Scientific name: Eublepharis macularius
Leos make great pets. They are small-sized, gentle, well-dispositioned lizards. Leopard geckos rarely bite. Unlike the gecko most people think of, Leos do not have "suction cup" feet. They can't climb walls or glass like their cousins, but they do like to climb and explore things like rocks and logs. Leos are very easy to keep as pets and are very resilient. A healthy Leopard requires little more than heat, a house, food, water and a clean tank. Remember when choosing a Leopard gecko as a pet that it could live 10 to 20 years. This animal will be with you for a long time and you are responsible for its care.
Leopard geckos are found in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. They are terrestrial (live on the ground) lizards, inhabiting arid regions and preferring rocky desert areas or grasslands over areas of open sand. They get their name from the leopard-like spots that cover their bodies. Juveniles are quite different in appearance, being banded and boldly colored. The banding and color intensity gradually fades as the young gecko matures. Typically, adults are about 8 to 10 inches from tip of nose to tip of tail and weigh 45 to 65 grams. Leopard geckos are in the sub-family Eublepharinae, which means having eye-lids. Unlike many geckos, Leos can blink and sleep with their eyes closed. In the wild they will eat mostly insects such as spiders and scorpions but are opportunistic and will eat most anything they can crush with their powerful jaws (for their size) and swallow. Leopard geckos are nocturnal (night-time) lizards and retreat into cooler burrows or rock crevices during the day.Housing: Housing will be discussed first since you shouldn't bring home your new pet until you have everything to take care of the it. A single Leopard gecko can be housed in a ten gallon tank, two or more should have more room. Obviously a ten gallon tank is the minimum and your Leo won't complain about extra room. Typically, a group of three Leos will be comfortable in a 20 gallon-long tank. The tank needs a hide box for the gecko to sleep in. The black plastic hide boxes available at most pet stores work very well and are easy to clean. Place a metal-screen top on the tank (pet shops sell these), more to keep the crickets in than the gecko. Use metal screen tops as they allow lights to be placed on top of the tank without fear of burning.
Leopard geckos can go quite a while without water, getting much of their water needs from the prey they eat, but you must still provide a shallow water dish to supplement their water requirements. The molded plastic dishes commonly sold for lizards are great as they are not too deep, so neither the gecko nor crickets they eat will drown and the plastic is easy to keep clean.
You should also provide a moist hide box for your pet. Lizards periodically shed their skin. When they are shedding it is VERY important that they have a place of high humidity to go to. The high humidity keeps the shedding skin soft and pliable. This allows the skin to peel off easily. Without this the skin might become dry and stick to the gecko. If the old skin does not shed properly it cause health problems. The most common problem is the old skin on the toes "strangles' the blood flow to the toes. It is uncommon to see a Leo that had some shed problems as a juvenile and now has one or two shorten or missing toes. Improper shedding can also stick to the gecko's eyelid. This dead skin around the eyes can become infected and damage the geckos eyes. These problems are easily avoided by providing a moist box and KEEPING it moist.
A moist box is very easy to make. Take a plastic container with a sealable lid and cut a round hole in it big enough for the gecko to get in and out of. One of the best containers is a margarine "tub". They are tapered and sit well if you place them in the tank upside down. The hole you cut can be on the side or top, the gecko will find it. You can use moist paper towels on the bottom of the box (as pictured) or you can partially fill the box with moist fine-grained vermiculite. If you use moist vermiculite, I advise putting the hole at the top of the hide box (bottom of margarine tub) because the vermiculite stays in the box this way. With the hole on the side, the geckos often kick the vermiculite out. After cutting the hole you may want to take a match and flame the edge of the hole. This slightly melts the sharp edges of the opening. Two or three times a week mist the box to keep it moist, but don't make it so moist that free standing water exists. Change the paper towel when spoiled, discolored or torn up and the vermiculite monthly. Often the gecko will prefer the moist box to the hide box as a permanent house, but keep both in the tank to give the gecko a choice.
Temperature & Lighting: The tank will also need heat and optionally a light. Light is needed only to give the gecko a normal light cycle. Since leos are nocturnal and hide in shelters during the day they do not require UV light. Use a regular incandescent aquarium light fixture for daylight for the gecko. You can use either an overhead heat lamp or an undertank heat pad. Avoid heat rocks as they provide only a small heated area. Whichever you use, place it at one end of the tank to provide the greatest temperature gradient and allow the Leo to choose its own comfort zone. There should be one spot in the tank that the surface temperature reaches 88 to 90 F. Air temperature should be 85 to 90 at the hot end of the tank. Leave the heat (either heat lamp or heat pad) on 24 hours a day. Heat lamps are advantageous in that they provide both heat and a "moonlight" effect at night. The night-time reptile bulbs give off a dim red or purple glow that won't bother you too much but lets you see and enjoy your gecko when it is out and active at night. You may also want to put the daylight fixture on a timer and give the gecko 10 to 14 hours of light depending on the season (10 hrs. winter 12hrs. fall/spring and 14hrs. summer). At night the temperature may drop (because the daylight bulb is off) and can go as low as the lower 70's. One final note on temperature, don't place the tank in an area of extreme temperature fluctuation. This includes in windows with direct sunlight that might overheat the tank and drafty areas that could chill the geckos.
Substrate: The final piece of the tank is the substrate you put on the bottom for the gecko to walk on. This can be orchid bark, newspaper, sand or carpet (astroturf type sold for reptiles). I don't recommend anything other than newspaper for baby geckos. They eat things they shouldn't and may ingest sand. This can cause them to become impacted and possibly die. Newspaper is very easy to clean, just change it and throw the old away. Newspaper however, isn't very attractive and doesn't seem to be the preferred substrate by Leos. For adult Leopard geckos, you can use fine play sand, purchased at the toy store or lumber yard. Once the Leo is six months old it can be moved to sand or other substrate. If you see the Leo eating sand (they lick it up) increase the calcium supplementation and place a small dish of calcium powder (e.g., Rep-Cal phosphorus-free with vitamin D-3, ultra fine blend) in the tank.
Picking out a Leopard Gecko: First, buy only captive bred animals and not wild caught. There is no reason to deplete the natural population of these animals since so many are available from breeders and captive bred generally are far healthier. Fortunately, wild caught leopard geckos are fairly rare in the trade because they are so readily captive bred. Try to see if the Leopard Geckos you are considering buying from are kept under the proper conditions. Pet shops may be looking to sell in volume and many neglect proper care. Most private breeders are not mills and keep their animals well, but it may be hard to see how they keep their animals since they often sell only at shows. If the animals are obviously kept wrong walk away. Look for bright eyes and a fat tail. Remember hatchlings have thinner tails than adults but they should not be shriveled. The body should be full and the Leo should walk with its body high off the ground. Ask to see the animal eat. It should do so with enthusiasm. Do not buy a sickly looking gecko because you feel sorry for it. It will likely die anyway, you may end up with expensive vet bills and all it does is teach the store that it doesn't matter how they keep their animals. Choose well for this is a 10 to 20 year relationship.
When handling a Leopard gecko (or almost any lizard) DON'T pick it up by the tail. The tail may break off! This is a defensive mechanism. When a predator attempts to catch it, the lizard can "drop off" its tail. The tail will then wiggle violently and the predator will then be distracted and "catch" the tail while the lizard escapes. Eventually, the Leopard gecko will grow a new tail, but it will be shorter and bulkier than the original. This is known as caudel autotomy.
Sexing: If you plan on keeping only one animal it doesn't matter what the sex is. If you want to keep two or more you MUST know the sex of the animals. MALES CAN NOT KEPT TOGETHER! They will fight to the death. Even two males kept together since hatching will one day attack each other, there is no maybe. First, decide if you want more than one animal, then if you want two or more decide if you want eggs. Females are fine together and will develop a dominance hierarchy. Occasionally two females may be incompatible or one female may be overly aggressive, but this is rare. If you want a male and female you will get eggs. You are not obligated to hatch the eggs, you could throw them out, but why not get two females if you don't want to breed them?
So, how do you tell boys from girls? As hatchlings you don't. As adults its very easy. In between it takes a little experience. Males and females look the same from the top, but if you look at the underneath they are easy to tell apart. Males have a distinct set of preanal pores in a V-like pattern between the back legs just in front of the anal opening or vent (at the base of the tail) and have hemipenal bulges at the vent area (harder to tell unless you have a little experience). Females lack both the pores and bulges.
One interesting thing about Leos (as is true for many reptiles) is that sex is determined by the incubation temperature (for leos this occurs during the first 16 days of development). At temperatures below 82 F virtually all females result, at temperature of 90-92 F virtually all hatchlings will be male. Based on incubation temperature, some breeders will tell you they have hatchlings that are 90% certain of sex. This is pretty reliable but not guaranteed. A few experienced breeders claim to accurately sex Leos as young as one month old using a magnifying glass. Most won't give a guarantee until the gecko is around 3 months old.
So, now you've decided how many and what sex(es) you want. Now you get to decide what phase (or "morph" loosely taken from the word morphology, which is the study of form and structure of an organism) leopard gecko to get. All this means for you is that they look a little different. Each "phase" or "morph" varies in color or pattern, it is strictly looks related and there are no differences in care, longivity, etc. Simply pick the color and pattern you like best.
There are now many different types including Normal phase (lots of spots and dark bands), High-Yellow, Leucistic or Patternless, Jungle, Pastel/Lavendar, Tangerine, Hypos, carrot-tails, Snow, etc. The most popular/ common are high-yellows, which are close to "normal phase" but a little more colorful. They have more yellow and fewer spots. It is hard or impossible to tell a high-yellow from a normal as hatchlings, so you will have to depend on the breeder if you buy a hatchling. Jungles are very similar to high-yellow except as babies they have an aberrant pattern rather than bands. As the jungle matures the spots that do form tend to follow the pattern. All in all as adults jungles are very similar to high-yellows. Pastel or Lavendar are also very similar to high-yellows, they are light yellow, have less dense spotting but the bands are very faint lavendar and should remain slightly visible as adults. Again you can't tell them apart from normal or high-yellow as hatchlings. Patternless (aks, leucistic) is really xanthic or extremely high yellow with no spots or black markings. These are easily distinguished as hatchlings. Tangerines are more orange colored and Snow phases are bred to have little yellow and more white. Hypos are bred to have no spotting and can appear similar to patternless except for the tail (which will have near normal markings in hypos). Albinos are lacking or have greatly reduced black pigment. Quality and quantity both affect the price you will pay. Again, none of the phases has any differences other than color, they are all delightful pets. It is recommended that beginners buy a 3 month old or older gecko. They are usually past the critical first few sheds and are more forgiving if misting and humidity requirements are missed a few days here and there. At three months they also look pretty similar to what they will look like as adults. The bands are faded quite a bit and the spot pattern is pretty much set. Some of the different phases are pictured at the end of this caresheet.
Daily Care: Leopard geckos will strive on a diet of mainly crickets but it doesn't hurt to add variety occasionally. Hatchlings to four months old are fed every day (3 to 5 crickets) and juveniles to adults are fed every other day (4 to 6 crikets). The crickets should be about as long as the gecko's head is wide. This translates to 1/4 to 1/2 size crickets for hatchlings, 1/2 to 3/4 for two to five month olds, and 3/4 to full grown crickets for six months to adulthood (tip: I use 1/2 to 3/4 for all my geckos older than two months, this size is better nutritionally and they don't chirp!). If the gecko eats all the crickets right away and still appears hungry or the tail is thin, you should feed it a little more. Let it eat as many crickets as it wants in ten minutes, remove uneaten crickets from the tank or they might nibble on your gecko. You can put pieces of oatmeal in bigger tanks for the leftover crickets to eat. The loose crickets are bothersome to catch in the bigger tanks so you want to give them something to eat so they don't bother the geckos. Occasionally check to see if your Leo is obese. If the tail is very fat you should look at the "armpits" of each leg. Look to see if there is a ball or bubble of fat there. If there is, cut back slightly on the feedings, you have a fat Leo. Since geckos are cold-blooded animals their metabolism slows or increases with cold or hot weather. This means they will tend eat less in the winter and more in the summer.You can supplement feeding with mealworms, superworms, roaches, and waxworms. Many breeders use mealworms but you need to be careful with calcium supplementation as the powders do not stick well to mealworms. You are better off feeding mealworms in a dish with calcium supplement in the dish, that way the leo will get some calcium powder when it grabs the mealworms. Make sure that the worms can't climb out of the bowl but that the bowl is shallow enough for the leo to easily get in and out of. Waxworms should only be used as a treat as they are very fattening. Superworms and roaches should be properly sized for your leo. Supplementation and "gut loading" of the crickets is very important! Young, growing Leos and egg laying females have a great need for supplemental calcium. It is used to build strong bones and produce egg shells. Young leos and egg-laying females should be supplemented every feeding with an ultra fine blend of calcium powder with added vitamin D3 and no phosphorus. This can be purchased at most good pet stores. Adult males and non-laying females can be supplemented every other feeding. The crickets should also be fed cereal, oats, fruit (oranges) and vegetables (carrots, potatoes, lettuce, etc.) for at least 24 hours before feeding them to the Leos. The food the crickets eat then ends up in the gecko giving better nutritional value. You should also use a vitamin supplement as a helpful additive. Once each week, substitute calcium powder coating the crickets with vitamin coating them. Use a powdered vitamin (e.g., Herptivite). The easiest way to coat the crickets is to put the powdered supplement (either calcium or vitamin) in a plastic bag with the crickets. Then simply shake up the bag until the crickets are covered completely (they'll look like ghosts). You can also leave a dish of calcium powder in the tank. Many leos will lick up the calcium if they need more. You should watch your Leo to see if it licks up sand, if it does it most likely needs more calcium. They eat the dirt/sand to gain the small amounts of trace minerals (e.g., calcium) in it. Keep the water bowl filled and clean. If you use a humidity/moist box you don't have to mist the adults. Hatchling to three months old should be misted daily even with the moist box. They are not always smart enough to use the box or an aggressive cage mate may kick them out of the preferred box. Mist the area under the hide box until it is damp and mist directly on the gecko. This will make a hatchling Leo give out a primordial scream. But, everything makes a hatchling do this. Don't worry about it, they are just warning you not to mess with them. Most hatchlings stop 'screaming" at about a month old. Keeping them moist is very important. As mentioned earlier it aids the shedding of the gecko and growing geckos shed often. You may never see the shed skin because the gecko eats it but you will see the gecko become very dull almost white in color just before it sheds. This is a hint that you should be extra careful about misting for the next day or two. Shedding problems are probably the number one killer of young Leos, that or calcium deficiency. Both are easily avoided with minimal care. Keep the tank clean, it is good for the geckos health. One very convenient behavior of Leopard geckos is that they use the same place in the tank for a bathroom all the time. This makes it easy to do daily spot cleaning. You should also completely clean the tank periodically.
Handling: When handling your Leopard gecko try to herd it into your hand rather than grab it by its middle. If you do pick them up by the body, cradle the body and don't squeeze too hard. While Leos are very hardy and take alot of abuse, excessive pressure can damage a small animal. A hatchling or new Leo might be rather "skitterish" at first but as it grows and/or becomes familar with you it will calm down and be a very relaxed and gentle lizard. Remember too, when your gecko is running away from you to avoid the urge to grab it by its tail. If for some reason your Leo does lose its tail don't panic. It will bleed for a bit then stop. Keep the gecko warm, feed it well and keep the tank clean to avoid infection. The tail will eventually grow back, starting as a pinkish stump and continuing to full grown and then regaining some of the coloration. It will never look quite as good as the original but it will work just as well at storing fat.
If you have additional questions about leopard geckos try to attend one of the LIHS monthly meetings. You can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or write or call the LIHS at the address/phone number at the top of this sheet. Reading about your pet before buying it is always beneficial.