Leopard geckos are a species of gecko native to Pakistan, Afghanistan, North-west India, and some parts of Iran in rocky, dry grasslands. Like most geckos, they are a crepuscular species, partaking in most activity from dawn to dusk. Common leopard geckos typically grow to 7-9” (18-23cm) for females and 7-12” (18-30cm) for males. In the wild a lifespan of 10-15 years is most often recorded, but in captivity they can live much longer, up to 30 years. Leopard geckos do exceedingly well in captivity, and are easily the most popular pet gecko.
Enclosure Design & Info
Leopard geckos are ground dwelling geckos, so they need more floor space than height in their enclosure. However, if provided height and climbing spaces they will utilize it. An enclosure of 30”x12”x12” (75x30x30 cm) is the absolute minimum size for a leopard gecko, even as a baby they will utilize the entire space. That size allows for the minimum thermoregulation and activity space. Reptile Haven does not recommend keeping baby or adult leopard geckos in anything smaller than a 20 (twenty) gallon long, as anything smaller will not provide the adequate thermal gradient. For adults, a 3’x2’x2′ enclosure is the minimum recommended, if you only have glass aquariums available to you a 40 gallon breeder aquarium is going to give you the minimum adequate floor space. Bins can also be used as a suitable cage that are cheaper and lighter than glass tanks. You will need to drill or melt holes in the bin, as well as removing part of the lid for mesh to ensure good air flow and less build up of humidity. Do not put the gecko in until you have tested it to make sure it heats properly and stays at optimal humidity levels. 40% or lower is best. This applies to any cage setup.
It is best to house only one gecko per tank, as leopard geckos can fight and or kill each other. Some will “tolerate” each other for years before attacking the other. Males and Females should never be housed together as the male can breed the female to death. Male pairs should not be housed together as they will fight and injure or kill the other male. Females might tolerate each other for a while but they can still fight just as aggressively as the males.
Measuring your temperatures and humidity levels is very important to keep your gecko in the best health. A spike of 10% humidity can be disastrous in the long term, and a 10 degree spike on the hot side can kill your animal. Thankfully, there are a lot of ways to effectively monitor and control your heat sources and humidity.
For temperature quite possibly the most important tool is having a thermostat (recommended for beginners) or a dimmer. There are many types of thermostats on the market, but the most common is a very simple on/off thermostat, that literally turns off the heat source when a separate probe indicates the heating element has become too warm, and turns it back on when it is too cold. These can be very cheap and effective if you’re using one heat source. Then there are pulse thermostats, which work by powering the heating device in pulses; the longer the pulse, the more heat generated. It is generally recommended to not use pulse thermostats with lights, but they work great for CHE’s, heat tape, heat pads, and heat cable.
Dimming proportional thermostats are most used for bulbs, such as basking bulbs and incandescent bulbs. This type directly alters the amount of electricity flowing to a bulb, you may have seen a similar type of electronic with dimming light switches. This is a good comparison to understand how it works more clearly. Dimmers can be used with any heat source, outside of lighting that contains a ballast like mercury vapor, fluorescent, or compact fluorescent bulbs.
The next step is accurately measuring everything, relying on your thermostat alone is heavily not recommended, as even the best thermostats can fail sometimes. We recommend every single reptile keeper to purchase a temperature gun, you can get them on Amazon for $15-20 USD, and some stores will carry them as well. They quickly measure the surface temperature, and if you’re using a lamp dimmer to control your heat source, you’ll need one to double check what temp equates to the spot on the dial. Next is getting a digital thermometer, do not use an analog thermometer as they are incredibly inaccurate and degrade over time. The same goes for hygrometers. You can find combo digital ambient measurers very cheap in packs on amazon, and they are fantastic are getting quick ambient reads. I place mine in either the middle or the warm side of my enclosures.
For substrates, there are a lot of opinions out there about what is best. The best way to start is to tackle what not to use:
- Calci-Sand: Please read this article about the issues with calcium sand. This is very dangerous to your animal and should be avoided at all costs.
- Sand only: While sand does have its place in the world of substrates, Leopard Geckos do not live on nothing but loose sand like many large keepers and pet store chains would lead you to believe. Avoid using sand as your only substrate, as it can dry out your leopard geckos feet and be an impaction risk.
- Coco-fiber/Coir/Husk: These substrates are meant for humidity based animals, and at the humidity levels you need for leopard geckos the substrate will be incredibly dusty and a eye/respiratory infection risk.
- Corn cob, kitty litter, gravel, oatmeal, aspen, seeds, crushed walnut shells, and wood chips should also not be used. All of these can cause respiratory, eye, vent, and mouth infections as well as impaction, and are simply not suitable and not close to their native environments.
If housed on a loose substrate improperly, leopard geckos risk having a health issue called “impaction”. Impaction is when the substrate builds up inside the gecko, and since their digestive system is not made to pass large amounts of several of the substrates discussed above, it will continue to build up inside their system and cause major health issues for your leopard gecko.
The substrates we do recommend are well suited for the anatomy of a leopard gecko and are helpful in mimicking the hard, rocky, packed earth of their native homelands:
- Tile: Tile is one of the best substrates you can use for leopard geckos, as it has excellent heat distribution and retention, it can help file your geckos nails down, zero impaction risk, and looks very nice and professional. Do not use slick bathroom style tiles, try and find rough finish stoneware ones or even slate if your local stores sell it. Tile is also very cheap for what you get out of it, is extremely easy to clean, and can be changed out quickly. One of the downsides of tile is that there has been people reporting joint issues with long term only tile use.
- Bioactive Arid Mixes: Arid Bio mixes are NOT recommended for beginners, while they do make good substrates they are much more difficult compared to a tropical bio mix, due to the clean up crews involved, plants, and general balance. We do however have a fantastic article on DIY arid mixes here, and The Bio Dudes Arid Mix is a solid mixture as well, in addition to Arcadia Arid Bio mix.
- Non-adhesive shelf liner: While a seemingly surprising recommendation, non-adhesive shelf liners are very useful in a number of situations. If you have a long term quarantined animal, they can be a good cost saving solution that can be easily cleaned or swapped out. No impaction risk as well, and okay heat distribution. If you have a special needs leopard gecko, you may find they do better on this type of substrate.
- Paper towels: Recommended primarily for quarantining, cost effective, easy to monitor bowel movements, easy to replace. Pretty self explanatory, but sterile.
The type of substrate you choose in the end is going to depend on your situation, experience level, and health of your animal. You can even mix substrates, such as doing the arid bio mix as 1/3 of the enclosure and tile for the other 2/3rds.
The design of a leopard geckos enclosure can be very open ended, as long as you follow a few set needs:
- Hides: Leopard geckos need a minimum of 3 hides, a warm hide, a cool hide, and humid hide to aid shedding and hydration (some leopard geckos enjoy licking droplets of water). We recommend not having the humid hide on the cool side as there has been concern over respiratory infections developing that way, we personally keep ours in the middle or the warm side. I find it also creates a more inviting humid hide that way. Suitable materials for a moist hide can be paper towels, eco earth (coconut coir), and sphagnum moss. There is an impaction risk with using sphagnum moss, as it can be an impaction risk if your leopard gecko ingests it. Hides can be made of many things, such as premade ones from Viv exotic, Exo-Terra, Zoomed, and even small time creators like Stroodies (highly recommended!). You can also make your own out of basic clay, Tupperware, tile, or use things like cork bark and branches to create “natural” hides. Avoid any pine and cedar for natural woods.
- Cover: Leopard Geckos can sometimes be very shy geckos, especially when they’re young, and enjoy having cover in their tank to move “stealthily” through their enclosure. We use a variety of fake plants (rinse all flowers and greenery through warm/hot water, if the dye leaks don’t use it), cork flats, and other woody materials across all reptile cages, and fake flowers seem to be a huge hit for Leopard Geckos. There are also seemingly unexpected things you can use, such as PVC pipes (wide enough for them to comfortably crawl through), flower pots, and custom styrofoam and grout creations.
- Heat: For optimal gecko health, you want a warm side of your enclosure between 88-92F (31-33°C), and a cool end of 75-78F (23-26°C). These temperatures provide a good heat gradient for leopard geckos. Heating a leopard gecko enclosure can be relatively easy, most people will use an Under tank heat mat (commonly sold by Zilla, Zoo-med, and Flukers) on a thermostat, we personally use heat tape (you can find kits sold by Pangea and Reptile Basics) on a wired inline lamp dimmer. UTH are great for providing consistent surface level heat to aid their digestion and provide a 24 hour warm spot so they can regulate themselves as needed. While in the wild they do experience night time temperature drops, the ground of their natural ranges retain the daytime heat through the night, where as we can replicate this through nighttime adjustment for a lower temperature, or a UTH set to a lower temp and overhead heating for the day. During the day or if you live in a particularly cold climate, there are several ways to provide ambient heat (heating the air rather than the surface). Ceramic Heat Emitters are the most common and readily available at most stores, even Walmart has begun to carry them in some stores. There has been a shift to switch to Deep Heat Projectors and Halogens (both on temperature controllers/dimmers of course) as they provide better muscle heat, which you can read about the differences [here link to differences in heat sources]. You can also use a Radiant Heat Panel, although they can be a bit pricier compared to DHPs and Halogens. You don’t have to leave your ambient heat on overnight to provide for a night temp drop, but it is dependent on how cold your household gets at night. If it gets below 70F (21°C) ambient in the enclosure at night, we recommend not letting it get colder than that.
- Calcium Dish and Water: Water is one of the things new keepers tend to overlook in terms of what “type” of water they should be using and if it should be treated or not. We recommend treating your water with Reptisafe, using distilled or even R/O water. A suitable water dish should be low enough for the leopard gecko to drink out of, but also make sure you don’t use something massive that will raise your humidity up too much. For calcium, providing the dish at all times is vital for the bone health of your leopard gecko, but more in depth calcium information will be discussed in the Feeders section below.
Various types of rocks and stacking tiles can create rough surfaces to aid in shedding, as well as creating fun enrichment areas that the gecko can interact with. Having a built up area of rocks, or even a paving brick, can become a basking area as well. We utilize paving stones across many of our enclosures for various species, as well as cork bark, and even pottery piece
Humidity, Lighting, and Feeders
Leopard geckos are a low humidity species, with ideal humidity being in the 20-40% range. Above 40% and you can start to risk respiratory infections, which can be difficult to treat as well as expensive vet visits. If you notice your humidity is consistently too high, there are several ways of dealing with it, including putting dry rice in a sock and placing it in the enclosure, there are also mini dehumidifiers that people have put on the cage or next to it. A smaller water dish will also help, and not having the dish on the cool side will reduce humidity.
We recommend UVB for leopard geckos due to the many health benefits it provides. First and foremost, UVB is a step closer to providing the sun inside your enclosure. We won’t ever get to 100% replication, but UVB is as close as we can currently get. UVB allows the gecko to produce D3 to synthesize and utilize the calcium in their diet. This is crucial for bone density and the health of your animal. We normally use powder supplements for this, but not all powder supplements are made the same, and some are even harmful for the long term health of your animal. D3 production is also not the only benefit UVB provides, leopard geckos with UVB have been observed basking more, brighter colors, more activity, immune system boosts, and exhibiting more natural and wild behaviors. The light from the UVB fixture will also provide a day and night cycle for them that is more reliable than the light from windows, however adding a daylight temperature LED for ambient lighting is beneficial for full spectrum lighting and is modular in application.
Choosing the correct UVB bulb can be a bit confusing for a newcomer, but it is pretty simple as long as you pay attention to the percentage strength of the bulb. Leopard geckos are crepuscular creatures, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk, and therefore don’t need a full strength super bright UVB like a Bearded dragon or Savannah monitor. Using a UVB bulb that is between 6-7% (such as Arcadia Shadedweller) will be most beneficial. If you have an animal with sensitive eyes such as albino, eclipse, or any other eye issues consider using a 2% UVB strength. Whether you use a T5HO or a T8HO bulb is determined by your enclosure height, which is covered more in depth here. Arcadia sells their 6% UVB bulb in both T8 and T5 sizes, and their Shadedweller kit uses the T5 size and is only 12″ long. The most important thing to remember is to stay very far away from CFL/coil style UVB bulbs, only use linear UVB bulbs, and to try and get a UVB bulb that covers the entire length of the enclosure.
Feeding leopard geckos is a very exciting experience and can be a bonding opportunity as well. Leopard geckos are insectivores, they require live insects to make up their diets. Staple feeders include roaches (dubia or discoid), mealworms, crickets or locusts, and super worms. Hornworms can be offered as treats, along with butter worms and silk worms as extras into their diet, silk worms can also be used as a staple as they have very good nutritional content. A varied diet is essential to keep your leopard gecko healthy, many people demonize mealworms as bad feeders while failing to understand that it isn’t the insect itself, but the fact that they tend to be the only insect fed. It would be like humans only eating pizza, becoming unhealthy, and blaming the pizza. We have several resources on the nutritional information of feeders, such as this great write up on Reptifiles, so you can make an informed choice on what to feed and when.
Feeding frequency is dependent upon the age and your individual animal, as well as what you’re feeding. If you’re feeding roaches we tend to limit how many they get since they’re very filling and protein rich. Here is a general guideline of frequency:
- Babies: Baby leopard geckos (0-6mos) should be fed daily as much as they will eat in 15 minutes, giving them some time in between insects to make sure they fully chew and swallow.
- Juveniles: Juveniles (6mos-1yr) at a certain point will start to regulate themselves to every other day, so don’t worry if you start to notice that your leopard gecko isn’t wanting to eat every single day. Again, as much as they can eat in 15 minutes is recommended, giving time in between feeders to make sure they don’t regurgitate it up and that they actually chew it. If you notice your juvenile isn’t regulating themselves and is becoming fat, you can change their schedule yourself. Just don’t give in to their puppy dog eyes when they’re begging for more worms.
- Adults: Adult leopard geckos tend to get fed every two days, with some wiggle room for the individual animal. We have a female that we are moving to every other day, while our oldest male is every three days due to him retaining fat a bit too well. We still feed as much as they will eat in 15 minutes, but we do pay attention to how much of one feeder they’re getting in a sitting, adjusting how much they eat depending on the feeder, and their body condition and weight.
Feeders should also be dusted with supplements. If you are not using UVB, you need to be providing calcium with D3 dusted on to your feeders or they will develop MBD (covered below in Illnesses) which can be lethal. Calcium without D3 should also be provided, and a good multivitamin. You can leave calcium without D3 in the enclosure at all times, in a small dish. We recommend using Rep-cal calcium and multivitamin products. Here is a quick guide for a dusting schedule:
Handling, General Care, Common Illnesses or Issues
The biggest thing new keepers skip over is quarantine, which is arguably the most important aspect of good reptile keeping. Quarantine is the period of time where you keep the new animal in isolation away from all other reptiles/pets, in a sterile environment, to observe if the new animal has a illness or parasite or is not passing stool correctly. Quarantine can be from 30-90 days, and when you have a quarantine animal you have to use completely separate tools and supplies to minimize the risk of cross-contamination. Quarantine tanks should be simple, with paper towels as a substrate, 3 hides, water dish, calcium dish, heat. You should add a fake plant or two for cover, but it should be easy to monitor the animal in the quarantine enclosure.
Leopard geckos can make great ‘chill’ pets, but they all have their own personalities and some are simply more active than others, or need more work to be okay with being handled. As babies, leopard geckos are very defensive and try and intimidate ‘predators’ (us) by standing up very tall, puffing themselves up, waving their tail, and screaming. This can be very intimidating, but working with them slowly and gaining their trust at that age will reward you with an active sociable gecko in the future. Even doing general cage maintenance and cleaning their cage can help getting them used to your presence. We have found that talking to your reptiles helps them get used to general noise as well as getting them more comfortable with you personally.
When handling a leopard gecko you want to gently slide your hand under their body, slowly but confident. Try and not corner them, but do a kind of gentle ‘scoop’. Do not grab by the tail as you can risk causing them to drop it (this is relatively hard to do, but it is still a risk). Keep your hand mostly flat, don’t jerk around and just be as calm as you can when you start working on handling. As they become more comfortable with you, and vice versa, the handling process becomes much easier and less stressful. Some will even sleep on you if you have them out!
Metabolic Bone Disease, or MBD as often referred to, is a disease that affects the bones of animals due to a calcium/phosphorus imbalance and vitamin D3 deficiency. It weakens and softens the skeletal structure as well as the shells of turtles and tortoises. As MBD progresses, it can cause tremors, severe weakness, an inability to eat, and even fractures. MBD can not be cured, but it can be prevented and stopped with immediate treatment. An animal suffering from MBD will never return to pre-disease shape, but the bones can be hardened in most cases to allow them to have a normal life.
A UVB bulb is the absolute number one way in preventing MBD, as it’s the most natural way we can provide D3 and requires very little input from us; allowing for the reptile to regulate itself. We have a more in depth article on UVB here.
The secondary way to prevent MBD is by following a dusting schedule which was outlined earlier in the care sheet. In addition, not all calcium dusts are the same, be sure to choose a high quality one such as Rep-Cal. Here is some information on calcium dusts (that calcium chart maybe?) that can help educate your choice.
When treating MBD, the first step is to get a vet visit and we do recommend x-rays. The thing to keep in mind is that part of recovering is going to depend on your animal, so even with vet intervention and treatment, there is a chance of humane euthanasia or passing away. Typically, a vet will begin by a physical examination, do an x-ray, and then prescribe liquid calcium to be done either once or twice a day, for a set amount of days (usually a two week dosage), and will schedule follow ups. You can also bring your leopard gecko outside to receive D3 directly from the sun for 10-15 minutes. This is quite possibly one of the most helpful steps to do when stopping the progress of MBD.
If your leopard gecko has dropped its tail, don’t freak out! It is a defense mechanism or response to stressful stimuli and does not cause severe long term health effects. A leopard gecko can regrow its tail as well, although it does not look the same, typically being smooth and more ‘bulb’ like. Keep your leopard gecko in a clean sterile environment while the tail is healing.
While leopard geckos come in an array of beautiful colors, there are several morphs we highly recommend not purchasing due to the health issues they present.
Enigma: Enigma is a beautiful morph that plays almost as a Randomiser with your Geckos pattern. It’s a dominant genetic so any Enigma x Parent2 combo will result in an Enigma. The issue with Enigmas are the Neurological issues that come along with it. Enigmas have extremely bad balance issues- this can cause them to wobble or circle. They can also be seen death-rolling and stargazing. They are on the IHS’ banned genetic list. Enigma Syndrome is unable to be line-bred out, adding Afghanicus to your lines has no effect.
Lemon Frost: Lemon Frost Geckos come out with bright white/grey eyes, a super light yellow pigment on their bodies and a pattern that wraps to their underbellies. The issue with LF is they tend to die young due to Cancerous tumour development which is directly linked to their unique pigment. LF should never be bred. LF is not on IHS’ banned Genetics. You can not breed out the tumours, they can be internal alongside external.
Geckoboa has a fantastic list of leopard gecko genetics here
Leopard geckos make fantastic pets who are just starting out in the reptile world, and for veterans who want a small interactive reptile that can have a highly customizable enclosure. They come in a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. They’re a wonderful companion that when given the proper care will stick with you for 20-30 years, providing yourself and many others joy and entertainment from such a spunky little pet!