Leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius) have been kept in captivity for many years. Some think that the leopard gecko was the first domesticated species of lizard.1 Their popularity has increased in recent years because of their small size, gentle temperament, and ease of care. They are a relatively long-lived species, with a life expectancy of up to 22 years.2 The oldest known leopard gecko is 28 years of age.1
Most captive leopard geckos retain the color pattern of their wild counterparts: the dorsal body is light to dark yellow with numerous black markings, the ventral body is plain white, and the tail is banded. However, several different color morphs have been produced through selective breeding programs. Some of these morphs can cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars each.
The large tail serves as a reserve for fat. Tail autotomy is common in this species. Leopard geckos do not have adhesive lamellae on their digits; instead, they have small claws that suit their terrestrial lifestyle. They also possess movable eyelids. The average length of a leopard gecko is 8 inches (range of 7 to 10 inches).3 The average adult weight is 45 to 60 g, but leopard geckos have been known to reach 100 g.1 Adult size is generally reached by 18 to 24 months. Sexual maturity depends on weight rather than age. Leopard geckos can breed once they reach 35 g.1
Leopard geckos can be easily sexed. Males have a V-shaped row of enlarged preanal pores and a hemipenal bulge at the base of the tail just cranial to the vent. Females have very small preanal pores that can be difficult to detect.
Natural Habitat and Diet
Leopard geckos originate from northwest India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, with small populations in Iran and Iraq. The climate in these areas is arid and warm to hot for most of the year, and the geckos' habitat is rocky, with clay-gravel soil below a layer of sand.1
Leopard geckos are a nocturnal or crepuscular species. In the daytime, they hide under rocks or in burrows that have a higher humidity than the ambient environment. Their natural diet consists of insects and other invertebrates as well as newborn rodents. They have been known to ingest sand as a source of calcium.2 Leopard geckos also practice dermatophagia. The exact reason is unknown, but it is thought that they eat their shed skin to ingest essential nutrients or to hide their scent to reduce the chance of attracting predators.
In captivity, leopard geckos can be housed alone, in a group with a single male and several females, or in a group of just females. Males should never be housed together because of aggressive behaviors. As with any other captive animal, the larger the cage, the better. One or two leopard geckos require a minimum floor space of approximately 200 square inches, which is about the size of a long 20-gal aquarium.3 Leopard geckos are not known for their climbing abilities, but a secure lid is still recommended. The lid will not only keep the gecko in its cage but also keep out other pets and pests and supply a secure place for mounting lights and heating devices.
A variety of substrates can be used in the cage, including sand, a sand and soil mix, paper, and bark. If sand is used, the finest grade limestone sand or a calcium-carbonate sand that is safe to eat in small quantities is recommended. Indoor-outdoor carpet or "reptile carpet" is another good substrate. Babies and juveniles are more likely to eat sand and become impacted and are best kept on paper. Cage furnishings such as rocks, branches, and plants add aesthetic value to the enclosure and provide behavioral enrichment and basking sites.
Hide boxes are essential to the well-being of this species. Leopard geckos spend all daylight hours inside their hide boxes. At least two separate boxes should be provided, and one box should have a higher humidity than the rest of the cage. This can be achieved by keeping some moist sphagnum moss or mulch inside the box. This box is essential in helping geckos achieve proper ecdysis. Another box that is the same relative humidity as the rest of the enclosure should also be provided. The boxes should be placed near the middle of the cage.
Leopard geckos are nocturnal as well as carnivorous and receive most of the vitamin D they need through their diet. Ultraviolet light is not needed except to provide aesthetic value to the enclosure. Regular lighting is needed to establish the day-night cycle and provide heat to the enclosure. A 12-hour day/12-hour night cycle is suitable for leopard geckos that are not breeding.
Leopard geckos do not require high temperatures. An appropriate preferred optimal temperature zone is 75°F to 89°F (24°C to 32°C). Nighttime temperatures should drop to 65°F to 74°F (18°C to 23°C). Radiant, conductive, or convective heat sources can be used. Heat lights work well for daytime, and under-the-tank heaters work well to maintain the proper temperature at night. Ceramic heat emitters, which do not create light, can also be used for heating at night. Heat rocks should be avoided because they may cause serious burns.
The cage should be inspected every day for feces and cleaned accordingly. Leopard geckos will routinely eliminate in a chosen place. The substrate should be changed at least monthly.
Leopard geckos are primarily insectivores, but they do occasionally feed on baby rodents or other small vertebrates. A variety of invertebrates should be offered several times a week as well as an occasional pinkie mouse. Because geckos are nocturnal, they should be fed at dusk or at night.
Obesity is a common problem in leopard geckos; therefore, it is important to monitor their weight and adjust their diet accordingly by either changing prey items or decreasing the amount being fed. The diet should be varied to provide all essential nutrients as well as to produce behavioral enrichment. All invertebrates should be gut loaded and dusted with a vitamin supplement that has calcium. If the calcium supplement contains vitamin D3, care should be taken to avoid overdosing. If geckos are housed on sand, the prey items should be placed off of the sand to prevent accidental sand ingestion. A bowl of edible calcium is also recommended to help geckos maintain appropriate calcium levels in their diet and decrease sand ingestion. Fresh water should always be provided.
Leopard geckos have been successfully bred in captivity for many years. As with most other species of reptiles, size or weight determines sexual maturity more than age does. Leopard geckos become sexually mature when their weight reaches 35 to 40 g, at roughly 18 to 24 months of age.1 Breeding is encouraged if there are one male and at least two females in the colony. Shortening the "day" period and decreasing the preferred optimal temperature zone to 70°F to 75°F (21°C to 24°C) for 4 to 6 weeks encourages breeding.2 In the captive setting, leopard geckos can be encouraged to breed at any time of the year, but their normal breeding season in the wild is January to September.1
Females should be offered food high in calcium to compensate for the calcium loss caused by egg production. Females produce one to five clutches of two eggs throughout the breeding season. As the eggs develop, they are visible through the ventral skin. An area of the enclosure should be created to encourage oviposition. The substrate in this area needs to be moist and soft or loose so the eggs can be buried. The eggs measure approximately 28 x 15 mm and are soft and sticky at first.2 Fertilized eggs quickly firm up and are covered with a thick, leathery, chalk-white membrane. Infertile eggs often remain soft. The eggs should be incubated for successful hatching because the adults tend to eat the offspring.
The temperature of the incubation period in the first 2 weeks determines the sex of the offspring.1 At a temperature of 79°F (26°C), mostly females will be produced; at a range of 85°F to 87°F (29°C to 31°C), an equal number of males and females will be produced; and at a temperature of 90°F (32°C), mostly males will be produced. The relative humidity in the incubator should be 75% to 100%. The eggs will hatch after a 45- to 53-day incubation period.2
Once geckos hatch, they should be raised individually. If the babies must be raised together, it is important to protect the smaller ones from injury as well as from feeding competition. During the first week posthatch, hatchlings live off the yolk from the egg. Like most other reptiles, they do not begin to feed on their own until after their first shed, which should occur after the first week of hatching. They should be fed every day or every other day with a vitamin- and mineral-rich meal (e.g., gut-loaded baby crickets). A shallow water dish and a humid hide box should always be provided.
Babies have a banded black and yellow pattern with stronger contrasts and brighter colors than adults.
Selecting a Healthy Gecko
Technicians can play an important role in educating clients on how to select a leopard gecko. When choosing a leopard gecko, the first thing to assess is body weight. A healthy leopard gecko should have a large tail with plenty of fat reserves. The overall coloration should be bright and not dull. If it is daylight, the gecko should be resting, but it should become active if startled or handled. Documentation of the feeding schedule should be requested to determine that the animal has been eating. If these records cannot be provided, potential owners should check for fresh stool in the cage. The oral cavity should be clean and pink, and there should be no evidence of nasal or ocular discharge. The digits should be free of skin from a previous shed cycle. Details about the husbandry practices of the original owners or breeder should be requested. A bad start to life could lead to many problems as the animal ages and matures.
Leopard geckos are one of the most popular lizards in captivity today and are commonly seen in the veterinary clinic. It is important that veterinary technicians have a good understanding of their husbandry and nutritional needs so that they can educate clients on proper care to prevent common medical problems associated with poor husbandry and nutrition.