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Vitamin A deficiency in Insectivorous Geckos

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.

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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.

Ivan Alfonso, DVM

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.

What do you think?

Written by Ivan Alfonso

Dr. Ivan Alfonso received his Veterinary Degree at the Tuskegee School of Veterinary Medicine in 2000. He provides veterinary care in the Orlando area with his new mobile service. He also does Reptile Health seminars as well as offering limited consultations at many Florida Repticon shows. Dr Alfonso has traveled and filmed with the Python Hunters for NatGeo Wild. His hobbies include freshwater and saltwater fish, reptile keeping and breeding, video games and just relaxing while watching his animals. He and his wife are owners of a pet pug, tortoiseshell cat, Eclectus parrot, and various reptiles and fishes.

26 Comments

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  1. Beta carotene is really great because it helps the eyes. It is also widely available in fruits and vegetables specially the orange/yellow colord ones.

  2. Oh finally, this site is fantastic. I’ve been trying to find something helpful, and your site did just that, down to the point, concise, direct and useful!

    I took Emi, my leopard gecko, to the vet, and explained she wasn’t her normal self – normally intuitive, energetic, lively, and her appetite had reduced significantly, she doesn’t jump for joy at the site of wax worms anymore, and doesn’t really acknowledge crickets anymore either.. her beautiful eyes now look like they’re deep in the eye lids and the eye lids look a little swollen… the vet said she looked fine and gave her antibiotics and he could see I wasn’t happy with ‘just fine’… got charged a good £46 and for nothing too.. this site has provided everything the vet should have said… I now bathe her daily, and clean rub the inner lining of her eyelids a little.. made her a bigger wet box, and will start with supplementing with fish flakes.. i reckon it most probably is vit A deficiency.. as I feel like her sight has reduced significantly…

    Thank you so much for this site, please do feel free to give me any further advice or help?

    The vet has given me Loxicom and Baytril syrup to dilute and give Emi once a day for 5 days (here in the UK its antibiotic and pain killer apparently).. wont be going back to him, that’s for sure.

    Really hope I can get her back to her gorgeous tip top form, and have her eyes back to normal, those most mesmorisingly beautiful eyes…

    Amazing how in love you can fall and know your pet no matter how small they are..

  3. Hello Doctor,

    Thank you for a very informative article! However, what products or what form of vitamin A should I be looking for if beta carotene? Or did I misunderstand you and you meant that beta carotene is fine for leopard geckos?

    Thank you again,

    Mike

  4. Sorry, I meant to say “… what products or what form of vitamin A should I be looking for if not beta carotene?”

  5. Hello Doctor,

    I apologize, I skipped the beginning initially. I read the top and I understand that the supplements *must* contain vitamin A, but I also understand that I must be careful in not overdosing my leopard.
    Thank you!

  6. Need some advice on how to overcome Vitamin A deficiency for my leopard gecko who’s about 2 1/2 yrs old. He has shedding problems in his mouth and with bad bacteria growing, his eyes are cloudy and infected. I believe I took most if not all of the shed out with a cotton swab, but have had to do this twice. I have given him colloidal silver (2 drops per day) 30pp and oxbow carnivore critical care. He’s been this way for a few months where he would recover and start eating insects then having another eye problem. If it weren’t for oxbow, he would have starved. I have also added zoo med leopard gecko dried food (freeze dried flies) which he has been eating since he was losing weight and not eating by himself. I just started oxbow this past week and have seen his tail grow and looking healthier. Only problem is this constant eye problem. I would like to know how to supplement vitamin A in his slurry since he isn’t eating worms or anything by himself. I’ve been using a dropper to feed him daily to keep him from losing weight. The vets here aren’t specialized to care for exotics and charge a hefty fee ($60+) for either no advice or bad advice. So any advice that you may have would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

  7. I’m certainly not a vet but I’d venture to say that it’s possible he could have a persistent infection in his eyes causing the symptoms you’re seeing as opposed to the problem still being a vitamin A deficiency. In order to provide more vitamin A, assuming (as I do) that the Repashy Calcium Plus supplement does have vitamin A in a usable form, you could dip your finger in water, dip it in the Calcium Plus and rub some on his lips which he should lick off. This probably shouldn’t be done too often so as not to overdose him. I don’t really know enough to tell you what “not too often” is, unfortunately.
    Another issue is that some vets feel that the eye problems are not necessarily caused by vitamin A deficiency, but rather by enclosures that are too hot and dry. Gecko Time ran an article about that here:
    http://geckotime.com/eyelid-dysecdysis-in-leopard-geckos/
    You can also check at the link below to see if there is a reptile vet in your area:
    http://arav.site-ym.com/search/custom.asp?id=3661

  8. I left a response but for some reason, it doesn’t automatically show. Hopefully I’m not repeating myself. Just wanted to thank Aliza for the advice and links. My gecko’s on his way to recovery. His eyes are now opened so that’s a good sign. Usually they’re always closed. Hoping this will continue on. I’ll make sure his tank isn’t too dry. Strangely, it was too humid but maybe too hot. Thankfully the weather has gotten cooler. I believe that’s helped a lot as well. thank you again for replying and the article on eyelids.

  9. My leopard gecko has been having problems with not opening his eyes, and a gray layer over them, and iv been having to hand feed him. i contacted my local vet who said it was vitamin a defficienty and she told me to get vitamins crickets” allong with the mealworms i give him” and a UBV light for his aquarium, its been about a week now and hes looking a little better but not completely. Is this normal, any advice. thank you, ps his name is noodle and he is almost a year old

  10. I’m not a vet but I will give some recommendations that may help. You say that the vet told you to get “vitamins crickets” along whittle mealworms I give him” –I’m not sure what you mean. Do you mean that your vet thinks you should provide crickets as well as mealworms? Did the vet suggest any particular brand of vitamins? In my opinion, you should get some Repashy Calcium Plus (sold at Petco) which is a white powder. Sprinkle some on the mealworms and if you provide crickets, shake the crickets in some of this to coat them. Have you been providing any other supplement powder to your gecko? If so, substitute the calcium plus. If not, you need to be doing that or you will have other problems (so use the calcium plus). It seems that many vets are recommending UVB light for leopard geckos when they are worried the gecko is not getting enough vitamin D3 (which is in the Repashy) to help metabolize the calcium. It’s not a bad thing to do, but I do question how much a leopard gecko will benefit from it if it stays in its hide all the time. Is the vet also sure that there is no infection or stuck shed in the eyes?

  11. Thank god for this!! I don’t think my leo can see well but that’s just a guess. I was avoiding A because everyone said to. I’d be insanely happy is this helped though I have no clue if introducing this 5 years later is too late. We’ll see. I believe Repashy makes a product with A for leos but I’m going to check. Check first! I am a total novice

  12. hello,i rescued my snow leopard,a couple of days ago.when i looked at winter i noticed his back legs were curved towards his body like the letter c.he was kept in a 5 gallon reptile tank.he has lived in it for 3 or 3/12 yrs.he is a big boy,i am getting him a much bigger tank.he has a fat tail but he hasnt eaten in about 3 days,i raised the temp from 70 to 81 degrees.gave him fresh water,the meal worms she gave me.i dont know if he was given any kind of supplements.what kind of vitamins do you recomend.i dont know if his condition was from birth or caused.she said she bought him when he was a little baby.how do i tell if he is in pain?his toes look a little pinkish.i am worried about him.

  13. There’s a good chance he has Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) caused by lack of calcium and the vitamin D3 that is needed to help him metabolize the calcium. Get some Repashy Calcium Plus. Dip your finger in water and dip it in the calcium plus. Rub some on his mouth so he licks it. Once he is eating regularly, you can dust his feeders with it, but it’s good that he get some directly now. You may not be able to reverse the damage but you can stop it from progressing. I took in a bearded dragon with MBD who is stunted with misshapen legs but she’s 10 years old now and full of energy! Be aware that the MBD may also be affecting his jaw, which may be soft and make it hard for him to bite and chew. I’d recommend you consider a reptile vet visit. You can find one at arav.org.

  14. My leopard gecko is low on vitamin D and he won’t walk and when we feed him crickets he stands up and they will get close and he will strike but he won’t move and at pet smart the guy said he was low

  15. I”m not quite sure what you mean. If a gecko doesn’t get enough vitamin D3 it won’t be able to metabolize (use) the calcium it needs and it will end up with soft bones. It will be hard for it to move around and also to chew. You should be giving your gecko supplements that include calcium and vitamin D3. A good supplement if Repashy Calcium Plus. If you haven’t been doing this you need to start. You should also consider taking your gecko to a reptile vet. You can find one at arav.org

  16. Hello Doctor.

    My daughter has a leopard gecko that is about 5 years old..She never was the type to eat every day, but she started to eat less and less.. I breed my own meal worms and she has never had a problem before. I think she might have a vitamin A deficiency from all the things I’ve read on here. She has eye issues, and when she does try to eat she often misses or doesn’t get close at all.. It is like she can’t see.. I tried soaking it off but don’t want to hurt her.. Most times she shows no interest at all in eating.. this has been going on for months.. about 2 maybe. I tried to force feed her but she will have no part of it.. I’m at my wits end… what can I do at home.. I feed my worms mainly apples bananas and potatoes as well as oatmeal to live in. I need to find a way for her to let me force feed her until this eye issue resolves.. If I can’t get the vitamins in I can’t fix it.. Please help me.

  17. What kind of supplementation is she getting usually? Is she losing weight? When you say you tried “soaking it off” what are you trying to soak off? Is there something on or in her eye?

    If you can answer these questions for me, I may be able to help.

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