How To Tame A Aggressive Leopard Gecko: From Bites To Kisses
We’ve all had that one (or maybe even a couple) leopard gecko that’s overly aggressive or skittish. They bite and scream whenever you go to handle them or place your hand in their tank. Leopard geckos are usually a very docile reptile and great for beginners. Younger leos however are notorious for being moody. Not to fret however, this guide will show you how I have dealt with the meanest lizards making them puppy dog tame.
To tame a leopard gecko, you will need to build their trust and prove to them that you are not a threat. To do so, you can use feeding methods, social interaction such as limited handling, scenting, and patience. If you follow these steps, you will be successful in building a bond with your leo.
Like all animals, your reptile will display certain signs that they are either unhappy or stressed thus wanting to be left alone. We may unknowingly be impeding on their privacy or ignoring these signs thus leading to bites and defensive behavior. The good news is all animals can be tamed if you go about it correctly and patiently.
You want to pay attention to this as normally leos will hide for most of the day and come out at night. This is normal behavior however if you notice them hiding when YOU come around or when YOU walk by. This can be a sign that they perceive you as a threat. This is common in newly acquired geckos and hatchlings. They will usually be acting normally but once they see you they will dart into their hiding spots. Shadows also scare geckos and thus can cause them to run away during the day. Being nocturnal they feel most secure at night and thus should be more courageous. If they hide away even at night especially when you’re around or they can visibly see you then it’s a sure sign they are afraid of you. I’ll talk more about how to correct this issue later.
Tail Swaying or Shaking
This type of behavior is often confusing as it can signify a multitude of things. If the tail is moving slowly in a “S” type pattern chances are it’s a defensive mechanism. I noticed that this happens most often when leopard geckos can see their own reflection via glass tanks or when there are other animals (ex. cats) present. Since they can drop and regenerate their tails, I believe they do this to distract their predators although I’m not 100% sure. You may also notice tail shaking or rattling. This signifies mating behavior and will be prominent in adults. This is not a sign of aggression.
Hissing or Screaming
Fairly common especially in hatchlings and juvis. This happens usually as you go to touch or handle them. They will let out a hiss while posturing up or even a scream. This is very taxing on their bodies and can lead to further stress. If you notice this, please leave your gecko alone. They may continue to scream even after you put them down or stop touching them which is normal. Others will hiss and gape with their mouths open until you leave their presence.
Sometimes this is reactionary as you may have startled them.
Some geckos will sprint at you with their mouths open. They will run straight at you and even into the glass or plastic tub. This is more of a territorial trait and happens frequently with most reptiles. Charging usually occurs when I put my hand into their enclosure. It’s their way of showing me that they don’t like anything foreign in their home. Again, this is completely normal.
Defensive Stance or Posturing
Basically a leo will flatten or press it’s stomach towards the floor and follow you with laser focus. Their tails will be somewhat raised or even vertical and they may or may not lunge.
This is territorial behavior and usually happens on cleaning day or when you go to remove certain items from their tank.
Caudal Autotomy AKA Tail dropping
Happens under severe cases of stress or trauma. Some leopard geckos will perceive you as such a threat that they must self-amputate their tail to get away. Luckily tails grow back through regeneration and doesn’t really harm the lizards much. If you notice this, leave your pet alone for the next couple of days as this gives them time to recoup.
Can cause stress as they must work hard to rub and scrape off excess skin. New skin will also be sensitive which can easily irritate them. They will usually go off feed during this time which causes hunger. Hungry geckos can mistakenly bite your fingers thinking it’s prey.
Step 1: Building Trust With Your Leopard Gecko
Most hobbyists will have problems with aggression in newly purchased animals or babies. Hatchlings and juvies can be unpredictable and temperamental at times. Tame in my definition consists of a pet that is enjoyable and can tolerate your presence without going crazy or reacting negatively.
To get to this point, it is imperative that you build trust.
- If you have recently brought home a new gecko, remember to allow it to get acclimated to its surroundings. Try to keep handling to a minimum during this stage as they will likely be in shock. I recommend allowing them to explore their new home for a minimum of 1 week before attempting to handle them.
- Be sure to have at least 2 hides in their enclosure. This allows them to feel secure on both ends of the temperature gradient. I made the mistake of providing only one hide spot (hot side) and this made my leo feel extremely vulnerable when it would go towards the cool end of the enclosure.
- Do not move or reach into their enclosure for the first week. If you do need to replace water or food then do so swiftly and quietly. Try not to remove any hides around as this prolongs the acclimation process.
- When changing food bowls, be sure to do it slowly and allow them to see you adding the feeder insects. The more they see doing this, the more they will associate you as being good or non-threatening.
- Lastly, try to leave an article of your clothing in their tank. This helps them sense and smell you without you having to be there physically. I wear a wool or cotton glove that’s tan (skin) colored for about a few minutes and then place that into their tub. This serves two purposes as it resembles my hand in shape and color as well as being small enough to not interfere with their habitat. This method works really well for me and my leos are no longer finicky when I place my hand in their space.
- Execute all of the above for a minimum of 7 to 10 days.
Step 2: Feeding Methods
After the first week to 10 days we can move onto the next process. Remember you want to let your animal see that you are not a threat. They associate food as good and if they see you placing feeder insects in their cages enough times they will naturally begin to tolerate you.
One thing I don’t recommend with aggressive geckos is hand feeding. There’s tons of articles online stating that hand feeding or tong feeding is a good way to build trust but I must disagree. Tongs are usually made of metal and when an overly excited gecko lunges with its soft mouth, it could lead to injury and mouth rot.
Certain morphs like enigmas are notorious for missing their prey and can damage their teeth from accidentally biting the metal tongs.
- A better solution would be to place feeder insects like roaches or mealworms into a feeder bowl and leave your hand in plain sight. Try to keep still and rest your hand during this time and minimize any sudden movements until after your leo is finished eating. I’ve had leos perch on my hand while eating and is definitely a good sign that you’re making progress.
- Never try and shove a feeder bug into their face. Force feeding will also stress them out and they might even go off feed which is another problem in itself.
- Try and use fast moving feeders like Red runner roaches as this will stimulate their feeding response and take their focus off of you or any other perceived threats
- I usually start with placing the bowl fairly close to their hiding spot and each day I will move the bowl a couple inches back. This will force them a little out of their comfort zone but not so much that it’s detrimental.
- Remember to resist any contact or touching during this stage. This is very important as we are trying to recondition their thinking. I once made the mistake of getting too excited and touching my leo only to have him spit out his food running straight back into his hideaway. It was heartbreaking to say the least and I had to essentially restart the cycle.
- Keep these sessions short at no more than 5 minutes a time once or twice a day. Then after one week try to lengthen that time to 7 to 10 minutes once a day for another week. Once you reach 14 days, you should see some improvement in behavior. If not, continue trying for another week otherwise you’re ready to move on to the next step
Final Step: Handling
So you’ve patiently waited for your pet to come around and finally they are showing signs of trusting you. Every personality is different however your leo should be acting for the most part friendlier at this stage.
Maybe some have stopped hissing or biting completely while others are still charging at you but not nearly as much. Some might even let you handle them at this stage.
- I recommend trying to handle in low light or nightly conditions. As stated earlier, they are nocturnal and are much more comfortable during this time.
- If they are hiding or sheltered during the day, I would wait until they are awake and roaming about.
- The last thing you want to do is disturb a sleeping gecko. This will surely shock them and put them into a defensive mood.
- Start by placing feeders in the bowl and allowing them to eat. Once finished, place your palm flat on the ground coercing them to crawl onto your hand.
- If they avoid or try to dodge your hand, you can try gently tapping the tip of their tail which will cause them to dart forward onto your hand.
- Once on your hand, allow them to explore and walk around. If you notice them walking a little to high up towards you elbow, you can place your other hand in front of them to block their path.
- If they get on your hand but immediately jump off, you can raise them up slightly from the ground and it should stop them from climbing off.
- I never try to “pet” my geckos as this symbolizes a predator attacking from above. I always scoop from bottom up as it seems to keep them calm. I will stroke the bottom of their jaw from time to time and which tends to put them to sleep.
- If you follow these steps, you’ll have a leopard gecko that will be happy to see you every time you’re near the enclosure. Mines literally run to the front of the tank when I’m walking by. This is because they associate me as good (food) and no longer a threat.
There you have it guys, I hope this article was helpful in answering some of the questions you had about taming an aggressive leopard gecko. There’s truly nothing more satisfying than transforming a angry hopeless animal into an enjoyable fun loving pet. Cheers!