How to Set Up a Leopard Gecko Enclosure
How to Care for a Leopard Gecko
Leopard geckos are one of the most popular pet reptiles because they are relatively small and docile. Because of their size, they require small enclosures, but that doesn't mean that they can be neglected when it comes to proper husbandry. There are many different opinions about how a leopard gecko should be housed. Some are accurate, some are semi-accurate, and some are just plain wrong.
In order to house a leopard gecko properly, there are just some things you can't do. Neglect of any kind can shorten their lifespan and cause many health issues. Below, I will give you the most accurate way to house your leopard gecko to ensure that it lives happily, healthfully, and safely in your care. We will go over:
- Enclosure Size
- Recommended Substrate
- Unsafe Substrate
- Proper Temperatures
- Recommended Lighting
- Cage Placement
Do remember that leopard geckos can live for up to 20 years. The key to a long lifespan is a properly set up enclosure. However, there can always be unexpected occurrences that may cause a shortened lifespan. Just make sure that you do all that you can to provide a safe enclosure.
1. Recommended Enclosure Size
Because leopard geckos are relatively small reptiles, you can get away with a 10-gallon aquarium with a screen lid. A better option would be to purchase a 20-gallon aquarium with a screen lid.
Why I Recommend a 20-Gallon Aquarium
The reason I suggest a 20-gallon versus a 10-gallon is because after you add the hides and bowls, there is very little room left for the leopard gecko to walk around, which can stress them out.
Why Size Matters
Too little room can potentially stress out your leopard gecko, but too much extra room can also potentially stress out your gecko. So, if you choose a larger-sized enclosure, you'll want to add a few extra hides or decoration pieces, such as wood, bridges, fake plants, etc.
2. Recommended Substrate
The biggest mistake that people make when decorating their leopard gecko enclosure is going with the wrong substrate. Loose substrates can cause impactions, which can be fatal if you don't notice the signs early on. Therefore, safe substrates that you will want to use in your leopard gecko's enclosure include:
- Paper towels
- Reptile carpet
- Indoor/outdoor carpet
- Slate tiles
- Rollout liner
Avoid Loose Substrates
In general, you want to avoid any and all loose substrates as they can be dangerous or cause health problems. These can include:
- Play-sand (often marketed as vita-sand in pet stores; otherwise, regular play-sand in any form)
- Calcium-based sand
- Potting soil
- Silica sand
- Wood shavings (cedar and pine especially)
- Cat litter
- Bark chips
- Crushed corn cob
- Walnut shells
3. Unsafe Substrate
Many people assume that because leopard geckos are desert reptiles, that they should be housed on sand. Well, I hate to break it to you, but not every desert is composed of loose sand; leopard geckos are actually naturally found in deserts composed of compacted sand and rocks.
Why You Shouldn't Use Sand
You can house older geckos on very fine play-sand, but you want to stay away from housing baby and juvenile geckos on it because they are clumsy when catching their prey and ingest mouthfuls of sand that can compact in their digestive tract (this is still common with older geckos, however). Wood shavings and bark chips, too, can raise humidity levels and offer hiding places for crickets, making it hard for geckos to find their food.
Why You Shouldn't Use Calcium-Based Sand
Calci-sand or any calcium-based sand is another common mistake. Many pet-store employees recommend that you purchase digestible sand (I mean, it even says on the bag that it's good for reptiles). Again, I hate to break it to you, but when calcium-based sand gets wet, it tends to clump and will do the same in a reptile's digestive system. Plus, because it is calcium-based, reptiles tend to lick at it and ingest the sand. Overall, you want to avoid all calcium-based sands.
Safe vs. Unsafe Substrate Types
Crushed corn cob
4. Proper Temperatures
Probably the most important aspect of a proper enclosure is to make sure that you have accurate temperatures within the enclosure. Remember that leopard geckos need temperatures on the hot side—around 88ºF to 90ºF during the day.
The best way to provide the correct temperature is to use an under-tank heater (UTH). UTHs are also great because leopard geckos are terrestrial and absorb heat via their bellies. So, by using an under-tank heater, your leopard gecko will be able to get the best heat.
I find that not attaching the UTH to the enclosure makes for easier cleaning. This way, you do not have to worry about the cord getting wet. Also, make sure to prop the aquarium up on something so that you give the UTH room to breathe. By blocking the heat from the UTH underneath the cage, the heat can build up under the cage and cause stress cracks.
Use a digital thermometer with a probe to measure the temperatures in the tank. You can attach the meter on the outside of the tank and have the probe on the hot side of the tank on top of the substrate.
You do not want to use the stick-on thermometers of any size, shape, or brand because they do not read temperatures accurately by any means. When you use a stick-on thermometer, you are measuring the wall temperatures, anyway, which aren't the temperatures that are affecting your leopard gecko. Even if you place these thermometers on the surface of the tank, they are still not accurate.
Zoo Med under-tank heaters, for example, are sized for 1- to 30-gallon enclosures, so make sure that you know which size is recommended for each enclosure as follows:
- Mini: 1–5 gallon
- Small: 10–20 gallon
- Medium: 20–30 gallon
5. Recommended Lighting
Lighting is an optional feature for your leopard gecko's enclosure. Because they get their heat from the surface of the enclosure, the light really just raises the air temperature a few degrees. The one good reason to opt for a clamp light is to create a day/night scenario.
If you decide that you want to use a clamp light, you will want the light and the under-tank heater on the same side of the enclosure. You do not need to use UV lighting. Leopard geckos are nocturnal, so they do not benefit from the UV rays.
6. How Many Hides Does My Leopard Gecko Need?
"Hides" are probably the most straightforward aspect of a leopard gecko's enclosure. You want to have at least three hides in the cage: two dry hides and one humid hide. You want to have one dry hide on the hot side of the enclosure and one dry hide on the cool side of the enclosure. This allows your gecko to thermoregulate its body temperature. If they get too hot on the hot side, they can seek refuge in the hide on the cool side, and vice versa.
The Humid Hide
Humidity tends to be caused by moisture and heat. Your gecko will use a humid hide if it wants to (in other words, don't force them to use it). Keep in mind that you do not need to mist the humid hide every day either.
Here's how to create a humid hide:
- Cut a hole in a Glad Tupperware container.
- Stuff it with a substrate. You can use peat moss, Bed-A-Beast, or vermiculite within the humid hide, or you can use paper towels or a small piece of a towel.
- If you use a loose substrate (moss, dirt, etc.), you will probably want to cut the hole in the top of the container because the gecko may dig or kick out the bedding all over the tank. Otherwise, if you use paper towels or a piece of a towel, you can cut the hole on the side.
- Place the hide on the hot side of the enclosure.
- The humid hide aids in shedding, so when your gecko is going to shed, you'll want to make sure to mist the inside of the hide. Your gecko will begin to dull a day or so before they turn white-gray in color which is typical of shedding.
Make sure not to over-decorate the enclosure as it may cause stress.
7. Cage Placement
The only other thing I should mention is where you place the enclosure. Do not put your leopard gecko's enclosure in direct sunlight, which means that you shouldn't put the cage directly in front of a window. This can increase temperatures in warmer months and create a slight chill during cooler months. In general, place the enclosure on interior walls versus exterior ones.
Remember to add a small bowl of calcium in the enclosure in addition to dusting feeder insects in calcium because it allows the gecko to get the calcium that it needs at any time of the day.
I like putting calcium bowls near the water bowl, but you can put them anywhere. Also, you may consider keeping the bottle cap to your milk or Gatorade because it's the perfect size to use as a calcium dish.
Share Your Expert Tips
We have covered all of the basics of leopard gecko husbandry. At this point, you should know:
- What size enclosure to use
- Proper substrate
- Proper heating and how to accurately read temperatures
- How many, what kind, and where to put hides
Please leave your feedback in the comments section below. If I have missed anything, feel free to share it with the community.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.