Vitamin A deficiencies, or hypovitaminosis A, is becoming a common sight in leopard gecko collections as leopard geckos are the most common insectivorous gecko kept. One of the main problems is that the owners are not aware that the issue or issues they are seeing are directly related to hypovitaminosis A. I will aim to cover some of the more common issues I have seen in practice with leopard geckos (which, by extension is true for all insectivorous geckos) as well as discuss how to prevent hypovitaminosis A from happening.
Vitamin A and Reptiles
Let’s start with how it happens. Vitamin A has been deemed lethal and dangerous for a long time in reptile keeping. The reason? It was being used excessively, especially in tortoises, and was leading to very bad issues when it was overdosed. Skin sloughing was commonly seen in tortoises that were given Vitamin A injections. When those horrible side effects were seen, it was immediately assumed that vitamin A was toxic, dangerous and lethal and was basically deemed useless in reptile supplements. The trend became then to use beta carotene as the source for vitamin A because being a precursor, it couldn’t be easily overdosed and the reptiles would be able to transform the beta carotene into vitamin A. The idea had some logic behind it, except that not all reptiles are created equal, and insectivorous reptiles can’t transform beta carotene into vitamin A no matter how much beta carotene you give them.
The Problem for Leopard Geckos
Leopard geckos are insectivores and as such, they depend on their insect prey to provide every single bit of nutrition they need. Once you think of it that way, you realize just how important is to provide well-nourished insects to our geckos as they are completely dependent on those crickets, superworms, roaches, silkworms and others. In the chronic absence of vitamin A in their diets, leopard geckos can develop certain conditions and issues that are relatively common yet not many people know they are caused, partially or completely, by hypovitaminosis A. Let’s discuss a few of these issues:
Hyperkeratosis of the eyes: Leopard geckos with this condition present with both eyes “closed shut”, but in reality it is an accumulation of dead skin and secretion that causes the eyes to develop a type of eye plug or eye cap that pushed the eye back into the socket and gives the gecko the appearance of being blind or with dried out eyes. If left unattended, this condition can cause the corneas to fuse with the plug and damage the eyes permanently. With the proper expertise you can wet the area thoroughly, without drowning the gecko, and with some water and a cotton swab, slowly work the plug out of the eye. Employing your Veterinarian to do this at least once will be invaluable for any future instances as it is very hard to know what you’re doing on your first try.
Improper shedding: Leopard geckos can sometimes have issues shedding and many times it can be attributed to the lack of moisture. But in some cases, despite proper hide boxes and wet boxes, you still have a gecko that sheds improperly and needs a lot of help with the shed. This can be a result of vitamin A deficiency.
Impacted hemipenis: Although not super common, this issue is seen rather regularly in leopard geckos. Hypovitaminosis A isn’t always the cause but it can be a culprit as it causes improper shedding which can lead to skin plugs left behind that impede the hemipenis from expelling the sperm plugs.
Low fertility and breeding activity: Male leopard geckos with vitamin A deficiencies are sometimes described as sluggish and lazy when it comes to breeding. Females on the other hand are receptive but produce poor clutches or weak babies when they hatch.
Overall lethargy: Some leopard geckos especially baby ones, just never seem to get going and keep getting weaker and weaker. Once they are force fed with baby food or some of the better meal replacements (i.e. Emeraid) the gecko seems much better. After being fed again its normal diet, the gecko goes slowly back to being lethargic and dull. The reason this happens is because the vitamin A deficiency was slightly corrected when alternate foods were given but quickly removed when the normal diet was resumed.
Vitamin A Solutions
How do you know if your leopard gecko is at risk? If you are feeding the same feeder insect all the time (crickets only or superworms only, etc) you are at risk of causing hypovitaminosis A. Different insects metabolize food in different ways so variety is the key. Feed as many insect varieties as you can and make sure to feed those insects properly and with a great variety of food. Using only a head of cabbage or lettuce to feed your crickets is a terrible idea. You want to provide a proper blend of grains, veggies and fruits to make sure as many vitamins and minerals can be passed to your gecko. Using a high quality fish flake food once weekly to feed your crickets will ensure you have good levels of Vitamin A in their diet so they can pass that along to your leopard gecko.
Your leopard geckos can also be at risk if you dust their insects with a vitamin supplement product that does not use vitamin A in their ingredients. As discussed above, beta carotene is not used by most reptiles as a source of vitamin A. There are several products out there that use vitamin A in its active form as part of their vitamin mix and those would be the ones to use every 10-14 days to provide vitamin A to your geckos. In my reptile collection I only dust every 10-14 days and when I do, I always use a product that contains Vitamin A.
Treatment of vitamin A deficiencies is similar to the prevention discussed above but in severe cases it can involve specialized feeding, high doses of vitamin A supplementation for different intervals, and manual aid with skin and eye issues. When it comes to actually having to treat a hypovitaminosis A case, it is best to allow a Veterinarian to do it while you learn from him or her. Despite my efforts here to call attention to vitamin A deficiencies it is still a lot easier to overdose than underdose, so please be careful and use good judgement when using vitamin A. It is a very important and necessary vitamin with the potential of causing severe side effects if overdosed.