Promoting Natural Behaviors in Geckos Through Enrichment
Summary: With the right handling, geckos can be engaging, inquisitive, and fun to be around! This article gives you a variety of tips how to change your gecko’s environment to make it more enriching. There are examples of ways to stimulate all their senses and promote a fuller range of natural behaviors, which is a vital part of good welfare.
Geckos and Enrichment
With geckos increasing in popularity in the pet trade, it’s important to ensure that they not just survive but thrive in captivity. Geckos are often kept in bare minimum enclosures with little if any enrichment due to lack of knowledge about the species’ natural history and ignorance about reptile intelligence.1 Think about it: If you spent your whole life (some geckos can live up to 30 years!) in one room, how would you feel? Would you want to fill that room with things that make you happy, that enrich your life? What if you didn’t have control over what went in that room? That’s the situation many geckos are in, and it is up to humans as their guardians to provide them with optimal welfare based on the latest research.
While play behaviours in geckos have rarely been recorded,2 it’s important to offer them novelty to keep their lives interesting and keep them engaging with their surroundings. On average I switch up the enclosure layout for my geckos once a month with new locations for hides, bridges, tunnels, etc. For geckos that seem particularly stressed by change, I do it less often, but for those that come out and readily explore, a monthly basis seems to work well.
Enrichment provides a wide array of ways to improve your reptile’s life. Adding enrichment activities can reduce aggression, reduce resource guarding in multi-animal enclosures, increase prey drive, and build a positive relationship between you and your gecko.3
When thinking of promoting natural behaviours, it’s important to identify which behaviours we want to encourage.4 We wouldn’t want to encourage excessive territorial behaviours or stress responses as these would indicate a decline in the gecko’s welfare. (Some level of good stress promotes positive welfare, and natural territoriality expressed in a normal/healthy manner is a species-typical behavior that would fall at the positive end of the welfare spectrum.) Instead, we are looking to increase locomotion, exploration, hunting, and basking through the following enrichment activities.
- UVB basking – Providing ledges at varying distances from the UVB source allows the animal to regulate the amount of UVB they are exposed to. Providing foliage throughout the lit area allows extra coverage for when an animal feels overexposed.
- Basking – Provide your gecko a basking location with varying perches at different distances from the heat source. This will allow the gecko to regulate their temperature by moving between perches as needed.
- Humidity – Try getting the humidity to replicate that of your gecko’s natural environment, allowing dips throughout the day for a dry-out period as well as spikes to mimic rain fall.
- Substrate – Offering a substrate that is suitable and mimics the natural environment will promote behaviours like burrowing, foraging, and locomotion. Using various types of moss can help diversify the substrate while promoting humidity. Leaf litter can also encourage burrowing and egg-laying behaviour while adding a realistic natural feel to your enclosure.
- Multi-level enclosures – Providing a variety of levels allows your animal to climb while exploring their home. For arboreal geckos this is a must, but even ground-dwelling geckos enjoy climbing the occasional log to get to a good basking spot.
- Hanging hides – Coconut hides are by far the most popular hanging hide seen in gecko enclosures, but there is a wide variety of options from store-bought hides (Stroodies, Thrive, Exo-Terra, etc.) to making them yourself!
- Hamster tunnels – Hamster tunnels can be used to make secret pathways for your gecko throughout the exhibit. I’ve found these quite successful in arboreal lizards, surprisingly! You can utilize twists and turns to make the pathway more interesting or even run part of it underground.
- Ping pong-sized balls – These toys are large enough your gecko won’t be able to ingest them, while still offering something novel for them to engage with. You can also use balls with bells in them to add a noise element. Geckos may push these around their enclosure or bat them into walls.
- Ladders/bridges – Providing hanging bridges creates a perching location while also offering varying stability depending on how the bridge is positioned. Ladders can be made or purchased to help animals reach higher-up hides.
- Hamster wheel – When selecting a spinning wheel for your gecko, go for the largest option, to allow them to fully fit within the base of the wheel. Their tails should not be hanging off! These wheels promote locomotion while also encouraging balance.
- Increased enclosure size – Increasing the size of the habitat is by far the easiest way to enrich an animal, allowing them more choice and control of their environment. Be sure to utilize the space to make it more enjoyable and engaging for the animal.
- Timed release feeder – Take an old toilet paper tube and cut small holes in it, fill it with insects and fold the ends closed. This will allow the gecko to push it around the enclosure while trying to get the insects out. Over time the insects will find their way out, leading to hunting behaviour.
- Puzzle toys – There are not many commercially available puzzle feeders for geckos. However, it’s easy to make your own! Placing holes in a deli cup and filling it with mealworms before hanging it in the enclosure slightly above the ground will allow your gecko to pull the partially hanging mealworms through the cup.5
- Slim Cat treat ball – This ball can be filled with live insects, acting as a puzzle feeder with a timed release. Watch as your gecko pushes the ball around to gain access to the insects inside! This is best done with larger geckos.
- Live feeding – This promotes hunting and stalking behaviour, which can be highly rewarding for the gecko. Use caution to ensure that your gecko eats all of the bugs provided. They should not be left in the enclosure unsupervised, as they can eat the gecko.
Don’t get discouraged if you don’t see engagement right away! Studies have speculated that small reptiles such as geckos may be less likely to exhibit a behavioural response to enrichment when humans are around, due to fear or due to their lower metabolic rates making engagement costlier.6
This means our geckos are most likely to engage with enrichment when we are not around and when they are feeling fully charged (fed, warm, energized, etc.). Geckos that do not have a significant fear of human handling may engage more quickly while you are present. Either way, it will take time for your gecko to explore their enriched environment and to feel safe engaging in enrichment activities while you are present, so be patient!
When implementing new enrichment activities monitor your gecko closely for signs of stress, such as running away, jumping away, swinging their tail over their head, biting, dropping their tail, excessive vocalizing, etc. (signs of stress vary by species, as do signs of relaxation). These are warnings that your gecko may be feeling overwhelmed by the new enrichment object and accommodations should be made to make the item less frightening.
Safety disclosure – Always examine new enrichment opportunities thoroughly for ways injury could occur before implementing. It is critical to reduce the chance of harm as much as possible, so be mindful of sharp edges, tight areas where geckos could get stuck, and other possible problems that may occur.
We get to decide how enriching our geckos’ lives are, how much novelty they are exposed to, and how much freedom they have to perform natural behaviours. With that responsibility in mind, shouldn’t we strive to care for our geckos in ways that meet their ecological needs while providing them with novelty?
- Lambert, H.,Carder, G. and D’Cruze, D. (2019) Given the cold shoulder: A review of the scientific literature for evidence of reptile sentience. Animals 9, 821
- Barbanov, V. et al (2015) Object play in thick-toed geckos during a space experiment. Journal of Ethology 33:109–115.
- Lock, B. (2018) Aggression in captive reptiles. Veterinary Information Network, last accessed 12/27/2021
- Benn, A.L., McLelland, D.J., and Whittaker, A.L. (2019) A review of welfare assessment methods in reptiles, and preliminary application of the Welfare Quality® protocol to the pygmy blue-tongue skink, Tiliqua adelaidensis, using animal-based measures. Animals 9:1
- Kish, C. (2018) Choice, control, and training for ectotherms. The IAABC Journal 8
- Bashaw, H. et al (2016) Does enrichment improve reptile welfare? Leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius) respond to five types of environmental enrichment. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 184, 150–160