Behaviors and Handling
Leopard geckos are often a beginner’s first choice of reptile due to being naturally docile, moreso as they age and gain confidence. They tolerate handling with minimal (if any) dispute. That said, you don’t want to pick the animal up much if at all within the first 2 weeks of them getting home.
Reptiles need time to learn the sounds and smells of their new place. You can try, if they’ll let you, to brush their cheek or front leg when you’re doing cleaning or feeding. This can help them start getting to know you. It also really helps to have casual conversations with them. This lets them get used to the typical sound of your voice.
I try to handle my geckos, or at least offer them little rubs and pets, at any given opportunity. They are naturally programmed to feel threatened and hunted by anything larger than them. In the wild, this would be true. It takes time and repetitive safe encounters for them to understand when something that is larger than them is not going to try to eat them.
It’s difficult to learn, but one of the best things you can do as a new keeper of a leo is to avoid flinching. They may try to jump scare you because they feel like you’re going to eat them. And you will jump sometimes. But try very hard to work at not reacting fast. A sudden sharp flinch might look like a lunge to the gecko, which will make it think that you could indeed possibly be a threat.
They talk both with voice and body language, so it might help to understand that. For one thing, they’ll try to just run and hide. If that fails, they’ll start standing tall. Then they’ll either start swaying their tail high up in the air, or rattle it on the ground. These are warning signals, telling you to back off ‘or else’.
If your hand still approaches, they’ll probably jump at you and ‘bark’, chirp, scream, yell, or otherwise be as loud as they can manage. They don’t always intend to nip, but if they do it usually doesn’t feel worse than someone messing around with a clothes pin and pinching you. Normally I just get bopped by the open mouth. This is the part where it happens fast enough that you might flinch. But if you’re reading the body language and expect the lunge, you can train yourself not to spook so hard.
Once they’ve had a couple weeks of no picking up, you can start to be a little more assertive. If you do go ahead and pick them up, there is one major rule. Never ever GRAB or hold or pinch their tail! Their natural defense mechanism against predators is to drop off at least a section of their tail, which will lay there and wiggle, to distract whatever they think is hunting them while they run off. While it’s not usually dangerous for them to drop (and then regrow) their tail, there can be complications which would make it so. There is a small risk of infection, which has to be prevented via being in an enclosure that is very clean and plain for a while. And there can be shedding complications as the tail is healing and regrowing.
Because their tails are a survival tool, leopard geckos are usually loath to drop it. It stores extra fat, nutrients, and fluids for times of drought in the wild. And a regrown tail is less efficient at this. I have found that as long as you are talking casually and make sure they can ALWAYS see your incoming hand, there’s no tail drop. It’s like keeping a hand on a horse when you need to walk around behind it to its other side. If they know you’re there, the odds that they’ll spook are almost zero.
Scooping is the best way to pick up your leo, especially if it’s not crazy for being picked up yet. Basically get your hand under it from the front or side. And always have your other hand nearby to dash underneath the gecko should it decide to make a run for it. You want it to fall onto your other hand. The first few times handling the gecko should be inside its enclosure, only a few inches off the floor. It knows it’s in its home, everything looks and smells familiar, and it will probably calm down faster. After that, when you start bringing it out of the enclosure, try to be over a soft surface such as a couch or bed. If there is a fall and you miss a catch, they fall onto floof and don’t associate handling with smacking down somewhere hard.
Another side note! Do not panic if your gecko falls. In the wild they live in rocky scrublands. They fall from anything they can climb up, including small trees and rocky outcroppings. If they fall less than 4 feet and they don’t crank their head or spine on anything on the way down, they’re fine. You should always do a little look-over once you gather them up, just in case the little booger has managed to find a new and interesting way to get hurt. But honestly I have yet to have an oops under 4 feet that resulted in anything other than the gecko being confused that it is suddenly ‘down’. Also panicking may result in you trying to lunge to snatch the little guy, making him think you’re striking. Even if it’s actually hurt, panic will only make it worse.