Help! My Gecko Won’t Eat!
Leopard geckos have some pretty incredible survival adaptions. One of their most recognizable physical features is their thick, fat-storing tail. Being from arid regions, they are adapted to store up in times of plenty so that they can survive during times of scarcity. So why in captivity, when there is rarely a time of scarcity, do they stop eating for us for seemingly no reason? This article will go over some common situations surrounding the refusal of food!
A Change of Surrounding May Cause Stress
“I just got my gecko three days ago and he hasn’t eaten for me!! What’s wrong with him?” If you’re on any leopard gecko forums or interest groups found on the many platforms of the internet, you have seen this post before. The timeframe of ownership of the animal may vary somewhat, but the basic format is always the same: a new owner has just brought their gecko home recently, and the gecko has been refusing food since arrival.
This situation is highly concerning to most new gecko owners (and often amusing or irritating to more experienced owners), but the concern is understandable when one considers the fact that a new owner does not understand the lower metabolism and adjustment behaviors of these animals.
If you have recently brought home a leopard gecko and it has ignored your offerings of food, even for as much as two weeks, do not be alarmed! Your gecko is simply adjusting to his new surroundings. This can take anywhere from a few days to a month, and in rare cases sometimes longer than that. While they are adjusting, they need to be left alone. This can be incredibly hard to accomplish but is absolutely necessary. No handling should be done aside from what is needed for housing maintenance (water, cleaning, temperature checks). Food should be offered in a very specific method, which will be detailed later in this article, until the prey drive of the animal comes back naturally. There is no need to rush or force anything with a healthy animal!
Seasonal Cycles Affect Appetite
Leopard geckos, despite being a captive bred species for over two decades, are highly instinctual animals. They are very sensitive to the time of year, as influenced by photoperiods and temperatures. They can also be influenced by hormones. As such, there are often changes to their metabolism, without a major recognizable change to their surroundings.
Photoperiod and temperature changes in the fall and winter often send leopard geckos into a state called “brumation.” The most simple way to define brumation is as a semi-active hibernation. As a result of the changing daylight periods, leopard geckos’ bodies slow down their metabolism. You can tell your leopard gecko is brumating if he gets lethargic, less active, and (you probably guessed it by now) stops eating as much or even at all. Your setup may still be perfect, with temperatures the same as they’ve always been and all hides in their normal places, and your gecko may still go into brumation. This is a natural state, and they will be in it usually until the early spring, when the days begin to lengthen. Geckos will naturally drop some weight during this time, which is exactly what their bodies are made for, so don’t be worried if you see the weight drop little by little.
During breeding season, even virgin or pet animals may be prone to reacting to the hormonal cycles of the opposite sex. If you own several leopard geckos, particularly ones of opposite sex, males may get distracted by the enticing smells of the females ovulating. So distracted that, yes, they may stop eating. Again, this is natural. The smell can even be transferred by touch. Cleaning or handling an ovulating female can put a male into breeding mode if done before handling him. Just like with brumation, this is natural for these animals and no cause for alarm, but fortunately it passes much more quickly than brumation. In correlation with the breeding season, actively laying females, whether laying fertile eggs or not, usually stop eating when the eggs start to form and get large in their abdomen, and may or may not eat between laying. Laying females do need to be monitored for rapid weight loss, as they may need protein-packed foods during the breeding season.
Gastrointestinal Blockages Should Be Considered
Refusal of food can indicate some blockage in the GI tract of a leopard gecko. This could be minor, resulting in a simple feeling of “fullness“ in the gecko, or this could be major, preventing movement of waste out of the body and causing serious issues, even death.
Constipation can happen with leopard geckos on occasion. They eat a bit too much at once, their food from the last feeding is harder to digest for any of a multitude of reasons, could be any reason. This leaves your gecko feeling fuller than normal, and they typically don’t want to eat again on their normal schedule until they’ve passed the waste, which can take a little longer than normal as well. This should only be alarming if it happens very frequently, as it would indicate changes to the regimen or the setup should be made, but the occasional off-week happens. Constipation usually resolves itself on its own but can be aided in the process with a warm bath and a drop or two of any plant-based oils (vegetable, olive, canola, etc) licked up by the animal.
Impaction is like constipation, but more serious, and needs more immediate intervention. It is a complete and total blockage of the gastrointestinal tract, allowing for no movement of fecal waste out of the body. Impaction has a variety of causes, but is most often seen when loose substrate is used as the primary flooring in a leopard gecko enclosure. It leads to gut tissue death and the absorption of toxins back into the body. Impaction can be deadly if not treated and always requires intervention, whether by owner or veterinarian.
If you are not sure whether your leopard gecko is impacted or merely constipated, please consult a trusted exotics vet right away.
Your Gecko May Simply Not Feel Like Eating
Yes! Geckos can just “not feel like it” some nights too! Sometimes, there’s no good reason for why they don’t want to eat. They just don’t. Their prey drive stops turning and food doesn’t interest them. If your gecko may fall into this category, you can try offering new foods to pique their interest, or going without offering food for short periods of time to try to boost prey drive when food is actually offered.
Parasites May Cause Appetite Suppression
Now this is one option that is incredibly serious, but also distinct from the other possibilities. Gut parasites overrunning the animal’s system not only causes them to have no appetite, but causes them to lose weight very rapidly. There are a few other signs that can indicate that a gecko has a parasite, including runny, very smelly feces, and regurgitation of food.
Parasites have similar presentations but have many different organisms that can cause them. The most common treatable one is pinworms. Pinworms are found in many feeder insects, and often lay dormant in the reptile’s gut for a long time. Stressors can lower the immune system and cause the repressed infection to come forward. The symptoms most commonly seen with this infection, or other intestinal worms, are smelly/runny feces and weight loss, alongside loss of appetite.
Cryptosporidosis (“crypto” for short) is a deadly, dangerous parasite caused by an amoeboid called Cryptosporidium. This parasite is common in humans, but the species that effect reptiles are different than the ones that cause symptoms in humans. The two species that commonly affect reptiles are long lived, difficult to kill with cleaners, and most of all, highly contagious. This parasite is commonly found in pet store animals, who are produced by large warehouse breeders who have no quarantine procedures, and is passed on by animal waste. This parasite can easily infect and wipe out an entire collection and should be regarded with extreme caution and utmost respect. If you have a reptile that is diagnosed with crypto, the common measure taken is to put the animal to sleep, rather than allow it to waste away, and to dispose of the enclosure and everything within it. Cleaners are generally regarded as ineffective against crypto. The common symptoms for this parasite are extremely similar to other parasites, though regurgitation as also been seen.
If you suspect your gecko may have parasites, please consult a vet right away for fecal testing and possible treatment! Additionally, please exercise careful quarantine methods with potentially ill animals, to prevent the spread of disease to your other reptiles.
So What Do I Do?
If your gecko doesn't appear to be infected with parasites, there are a few methods you can use to try to get your gecko eating again.
First, consider the amount of time your reptile has been in your home. As mentioned before, a stressed reptile will not eat, and new reptiles are generally stressed for some time after arrival.
Second, troubleshoot your setup. A lot of issues with feeding stem back to something wrong with the setup, particularly the heat. Lack of heat slows the metabolism, makes it difficult for them to digest properly, and results in a lack of eating. Not enough hides may make them feel too insecure to eat. Feel free to consult my leopard gecko care sheet on this site to help with troubleshooting your setup.
Third, consider the time of year. If all else is the same, and your setup is proper, you may simply have a gecko who doesn’t feel like eating due to brumation or breeding season, so wait it out if this is the case.
If none of these seems to be working, try spacing out feedings further, without leaving food in the tank in between feeding days, or mixing up the food options. I have gotten some geckos back to eating by offering a different feeder insect, or by mixing up products like Repashy Grub Pie to tempt them to eat.
If all else fails, consult a vet. There can be other underlying issues causing a lack of appetite that can’t be fixed at home. These are generally rare, but not impossible. Extreme cases should always be dealt with by someone knowledgeable in leopard gecko medical care on a case by case situation. Hands on is always better than anything else!