Getting started with your leopard gecko (2023)

The leopard gecko

Leopard geckos ("leos") are one of the most popular pet lizards, due to their gentle nature, quirky smile, very low maintenance requirements (for a lizard), and availability in many stunning colours and patterns. They originate in the rocky deserts of Pakistan and surrounding areas, and this is the environment that we try to replicate when keeping them. As hatchlings, they are about 7.5 cm (3 inches) long. As adults, they normally grow to a little over 20 cm (8 inches), taking around 6 months to obtain that size. They should normally live for about 20 years.

Leopard geckos rarely bite, even if frightened or hurt. If they do bite, the bite from a hatchling usually causes no pain at all, and feels only like a gentle pinch. A bite from an adult feels like a more painful pinch. It is normal for keepers never to experience a bite from an adult leopard gecko.

Leopard geckos are terrestrial, living on the ground. Unlike many geckos, they do not have sticky foot pads, so they cannot climb smooth surfaces like vivarium walls, but can climb rough surfaces like clothing or cork bark. They are nocturnal, and spend most of the day sleeping in their hides. They usually become active shortly after their lights go out.


A lizard's enclosure is its home. The place where it is happy to spend its time, and the place it feels safest. Leopard geckos are generally happiest when kept in an appropriately sized and furnished enclosure. The same sized enclosure may be used for a hatchling or an adult, as long as the correct initial size is selected. The enclosure needs to be fairly well ventilated, with several air holes. Leopard geckos may locate openings in their enclosures, and can escape if their enclosures are not properly closed, or have gaps that the lizard can squeeze through. Escaped lizards can live for several months or even years, hiding in a house or a garden, but can be difficult to find, so try not to let it happen in the first place.

An appropriate sized enclosure for a single leopard gecko is about 45 to 60 cm (1.5 to 2 feet) long and 45 to 60 cm (1.5 to 2 feet) wide. The height is irrelevant as long as it can be heated and lit correctly, but it is normally best to use a terrestrial vivarium that is about 45 cm (18 inches) high. Examples include the Vivexotic Repti-Home vivariums. Ideally, the enclosure should be made of wood, with glass doors (all-glass enclosures are often available, but are very difficult to heat correctly, and make the lizard feel like it is on-show all the time, which will make it very nervous - all-glass enclosures are not recommended). Alternatively, similar-sized plastic tubs may be used, but these are not normally as nice as a wooden vivarium.

The enclosure needs to have some unscented substrate (bedding) on the bottom which either cannot be eaten or is safe if accidentally eaten, such as reptile carpet, old newspaper or paper towels. If a soil-like substrate is desired, then dried coconut fibre is one of the few relatively safe options, and should be perhaps 1 or 2 cm (less than 1 inch) deep. Avoid toxic pine and cedar shavings used for rodents. Aspen, hemp, lignocell, beech, bark chips, cypress mulch and other wood chips are not suitable. Sand is especially dangerous, as at any age, leopard geckos are prone to eating the substrate either by accident or intentionally, and it can cause severe internal blockages that may result in death. Note that it is often recommended by suppliers in spite of this risk. Although these lizards come from a desert, they do not naturally live on sand - they hide in rocky outcrops instead, and are not adapted to living on sand.

A heat mat must be stuck to the wall (not the floor) at one end of the enclosure, using brown packaging tape stuck over the edges to hold it in place if it is not a self-adhesive type. Ensure that the lizard cannot get behind it, and get stuck to the tape, since it can tear their skin. Heat in nature comes from the sun, and these lizards are not adapted to using heat sources below them - they may burn on a heat mat if it is placed below them. A mat thermostat or pulse proportional thermostat can help to ensure that the temperature never rises too high inside the enclosure, and can also give a steady temperature throughout the year, but is not essential for wall mounted heat mats. Certain types of enclosure (such as plastic tubs) may only be heated from below, but these require thermostats and an air gap between the heat mat and the lizard, which spreads out the heat and prevents hotspots from forming. Examples include the Habistat, ProRep or Lucky Reptile 7 Watt or 11 Watt heat mats. The intention is to have a temperature of about 30°C (86°F) at the heated end of the enclosure, and room temperature at the other end. This heat gradient provides lots of choices of temperature, allowing the lizard to warm up when it needs to, and cool down when it needs to. The lizard will choose which temperature it wants to be in. As the house temperature rises and falls, it will create a natural heating cycle in the enclosure as well. Although ceramic heaters and basking lamps may also be used, it is very difficult to get an appropriate heat gradient in the small enclosures these lizards live in, so the heat mat is the best approach.

Note that heat mats, like most heaters, work by radiated heat, not by heating the air. Thermometers usually measure the air temperature, so will give a false reading. The important temperature is the one that will be reached by an object - the animal or something representing it - when it is placed near the heater for long enough to absorb the radiated heat (a number of hours). Infrared thermometers allow you to measure the temperature of the substrate, ornaments, and animal, rather than the temperature of the air. Wet substrates will appear to be colder than dry ones. Test dry surfaces when measuring temperatures.

The enclosure should contain at least 2 hides for the lizard, a food bowl and a water bowl. The hides should be big enough for the lizard to curl up inside, and should have an opening appropriately sized for the lizard to get in and out. Typical hides are made of plastic, curved cork bark or halved coconut shells. One hide should be placed at the warmed end of the enclosure, and one should be placed at the cold end, so that the lizard can choose which one to use. The cold hide will also function as a wet hide. Some moistened sphagnum moss (or a tough sponge) should be placed onto the floor inside the cold hide, in order to raise the humidity within that hide. Sphagnum moss needs to be chopped into small pieces with scissors, so that the pieces can pass through the lizard if it eats them. Additional hides and decorative plastic plants may also be included.

(Video) Leopard Gecko Complete Care Guide 2021

The water bowl should be quite small, about the size of the palm of your hand, so that it does not increase the humidity in the vivarium. It should be located at the cold end of the enclosure. The food bowl can be the same size or a little bigger. It should have steep sides to prevent food from climbing out, but should ideally not be glazed smooth, or the lizard may struggle to climb over it.

Other ornaments and sanitised branches can be used in the enclosure, allowing the lizard to explore and exercise on them. Branches can be natural but must be reptile-safe. After the initial move into your first enclosure, avoid making too many changes all at once, as this can make the lizard feel insecure. Add decorations slowly, one at a time, with a few days in between for the lizard to get used to the new content.

The enclosure should not be placed in direct sunlight at any time of day. It should be placed in a quiet location rather than the living room, such as a bedroom or hallway, since the lizard will want to sleep during the day. At all times, the animal and enclosure must be kept away from smoke, fireplace and cooking fumes, aerosols, chemical/alcohol sprays, air fresheners, and any scented or fragranced products that are not safe for use with reptiles.


Like many lizards, leopard geckos need vitamin D3, which they naturally obtain from UVB light. Because they only require it in low levels, it can be provided either as a supplement, or using a UVB bulb. If using a vitamin D3 supplement, lighting is not required, but white LEDs or a regular compact fluorescent light can be added, if desired.

If using a UVB lamp instead of D3 supplements, it is essential care equipment, and must be replaced every 12 months, even if it still appears to be functioning (human eyes cannot see when the UV output drops too far). Write the date on the bulb with a permanent marker to avoid forgetting. All major brands should normally still provide enough for a leopard gecko for a year. The UVB strength must not be too strong, or it may cause eye damage. The lowest strength of UVB bulbs are usually best, sometimes labelled as "2%". Examples include the Exo Terra UVB100 13 Watt compact fluorescent bulb (one of the lowest strength UVB bulbs available) or the Zoo Med ReptiSun 5.0 Mini compact fluorescent. The bulb should be mounted on the ceiling, so that it hangs between 20 cm (8 inches) and 30 cm (1 foot) from the floor of the enclosure, about 15 to 20 cm (6 to 8 inches) from the hot end's wall, and should not have any glass or plastic between the bulb and the enclosure floor. (Cheap fakes - household bulbs with their labels removed - have been found. Make sure you are buying a legitimate, branded bulb from a reputable retailer.)

Our preferred approach is to use both a UVB lamp and D3 supplements.

If lights are used, patterns should match the sun, switching on in the morning and off in the evening, eg. 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM, with no difference between summer and winter day lengths.

Cleaning and maintenance

The water should be replaced every couple of days. Weekly, or immediately if the lizard has left faeces in it, the water bowl should be cleaned with a reptile-safe disinfectant, and the water replaced. Normal disinfectants can contain dangerous toxins. As often as needed (perhaps once every few days), the sphagnum moss/sponge in the wet hide should be damped with fresh water, so that it remains damp. These lizards rarely drink from their water bowl. In nature, they wedge themselves into a mossy crack in the rocks, absorbing water from the moss through their skin. This is what the wet hide attempts to replicate. Drinking water should never be sprayed into the enclosure, as this increases the humidity.

Leopard gecko faeces usually appear as a black and white clump. Unlike many lizards, they pick a specific location in their enclosure, and will usually continue to use that place as their toilet (defecatorium). A tissue may be placed in that location to collect faeces, to allow easy cleaning. Always leave a small amount of faeces in the defecatorium, to help the lizard remember where it is. If desired, this can be slowly moved over the course of a few weeks or months, into a more convenient location. Remove additional faeces from the enclosure whenever they are seen.

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Once every six months, or whenever the substrate becomes too dirty, clean the enclosure and ornaments with a reptile-safe disinfectant, and replace the substrate and any sphagnum moss. If using paper towels or newspaper, the substrate may need to be replaced more frequently.

Living together

Leopard geckos can normally live together happily in all-female groups or in mixed-sex groups with a single male and multiple females, as long as they are of similar sizes. If one lizard begins to bully or attack the others, they should be separated into their own enclosures. Male and female pairs can be problematic, as the male may continually pester the female if there are no other females to distract him. If males are included in a group which also includes juvenile females, they are likely to breed while the female is too young, causing medical problems and stunted growth. Repeated breeding from living together permanently can also cause a large amount of stress to the female, and will shorten her life. Leopard gecko sexing is possible by looking for pre-anal pores and hemipenal bulges on adult males. Sexing young lizards can be inaccurate, and the sex should be re-checked by a specialist as the lizards mature.

For leopard geckos that are co-habiting, additional hides are needed so that the animals can be alone when needed. Provide at least one more hide than the number of lizards. For adults, a 90 cm (3 feet) long enclosure is best for 2 or 3 geckos.

When leopard geckos live together, they usually share the same toilet area, and may unintentionally catch germs when trying to smell the faeces of other lizards. This can cause diseases to spread rapidly through groups. It is usually best to keep them separately, unless they are being intentionally kept together for breeding purposes.


It is best not to handle newly aquired leopard geckos for a week or two, so that they can get settled in to their new home. Hatchling leopard geckos may try to run away and hiss, but they usually grow out of this by the time they are a couple of months old. They rarely actually bite. Even nervous ones normally get used to being handled within a couple of months of ownership, though individuals may vary.

Young geckos may run out of your hands, so make sure there is something soft to land on if they fall. Once you become more familiar with them, you can handle them wherever you want. Begin by handling them for only a few minutes at a time, once per day. Over the course of a few months, progress to handling them for up to 15 minutes, or a few times per day. Give them at least an hour to rest in between handling sessions. Scoop up the lizard confidently using both hands, without grabbing them from above, and without nervously jerking your hand backwards and forwards towards them - this can frighten them. Once your gecko becomes more confident, you may be able to pick them up more easily by gently lifting their chest, but still need to support their feet as quickly as possible. Geckos in general hate having their heads and backs stroked, and their tails must never be grabbed. Touching their backs may cause them to run away, resulting in falls and injuries.

Leopard geckos, like many geckos, may intentionally drop off their tails if they are frightened or hurt, or if their tail is grabbed. A less-impressive tail can grow back in its place, but it takes the lizard many weeks or months to recover from such an event. Calm and gentle handling is best, without overcrowding or intimidating the lizard. They should normally be held on hands or clothing and allowed to investigate their surroundings. They will quickly get lost if left to explore the room. They should not be exercised outdoors. All other pets should be kept away from the lizard, especially cats, dogs and birds.

After handling lizards (or just touching their enclosures), wash your hands, to avoid catching any illnesses from the lizards. While you are much more likely to catch illnesses like salmonella from your food, there is a small chance that you could catch these from reptile faeces.

Since leopard geckos are nocturnal, it is best to handle them after their enclosure lights have gone out rather than during the day. If more time is desired with them in the evening, alter their lighting pattern slightly so that their lights switch off a little earlier than 7:00 PM (don't push it too far, or the light in the house will confuse them).

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Leopard geckos should have a constant supply of live insect-based food, which they will eat at their leisure. Their primary diet is normally mealworms - a complete diet, with hatchlings eating "mini" mealworms, and adults eating standard mealworms. Super-worms, morio worms and giant mealworms should never be used. Their food can usually be bought from pet shops and online suppliers. Consult your local pet shops.

Put a thin layer of calcium and multi-vitamin dust in the food bowl. If you are not using a UVB bulb, then the calcium/vitamin dust must also include vitamin D3. Add some live mealworms into the bowl, until there is a layer one mealworm thick. As they move, they will collect the calcium/vitamin dust, which will be passed to the gecko when the mealworms are eaten.

It is normal for leopard geckos to eat nothing for several weeks at a time (relying on the fat stores in their large tails), then eat several mealworms per day for a similar length of time. If mealworms are eaten, add more to the bowl. If mealworms turn into pupae or beetles, these should be discarded (eg. frozen for a few days and disposed of - they must not be released unless they are a native species), since the lizard will not normally eat them.

Once per month or so, release perhaps 10 or 20 appropriately sized locusts ("medium" or "3rd" for hatchlings, and "large" or "4th" for adults) into the enclosure. The hard part of the locust - from the head to just behind the back legs - must be shorter than the distance between the lizard's eyes. If locusts are offered too frequently, the gecko may become addicted to them, and refuse to eat any other food, but locusts are not a complete diet. Very occasionally, perhaps only once or twice per year, a similar number of waxworms may be offered to adult leopard geckos, instead of locusts. These are also addictive, and contain a large amount of fat, so they must not be used too often.

While it is possible to use other insects as food, most types of insect are not a complete diet, and some (such as black/brown crickets) can harm or even kill a gecko if they are allowed to remain in the gecko's enclosure. Wild insects must never be used, as they can contain harmful parasites. If the lizard is not eating mealworms, they may need their calcium to be provided in an otherwise-empty bowl as well as dusted over the insects - many insects clean off the calcium dust quickly before they can be eaten. This relies on the lizard to crave calcium in order to eat it, and is not as successful as using the mealworm delivery method described above.


Leopard geckos usually shed their skin once every month or two, for the whole of their lives - this is not an indication of good or bad health. Before they shed, their colours will fade a little. When the lizard sheds its skin, it should ideally all come off and be eaten - usually the owner sees nothing, but one day the lizard appears a little brighter than before. At this point, the lizard must be carefully checked for retained skin, especially on its toes. If skin pieces are left scattered all over the vivarium, or some is still stuck to the lizard, it is having problems shedding its skin. Usually, this is caused by the owner failing to keep the wet hide damp.

If old skin is still stuck to the lizard, it will need some very careful help to remove the skin. Enclose the lizard in a small, ventilated box with a wet sponge or moss on the floor, and leave them for several hours in the middle of their enclosure (not right next to the heat mat). If the skin is still stuck afterwards, then carefully try to pick the pieces off the lizard using fingers or very fine tweezers. Be careful not to scratch or damage the new skin, and avoid injuring their delicate toes. Lizards can find this process stressful, so try to be gentle and avoid getting bitten, and seek immediate help from a specialist if you are unable to do it yourself. Leopard geckos can lose toes or feet very easily if old skin traps the blood supply to them, or can develop eye problems if skin is stuck inside their eyelids, so advice should be sought as soon as possible, preferably the same day. There are some shedding aid products available which can be sprayed onto the lizard prior to a shed, in order to assist it in this process, which may be useful for geckos that frequently have this problem.


Leopard geckos are generally very healthy, with few major problems. Like all animals, they can get ill sometimes, and may need veterinary care. A clean enclosure helps to keep lizards healthy. A constantly damp or dirty enclosure can cause health issues. Common signs of problems include:

  • Regurgitated food or skin
  • Dramatic weight loss, or a tail that shrinks until "pencil thin"
  • Diarrhoea
  • Green and/or fizzy faeces
  • Frequent bad shedding, with skin pieces still stuck to the lizard
  • Weak/floppy legs or malformed mouth (eg. unable to close)
  • Sunken eyes, back of the head, or emaciated hips
  • Swollen eyes or eyes that cannot open
  • Gaping mouth (not when frightened) or cheese-like discharge in the mouth

Female leopard geckos may regularly lay fertile eggs if they live with males, or may sometimes lay infertile eggs even if they have never lived with a male. Before or after laying, care should be taken to ensure that they are receiving adequate calcium in their diet. It can help to have an extra calcium dust bowl present for them to eat from, even if they also are getting calcium from their mealworms.

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On a monthly basis, or whenever you suspect they are ill, you may wish to weigh your lizards, after they have finished digesting any food that they recently ate (eg. after they produce faeces). This is known as their empty weight. This record of their weight can be very useful for a vet, if your lizard appears to be ill at any point. Dramatic weight loss (eg. 10% in 2 weeks) suggests that worming or other veterinary treatments are needed. Green/fizzy faeces, diarrhoea, regurgitated skin, or a sudden "pencil thin" tail can be signs of an extremely serious communicable illness, and need urgent specialist veterinary attention.

Lizards may avoid food for significant periods, especially during winter. Seek advice as needed.

If the lizard has lost all or part of its tail, it normally grows back (though not as attractive), but the lizard will need some help to keep it clean, and regain the lost nutritional resources. Ask a specialist for details.

Reptiles can be quite sensitive to non-reptile medications. Only use medications which can be safely used with reptiles, or which are prescribed by a vet. They are particularly sensitive to alcohol and solvents. Any use of treatments where alcohol is used as a solvent must be done in a well ventillated environment, not in the confined space of the animal's enclosure.

Quarantine and re-using enclosures

Quarantine is not needed with your first reptile. However, as you gain more reptiles, it becomes more important. The general idea is to keep newly acquired animals away from your existing animals for long enough that you can be sure they are not bringing in any illnesses which could harm the existing animals. This quarantine period could last around 2 to 4 weeks for a basic quarantine, or as much as 6 months for an ideal quarantine. If any existing animals become ill with a potentially communicable disease, they can also be immediately moved into quarantine to protect the other animals.

A basic quarantine would simply be to keep the animal in a separate enclosure from existing animals, even if they will end up sharing an enclosure later. A more advanced quarantine would be to keep the quarantine enclosure in a separate room, using bowls and feeding tongs that will never be used for the others. Disposable rubber gloves can be worn when touching the animal or any part of its enclosure, and thrown away after each use. Although animals in quarantine need to be monitored, all work with quarantined animals should take place after any other work has been done with non-quarantined animals, to avoid carrying illnesses back to the non-quarantined animals. If food is refused by a quarantined animal, the leftover food should not be offered to a non-quarantined animal.

A quarantine enclosure would ideally be made of something that can be easily and completely disinfected, perhaps even steam cleaned or covered with boiling water, leaving nowhere for any diseases or parasites to hide in it. A plastic tub with paper towel substrate normally serves this purpose very well. All ornaments should be similarly easy to clean and disinfect, and considered disposable, so that they can be thrown away if an occupant turns out to be carrying a communicable illness.

If an animal (whether in quarantine or not) is to be put into an enclosure that was previously used by another animal, the enclosure and ornaments should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected with a reptile-safe disinfectant first, and any substrate replaced. If the previous occupant died from a communicable disease, it is perhaps better to dispose of the old enclosure and ornaments, and purchase a new one. Although rare, some of the most serious parasites (such as cryptosporidium) can survive for 2 years in an empty enclosure, and cannot be killed by simple disinfectants.


Lizards can travel for many hours in a small, ventilated box, with tissue for bedding. The box should be placed on your lap in a car with the heating on if needed. They should not be heated from below with anything hot. Hot water bottles and electric heaters should be avoided. If they soil the box, replace the tissue.

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Other geckos

This care guide may also be applied to some other geckos. Even though the care may be the same, these species must not be kept together for health reasons and because they may attack each other:

African fat-tailed gecko
The same size as a leopard gecko.
Madagascar ground gecko/pictus gecko
About 15 cm (6 inches) long as an adult.


This is just a quick guide to get you started. It is not intended to be a complete book, and cannot replace a well written book, or the advice of an expert. It is based on our own best knowledge at the time of writing, and advice may change over time as new techniques, technology, or medical advice becomes available. Owners are responsible for ensuring that their knowledge is kept up to date. This guide is based on the British Isles, but the basic principles may be applied to other areas too.


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