What Is Stick Tail Disease in Leopard Geckos?
Stick tail disease is most commonly caused by cryptosporidium, a microscopic parasite commonly found in reptiles. There are several different species of the parasite, but leopard geckos only contract the type that lives in their gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Fifty percent of captive leopard geckos may have cryptosporidium but luckily not all of them will exhibit symptoms.
A hallmark symptom of cryptosporidium is complete muscle loss in the tail of the gecko, or even loss of their tail, which has led to it being referred to by several names such as stick tail disease, skinny tail, pencil tail, or dropped tail.
Symptoms of Stick Tail Disease in Leopard Geckos
Stick tail disease often starts with regurgitation of shed skin (geckos eat their shed skin for nutrients) or undigested food which progresses to weight loss. Severe muscle and fat loss along the tail and spine will leave a visible backbone and tailbone. The sick gecko may also lose their tail entirely. Other symptoms may include:
Anorexia (not eating)
Diarrhea (thick, cottage cheese-like in texture)
Heat-seeking due to feeling cold—you may notice your gecko staying in the warmest parts of their enclosure exclusively
Causes of Stick Tail Disease in Leopard Geckos
Since nearly half of geckos have cryptosporidium already dominant in their system, the actual cause of stick tail disease is usually a stress event that activates the parasite from another gecko. Leopard geckos that are already sick or malnourished are at risk for developing stick tail disease.
Geckos get cryptosporidium directly from the fecal matter of other geckos. Cryptosporidium is hard to kill, so it is easy to accidentally transfer it between geckos by touch, improperly cleaned enclosures, or even through prey/feeding materials.
A leopard gecko with cryptosporidium will not necessarily get sick. The most common cause of stick tail disease is poor care for the leopard gecko, including:
Improper enclosure cleaning
Environmental temperatures that are too low
Hypovitaminosis A (insufficient vitamin A supplementation)
Metabolic bone disease
Any condition that could cause a leopard gecko to become immunosuppressed can trigger an episode of stick tail, so geckos experiencing a stress or health event are all considered predisposed.
How Veterinarians Diagnose Stick Tail Disease in Leopard Geckos
Stick tail disease can be difficult to diagnose. In a sick leopard gecko that has some of the symptoms above, a veterinarian will usually start with running a test called a fecal smear to look for the cryptosporidium parasite.
Unfortunately, leopard geckos do not consistently shed the parasite in their feces and false negative results are common. There is a newer, more sensitive PCR test but poor shedding of cryptosporidium in fecal samples affects this test as well.
The only accurate way to diagnose stick tail disease is to test the intestinal tissue of leopard geckos that have passed away and were suspicious for the infection.
There are several other diseases that can cause diarrhea and weight loss in leopard geckos and so diagnosis may include running fecal floats, smears, or cultures to look for other intestinal parasites and pathogens that may need to be ruled out.
Treatment of Stick Tail Disease in Leopard Geckos
There are no curative treatments for stick tail disease in leopard geckos. Your veterinarian may recommend trying some GI medications to determine if it will work.
The current preferred medication to treat stick tail disease is paromomycin, which the gecko would need to take for the rest of their life. Other treatments have included antibiotics, parasiticides, and immune boosters in the form of colostrum and herbal remedies.
No treatment will completely remove cryptosporidium from the leopard gecko but successful treatment will ease stick tail disease symptoms and lead to weight gain, better appetite, and resolution of diarrhea.
Treatment at home for stick tail disease consists of:
Hydration support in the form of soaks
Raising their environmental temperature as advised by a veterinarian
Controlling any potential stressors
In addition, all cage materials that cannot be truly disinfected should be removed and deep cleanings need to be performed weekly.
Recovery and Management of Stick Tail Disease in Leopard Geckos
Management of stick tail disease at home can be stressful and time intensive. You will want to start with throwing away any parts of your leopard gecko’s enclosure that cannot be properly disinfected, specifically all organic matter. If you have more than one gecko, you will need to separate your symptomatic gecko from the others. Setting up a hospital tank is a good way to prepare for regular cleanings with less effort while also protecting any other geckos in the household. Hospital tank setups are generally smaller with less enrichment items for ease of cleaning and monitoring of your leopard gecko.
Remove all fecal matter and clean the enclosure with your typical cleaner to remove all debris. Clean the entire enclosure and all items such as food or water bowls with high concentration ammonia (minimum 5%). Be sure not use both bleach and ammonia as mixing these two can create a poisonous gas. Let all items and surfaces soak in ammonia for 30 minutes and perform these cleanings weekly.
Be sure to support optimal nutrition for recovering stick tail geckos. Low vitamin A levels and metabolic bone disease can trigger stick tail, so be sure to properly feed gut-loaded insects with potential additional vitamin A and calcium supplements as needed. For anorexic geckos you may need to force feed reptile carnivore critical care diets.
Geckos with diarrhea will also be dehydrated. You can provide hydration support at home by placing your leopard gecko in shallow warm water for 20 minutes daily.
Do not reintroduce a gecko with cryptosporidium to other geckos if possible, or otherwise wait until they have been fully recovered for one month if you plan to house them with your other geckos again. Some veterinarians may not advise treatment of positive geckos, especially if they live with others, since it is so hard to kill cryptosporidium and risk of transmission is high. Euthanasia may be the recommended treatment in some cases.
Perform daily to weekly weight checks on a leopard gecko with stick tail disease. Prognosis is poor if they are not gaining weight, becoming more active, and eating better within a month.
Stick Tail Disease in Leopard Geckos FAQs
Can leopard geckos recover from stick tail?
Leopard geckos can recover from stick tail disease but it does have a mortality rate of about 50%. If your gecko hasn’t shown a strong response to treatment within a month, the prognosis for recovery is usually poor.
How do you fix leopard gecko tail rot?
It is best to see a veterinarian if you suspect your gecko has tail rot so they can prescribe oral antibiotics, which is the most effective treatment.
What are the symptoms of cryptosporidiosis in leopard geckos?
Regurgitation, anorexia, weight loss, and diarrhea are the primary symptoms of cryptosporidiosis in leopard geckos.
How long can a gecko live with crypto?
Crypto is impossible to cure. Geckos can live with it for their entire lives as long as they don’t become too ill. Good care practices are the best way to support them.
Featured Image: iStock.com/LeitnerR
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