If you’ve never had a pet reptile before, the leopard gecko is a good place to start. These little lizards are charming and easier to care for than many other species.
“Leopard geckos are beautiful, with lovely colors and markings, huge bright eyes and sweet faces. They are delightful to watch, curiously exploring their environment or hunting insects like a tiny cat, creeping stealthily then pouncing at the end,” says Dr. Frances Baines, a retired British veterinarian with an interest in researching the lighting needs of reptiles and amphibians. “Once their housing is set up, with the lamps on timers, the heating on a thermostat, they are quite low maintenance, very clean, almost silent, and undemanding.”
Lynsey Rosen, DVM, an exotic animal veterinarian and Fear Free certified professional, agrees. “I think they make really good pets. They’re generally very friendly and docile and they have really cute, unique personalities. I just think it’s really important that when people get one they do their research and understand what goes into setting them up, and that they make sure they have a veterinarian that can see reptiles so they can get proper care when they need it.”
What do you need to understand, if you’ve never had a reptile before? Unlike most mammal pets, who can thrive in the same environment we do, reptiles need to be provided with the correct levels of temperature and humidity, which can differ by species. You’ll need to be able to control and measure those environmental factors in their enclosure (consult a reliable source for the specifics: Baines recommends you start here).
It’s not enough to just crank up the heat in your house, because your pet’s needs are more complex than that. “She doesn’t just need ‘warmth’; she needs a specific range of temperatures from warm to cool, called a temperature gradient, so she can move around and choose her preferred temperature at different times of the day,” says Baines. “If she’s too cool, she can’t digest her food and becomes sleepy and slow. If she’s too hot and can’t escape the heat, she will die.”
Reptiles also need special lighting. Although leopard geckos in the wild are most active after sundown, they do bask in the sunlight, and UVB lighting helps them produce vitamin D3, which is essential for their health. Baines says, “I highly recommend the daytime use of a gentle incandescent basking lamp paired with a specialist low-output UVB reptile fluorescent tube for all leopard geckos, placed over one end of the vivarium to provide a ‘patch of sunlight’ below.”
Your enclosure must provide not only for the physical health of your gecko, but also behavioral health. Enrichment for reptiles isn’t buying toys or playing games but providing an environment that allows them to feel safe and express natural behaviors. In the wild, they live in rocky, scrubby terrain where they spend the day sheltered in crevices and tunnels.
“They are quick to learn the layouts of little caves, burrows, and safe places; they are instinctively nervous of open spaces and being pounced on from above by a bird or mammal predator,” says Baines. “So to have a happy gecko, he needs to feel secure, with plenty of interesting little hides, caves, and safe places, some of which can be filled with damp moss for increased humidity. There should be very little open space in the vivarium, so if he wants, he can get from one side to the other without being seen. If possible, house him in a vivarium that opens at the front, so you’re not moving a screen and reaching down from above to feed him or pick him up. You can cover the sides and back of an all-glass vivarium with a backdrop taped to the outside, too, so he doesn’t feel so exposed to the rest of the room.
Health problems with reptiles frequently stem from errors in providing the right environment, so when a veterinarian sees a sick gecko, that’s the first thing she thinks about. “We always ask for a really detailed history of what they’re doing at home: what they’re feeding, how their enclosure is set up, their lighting sources, where the reptile came from, how they’re handling it,” says Rosen. “All those are really important.”
Rosen says she often sees problems related to improper substrate. Sand can cause problems. “Either the reptile ingests it and gets an impaction and they need surgery, or gets it in their eye and it causes ocular ulcers or little abscesses,” she says. She recommends either paper or products made specially to line reptile cages. If you want to use something more natural, do your research carefully (again, here is a good place to start).
Finally, don’t forget you’ll need to be okay with feeding your pet live insect food, such as crickets. Don’t feed insects that you catch outside, which can make them ill.
If you’re thinking of a leopard gecko as a pet for kids, remember that they are small and delicate, and can’t roam outside their cage. “I would not recommend letting any child under four or five years of age handle one, even with supervision, because younger children do not have fine control of their grip and can crush the belly without meaning to or let go suddenly and drop the gecko to the floor,” says Baines.
Remember as well that young children are notorious for placing objects and their hands in their mouths. Supervise their interactions with any pet reptiles and make sure they wash their hands thoroughly after handling them or water or objects in their environment, to prevent potential transmission of Salmonella, which is found normally in the digestive tract of healthy reptiles and amphibians.
For older children, though, they can be a good choice, but parents need to be just as interested as the kids. That’s not just so they can supervise, but also because these little lizards can live well into their teens and sometimes even their twenties – likely long after your child has gone off to college. “So even if he or she doesn’t get bored of it before then, the parents are quite likely to become the primary carers eventually,” says Baines. “I say this from personal experience!”
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Linda Lombardi writes about the animals that share our planet and our homes for magazines including The Bark, websites including National Geographic and Mongabay.com, and for the Associated Press. Her most recent book, co-authored with Deirdre Franklin, is The Pit Bull Life: A Dog Lover’s Companion.
Published May 3, 2021