Leopard Gecko Shedding 101: The Expert’s Guide
by Jeff England
Seeing your precious pet shedding it’s skin often makes new owner nervous – Why is my leopard gecko shedding? Is he/she sick? Can I stop it? Should it stop it?
These are all common questions that we will address in this article.
Like all other scaled reptiles, leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius) shed their old skins from time to time.
Typically, there’s not much keepers have to do during these occasions, although you will want to monitor your lizard while he goes through the shedding process, to ensure that he remains healthy and happy.
We’ll explain some of the things you can do to help your leopard gecko enjoy problem-free sheds below, and we’ll also explain some of the red flags you’ll want to watch for.
But first, let’s start by delving into the shedding process, to help you understand what is happening and what to expect.
Leopard Gecko Shedding 101: The Basics
Shedding is a pretty basic biological process that most keepers will find easy to understand.
We’ll explain the basics of your leopard gecko’s shedding behavior and try to answer a few of the most common questions new keepers have below.
Why Do Leopard Geckos Shed?
Shedding is a common phenomenon found throughout the animal kingdom.
It is the basic way by which animals jettison old skin cells and replace them with new ones.
In fact, you shed your skin – you just do so on a relatively constant basis, and the flakes of skin shed are usually too small to notice. But many reptiles (including leopard geckos) shed all of their outer skin cells at the same time.
In addition to replacing old skin cells with new ones, shedding makes it easier for leopard geckos to repair wounds or skin damage. It also allows young geckos to grow.
This is important, as reptilian skin usually isn’t very elastic, so they need to routinely “upsize” their skin, to accommodate their growing bodies.
What Happens When a Leopard Gecko Sheds?
About a week before your gecko sheds, his body will start producing a layer of fluid between the outermost skin layer and the one immediately beneath it.
This fluid will serve as a lubricant to help the outer layer of skin slide off easily.
Once this process is complete, the soon-to-be-shed skin layer loosens a bit. This can often make your leopard gecko appear “milky” or “faded.”
You may notice that his colors don’t appear like they normally do, and your lizard’s pattern may even become less distinct.
About a day or so later, your lizard will start trying to free the old skin from his body. You may notice your lizard moving strangely or biting at his skin during this time.
Don’t worry: These are just his attempts to remove the old skin.
Sometimes, the old skin will come off in a single piece as some snake sheds do, but more commonly, it will break into several large pieces.
How Often Do Leopard Geckos Shed?
Shedding occurs at different rates for different lizards, as there are a variety of variables that influence the frequency at which it occurs.
Growth rate, injury, stress, illness and reproductive status can all influence the length of time between shed cycles.
That said, you can normally expect young leopard geckos to shed about once every week or two.
Adult leopard geckos, on the other hand, will generally shed about once every four to eight weeks.
As long as your lizard appears and acts healthy, you needn’t worry very much about the length of time between your gecko’s shed cycles.
Is It OK If My Leopard Gecko Eats His Old Skin?
One of the funniest things experienced keepers get to enjoy is the look of shock that many new keepers exhibit upon seeing their leopard gecko eat his old shed skin for the first time.
It is admittedly a bit gross, but this is a perfectly natural habit that is no cause for concern.
Leopard geckos (and a number of other lizards) routinely consume their discarded skin. They do so for a number of reasons, but the following two are among the most important:
- The old skin contains a variety of important minerals, which will help the leopard gecko generate new layers of skin in the future.
- Discarded skins may attract predators, so leopard geckos eat their old skins to keep a low profile and avoid detection.
You may not see your gecko consume his skin every time (they often do so while hiding), but most keepers will eventually see the behavior in action.
Warning Signs to Watch For
Generally speaking, leopard geckos usually shed without issue and don’t present some of the shedding difficulties that some other reptiles do.
Green tree pythons (Morelia viridis), for example, will often have very rough sheds, despite the best efforts of their keepers.
However, problems can arise from time to time, and you’ll occasionally need to take action to ensure your lizard doesn’t suffer any further issues.
To be safe, just watch for any of the following issues during or immediately after your lizard sheds:
- Retained skin near the toes. Because the toes of a leopard gecko are quite small, shed skin often sticks to them. If left unaddressed, this can lead to the loss of the digits. So, make sure you give your lizard’s feet and toes a once over following every shed.
- Retained skin at the tail tip. Just like his toes, your leopard gecko’s tail tip is also quite thin, so old skin may stick to it during the shedding process. This isn’t quite as serious as retained skin on the toes, but it is still something you’ll want to watch for and correct when it occurs.
- Retained skin near the vent. Sometimes, shed skin may cling to the area near your leopard gecko’s vent. Retained skin in this area can cause hygiene problems, so you’ll want to inspect your lizard’s entire ventral surface (while paying special attention to the vent area) following each shed cycle.
- Retained skin near the eyes. Leopard geckos are somewhat unusual when compared to many other geckos, as they have eyelids rather than a clear scale covering their eyes. This means your leopard gecko won’t shed his eye scale (typically called the spectacle), but he will shed the skin covering and surrounding his eyelids. If this skin doesn’t come off cleanly, his eyes may become infected or injured.
If you notice retained skin in any of these areas, you’ll need to take steps to rectify the problem. We’ll explain how to do so in the following section.
What Do You Do If Your Leopard Gecko Has Stuck Skin?
Dealing with retained skin is usually pretty easy, but the procedure will vary depending upon where the skin remains.
Removing skin from relatively non-sensitive areas, such as your lizard’s back or the top of his head, is pretty straightforward. But care must be taken anytime skin remains stuck to your lizard’s delicate body parts, such as his vent, eyes or tail tip.
Removing Retained Skin from Non-Sensitive Areas
If the skin is stuck to non-sensitive areas, you can begin by gently rubbing the affected area with a wet paper towel or cloth.
The combination of water and gentle friction will usually allow you to free one of the edges. From there, you can gently pull away the retained skin.
Just be sure that you don’t use excessive force, as this may injure your lizard. If the skin doesn’t start coming off within a minute or two of trying, you’ll want to stop and try again the following day.
Usually, repeated efforts will allow you to work the stuck skin free without hurting your pet.
You can also soak your lizard in a very shallow pan of water for about 20 minutes or so.
Use room-temperature water and aim for a depth that submerges most of your pet’s body, without being deep enough that he has to swim or struggle to keep his head above water. He should be able to relax and hang out comfortably.
After you remove your pet from the water, you can try to rub the skin free with a wet paper towel as described earlier.
If your first attempt isn’t successful, simply repeat the entire process the following day.
With persistence and a gentle touch, you’ll usually be able to correct the problem without harming your gecko.
If for some reason, you’re unable to remove your pet’s retained skin after several days, you’ll want to solicit your vet’s advice and assistance.
Removing Retained Skin from Sensitive Areas
While it is pretty simple to remove retained skin from non-sensitive areas of your leopard gecko’s body, you must be very careful when trying to remove retained skin from your pet’s eyes, toes, vent or tail tip.
These areas are easy to injure, so extreme care is required.
If the stuck skin is located on your lizard’s toes, vent or tail tip, you can try to remove it with a damp paper towel as described earlier.
Just be sure to do so even more gently and stop immediately if the skin doesn’t come off easily.
If that doesn’t work, try soaking your lizard and then applying gentle friction to remove the skin.
But if repeated soaking sessions don’t help, simply make an appointment with your vet. Your vet will be much better prepared to address the issue, and he or she will be more likely to remove the skin without wounding the lizard than you are.
Retained skin near the eyes is often very tricky to address, as your lizard’s eyes are one of the most delicate parts of his body.
Experienced keepers can often work the stuck skin free without harming the gecko, but I recommend that beginners avoid doing so and simply seek veterinary assistance.
Preparing for Problem-Free Sheds
In their natural habitat, leopard geckos typically shed without difficulty. This is to be expected, as they have evolved to live in harmony with the environmental parameters of their native range.
But it can be tricky to perfectly replicate these conditions in captivity. This can cause leopard geckos to suffer from shedding difficulties – a term veterinarians call ecdysis.
Nevertheless, there are a few different steps keepers can take to help avoid rough or incomplete sheds:
Make Sure Your Gecko Remains Hydrated
Dehydration is one of the most common reasons leopard geckos have poor sheds. So, always be sure that your lizard has access to clean water, and be sure to monitor your temperatures regularly, as excessive heat can dry out your pet’s habitat.
Provide Your Leopard Gecko with a Damp Hiding Space
Another way to help ensure your leopard gecko’s skin has adequate moisture is through the use of a damp hiding space.
Simply add an additional hiding container to your pet’s habitat and place a little bit of damp (not wet) moss inside.
Don’t remove your pet’s “dry” hiding space; instead, allow him to choose which one he prefers at any given time.
Allow Your Leopard Gecko to Soak Periodically
Although it isn’t a terribly common practice among leopard gecko keepers, many lizard and snake enthusiasts allow their captives to hang out in a very small amount of water (just enough to wet their bodies – not enough that they need to swim) on a regular basis.
This helps to ensure the animal remains hydrated, and it will also help ensure the skin itself enjoys sufficient moisture.
Keep Your Lizard Free of External Parasites
Aside from dehydration, external parasites are one of the most common causes of shedding difficulties. So, inspect your lizard on a regular basis for mites and seek veterinary help if you find them present.
Mites appear like a small red or black moving speck, which is about the size of a black pepper flake.
Avoid Causing Your Leopard Gecko Any Stress
High stress levels can also cause leopard geckos to experience ecdysis.
Fortunately, this is usually pretty easy to avoid, as long as you provide your lizard with an appropriate habitat (including at least one hiding spot), and you don’t handle him excessively.
Visit Your Veterinarian Anytime You Suspect That Your Lizard Is Sick
As mentioned earlier, illness can cause poor sheds. In fact, poor sheds can be a helpful sign that signals you to the presence of a potential problem.
Accordingly, if your attempts to provide better hydration and eliminate things like stress or parasites don’t improve your pet’s sheds, seek veterinary assistance to get to the root of the problem.
Over the years, you’ll surely watch your leopard gecko shed dozens of times.
As long as you provide the correct husbandry parameters (and your lizard remains healthy), most should go pretty smoothly.