Leopard geckos are resilient, hardy little animals that make excellent pets. Compared to our common mammalian pets, there is little daily time investment absolutely required to meet all of their needs and keep them healthy. They are enjoyable and rewarding to observe and interact with, don't require a large amount of space, and can get very comfortable with handling. On the other hand, they don't require daily social interactions to be comfortable, making them a great option for a variety of lifestyles or life changes. With good care, they can live 20+ years as loved companions.
The goal in planning and building your reptile enclosure should be to create a microenvironment that meets the needs of your animal. This can be achieved through more than one method for animals as adaptable and hardy as a leopard gecko, which leads to many differences in opinion. We've tried to include our opinions on some of the more common methods and equipment that you'll see suggested as customers have found this very helpful in the past. I encourage everyone to do research from multiple sources when building your animal care knowledge.
An example habitat with a thermostat controlled heat pad (Under tank), tile floor covering, 1 warm hide, 1 humid hide, 1 cool side hide with some extra climbing and hiding opportunities.
An excellent general minimum size for an adult leopard gecko is a 20 gallon, or equivalent. 20 Gallon 30" x 12" 30 Gallon 36" x 18" 360 sq inches
Your heat source is to help provide an artificial temperature gradient. Being cold blooded, leopard geckos must have proper heat so they can regulate their body temperature and properly digest and function. Being primarily nocturnal animals, they do not bask out in the sun. They spend their days hidden amongst sun warmed rocks and take advantage of the retained heat to regulate their body temperature.
Fundamentally, a Thermostat/Rheostat/Dimmer should be used to control your heat source to attain a floor temperature of 88-93F. I prefer to keep a spot over 90F as most heat pads have warmer and cooler spots. The air temperatures should range from the 80's on the warm side to mid/low 70's on the cool side. Tip: Ambient conditions are different depending on where one lives! I live in the generally humid and warm south eastern US. In the summer, my indoor temperatures are often 78F and I have to adjust my thermostats during the weather shift to avoid the floor temperature getting too high. If you're from colder areas, you may need to use additional heating methods to achieve proper air temperatures, especially in an environment that's cool (under 65F) AND humid. Cool humid conditions make geckos more prone to respiratory infections. Especially in glass tanks that do not retain heat well and can hold humidity, I often suggest and myself use, a very small CHE during the deep winter for those set ups as needed.
Pretty much all available heat elements will create far more heat than necessary, no matter how carefully you choose your wattage. Many common heat pads can reach temperatures of 120F or more, even risking breaking aquarium glass. A temperature control (Thermostat/Dimmer) device is absolutely necessary and helps give you one method to monitor the conditions in the enclosure.
We also highly suggest having an Infrared Thermometer to check your floor temperatures. You should avoid using tape within your reptile's enclosure, and thermostat probes should be placed on your heat pad outside the tank. Therefore, you will need to fine tune to see what temperature you need to set to get the inside of the tank to the proper temperatures. Often when a gecko will not eat, temperature is the culprit. A gecko who cannot warm themselves to the right temperatures cannot digest properly, and cheap equipment has much higher risks of overheating! Example: Our AP Display Cages have a heat pad under it, and need to be set to 101F to achieve a surface temperature of 92F inside of the enclosure.
Notes on Heating Methods:
Thermostat Notes: Suggested Brands: Spyder Robotics Herpstat Thermostats, Vivarium Electronic Thermostats, Jumpstars are also commonly used, but not preferred. Proportional Thermostats are vastly superior to on/off style thermostats. It's a good idea to check your surface temperatures once a week or so to make sure everything is working as it should. Probes can sometimes move, especially as tape adhesive breaks down under constant heating, and this can lead to your heat going too high through not fault of the thermostat.
We highly suggest making a routine of checking over your control devices and being careful not to overload wall plugs. Risk of fire is fairly low if you use your equipment properly, but one must respect that this equipment is meant to produce heat and take proper precautions to secure everything.
Heat Pad w/Thermostat - (Suggested Brands: Ultratherm Heat Pads, Spyder Robotics Herpstat Thermostats, Vivarium Electronic Thermostats, Jumpstars are also commonly used, but not preferred) This is our prefered method and allows your gecko to warm their belly directly.
Radiant Heat Panel w/Thermostat - These are highly recommended, but I do not have personal experience with them yet.
Ceramic Heat Emitter w/Dimmer - Your wattage will vary based on the depth of your enclosure/how close the bulb is to the bottom. Generally, you don't need a high watt CHE in order to get good temps. Suggest using stone under the CHE to be able to absorb the heat and adjust your temps properly using the dimmer.
Heat Bulb/Red Light Bulbs/Blue Night Bulbs w/Dimmer - These are often suggested by pet stores, but they are not a preferred method. The colored lights still bother leopard geckos, so if your set up has day/night lamps, we suggest using a CHE as your night lamp. Ambient room light is enough to give your gecko a sense of night and day. Ensure that you give your gecko plenty of three sided DARK hides if you utilize any lights. Hides like half logs and very open hides don't provide much shelter from light. Give your gecko the choice of what conditions it wants to be in. This is DOUBLE true if you have an albino. Without the melanin needed to protect themselves from light, albinos can have their sight damaged by too bright lights. We highly suggest other methods used for any albino animal.
If you want to light the tank up during the day for purely aesthetic reasons, we suggest sticking with a low watt or dimmable LED.
Side Note: UVB First, with proper supplementation, you do not have to have any lights on your tank. We do personally have some display cages for non-albino laying females that we use Arcadia shade dweller UVB lights on, so we wanted to add some notes for those looking for info. Long florescent bulbs such as T5 bulbs should be chosen over the coiled compact florescent bulbs.
If you choose to use UVB with your animals, we suggest sticking to non-albino morphs, and still making sure that your decor gives the gecko options to be in the dark if they want to be. You do not need to put the light over the entire enclosure. A small fixture like this Arcadia ShadeDweller is perfectly fine on one side of your tank, even if it only covers half or a third. UVB too high can give your gecko a sunburn! Be mindful.
Tip: UVB bulbs will stop putting out adequate UVB LONG before the bulb goes dark. Most of the larger ones need to be replaced every 6 months! The smaller bulbs can often go up to 1 year. Make sure to read the fine print if you use UVB and TRACK these dates! We suggest still using a supplemental D3 calcium about once a month just in case, especially if your light is old. Ideally, you can get a solarmeter to properly track your UVB output. Make sure to research! Many of the cheaper ones are highly inaccurate!
The decoration of your enclosure are to provide adequate areas for your gecko to be comfortable in. They are often found in rocky outcrops in their native habitat. They require places where they can be dark and enclosed.
Tip: Many store bought hides are mold created hard resins. You should look these over carefully and feel them for sharp edges that might need sanding before use, and watch out for tight crevices where your gecko could get stuck.
If you're a beginner and new to reptiles, I highly suggest starting with a clean set up, using paper towels or paper liners. For a more pleasing aesthetic, you can use slate tiles or textured ceramic tiles. 6 inch square tiles fit very well in a 20 gallon long tank. For most keepers, this set up will be ideal for the long term. These options are affordable and easy to change or clean and disinfect.
If you want to get much more creative, Lizard Landscapes is a great place to get info on how to sculpt and create your own hardscapes. We have several of our animals on hardscapes we've created through similar methods and have enjoyed them immensely.
Loose substrates can build up in the gecko's digestive tract and build into a blockage that cannot be passed, this is impaction. This is a medical emergency that is fatal without veterinary and usually expensive, surgical intervention. For many keepers, it's better to avoid the risks associated with loose substrate altogether, and a humid box containing moistened eco earth (cocoa fiber) or a soil mix can provide your gecko a place to enjoy digging.
If you want to use substrates, for whatever reason, you must be honest with yourself on how well you will stick to your care schedules. Of course, this is true, always, but when your gecko is on loose substrates, their care needs to be 100% all the time. They need to be well hydrated, properly supplemented, and monitored to make sure they're in good health.
That said, not every gecko is suitable for living on natural substrates. Special needs geckos such as those with neurological disorders may not thrive in a natural set up.
Notes for common substrates:
Calcium sand, Calcisand, Vita sands or anything similar should never be used in an enclosure. The minerals in it encourage the geckos to eat it and increase the risk of impaction exponentially. Do not use any sands that purposefully contain calcium.
Ground Walnut Shell or Wood Chips we don't recommend at all. They are abrasive and sharp and should not be used.
Inert sand/Play Sands are not a natural replica for a leopard gecko's natural habitat and best used as a soil component. They reside in scrub desert and arid grassland, not deep loose sand deserts. Ecologically, these dune deserts are quite rare and contain highly specialized wildlife, so think Nevada, not Sahara as a general impression.
Eco Earth/Coco Fiber was marked to be kept moist and used for humid habitats. Dry, it is a dusty and fibrous substance that tends to stick to any moist surfaces and can get stuck in eyes and cause respiratory issues. Like sand, this should be used as an organic material amendment in creating soil mixes, not a dry solo substrate. This is ground coconut shell, this is not a natural complete soil.
Paper towels must be changed regularly in order to keep an environment well cleaned of waste and bacteria and is an easy floor covering for upkeep and quarantine situations. Dig boxes, wood climbing structures, and other enrichments can all be provided in a set up even when using paper towels.
Ceramic/stone/slate Tiles make an excellent attractive option. 6x6" tiles fit fairly well in a 20 gallon long standard aquarium with no cutting required. Choose tiles with some texture to them, not slick surfaces, to help your gecko grip when walking or scurrying. I suggest getting an extra tile or two so you can always spot clean.
Excavator Clay is one that I do not have personal experience with, but it has excellent reviews. It can be sculpted moist and allowed to dry and will become hard and hold shapes. This is not permanent and the clay can be wetted to break back down and resculpt as needed. This can also be used as a good arid soil mix in to aid in the soil texture/crust.
Naturalistic/Bioactive Notes: Both naturalistic and bioactive set ups should be considered a more advanced technique. This isn't to imply that it is extremely difficult, but a person wanting to do this should invest time in researching from various sources and should, ideally, be someone who has already spent plenty of time keeping up with more standard routines so they know that they can keep all of their parameters perfect long term.
If your ultimate goal is a naturalistic set up for your gecko, I will reiterate again, first you want to ensure that your care is spot on and that you're up for keeping to the schedule for cleaning, feeding, and keeping the humid areas well controlled for your gecko. Good hydration, nutrition, and proper supplementation will lower risks of impaction in naturalistic set ups. On the other hand, a dehydrated gecko as a higher risk of impaction on particulate substrates. If you're interest in more naturalistic enclosure building, please get a bit of experience and do your research very well.
There are several facebook groups that are geared towards this information, and I highly suggest joining them to gain from their experience if you're determined to go this route. The Bioactive Leopard Gecko is a group specifically geared to natural set ups for leos, and a good place to start for information.