The Gecko Spot

Leopard Gecko Caresheet

The information on this care sheet is the result of knowledge I have gained through reading other care sheets and books, discussions on various web forums, veterinary advice and my own experiences with leopard geckos. This information represents what I have personally found useful and interesting.

This page is copyright of Pauline Smith 2004

A basic leopard gecko caresheet is also available.

4 - Behaviour

Leopard geckos are considered to be one of the easiest reptiles to keep in captivity. They are generally calm, fairly inactive and are tolerant of handling. Being a nocturnal species, they tend to be most active in the early evening (spending most of the day sleeping). Leos are quite clean, choosing one place in their vivarium to use as a toilet area.

Since leopard geckos are nocturnal you are unlikely to see any activity during the day. For most, if not all, of the day your leopard gecko will probably lie asleep in its hide. Some of my geckos come out immediately prior to the light going off (i.e. when they think its sunset) and bask under the light. Leopard geckos are generally very inactive, even when they come out at night, they usually climb/walk around a bit, then find somewhere to lie!. The most activity you will see will be during feeding when they pounce on their prey.


4.1 - Shedding

Leopard geckos will normally shed their skin every two to four weeks. You will notice as the gecko is coming near to shedding that their skin will appear dull (it is important to check that the moist hide is moist during this time, and if the tank environment is quite hot and dry, e.g. in summer months, it may also be beneficial to lightly mist the tank for a day or two prior to the leos shed), and immediately prior to the shed the skin will be loose. It is normal for the gecko to peel the skin from its body and eat it (which is interesting to watch!), the entire process should take no more than a couple of hours.

Once the gecko has shed it is important to check that all of the skin has been removed. Pay particular attention to the toes, around the eyes and the snout. Any skin remaining can cause problems, i.e. skin left around the toes can restrict the blood flow and after a few bad sheds the toes can drop off. If any skin is left it is quite easily removed. I have read that you can place the leo in a tub (remember ventilation holes!) with damp kitchen towel for a few hours (make sure the gecko doesn’t get too cold), the gecko may be able to remove the rest of the skin in this humid environment. However, I have not had any success with this method (in as much as the gecko will not remove the skin itself while in the tub) but it is useful, since it softens and loosens the skin, making it easier for me to remove it. I normally pour a small amount of warm water into a plastic container and place the leo in it (the water level should be around half way up the leos legs). After the gecko has been soaking for a few minutes, take a wet cotton bud and wipe the skin off gently. If the skin is around the snout, or an area which is not submerged in the water, the cotton bud should be kept wet and continually (gently) rubbed over the unshed area. It may take a lot of patience, and several attempts to remove the skin. The skin should gradually rub off on the cotton bud, never pull the skin off as you may damage the healthy new skin underneath and may leave the wound susceptible to infection. Any skin left unshed around the eyelids should be treated very gently, in order that the eyes and eyelids are not damaged. If the skin is around the snout, care should be taken not to get water in the gecko nostrils!. If after several attempts, rubbing with a wet cotton bud has failed to remove the unshed skin, rubbing a small amount of vegetable oil onto the unshed skin may help to soften it.


4.2 - Handling

New hatchlings and juveniles can be very jumpy and nervous, some will hiss, scream and lunge (trying to bite), but usually they calm down with age and will be more tolerant of being handled if they are handled gently. A good way to get your leo used to your presence is to put your hand in the tank, slowly, for a couple of minutes every day. This way the leo should realise that you are not a threat. Soon your leo will become inquisitive and may come to check out your hand. In addition you could try offering a waxworm by hand (be careful they don’t bite your fingers!, some leos are more accurate at catching food than others. Their bite does not hurt, but I worry that biting onto your finger may damage their jaw).

Leopard geckos, particularly younger animals should be handled with great care, and it is important not to hold onto their tails. Their tails are easily broken off and although they grow back, it is obviously stressful to the animal to lose its tail (and therefore its fat reserve), and also leaves the animal open to infection. If your leos tail does break off it is important to place the animal separately in a clean tank, with paper towel substrate (which should be changed as soon as it is soiled) with minimal furnishings. This should help avoid infection of the tail. The wound can be treated with betadine to clean it, then a topical antibiotic (such as polysporin or neosporin) can be applied. Place the tank in a quiet environment, and make sure the tank temperature is correct. Feed the leo as much food as it wants, pinkie mice and waxworms will be good as treats to restore all the fat reserves he will need to rebuild his tail. It is very important not to leave crickets in with him, make sure you remove those he doesn’t eat straight away, as they will nibble on his wound. Over time the tail will regrow, however it is unlikely to ever look like the original (I have been told that by applying haemorrhoid cream to the tail it may grow back more like the original, but I don't know if this is safe or true).


4.3 - Communication

There are however, some interesting types of behaviour to look out for. From my own observations and discussions I've had on the kingsnake leopard gecko forum, leo keepers recognize three different ways in which leos communicate (using sound, body language and chemicals).

4.3.1 - Communication using sound

I've seen lots of leo keepers reporting various sounds that their leos have made. Probably the most common noise heard, and definitely the most frightening, is the high-pitched hiss/scream that baby leos make. This noise can be very disturbing (to the keeper). The sound is like that of a pressure cooker (when it has reached full pressure!) or like the noise you hear when you slowly release the air from an inflated balloon by holding the end tightly stretched. Babies are generally very nervous and make this noise in response to anything which makes them feel threatened.

The noise I have heard most often is the chirp, crackle, gurgle, clicking (different people describe it different ways, or maybe its different noises?) that a leo will make if it is unhappy. This is a noise I have heard my leos make when I have picked them up, and they arent happy about being picked up. I think it means "put me down!" or "let go of me!". Keats (posted on the kingsnake leopard gecko forum, January 2002) described this as a "protest chirp". She said this "varies in timbre from individual to individual, one of my males has a deep chirp and Stevie, a female, has a quiet and high-pitched birdlike chirp. They make this sound when I am holding them and they don't want to be held anymore or are trying to get off my hand and have to bend a little too far"

Keats (posted on kingsnake leopard gecko forum, January 2002) reported a faintly audible breathy "click" that she has heard her geckos use to communicate both with each other, and also with her. She has heard this noise from several of her leos and said "I listened in on a "conversation" between Tarik (a female) to Jewel (a male) through the glass of Jewel's enclosure. Tarik made several of these vocalizations while licking the glass and trying to climb into Jewel's enclosure. I've heard my geckos make these sounds to me when I've been holding them and they are relaxed." Personally, I have not yet heard any of my leos make this noise.

In a discussion (posted on kingsnake leopard gecko forum, January 2002) regarding leos noises, others contributed:
Starling posted "I have heard other geckos of mine cough occasionally, sounds like a high pitched throat clearing.......Fluffy occasionally barks at me when she's hungry and wants me to feed her. She will sit at her food dish and look at me and bark, she will do this until I feed he and then she stops. Fluffy is my oldest gecko and this may sound crazy but I swear she speaks to me with two "words" "Let me up" (squawk, higher pitched and a little screechy, longer- which I only hear in that situation) and the feed me bark, which I only hear in that situation (BAARK-loud! Lower pitch, shorter)."
Jason Tremper posted "I have heard Marla make a noise that sounded like a sneeze, then I actually watched her do the exact same thing, it looked like she sneezed and make this sneezing sounding noise. Kind of scared me."
Darken posted "my leo let's out these little bird-like chirps when im sitting at my computer (the cages are 1 foot away from my desk) and screeches when I get her out. She doesn't seem to scream out of fright or anything, because she's very calm and mellow when being handled."

4.3.2 - Body language

Body language seems to primarily consist of tail movements, sometimes these are also associated with a particular posture. I have observed a few different types of tail movement in my geckos, I’m not sure exactly what each type means, the following are only my thoughts.

Excitement seems to be indicated by rapid tail movements. In younger leopard geckos, and to a lesser extent in adults, the very end of the tail is flicked very fast from side to side when they are stalking their prey. I don’t know whether this helps them hunt, or whether it is just a sign of excitement!. I’ve also observed very rapid tail movement in males when they are interested in mating with the female. This again is a rapid movement of only the very tip of the tail (and is a more rapid movement than that seen when they are hunting food). When one of my males does this, his tail vibrates so fast that it makes a buzzing noise, a bit like that of a wasp, through the air. I have also seen a similar rapid tail movement (not as fast as the buzzing tail of the male though) by a female to indicate to the male that she was interested in mating.

Threats seem to be indicated by slower more deliberate tail movements. I have seen two of my females making slow deliberate tail movements, where the whole tail is pointed right up in the air and swished slowly from side to side, towards the male when he has been interested in mating. As well as swishing their tails about they had raised their bodies as high as possible, by standing tall on their legs, with an arched back. This did appear to be a “leave me alone” message to the male- mating did not occur on these occasions!. I have also seen a few juveniles do this same slow flag-like tail waving when they feel threatened.

Keats (kingsnake leopard gecko forum, January 2002) also reported "chatting-like motions of the mouth where the gecko appears to be "talking"-I've seen this between male and female geckos (the males do this when they see the female), I've also seen this with my gecko to me-it almost looks like an excited/anticipatory/ begging gesture to me."

4.3.3 - Chemical communication (its going on all the time......right under your nose!!!!!!!!!)

This is the most discrete (to us) type of communication. It is equivalent to our sense of smell, but the scents that the leo can detect are not obvious to us. The leos possess a Jacobson organ (located in the roof of the mouth) which is sensitive to these chemical signals. The leos are able to detect these signals in the air by flicking their tongues (as if they are tasting the air).

I have only once seen obvious evidence of these chemicals. When cleaning out my leos, I placed a female into a temporary container, then later put her back in her tank. When I then placed a male in the same temporary box, he immediate began licking the air and vibrating his tail. Other evidence of the existence of these chemicals was posted by Keats (kingsnake leopard gecko forum, January 2002). She wrote "Several of my males will, on detecting the scent of another male, commence a luxurious and involved body rubbing over the area, clearly as a means to deposit their own scent" and "The male scent must be a powerful one during breeding season as I discovered recently when I was bitten by Mustafa. I had been handling another male, while separately Percy had vibrated his tail at one of the females. The sound of Percy's tail had agitated Mustafa. I did not wash my hands before going into Mustafa's enclosure to change out his food and water dishes. Mustafa sniffed/tasted the scent on my hands. Then he drew back and pounced on my thumb quite literally killing it four times before letting go-a painful lesson."

I have also noticed that when my leos are being handled, if they decide they've had enough and I restrain them in the process of getting them safely back into their tanks, they sometimes give off a mild musty type of smell (I remember this same smell from the garter snakes I had when I was younger). I can only guess that this is a protest smell.


4.4 - Brumation

Brumation is a strategy used by reptiles in order to cope with the drop in temperature and lack of food during winter. Leopard geckos will brumate in the wild when temperatures are not optimal. Shorter daylight hours, cooler temperatures, and perhaps some other environmental cues, act as signals to the leo that they should start slowing down as winter is approaching. Brumation is a lengthy and complex process involving an entire change in metabolism at a precise speed, therefore it is not a good idea to try and induce brumation in your leos. If it is not carried out properly, with all the correct signals in the correct sequence, this could have a negative effect on the health of your leo. Some leos, do however, brumate or their own accord in captivity. Amber, one of my biggest females, moved to a hide in the cooler end of the tank over the winter period (I had changed the light cycle, but I had not changed the temperature in the tank, she may, however have detected a subtle change in air temperature of the room). I did not see her emerge from the hide for several weeks. Her two tank mates did not brumate, and remained active over this period.