Getting familiar with geckos

Thanks to a popular insurance company’s commercials, most of us are familiar with geckos. The little lizards are often touted as great pets for first-time reptile owners.

One of the easiest geckos to care for is the leopard gecko. While some equipment is required to provide a gecko with a good environment, the leopard gecko doesn’t get longer than a foot – most are about 8 inches – and so it can live in a 10- to 20-gallon terrarium.

When parents are supervising, geckos can be good pets for children 8 years old and up because they rarely bite. Kids must be taught how to correctly handle and care for the pet, however, because the gecko can break its tail off as an escape mechanism if it feels in danger. Don’t worry; the tail will grow back, but many gecko enthusiasts say the tail will never be as pretty as the original.

Geckos can also live 25 years if kept properly, so any potential owner will need to make a long-term commitment. Parents, that means if Junior gets tired of his new pet before next Christmas that you’ll still need to be feeding and cleaning for quite some time. Make sure you’re willing to do so before bringing one of these pets into your home.

Like hamsters, the lizards are nocturnal and so will be most active when you’re asleep. That can be another potential discouragement to children.

On the bright side, gecko afficionados point to the ease of clean up, since geckos generally choose one corner of their housing as a bathroom. You can go so far as to potty train a gecko to use a paper towel or other bedding that can be easily changed. And, people with allergies to most pets tend to find geckos don’t bother them.

Do you want one or two geckos? Generally, female geckos are pretty easy to house together, while two males may fight. Young geckos that are the same size and grow up together will do all right in pairs, and two is always better company. You’ll need to make sure your environment is sized accordingly should you wish to get two (20 gallons is suitable for leopard geckos). If you have a male-female pair and don’t want baby geckos, be prepared to remove the resulting eggs.

To get started with a gecko, you need to purchase and setup an environment first. This housing, generally in an aquarium or terrarium, should be at least 10 gallons per animal. Sand makes a poor substrate for geckos as some like to eat it, so choose reptile carpeting, bark or gravel.

Inside the main enclosure, provide a hiding box – preferably in the middle of the cage. That can be purchased specially or can be as simple as a plastic (not see-through) container with a hole cut in one end. Keep a damp peat moss or vermiculite mixture in the hide box, and you’ll be offering a nice humid home for your gecko (to shed properly, the gecko likes it humid). Other hiding places, like rocks and plants, are important too.

Your gecko will prefer to live in temperatures around 85 degrees. Don’t get a hot rock, as this doesn’t always provide even heat and can even cause burns. Instead, buy a reflector lamp with an incandescent bulb that can be placed at one end to provide the warmth at one end and a slightly cooler area at the other, so the gecko can choose. A red night light that keeps the cage no cooler than 80 degrees is also recommended. A timer will let you automate the on and off times for the lights, and a thermometer will let you know if you’re doing OK with the temperature. A gecko that is too warm or too cool will not eat, so it’s important to pay attention.

Speaking of eating, geckos are pretty easy to care for there, too. Unlike larger reptiles that eat small mammals, the leopard gecko does just fine dining on meal worms and crickets, both of which are easy to get at many pet supply stores. Wax worms can be fed as treats, but they need to be given in moderation because they are high in fat (one source called them “Twinkies for geckos”). You can feed your pet in a shallow dish, preferably in the early evening, that is placed somewhere other than right below the heat source (the heat will kill and dry out the worms). Younger geckos like to chase their dinner around so if the dish idea doesn’t appeal to them, give it time. Some geckos will also take food from your hand.

Only feed the amount that your gecko will eat at one time. Remove any excess crickets because they will stress an un-hungry gecko and can even bite them. You will quickly figure out how much to feed at each meal.

Water should also be provided in a shallow dish and changed at least once a day. You will also need a small dish for calcium powder. Leopard geckos need and enjoy this calcium to stay healthy. Some gecko keepers also recommend additional vitamins depending on how nutritious the diet is overall.

For online information on geckos, check Gecko Network at www.geckonetwork.com or the Global Gecko Association at www.gekkota.com. One helpful beginner’s book is The Guide to Owning a Leopard Gecko by Ray Hunziker.