Leopard Geckos have traditionally been thought of as relatively easy reptiles to care for. They require a small enclosure (15 or 20 gallon tank), a temperature gradient of about 70-80 degrees, a shed box, and a diet of crickets or mealworms. Their status as relatively easy keepers has earned them the distinction of being one of the most popular reptiles kept as pets in the US. The more popular these little guys become, the more we learn about how to keep them as happy and as healthy as possible. Environmental enrichment as well as multiple hide-boxes with different humidity levels and nutritional supplementation can go a long way in keeping your pet healthy. Perhaps the most important aspect of keeping your Leopard Gecko in good shape is choosing a correct substrate for their enclosure. Traditionally, these little creatures have been kept on sand as they are often associated with living in a desert habitat. In actuality their habitat in the wild is more likely to be sandy-gravel, rocks, clay or grass and housing your pet on sand can cause an often life-threatening situation.
Earlier this year, Candy, the young adult Leopard Gecko, was brought in by her very concerned owners. They had recently purchased her from a pet store and while she appeared to be in great health when they brought her home, she deteriorated quickly over the next month. Due to the inconsistency of their natural environment, Leopard Geckos have evolved to be able to store their energy reserves in their tails. One very important indicator of a healthy Leopard Gecko is a fat tail. A Leopard Gecko that does not eat will deplete these reserves and their tail will become thin and fragile looking. Despite Candy’s owner’s best efforts her tail got smaller and she began to lose weight as they were unable to entice her to eat anything, including mealworms, crickets and wax worms. After ensuring that her habitat was properly outfitted with a heat lamp, shed box, and multiple hides, Dr. Pinello discovered that Candy was being kept on a sand substrate (as had been recommended by the pet store).
This bit of information prompted Dr. Pinello to take a radiograph of the little lizard, where she discovered that she had ingested her bedding and was suffering from an intestinal impaction. This is a fairly common occurrence, especially in younger or smaller Leopard Geckos and will often lead to death if not treated aggressively. In order to survive this situation, we would have to try and get Candy to pass the sand through her GI system. Candy was given an enema here at the clinic as well as fluids under the skin to treat her dehydration, as animals who are dehydrated often have great difficulty defecating. She was also sent home with a specially formulated liquid diet and her owners were shown how to syringe-feed her twice a day.
In addition to twice daily feeding, her owners were instructed to soak her in a warm water bath for 15-20 minutes every day to combat her dehydration. One week later we repeated a radiograph on Candy and saw that the sand was moving through her digestive tract. Thanks to Dr. Pinello’s quick diagnosis and the incredible dedication of Candy’s owners we are pleased to report that after several weeks she is eating happily and has made a full recovery! Now that the substrate in her enclosure has been changed from sand to newspaper, Candy’s owners will never again need to nurse their little pet through an intestinal sand impaction.