Leopard geckos are one of the most popular lizard species among reptile enthusiasts. In fact, while hard numbers are difficult to track down, they are likely the most popular pet lizard in the world.
They’re often the species experienced keepers encourage beginners to start with, and they remain a favorite of even the most experienced keepers around. They fill tanks at pet stores, and they’re readily available online and at pet expos and swap meets.
But is this popularity justified? Do leopard geckos really make good pets, or do they simply benefit from a lot of hype?
We’ll tackle this issue below, as we examine the requirements of leopard geckos, including their dietary and environmental needs, and explain what type of management regimen you’ll need to employ to keep a leopard gecko healthy. We’ll also discuss what it is like to interact with these geckos, as many keepers – particularly novice keepers – are very interested in handling their pets.
But at the risk of extinguishing any drama this question presents, we’ll level with you at the outset: Leopard geckos typically make fantastic pets.
Getting to Know Leopard Geckos: Endearing Little Lizards
Leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius) are small lizards native to a swath of rocky-soiled grasslands stretching from eastern Iran to portions of Nepal and India. They typically measure between about 8 and 11 inches in total length, including their large, rounded tails.
Unlike many other geckos, leopard geckos have eyelids. They’re also almost entirely terrestrial, as opposed to many other geckos, which live almost entirely among the trees. Nevertheless, leopard geckos are otherwise quite similar to many other gecko species. For example, they only deposit two eggs at a time (though they may produce several clutches over the course of a season, much like many other geckos).
Leopard geckos are almost entirely carnivorous, subsisting largely on large insects, arachnids and the occasional small lizard. They’re primarily nocturnal animals, though they may be active at any portion of the day or night.
In the modern, US pet-keeping market, most leopard geckos offered for sale are captive-bred individuals, as this species readily breeds in skilled hands. Wild leopard geckos are largely pale grey with darker spots, and they often display bands of purple or yellow tones. Breeders have uncovered and developed a variety of jaw-dropping color mutations, giving potential keepers a variety of different color and pattern schemes to choose from.
Housing Your Leopard Gecko: Simple and Straightforward
Because leopard geckos are relatively small, and they aren’t especially active lizards, they don’t need very large enclosures. Juveniles will remain comfortable in a 10-gallon-sized habitat, and approximately 20-gallons of cage space will suffice for most adults.
You can use just about any type of enclosure you like for a leopard gecko. Aquaria are undoubtedly the most common choice, primarily because of their ubiquity and low cost. However, there are other, arguably better, options, such as commercially built reptile enclosures. Storage boxes can also work, although they don’t provide a very good view of your lizard.
But no matter which style of leopard gecko habitat you choose, you should be able to find it easily and for a relatively modest price. Additionally, you won’t have to worry about it taking up a large amount of space in your home, either.
Substrate and Enclosure Furniture
After selecting a habitat, you’ll need to fill it with a few other items to keep your pet healthy and happy. Leopard geckos don’t require a lot of things (further illustrating their suitability as pets), but they do need a few items. This includes:
- A substrate
- Hiding spots
- A water dish
- Decorations (optional)
We’ll discuss the basic items you’ll need to provide to your lizard below.
Substrate for Leopard Geckos
You’ll have to add a substrate to the enclosure to provide a comfortable surface for your pet and to absorb any liquids he may release. Newspaper is an excellent option for beginners, as it is free (or nearly so), it is easy to remove and replace, and it typically lets you sidestep any ingestion concerns.
However, newspaper is clearly not very attractive. So, some keepers elect to use a sand substrate instead.
Sand is an acceptable substrate for leopard geckos, but it is important to select a smooth-grained variety, as this will help prevent the sand from abrading or clogging up your pet’s digestive tract, should he inadvertently eat some.
Additionally, unlike newspaper which must be changed completely (and often on a daily basis), you can spot-clean sand several times before having to replace it completely.
Unfortunately, aside from the impaction concerns sand presents, it is also quite desiccating. Leopard geckos do hail from dry habitats, but they do not live in deserts as is often supposed. Accordingly, other keepers elect to keep their leopard geckos on wood chips, such as cypress mulch. This is the author’s preferred substrate, as it offers a great combination of affordability, safety, and aesthetic appeal.
Leopard geckos are secretive animals, who spend most of their time in the wild hiding. In fact, if forced to hang out exposed for very long, they’ll typically become quite stressed. So, you’ll need to provide your lizards with at least one – and preferably several – hiding places.
These hiding places needn’t be elaborate. A partially crumpled piece of newspaper or paper towel tube will suffice. However, you can certainly opt for more decorative hiding places – you’ll just have to make sure you clean them regularly.
In an ideal situation, you’ll place one of the hides on the warm side of your gecko’s tank, and another hide on the cool side (more on this later). This way, you’ll lizard won’t have to choose between security and his preferred temperature.
One of the things that makes leopard geckos such good pets is their willingness to drink from a water dish; many other lizards will refuse to do so. This makes keeping your pet hydrated a breeze.
Provide your lizard with a small, shallow dish and keep it filled with clean, fresh, cool water at all times. You can use a decorative water dish if you like, but it is easier to keep simple water dishes clean. You can even get creative and use small Tupperware containers or glass ashtrays.
While not necessary from your pet’s point of view, you can add decorations to his habitat if you wish. Just be careful to avoid cluttering the tank, and make sure your lizard still has plenty of space to explore. You can use anything you like (provided it doesn’t represent a safety hazard to your lizard).
Some of the most popular enclosure decorations include:
- Jungle vines
- Live or artificial plants
- Faux skulls and skeletons
- Real or replica rocks
Obviously, jungle vines aren’t habitat-appropriate for leopard geckos, but these types of enclosure decorations are for the keeper and not the kept, so it doesn’t really matter. You could decorate the habitat like a nightclub or Santa’s workshop and your lizard wouldn’t care, as long as his basic needs are met.
Heating and Lighting a Leopard Gecko Habitat: Warm and Cozy Accommodations
As ectothermic critters, leopard geckos require an enclosure that provides the correct temperatures. Once again, this is a pretty easy need to satisfy for leopard geckos.
Unlike many other lizards, leopard geckos do not require any type of elaborate lighting. In fact, they’ll typically thrive with nothing more than the ambient light in the room. However, you certainly can install lighting if you like, and doing so will help make your lizard look his best. If you do provide enclosure lighting, be sure that you turn the lights on and off on a regular basis – don’t haphazardly lengthen or shorten the day or night for your lizard. An automatic timer can make this very easy to do.
But leopard geckos do require a heat source. Heat lamps are likely the most common way keepers provide warmth to their pets, but you can also use a heat pad. In either case, you want to set up the heating device at one end of the habitat, rather than in the middle of the enclosure. This way, you will be providing your lizard with a thermal gradient (range of temperatures). This will allow your lizard to access his preferred temperature, rather than you dictating the temperature for him.
Try to provide temperatures in the high 80s on the warm side of the enclosure, while allowing the temperatures on the cool side of the tank to drop down into the low 70s if possible.
Obviously, heating a leopard gecko’s habitat requires a bit of an investment and some work, but it is still easier to do so than it is for most lizards.
Habitat Maintenance: Keeping Your Pet’s Habitat Clean
Like so many other aspects of leopard gecko care, maintaining their habitats is also pretty easy. That doesn’t imply that it isn’t important to keep your pet’s habitat clean – just that it won’t take you very long to do so.
Essentially there are two types of habitat maintenance you’ll have to conduct: daily, spot-cleaning and a once-per-month complete habitat cleaning.
The former type of cleaning is quite easy to do. Simply look through the habitat and remove any urates, shed skin, or feces present, and then empty, wash, and re-fill your pet’s water dish. It’s also a good idea to check the temperatures in the habitat, to ensure your lizard is comfortable.
Monthly, in-depth cage cleaning sessions are more work, but they’re still quite simple relative to what is required when caring for some other lizards. You’ll just need to remove all of the enclosure furniture and wash all the durable items and dispose of any that can’t be cleaned. Then, remove and discard the substrate, clean the entire enclosure with a reptile-safe disinfectant, and replace the substrate and (now clean) furniture. Return your lizard to his home and you’re finished!
In most cases, you should be able to complete a spot cleaning in five minutes, and monthly in-depth cleanings shouldn’t take more than one half hour or so. By contrast, owners of many other types of reptiles will find it necessary to spend many times this much time on habitat maintenance.
Ringing the Dinner Bell: Providing Food and Water
Food is yet another aspect of leopard gecko care that is relatively easy to satisfy. Leopard geckos are carnivorous lizards, who’ll remain healthy and well-fed on a diet of crickets for their entire lives. You can mix in other insects, such as mealworms or wax worms, from time to time if you like, but this is not strictly necessary.
At feeding time, you’ll simply need to collect 5 to 10 crickets and toss them in the enclosure. Your lizard will likely track down the tasty insects in short order, and you’ll be left with a satiated gecko.
You’ll also want to “dust” the crickets with a vitamin and mineral supplement on a periodic basis. Different keepers do so at different frequencies, so it is wise to discuss the issue with your vet, as he or she will be able to consider your lizard’s sex, age, and overall health status, to determine the ideal supplementation regimen.
You’ll also need to provide your pet with water, but this is very easy in the case of leopard geckos. You’ll simply need to provide your pet with a shallow bowl and keep it filled with fresh, clean water at all times. Unlike many other lizards, who do not recognize standing water, leopard geckos will readily drink from a dish.
Hands-On Husbandry: Interacting with Leopard Geckos
Like most other aspects of leopard gecko care, handling these animals is generally pretty easy – at least, once the animals are mature. Young leopard geckos can be a bit flighty, which may make them difficult to hold without restraining them.
But in most cases, leopard geckos are relatively tame lizards, who are generally disinclined to bite (though rare individuals do buck this trend). Leopard geckos also tend to tolerate handling better than many other lizards do, so keepers are free to handle their pet a couple of times each week, for about 10 to 15 minutes at a time.
To pick up your leopard gecko, simply try to slide your fingers under your pet’s chin. Usually, this will cause the lizard to climb up onto your hand voluntarily. Once he does, simply lift him from the ground. Take care not to grasp or restrain your lizard (unless you’re inspecting him for injuries or illness, in which case, it may be necessary to do so). Instead, just let him walk around in your outstretched hands.
Be sure to handle your gecko while sitting on the floor or do so over a table. This way, if he makes a bolt for freedom, he won’t fall very far. Also, be sure that you handle him away from other pets or rowdy children.
Do Leopard Geckos Make Good Pets? The Bottom Line
As you’ll surely agree by now, leopard geckos do tend to make fantastic pets. They’re arguably the best pet lizard for beginners (with crested geckos and bearded dragons being their only real competition), and even advanced keepers will often find them quite enjoyable to keep.
To make this easy to understand, we’ll review some of the things about leopard geckos that make them such good pets below.
- Leopard geckos remain relatively small, which means they are easy to handle, and beginners rarely have to worry about being nervous when handling them.
- Leopard geckos are also relatively tame lizards, who don’t normally object to gentle handling.
- Combined with their small size, the leopard geckos modest activity level means that they do not require very large enclosures. This not only makes them easy to fit into your home, it means you won’t have to spend a ton of money on their habitat either.
- Leopard geckos don’t require elaborate lighting like some other lizards do. This not only makes it easier to care for them, but it’ll also save you quite a bit of money too.
- It is generally pretty straightforward to provide appropriate temperatures for leopard geckos, as they don’t require the high temperatures that some heliothermic (sun-loving) lizards do.
- Leopard geckos are usually excellent eaters, who only require insects for food. It can be a pain to maintain a colony of live insects or make frequent trips to the pet store, but you’ll have to do this with any carnivorous lizard. Further, leopard geckos will never require rodents or other vertebrate prey, as many lizards do.
- Leopard geckos will drink out of a water dish, which makes satisfying their hydration needs easy.
As you can see – and as we spoiled at the very beginning – leopard geckos do tend to make very good pets. As with any other animal, you’ll have to learn about your pet’s needs so that you can provide him with a comfortable home and high quality of life. But relative to many other popular reptile pets, it is usually pretty easy to do so for a leopard gecko.
You’ll still want to give yourself every advantage possible, such as starting with a captive-bred individual, purchasing the habitat and associated equipment before buying your lizard, and forging a good relationship with a reptile-oriented veterinarian.
Do these things, and you’ll likely enjoy your pet for many years to come.