By Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
Geckos are one of the most popular lizard species kept as pets. Baby geckos can make adorable additions to any family and when housed and fed properly can grow up to be hardy adults that live many years. The key is to educate yourself before you get them so that you can set them up right from the start.
More than 2,000 species of gecko, varying in color and skin markings/patterns, are recognized around the world. Among the most common pet lizard species are leopard geckos and crested geckos. Less commonly kept geckos include day geckos and Tokay geckos.
When they are born, hatchling geckos are typically 3 to 4 inches long. Adult female leopard geckos grow to 7 to 8 inches, while males grow to 8 to 10 inches. Adult crested geckos of both sexes typically are 4.5-5 inches long.
Many pet stores and breeders sell baby geckos so that owners can bond with their pets at a young age and watch them grow. Baby geckos, however, do not have fully developed skeletal and immune systems and are therefore more susceptible than their older counterparts to developing certain diseases. Thus, they must be fed and housed appropriately when they are first purchased to try to prevent the development of common juvenile diseases.
Once their enclosures are set up properly and a feeding regimen has been established, baby geckos can be relatively easy to care for.
Making a Home for Your Baby Gecko
Geckos are typically housed in 10- to 20-gallon glass aquariums. Plastic storage boxes, such as those for storing sweaters, also may be used, as long as the box is at least one-foot high to prevent the lizard from jumping out. Twenty-gallon tanks are better for larger adults or if more than one gecko is being housed in the same tank.
Tanks larger than 20 gallons may be harder to keep warm and humid enough and may enable the gecko to avoid sitting under heat and ultraviolet (UV) lights. All enclosures must have a secure mesh top to prevent escape and to promote good ventilation. A small, upside down, plastic box with a cut-out door, filled with moist moss or vermiculite, can be used within the enclosure as a hide box to help maintain the humidity high enough to enable the gecko to shed its skin properly. Live or artificial plants can be added to the enclosure, as well, to help maintain humidity and to satisfy the gecko’s desire to climb.
Baby Geckos Need Warmth and Humidity
All types of gecko, regardless of species, need supplemental heat in their enclosures. Heat may be provided with an over-the-tank heat bulb or an under-the-tank heat mat placed at one end of the tank. Hot rocks are not recommended, as they can get very hot, and reptiles often don’t move off them before they get burned.
Gecko tanks should have a temperature range with a warm end and a cool end. The ideal temperature range for a gecko depends on the species. Leopard geckos should have a warm zone (containing the hide box) that is about 90°F and a cool zone that is no lower than the low 70s°F. Crested geckos do better at slightly lower temperatures, with the warm zone in the upper 70s to low 80s°F and the cool zone no lower than about 70°F.
Tank temperatures should be monitored daily with “point and shoot” temperature guns, available in most pet stores, or with traditional temperature strips or thermometers that stick on the inner walls of the tank. The amount of heat provided may need to be varied seasonally depending on the ambient temperature of the room in which the lizard is housed.
Humidity must be monitored, as well, with gauges called hygrometers. Ideally, humidity should be maintained between 50-70 percent to ensure that lizards are hydrated and shed their skin properly. Daily misting of the tank helps to keep humidity adequate.
Most gecko species are nocturnal in the wild, being active at night, so they are not exposed to a great deal of sunlight. Consequently, some reptile breeders and veterinarians feel that geckos do not require UV light. Provision of UV light to geckos is, however, controversial, and certain veterinarians (including this author) feel that geckos do better and are less likely to develop common skeletal diseases, such as metabolic bone disease, when they are exposed daily to a few hours of UV light from a full-spectrum UV bulb, particularly if they are housed completely indoors.
While geckos in the wild may live on sand or soil, these substrates are generally not recommended in a pet gecko’s enclosure, as the animal may inadvertently ingest them and develop gastrointestinal impactions or obstructions. Paper-based bedding, such as recycled paper pellets typically used for guinea pigs and rabbits, or shredded newspaper, are better, since they are digestible if consumed.
For a more natural look, pieces of reptile carpet, sold in pet stores, may be used as bedding; however, reptile carpet must be changed frequently, as it gets soiled with food and feces quickly.
What to Feed to a Baby Gecko
Leopard geckos are carnivores; they don’t eat plants or other vegetable matter but rather live insects such as mealworms and crickets. Crested geckos eat small amounts of fruit in the wild in addition to insects.
Baby geckos can be offered small crickets and mealworms daily. Insects, in general, should be no bigger than the width of the gecko’s head. When lizards get closer to adult size, they can be fed insects every other day and be offered larger insects, such as waxworms, superworms, and Dubia roaches.
The insects you are feeding to your gecko should be fed a diet that has been fortified with calcium, vitamins, and minerals (a process called gut-loading) before being offered to the geckos so that the lizard is getting balanced nutrition. If you are raising your own insects for feed, the insects also should be lightly coated with calcium powder three times a week, calcium powder with additional vitamin D3 twice a week, and a mineral supplement once a week, before being fed to the gecko.
Insects can be provided to baby geckos in small shallow dishes into which geckos can climb to eat them. If a baby lizard is too small initially to climb into the dish, it can be hand-fed one insect at a time until it grows large enough to eat on its own. Only the number of insects a gecko will eat in one sitting should be offered at a time, or leftover insects may chew on the lizard’s skin. In addition, geckos should be fed fresh water daily from a shallow dish from which they can drink. The dish of water will also help to increase ambient humidity as the water evaporates.
Crested geckos, like leopard geckos, also eat insects, but they can be fed a product called Repashy Superfoods Crested Gecko Diet as their main diet to reduce the need for insects. This diet is mixed with two parts of water, and the gecko is offered as much of this mixture as it will eat out of a shallow dish in one sitting three times a week. The mixed diet can sit in the enclosure for up to 24 hours before it should be removed. Crested geckos eating Repashy may be offered insects once a week along with small amounts of fruit (such as banana or mango) or fruit baby food from a jar as a treat.
How to Hold a Baby Gecko
Baby geckos can be very skittish, so handling them when they are little can help acclimate them to touch and make them less afraid. However, until they are at least three inches long, they can be injured when they are handled, so it is better to let them grow a bit before picking them up regularly. Also, for the first two weeks after they are introduced into a new enclosure, it is best not to handle them so that they can adjust to their new home. After that, 5 to 15 minutes a day of handling should be enough to get them used to being held but not too much to stress them.
In addition, reptiles absorb bacteria, other germs, and toxic chemicals through their skin, so it is essential that anyone handling a gecko does so only with clean hands. Conversely, since reptiles carry disease-producing bacteria, such as Salmonella, on their skin that can be transmitted to people during handling, it’s also critical that individuals handling geckos wash their hands thoroughly after touching them.
Finally, since geckos naturally “drop” or release their tails to escape when their tails are grabbed by predators, geckos should never be handled by their tails, or they might break off. Many geckos will regrow their tails if they break off, but the area of the break is susceptible to developing infection, and the new tail may have a completely different color and shape than the original tail. Therefore, it is better to gently hold a baby gecko in the palm of a flat hand while using the other hand to prevent it from jumping or running away.
The "hand walking" method, in which the gecko, sitting on one extended upright palm, is offered the other extended palm directly in front of it to allow it to hop or jump to the second palm, over and over (think Slinky), also can be used to encourage baby geckos to get used to handling.
What Illnesses Do Baby Geckos Get?
Unfortunately, too many gecko owners do not educate themselves about what their lizards require in terms of housing or nutrition before they bring them home. For example, gecko owners are often not aware they have to gut-load insects or dust them with vitamin and mineral supplements before feeding them to their pets. As a result, baby geckos (particularly those that are housed indoors without access to any UV light that aids in making vitamin D3 in the skin to help absorb calcium from food) can develop metabolic bone disease. In this condition, the calcium to phosphorus ratio in the lizard’s body is typically less than the ideal 2 to 1 ratio. Consequently, their bones never ossify but remain soft and spongy and may fold or fracture. They become weak and stop moving and eating. When untreated, these animals often die.
Gecko owners who see any of these signs in their pets should bring them to the veterinarian as soon as possible to start treatment with calcium and vitamin D. With early therapy, these animals can make a full recovery.
Another disease common in baby geckos is life-threatening gastrointestinal (GI) impaction and obstruction with sand bedding. These little lizards inadvertently consume bits of sand as they ingest insects, and sand gradually accumulates in the GI tract until an obstruction ensues. These pets stop eating, become weak, strain to pass stool, and eventually stop passing it altogether. Lizard owners who see these signs should have their pets treated by a veterinarian immediately. With subcutaneous fluids, enemas, and oral laxatives, many of these lizards can be saved.
A final disease that occurs commonly in baby geckos is retention of shedding skin from lack of humidity. Geckos that are kept at too low humidity get dehydrated and retain patches of skin around their toes (where it can constrict circulation, leading to loss of digits) and around their eyes (where it interferes with their vision and their ability to catch insects). As a result, they stop eating, lose weight, and often die. Early intervention by a veterinarian to extract shed skin stuck in eyes, to rehydrate the pet, and to start force-feeding until the animal eats on its own, can make the difference between life and death.