Geckos are like the hamsters of the reptile world; they are cute, easy to care for and make great starter pets for the would-be reptile enthusiast. However, you really need to learn how to look after a gecko pet before bringing one home.
Popular Pet Gecko Lizards
Geckos are hand-sized lizards and a big success story in the reptile world. According to The Ark in Space, there are around 1,500 species of geckos occupying different environmental niches, a testament to their adaptability. Of these, those commonly kept as pets are the leopard gecko, crested gecko, and African fat-tailed gecko. These species have broadly the same care requirements and a reputation for being friendly, which makes them great for beginners.
In addition, "Morphs" are popular among gecko addicts. According to Leopard Genetics, these are geckos selectively bred to produce unusual skin patterns or colors that don't occur in the wild. Examples include:
- Carrot-tail gecko (which has a striking orange tail)
- Super Snow (with black and white stripes)
- Red Stripes (has two unbroken red stripes running the length of the body)
Overview of Gecko Care
Geckos live 15 to 20 years. So unlike the humble hamster, your gecko is going to be around for a long time. If the gecko is a child's pet, this means their caregiver may grow up and leave home, so be sure you are happy with this level of commitment. Geckos can live alone or in groups, but with only one male per tank to prevent fighting. Of course, only keep a male with females if you are prepared for the resulting eggs and hatchlings!
Gecko Housing and Diet Overview
Geckos are also nocturnal, which means it's not essential to provide a UVB lamp (as it is for other reptiles.) However, geckos are cold-blooded and need the provision of a constant heat source. Geckos are insectivores and eat the likes of crickets, waxworms, and mealworms dusted with a calcium supplement. They should have water provided, not so much to drink but to humidify the air.
Handling Your Gecko
Geckos enjoy gentle handling and are sedate walkers rather than roadrunners, making them less likely to dart off and get lost. Be prepared for your gecko to shed his skin, which will make him look quite comical at times. The key to successful gecko parenting is taking care of the details, which makes the difference between a sickly gecko and a thriving one.
The Ideal Gecko Habitat
PetCoach.com explains how to make a gecko feel at home.
Geckos are ground-dwelling and not great climbers so a long, low tank is fine. A single gecko requires a minimum of a 10-gallon tank, with 15 gallons for a pair, and 20 gallons for four. A glass tank works well with a mesh lid to prevent escapees. Be careful not to put your tank in direct sunlight as it will get too hot for your pet.
The floor covering is known as the 'substrate.' Anapsids explain how geckos have sensitive skins and are also prone to bowel blockages if they swallow substrate when feeding, so choose carefully. The best recommendations are:
- Kitchen paper or newspaper
- Artificial turf
Avoid sand, wood shavings, corn cob chips, cat litter, or the like as these can cause skin disease or gut impactions.
Within the tank, the gecko should have three areas: a spot for hiding, one space for heat basking, and another area for exploring. This allows the gecko to fulfill a range of natural behaviors so he doesn't become bored, fearful, or frustrated. This is easily done with a half coconut shell for a hiding spot, some rocks and branches for basking on and plants to explore. Many people opt for artificial plants, but if you fancy live greenery always double check the plant is safe if your gecko ingests it.
A cold gecko can't digest food, so keeping the temperature correct, day and night, is vital. A thermometer is essential so you can check your gecko's habitat regularly. At night, the tank should be in the 70s Fahrenheit, rising to 80-85 Fahrenheit during the day. You can achieve the ideal temperature with a black heat lamp (it doesn't emit light) or a red lamp set on a thermostat. In addition, the gecko needs a hotter basking spot during the daytime, set to 88 - 90 Fahrenheit. The aim is to create a temperature gradient across the tank so the gecko can regulate his body heat by moving from a cooler to hotter place, or vice versa.
Geckos are nocturnal and require distinct days and nights to stay healthy. Geckos also register the seasons and prefer a 14-hour daylight period in summer and a 12-hour daylight period in winter. This effect is best achieved through the use of timers to keep things consistent if you're out at gecko bedtime. Also, geckos dislike bright light so the bulbs should be situated above the mesh lid of the tank to avoid the glare stressing the gecko.
Water and Humidity
Place a shallow water bowl inside the tank and keep it topped up. This helps to keep the humidity level up, which is important for good skin health. If the humidity level falls below 20 percent, the gecko may struggle to shed. If this occurs, you can place a box of moist moss inside the tank. This is an easy way of allowing the gecko to help himself shed. Alternatively, LillReptiles suggests misting your gecko twice a day from a spray bottle.
Cleaning the Gecko Tank
Cleanliness is essential to keeping your gecko healthy. Reptile Magazine recommends spot-cleaning the tank on a daily basis, which means scooping out poop, soiled bedding, or half-eaten food. In addition, do a full tank clean once a week. Remove everything from the tank, including the substrate, and replace it with fresh items. Use a reptile-safe disinfectant to clean down the hide, tank furniture, and glass. You don't want to disrupt the gecko's natural sleep pattern, so early evening or morning are the best times to clean.
Feeding Your Gecko
If you don't like bugs, a gecko is not the pet for you! Geckos eat insects and a lizard banquet would list roaches, crickets, locusts, mealworms, morio worms, and waxworms on the menu. Geckoset suggests it's difficult to overfeed a gecko, although your pet can become obese if he eats too much fatty gecko candy (i.e. waxworms). Feed juvenile geckos every day, but your adult gecko can skip meals and have 'starve' days. When feeding, offer as much food as the gecko can eat in 10 to 15 minutes.
However, it is essential to offer up healthy, well-fed insects which means 'gut-loading' them. Simply pre-feed the bugs on juicy vegetables or fruit, and dust them with calcium powder. As extra insurance, it's good to sprinkle calcium powders over the bugs before offering them. Then place the gut-loaded goodies in a shallow dish or saucer and let the gecko dive in. Chasing and catching the insects also provides excellent mental stimulation for the gecko.
Gecko Health and Well-being
Fortunately, geckos are generally tough characters and pleasingly hardy. As Leopard Gecko explains, problems that do occur are often down to poor husbandry.
Metabolic Bone Disease
When a gecko's diet lacks calcium, the lizard leeches calcium out of his bones to meet daily needs. This leads to soft, rubbery bones that aren't capable of supporting the gecko's weight. Symptoms include a gecko that can't raise himself off the ground and has distorted limbs. Prevention is better than a cure, which is why it's best to feed gut-loaded insects to your reptile. Make sure and dust them with calcium before feeding.
When the tank temperature falls too low, the gecko's immune system becomes stressed. This means the gecko is less able to fight off infections, especially chest infections. The signs include a lethargic lizard with a poor appetite and labored breathing. If you notice these symptoms, seek the help of a reptile vet, since antibiotics are necessary. In addition, check the temperature of your tank to make sure it's high enough both night and day.
A frightened gecko may shed their tail as an escape mechanism. The tail does grow back, but it's also a store of fat for the gecko. Thus, it's important to ensure a gecko with a shed tail is kept at the right temperature and is well-fed during the time it takes the tail to regenerate.
Those new to reptile keeping are often surprised by how much personality these little guys have. Geckos do enjoy human interaction but remember to play by gecko rules and handle your pal very gently and at night. While a gecko doesn't need walking like a dog, it is good to spend one-to-one time talking to your pet and handling him. In addition, catching supper is a big source of satisfaction to geckos, along with having a naturalistic environment to explore.
Hygiene and Your Gecko
As the Center for Disease Control notes, you should assume all reptiles carry salmonella and act accordingly. Be sure to wash your hands before and after handling a gecko and never place the gecko or their equipment near food preparation areas. Obey simple precautions such as hand washing, and the risk of a person acquiring infection is low. However, those folk with weak immune systems (the very young, elderly, or those on chemotherapy) should be extra cautious and consider whether it is wise to handle a gecko.
Be a Gecko Enthusiast
When you know how to take care of a gecko, there's no reason why the lizard can't live a long and healthy life, giving you pleasure for years to come. Who knows, perhaps you'll become a gecko addict and start a line of unique morphs admired by fellow lizard lovers. May your lizards live long and prosper.