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Having sand in leopard gecko enclosures is controversial in reptile care communities, but why? And should you avoid it? Jessi and her friends Freckles and Jelly the leopard geckos explain what this is all about.

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Hi everyone.  I'm Jessi and we're at Animal Wonders.  I was recently asked if I could please talk about sand and leopard geckos, so here we go.

For a long time, leopard gecko caretakers were told to house their geckos on sand and then it flip-flopped and everyone within the last decade has been warned not to house their geckos on sand due to a high risk of impaction if consumed, but if sand is part of their natural environment in the wild, is this warning really necessary?


In order to get to the bottom of this controversy, we have to first take a look at what the native habitat of a leopard gecko is like.  These unique little lizards are well adapted to a dry and rocky environment.  It mostly consists of hard packed clay with sand and rocks on top and sparse dry foliage.  Temperatures range from 102 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer to 45 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.  

Wild leopard geckos do hunker down and brumate in the cold season, but overall, they're a very hardy reptile, so by looking at their native habitat, we can get an idea of how their adaptations help them survive and thrive in this environment.  

Instead of specialized pads to cling to the leaves and bark of trees, they have nails to help them navigate over rocky terrain.  They have movable eyelids to shield their eyes from dust storms and their ability to store fat in their tail allows them to go without food for weeks and possibly months at a time, which brings us to what they eat in the wild.

Leopard geckos are carnivores and consume a variety of invertebrates and small vertebrates.  They can eat spiders, centipedes, moths, and also very young lizards and rodents if they're small enough to be swallowed.  When a leopard gecko hunts, they use their keen binocular vision to track movement, stalk, and then dart forward with an open mouth to bite onto their prey.

Oftentimes, they'll also get a mouthful of substrate along with the prey.  To deal with this, they'll use their tongue to sort between prey and non-prey, spitting out soil, leaves, and twigs before they swallow.  Because of their hunting style, they do end up swallowing some substrate, but it doesn't become a problem for the majority of the species in the wild.  

This is because leopard geckos are able to digest small amounts of substrate as long as they can access ground temperatures of at least 93 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Alright, now let's talk about how leopard geckos were cared for in captivity a couple decades ago and how it's shaped how we care for them now.  In the beginning, pet stores would encourage new owners to use loose sandy substrate like Calci-sand simply because they were labeled a desert species.  The reason they recommended sand made from calcium was because they thought if the gecko did eat the sand, it would be easier for them to digest it, when in fact, leopard geckos seek out calcium as a supplement and because there's calcium in the sand, they would eat it in larger quantities than are safe.  This, paired with improper heating, prevented the gecko from being able to get hot enough to digest what they consumed.  On top of that, since leopard geckos were labeled as a 'desert species', keepers didn't provide a gradient of temperatures to allow the gecko to regulate their needs on their own.  

All of these mis-steps led to quite a few cases of impaction, or foreign materials blocking part of the digestive tract, which can lead to death if not properly addressed.  This is when gecko keepers began warning everyone to avoid sand at all costs and to only use surfaces that had no loose substrate at all, because the risk was just too high, but as more and more reptile experts started sharing their successes with substrates that mimicked their native environment, we have more information and we're learning that it's not so simple.

By providing a higher temperature in one area, specifically focusing on a ground temperature of 93 degrees Fahrenheit and offering a larger enclosure so a cool area could be attained at the other end, a better gradient of microclimates could be offered so the gecko could self-regulate and choose which area they need to be in at any given time.  It's still a no-go to offer calcium sand because leopard geckos will be drawn to eat it, but a variety of substrates can be used.  This includes loose substrates like play sand, gravel, and soil.  You can also use hardened excavator clay, large rocks, branches, bark, grass, slate, or any combination of these.

A great way to keep a leopard gecko from ingesting substrate when they hunt and catch their prey is to simply feed them on platforms, bowls, or somewhere besides directly on loose substrate.  Also, providing a variety of species-specific enrichment is essential to avoid stress and prevent neurotic behavior.  Remember, they have specific adaptations for a specific environment.  Give them ways to engage those special characteristics, like using their nails to climb over rocks and branches.  

If a leopard gecko does become stressed or bored, they may start to exhibit abnormal behaviors, like licking their substrate or other non-food items, or constantly hiding, which could prevent them from feeling secure enough to access the warmest area of their enclosure, so be sure to provide several different hideouts, a few different substrates, and furniture like branches, shelves, and rocks to help prevent stress and to keep things interesting.

Remember, the point of having a pet is to enjoy your time together.  Give them the best life you can through research, time, and effort, but if you can't replicate their natural habitat, you can still provide them a safe and enriching home by avoiding unnecessary risks and using replacements when you're able to, for example, using fake grass instead of trying to get real grass to grow or giving them a fun hideout that they most likely wouldn't find in the wild.

So the takeaway message is: if you're new to keeping leopard geckos and you're not confident in your set-up yet, it's okay to avoid sand.  However, sand is not wrong for everyone.  It is possible to offer sand in combination with a variety of other substrates, as long as you have the proper husbandry down to a T and you monitor the gecko's behavior.

Thanks for watching, and if you want to learn more about animals, subscribe to our YouTube channel AnimalWondersMontana and I'll see you next week.