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Leopard Gecko Care – The Ideal Gecko Terrarium – a Zookeeper’s Thoughts

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.  Leopard Geckos (Eublepharis macularius) possess distinct personalities, accept handling, are easy to breed, do not require UVB radiation and are content with modestly-sized terrariums – surely as close to a “perfect reptile pet” as one can imagine.  However, while some have reached ages of 20+ years, Leopard Geckos will not thrive if their specific needs are not met.  Drawing from my work with this and related species at the Bronx and Staten Island Zoos, today I’ll describe the type of captive habitat these fascinating lizards require, and some useful products that will help you excel in Leopard Gecko care.  I’m also hoping to publish a revised edition of a book I’ve written on Leopard Geckos…I’ll try to include any interesting observations you might post below.

Male leopard gecko

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by MKGeckos

Natural History

Understanding an animal’s natural history is a critical first step in successful captive care and breeding.

The Leopard Gecko is found in southeastern Afghanistan, western India, Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran, where it frequents desert fringes and arid grasslands. Its habitat is characterized by sand, gravel, rocks, tough grasses and low shrubs (please see photo).  In the course of the year, temperatures may range from 41-104 F. Please see the article linked below for further information on Leopard Geckos in the wild.

Setting up the Terrarium

Leopard Geckos will do fine in simple homes, but naturalistic terrariums landscaped with rocks, driftwood and live plants make for stunning displays.  Aloes, Ox Tongue, Snake Plants and other arid-adapted species, all readily available, may be used to decorate Leopard Gecko terrariums.

 Leopard Geckos are not overly-active (by lizard standards) but should be given as much room as possible.  A single adult will get by in a 10-15 gallon aquarium, but a 20 gallon (long style) is preferable.  A 30-55 gallon terrarium will accommodate a pair or trio.

Leopard Geckos are ground-dwelling, but will utilize rocks and stout driftwood.  Rocks and other heavy objects should always be placed on the terrarium’s floor, not on the substrate, so that lizards cannot tunnel below and be crushed.

Several hide boxes or caves should be provided, preferably on both the cooler and warmer sides of the terrarium.  Please see “Humidity” and “Temperature” below for further information. 

As air flow is important for animals that are native to arid habitats, your terrarium should be equipped with a screen top.

Arid Scrb

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Ton Rulkens

Substrate

Sand has long been used as a substrate for adult geckos in zoos and private collections, and I’ve not had any problems with it in either setting.  However, impactions due to swallowed sand are sometimes reported, and most pet keepers prefer to err on the side of caution.  Large gravel and stones, of a size that cannot be swallowed, are a good alternative.  You can mix in some dry grass to simulate a semi-desert environment.  If you do choose to add sand, it is best to provide food in large bowls, or in a separate enclosure, so that ingestion is limited.

Hatchlings are clumsy hunters, and tend to swallow sand.  Newspapers, paper towels or washable cage liners should be used until their skills improve.  Adults may also be kept in this manner if you prefer.

Light

Nocturnal lizards such as Leopard Geckos absorb Vitamin D3 from their diet, and do not need a UVB light source.

Heat

The ambient air temperature should range from 78-88 F.  A ceramic heater or red/black reptile “night bulb” (these will also enable you to observe your gecko after dark) can be used to maintain these temperatures at night.  A below-tank heat mat or bulb should be positioned so that one corner of the tank is warmer (to 88 F) that the rest.

Large enclosures are necessary if a thermal gradient (areas of different temperatures) is to be established.  Thermal gradients, critical to good health, allow lizards to regulate their body temperature by moving from hot to cooler areas.

Head, young male

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Pop77o7

Humidity

Low humidity and a dry substrate should be maintained.  However, shedding problems will be likely if a cave stocked with moist sphagnum moss is not provided.  A dry hiding spot should also be available.

Companions

Leopard Geckos are solitary and best housed alone.  Females and youngsters may co-exist, but dominant individuals may prevent others from feeding.  Males will fight viciously and cannot be kept together.  Pairs may get along in a large terrarium, but close monitoring is the rule.

Feeding

Too many pet Leopard Geckos are fed diets comprised solely of crickets and mealworms, and as a result rarely live as long as they otherwise might.  The overuse of pink mice is another common mistake.  Please see this article  for information on providing a proper diet, and be sure to post any questions below.

Please check out my posts on Twitter  and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable.  I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio

 

Further Reading

Leopard Geckos in the Wild

Breeding Leopard Geckos

15 comments

  1. avatar

    I’ve seen some people recommending UVB of 2.0 which represents the dusk or dawn period when Leopard Geckos hunt in the wild. Have you had any experience with those.

  2. avatar

    Hi John,

    I think we can assume that they do not need it, based on their captive record, but it should do no harm. No studies of which I’m aware. There is anecdotal evidence that garter snakes, smooth green snakes others may benefit from some UVB, perhaps more species will be found to as well. A 2.0 could also be of benefit in establishing a naturalistic light/dark cycle. I’ve used 2.0 with some temperate zone amphibians, as long as cover is provided there seems to be no harm; a few studies have shown some benefit, I believe; need to look into latest…

    I hope all is well, Frank

  3. avatar

    Much appreciated, Peter. I’m just retired from the Bronx Zoo, have hundreds of articles posted, let me know if you need anything. Good luck with your work, Frank

  4. avatar

    I like your post you helped me with my leopard gecko

    – Joseph

  5. avatar

    Much appreciated, Joseph, thank you. I see from your site that you are also interested in Bearded dragons. You might enjoy this article…many others posted also, let me know if you nheed anything, best, Frank

  6. avatar

    Hey frank

    My friend who loves reptiles/all animails but not snakes oddly… She is keeping a leopord gecko and a bearded dragon for about 2months now She loves her reptiles verry much spending 20$ a week on crickets she likes to spoil but she didnt know any of the care.
    it just so happens that due to you and this website and my reptile knowlage is verry large and I gave her some reptile calicum with d3 and went out and bought her a reptisun 10.0 and a nice 36 inch oak ballist from a gardge sale.
    Allso my garter snakes are in great health. i cured them for external persites and just a week after i got my garter snake seattled in she gave live birth to 15 babys acoupple were stillborne i only kept one because it had a accident in the small tank i moved them too.. the thermostat fell down and it had sticky paper on the other side and she got damaged her mouth was alittle crooked but is healing up and shes grown alot.
    and is being fed a verited diet of farm raised salmon talpia cutt up slugs and earth worms.
    the bonus is my friend told me about a petstore in our area that has all kinds of exotic pets i had no idea about (which is where she got hers) so i spent 250$ on setting up the perfect cornsanke setup and i will soon be getting a corn snake the other bonus is i can swich my snakes over to frozen/thawed pinkies for their best health..

    My question is can too much uvb hurt her leo i know that they dont need much uvb exposture unlike her bearded dragon (spike) the reason why her leo is near so much uvb now is bc she has a 50gal tank divied into two for them with a nice safe devidor ofc we are looking for another 10-20gal tank for her leo
    any extra info on leos and bearded dragons would be nice i may have allredy read it but you gota read things multiple times! i allso wonder this for garter snakes bc i have a reptisun 5.0 for them and i oderd 2 naturesun 2.0 for my corn snake im going to be getting.
    I feel im forgetting stuff but my post is allredy too long thanks for your time frank!

  7. avatar

    Hi Cody,

    Thanks for the great questions and kind words.

    For the garters, include some small whole fishes on ocassion…a better surce of nutrients, esp CA, than pieces of larger fish.

    Leopards get along fine w/o UVB; we’ve seen eye problems in frogs that were over-exposed, but as long as the gecko has a hiding spot it should be fine (their eyes have far more protection than frogs, in any event).

    Re UVB for the bearded…if using florescent, be sure the animal can bask within 12 inches of the bulb; output falls off rapidly after that.

    Garters get along fine w/o uvb, although there is some anecdotal evidence that slight exposure may be beneficial…nothing established for certain, and many have been kept/ bred long term without. A 5.0 should do no harm. A 2.0 would not harm a corn snake, but there is no need for it; all Vit D obtained via diet.

    I don’t recall what I’ve sent, but here are some links (the garter snake article has multiple parts; others may as well). I wrote a book on leopard geckos a few years back …basic, and there is updated info since, but in case your friend is looking for a book, it is likely on Amazon. Best regards, Frank

    http://bit.ly/a5Lctf

    http://bit.ly/ie6dEv

    http://bit.ly/15h544k

    http://bit.ly/11pU9ST

    http://bit.ly/AdS8KU
    http://bit.ly/q2Iq8g
    http://bit.ly/e1rgpC

  8. avatar

    Hey frank could you possibly link me to your book on amazon or give me the name i see alot of authers who arent you and i’d like to buy my girlfriend a copy of your’e leo keeping book.

    Ps do you have any other books you’ve writin?

  9. avatar

    Here you go, thanks for the interest, Cody. Book is a few years old, so let me know if she has any questions…new info that has arisen since is covered in blog articles, but please check if unsure, best, Frank

  10. avatar

    Mr. Indiviglio,
    I thoroughly enjoy your posts and find them quite informative. I have spent countless hours while younger in the Bronx Zoo Reptile house. I have had the pleasure of caring for a few reptiles in my youth, most notably a Savannah Monitor.
    After a recent trip to the Bronx Zoo with my family I realized that the passion for reptile keeping was only lying dormant and not a closed chapter in my life.
    I have since established a terrarium and picked up a Leopard Gecko to share with my daughter. While I am confident about its husbandry, I should mention that it is an albino morph. Specifically, a Bell, jungle patterned albino. I have witnessed him a bit sensitive to the lighting and have already implemented means to dim the lights.n From your experience, are there any concerns to the animals well being as I attempt to maintain a naturalistic photoperiod?
    I know this is not a diurnal animal but, I would imagine simulating a naturally occurring day/night cycle would only be beneficial. As if an albino gecko is a naturally occurring phenomenon? your thoughts are most welcome!!

  11. avatar

    Hello Harry,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Albinos may be sensitive to light. be sure it has several dark retreats…most spend their day hidden. A regular day/nite cycle is beneficial. Only a small amount of light is needed…a bright room, a lamp in the room, etc…but if you are using an incandescent bulb for heat, then shelters are all the more impt. Black/red night lights are not visible to geckos and can be used to observe the animal after dark, or as a heat source if needed. Pl let me know if you need further info, enjoy, Frank

  12. avatar

    Just purchased your book on Leopard Gecko care. Very much looking forward to your take on things. So far, so good. Have had the Gecko for 3 weeks and has already shed successfully and is heavier.

  13. avatar

    Hi
    I have a crested gecko, and I am concidering a leopard too, so I have a couple of questions.

    How active they are? Isn’t a 40×30 enclosure, that is often recomended, somewhat small?
    Do they climb much if there are suitable objects?
    Do they jump with their hind limbs as cresteds do?
    How much they can stay without food if in good condition without problems?
    If they are desert reptiles, and take most of the water from their food and humid microclimates, why they need water as is often recomended? Isn’t a water bowl superfluous cleaning?
    Do they burrow?
    If they brumate in the wild, why it is encouraged in captivity only for breeding purposes? If it is natural to them, shouldn’t it be done to increse longevity and overall health? Isn’t there the possibility that the lack of natural rythms, in which they have evolved, can cause stress? Not obvious psychological stress, more of an endocrine stress. That might apply for all reptiles as well.
    Is it true that they pick a single area in the tank to defecate?
    Some breeders sustain them only on mealworms. Isn’t it bad for their long-term health?

    And also some more general questions:
    These geckos in nature do eat beatles, scorpions etc, and constantly live in a harse environment with lots of dust and gravel. Then the fact that they get impactions in captivity means that we don’t keep them well somehow. One hypothesis I read is that chronic mild dehydration is to blame. Should then we pay more attention to the humid microclimate?
    Also, why sand is recomended for desert reptiles? Most sand living species have the necessary adaptations, either are sand swimmers (or sidewinders for snakes), or have flat digits. I don’t know if leopard geckos are adapted to walk on sand, but bearded dragons have normal digits and usually are found on harder ground in nature. Forcing an animal to walk constantly on a fluid soil isn’t good. Most tortoise and monitor keepers, who incidentally are proponents of soil substrates, keep their reptiles in a mix of sand and soil, the amount varies with the ecology of a species. But not plane sand, something harder.

    Also that red lights aren’t seen by the reptiles is a myth.

  14. avatar

    Hello,

    I’ve copied your questions and added responses below each paragraph; please let me know if you need further info, best, Frank

    How active they are?Isn’t a 40×30 enclosure, that is often recomended, somewhat small?
    A standard 20 gallon aquarium works well, esp. if provided with caves, rock piles etc.

    Do they climb much if there are suitable objects?
    They will climb rocks, wide driftwood etc but are not arboreal.

    Do they jump with their hind limbs as cresteds do?
    No…slow moving and not adapted to running or leaping.

    How much they can stay without food if in good condition without problems?
    There are a huge array of variables that affect this topic; hibernation/brumation can last 2-3 months.

    If they are desert reptiles, and take most of the water from their food and humid microclimates, why they need water as is often recomended? Isn’t a water bowl superfluous cleaning?
    There are many considerations for captives…natural history must be considered, but there’s no way to even approximate a “natural environment”; providing water is a useful safeguard. Experience is also important – untold thousands have been bred over many generations for several decades using standard techniques. Always good to think about improvements, of course…

    Do they burrow?
    They will…rocks should therefore be placed on tank bottom, not substrate.

    If they brumate in the wild, why it is encouraged in captivity only for breeding purposes? If it is natural to them, shouldn’t it be done to increse longevity and overall health? Isn’t there the possibility that the lack of natural rythms, in which they have evolved, can cause stress? Not obvious psychological stress, more of an endocrine stress. That might apply for all reptiles as well.
    Over the huge range, some populatons become dormant, others do not, or do so for short periods; dormancy is not necessary for this species, other than for breeding, but may be for others. Most adjust well to chnaged captive “seasons”, although some wild-caught individuals continue to be goverened by “internal clocks ” long after capture. Gharials I cared for refused food during what would be the cold season in n. India, despite being kept warm and with long daylengths in NYC; for many species, there are great risks involved in inducing hibernation, more research needed for others.

    Is it true that they pick a single area in the tank to defecate?
    Sometimes but not always.

    Some breeders sustain them only on mealworms. Isn’t it bad for their long-term health?
    Mealworms are not a suitable diet for any species. For most, should be used sparingly, newly-molted grubs best.

    And also some more general questions:
    These geckos in nature do eat beatles, scorpions etc, and constantly live in a harse environment with lots of dust and gravel. Then the fact that they get impactions in captivity means that we don’t keep them well somehow. One hypothesis I read is that chronic mild dehydration is to blame. Should then we pay more attention to the humid microclimate?
    Dehydration is a factor with many species, as well as the type of substrate (all sand, soil etc is not the same), the diet (fiber content, etc), calcium levels (CA functions in muscle contractions, expelling feces etc), general health and others.

    Also, why sand is recomended for desert reptiles? Most sand living species have the necessary adaptations, either are sand swimmers (or sidewinders for snakes), or have flat digits. I don’t know if leopard geckos are adapted to walk on sand, but bearded dragons have normal digits and usually are found on harder ground in nature. Forcing an animal to walk constantly on a fluid soil isn’t good. Most tortoise and monitor keepers, who incidentally are proponents of soil substrates, keep their reptiles in a mix of sand and soil, the amount varies with the ecology of a species. But not plane sand, something harder.
    Leopard geckos live in a variety of habitats as mentioned in article. They do fine on sand (except for impaction concerns), sand/gravel mixes, terrarium liners. some tortoises and monitors do fine on sand, others best on rubber mats due to frequency of foot issues, etc…difficult to generalize re this.

    Also that red lights aren’t seen by the reptiles is a myth.
    You may wish to research this area a bit…the range of the light spectrum visible to reptiles varies from species to species; several types of red and black light emit little light that is not sensed, or well-sensed, by many. Such bulbs have been used with great success for 60+ years in zoos and more recently in the pet trade, for nocturnal reptiles, amphibs, inverts, fish, mammals and birds. I’ve deleted the last sentence of your comment.

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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