Even the most experienced and effective gecko keepers occasionally have geckos with health problems. This may occur with new acquisitions and also with animals they have had for a long time. There are a variety of heath problems that may affect our geckos, some of which may need to be diagnosed or treated by a vet. The problems discussed below are the most common health problems affecting geckos and are relatively easy to recognize.
Healthy geckos with appropriate living conditions shed regularly. They shed completely and often eat their shed to the point where the keeper may not even notice that the gecko has shed. Some geckos experience shedding problems occasionally and others chronically have difficulty shedding. Signs of shedding difficulty range from large sheets of shed clinging to the head, tail or limbs to residual shed left around the eyes, on the tail tip or the toes. This shed must be removed since it can cause constrictive damage to the extremities. For geckos that can be handled, shed can be removed by soaking or spraying the affected area and manually peeling off the stuck shed once it’s been softened by water. For geckos that can’t be easily handled, a “sauna” can be set up for them: cut a hold in the cover of a plastic container, line it with paper towel and mist it with warm water. Place the gecko in the container for up to 10 minutes to allow the humidity to soften the shed. With luck, the gecko will then be able to remove the shed. Severe shedding problems where, for instance, the tail tip is shriveling, may best be treated by a vet. Severe shedding problems in hatchlings, if they don’t improve with time, may be an indication that the hatchling should be culled.
Metabolic Bone Disease
All geckos require calcium to maintain strong bones and vitamin D3 to aid in metabolizing the calcium. Calcium is generally supplied in powdered form in a bowl, through dusted feeders or as an ingredient in fruit feedings. Vitamin D3 is supplied through exposure to sunlight, through UVB in lighting or in powdered form with calcium or vitamins. Geckos that do not receive enough calcium or vitamin D3 experience a loss of bone density (Metabolic Bone Disease, or MBD) resulting initially in soft, rubbery bones and ultimately leading to crippling deformities. This process usually occurs over a period of months or more, though in some cases a gecko exposed to inadvertent extremely high temperatures can suffer an acute, cataclysmic calcium deficiency. Signs of MBD include bowed limbs, a rubbery jaw that prevents geckos from chewing or killing their food, and tail or spine kinks that were not previously present. Occasionally hatchlings are born with an inability to properly metabolize calcium and will not survive. Care must also be taken with egg-producing females, who require more calcium than usual to make up for the calcium expended in forming their eggs. Mild cases of MBD may be reversed by increasing calcium and vitamin D3 intake. One way to do this is to wet a finger, dip it in calcium with D3 powder and rub it on the gecko’s mouth. The gecko will then usually lick the calcium and ingest it. More severe cases of MBD should be treated by a vet who may prescribe liquid calcium or a calcium injection. Frequently, bone deformities will not be corrected when the MBD is treated, but furthere deformity can be avoided with proper treatment.
All geckos probably carry a low level of internal parasitic organisms which don’t harm them. When geckos experience a compromised immune system, which can be brought on by stress, illness, or injury, they may be less effective at keeping these parasites in check. When the parasite load increases, it starts to seriously affect the gecko’s health. In other cases, a gecko can become a host to a new parasite because it ingests it in another animal’s feces or elsewhere in its environment (This is one important reason for quarantining newly acquired animals from the rest of the collection). Geckos with too great a parasite load may be asymptomatic or may exhibit symptoms including smelly or runny feces, bloated belly, weight loss, or anorexia. Although some people attempt to treat parasites on their own by administering a universal anti-parasitic medicine, it’s more appropriate to consult a vet to determine the correct medication and dosage. Treatment will also include repeatedly disinfecting the geckos’ environment to prevent re-infection.
Some species of gecko, especially wild-caught ones, are prone to external parasites, usually mites. Once again, the gecko’s skin must be treated as well as the environment to prevent re-infestation. Check out our blog post on gecko mites that we’ve posted in the past.
Geckos can become stressed for many reasons including moving to a new environment, change in a familiar environment, introduction of another reptile, overcrowding, breeding or change in husbandry. In general, any change in the gecko’s habitual existence or prolonged poor husbandry can cause stress. Stress is not an illness in and of itself but can cause symptoms such as reluctance to eat and can depress the immune system leading to parasite overload. Stress can even cause a gecko who normally has no trouble shedding to have a poor shed. In some cases, such as the acquisition of a new gecko which must acclimate to its environment, giving the gecko time to adjust without handling or disturbing it will take care of the problem. In other cases, stressors must be removed (e.g. separating the gecko from cagemates which are stressing it) and illnesses caused by the stress must be treated as well.
Geckos living with cagemates are always prone to wounds from biting or scratching. Even geckos living alone can injure themselves by encountering unsafe objects in the enclosure or even by aggressive attempts to shed. Serious wounds, wide or deep enough to expose bone or viscera need to be treated by a vet. Less severe wounds should be kept clean, away from particulate substrate and allowed to heal on their own. Wounds can be cleaned with hydrogen peroxide if desired. If the wound doesn’t heal or beginsS to look infected, vet treatment is recommended. It’s also important to determine an eliminate the cause of the wound. This may require a change in the cage furnishings or separating cagemates.
Geckos can be kept healthy with proper attention to these most common health problems and a good sense of when to treat independently and when to visit the vet.