Honestly, I don’t find it surprising that gecko owners regularly give their scaly babies a good back rub or head pat. For me, it’s totally normal to want to give our lovely animal companions a good petting. So is it okay for reptile owners to continue petting their geckos?
In general, many herpetologists and gecko owners believe that geckos enjoy petting and similar gentle touches. However, experts also stress that geckos have individual preferences. Some geckos enjoy it while others do not. Such preferences can be understood by observing a gecko’s reaction to being petted.
As more and more years pass, a lot of pet parents realize that there’s a lot more to geckos than we give them credit for. Despite their infamy for being cold-blooded reptiles, geckos aren’t actually as cold-hearted as many people think!
Do Geckos Enjoy Getting Petted?
Overall, it is unclear whether geckos like getting petted or not. No experts and no study clearly support and/or disprove such claims. However, many gecko keepers and experts believe that geckos do indeed enjoy getting gently pet to some extent.
Quite frankly, this topic is still widely considered controversial. We don’t have a clear answer for it. For my geckos, I got mixed reactions. Some liked it, others did not. (Thinking about you snowball!) Among fellow gecko parents, I’ve gotten mixed replies too.
It is also possible that geckos simply have individual differences in terms of getting petted. Similar to humans, some geckos may simply be more touchy-feely than others. Other experts also think that this is the most plausible answer .
It would also be interesting to see if specific kinds of touch can generate different reactions. Will gentle pets and pats elicit different responses compared to slow strokes, scratches, and rubs? Hopefully, we’ll find out soon.
But for now, let’s look at the theories researchers, keepers, and breeders have to explain whether geckos like or dislike being petted.
5 Reasons Why Your Geckos Like Getting Petted
There are 5 factors that could explain why some geckos appear to like being pet by their owners: 1) heat source, 2) tactile pleasure, 3) reward association, 4) familiar presence, and 5) mating behavior.
However, keep in mind that these are the only theories available at the time of writing this article. Scientists would need to conduct detailed studies for us to know if these truly are accurate.
1. Heat Source
Most geckos generally enjoy being gently pet by their owners due to how warm human bodies naturally are. Humans normally have body temperatures of 97.7–99.5°F (36.5–37.5°C). Thus, keepers and breeders serve as good external heat sources for geckos, which are ectothermic animals.
Being cold-blooded, geckos rely greatly on their environment to maintain their optimal and/or preferred body temperature. As such, geckos recognize humans as a good external heat source—especially when they are not in their tanks.
On average, geckos also prioritize finding good sources of heat and conserving body warmth over foraging for insects . This is probably because they would virtually be rendered immobile if they choose to sacrifice warmth for anything else. We could attribute this to their survival instinct.
Learn more about the importance of heat for ectothermic animals in our article on why geckos feel cold.
Keeping Geckos Warm: Body Heat vs Heat Lamp
Seeing as the human body produces heat, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we can also radiate it! So yes, we’re kind of like big fleshy hot water bottles to our scaly babies.
Human bodies can emit infrared radiation (essentially heat!) that geckos can use to keep themselves warm . But it’s important to remember that we are not heat lamps.
The warmth we can provide for our geckos with our body is more similar to a heat mat. Meaning: we can’t keep geckos significantly warm with just handling and petting. We can’t control our temperature either, even if we try to connect ourselves to a thermostat (here on Spyder Robotics).
Reminder: If you want to take your gecko out for a good petting session, keep it short—no longer than 20 minutes. Make sure to wash your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 full seconds before and after as well.
2. Tactile Pleasure
Geckos and other lizards have displayed overt signs of pleasure when being slowly and gently petted by their owners and other familiar people.
In connection with the earlier section, it seems that geckos appreciate the sensory pleasure that comes with slow and gentle petting, rubbing, or scratching . But this is only when they recognize the person touching them and know that the individual is not a potential threat to their lives.
One of the main clues you should look out for when petting geckos is their body language. For example, leaning into your touch is vastly different from them arching their back against it. The former is a good sign while the latter is not—more on this later!
Besides being comfortable due to the warmth of our touch, they may like the tactile sensation of petting as well. It may also be a way for them to relieve some sort of discomfort, like say, an itch they can’t scratch on their own.
Others also point out that we may actually be helping them with grooming when we pat and stroke their bodies. I have also heard of stories where fat-tailed geckos (Hemitheconyx caudicinctus) fall asleep after being petted by their keepers in just a few minutes, so they could see petting as a soothing sensation.
3. Reward Association
A gecko that has associated any type of positive reinforcement (e.g., treat) with petting is likely to develop a pleasure from the contact.
This kind of association takes a lot of time and effort from the side of the gecko owner. I know this from personal experience and from stories my friends in the reptile community have shared with me.
How exactly should this be done? Well, there are multiple ways one can go about completing the association between rewards and petting through training. However, you will need to be patient for this to work. Let me share with you how one of my friends went about it.
Warning: Only try doing this with your gecko once it has been completely acclimated to its tank and surrounding, and if it is already familiar with you.
Training, Petting, and Geckos: Positive Associations
A friend and fellow keeper of mine successfully trained one of his leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius) to stay on a specific slate tile by the warm side of its enclosure if it wanted to be petted.
Find out what other things you can train your gecko to do in our article on training geckos.
During the times his gecko went to that spot, he would slowly open the enclosure, then softly pet the leo on its head twice. After that, he would intermittently give it treats after petting—more regularly at the beginning. He then stopped giving any waxworms for about a week or so. But even then, his gecko would still go to that spot and let him pet it.
When I asked him about how he came up with the idea, he told me he read about another reptile owner doing something similar with their bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps).
4. Familiar Presence
When geckos are highly familiar with their caretakers, they are not only capable of feeling safe in their presence but also enjoy their touch (e.g., getting petted, stroked).
As briefly mentioned in prior sections, once a gecko realizes that you are not a threat it will feel more comfortable and secure in your hands. This is especially true if your gecko is already accustomed to your voice, scent, and movements.
Plus, geckos which have been regularly handled by their owners form stronger bonds with each other.
Learn more about how to do it properly in our article on handling geckos.
Honestly, we still have much to learn about how their mind works and the possible effects of captivity on their social behavior. But I do think they may enjoy our touch because they know that we are always thinking of their well-being.
I mean, it’s not that different from how our ancestors were able to domesticate not only pets—like cats and dogs—but other wild animals too, including goats and horses.
Maybe in a couple more decades, gecko owners and breeders will finally be able to see geckos and other reptiles grow increasingly social and comfortable with human interactions! Wouldn’t that be amazing?
5. Mating Behavior
Geckos also associate physical touch with breeding. So if a gecko acts responsively to its owner’s hand while being petted, it may mistake such direct contact for mating.
Full disclosure, I only found out about this quite recently. Thinking back to the unbelievable stories about geckos trying to mate with their owner’s hands, things make a lot more sense now. Geckos not only use calls but also touch to communicate with each other!
Nudging or bumping into each other are some of the common physical contact observed in geckos during courtship. These two are also quite similar to how most gecko keepers and breeders pet their scaly babies.
A friend of mine for example has had both his male crested geckos (Correlophus ciliatus) attempt to mate with his hands. Usually, it would only happen after he petted his geckos during the breeding season. His male crestie would even nip at his fingers as though it was the back of a female’s neck.
4 Reasons Why Your Geckos Don’t Like Getting Petted
Some keepers and breeders believe that geckos do not like being touched or getting petted at all. They typically provide 5 reasons as to why geckos dislike petting: 1) weird sensation, 2) skin sensitivity, 3) unwanted attention, and 4) survival instinct.
Other breeders and keepers view geckos, and most reptiles, as “display” pets only. This means they believe that pet owners should not pet their geckos. They also argue that geckos likely only tolerate human touch, if anything at all.
1. Weird Sensation
Geckos have only been kept in captivity as pets for a couple of years, so it is unlikely for them to enjoy being petted. Rather, they view such contact and the sensation that comes with it as abnormal.
Unlike cats and dogs that have been domesticated thousands of years ago, geckos and reptiles, in general, are not largely familiar to humans and our touch until now. Human touch is still highly foreign to these beautiful animals, even if they are no longer in the wild.
Let’s put things into perspective. Geckos normally live away from large populations of humans. We rarely ever crossed their parts in their native habitats unless we intentionally seek them out or venture out into nature.
Even in instances where we come across wild geckos, our normal reaction is to generally stay away and avoid disturbing them. It’s not like geckos regularly go and seek physical contact from other geckos either.
2. Skin Sensitivity
A gecko that is shedding its skin or has a skin injury will not like being petted because its skin is sensitive. This is more of a fact than an opinion. Geckos in the process of molting will not enjoy petting even if they normally enjoy being petted.
So if your gecko has just finished or is in the middle of shedding skin, refrain from handling it too much and touching it in general. During these times, even giving your gecko a very gentle scratch could be very uncomfortable and even painful.
More importantly, petting shedding geckos excessively could result in injuries and other shedding problems.
Also, an injured gecko, like any other animal, will be a lot more vigilant than normal because it is more vulnerable to possible threats—which sadly include you.
When you stubbornly continue bothering a sick and sensitive gecko, don’t be surprised if it lashes out at you. Think about it. If you were in a similar situation you probably wouldn’t be happy either.
3. Unwanted Attention
Most geckos species are regarded as solitary animals so they naturally do not view physical contact (e.g., petting, stroking) positively. Furthermore, it is not an action they would normally perform or receive in nature.
Although a few species of geckos live in loose colonies in the wild, they don’t do so while seeking contact with their fellow geckos. They won’t actively approach others to get a good head pat or a soothing stroke. Geckos aren’t that affectionate like our clingy fur babies.
In reality, they only live in groups due to the lack of good refuge and foraging sites in the area, among other things. Even in such cases, fights are a common sight as well.
Plus, keep in mind that geckos are highly private animals . This is why cohabbing is generally discouraged. They need time and space away from our prying eyes and disturbing hands. Privacy is also essential for geckos to stay safe and alive.
If you keep trying to pet a gecko despite it not wanting your attention, chances are it will just keep itself hidden to escape from your touch. This is something you should avoid. A gecko that’s stressed and scared will stop eating and going out if you don’t stop invading its privacy.
4. Survival Instinct
Geckos are still considered wild animals, this means that direct physical contact (i.e., petting) will trigger their survival instincts. A gecko may misinterpret being petted as a potential threat. As a result, geckos will likely view petting as a negative experience.
A gecko wouldn’t normally approach another gecko, regardless of its sex, just for direct physical contact. Of course, courtship behaviors are an exemption to this rule.
If they ever do get physical with other geckos, it’s usually a bad thing. The next thing you know, they’ll be trying to get a good bite out of each other. So if you do try to pet a gecko that’s already displaying signs of hostility, you could get a nasty hand wound.
Petting Can Be a Sign of Danger for Geckos
This is especially true for wild-caught geckos and rescues that have had very bad experiences with humans. Since most—if not all—of their interactions with humans have been negative, they will see us as a threat.
However, if you do your best and patiently provide these geckos with positive experiences (e.g., feeding, heating, etc.), you will be able to hand-tame them and get them used to being petted. I have seen multiple cases like this so don’t lose hope!
Petting a Gecko Will Trigger Its Flight or Fight Response
Exotic pets like geckos have only been selectively bred for a few years, so much of their behavior and personality are similar to those of wild specimens .
As you may have noticed, this last point is closely related to the previous 4 reasons. This is also the most common argument pointed out by people who believe that it is impossible for geckos to like and enjoy being petted by their owners.
But this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to have geckos that are much more friendly and accustomed to humans.
Geckos can either like or dislike being petted. No two geckos are exactly the same. This applies to their response toward being touched as well.
A gecko that likes being petted will display the following positive reactions:
- Chirping/mating calls
- Slow tongue flicking/licking
- Normal breathing
- Closed mouth (completely or mostly)
- Normal heart rate
- Relaxed muscles
- Comfortably stretching out its body
- Leaning into the owner
- Approaching the owner calmly
- Staying in the owner’s line of sight
- Tail shaking/vibrating
A gecko that dislikes being petted will display the following negative reactions:
- Head bobbing
- Screaming or hissing
- Quick tongue flicking/licking
- Rapid breathing or breath-holding
- Snout rubbing
- Open/gaping mouth
- Trying to bite/strike
- Elevated/erratic heart rate
- Tensed muscles
- Back/body arching
- Enlarging or flattening its body
- Becoming limp or faking death
- Freezing up/going catatonic
- Hiding or evading the owner
- Erratic/jerky movements
- Over-reactivity to other stimuli
- Running from the owner
- Jumping away
- Tail wagging/whipping
- Raising tail stiffly
- Tail dropping
If your gecko does any of the negative reactions I mentioned above, leave it alone immediately. Doing otherwise will stress out your precious gecko.
Last but not that least, know that geckos can also show no reaction to being touched at all. They may simply stay in the same position without doing anything else.
Selective breeding for coloration—also referred to as morph—has also resulted in unexpected effects on gecko temperament. So it’s possible to breed geckos that are specifically responsive to being petted.
For example, Blazing Blizzards (BB) were known for being a particularly aggressive morph for leopard geckos years ago.
Now, does this mean that all Blazing Blizzards are super aggressive? The answer is no. It just so happened that many keepers and breeders had BB leos that were more aggressive than normal.
Nevertheless, breeders can definitely produce more friendly and touch-receptive geckos in the future. They just need to focus on those specific traits and not physical attributes like colors and patterns.
Do geckos like to cuddle together?
No geckos do not cuddle together. When owners say their geckos are cuddling each other, the more dominant and aggressive gecko is simply laying on top of the weaker one as a sign of dominance.
Which parts of a gecko are safe to pet?
Any part of the gecko, except for its tail, is generally safe for petting. But it’s better to let them see your hands as it comes rather than pet them from the back or above. Furthermore, geckos seem to have individual preferences when it comes to what part of their bodies they are comfortable with getting touched.
Can a gecko’s reaction to petting change?
Geckos that once showed positive reactions to being pet can suddenly respond negatively to touch—and vice versa. Common causes for such changes in behavior can be attributed to aging, breeding season, past experiences with humans, overall health, and other factors.
When can you start petting a gecko?
You should only pet your gecko once it’s been successfully hand-tamed. In other words, it is only advisable to start giving your geckos head pats, chin rubs, and neck strokes after at least 1 month from when you first got it. By this time, your gecko should be familiar with your scent and presence. Rescue geckos are likely to need more time.
Are geckos friendly enough to be kept as a kid’s pet?
Not all gecko species are friendly enough to be kept as a kid’s pet. Tokay geckos, in particular, are infamous for being incredibly difficult to handle. This includes captive-bred specimens. Compared to more common pet species like leopard and crested geckos, tokays are far more aggressive.
Is it possible to completely domesticate geckos?
Although many commonly kept gecko species like leopard and crested geckos are known to be docile, they are still not universally considered domesticated animals. Nevertheless, there’s a possibility of them becoming domesticated, like dogs and cats, after several decades of selective breeding.
What is the effect of petting on geckos?
Contrary to popular belief, petting doesn’t elicit happiness in geckos. This is despite all the smiling gecko pictures owners share on the internet. Nevertheless, it is a good method for strengthening the bond between geckos and their owners.
Summary of Pets, Scratches, Touches: Do Geckos Like Them?
Based on various anecdotes and observations of reptile owners and herpetologists, geckos are capable of enjoying direct physical touch (i.e., being petted) by their owners. However, it is also possible for some geckos to dislike being patted, rubbed, stroked, or scratched.
Geckos that like to be petted by their owners will respond positively, in a relaxed and comfortable manner. In comparison, a gecko that dislikes being touched will generally respond by freezing, fleeing, or fighting.