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How to Care for a New Leopard Gecko

Jessica has worked in pet retail for over ten years. She adopted a light-sensitive albino leopard gecko (named Lewlew) in 2019.

Learn how to care for your new leopard gecko, including enclosure setup, heating, live feeders, and bonding!

Learn how to care for your new leopard gecko, including enclosure setup, heating, live feeders, and bonding!

Are you the proud owner of a new leopard gecko? Leopard geckos make great beginner reptiles. They are low maintenance and can be hand-tamed with patience and persistence.

But be aware that leopard geckos still have standards of care beyond a glass terrarium and a heat source. They need heat, light, hides, vitamins, and more to both survive and thrive in their new home. Read on to learn how to keep your new pet healthy and happy!

A 40 gallon tank gives your leopard gecko plenty of room for hides, decor, and temperature regulation.

A 40 gallon tank gives your leopard gecko plenty of room for hides, decor, and temperature regulation.

1. Set Up the Tank

Before you bring home a leopard gecko, have the terrarium set up and ready for your scaly friend. Reptile tanks come in several sizes, from as small as 5 gallons to as large as 120 gallons (or more!). A 20-gallon long tank is the minimum tank size for adult leopard geckos, as they grow between 8 and 11 inches long. But you aren’t limited to 20 gallons—you can provide your leopard gecko with more space. Many owners advocate for larger enclosures, like a 40-gallon tank. Having more tank space means more opportunities for enrichment!

Be sure to have a flat surface underneath the heat lamp for your gecko to bask that absorbs heat!

Be sure to have a flat surface underneath the heat lamp for your gecko to bask that absorbs heat!

2. Set Up the Heat and Lighting

Leopard geckos need daytime temperatures between 90-92°F on the warm side of the tank (inside of their warm hide). The cool side of the tank should hover between 70-77°F during the day. At night, the warm side of the tank should fall no lower than 65°F.

While leopard geckos are active at night, they absorb heat during the day to build up energy. There are several ways to heat your leopard gecko's tank - overhead heating is most effective!

Heat lamps are the most common and natural way to provide heat to your leopard gecko. Using light fixtures on top of the tank mimics the heat of the sun warming the desert below. Heat lamps are also better at warming the air in a tank than an under-tank heat pad. There are three common heat bulbs sold in pet stores:

  • Day bulbs
  • Night bulbs
  • Ceramic heat emitters

Day bulbs provide heat during daytime hours and emit bright white light. This includes basking bulbs, incandescent bulbs, and daylight bulbs. Night bulbs heat your reptile’s tank without emitting light visible to reptiles. (But there is research that suggests that this is no longer the case!) These bulbs come in infrared, black, and moonlight colors. Ceramic heat emitters are heat sources that give off no light at all. They have a longer life than standard heat bulbs and are great at boosting ambient temperatures in the tank.

Deep heat projectors provide heat without light, making them great for light sensitive geckos or nighttime use.

Deep heat projectors provide heat without light, making them great for light sensitive geckos or nighttime use.

According to current leopard gecko husbandry, halogen bulbs are the best daytime lighting option. They provide both Infrared A and Infrared B, the same heat wavelengths produced by the sun. Deep heat projectors also provide Infrared A and Infrared B, but do not provide visible light. These are a great option for leopard geckos that are light-sensitive, or when a lightless bulb is required.

Ceramic heat emitters are like deep heat projectors, but only produce Infrared C wavelengths. This makes them weaker than a halogen bulb or deep heat projector, but still a better heat source than a heat mat. Heat mats are no longer considered the best way to heat your enclosure. Leopard geckos can get belly heat if provided a flat stone or tile underneath their heat lamp. The stone will absorb heat during the day, and stay warm during the evening. Heat mats can also be difficult to regulate in comparison to overhead heating.

Despite their names, night heat bulbs are not recommended for nighttime heat. Research now suggests that infrared and other colored night bulbs are still visible to reptiles. Thus, using these bulbs at night can still disrupt their day-night cycle. A ceramic heat emitter is a good way to provide nighttime heat if necessary.

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Whichever heat source you choose for your enclosure, each one needs to be regulated to prevent overheating. Thermostats are programmed to regulate tank temperatures via a metal probe. On/off thermostats shut the heat source off upon reaching the programmed temperature and turn it back on when the temperature drops. These work with lightless heat bulbs (deep heat projectors or ceramic heat emitters). Dimmable thermostats dim the heat source when it hits the programmed temperature, and raise it as it drops. This works with visible heat sources, such as halogen bulbs, because the light remains on.

On/Off Digital Thermostat

Leopard geckos need 3 separate hides - one hot, one warm, and one cold.

Leopard geckos need 3 separate hides - one hot, one warm, and one cold.

3. Fill the Tank With Hides and Decor

Leopard geckos need at least three different hides in their enclosure - one warm hide, one humid hide, and one cool hide. Hides are enclosed structures with an entrance that the leopard gecko can fit through. Enclosed ornaments provide privacy and a sense of security. Decor with many entrances and exits do not keep heat or moisture as well as enclosed hides.

The warm hide is placed on the warm side of the tank and is where leopard geckos spend a lot of their time. The cool hide belongs on the other side of the enclosure, on the cool side. When your gecko feels too warm in its warm hide, it needs to have a place to go on the other side of the tank to cool down. This is also why having a temperature gradient in their tank is so important!

A humid hide is best in the center of the enclosure and gives your leopard gecko a place to go when it is shedding. Leopard geckos without a humid hide are prone to having trouble shedding. This can lead to a stuck shed, which can further lead to lost toes! Humid hides need a type of substrate inside to retain moisture. Sphagnum moss works well, but paper towels are a decent alternative. To keep it humid, spray the substrate inside of the humid hide with water every day—that’s it!

A dig box provides enrichment without having loose substrate covering the entire tank.

A dig box provides enrichment without having loose substrate covering the entire tank.

4. Choose a Substrate for the Tank

Substrate is a hot topic within the leopard gecko community! While loose substrate isn’t dangerous on its own, many reptile owners fear impaction. Impaction is when a reptile ingests substrate and it solidifies, getting stuck in their digestive tract. Because of this, many leopard gecko owners steer clear of loose substrate altogether. Others emphasize the importance of loose substrate in mimicking their natural environment. A healthy gecko with proper husbandry can pass small amounts of ingested substrate. And feeding with tongs can reduce the risk of accidental ingestion.

You don’t need to have loose substrate in your leopard gecko’s enclosure if you’re worried. And you can always switch later if you change your mind! The recommended loose substrate for leopard geckos is a mix of 70% organic topsoil and 30% play sand. There are also commercial substrates that take DIY mixing out of the equation. For example, I use Reptisoil by Zoo Med in a small plastic container. This is called a dig box and provides my leopard gecko with enrichment without having loose substrate at the bottom of his tank.

Safe alternatives to loose substrate include tile and paper towels. Tile is more aesthetically pleasing, while still easy to wipe clean. Paper towels make cleanup fast—throw them out when dirty and replace them with fresh ones. Reptile carpets sold in stores pose a risk to reptiles because their nails and teeth can get stuck on them. And while shelf liners look nice, they release volatile organic compounds when they absorb heat. Many owners say that non-adhesive shelf liner is safe, so be sure to read labels before purchasing!

Having your hand in your gecko's tank for a few minutes each day will help acclimate them to your presence.

Having your hand in your gecko's tank for a few minutes each day will help acclimate them to your presence.

5. Bond With Your Leopard Gecko

Once you bring your new leopard gecko home, they’re likely to be nervous! The journey home and the new environment may be overwhelming. Give your new friend a few days to decompress in their new tank. This means no handling, unless it’s an emergency! Let them explore their surroundings and get used to the new sights and smells of their new home.

To start bonding with your gecko, try laying your hand in the tank for them to see and smell. Leopard geckos have different personalities, so the time it takes for them to warm up to you may vary. Let your new gecko approach your hand - once they do, they may be brave enough to sniff or lick you! Try not to move your hand away suddenly, or reach up to grab them. This motion could scare your gecko, and send them running away.

Once your gecko is feeling comfortable with your presence, they may climb onto your hand. This is good progress! Let them sit there for some time so they know that it is safe. Once they are comfortable sitting on your hand, try lifting it up in slow increments. Try an inch at first, until you are so high that you can lift them out of the tank. Remember to take your time and go at your leopard gecko’s pace—you don’t want to associate bonding time with stress.

Dubia roaches are healthy feeders, easy to keep, and are incapable of jumping and flying!

Dubia roaches are healthy feeders, easy to keep, and are incapable of jumping and flying!

6. Feed Your Leopard Gecko

Leopard geckos are insectivores, meaning they only eat insects. And that doesn’t mean bugs you can catch in your backyard! Wild insects can be contaminated with pesticides, or give your leopard gecko parasites. This is why pet stores sell different types of feeder insects for reptiles. Common feeder insects include crickets, mealworms, superworms, black soldier fly larvae, and dubia roaches.

Insect Nutritional Quality

Nutritional RankingInsectQuality

1

Dubia

highest protein, low in fat

2

Cricket

high protein, low fat

3

Black Soldier Fly Larvae

high protein, moderate fat

4

Mealworm

high protein, moderate fat

5

Superworm

high protein, moderate fat

6

Waxworm

moderate protein, high fat

7

Hornworm

low protein, high moisture

Staple feeder insects refer to the majority of your leopard gecko’s diet. A staple feeder should have more protein than fat. Dubia roaches and crickets make excellent staples because they are high in protein and low in fat. Black soldier fly larvae contain more fat but are still high in protein and a good feeder option. Many keepers also use mealworms and superworms as staple feeders, but they have a higher fat content than dubias or crickets. They can also be more difficult to digest in large amounts due to their hard exoskeletons.

Juvenile leopard geckos (0 to 6 months) need food every day, while young adults (6 months to 1 year) should eat every other day. Adult leopard geckos (1+ years) should only eat once every four to five days. Aim to feed your leopard gecko about 2 appropriately sized insects for every inch of their body. These insects won’t be too large for your leopard gecko to eat. For example, a superworm may be fine for an adult leopard gecko, but unsafe for a juvenile.

Water conditioner, vitamins, and calcium powder are all important for a leopard gecko's health and wellness.

Water conditioner, vitamins, and calcium powder are all important for a leopard gecko's health and wellness.

Feeding your leopard gecko goes beyond buying insects from the store. Leopard geckos need vitamins and supplements incorporated into their diets. Reptile supplements are powders that get “dusted” onto insects before a feeding. Place the feeders into a container or plastic bag with a small amount of vitamin powder, close it, and shake! The powder will stick to the insects, which will then be consumed by your leopard gecko.

There are a few types of reptile supplements available: vitamins, calcium, and calcium with vitamins. Leopard geckos need both vitamins and calcium to stay healthy and strong. Vitamin A is especially important for leopard geckos because they cannot convert carotene into vitamin A. And vitamin d3 is important for all reptiles, as a vitamin D deficiency leads to metabolic bone disease (MBD). Symptoms of MBD include a soft jawbone, deformed arms or legs, loss of appetite, and lethargy. Minor cases of MDB are treated at home with supplements, but advanced cases need veterinary care!

Repashy Calcium Plus

Do Your Research

At the end of the day, remember to do your own research and gather from different sources. Not all online resources have the correct information on leopard gecko husbandry. Social media accounts can display inaccurate or poor husbandry (such as cohabitation). And not all pet store associates know up-to-date information on leopard gecko care. Become your own expert on leopard geckos—don’t rely on the people you decide to get your gecko from.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Jessica Peri

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