By Adam Denish, DVM
Leopard geckos have grown in popularity as a pet choice for people interested in reptiles. They are appropriately sized for handling, have beautiful markings, and are available with a variety of color patterns or morphs. They are not for beginners, however. They are recommended for experienced reptile hobbyists, as they can be difficult to handle and care for.
Geckos and Nutrition
Geckos are small to medium sized lizards that need to eat often and have a relatively high metabolic rate. Due to their small size, they cannot go very long without eating, whereas a larger lizard, such as an iguana or large snake, can skip meals more often due to their comparative size and slower metabolism.
Geckos, like most other lizards, store fat in their tails. Species like leopard-tail geckos and fat-tail geckos are normally seen with a thick tail at the base. It is easy for them to store fat in their tail and use that fat for nutrition during cold months or when ill. It is a great mechanism for them to stay healthy and strong.
What Causes Stick Tail to Develop?
Geckos are susceptible to a wide variety of illnesses that cause them to lose tail weight and body condition. However, remember that any major weight loss, diarrhea or loss of appetite can lead to stick tail disease. Currently, it is believed that most cases of stick tail disease in leopard geckos are due to a parasitic infection called cryptosporidiosis (cryptosporidium parasite).
Crypto, in short, is a protozoal parasite that affects the gastrointestinal system, leading to loss of appetite, diarrhea, and a loss of body condition. The parasite is microscopic and almost impossible to find in a stool sample, even when looking through a microscope. There is specific test for crypto on a fresh fecal or stool sample called PCR testing, but that is not available at all animal hospitals. Additionally, bacterial infection caused by Salmonella can cause similar signs of weight loss leading to stick tail.
Salmonella is very concerning as it is easily spread to other reptiles and can even affect humans, so proper hand and tank disinfection is critical to prevention and treatment.
When to See the Veterinarian
Medically, one of the common conditions that we see in geckos is a syndrome commonly called “stick tail” disease. Generally speaking, it is an accumulation of signs seen in lizards, and left untreated, leads to a wasted body condition. It is seen in many species of geckos, including leopard geckos, fat- tail geckos, and crested geckos.
Stick tail disease gets its name due to the narrowness of the tail as the body loses fat, with the tail taking on a stick-like appearance. It is very important to know what is normal for your reptile pet to help you evaluate and respond to a change in body condition. A good suggestion is to take a picture or have your lizard weighed and evaluated by your vet.
It is beneficial for your reptile to see an exotic animal veterinarian within a few weeks post-purchase, and then for yearly examinations, so that there is a record of your pet’s health.
Treatment for Stick Tail
The treatment for stick tail disease is dependent on the actual cause. If bacterial infection or general parasites are the culprit, they can be treated with appropriate medications from your exotic veterinarian. Avoid using over the counter or dog/cat/human medications for your reptile pet. Each animal is different and needs to be treated correctly.
It is also important to remember that bacterial, viral, and parasitic diseases can be passed to your other reptiles. However, it is not unusual for some pets to appear unaffected while others become severely ill.
If crypto is the cause, specific medications have been used to treat it in lizards, but effectiveness has been minimal. As such, these patients may always be contagious or considered positive even if the signs are controlled and the lizard appears otherwise well. In some cases, these pets are euthanized if they are suffering or if they are a risk to other members of the collection. Most importantly, Crypto-positive animals should never be bred or sold to other reptile owners.
Prevention of Stick Tail
Your pet’s general care is probably the most important factor in preventing stick tail disease. It begins before the purchase of your reptile.
Poor husbandry and lack of knowledge about the lizard’s specific needs is the one of the leading causes of stick tail disease. At minimum, a lizard that is not having its physical, diet, and mental health needs met is going to be an unhappy, unhealthy, and stressed pet. When reptiles are stressed, their immune system is affected and they are more likely to get a disease.
Research the specific lizard species you are considering and make sure that you have the appropriate caging, bedding, heating, lighting, and feeding program planned out, as well as the time you will need to commit to caring for the animal. Be specific in your research and planning, as some lizards even in the same species group can have different needs.
It is also extremely important to purchase or adopt your pet from a source that has quality animals. A reputable breeder or pet store is the most likely to have healthy pets. Do your research ahead of time, check the background and client reviews of the pet store or breeder, make a list of questions to ask, look at the guarantees, and observe the lizard’s general health before you purchase.
When bringing your new reptile home, quarantine it from your other reptiles for a minimum of 30-60 days to give it time to acclimate to the new environment. Is also gives you time to bring your new pet to the vet for an examination and any preventive testing.
There are other causes of stick tail disease that are still being investigated. Since it is catch-all phrase for a lack of body condition, it is imperative to continuously evaluate the health and welfare of your pet. If you suspect illness, don’t wait too long. A small reptile such as a leopard gecko can decline quickly, which then makes it harder to treat.
With appropriate care and husbandry, your leopard gecko can live a long and happy life.