What causes leopard geckos to drop their tails?
How should you react to this behavior?
The unthinkable has happened: your leopard gecko has severed the end of its tail in response to an external stressor or illness.
You might be considering rushing your lizard to the vet or simply staring in shock at the still-twitching lizard tail in your gecko’s tank.
Read on to learn what to do in this situation and how to prevent your gecko from dropping its tail again in the future.
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Leopard Gecko Tail Drop Causes, Care, And Prevention
When your leopard gecko drops its tail, it is doing so as a defense mechanism in reaction to a real or perceived threat. Thankfully, their tail will regenerate over time if you simply clean the wound, remove stray substrate, and monitor the regrowth carefully for infection or other complications.
Maybe you’ve accidentally startled your lizard or dropped them, and they panicked as a result.
Perhaps you tried to cohabitate two leopard geckos, and one of them picked on the other, resulting in a dropped tail.
In rare cases, your lizard may be ill or malnourished, with the associated stress causing them to drop their tail.
If you’ve never observed a leopard gecko drop their tail, this phenomenon is very shocking and even makes some reptile owners squeamish.
The mere sight of a pink nub on your gecko’s rear end, along with a giant, fleshy, spasming tail in the corner of their tank or on your floor, is distressing even for gecko lovers with strong stomachs.
Still, as gruesome as this appears at first glance, your gecko is biologically designed to have this defense mechanism, also known as caudal autonomy or self-amputation.
They are physically equipped to drop and regrow their tails when in danger or when they perceive a danger close to them.
First and foremost, don’t panic.
Remove and dispose of the severed tail portion, as your lizard will not be able to reattach it.
Check on your gecko, as they will be as shocked as you are.
The gecko will probably start licking its tail nub.
This is normal behavior and should be expected.
Your leopard gecko will be able to regrow a new tail all on its own within about a month or so, depending on its age and overall health, but you will have to monitor them closely during this process, isolate them, and keep the tail nub clean as it heals.
Unless your gecko is displaying signs of illness or malnutrition, a veterinary intervention will not be necessary.
Just keep them clean and safe while they regrow their tail, and avoid any situations or behaviors which could trigger another tail dropping.
What Causes Leopard Geckos To Drop Their Tails?
The most common cause of tail dropping in leopard geckos by far is stress or a perceived threat in their environment.
Tail dropping is a defense mechanism these lizards have evolved to give them a better chance at survival in the wild.
With this strange, almost alien-like ability, leopard geckos can simply cut off their tails at will if a predator has managed to catch up to them.
Interestingly, leopard geckos are not the only species of lizards able to drop and regenerate limbs.
Some lizards are even able to regenerate legs and toes, but leopard geckos can only regrow their tails.
If you are housing multiple geckos together, you should be sure the gecko with the missing tail is not being bullied or harassed by its cagemates.
Often in cohabitation setups, a dominant lizard or two emerges and bullies the smaller, weaker lizards.
Cohabitation is particularly risky and not recommended with leopard geckos primarily for this reason.
Read our post on leopard gecko cohabitation and tank mates for greater detail on this subject.
If your gecko is being threatened regularly, they will feel as if dropping their tail is their only defense.
However, sick geckos are prone to tail dropping if they have contracted a bacterial or fungal infection.
Illness and low immune health will cause tail dropping in particularly weak lizards.
If you have ruled the previous two causes out, you might want to visit a reptile vet to determine if a medical issue is to blame.
The most common reason for tail dropping in leopard geckos is, by far, a stress reaction to a perceived threat.
Usually, in captivity, this means you’ve either accidentally scared or dropped the gecko, causing them to utilize their primary defense mechanism as a response.
Don’t feel too bad, though, as this process causes your gecko very little pain and is an intended behavior developed over centuries of evolution.
Just avoid any potential stressors in the future and be extra careful as your gecko heals over the next month or so.
What Should You Do With The Dropped Leopard Gecko Tail?
You were probably caught by surprise when you noticed the detached tail still flopping and twitching around in your gecko’s tank or wherever they happened to drop it.
Don’t bother keeping the tail, though, unless you’re particularly sentimental, as it is now completely useless.
Your gecko won’t be reattaching the dropped tail anytime soon.
Interestingly, the tail dropping is a dual defense mechanism as the dropped tail gives the gecko a chance to escape a potential predator and serves as a distraction while the tail flops around on the ground.
In the wild, this is a crucial factor in their survival, but it doesn’t serve much of a purpose in captivity.
You might want to wait for the muscle spasms in the dropped tail to cease before you reach for it, though, as the sight of movement from a severed limb makes many leopard gecko owners understandably squeamish.
It could take an hour or more for the tail to stop twitching entirely; this is normal, despite being pretty creepy to observe firsthand.
Thankfully, leopard geckos have developed this form of defense over years of evolution and are physically equipped to slowly regrow a new tail in the place of the severed one.
This process takes time, often weeks or even months, and the new tail usually doesn’t grow back to the same size as the previous one.
While tail dropping is a normal biological reaction to stress, it is not normal for your gecko to frequently drop its tail in captivity.
You will still have to care for the resulting wound and ensure the nub doesn’t get infected.
How Do You Care For The Wound?
After you have removed the dropped portion of your gecko’s tail and disposed of it, you will need to take a close look at your leopard gecko’s new nub to be sure it isn’t bleeding or swollen.
Usually, leopard geckos drop their tails cleanly, but in rare cases, complications arise where the tail is still partially attached to the lizard’s body.
In most cases, there will be little to no blood loss thanks to the muscles contracting around the nub, quickly and neatly closing off the surrounding blood vessels.
Clean the area around their tail with warm water and a mild, diluted antiseptic like Betadine, a Povidone-iodine solution designed for wound care and cleansing. It is safe for animals and will help protect the tail nub from infection.
Using a non-toxic, animal-safe antiseptic is crucial because your gecko will lick their nub frequently as their new tail grows in.
It is very important to avoid further tail droppings in the future.
Your gecko stores fat in their tail, so they temporarily lose significant fat reserves on their body by dropping it.
While they will be fine if they drop their tail once or twice during their lives, repeated tails drops are indicative of chronic stress or even illness and other health issues.
Check the tail for infection every day and notify your veterinarian if you notice any bleeding, oozing, or swelling around the tail wound.
Ensuring Your Gecko’s Tail Grows Back Correctly
It will take around a month or longer for your gecko’s tail to grow back, and in most cases, it will be smaller than it was before it dropped.
This is normal, but it is also an important reason you don’t want your lizard to often drop their tail.
Regrown tails are usually stumpy, oddly-shaped, and don’t always match the rest of the gecko’s body or their original tail in color and pattern.
To ensure proper gecko tail regrowth, some reptile owners take photos of the nub each day to monitor the growth process.
This is a great way to see how much of your lizard’s tail grows back with each passing day and will also help you pinpoint exactly when any issues occurred if the tail is not growing back normally.
Either way, make sure you are cleaning the wound daily and keeping any loose substrates away from your gecko and its tail.
If you typically use a loose substrate, consider substituting it with reptile carpet, tile, or paper towels during the regrowth process.
Keep checking the new tail stump for signs of infection, and provide your gecko with plenty of nutritious food to make up for the fat they lost in their tail.
Be sure the vivarium environment you keep your gecko in is maintained at an ideal temperature, so your lizard doesn’t feel any additional discomfort from their surroundings during the tail regrowth process.
Thankfully, your gecko will not be in pain from the dropped tail, but the stress from the event might affect its appetite or energy level in the following week or so.
Keep your gecko quarantined by themselves in a calm, clean vivarium away from any loud noise or other animals.
It is also very common for leopard geckos to seem more fearful or nervous after a tail loss incident because they don’t know if they should trust the safety of their environment.
It will take some time for your lizard to regain trust in you and its vivarium setup, so don’t handle them excessively and give them plenty of time and space to begin feeling safe and comfortable again.
How To Prevent Leopard Gecko Tail Dropping
Your gecko has already dropped its tail at least once; you need to be extra careful moving forward to not let this happen again.
Even though your gecko is designed by years of evolution to be able to drop its tail as a defense mechanism, in captivity, tail dropping should never be happening regularly or even occasionally.
Tail dropping, or caudal autonomy, is a defense mechanism, not intended everyday behavior.
It is supposed to be used in life-or-death situations with predators in the wild, so they can safely escape and live another day.
If your gecko is dropping their tail every time you pick them up, they are either ill, or you are handling them in an extremely stressful and painful manner.
Since your gecko’s tail becomes weaker and smaller each time it grows back and is subject to potential complications each time it happens, you will want to prevent this from happening again.
While all reptile owners are human and humans make mistakes, your gecko will not appreciate feeling like they have to regularly amputate their tail to feel safe.
Preventing tail dropping is quite easy provided you are extra careful when handling your lizard and not cohabitating them with larger, more dominant members of their species.
If you are keeping your leopard gecko in an appropriate enclosure and feeding them the proper diet, you shouldn’t have any further tail-dropping incidents.
Since environmental stress isn’t the sole cause of tail dropping, in addition, you will need to monitor your gecko’s weight regularly and be sure they are getting the vitamins and nutrients they need to avoid becoming underweight and malnourished.
Seeing a reptile vet once or twice a year will also help you look out for any warning signs, keeping your lizard from becoming ill and potentially dropping its tail as a result.
To most beginner reptile owners, tail dropping in gecko species is a frightening and upsetting experience.
However, reptile experts know this defense mechanism is important to many lizards’ chances of survival in the wild, and leopard geckos have retained this ability even in captivity.
Self-amputation is quite common in leopard geckos and doesn’t cause them significant pain.
Still, the process is stressful for these animals and should be prevented at all costs.
The regrowth process causes extreme stress to be inflicted on the lizard and presents a risk of infection.
Thankfully, this issue is easy to treat at home and even easier to prevent if you are a dedicated, informed leopard gecko owner.