Substrate, lighting and temperature are very important factors when setting up a Leopard Gecko habitat.
Leopard geckos are hardy little lizards that are native to the rocky, mountainous deserts of southwest Asia and the Middle East.
There are many misconceptions about what should or shouldn’t be in their setup. They need a safe enclosure with the right heating, lighting, and décor.
Continue reading to learn the best Leopard Gecko enclosure setup. We go from types of tanks, ventilation and size to lighting, heating and décor…
Leopard Gecko Habitat
While most people are used to seeing leopard geckos in a tank at the pet store, these little lizards can be found living in regions of the Middle East and Asia. Their natural range covers Pakistan, Northern India, Nepal, Iran and Afghanistan.
The native habitat of leopard geckos is characterized by dry mountain ranges covered with stony outcrops, rocky soil, and hardy shrubs.
Their native habitat goes through cyclical periods of extended droughts and windstorms with occasional monsoon rains. Throughout the year temperatures range from 40°F in the brief winters to over 100°F in the summer.
Leopard geckos have evolved several unique adaptations to survive these harsh conditions. Some of these adaptations include moveable eyelids, a fat-storing tail and spectacular camouflage.
These lizards also live in rocky burrows to survive their naturally harsh habitat. These burrows range from gaps in rockpiles and thickets to holes near water pipes and house foundations.
Burrows help them to escape the coolness of the dry season and the moisture of the wet season. In these burrows temperatures remain relatively stable in the upper 70°Fs to 80°Fs. Humidity also stays between 40% to 55% year-round.
A wild Leopard Gecko habitat can consist of a gravel and clay based soil covered in a thin layer of loose dirt. Their native range is windswept and has very few trees or plants taller than four feet. Clumps of grass and bushes are more common.
Geographically most Leopard Geckos live in between rocky foothills and barren mudflats.
It is not unusual for several individuals to live together in the same burrows, especially in a larger space like rock walls. This is more common for juveniles before they start to display the territorial behavior of adults.
The size and complexity of their wild habitats minimizes confrontation among lizards. Though wild Leopard Geckos sometimes live communally, we do not recommend housing more than one pet in an enclosure. It is difficult to replicate the size and complexity of their wild habitat in a tank.
Leopard Gecko Tank
These lizards do well in many different enclosure and tank types because of their hardy and adaptive lifestyle. They are accustomed to living in a harsh climate and a wide range of habitats, from gaps between railroad ties to holes in the banks of dry riverbeds.
There are several options when it comes to choosing a tank. Materials, door and top style, size, ventilation and insulation all vary between tanks.
Luckily choosing the best tank for a leopard gecko is a fairly straightforward process.
Leopard Geckos are not picky when it comes to their habitat. That said there are still a few parameters that make some tanks better than others.
Type of Tank
Tanks can be made from glass, plastic, PVC, wood or acrylic. We have found that glass is the best material for a Leopard Gecko enclosure. It is easy to clean, retains heat and humidity without getting overheated or too damp, and is lighter than other options.
The sides of a glass tank are also perfect for viewing your lizard and are safe for heat mats and heat bulbs.
Glass tanks are widely available and easy to purchase from a pet store or online.
Unfortunately glass tanks can be expensive compared to plastic totes or acrylic tanks. A single, high quality 20-gallon tank can cost around $200. They are also more fragile and care should be taken when moving one.
Leopard geckos are small lizards that do not need a great deal of room. Floor space is more important than height as they spend most of their time active on the ground. A single adult can be housed comfortably in a 20-gallon long tank.
The best Leopard Gecko tank size is 35-gallons. Buy a tank with a front-open design and mesh top for ventilation. The enclosure must be longer and wider than it is tall for maximum space and room for hides and décor.
Larger 35-gallon tanks can provide more space for a complex setup with larger plants and intricate décor.
If you have a hatchling or juvenile gecko it is a good idea to “size up” the tank with your lizard as it grows. Putting a very young hatchling in a large 35-gallon tank can cause stress, especially if there are not enough hides to help it feel safe.
Glass tanks come in top-open and front-open styles. Both styles typically have a metal mesh screen top that lets in light and heat, while preventing escapes.
The lids of top-open tanks normally slide on a track and latch shut. This style provides easier access to the inside of the tank, but comes with a few more drawbacks. Light and heat fixtures can get in the way when opening the tank which can make it hard to lift your lizard in and out of the tank.
Front-open tanks usually have sliding glass doors at the front of the tank. If the tank has lots of décor it can be difficult to access the interior. However, front-opening doors are not obstructed by heating or lighting elements. They also have better ventilation because they allow airflow around the doors.
Once you have the best tank for a leopard gecko the next step is setting it up.
A good Leopard Gecko enclosure is one that is fully configured and ready to go before you add a lizard.
You should plan on setting up the tank with all the heating, lighting, substrate and décor two weeks before bringing one home. This early setup allows you to troubleshoot and fine-tune any potential problems with substrate, temperature or humidity.
A common misconception about a Leopard Gecko light setup is that they do not need UVB light. People assume this because they are nocturnal and are mostly active at night.
Though these lizards are nocturnal, they still need a light source during the day to mimic a day/night cycle. Leopard Gecko lighting should be set on a timer to provide 10 hours of light and 14 hours of darkness. This will help regulate their circadian rhythm and keep them healthy.
The presence of UVB lighting has been shown to improve vitamin D and calcium retention which minimizes the risk of vitamin deficiencies and metabolic bone disease.
Use a T8 – T5 UVB light fixture with a 6.0 – 10.0 bulb on one end of your Leopard Gecko setup.
A UV light fixture should be used alongside a regular daytime basking bulb.
Your leopard gecko’s tank should have a temperature gradient to let them choose between basking in a warmer spot or a cooler area.
The hot side of the tank should remain between 87°F and 90°F, with a basking spot around 92°F. This can be setup with a combination of an under-tank heat mat and a ceramic heater.
Leopard geckos need belly heat to properly digest their food. Therefore an under-tank heat mat is the best option. The mat should cover 1/3 of the tank’s floorspace to create the perfectly sized basking spot. A 6” x 8” 8 watt heat mat is great for a 20-gallon tank.
The enclosure’s cool side should be between 75°F and 78°F. Generally if a heat mat is used on the hot side of the tank, no heater is needed on the cool side. At night temperatures on the cool side can drop to as low as 72°F.
Reading temperatures in the tank on a regular basis can help catch any equipment failure before it becomes a problem.
A widespread beginner mistake when keeping Leopard Geckos is assuming that they need very low humidity. Many beginners assume this because they are considered desert lizards. If tank humidity is too low these reptiles can develop shedding and respiratory problems.
Ambient humidity levels in a leopard gecko’s tank should stay between 30 and 40%.
40% humidity is close to the average indoor humidity of most houses. This means for most Leopard Gecko habitats you may not need to do anything to raise or lower the humidity. In most cases simply providing a shallow bowl of water will boost humidity to its optimal level.
Sustained high humidity is only essential for healthy shedding and to prevent retained shed. A humid hide should be placed in a Leopard Gecko enclosure to provide them with constant access to a high-humidity environment, without affecting the entire ambient humidity of the tank.
Leopard Geckos need constant access to fresh, clean water. You should use a nonporous, nontoxic, shallow dish and place it on the cool side of a gecko’s tank. Find a spot where both you and your lizard can easily reach it. The water dish should be no deeper than your lizard’s stomach and just large enough for your lizard to curl up in.
A 4” x 3” dish is a good size to minimize evaporation and keep the water cool, while not taking up too much space in the tank.
Empty and refill the dish with fresh water daily and clean it thoroughly with a diluted bleach solution once every week. Make sure the bleach is completely rinsed out before refilling the dish.
There are some good options for Leopard Gecko substrates and some not very good options. Unfortunately some pet stores claim that sand is a good substrate for leopard geckos. This is not true and is unfortunately one of the worst pieces of misinformation about caring for one.
Sand should never be used for a leopard gecko’s substrate as it has a high risk of impaction.
The best substrates for a Leopard Gecko enclosure are tiles, reptile sand mats, paper towels or a bioactive mix:
- A bioactive substrate is a mix of clay, organic topsoil, pebbles and sand. It is an excellent choice that closely replicates their natural substrate.
- Stone tiles are an easy, affordable and attractive substrate that are simple to clean and still offer a natural look. Many lizards seem to prefer the feel of textured stone and tiles hold heat well.
- A reptile sand mat is a cost-effective option that is simple to install, but more difficult to clean than tiles.
- Paper towels make a great, simple substrate and are perfect for those who don’t mind a more industrial look for their Leopard Gecko setup.
What Do Leopard Geckos Need In Their Tank?
Leopard geckos are bright, curious lizards that need more than just an empty tank to stay active and healthy. These lizards need dry and humid hides, décor (like branches and rocks) and live plants such as jade and aloe vera.
Having multiple objects in their enclosure for them to explore and interact with is important. Owners will also get lots of joy watching their Leopard Gecko hunt and explore in their enclosure.
To feel safe and secure a Leopard Gecko needs plenty of hides throughout their enclosure which they can retreat to during daylight hours. These hides can be as simple as Tupperware containers or as complex as a natural wooden log or rock cave.
In addition to simple hides they also need a moist hide to help with shedding and hydration. This critical component of a leopard gecko’s tank is often missed by first-time owners!
Leopard geckos need at least three hides in their tank. It is a good idea to place one on the cool side, one on the warm side and one between the two. Having three hides allows your lizard to thermoregulate by sleeping in a warmer or cooler area.
While three hides is the minimum, having more will help them feel secure and provide more space to explore. Aim to have four to five hides scattered throughout the tank.
Leopard geckos need some form of tank décor to provide habitat complexity and enrichment. As long as there is still sufficient space for them to move about, adding decorations to the tank is fine. Not only will décor increase the aesthetic appeal, it also adds a form of mental and physical stimulation.
A wild Leopard Gecko habitat naturally has plenty of plants, rocky outcrops, bushes and boulders to break up their surroundings and provide cover. Adding décor to their tank will help them feel at home and secure.
We love desert-themed options like cacti, plastic rock caves, fake animal skulls and pieces of cholla wood. Woven grass hides also work well.
If you are looking for low-budget décor then create DIY decorations using cardboard, hot glue and nontoxic acrylic paint. You can also collect branches and rocks from outside, however these should be fully sterilized and secured in the enclosure to prevent injury.
Only use wood collected from hardwood trees like ash, oak and dogwood. Avoid conifers, maple, and any wood collected in an area with pesticides.
Live plants are an excellent addition to a leopard gecko’s enclosure. They introduce a natural feel and look, release oxygen, regulate humidity, provide shade and replicate their natural habitat. The best plants are those that stay small and can withstand warm, dry environments.
Suitable plant species include:
- Jade plants
- Aloe Vera
- Christmas cactus
- Snake plants
- Living stones
A 20-gallon long tank will fit multiple five inch plants and their pots. They can be placed in terracotta or ceramic pots around the tank. Make sure they are free from spines, irritating oils and are not directly over or under a heat source.
Live plants are not required for a leopard gecko’s tank, but we highly recommend them!
Leopard Gecko Setup Ideas
Basic Beginner Setup
|Simple Habitat Ideas|
|Tank Size||A 20-gallon long tank is a great choice. These tanks are typically glass with a sliding mesh screen top.|
|Lighting||Use a 60-watt ceramic heater suspended six inches above the tank along with a 6” x 8” under-tank heater on the same side. Attach both heat sources to a thermostat set to 90°F. Lighting should be provided with a 6-10% T8 or T5 UVB bulb set on a 10-hour timer.|
|Hides||Include at least three hides (one on the cool side, one in the middle and one on the hot side) along with a humid hide on the warm end.|
|Substrate||Paper towels or newspapers work well as a basic substrate. Reptile sand mats are also a good choice, as long as they are washed regularly to avoid a buildup of bacteria.|
|Décor||DIY hides can be made with opaque, food-grade plastic containers or cardboard boxes. You can also add paper towel tubes, stacked shoeboxes and plastic plants. Make sure that there are no sharp corners or edges.|
|Advanced Habitat Ideas|
|Tank Size||A 35 or 40-gallon long tank is perfect for a natural setup. Go for a glass tank with a front-open, hinged or sliding door design.|
|Lighting||Use an 8” x 12” under tank heat mat and a 100-watt ceramic heat bulb suspended six inches above the tank’s top. All heat sources must be connected to a thermostat set to 90°F. A 6-10% T8 UVB bulb should be used for lighting and replaced every 6 months.|
|Hides||A realistic habitat should have plenty of secure hiding places on both ends of the tank. Aim to have four or five hides scattered throughout the tank.|
|Plants||Plants that do well in the heat of a leopard gecko’s enclosure include Christmas cactus, string of pearls, snake plants and pothos.|
|Substrate||The best natural substrate can be made from a combination of stone tiles and a 50:30:20 mix of organic topsoil, sand, and clay (packed firmly).|
|Décor||Natural décor should include hollow branches, flat stones, sticks and live plants (secured to prevent them from falling). Place flat rocks, hollow logs, sticks, and branches around the enclosure to mimic their natural habitat.|
Leopard Geckos are one of the most common pet Geckos in the world. They are loved for their easy care, simple setup and friendly personalities. In the wild these lizards are native to the arid deserts of the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Many live in rocky burrows and crevices.
As pets Leopard Geckos do well with a relatively simple setup.
A 20-gallon long glass terrarium is ideal for a single adult, though they will also be very happy in a larger 35-gallon tank.
The overall best substrate for a leopard gecko is a mixture of soil, clay, sand and pebbles. Stone tiles, paper towels and reptile sand mats are also safe, cost-effective options. Never use pure sand, calcium sand or play sand as a substrate.
Leopard Geckos need a temperature gradient between 75°F and 92°F which can be made using a ceramic heater and an under-tank heater. Aim to keep an ambient humidity of around 30 to 40%.
You may rarely see your lizard actually out and basking during the day, but the presence of UVB light is important for their health. Lighting should be provided with a UVB bulb set on a 10-hour timer.
Finally aim to include three hides, plenty of plants and some natural décor like hollow branches, flat stones and sticks to complete their setup.
Have questions about your leopard gecko’s setup or habitat? Feel free to comment below.