air and landing on the cage floor. Anticipate this, and position yourself in such a way that injury is prevented.  It should go without saying that your gecko should only be handled in an area where it cannot escape or hide behind or inside something. Be patient, and although returning tokays to their enclosures without incident may seem impossible, it can be done with time and practice.

How to Design a Tokay Gecko Habitat

tokay gecko habitat

Tokays are large, arboreal and love climbing. The optimal tokay gecko habitat size measures 2 1⁄2 feet long, 2 foot wide and 2 to 2 1⁄2 feet tall.

What substrate to Tokay Geckos like?

Although some keepers prefer newspaper, I don’t personally recommend it. Given the behavioral traits mentioned above, the less fussing with their habitat, the better.  Also, they prefer a very rich environment, full of items to climb on and explore. Therefore, a bioactive set-up is ideal for this species.

Be sure to include all of the usual microfauna needed in order for a bioactive set-up to work.  There are detailed instructions on setup elsewhere on this site. Tokay geckos should be kept on a slightly moist substrate to increase the humidity inside the vivarium. Whilst any loose substrate has the potential to be accidentally swallowed, many keepers have found this to not be a problem when coarse orchid bark is used in conventional housing set-ups.  With a bioactive enclosure, it is advised that the top layer be composed of both dead leaves and some additional sphagnum moss to prevent ingestion of smaller particles that comprise the deeper bottom layers.

Tokay Gecko Habitat Furniture

Tokays enjoy both live and artificial plants, sticks, driftwood, caves, and vines. Hides are a critical provision for this species. They need a secure area where they can sleep during the day and not feel threatened. Fake caves, hide boxes, tunnels, cork logs, and PVC or bamboo tubes make good hides.  Multiple options are strongly advised by experienced keepers.

Provide one near the heat source and another away from the hotspot. Tokays generally seem to like tightfitting hides, so an adult is more likely to appreciate something like a piece of PVC 1 1⁄2 to 2 inches in diameter rather than one 3 to 4 inches in diameter. Baby geckos seem to especially enjoy hiding in small cracks. Adults will occasionally ignore all hides and hang upside down all day, then run around examining all aspects of their habitat each night.

Tokay Gecko Humidity

Although this species of lizard is indigenous to some very humid climates, their humidity requirements aren't specific, and the geckos do well when the enclosure has a humidity level of 55 to 85 percent. Some keepers report that their tokays are happy with 40 percent for a short time. 

They will, however, not thrive in a constantly wet or damp environment. High humidity with inadequate ventilation can cause fungal or bacterial issues. They must be able to dry out occasionally, but if kept too dry, they suffer from stuck sheds, which can be difficult to remove, especially around the toe pads. Therefore, a good rule of thumb is to keep humidity between 60 and 80 percent, and use a screen cover that allows the cage to breathe.

Misting the enclosure nightly just before the lights go off raises cage humidity by imitating a short rainstorm. This is a good way to ensure that your lizard gets enough water. Droplets collect on furniture and give the gecko an opportunity to drink. Many tokays do not like to be sprayed directly and protest if they get wet, so be mindful of their comfort and always mist with dechlorinated, warm water.  

What type of lighting do Tokay Geckos need? 

Animals that inhabit jungle regions do receive a lot of natural shading but still receive a fair amount of UV. Their UVB source in captivity should reflect this. In a screen top enclosure lights are generally suspended close to the ceiling, but not placed directly on the screen. A 5-6% UVB tube or the equivalent compact light is recommended by many keepers.

However, not all keepers agree that tokay geckos require UVB in order to synthesize vitamin D3. These keepers hold that nocturnal animals have means other than sunlight for the production of D3. They all agree that vitamin D3 helps the gecko to absorb calcium which is crucial for bone structure and growth. Some keepers therefore decide to err on the side of caution and provide UVB lighting just in case.  This is fine as long as this same pet is not fed calcium supplements with D3 added month after month in addition to the lighting. This can result in D3 toxicity, so keepers should choose one method only and stick to that. With D3, more is not necessarily always better. 

Generally, 12 to 14 hours of daylight and a subsequent night cycle is effective for this species. A UVB-emitting fluorescent can provide this daylight, but don’t leave bulbs on continuously. This may stress the lizards and conflict with their secretive nature. 

These nocturnal creatures will be at their most active once the lights go out, which means that they should probably not be housed in bedrooms where people need to get a good night’s sleep. Keepers who visit their tokays at night may notice that they can be heard rushing back to their retreat until the “danger” passes.  Their barking can also keep folks awake at night.

What temps should I keep the Tokay Gecko habitat?

Optimal ambient air temperatures for tokays are between 80 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, but the geckos tolerate nighttime drops down into the mid-70s. A basking spot of 90 to 104 degrees is ideal. Monitor it with a thermometer or a thermostat.

Red light bulbs or ceramic heat emitters create effective basking spots for this nocturnal species. Some tokays exhibit very individualistic responses to basking opportunities.  While some never partake, others seem to enjoy it for a small portion of the day. If you are concerned about maintaining a natural day-time/night-time regime for your pet, night-time basking lamps can be acquired that put out very little light and a modicum of heat.

Tokay Gecko Diet and Feeding Schedule

tokay geckos eat crickets

Opportunistic carnivores, tokay geckos consume just about anything they can overpower. In the wild much of their diet consists of insects and other lizards. In captivity they do well on a mix of crickets, mealworms, roaches, waxworms, hornworms, silkworms, and small mice. 

For the maximum benefit for your tokay, “gut load” your feeder insects before offering them. Gut loading means placing the feeder insects on an enriched diet for at least 24 hours prior to being offered to your geckos. This enhances the nutritional value of the insects substantially. A purchased supplement such as those offered by reptile hobby stores is easily available and affordable.  The convenience of a dry gut load diet, purchased from a pet supply house, is undeniable. However, many experienced breeders and keepers have found these products inadequate, so for the really persnickety keeper (and you know you should be) the following formula for gut loading your feeder crickets or roaches is suggested:

  • 24 pbw whole wheat flour (not self rising) 
  • 8 pbw calcium carbonate with vitamin D3  
  • 4 pbw brewer's yeast (Not baker's yeast).
  • 3 pbw soy powder
  • 1 pbw paprika (this is to provide beta carotene)

The ‘pbw’ stands for parts by weight, whatever that weight may be.  Think of this formula as a table of ratios. For instance, if you begin with 24 tablespoons of whole wheat, you would add 8 tablespoons of calcium carbonate and so forth. So for every unit of whole wheat flour, you would add 1/3 as much of the same unit of calcium powder and so forth. 

Because they are not omnivorous, and yet still need a full complement of nutrients, be sure to supplement any gut load formula, whether homemade such as the one recommended above, or commercially prepared, with a mix of leafy greens and yellow or orange vegetables. Do this 3-4 hours before presenting the items to your tokay to insure maximum from consuming the insect’s gut contents.

Adults will eat mice

Once fully grown, these lizards are aggressive hunters, more than capable of consuming fuzzy mice, and for large males, even hoppers. What size mice should you feed your lizard? Never anything so large that he/she will have trouble swallowing it safely.  So larger than the width of the tokay’s head is a no-no.

Concerning feeder mouse terminology…

  • Pinky: A pinky is a newborn mouse. Ranging from one to three grams in weight, depending on where you purchase them. They have no fur and are high in protein. 
  • Fuzzy: A fuzzy is a slightly older baby mouse, with the beginnings of fur. They are slightly bigger in size and weigh around 3-5g.
  • Hopper: The next age stage. These are around 5-9g in weight and are fully formed, but not fully grown.

Does the prey have to be alive? Some keepers believe that the live prey offers the ability for the lizard to perform natural behaviors.  Others claim that this is nonsense and that a rich environment should provide sufficient stimulation. The advantages of pre-killed, frozen rodent dinners over live chow are storage, convenience, and safety.  With live prey the size of hopper, sometimes dinner bites back. Bites from live prey can pierce your lizard’s tongue. 

Pre-killed offerings can last in the freezer for up to six months. Remember to thaw it completely in the refrigerator and warm it to slightly above room temperature in a warm water bath before feeding it to your lizard. Do not use a microwave for this.  Use tongs or hemostats to dangle the prey and "dance" it around in front of the lizard to make it appear alive and entice the tokay to lunge at it. Don’t be too enthusiastic with this action, for you may end up scaring your tokay back into hiding. A delicate dance of the dead will yield the best results.

Dust feeder insect at least once a week with powdered calcium to ensure a calcium and mineral source for tokays. If your geckos are not exposed to UVB lighting, use calcium with vitamin D3, which is commonly used for nocturnal lizard species. This ensures proper bone growth and a healthy nervous system. Placing a shallow dish filled with a supplement in a corner of the cage is a good idea for those tokays who seem to like cruising around on the bottom of the cage for a bit. This sort will often visit the dish and take what they need periodically. Ultrafine calcium powder that is nearly tasteless and sticks well to tongues, feet, and crickets are suggested by many keepers.

Common Tokay Gecko Diseases

Tokays are notorious carriers of all types of Salmonella.  Known as the ‘pigeons of Indonesia’ specimens collected in the wild and shipped to the US often harbor as many as 17 ‘serotypes, varieties of Salmonella, because the geckos are often collected at garbage dumps.  Many of these are strains of the disease are considered to be ‘zoonoses,’ that is, diseases transferable from animals to humans, examples of which are Ebola and rabies. Although Salmonella is often considered a food-borne disease, the chances are about 50/50 that any given wild-caught tokay has the disease.  

The best way of reducing the odds that this bacterium will sicken your pet and possibly yourself, is to purchase your animal from a reputable breeder.  Even though CITES (Convention for the Importation of Threatened and Endangered Species) Appendix II listed the tokay this month (December 2019), this designation is more of a tracking system than regulation of exportation.  It merely requires that more paperwork be done by the importer, so the odds are still good that your local franchise pet store is offering an infected wild-caught animal for sale. 

Many infected adult geckos can remain entirely asymptomatic, but some animals with heavy bacterial loads can exhibit loss of appetite, diarrhea, and lethargy.  Your tokay may be a ‘Typhoid Mary,’ remaining symptomless its entire life, while shedding bacteria like crazy that can infect a handler and other reptiles in the handler’s care.  If you suspect that your pet tokay is suffering from something, it is wise to assume Salmonella is the most likely culprit, once all other aspects of environment and nutrition have been eliminated as the source of the ailment. Stool samples collected 24 hours apart (3-4) will help your vet to diagnose.  Although Salmonellosis in geckos seldom results in death, it can. There is no cure. The best course of action is to provide your pet with palliative care. Reduce stress by limiting stimulating sights and sounds and, of course, no handling. 

Whether you have a fecal test performed or not, it is most prudent to assume your gecko is infected and always bear this in mind when handling and habitat sanitation. Hand-washing, including under fingernails, should be done after each session.  When really good enclosure sanitation and personal post-handing hygiene are practiced, chances of contracting salmonella from your gecko are far less than getting it from undercooked chicken.

Stay safe around tokays, and enjoy their quirkiness and beauty.

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