The dreaded “stick tail disease” is a prevalent killer of leopard geckos in and out of captivity.
But what is stick tail, and what makes it so deadly and difficult to treat?
“Stick tail disease” is not a disease itself but rather a common term for the symptom of rapid weight loss in leopard geckos. While it has many possible causes and is usually a sign of multiple underlying health issues, stick tail is generally caused by an intestinal parasite called Cryptosporidium.
To learn more about stick tail, its causes, and how to prevent and treat it, keep reading. We’ll cover everything you need to know to keep your gecko healthy and safe.
Is Leopard Gecko “Stick Tail” A Disease?
While the term “stick tail disease” is commonly referred to in reptile enthusiast circles, it’s a bit of a misnomer, as it is a symptom rather than a disease.
When leopard geckos are malnourished, ill, or receiving poor quality care, they will lose weight at an accelerated rate.
Since they have very high metabolisms and are pretty small animals, they need to eat more often than most reptiles to maintain a healthy weight.
Usually, the most obvious area of weight loss is in the gecko’s tail, as it is made almost entirely of valuable fat deposits the gecko needs to thrive.
As a result, their tail becomes thin and bony.
Typically, a healthy leopard gecko will have a plump, robust tail nearly as wide as its entire body with no bones visible.
The term “stick tail” refers to the appearance of the lizard’s tail after they have lost a considerable amount of weight.
A gecko with stick tail needs to be treated as promptly as possible, as the most common cause of the symptom has an extremely high mortality rate.
What Causes “Stick Tail?”
While sudden, rapid weight loss in reptiles has many possible causes, the most common culprit of stick tail is a gastrointestinal parasite known as Cryptosporidium varanii.
It is highly resilient, challenging to treat, and has many ways to spread quickly from one gecko to another.
Cryptosporidium, commonly known as “Crypto” amongst reptile owners, is most often spread through fecal contamination from an infected animal.
As it is a protozoal parasite, it is microscopic and thus not visible to the naked eye, so you won’t be able to spot it in your gecko’s feces without a comprehensive veterinary exam and fecal testing done by your veterinarian.
Cryptosporidium can live in water and on surfaces for many weeks at a time and thrives in unsanitary conditions.
Other Causes of Stick Tail
While the Cryptosporidium parasite is by far the most frequent cause of stick tail in most lizard species, it is essential to note rapid weight loss in geckos may also be triggered by a variety of other health conditions such as:
- Different types of parasitic, bacterial, and gastrointestinal infection
- Internal abscesses
If your gecko has recently lost a significant amount of weight for no apparent reason, be sure to monitor them closely and get them to a qualified reptile veterinarian as soon as possible.
Your vet will conduct testing to rule out possible causes and determine if another underlying condition is present to find the true culprit behind the weight loss (and other symptoms if they are present).
Symptoms to Look Out For
In malnourished or sick geckos, sudden weight loss and a skinny tail are usually far from the only symptoms present.
You will likely notice a combination of several of the following other symptoms associated with sick reptiles:
- Avoiding their heat source/lamp
- Loss of appetite; poor appetite
- Regurgitation or attempted regurgitation (the appearance of gagging or retching)
What To Do If You Think Your Leopard Gecko Has Stick Tail
If your gecko is infected with Cryptosporidium or other infectious diseases causing them to rapidly lose weight, particularly in their tail fat, you need to act quickly.
Other infections to watch for include:
- Respiratory infection
- Intestinal infection
- Parasitic infection
It is vital to note Cryptosporidium is fatal in roughly 50% of documented cases in a short period of time.
Still, it is possible to treat it if you take it seriously and get your lizard to a veterinarian or animal hospital as soon as you notice symptoms.
Your vet will likely suggest fecal testing to look for the presence of individual oocytes or immature Cryptosporidium eggs.
However, if oocytes are not present, this does not necessarily mean your lizard is not infected, as they are sometimes present in low enough numbers to be undetectable.
Unfortunately, the only 100% sure way to determine the presence of this elusive parasite is to have an autopsy performed on a dead gecko in which an expert examines samples of their intestinal tract.
However, it is rare for a Crypto-infected leopard gecko to have negative results on both types of diagnostic tests.
If your vet determines you have a crypto-positive gecko, they will recommend immediate, comprehensive treatment with medications like Paromomycin, injectable fluids, and regular examinations to assess their condition.
Cryptosporidium is extremely difficult to treat and almost impossible to eradicate, though, and no known medications have cured infected lizards entirely of this parasite.
Your veterinarian will likely suggest treatment options to potentially prolong the life of your infected gecko, but their condition may still worsen and eventually become fatal even with intensive treatment.
You should be realistic yet optimistic if you have a Crypto-positive lizard; as a gecko owner, this will be frustrating and difficult, but your goal should be to minimize your pet’s prolonged pain as much as possible.
How To Prevent Stick Tail In Leopard Geckos
The best treatment for stick tail and its primary cause, Cryptosporidium parasites, is prevention.
Keeping your lizard’s environment clean and washing your hands often is the best way to keep them from contracting parasitic or bacterial infections and to prevent yourself from contracting salmonella from a potentially ill reptile.
This will give you plenty of time to get them to a veterinarian for an initial check-up and determine if your new pet is safe to expose to other animals.
Finally, only buy your reptiles from reputable breeders and avoid purchasing animals from pet shops, as most pet stores tend to pack multiple animals into tiny cages to save space and money.
There is no way to guarantee your animal came from a humane, responsible breeder when buying from a pet shop.
And since we’ve been talking about tails come check out our post on leopard gecko tail wagging.