The previous article discussed gecko hatchlings that have problems due to improper husbandry or visible deformities. This article addresses the most puzzling and frustrating type of hatchling problems: hatchlings who don’t thrive for unknown reasons.
These are hatchlings who look normal right out of the egg, but don’t thrive even though they receive the same care as their clutchmates. They may not eat independently, they may appear to have difficulty absorbing calcium, or they may seem to develop abnormalities that weren’t apparent at hatch time. It’s possible that these hatchlings have invisible structural or metabolic deformities that erode their health as they try to grow and develop. Mostly, we’ll never know, unless we carry out extensive research on the bodies of the ones that don’t make it. The most we can do is to identify the obvious problems based on what we observe, to attempt to compensate for them and to realize that some hatchlings simply will not survive for reasons we may never understand.
What follows are some recommendations about how to proceed with some of these problem hatchlings based largely on descriptions of specific hatchlings I’ve dealt with.
It Won’t Eat!
The hatchling looks normal but simply refuses to eat. It’s much smaller than the other hatchlings with similar hatch dates, there’s no poop visible in the cage. It doesn’t grow and doesn’t gain weight. Failure to eat is a frustrating problem that bedevils gecko keepers who have geckos at all stages of development. It’s even more frustrating with a hatchling that appears to be unable to get a good start in life.
Geckos that are large enough to be handled and that eat live feeders can be hand-fed. Hold the gecko gently in one hand and push a feeder gently against the mouth. Most young geckos will attempt to bite and, with luck, will then chew and swallow the feeder. This doesn’t always work. Some hatchlings will continue to spit out the feeder. If this continues, the gecko may be able to take the guts of a feeder spread on its mouth, or a slurry made up of feeders pureed in the blender. I feel, however, that it’s important to try for as long as possible to get the hatchling to eat whole feeders and to avoid a dependence on pureed food at this young age.
I’ve had both successes and failures feeding geckos who didn’t want to eat, primarily with leopard geckos. One hatchling went for more than a month refusing hand feeding and producing no droppings. It was kept alone in a 6 quart size shoe box bin in a rack in order to minimize the distance it had to go to get to food on its own (my leopard gecko hatchlings are fed primarily on mealworms) and to insure that I would see any droppings that it produced. Despite the failure to eat, the gecko remained active and alert. It seems that some geckos take a very long time before the “eating switch” turns on. I have seen this time and time again with leopard geckos that either barely eat or don’t eat at all. This hatchling was an extreme case. It took more than a month of nightly offering of mealworms and crickets with no success before this gecko finally caught on. Once it started eating there was no stopping it and eventually it began to gain steadily and became large enough and dependable enough to be sold.
Some hatchlings that don’t eat well seem to be generally disorganized, almost as if they have a gecko version of hyperactivity. They lunge at my finger and miss the mealworm. They don’t seem to understand that the bowl is for mealworms. They need to be held firmly and feeders just about placed in their mouths. They eat easily when hand-fed but can’t seem to figure it out on their own. I find that many of these “disorganized” hatchlings do well with superworms once they get large enough. Superworms are large enough to be hard to miss, mobile enough to be interesting and slower moving than crickets.
I’ve had consistent problems with African fat tail gecko hatchlings, many of whom abruptly stop eating with a corresponding noticeable loss of tail size. It’s a mystery to me why this has happened so many times. The first time I was frantic that the hatchling was going to die. However, nearly all the time, with consistent offering of crickets, the hatchlings eventually turned it around and the tails plumped back up within a few days.
Success is never guaranteed. The same season that I had to deal with the non-eating leopard gecko hatchling that finally came around, I had another hatchling that not only refused to eat, but got steadily weaker and less mobile. It didn’t survive.
Geckos that eat fruit nectar can be easier to feed because the nectar can be smeared on the nose where most geckos will lick it off. An unsurprising exception to this occurs with micro geckos, who are too small to hand feed, as I discovered during my epic fail with L. williamsi hatchlings.
Where Has All the Calcium Gone?
Ten hatchlings with similar set-ups. Nine are growing and thriving but one shows signs of early MBD (metabolic bone disease). What’s going on? Is the gecko not eating well and consequently not ingesting calcium and vitamin D3? Or does this gecko have a congenital metabolic problem processing calcium or D3? It could be either situation and we have no way of knowing definitively. Early signs of MBD in about 10% of my leopard gecko hatchlings led me to keep small dishes of calcium without D3 in my hatchling enclosures. In most cases, the MBD resolved within a week and the problems resolved. Recently I had a leopard gecko hatchling that initially looked normal but within a few weeks was dragging its rear legs and not gaining weight, despite the bowl of mealworms and bottle cap of calcium in the enclosure. The treatment involved hand feeding to insure weight gain and direct provision of calcium with D3: I dipped my finger in water, then dipped it in the calcium to make a calcium paste on my finger. Then I smeared the paste on the gecko’s nose for it to lick off. Since there is concern about overdosing geckos on calcium and D3, and there’s also no way to determine how much is too much, this treatment should be used sparingly. I provide calcium with D3 in this manner no more frequently than once a week and provide a calcium paste without D3 every other day or so until I see visible improvement. Within 10 days, this gecko hatchling was walking normally and eating on its own.
Some hatchlings, despite doses of calcium and vitamin D3, continue to deteriorate. I had a gargoyle gecko hatchling who developed MBD to the extent that its jaw could be just about bent double. Despite being provided with a calcium paste nearly every day as well as hand feedings of CGD (“crested gecko diet”), the gecko died within a month. In this case, I have to conclude that the gecko simply could not metabolize calcium.
♦ The fluid filled hatchling: As this hatchling grew during its first month, it became gradually filled with subcutaneous fluid, eventually looking like a gecko balloon. My brother the vet recommended using a sterile needle to aspirate some of this fluid, a procedure he performed for me. The gecko didn’t survive.
♦ The degloved hatchling: A leopard gecko hatchling kept individually in a 6 quart tub developed wounds on one of its forelegs, almost as if the skin were being pulled down the arm. There was nothing sharp in the enclosure. Otherwise, the gecko was active and eating well. This was a clear case for a vet visit. The vet prescribed some antibiotic cream which did the trick. The wound healed without a scar and the gecko remained in good health.
We can’t save them all. Some hatchlings just aren’t meant to survive and we won’t always know why. In some cases, careful observation, problem solving, hand feeding and knowing when to consult the reptile vet can result in a hatchling with problems reaching normal adulthood, but there’s no guarantee.