Jami has a leopard gecko and enjoys offering tips and advice and sharing what she's learned.
How Do Leopard Geckos Shed Their Skin?
All reptiles shed their skin when they grow, and leopard geckos are no exception. However, they do shed differently than snakes and other lizards.
Stages of Shedding
- Leopard geckos periodically shed the outer layer of skin called the epithelial skin. When leopard geckos replace the epithelial skin, they go into what is known as the resting stage, which ends when the cells that generate the new skin begin to divide from the old layer.
- When the two layers of skin begin to divide, the leopard gecko will become more pale and dull (and sometimes even change color slightly). This is to be expected, and one should never worry when this happens.
- When the old layer of skin is ready to shed from the leopard gecko, it will begin to look like a “papery membrane” and then come off in sheet-like sections that may look similar to a peeling sunburn.
- Leopard geckos do not shed in one piece as snakes do. They pull the skin off of their bodies with their mouth and eat it, possibly to gain the nutrients contained in the skin.
- Once the leopard gecko has fully shed, their coloration and pattern will become very bright again.
Shedding Complications in Leopard Geckos
Some captive-bred leopard geckos have a tendency toward shedding problems, which can pose danger to the animal and even cause death. It is important to be aware of how your pet gecko is shedding so the issue can be addressed and fixed immediately.
What Causes a Gecko's Shedding Problems?
There are many factors that contribute to shedding problems, which include (but are not limited to):
- low temperatures,
- a lack or abundance of vitamin A,
- weakness caused by injury,
- bacterial infections,
- viral infections,
- metabolic bone disease,
- and low humidity.
How Do You Alleviate and Prevent Shedding Issues?
- Nutrition: Providing a pet leopard gecko with a proper diet and mineral and vitamin supplementation will help reduce possible health issues that may cause a gecko to shed improperly.
- Humidity Hut: Providing a humidity hut in the enclosure will also help the outer layer of skin to shed properly and reduce issues as well as provide adequate humidity that is necessary for proper shedding.
- Observation: Also, close observation of the pet leopard gecko—including its fecal matter, level of activity, weight gain, and weight loss—will help identify and eliminate possible health problems that may be causing shedding issues.
How Do You Know There's a Problem?
When geckos fail to shed, they look very dull and pale and show obvious signs of adhering old skin on the body, eyelids, and toes. Geckos that tend to have shedding issues also become listless, and their behaviors change dramatically.
What Are the Potential Complications?
If shedding problems are ignored and not quickly addressed, they can lead to many complications, such as eye problems, loss of digits (toes), infections, and, in severe cases, death.
How to Prevent Shedding Issues
If a leopard gecko has obvious shedding issues, there are several ways that one can prevent and treat the problem. The best way to prevent shedding issues (as stated above) is to provide the pet leopard gecko with adequate temperatures and humidity (especially during the shedding process).
The basking area of a leopard gecko enclosure should range from 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit and the cooler side of the enclosure should range from 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
For proper humidity, one should provide their leopard gecko with a humidity hut (placed on the cooler side) with a coconut husk substrate or with vermiculite or sphagnum moss substrate (these types of substrate absorb and hold moisture). One should always make sure the humidity hut always contains moisture and that the substrate is damp (but do not add too much water to it to prevent mildew and mold from growing).
Providing a humidity hut for the gecko ensures that the reptile will be able to shed properly, as well as giving the owner a sense of ease and security (it will also allow the owner to maintain the enclosure less, because with a humidity hut, the owner no longer has to dampen the entire enclosure during shedding periods).
How to Remedy Shedding Problems
If one provides the proper temperature and a humidity hut and the shedding problem persists, there are several other ways one can help remedy the problem.
- According to The Leopard Gecko Manual, one can dip a cotton swab or a q-tip in some hydrogen peroxide and then gently rub it on the pet leopard gecko (being extremely careful not to get it in or around the eyes) to gently remove the adherent skin.
- The manual also states that one can moisturize the leopard gecko with ophthalmic (eye) lubricant lotion if the skin is firmly attached and will not come off naturally (or with other treatment options).
- Once the skin is softened the skin can be gently removed, but one should never force the skin off because it can cause more damage to the reptile.
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When to See a Vet
If a leopard gecko continues to have shedding problems and the gecko is provided with adequate temperatures and humidity and the problem persists, please contact the local reptile veterinarian immediately. Leopard geckos that have shedding problems tend to lose digits, become blind, and some can even die from the restriction it causes.
Tail Loss in Leopard Geckos
Below are the answers to some common questions about tail loss in geckos.
Why Do Geckos Lose Their Tails?
Just as most lizards do, leopard geckos will drop their tails if they feel threatened, stressed, or are grabbed by the tail when handled.
The Tail Is Twitching: Is It Still Alive?
When the original tail is dropped, it will continue to twitch. The twitching is meant to distract predators while the leopard gecko escapes from the jaws of death.
What Effect Does Losing a Tail Have on a Gecko?
The caudal (tail) vertebrae of leopard geckos have connective tissue fracture points that allow the tail to automatize (fall off) easily. After the tail has dropped, the leopard gecko's body goes into a state of rapid vasoconstriction to minimize blood loss and repair the dropped tail.
Is the New Tail as Good as the Old One?
Even though leopard geckos have the ability to regrow their tails, the new tail that takes the place of the original is a bulbous, cartilaginous structure that is no longer supported by the vertebrae. The regrown tail may look more similar to the gecko's head (so if attacked again, the predator will go for the tail first). Regrown tails are not aesthetically pleasing and can look odd, but a dropped or regrown tail poses no danger or harm to the reptile.
Leopard geckos can drop regrown tails as well if stressed, attacked, or handled improperly.
Why Does a Gecko Lose Its Tail?
Tail loss is not only caused by predator attacks or improper handling but can also be an effect of intraspecies aggression. Intraspecies aggression is when the animal is attacked by a member of the same species.
In other words, when two leopard geckos are housed together for any reason, they can become territorial and attack each other, making one or both reptiles drop their tails due to a high amount of stress. When males are housed together, they become territorial and attack each other which may lead to a tail loss; babies may drop tails when food is placed in the enclosure and they go into a feeding frenzy; and aggressive females may drop their tails when they are paired for breeding purposes with an overly sexually aggressive male.
How to Care for a Gecko That Lost Its Tail
Even though leopard geckos do drop their tails, and a regrown tail does not affect the gecko in a negative way, it is important to give the gecko special care when their tail has been dropped. A leopard gecko uses its tail for fat storage and uses that storage in times of starvation to survive. When a gecko loses its tail, it loses its main source of fat storage and the gecko should be housed alone until the gecko regrows the tail and regains its strength and fat once again. The tailless reptile must be kept warm, fed and watered regularly for it to be able to regenerate a new tail.
Once the tail has regrown, handle the gecko with care and observe the conditions that made the animal drop its tail so it can be avoided in the future.
Philippe de Vosjoli, Roger Klingenberg, Ron Tremper, and Brian Viets. The Leopard Gecko Manual. Irvine: Advanced Vivarium Systems, Inc. 2004. Print.
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.
Sheri Dusseault from Chemainus. BC, Canada on April 18, 2013:
I wish I knew this a few years ago when my sons were into lizards and snakes as pets. They are acutally very difficult to care for feed and they can be very smelly. Thank goodness they out grew that! This is great info for people thinking about lizards as pets.