Leopard Gecko - Eublepharis macularius

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PetMD Editorial
Published: June 14, 2016

Leopard geckos have been captive-bred in the United States for more than thirty years and are one of the most commonly kept pet reptiles. If you’ve ever seen or kept one, it’s easy to understand how their spunky personalities and striking beauty have captured the hearts of herpetoculturists across the world.

Popular Varieties

The common leopard gecko has five officially recognized subspecies, not all of which have common names. This is because all of the subspecies existed as one until the 1970s and early 1980s when taxonomists began separating reptile species into subspecies. The subspecies with common names include the leopard gecko (Eublepharis macularius) and the Afghan leopard gecko (Eublepharis m. afghanicus).

The subspecies that do not have a common name are Eublepharis m. smithi, Eublepharis m. fasciolatus, and Eublepharis m. montanus.

The Afghan leopard gecko (Eublepharis m. afghanicus) was first discovered in 1976 and is much smaller than the other leopard gecko subspecies. Afghan leopard geckos are native to South-Eastern Afghanistan along the Kabul River and its various tributaries. Their range extends into the Hindi Kush Mountains. They appear smaller, more slender, lack the fat tails of the common leopard gecko, and tend to look more striped than spotted like the leopard gecko.

Eublepharis m. fasciolatus was discovered in 1864. Eublepharis m. montanus was discovered in 1976 and is native to the Pakistan range. It has the same smaller, more slender appearance as the Afghan leopard gecko. Its banding and overall coloration tends to be gray with darker gray banding on a white background, and it exhibits a small amount of leopard spotting. They have a distinctive blue mark on the top of their head that usually spans from eye to eye.

Leopard Gecko Average Adult Size

Leopard gecko hatchlings average between 3 and 4 inches in length from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail. Leopard geckos generally tend to be medium-bodied animals, depending on the type, and weigh in between 45 and 65 grams as adults. Adult females typically grow to a length of 7 to 8 inches, with males growing to be between 8 and 10 inches. Males of the super giant bloodline can grow to a length of about one foot and weigh up to 160 grams—over 5 ounces.

Leopard Gecko Lifespan

Leopard geckoes, when compared to other reptiles, are a long-lived species, living for an average of six to ten years. It’s not unusual for some male specimens to live upwards of 10, and even 20, years. There’s even one male on record that was still breeding at the ripe old age of 27 ½.

Leopard Gecko Appearance

Leopard geckos stand apart from other gecko species by their movable eyelids. In fact, they are the only gecko species with eyelids at all; all other species of gecko have transparent membranes over their eyes that serve for protection.

With their chubby tails and wide heads, leopard geckos are quite large as far as geckos go. Wild leopard geckos are typically darker in coloration while captive-bred leopard geckos have an assortment of skin colors and patterns. Leopard geckos are covered on top with bumpy skin and have smooth underbellies. They are typically covered in leopard-like spots or spots with thick horizontal bands.

Spots, Stripes, and Patterning of the Leopard Gecko

Since they have been such a popular pet and captive-bred for so long, there are many different color combinations and patterns to choose from (called morphs). Some of the different morphs that exist are the albino leopard gecko, tangerine leopard gecko, patternless, carrot-topped or tailed, blizzard, jungle, giant, and super giant geckos.

Leopard Gecko Care Level

Due to their easy-going natures and relative ease of care, leopard geckos are a perfect choice for beginners through advanced herp enthusiasts. It is important to consider the long term care that will be required before bringing a leopard gecko home, however, as geckos can live in captivity for a decade or longer.

Your gecko should be handled frequently to socialize them to your touch. But not too much that they get stressed. Leopard gecko behavior can be very mellow though they can bite pretty hard if stressed or ill.

Leopard Gecko Diet

In the wild leopard geckos are insectivores, eating just about anything that moves in front of them. They do not and will not eat plants or vegetables, so don’t even offer them. Most pet leopard geckos will not eat dead insects, so make sure you have a good live-food source nailed down before you bring your pet leopard gecko home.

Feed your leopard gecko late in the day or early in the evening to mimic their natural feeding times, but know that every gecko has different eating habits so there is no one ideal routine to follow.

Juvenile leopard geckos require a daily feeding while adult geckos can be fed once every other day, as much as they will eat in a 15-20 minute period. As a rule of thumb, do not feed your gecko an insect that is larger in length than the space between your gecko’s eyes or they won’t be able to properly digest it.

Hatchlings can eat crickets that are 3/8 of an inch in length, juvenile geckos can eat crickets that are ¼ inch, and adult geckos can eat smaller adult to full adult sized crickets.

Leopard geckos are also known for changing their food preferences as they age, so they may love to eat crickets one day and refuse to eat them the next. To avoid this, try to keep their diet varied on a regular basis, using a combination of crickets, worms, roaches, silkworms, waxworms, and other insects.

Do not feed your gecko any type of insect that glows; the chemical that makes glowing insects light up also makes them highly toxic to geckos. Also, never feed your gecko any bugs that you catch yourself. Wild insects carry parasites and can also contain trace amounts of pesticides. Always source your gecko’s live food from a reputable pet store or breed the insects yourself.

Always make sure that the crickets you will be feeding to your gecko have been fed properly, whether at the pet store or in your house. If the crickets are not healthy or well-fed, they will not be a good source of nutrition for your gecko. This is called “gut-loading,” which means that nutritious foods are fed to the prey animal—in this case, the crickets—in order to pass those nutrients onto the animal that is eating it. Also, all crickets should be dusted with a calcium supplement prior to feeding them to your gecko.

Leopard Gecko Health

Common Health Issues in Leopard Geckos

Captive born leopard geckos do not carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans, and since they come from a dry environment they also do not carry salmonella. However, there are a few diseases and medical conditions that your pet leopard gecko may experience. The following is a short summary of leopard gecko diseases and disorders.

Nutritional & Metabolic Disorders

Metabolic bone disease (MBD) is an extremely serious and oftentimes fatal disease caused by a lack of calcium and vitamin D3. These are both important for proper bone formation and calcification of eggs. Geckos suffering from MBD will experience weakness, deformities in the limbs and spine, bones that become spongy, tremors or twitching, and a lack of appetite. Recovery is possible if caught early and with appropriate veterinary care.

Infectious Diseases and Parasites

Gastoenteritis is caused by a bacterial or protozoan infection and can lead to symptoms like watery diarrhea and/or bloody stool. Other symptoms include a skinny tail, weight loss, and masses of undigested cricket. Gastoenteritis is very contagious so if you suspect your gecko has it, visit your vet immediately. If left untreated, leopard geckos can die of Gastoenteritis. 

Sand impactions may occasionally occur if the gecko eats the sand or substrate that it lives on. For that reason, most veterinarians do not routinely recommend sand bedding.

Shedding Complications

Dysecdysis is a condition where the gecko has trouble shedding its skin. This can be due to poor nutrition, poor health, and a lack of humidity and moisture. Skin that has shed incompletely will look like dry, patchy areas on the animal’s head, limbs, eyes, and tail. If left untreated, dysecdysis can lead to eye problems, noticeable constricting of old bands of skin around the gecko’s limbs, trouble walking, and infection. If a reptile cannot see properly, it won’t actively search out food and will quickly become emaciated.

Respiratory Infections

Pneumonia is a serious respiratory tract infection caused by bacteria in the lungs. Leopard geckos become susceptible to contracting pneumonia if their enclosure is kept too cool and humid. Symptoms of pneumonia include mucus bubbles around the animal’s nostrils and marked difficulty breathing. When caught early enough, the problem can be resolved by adjusting the enclosure temperature to about 85 degrees Fahrenheit but may also need antibiotics from an exotics veterinarian.

Leopard Gecko Behavior

It’s All in the Tail

Leopard geckos are one of the most animated reptiles that you can have as a pet. Hatchlings and juvenile leopard geckos can be very vocal when hungry, crying out and whining to be fed. They also exhibit an interesting behavior called tail waving. Tail waving is a back-and-forth motion that leopard geckos exhibit when they feel threatened. If you ever see your leopard gecko waving its tail at another gecko, separate them immediately.

Another fascinating behavior is tail rattling (not to be confused with tail waving). Very similar to a rattlesnake rattling its tail, leopard geckos will rattle their tails when they get excited. This can often be seen when they’re hunting for food or mating.

Like many lizard species, leopard geckos have the ability to detach and drop their tails when threatened. This is a defensive adaptation called caudal autonomy, or self-amputation, and occurs in reaction to a threat. The dropped tail continues to twitch, distracting the predator as the lizard makes a hasty departure from the scene. The tail does grow back, or regenerates, but it never looks the same as the original tail. In the absence of natural predators, some of the reasons a gecko might drop its tail includes illness, stress from living environment or from aggressive tank mates, and rough handling by owners.

Leopard geckos store fat in their tails and will return to where they dropped their tail after the threat has passed to eat the tail and regain the lost fat supply. In some groups, lizards will bite at another lizard’s tail to force them to release it and then eat the dropped tail. If you see your lizards behaving aggressively toward each other, you will need to separate them to prevent this from happening.

Supplies for the Leopard Gecko’s Environment

Leopard geckos are low-maintenance but they do have unique housing requirements. Once you’ve set up your leopard gecko habitat properly, it’s pretty easy to maintain.

Aquarium Tank, Habitat, or Terrarium Setup

A proper terrarium is the very first piece of equipment you’ll want to buy. Leopard geckos like long, shallow, glass enclosures with wire mesh tops that allows ventilation and light to pass through. Wire enclosures are not acceptable and can cause your gecko to become injured. The minimum size terrarium you’ll want for a single leopard gecko is 10-gallons. For a pair you’ll need a 15-gallon tank, and for three or four geckos you will need a 20-gallon tank at the very minimum.

Substrates should be non-abrasive and non-irritating to the gecko. Sand was always considered the best option, but over the last 10 years opinions have changed. One can use ceramic tile, newspaper, artificial or fake turf, or paper towels. Leopard geckos will designate one corner of their cage for eliminating waste, so it shouldn’t be hard to check for sand in the stool.

If you decide to use sand as a substrate and notice that your gecko is eating the sand or that sand is in the stool, change the substrate. Make sure the substrate is easy to clean and replace and that it isn’t made from anything that causes dust. Dust will irritate the gecko’s respiratory system and can cause health issues. Also, avoid substrates like cedar, pine, hardwood chips, cat litter, sawdust, and corncob bedding.

Every gecko enclosure needs to have three areas: a basking area, a hiding area, and places for activity. When adding decorations and furnishing to a gecko terrarium, try to use things that fit the gecko’s natural environment. Rocks, logs, and artificial plants should be used to create natural living spaces and encourage the gecko to climb, play, and hide. Have at least two hiding areas per gecko and use a nice smooth rock as a basking surface. The more geckos you have, the more basking surfaces you will need.

Don’t furnish your gecko’s home with sharp or abrasive rocks; the gecko could hurt itself when rubbing against them to shed its skin. Also make sure you never use resinous woods like cedar or pine, as they are toxic to leopard geckos. Finally, don’t forget a nice flat, shallow bowl for drinking water.


Your lighting setup needs to mimic the natural light cycle your gecko is used to—or would experience under natural conditions. Leopard geckos dislike bright lights (they’re nocturnal), so UV bulbs are not necessary and can, in fact, stress your gecko out. Proper lighting can be achieved with black heat lamps as well as red lamps placed outside of the enclosure.

There should be 14 hours of light during summer days followed by 10 hours of darkness. When winter rolls around, gradually adjust the periods of light and darkness to 12 hours of each. Automatic timers are a necessity to achieve and maintain the correct photoperiods.


Proper humidity is crucial for a gecko’s ability to shed. Too much humidity can lead to respiratory infections, while not enough humidity can cause skin problems. Maintain a humidity level of 40% or lower using a hygrometer.

Additionally, leopard geckos need “moist boxes” to help them shed. Lining one of the gecko’s shelters or boxes with a moist substrate like peat moss, sphagnum moss, and even damp soil can create these humidified shelters.

Daily Cleaning and Maintenance

Keeping your leopard gecko’s terrarium clean is an important part of maintaining a healthy, proper habitat. On a daily basis you should remove waste, debris, dead insects, and shed skin. If any object or furnishing has fecal matter on it, remove and clean at once. Clean and disinfect dirty water bowls on a daily basis too.

Cleaning and disinfecting the entire terrarium should be a weekly task and includes a thorough disinfection of all the items within the terrarium. If you’re unsure of which cleaning products are safe to use, consult with your veterinarian or local pet shop.

A final tip when it comes to cleaning your gecko’s terrarium: the best time of day to clean is at dusk or during the very early morning hours. This works with the gecko’s natural sleep cycles and will limit the amount of stress it endures.

Leopard Gecko Habitat and History

Leopard geckos are native to Southeastern Afghanistan, Western India, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq. Most leopard geckos collected for the pet trade these days come from animals originally collected in Pakistan.

The leopard gecko’s natural habitat ranges from deserts to arid grasslands, where they spend their days scurrying across the sandy-gravel and hiding in coarse shrubbery. Captive leopard geckos remain active all year long but wild geckos tend to become dormant during the colder winter months.

Your gecko should be handled frequently to socialize them to your touch. But not too much that they get stressed. Leopard gecko behavior can be very mellow though they can bite pretty hard if stressed or ill.

Wild leopard geckos are solitary animals that spend most days in their burrows, coming out to feed at dawn and dusk when the desert temperature is more comfortable. The leopard gecko’s ability to store fat in its tail makes it a very hardy animal in the wild and in captivity.

This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Adam Denish, VMD.