Handling your gecko allows you to know more about its typical behavior and unusual actions. And oftentimes, you might have already encountered your reptile licking you. What could this possibly mean? Is it telling you, “I love you?”
Leopard and crested geckos use their tongue in smelling to better understand their surroundings. So, when they lick their owners, geckos are either just curious, or reassuring themselves by the familiar scent. This is different when geckos lick their eyes, lips, mouth, nose, or vent.
Stay with us as we know why our leopard and crested geckos lick us!
Before we dive right into the three reasons, let us first have a little Biology discussion of the gecko’s anatomy. In this way, it would help us understand a bit more of this affectionate yet mysterious behavior.
Much like us, licking in geckos apparently involves their tongue. So, let us have a basic understanding of their tongue anatomy.
You may not notice it right away. So, when you get the chance, have a closer look at your gecko’s tongue. And when you do, you will notice that its tongue—may it be a leopard or a crested gecko—is slightly (but not obviously) split into half at the tip.
Geckos make use of their forked tongue in different ways. And the most prominent one is hunting for prey. Aside from its split-tip characteristic, their tongue has other unique features that make it ideal for hunting down prey:
- Made of flexible and elastic muscle fibers
- Ability to elongate and contract back
- Capability to move at a rapid speed
- Has a sticky mucous secretion at the tip
However, you should note that leopard and crested geckos do not utilize their tongue for grabbing prey all the time. And frequently, what you would observe them do is straightforwardly snap their mouth and use their jaw at the intended victim.
Aside from its typical function of prey hunting, a geckos’ tongue has a unique purpose—smelling the surroundings. And together with frequent licking, geckos can learn about their environment.
“Amazing! What makes this possible?” you might ask in disbelief (as I did). The answer to this is the presence of an organ called Jacobson’s organ. Also called the vomeronasal organ, it is an organ strategically located inside the mouth and opening on the palate .
In most animals where this particular organ is absent or significantly underdeveloped, smelling usually takes place in the nose, where air particles are filtered and sifted. But in lizards and snakes where this organ is considerably enhanced, a unique mechanism takes place that rerouted the primary function of smell from their nose to their tongue.
This leads us to wonder then. What are the steps of smelling in geckos?
- Elongation. When it wants to smell the surroundings, a gecko sticks its tongue out to catch odor particles that are moisture-borne.
- Licking. After elongating it, the gecko utilizes its forked tongue to collect moist air particles by flicking. With the split-tip, its tongue has more surface area that is exposed to the particles.
- Contraction. After gathering particles at the tip of their tongue, a gecko returns its tongue inside the mouth.
- Insertion. The forked tips of the gecko’s tongue are then pushed up against the palate, where the two holes of Jacobson’s organ are located.
- Binding. While the forked tips are inserted inside the two pits on the palate, the chemical compounds at the tongue’s tip bind with the receptor rich in nerve cells.
- Transmission. The nerve cells at the receptor fire many signals to the gecko’s brain for communication.
- Interpretation. After fully processing the signals, the gecko’s brain interprets what it has licked.
Three other reasons why geckos use their tongue for smelling are out of curiosity, drinking water, or to reassure themselves.
“Aweee. My gecko definitely loves me because it is licking my hand,” as you often hear or read from other owners. If you believe this, I will have to break your bubble. Your gecko’s licking has nothing to do with its emotion or affection towards you.
So, aside from the many other possibilities, your gecko may have three more other reasons why it licks you or your hand:
Geckos may lick their owner out of curiosity, triggered by the presence of an unusual smell like soap, sanitizer, or the scent left by an object recently handled. And these might have caught its attention. Otherwise, you might have worn a perfume it was not accustomed to, so your gecko licks you to smell this new scent.
Basically, your gecko’s licking can be just for fun as it tries to cure its curious mind about its surroundings. Or, you can also think of this as your pet’s way to get to know you more.
Geckos may lick their owner to drink the water or sweat on the skin. This is similar to how they quench their thirst by licking wet objects around the tank. That is why, as you might have observed, the bowl filled with clean water is left untouched or barely used.
“How does my gecko hydrate itself then?” you may ask. Simple, it licks moist objects around the terrarium to drink. In case you have not noticed this yet, you can check it out after every heavy misting.
So, if you have handled your gecko while your hands are wet or have sweaty skin, it may be licking you to drink the water because it is thirsty.
Most importantly, geckos may lick their owner to reassure themselves that they are in a safe space. And maybe this could be the closest thing you can consider as affection. If you are not aware of this, it associates you to a safe space—knowing it is unharmed with you.
So, the next time you handle your gecko while wearing your usual perfume, you already have an idea what it could mean. And since you are associated with a safe space, it would not try to escape your grasp. Instead, it would tolerate your handling.
Nevertheless, even if you know that licking is not an indication of appreciation, being licked by your gecko, just like in the video below, does make you feel loved after all.
However, always keep in mind not to misinterpret this behavior. Again, your gecko’s licking is in no way a form of affection. After all, current studies have not shown that geckos can form complex capabilities of expressing love or emotions.
While it is true that geckos may lick their owners to cure their curiosity, to drink water, or to reassure themselves, leopard and crested geckos may lick just about anything to look for food, seek a mate, and sense animate objects.
Essentially, the unique and intricate process with Jacobson’s organ is what constitutes smelling in geckos. Apart from their nose, geckos seem to taste their surroundings to sense what is around them. And in different situations, they lick to:
1. Recognize the object. Geckos would lick different objects in the tank to determine whether they are inanimate or not. Once they recognize the object as harmless, they can go about their usual thing. Otherwise, they may run away from it and escape to the nearest hide.
2. Seek a potential mate. Geckos may flick their tongue in the air to detect pheromones released by a potential mate. And if they are legible and a perfect match, they can continue with the mating process.
3. Look for viable food. Geckos lick an object to see if it is food or not. By licking it, they can confirm that what they have smelled (and tasted at the same time) is indeed food and not a threat or just an object.
4. Quench thirst. Just like how geckos would lick you when your skin is wet, they may lick the object as a means of drinking. Because there is no water bowl in their natural habitat, they still have the instinct to drink by licking water droplets on the surface of objects.
5. Out of curiosity. After all, your gecko may just be curious. And it is licking objects in its tank to make sense of its surroundings.
Generally, when leopard and crested geckos lick their owners or objects, does not imply any health issues. However, when they lick any of their body parts, like eyes, lips, mouth, nose, and vent, this might be an early sign of a problem.
As a result, it is vital for you as an owner to monitor your gecko when you observe atypical behaviors like licking its body parts. In this manner, you can act as soon as possible to prevent worse-case scenarios.
However, you must take note that you must act with a proper treatment plan when possible since visiting your pet’s veterinarian must always be done!
The thought of touching your eyeballs already hurt so much. What more if you thoroughly lick an eye all the way, just like in the video below?
The whole thought could be painful and unimaginable! But after owning a crested gecko, you would frequently see it do so just fine! In fact, crested geckos have to do it.
Crested geckos lick their eyes to moisten its eyes and remove dust, debris, and other smaller particles that get stuck along the way.
Ironically, if you do not observe your crested gecko lick either of its eyes, you have to seek veterinary help as it is not normal behavior. And stress or other underlying health issues may need to be addressed.
Eye licking is not a common behavior in leopard geckos. This is often triggered by the presence of stuck dust and debris.
According to a study by a group of scientists, they found out that leopard geckos fundamentally use their tongue to capture prey and ingest it. This is entirely irrelevant and unrelated to eye cleaning usual in other gecko species .
As a result, when you see your leopard gecko lick its eyes, you may need to observe it for other visible signs like inflammation and redness to rule out any infections. Otherwise, you need to have a veterinary appointment.
Have you noticed your gecko doing lip-licking just like in the video below?
You may have thought of it as normal behavior, much like how you lick your lips after a savory meal. This is true, though. Lip-licking in leopard and crested geckos could be typical to an extent. And it may mean no harm.
When leopard and crested geckos lick their lips, this behavior is often indicative of health problems like abscesses and mouth rot. As an owner, you should take heed of any unusual signs in your gecko, such as:
- Lack of appetite
- Lack of water intake
- Red gums and oral tissues
- Swollen gums and oral tissues
Since abscesses and mouth rot are painful, they hinder your gecko from eating and drinking water. So, you should also watch out for weight changes . And immediately get veterinary help.
When your gecko licks its mouth, this may mean nothing or something.
When you have recently fed your leopard or crested gecko, it could be licking off any food remains from its mouth. And this is totally normal. You do this to taste your food, too, right?
On the other hand, when a leopard or crested gecko licks its mouth, it could indicate that it has a metabolic bone disease.
However, you can confirm this if your gecko licks its mouth together with an inability to hold food. Together, the two are symptoms of a weak jaw, resulting from a reptile metabolic bone disease (MBD).
Apart from a weak jaw, MBD would usually result in a sponge-like jaw or rubbery bones. Mild cases can be corrected by correcting husbandry and fixing the gecko’s diet. However, severe cases need immediate veterinary intervention .
Whenever you handle your gecko, it would be completely normal to observe it lick its nose like in the video below.
Leopard and crested geckos may lick their nose to relieve a small scab from cricket bites or remove sheds in the area. So, it could be a typical behavior, especially after many crickets were let loose or during shedding season.
Sometimes, licking of the nose in leopard and crested geckos can result from a sore or scraped nose. In an attempt to remove a stuck shed near their nose, they may rub the nose area on hard surfaces—like a hammock or wood—too much, leading to a sore or scraped nose.
So, in an effort to subdue the pain, geckos may excessively lick the sore or scraped area around the nose. And they may need your mediation. Thus, you can do the following steps to help them:
- Invest in a reptile wound and skin solution like Betadine.
- Follow correctly the care instructions that come with the bottle.
- Reapply as needed, especially when your gecko continues to lick the area.
- Make sure your gecko eats and drinks appropriately to dilute ingested Betadine.
- Apply only the correct amount as required.
This may look and sound gross (yet hilarious) to you. But leopard and crested geckos occasionally lick their vent like in the video below!
Leopard and crested geckos lick their vent for a variety of reasons. And most of which are not to be excessively worried about. But the owner should still take possible countermeasures when necessary.
1. Cleaning. Even if they were not defecating, geckos just like to keep themselves clean. As a result, you would see them licking their vents as naturally clean animals.
2. Laying eggs. Female geckos are also observed to lick their vent before laying their eggs. And some owners have noted liquid discharges prior to laying. This could be the reason why females lick the area to keep it clean.
3. Marking territory. Geckos mark their territories using a waxy liquid excreted from their femoral pores. So, to clear off any traces of the secretion, they would lick their vent clean.
4. Mating behavior. A lot of owners have observed their geckos lick the vent area after mating. This behavior could just be part of cleaning themselves after having fun.
5. Passing stool. Like washing our hands after defecating, geckos also like to clean their vent after a bowel movement. So, they lick their vent.
6. Removing plugs. During the breeding season, male geckos secrete waxy seminal fluid. Without a mate, this could harden and build up into plugs that block the vent. And licking the vent is a way for the males to remove this.
7. Shedding skin. Just like licking the nose area for a stuck shed, geckos may also lick their vent. Not only those two areas but all the other parts of their body as well. They do it to get rid of all their shed.
Although there are a lot of reasons why they lick the vent area, leopard and crested geckos could be licking it as a sign of health issues that must be addressed.
Some of the possible health problems underlying the vent-licking behavior of your gecko are:
1. Constipation. When passing a stool after constipation, your gecko’s vent could become irritated. And to soothe the pain, your gecko could lick the area. If constipation persists after remediating, it is better to have a professional examine your pet.
2. Impaction. Much like constipation, impaction can cause discomfort in your gecko’s vent. When a mass plugs its digestive system, painful swelling can occur in the vent area. And frequently, your gecko licks it to find relief.
3.Infections. Especially when the licking comes with other signs like redness, swelling, irritation, and lethargy, it could mean that your gecko is suffering from an infection. So, prompt and proper care must be provided.
4.Parasites. Similar to infections, the presence of parasites may cause your gecko to lick the vent. Accompanied by other signs, it is a cause that must concern you. And to confirm this, you need your gecko to undergo a fecal analysis for correct treatment.
Just like snakes, leopard and crested geckos have an enhanced Jacobson’s organ that plays a significant role in their sense of smell.
Leopard and crested geckos may lick you because of three reasons: 1) curiosity, 2) hydration, and 3) reassurance.
Not only do leopard and crested geckos lick you, but also all objects inside their tank. And they mainly do this action for several reasons: learning, hydrating, hunting, mating, and out of curiosity.
Leopard and crested geckos would also lick different parts of their body like eyes, lips, mouth, nose, and vent. This behavior is often nothing to be worried about, but there are instances when this should cause alarm.