Parasites are, unfortunately, a fairly common health issue encountered by novice and expert leopard gecko owners alike.
But how do you identify them, and how should you treat your gecko once you’ve identified a parasite infestation?
What are the most common Leopard gecko parasites?
The most common parasites that can affect your pet include Coccidia, Pinworms, and Nematodes. Coccidia are protozoan parasites that can cause digestive issues like diarrhea and weight loss. Pinworms, or Oxyurids, can irritate the intestines and potentially cause blockages. Nematodes, also known as roundworms, can affect different organs and lead to symptoms like regurgitation and lethargy.
Regular check-ups with a vet, maintaining good hygiene, and taking quarantine measures for new additions to your gecko’s environment can help prevent and manage these pesky parasites in your captive leopard gecko population.
Read on to find out more about these parasites, their symptoms, and treatments.
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how do leopard geckos get parasites?
Leopard geckos can get parasites in a variety of ways, including:
- Eating Contaminated Feces
This is the most common way for leopard geckos to get parasites. Parasites can be passed from one gecko to another through feces, so it is important to keep your gecko’s enclosure clean and free of feces.
- Eating Infected Prey
If you feed your leopard gecko live prey, such as crickets or mealworms, it is important to make sure that the prey is free of parasites. You can do this by purchasing your prey from a reputable source and freezing it for 48 hours before feeding it to your gecko.
- Coming into Contact with Contaminated Surfaces
Parasites can also be spread through contact with contaminated surfaces, such as the substrate in your gecko’s enclosure. It is important to clean your gecko’s enclosure regularly with a reptile-safe disinfectant.
With that sorted, let’s have a look at some of the most common types of parasites that Leopard geckos are susceptible to.
Interestingly, pinworms are a highly common intestinal parasite many species of geckos and other reptiles in the wild live with their entire lives with no noticeable issues.
However, it is crucial to note wild geckos also aren’t expected to live nearly as long as those in captivity, and there isn’t nearly as much reliable data on wild versus captive geckos infected with pinworms.
Still, most parasitic infections of pinworms in wild reptiles and amphibians are mild and don’t harm the animal in any major way unless they are ill, stressed, very young, or very old.
In many cases, the pinworms will have a mutualistic relationship with the animal and, strangely, will assist it with digesting food and sort of “cleaning” the intestinal tract in exchange for small amounts of their food intake from time to time.
Captive reptiles have more issues dealing with pinworm infections as their bodies are more sensitive to the infection and less capable of fighting it off.
Additionally, pinworm infestations in captive geckos tend to climb to unmanageable numbers, in turn overwhelming the lizard’s body with the many worms who have been reproducing unchecked within their intestinal tract.
Pinworms are particularly common in leopard geckos, bearded dragons, and many species of tortoises and have the potential to become fatal for individuals in captivity if left untreated.
Even a healthy gecko will quickly become weak due to loss of appetite and constant diarrhea caused by the parasites.
Thankfully, pinworm infestations usually start out in low numbers and present symptoms slowly over several weeks or months.
This gives diligent and observant leopard gecko owners enough time to identify the parasitic infection and get their pet to a qualified reptile veterinarian to be treated and cleared of the infestation.
Pinworms are very thin, short worms only around 1/2″ inches in length.
Their color is usually either white or off-white, making them look like tiny strings or threads when they are passed in a gecko’s stools.
In many cases, the female pinworms will emerge while the animal is asleep to lay eggs around their anus, resulting in the gecko licking or scratching at its vent to ease the discomfort and pain from the pinworms hatching and moving on and inside of their bodies.
To spot and officially identify a pinworm infestation, you’ll need to take a close look at your gecko’s feces for the tiny threadlike worms.
Though they aren’t microscopic by any means, pinworms are very small, so it’s best to get a good look under a light with a magnifying glass.
Additionally, you’ll probably be at least somewhat aware of the infestation before you ever actually spot a single worm, as the gecko will slowly present a range of unpleasant and worrying symptoms over time as the number of pinworms within their intestines become unmanageable.
An infected gecko with pinworms will display the following symptoms:
- Unusually lethargic behavior, i.e. sleeping more often than normal or moving much slower than usual
- Loss of appetite, poor appetite, or even outright refusal to eat or drink at all over time
- Dehydration, resulting from not drinking enough water due to the infestation
- Frequent runny stools/diarrhea
- Significant loss of tail fat and other important fat stores on the body, such as in the belly and limbs
- Keeping eyes closed constantly
- Presence of pinworms in feces
There are other reasons your leopard gecko won’t eat crickets you may want to check out.
Among captive leopard geckos, the most common cause of pinworm infestations is poor animal husbandry and unsanitary living conditions.
It is essential to thoroughly clean your gecko’s tank often and remove any feces from the enclosure as quickly as possible to prevent the spread of bacteria and accidental ingestion of pinworm eggs.
Remember, leopard geckos (and most reptiles in general) use their tongues to interact with their environment, which makes them uniquely susceptible to contracting parasites when their mouth comes in contact with fecal matter or other bacteria.
Bacteria can cause leopard gecko mouth rot as well and if you’d like to learn more on mouth rot check out our other post.
If you suspect your gecko has become infected with pinworms, you should schedule a vet appointment as soon as possible to get an official diagnosis and treatment plan.
Typically, most reptile vets will first recommend collecting and testing a stool sample for the presence of pinworms and pinworm eggs.
Once they have confirmed the gecko is infected, they will prescribe a deworming medication.
Additionally, if the gecko has lost a significant amount of weight, veterinarians will often suggest additional fluids, a high-calorie diet with plenty of fat and protein, and a regular vitamin supplement to help the gecko regain their weight and appetite lost as a result of the infection.
In many cases, it is common for veterinarians to suggest multiple rounds of the dewormer to fully rid the gecko’s intestines of the worms.
Pinworms reproduce quickly and in large amounts, so it is often tricky to completely eradicate them once they have thoroughly infected an animal.
The primary means of preventing pinworm infestations is to simply keep your gecko’s enclosure as clean as possible.
Clean the enclosure thoroughly with a vinegar solution or cleaner designed specifically for reptile enclosures at least once a week, and spot clean any feces from the enclosure daily.
Also, get in the habit of keeping track of your gecko’s bowel movements.
Though it isn’t very pleasant to look at, getting an idea of what is regular and normal for your gecko and noting any instances of runny stools or pinworm sightings will help you more quickly diagnose any infections and reinfections.
Another fairly common internal parasite in leopard geckos is coccidia, a single-celled organism which lives within the infected animal’s intestines and feeds off of anything they eat.
This, similar to pinworm infections mentioned above, will cause the animal to lose weight quickly and become lethargic and prone to runny stools and dehydration.
The insidious thing about coccidia, however, is it is single-celled and thus microscopic, meaning you won’t be able to clearly identify it from examining your gecko’s stools alone.
Instead, you’ll have to monitor their behavior for symptoms associated with coccidia infections and have a veterinarian conduct tests on a fecal sample to confirm the presence of the parasite.
Like pinworms, coccidia is actually very common in wild geckos, though captive geckos seem to not be able to fight off infections as easily and are more prone to more severe infestations and symptoms.
If left untreated, coccidia will become fatal.
Geckos infected with coccidia will display the following symptoms:
- Lethargic behavior
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss or loss of tail fat
- Attempted regurgitation of food
- Runny stools
Like with pinworms, the most common cause of coccidia in captive leopard geckos is simply poor husbandry and unsanitary enclosure conditions.
Since coccidia is passed in the feces of the gecko, a dirty tank will quickly become a hotspot for the parasite if not cleaned thoroughly and frequently.
If you suspect your gecko has a coccidia or other parasitic infection, be sure to see a reptile vet as soon as possible.
They will most likely conduct tests on a stool sample from your gecko to confirm the presence of the parasite.
After an infestation has been identified, deworming medications will be prescribed.
Additionally, if the infestation has become severe, the vet will often recommend additional fluids, high-calorie diets with plenty of fat and protein, and a vitamin supplement to help the gecko regain weight and energy.
The primary way to prevent coccidia infestations is to keep your gecko’s enclosure clean at all times.
Clean the enclosure and all decorations, food dishes, and water bowls inside weekly, and spot clean the tank either daily or whenever your gecko defecates.
Like with pinworms, it helps to track your gecko’s bowel movements to be aware of any instances of diarrhea or other irregularities.
Cryptosporidium, also commonly known simply as “crypto,” is another single-celled microscopic parasite which will wreak absolute havoc on an infected gecko’s digestive tract.
Infestations of this parasite are referred to as cryptosporidiosis, but the more common term within the reptile community is “leopard gecko stick tail” or “stick tail disease” (click the link to learn more about this disease).
This name came about as a result of the primary physical symptom associated with cryptosporidium infections: significant loss of tail fat, which causes the gecko’s tail to become stick-thin and bony.
This is serious and often fatal, as leopard geckos store a significant amount of fat they need to survive within their tails.
Cryptosporidiosis is often considered the most difficult parasite infection to treat and will often become fatal if not addressed with rigorous treatment. Reinfection is also very common, as the parasite is highly resistant to most deworming medications.
Crypto-positive geckos usually struggle with the parasite for life and require intensive and expensive treatment; not all reptile owners are equipped to handle such an illness, so rehoming or euthanasia is unfortunately common with crypto-infected geckos.
This parasite quickly eats away at the gecko’s fat stores and causes the animal to waste away to a fraction of what their healthy weight should be.
Geckos infected with cryptosporidium will display the following symptoms:
- Sudden, extreme loss of weight and tail fat, resulting in “stick tail”
- Runny stools
- Attempted regurgitation of food
- Keeping eyes closed constantly/visibly wincing in pain
- Loss of appetite
You’ll probably have noticed the most common cause of just about any parasite infestation is simply unsanitary enclosure conditions.
This is also the case with cryptosporidium.
The parasite is passed through feces, so if a gecko comes in contact with crypto-infected feces or lives in a consistently dirty enclosure, they are at risk of becoming infected.
Treating cryptosporidiosis is expensive and extremely stressful for the animal, though in some cases crypto-positive geckos are able to live somewhat normal lives with intensive treatments like extra fluids, medications to eradicate the parasite from their digestive tract, and plenty of vitamin and nutrient supplements.
Increased UVB lighting will also help the gecko fight off the infection.
Still, the parasite is highly resistant to medications and treatments, and reinfection is extremely common.
Most crypto-positive geckos are sickly and underweight for the remainder of their lives.
As mentioned earlier, many gecko owners aren’t prepared or equipped to handle an illness which requires such intensive treatment.
Some simply don’t want to put their pet through such stressful treatments only for them to not be effective; you will need to discuss your options with your vet, as every gecko is different.
Once again, keeping your gecko’s enclosure clean at all times will prevent cryptosporidium infections as well as most other parasites.
Deep clean the enclosure weekly, and spot clean the tank whenever your gecko passes stool.
Additionally, never allow a crypto-positive gecko near other leopard geckos, and never use the enclosure the crypto-positive gecko lived in for non-crypto infected geckos.
This parasite is extremely resistant to both treatment and most cleaning solutions and has even been known to survive on surfaces after being cleaned with bleach.
Hookworms are a far less common parasite in leopard geckos, and we don’t have as much research or knowledge on hookworm infections in reptiles as other parasites.
However, they are still worth briefly mentioning here.
Reptile hookworms are very tiny intestinal parasites, around 1/8″ inches in length, and are barely visible to the naked eye.
They are named for their hook-like mouth parts which they use to attach themselves to the walls of the infected animal’s intestines.
You’ll need to closely monitor your gecko for any abnormal behavior and get them to a reputable veterinarian to identify a possible hookworm infection, since you won’t be able to see them in the gecko’s stools.
Geckos infected with hookworms will display the following symptoms:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss, either gradual or sudden
- Runny stools
- Attempted regurgitation
Since symptoms of most parasite infections are all very similar to each other, you will need a vet to conduct testing on a stool sample to properly identify a hookworm infestation.
Most of the time, either coccidia or pinworms are more common than hookworms.
Once again, the most common cause of hookworm infection is unsanitary conditions and poor animal husbandry.
In some cases, eating infected food items will also transmit hookworms.
Treating hookworms will involve a deworming medication.
Some geckos will need multiple rounds of treatments to fully rid their bodies of the hookworm infestation.
In some cases, additional fluids, vitamin supplements, and high-calorie diets with lots of protein and fat are recommended to help the gecko regain any weight they lost due to the infection.
Keep your gecko’s enclosure as clean as possible.
Deep clean the inside of the tank and all decorations and food and water dishes at least once a week, and spot clean whenever and wherever your gecko has a bowel movement.
Do not allow geckos with hookworms to cohabitate with or be around other healthy geckos to prevent the spread of infection.