Professional Herpetoculture for the Pet Trade

How To Keep Leopard Geckos

Keeping Leopard Geckos

The most common questions we get asked all seem to pertain to Leopard Gecko care and keeping. A common theme among these questions is that "I've had my Leo for about four months now, and it doesn't seems as strong as when I bought it" or "it's losing color" or something similar. In most cases, this is the direct result of inadequate care. Keepers feel that because their Leo is alive, all is well, and fail to realize that providing inadequate care can cause gradual long-term problems that are difficult to detect. This article will explain how we do it, using methods we've developed at VMS over the last twenty-plus years. Some articles may differ from the methodology presented here, and some may view it as overly simplified.

What do they do in the wild?

This seemingly simple question is often never considered by the novice. They simply take whatever advice the pet store gives them and consider it correct. Well, it probably is not. Your goal as a keeper is to recreate the natural habitat of your Leopard Gecko. Sounds simple, so why do so many have trouble?

In nature these geckos are rather secretive, living in burrows under stones and in holes underground. Such places are actually rather cool and damp, when compared to the hot dry rocky deserts above. They simply are not found above ground unless weather conditions permit. Usually, this is at night - especially following rains or at least periods of increased humidity.

Yet time and time again, we see skinny Leopard Geckos maintained on dry sand under a bright spotlight. This is fine if you want to make Leopard Gecko Jerky!

A typical cage in our facility

Figure 1: a typical gecko setup at VMS

Here's a snapshot of one of our cages at VMS (fig. 1).

I'll discuss each part of it in detail, and why we've chosen each component for functionality. You can easily modify our design to suit your own taste (and certainly make it more attractive), but you must keep the function of each component in mind.

Making your cage pretty at the expense of your gecko is NOT an option.

The cage itself

Figure 2: 28qt Rubbermaid box

We use inexpensive plastic containers manufactured by Rubbermaid (Fig. 2). These are lightweight, stack neatly and are easy to clean and sterilize. Many sizes are available, we use the ones measuring about 16" x 24" and approximately 6" in height. This size can maintain from one to five geckos successfully.

These boxes slide into a lidless 'rack system' of our own design. A solid sheet of melamine acts as the lid (and also as the shelf supporting the box above). The 'lid' surface is quite smooth, preventing noses from getting rubbed raw by active geckos. Being solid, it also helps maintain humidity within the cage. We've found that humidity ranging from 20-40% avoids excessive dehydration and prevents shedding problems. While this type of lid prevents escapes, it does little to provide ventilation. So we melt small holes in the ends and sides of the boxes to provide a little airflow. An inexpensive soldering iron is perfect for the job. Avoid drilling the holes, they can crack and will have sharp edges on which the gecko can cut their noses. For the same reason, try to place the holes high on the sides of the box.

Substrate

Figure 3: newspaper for substrate

We maintain our geckos on a simple flooring of newspaper, folded to fit the box (Fig. 3). This substrate is almost free, easy to change and rather absorbent. It is changed out approximately twice weekly. We allow the paper to dry for several weeks before use, to allow time for the ink to fully dry.

The primary reason we prefer it, is that it prevents the geckos from ingesting unwanted small particles. NEVER maintain your geckos on any type of wood particle substrate, such as pine chips or aspen bedding.

Heating

Figure 4: location of the heat cable

We utilize heat tape or cables underneath the floor of each cage, towards the back edge (Fig. 4). The red line marks the approximate position. These heat sources are connected to a rheostat, which allows us to turn them way down. Most of these heat sources are way too hot for reptile use and can even melt the plastic boxes! By locating them at one end of the cage, a thermal gradient is created, allowing the geckos to shift position and choose their own temperature.

During summer months, we provide a gradient from approximately 80-85F at the cool end to approximately 90-95F at he warm end, and during winter months we allow this to drop about five degrees. These temps are taken at the surface, using an infrared temperature gun. These devices have become very inexpensive, and are much more accurate than a stick-on thermometer glued twelve inches off the floor of the cage. After all, you need to be concerned about the temperature of the geckos, not the air temperature a foot above them. Try visiting our friends at tempgun.com to learn more about these handy thermometers - or even buy one!

Provide a hide box

Figure 5: plant trays are used for hide boxes

We utilize very lightweight plastic plant trays as hide boxes (Fig. 5). These are available at nursery stores and are very inexpensive. We melt holes in all four sides (mostly so we don't have to worry about which way it's placed in the cage) allowing easy access for the geckos. During feeding time, a nose can often be seen grabbing crickets at each opening!

These trays are easy to clean and so light in weight that they will not damage a gecko if dropped accidentally. They measure about 13" square and 3" in height. Male Leopard Geckos love to sit on top of them - a vantage point for spotting rival males I suppose. Having all that extra surface area on top of the box adds about 50% more useable cage space for the geckos - a real plus.

The large size has another important function. It is large enough to provide a thermal gradient within it. Leopard Geckos need to feel secure, and will often stay in a hide box even if the temperature within is uncomfortable. Give them large hide areas allowing them to choose both security and temperatures which are to their liking.

Provide a moist hide area as well

Figure 6: provide a moist hide area

We utilize a standard 16oz deli cup as an additional moist hide area (Fig. 6). A hole large enough to permit access by the geckos is cut in the top.

The cups are filled with lightly dampened sphagnum moss. We cut a large hole in the top of our hiding trays and set the deli cup into it, keeping the geckos from pushing them all over the cage.

Often, geckos in the process of shedding will be seen resting in these cups, and gravid females always select them as their egg-laying site.

Water

Figure 7: provide water in a clean shallow dish

We use standard 'crock style' water bowls for our geckos (Fig. 7). We clean them completely every other day, sooner if soiled.

In spite of rumors to the contrary, de-chlorinated water is not a requirement. We've been using plain old tap water for nearly thirty years now. In fact, the chlorine will prevent rapid bacteria build-up within the bowls - a definite plus. (This is why the water department puts the stuff in there in the first place).

Any type of dish will work, although it should not be too tall - a maximum of twice the height of the geckos is a good rule.

Provide grit or calcium

Figure 8: provide a clean dish of calcium

Leopard Geckos (actually all Eublepharine geckos) ingest sand particles which may aid in digestion, similar to many birds. These particles appear to act as a grinder for the hard chitinous skeletons of insects.

We provide a shallow dish filled with a mix of crushed eggshell, play sand and calcium powder (Fig. 8). Many breeders don't believe in this, and prefer to simply provide a dish of plain calcium powder instead.

During breeding season, females can often be seen selecting out the particles of eggshell to help offset the drain placed on their system by egg production. They know what they need!

Here's a tip

Figure 9: provide insects with food to prevent the predator from becoming prey

Believe it or not, one of the most dangerous items in your gecko cage is the food! Hungry crickets can be extremely aggressive, often turning the tables on your beloved pets and making them into food! That's right, hungry crickets will eat a Leopard Gecko. OK, not the whole gecko, but they will sure nibble on the soft parts, like the eyes. Just drop a couple of kibbles of dog or cat food in the cage for the crickets to gnaw on if they get hungry. Take them out immediately if they get wet (like the one shown here) or they will get moldy.

That's pretty much it for caging and setup. We provide nearly identical cages for hatchlings and juveniles, everything is just scaled down in size! We use 'shoebox' type cages for hatchlings, measuring about 13" x 6" and 4" tall. We keep each egg-twin pair together after hatching, both to conserve space and to allow for a bit of socialization. Be sure to quickly separate them, should one out-pace the other in growth!

Feeding your geckos

In the wild, Leopard Geckos will catch and consume nearly anything small enough to overpower. This includes a wide variety of insects and arthropods, nestling rodents and even hatchling Leopard Geckos! Needless to say, such a varied diet would be impossible to duplicate in captivity... let alone the distasteful idea of feeding baby Leopard Geckos to your adults!

What is really important in the paragraph above is the keyword 'variety'. Consuming a variety of prey items provides a variety of nutrients and minerals which we must try to match for our captive geckos.

Number one problem: Dried up and malnourished pet store crickets and mealworms. These food items are essentially useless. A dehydrated and unfed cricket contains almost no nutrients at all, refrigerated mealworms are even worse. A lot of the variety in nutrients found in wild insects is actually in the stomach content - usually plant material. Once again, we need to duplicate this to provide the best for our geckos!

Enter the catch phrase 'gut-loading'. At VMS, we feed our crickets a wide variety of food items, mostly fresh vegetables and fruits. While this subject is far too large to be covered completely here, a partial list of items we feed includes: dry dog food, chick starter mash, oatmeal, bananas, apples, oranges, grapefruit, carrots, green beans, squash, zucchini, kale, spinach, cactus pads, and just about anything else we can think of. We usually provide the dog food and/or chick starter mash, along with kale at all times, rotating the other food times through in succession. Again, the key is variety. What you are trying to do is offer your geckos crickets with guts 'loaded' with fresh foodstuffs. Don't offer more crickets than the geckos will consume within a few hours, so you know the crickets will still be full of the good stuff when eaten.

Mealworms present a greater challenge. While refrigeration is fine for temporary storage of these beetle larva, they need to be warmed to room temperature to start to feed. We recommend keeping them in plastic storage trays at room temperature with fresh foodstuffs for at least two days before feeding them to your lizards.

Can't I just dust the food?

'Dusting' refers to the process of coating food items with various vitamin or mineral powders before offering them to your geckos. While an important part of the feeding process, it is NOT a substitute for providing your feeders with good nutrition as described above. Coating a dried up pet store cricket with vitamin powder and expecting your geckos to thrive on it is foolish. Would you expect to live a long and happy life on a diet of toast and Centrum tablets?

However, dusting should still be a key component in your feeding strategy. Judicious use of vitamin and especially calcium supplements can go a long way to providing your geckos a balanced diet. We dust our food items with a vitamin powder once per week, and also with a calcium powder once per week. During breeding season, we will increase the calcium dusting to twice per week for breeding adults and hatchlings. We feed our Leopards four times weekly, so this amounts to about 25% of the time, 50% during breeding season.

A note about mealworms

Somehow, the idea that Leopard Geckos can be maintained solely on a diet of mealworms has come into vogue. Sadly, this is not the case. Or at least it would be a real challenge to do so long term. I'm sure several readers are thinking "but I've kept mine that way", maybe so. But have you done this for several generations or kept one gecko for over twenty years? There's a big difference between short-term maintenance of a year or so and long-term maintenance with heavy reproduction.

The simple truth is this: Mealworms have an incredibly bad balance ratio of calcium to phosphorus. Providing an excessive amount of phosphorous in the diet can cause severe problems with calcium adsorption. While many keepers will dust the mealworms with calcium supplement in an effort to offset this, the reality is that mealworms are very smooth and little of it sticks.

While feeding the mealworms a special diet to offset this major problem can be done, it always makes me think of a house painter trying to get pink paint by tinting a bucket of blue paint... Why not just buy the pink, or at least some white to start tinting from?

We feed mealworms sometimes as a backup food source, should we have trouble acquiring crickets, or as an occasional treat. We do not recommend they be used as a primary diet source.