There are many health conditions to look out for when caring for a reptile, such as a leopard gecko; however, impaction is perhaps one of the most serious yet overlooked health issues in reptiles.
You must know what causes impaction and what you should do if your leopard gecko hasn’t been eating or producing regular bowel movements.
Leopard gecko impaction is caused by either food or other inorganic matter such as substrate suddenly blocking the digestive tract. As a result, the impacted animal cannot defecate, and over time the condition becomes fatal.
Keep reading to learn more about impaction in leopard geckos, how exactly it happens and how to prevent it, and what you should do if you suspect your pet is impacted.
What Is Impaction?
Impaction is a health condition in which the digestive tract becomes blocked off by a mass of food, substrate, feces, or something like rocks or other small objects. As a result of the intestines becoming blocked, the animal becomes unable to defecate.
When impaction occurs, the animal will usually continue to eat normally for a short time until the digestive tract becomes seriously impacted, in which they will stop eating and even drinking water altogether.
Typically, your gecko should be defecating at least once per day if they are a baby or juvenile or every other day or so if they are an adult.
However, if impacted, the gecko will either poop infrequently or stop passing bowel movements completely.
You will be able to spot a severely impacted gecko by tracking their bowel movements and observing them for lethargic behavior.
In most cases, the gecko will have an unusually swollen or distended belly which is hard to touch.
This condition becomes problematic very quickly, as the impacted matter will stretch the digestive tract and intestines, causing severe pain and stress for the gecko.
If left untreated, organ failure, certain infections, and even death will eventually occur.
Leopard Gecko Food Impaction
One of the most common causes of impaction in leopard geckos is eating foods too large to chew and digest completely. This is especially common with juvenile and baby leopard geckos, as they will attempt to eat just about anything they see moving in front of them, even if they won’t be able to digest it later.
Leopard geckos are insectivores, meaning you should only be feeding them feeder insects bred specifically to become reptile food.
Additionally, they are relatively small reptiles, so only small to medium-sized insects are appropriate for feeding.
As a general rule of thumb, only feed insects smaller than the width of the space between your gecko’s eyes.
If the insect is larger than this, avoid giving it to your gecko.
Impaction isn’t the only risk when giving your gecko food too large to digest; choking is also very common.
In addition, larger insects such as superworms can bite and scratch smaller or weaker geckos as they hunt and attempt to eat them.
It is common for novice reptile owners to dig up insects in their yard or purchase insects like bait worms from fishing suppliers.
While this seems like a smart and convenient way to save money when feeding your gecko, you should avoid this at all costs.
Aside from causing impaction due to the insects being too large for the gecko to eat, insects not bred in carefully monitored conditions often carry parasites or are coated in harmful pesticides.
Another way food impaction often occurs is because reptile owners aren’t sure which insects they should be feeding their gecko.
In turn, they end up purchasing insects too large or insects with hard, chitinous exoskeletons, which later cause impaction when their gecko is unable to fully digest them.
The ideal feeder insects to look for when shopping for food for your leopard geckos include the following:
- Phoenix worms (also known as black soldier fly larvae)
- Dubia roaches (avoid for juvenile and baby geckos, as they are pretty large)
- Hornworms (only smaller ones for adults)
- Waxworms (only as an occasional treat; they are very high in fat and nutritionally poor otherwise)
- Mealworms and superworms (also avoid for babies and juveniles, as they have hard exoskeletons)
If the insect you’re hoping to feed your gecko isn’t on this list, it is best to avoid it.
Also, if your gecko is still a baby or juvenile, avoid larger insects like specific sizes of Dubia roaches and hornworms; save these for when your gecko reaches their full size and can chew and digest them fully.
It is also best to avoid feeding mealworms and superworms to some juvenile and all baby geckos entirely.
These worms have relatively thick exoskeletons of chitin, which are sometimes difficult to eat, swallow, and digest for younger or weaker lizards.
Similarly, if your gecko is older or has some kind of disability which affects the way they eat, avoid mealworms and superworms in favor of smaller and less chitinous bugs.
Most adult leopard geckos can handle eating them with ease unless the bugs are huge.
Overall, improperly sized food is one of the most common causes of impaction in leopard geckos and reptiles in general.
Constantly monitor your gecko’s feeding sessions carefully, and never leave uneaten bugs inside the enclosure afterward.
Click to check out our whole guide to leopard gecko diets.
Leopard Gecko Sand Impaction
Another fairly common cause of impaction in leopard geckos of all ages is using improper substrate or feeding the gecko on a loose substrate. Geckos are unable to fully digest sand, and as a result, it will build up in their digestive tract until it is blocked off completely.
Although there is a lot of debate within the reptile-keeping community over whether or not it is safe to use sand as a substrate, most experts agree it is best to avoid sand and other loose substrates entirely.
A common argument from those in favor of using sand as a substrate for their geckos often sounds something like this:
“But they live on the sand in their natural habitat!”
While this is undoubtedly true, wild leopard geckos also live significantly shorter lives than lizards in captivity.
Many factors are contributing to these shortened lifespans, including predation and food scarcity.
Still, one of the most prominent causes is impaction due to ingesting small amounts of sand over time.
The tricky thing about sand substrate impaction is it doesn’t usually happen immediately as a result of your gecko randomly chowing down on giant piles of sand in their enclosure.
Instead, it happens very gradually due to the gecko repeatedly eating its meals directly on top of its sand.
Also, geckos and most other reptiles tend to use their tongues to interact with their environment.
Over time, the lizard’s tongue will pick up small amounts of sand here and there, which eventually will form large masses of sand within their digestive tracts.
Over time, the clumps of sand in their intestines become so large and firm they simply won’t budge anymore.
This is why sand impaction is often so deadly and insidious; it occurs so slowly most leopard gecko owners aren’t aware it’s happening until it is too late.
In serious cases of sand impaction, risky and invasive surgery will be necessary to remove the mass of impacted, solidified sand.
In many instances, medical intervention comes too late, resulting in the gecko’s untimely death while their owner scrambles to figure out why it happened.
Leopard Gecko Substrate (Non-Sand) Impaction
In addition to sand, many other loose substrates will cause impaction if ingested in small amounts over time. To prevent impaction, you should avoid substrates like walnut shells, wood shavings, and bark chips for leopard geckos.
Unfortunately, many loose substrates on the market are commonly advertised as being “safe” for leopard gecko bedding material.
This leads many reptile owners to falsely believe there are no health risks involved with using these substrates until their gecko eventually becomes impacted, and it is too late.
Even substrates made of supposedly digestible, organic materials like alfalfa pellets are problematic, as they are quite large and take a long time to fully break down in your gecko’s digestive tract.
In turn, the gecko ends up attempting to pass large chunks of the substrate, which build up and cause impaction in the same way sand or other non-digestible substrates do.
Like with sand, there is much debate amongst reptile owners over the risks and potential benefits of using these kinds of loose substrates.
Some reptile experts will argue loose substrates are safe and natural, provided the gecko isn’t eating their meals directly on top of them.
However, since your gecko uses their tongue to interact with its environment, it will still inevitably end up picking up small pieces of the substrate.
These pieces will get stuck in its digestive tract and cause impaction slowly after weeks or even months of ingesting the tiny pieces.
Overall, it is best to avoid any loose substrates altogether as a leopard gecko owner.
While they certainly look nice in your gecko’s tank and provide a more natural environment for your gecko to live in, they will not benefit the lizard in any real way in the long term.
The potential risks of using loose substrates far outweigh the possible benefits.
Check out the leopard gecko equipment we recommend to make sure you aren’t wasting money and potentially harming your pet.
Other Causes Of Leopard Gecko Impaction
A lesser-known cause of impaction is dehydration.
A dehydrated leopard gecko won’t have enough fluids within its intestines to comfortably pass bowel movements, which will result in impaction over time if left untreated.
Even though your beloved leopard gecko is a desert animal, they still require plenty of water to stay hydrated, alert, and comfortable.
If they become dehydrated, they become more susceptible to impaction since the fecal matter in their intestines will become hard to pass over time.
To ensure your gecko stays properly hydrated, always provide a shallow bowl of clean, fresh water for the lizard to drink from freely.
In addition, put a humid hide in your gecko’s enclosure and mist it with water daily.
This way, your gecko will be able to absorb water through their skin if they happen to not drink enough water.
Some geckos are more willing to drink from a water bowl than others; if yours is particularly resistant to the idea, mist them with cool water daily and allow them to simply lick the water droplets off their nose.
Another commonly overlooked cause of impaction in leopard geckos is improper temperature and/or humidity within their enclosure.
If the tank becomes too hot, too cold, or too humid, your gecko will not be able to digest its food properly, resulting in impaction.
Generally, your gecko’s enclosure should have a basking spot around 85 to 90° degrees Fahrenheit (32° C), while the cooler end of the tank should be around 75 to 80° degrees Fahrenheit (27° C).
Learn more about the right leopard gecko tank setup to avoid this issue.
There should be a gentle, gradual temperature gradient from the hot to the cooler side.
When it comes to humidity, the enclosure should remain around 30 to 40% at all times, regardless of whether it is day or night. It should never exceed 40% at most.
The main reason why your gecko’s tank temperature and humidity settings are so specific is because they will not be able to digest their food if they aren’t warm or dry enough.
Additionally, improper temperature or humidity often contributes to respiratory infections and other health issues.
Your gecko is a cold-blooded reptile, so they rely on their external environment to maintain their core body temperature.
Many reptile keepers opt to purchase a dual digital thermometer and hygrometer, so they can check the settings at all times and adjust them as needed.
Leopard Gecko Impaction Symptoms
Signs of impaction include:
- Irritable behavior.
- Loss of appetite or poor appetite.
- Loss of tail fat.
- A firm, bloated belly.
Additionally, some impacted geckos will have black or blue spots on their bellies.
If your gecko is impacted, it will likely become lethargic and quick to anger. Some will be resistant to being handled, even if they are normally friendly and docile.
This behavior is because your gecko is in pain due to its impacted intestines.
Symptoms often begin slowly in cases of substrate impaction, as the substrate builds up slowly in the digestive tract until it is so firm and large the tract gets blocked off entirely.
In food or other foreign object impaction, symptoms will often become apparent much sooner and become severe more quickly.
An impacted gecko will eventually refuse to eat and drink altogether, as their blocked digestive tract will cause them to become bloated and feel full even if they haven’t been eating much or at all.
The gecko’s belly will become increasingly bloated as the impaction worsens.
It will be firm to the touch and unusually distended, and the lizard will often recoil in pain if you touch them.
Some lizards will have dark blue or black spots on their belly near the impaction site.
Do not force-feed an impacted gecko; use the treatment options below to address the issue and safely clear the blockage.
If none of the treatments work within a few days, you will likely need to seek the assistance of an experienced reptile vet to see if surgery is necessary.
Leopard Gecko Impaction Treatment
It is possible to treat impaction on your own by giving your leopard gecko warm baths, gently massaging their belly, and offering a drop or two of olive oil by mouth to help them pass the impacted mass of food substrate or other debris.
If you think your gecko is impacted, you need to act fast as impaction progresses surprisingly quickly if left untreated.
Impaction often isn’t obvious right away; in many cases, you’ll need to closely observe your gecko’s behavior and track their bowel movements to tell if they have become impacted.
Your gecko should ideally be pooping once every other day or so if they are an adult or every day if they are a baby or juvenile.
If you’ve noticed they aren’t pooping regularly, it is best to be proactive and start administering warm baths, belly massages, and olive oil by mouth to get things moving along.
If your gecko is being housed on a loose substrate, remove the substrate from its enclosure and replace it with reptile carpet, tile, paper towels, or another solid, flat substrate.
This way, there will be no risk of sand or substrate impaction in the future, and your gecko won’t accidentally swallow more substrate if they are already impacted.
Next, give your gecko a warm bath for around 10 to 15 minutes at a time each day.
Soaking them in warm (not hot) water will help stimulate their bowels and allow them to pass the impacted mass if it hasn’t become too large to remove without surgery yet.
During these baths, use your index fingers to gently rub their belly around the impaction site.
If their belly is slightly swollen and they haven’t pooped in a few days, they are likely experiencing the beginning stages of impaction.
In addition, give your gecko a drop or two of olive oil orally once a day until they have passed a bowel movement successfully.
The olive oil will work as a gentle laxative and help them pass the impacted mass, but it will likely take anywhere from one to three days to show any results.
Finally, don’t wait if your gecko begins showing serious symptoms like constant, severe lethargy or a lack of response to external stimuli.
If you know they haven’t pooped in over a week, get them to a reptile vet as soon as possible. Impaction often becomes fatal if left untreated and is extremely painful and stressful for the afflicted animal.
And if you want to learn more about leopard gecko poop and how it can relate to the health of your pet.
To prevent impaction, avoid loose substrates and large food items entirely and keep track of your gecko’s bowel movements for any irregularities.
Always provide fresh water to your gecko and mist them with water daily to assist with hydration.
The best way to treat impaction is to prevent it entirely.
Thankfully, preventing impaction is much easier than treating it.
The main way to avoid dealing with an impacted gecko is to house them on a flat, solid substrate like carpet, tile, or even paper towels, as one of the leading causes of impaction in geckos is the consumption of indigestible material like sand or other loose substrates.
In addition to this, only feed your gecko insects smaller than the width of the space between their eyes.
It is better to feed them several small insects rather than one or two large ones at a time, as they are more likely to easily chew and digest the smaller bugs.
Always feed your gecko on a designated feeding dish instead of directly on the floor of the enclosure, so they don’t accidentally pick up and swallow any debris inside the tank.
Remove uneaten insects after each feeding session.
Track your gecko’s bowel movements with a notebook, an app on your phone, or even a whiteboard near their enclosure.
If they haven’t been pooping regularly, make a note and administer the aforementioned treatments if it’s been more than a few days since they last defecated.
Finally, always carefully monitor the temperature and humidity within the lizard’s enclosure.
If the tank becomes too cold or too humid, adjust the lighting and how often you mist the tank accordingly.