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In a previous article (My Gecko Is Not Eating ) I described common situations, including illness, life cycle and stress, that result in geckos not eating and provided suggestions for how to deal with each case. This article addresses an even more frustrating situation: the gecko who doesn’t seem to belong to any of the categories above but continues to refuse to eat, sometimes for months. These geckos seem to be healthy: they are alert and active and don’t appear to be in any distress. They are not losing a significant amount of weight. They are not ovulating or in the phase of breeding where they eat little, they are not brumating, and their fecal exams from the vet are negative. My theory about why this occurs is limited to my experience with leopard geckos and African fat tail geckos though it could be extended to other geckos as well. It is based on observation of my own collection rather than extensive medical or scientific research.
Why I think Geckos may stop eating
Most leopard- and fat tail geckos in captivity live in conditions vastly different from those in the wild. Their territorial “range” is severely restricted to a plastic tub or glass enclosure, usually not much more than 9 or 10 square feet. They don’t have to hunt extensively for food and in some cases do not even have to move more than a few inches to eat their fill. The average weight of captive leopard geckos has also increased during the past 10-15 years; it’s not unusual for non-giant leopard geckos to exceed 100 grams. Many geckos adhere to a yearly cycle of variable food intake: during egg-laying season and before winter, they increase their food intake. When the daylight hours become shorter, they reduce food intake and in some cases go into brumation. In late winter and early spring, when they begin to become more active, their food intake may be further depressed by ovulation in the females and eagerness to breed in the males.
In my experience, some geckos don’t seem to break out of their reduced intake habits, even as the days lengthen and grow warmer. Assuming that the gecko isn’t ill, it may have gotten into the habit of not eating and is slow to switch to the greater intake that we expect. I also feel that some geckos regulate their intake based on weight. A gecko that is not very active and is expected to eat several food items every 2 or 3 days may easily become obese. While some geckos do eat whenever food is offered, others may not feel the need to eat and continue to gain weight. Below is a chart of leopard gecko weights taken at 3 times in the year, July 2009 (mid-breeding season), October 2009 (end of breeding season, just before winter slow-down), April 2010 (about 1/3 of the way through breeding season). Notice that many of the geckos gained about 20 grams between July 2009 and October 2009 and that by April 2010 they were at or near their breeding season weights. As of April 2010, there is only one gecko who is eating regularly (adults are fed every other day).
As long as illness has been ruled out by checking alertness when awake, activity level and fecal analysis if necessary, there are three approaches that will assist during this non-eating period: offering food, facilitating eating, accepting the situation.
Some geckos will eat anything offered and others are more picky. Some get tired of their “regular” feeder and prefer something different. Whenever possible, offer at least two types of feeders that the gecko has enjoyed in the past. In my household, mealworms, crickets and superworms are almost always available. Some of my geckos who have preferred superworms exclusively in the past have been more receptive to crickets recently. Offering several feeders (one type at a time) at different times of the evening or night may result in increased consumption. Having mealworms available at all times for geckos accustomed to eating food from a bowl will also add to opportunities to eat.
Normally, when feeding terrestial, hunting geckos, feeders are placed in the enclosure at large and the gecko is expceted to hunt them down. There are a variety of ways to make it easier for geckos to eat, ranging from reducing the prey’s range to actively assisting with feeding:
- hold the feeder near the gecko so it can still move but cannot get away: hold a cricket by the leg or the worm by one end. This way the gecko can be stimulated by the movement of the prey but doesn’t have to chase it. This is especially effective for the gecko that frequently strikes at prey and misses.
- reduce the range of the prey: some geckos won’t respond to prey held for them. They will chase their prey but will lose interest if it gets away from them. Remove the cage furniture during feeding so there are fewer places for the feeder to hide. In some cases, it may be possible to block off a section of the enclosure so the gecko can hunt in a smaller space. I will frequently place a few crickets in the lay box (which has a hole at the top) and then put the gecko in so it can hunt the crickets in the smaller space.
- assisted feeding: when a gecko has steadily refused to eat, I will often “assist” it by holding it in one hand and pressing the prey against its mouth with the other. This is different from “force feeding”, where food is forcibly placed into the gecko’s throat. Usually if a feeder is gently tapped against the gecko’s mouth, it will open its mouth and take a bite. If a gecko is determined not to eat, it will spit out the food item. Some geckos, though, will eat when fed this way even when they won’t take food on their own.
Usually I proceed through the three steps above when offering food to a reluctant gecko, using the “assisted feeding” method as a last resort.
Accepting the Situation
One of the most difficult situations for us humans to accept is the refusal of those under our care to eat. The number of books and advice columns devoted to parents who worry about their children’s eating habits should attest to this. We expect our geckos to eat when we feed them and become worried when they don’t, especially if they repeatedly refuse to eat. In the absence of an obvious illness or of significant weight loss, it may be safe to assume that sometimes the gecko just doesn’t need to eat for awhile. The best way to deal with the anxiety about eating in this situation is to keep in mind the facts: the gecko does not appear ill, it isn’t losing weight, it’s behaving normally in every way except for food intake.
Try not to worry. Enjoy your gecko. Seek medical advice if your gecko does seem ill: increased lethargy, noticeable weight loss, bloated belly.