What’s Going On With My New Leopard Gecko?
For new gecko owners, the first few weeks can be an anxiety-filled time. Without the knowledge base that comes with reptile experience, it can be difficult to know whether or not the gecko is thriving and whether the new keeper is using correct husbandry. In addition, many new gecko owners come from a background of caring for mammalian pets and are more familiar with a pet that needs to eat several times a day and moves around often. Since most new gecko owners seem to be caring for leopard geckos, this article addresses some of the questions and concerns that new leopard gecko owners have voiced frequently in reptile forums. Be aware that this is no substitute for a good caresheet and the advice of experienced keepers about your specific situation. Also, be aware that different keepers do things in different ways so there will not be universal agreement about every detail of what follows:
Trying to climb up the glass
Why? Most animals, leopard geckos included, test the limits of their new environment for a few days or weeks. When keeping leopard geckos in glass aquariums or bins, seeing them trying to climb up the glass may be an example of this testing. This behavior is fairly normal and once your gecko becomes accustomed to its new home it should stop. It also could indicate that something in your gecko’s environment is less than ideal. If you are keeping more than one leopard gecko in the same cage and only one is climbing it may be trying to escape the territory of a more dominant cagemate or from an over-zealous member of the opposite sex.
What should I do? If you see your gecko doing this it is a good idea to check that your floor and/or air temperatures are not too hot and that your gecko has a warm and cool hide that allows them to hide completely from the light and feel safe. It also may be a good idea to shut off any bright lights over or near the cage or even cover the back and sides of the cage to block light from coming in from all angles and help your leo feel more secure. If you are keeping more than one gecko together and only one gecko is exhibiting this behavior it may be best to separate them. If the behavior decreases or disappears when they are separated it is likely this was the cause and it may be the best idea to keep them in separate enclosures.
Staying in its hide all the time
Why? There could be a few reasons for this. If you have just gotten your gecko it could be nervous or stressed out by its new environment and reluctant to come out if it has found a hiding spot that makes it feel safe. The behavior could also be completely normal. Leopard geckos that are happy and well fed tend to be lazy and sleep most of the time. The main motivation for a leo to be out and about is hunger. The older they are the less they need to eat to maintain a healthy weight and so they usually become less active.
What should I do? If you have had your gecko for less than two weeks, give it some time to adjust. Try to handle or disturb it as little as possible and feed it by counting 10 mealworms into an escape proof bowl and recounting them once per day to see if the gecko is eating when you are not watching. If you have bright lights over or near your gecko’s enclosure this could be making it uncomfortable or, if they are bright enough, be physically painful for your gecko (especially albinos). It may be a good idea to shut off any lights that are directly shining on the enclosure and/or cover the sides and back of the enclosure to block light from coming in from all directions. If your gecko is under 20g it should begin to eat within 10 days. If it does not it may be time to seek expert help. If your gecko is a healthy adult it may not eat for longer. I would weigh it once every week or two and start to worry if you see loose stool or if it loses more than 10-20% of its body weight (depending on how chunky it was to begin with).
Won’t go into its hide
Why? Some geckos prefer to be out in the open. Some will pick a particular location where they like to hang out and spend weeks or months there and then switch to another location. In some cases the hide isn’t comfortable because of the temperature.
What should I do? Check the floor inside the humid hide with a digital thermometer with a probe to make sure it’s not too hot (it shouldn’t be higher than about 92F). If it is, you’ll have to get a thermostat or dimmer to better control the heat. If the temperature inside the hide is acceptable, just let your gecko hang out where it’s comfortable.
I never see it drinking, shedding
Why? Geckos are nocturnal and unless you are nocturnal and spend the whole night staring at your gecko, you’re bound to miss something. If you see white droppings, those are urates which means the gecko is drinking. You may see bits of leftover shed on the gecko or the floor of the enclosure.
Why? Based on the leopard gecko forums I’ve visited, most worries about new leopard geckos (and not so new ones) center around geckos who aren’t eating. Gecko Time has an article about geckos not eating as well as a sequel to that article. In general, many geckos stop eating in a new environment for anywhere from 1 day to several weeks. Male geckos interested in breeding, female geckos ovulating and geckos who are not getting enough heat also will reduce or stop their intake.
What should I do? Keep offering food. Check with the person or place you got your gecko from to see what it’s used to eating. Offer a variety of different feeders if possible. Try not to worry. If the gecko is visibly losing weight, contact a reptile vet.
Trying to catch the feeder and missing
Why? Some geckos are lousy hunters. Some, especially albinos, have difficulty with bright lights which can affect their vision. Personal experience also tells me that some geckos are lazy and make half hearted strikes at the prey without really trying. Some may not be that hungry. Some may have vision impairments, but this isn’t common.
What should I do? There are a number of suggestions in the feeding articles mentioned above.
Screaming every time I go near it
Why? This is usually something that happens with juvenile geckos. Hatchlings and young juveniles have a number of behaviors designed to protect themselves and scare off potential predators. The most common behavior is lifting themselves high up on their legs, possibly to seem bigger, and screaming. It works very well to startle humans and probably works to an extent on predators as well.
What should I do? Be patient and wait for your gecko to outgrow it. Try not to make sudden moves around your gecko or to corner or trap it.
Sleeping with its limbs in a funny position
This is normal for leopard geckos. Many of them sleep with their limbs pointing backwards towards their tails. Some fall asleep leaning against the side of the tank, or with the head on the hide.
What should I do? Enjoy the view and take some nice pictures.
Licking its bottom
Why? Male geckos lick their bottoms after mating to “clean the equipment”. All geckos periodically lick their bottoms, most likely if they have an itch or detect some substance there.
What should I do? Don’t worry about it unless you see it happening constantly, or if there’s a cut, swelling or redness there. In that case, a visit to a reptile vet is essential.
Why? Many leopard geckos, especially juveniles, may eat too much or may eat a feeder that’s too big. The result is regurgitation. Most of them learn quickly how to pace themselves a bit better. Constant regurgitation, especially of shed skin accompanied by significant weight loss requires a visit to the vet.
What should I do? Clean up the mess and wait for them to figure it out. If you observe the symptoms described above, make a vet appointment.
Retaining pieces of shed on its toes, eyes or body
This is a common problem. It may be due to the gecko not having a humid area to assist with shedding (or refusing to use it). Some geckos who are stressed or ill may not shed well. There is some information that suggests that shedding problems can be a sign of vitamin A deficiency. And some geckos just seem to have difficulty shedding in certain areas for unknown reasons.
What should I do? Make sure the gecko has a humid hide. Give the gecko 1-2 days to finish shedding on its own. If there is still shed sticking to the body, gently peel it off. For shed stuck on toes, it often helps to soak the gecko in about 1/2″ of warm water for a minute or two and then pull off the shed using the fingernails of your thumb and forefinger.
Has air sacs under its front legs
This has been a source of great debate, especially on one of the gecko forums. It may be a sign of over supplementation, too much protein in the diet, getting into shape for breeding, being overweight. No one knows for sure and there hasn’t been enough reliable research done to answer the question.
What should I do? If your gecko seems to be overweight, cut down on the amount of food you’re providing. If you have supplements like calcium in the cage remove them and dust the feeders instead. There is not complete agreement about whether this is a problem or not, so until there’s more data, you could just do nothing and let it be.
Situation Not Normal
Below are a few situations that are due to illness or disease. In most cases, the proper thing to do is to make an appointment with a reptile vet.
Small scrapes and cuts can be treated by making sure they’re clean, making sure the gecko is on a non-particle substrate, and watching for signs of infection or poor healing. If there is increasing redness or other signs of infection, it’s vet time.
Vomiting all the time
It’s crucial to take any gecko that vomits constantly to the vet and to ask the vet to test for cryptosporidiosis, a highly contagious and ultimately fatal disease. Any gecko showing this symptom should be quarantined from other reptiles.
Crawling on its belly and dragging its legs
This is a sign of metabolic bone disease (MBD), caused when the gecko doesn’t get enough calcium and vitamin D3 to metabolize the calcium. Once again, a vet visit is in order to confirm the diagnosis and possibly for the gecko to get a calcium injection. The type and schedule of supplementation will have to be reviewed and modified if necessary.
Losing weight and has a pencil thin tail
Vet time again! Also quarantine time. Be sure not to buy any gecko that shows these symptoms. Some people feel they are “rescuing” the gecko, but what they are actually doing is greatly increasing the chances of introducing a serious disease into their reptile household.
Sharing a cage with another gecko and is all scratched up
The gecko that’s scratched up is being bullied by the cagemate, intimidated and probably prevented from eating. Separate your geckos!
Bitten by a cagemate
One gecko may bite another because of overaggressive mating, gender incompatibility (i.e. 2 males), inability to tolerate group housing or a single, unusual incident. Because of the variety of reasons for geckos biting each other, many people prefer to house their geckos individually. If you choose to house geckos in groups, you will have to make a decision about what has happened and why it did.
What should I do? If you’re not sure, separate the geckos, the safest move. Otherwise, make sure you don’t have 2 males together, observe closely for signs of bullying (see above), separate a male that is too aggressive with breeding. Treat the bite as described above.
We have covered a wide variety of behaviors that worry new gecko keepers. If you have a concern about a behavior that we haven’t covered, feel free to post it in the comments section and we’ll try to reply.
[ed. note: responses to the first 2 questions above were provided by Lisa Brooks]
Aliza is a home care speech therapist living in the Boston area. She has been breeding leopard geckos since 2005 and has also been successful in breeding Coleonyx, African Fat Tail and Gargoyle geckos. Other interests which she pursues in her copious free time include work in ceramics, practicing aikido and surfing the internet.