I’ve received several emails from pet owners asking about why their leopard geckos are hiccuping. It’s very important to identify why your leopard gecko appears to be hiccuping, as it can suggest something serious is going on with your pet reptile.
Leopard geckos cannot hiccup. Hiccups are caused by the diaphragm contracting. Leopard geckos do not have a diaphragm, so hiccuping is impossible. If it appears that your leopard gecko is hiccuping, it can suggest a respiratory infection, digestion issues, head bobbing, or metabolic bone disease.
But why exactly does your leopard gecko appear to be hiccuping? And what can you do about it if it’s serious? Read on to find out and save your leopard gecko buddy.
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Why Your Leopard Gecko Appears to be Hiccuping
Hiccuping is seen in most larger animals. Sometimes, it’s perfectly healthy behavior, though annoying! Other times, it’s indicative of an illness.
In leopard geckos, it’s not possible for them to hiccup as they don’t have the anatomy for it because they lack the diaphragm which causes hiccuping in other animals.
However, other behaviors can look like hiccuping, and several of these can be life-threatening.
Let’s take a look at each and how you can identify and, hopefully, rectify the issue before it’s too late.
Respiratory diseases can cause behaviour that looks like hiccuping, including mouth movements and sudden inhalation. Luckily, there are other signs of respiratory infection in leopard geckos that can help you to identify whether this is the problem.
- Breathing with mouth open
- Fast breathing
- Loss of appetite
- Discharge around the mouth and/or nose
- Wheezing sound
The problem with respiratory conditions in leopard geckos is that the pathological trajectory of each infection is slightly different. This means that symptoms vary widely, and in many cases, only one or two symptoms will appear at the same time until the illness has progressed substantially.
Respiratory infections often require antibiotics from a trained vet.
If a leopard gecko is healthy, it will shed its skin quite easily. Sometimes, the shed can go wrong due to underlying health issues. This can result in patches of old skin being difficult to remove for your pet, or even the skin sticking to your gecko’s toes and other extremities.
In some instances, your gecko might jerk around suddenly, trying to remove the shedding skin. Occasionally, this can look like hiccuping, with a sudden, sharp movement.
Look for evidence of shedding, especially around the abdomen and neck, as this can cause these movements through irritation.
Overheating & Dehydration
Leopard geckos will sometimes pant if they are either dehydrated or overheating. Both of these problems often appear side by side.
Panting will involve quick inhalations, which in some circumstances, can appear a bit like hiccups.
Other signs of dehydration include:
- Wrinkled skin
- Reduction in body mass
- Sticky mouth
- Loss of skin elasticity
- Dry eyes
- Sunken eyes
Overheating also has many of the symptoms of dehydration, as they are linked. However, you may notice more dried-out, sagging skin, and unhealthy skin shedding.
It’s important to know how to keep your leopard gecko hydrated and to maintain a healthy temperature of 25 to 32 degrees Celsius (7 – 90 F), with the hotter side of the tank between 29 and 32 degrees Celsius (85 – 90 F).
Studies are showing that the way a leopard gecko regulates its temperature is more complicated than once thought and that how they deal with heat during the day affects their health during twilight and nighttime.
Temperature issues can have lasting effects regardless of the time of day you are simulating. Makes sure you have the right temperature settings.
And give them plenty of water and hides where they can cool down and avoid the heat when needed!
There are two types of digestion problems that can look a bit like hiccuping occasionally:
- Impaction: Where your gecko moves suddenly due to feeling pain or discomfort because their digestive system isn’t moving as it should. This is usually caused by impacted food or other materials blocking their digestive tract.
- Over Eating: Your leopard gecko has eaten food that’s on the larger side. This can result in sharp movements as it tries to digest what it’s just eaten.
Telling the difference between these can be difficult, but impaction tends to last a lot longer. If the head movements disappear over the course of a few hours and don’t return, it’s probably just due to overeating.
If it is impaction, you’ll need to take the animal to a vet, as this can be fatal over time.
If a leopard gecko feels unsafe or stressed, it can start to display head bobbing. This behavior can look like a hiccup but is something that needs to be addressed right away.
Stressing in leopard geckos can be caused by:
- Poor enclosure
- Incorrect temperature and/or humidity
- The Presence of other animals
- Not enough hides
- Moving to a new enclosure
- Parasites such as cryptosporidium can also put a gecko under tremendous stress.
The key here is to remove the stressor. In some cases, it just means tweaking how you take care of your pet.
Metabolic Bones Disease
The dreaded MBD! It’s sometimes the result of poor nutrition and husbandry, but even in ideal scenarios, leopard geckos can sometimes develop this condition.
MBD causes malformations and the weakening of bones.
This can sometimes happen in and around the face, especially the jaw. When this does sadly occur, it can look unusual and can be interpreted as a hiccup, when really it’s to do with the softening of the bone due to a calcium deficiency and the animal being in discomfort.
Anything that affects the skeletal structure of the face can cause your leopard gecko to move its head and mouth around in sudden motions.
This can look eerily like a hiccup. While this can be caused by parasites, falls, scrapes, congenital deformities, and other non-life-threatening conditions, MBD is often the culprit.
MBD is serious, but if you catch it early enough, you can learn how to treat metabolic bone disease in leopard geckos and save your pet.
Why Leopard Geckos Can’t Hiccup
You might be saying, “no, it’s definitely hiccups” but to reassure you that hiccups aren’t possible in leopard geckos, let’s briefly explore why.
We share many things in common with reptiles, but hiccups isn’t one of them. There’s good and bad in that, as hiccups are helpful in some animals.
It’s all made possible due to the thoracic diaphragm you have but leopard geckos do not.
The diaphragm is essentially an internal muscle inside of your ribcage that separates your heart and lungs from your abdominal cavity.
When this muscle contracts, it pulls the lungs open, making it an essential muscle for respiration, in animals that have it, at least.
Of course, hiccuping can be very annoying, but what allows hiccuping to happen might just save your life, giving you an advantage over your reptile pet as they can help you breathe when upside down and under environmental stress.
It’s one of the reasons leopard geckos get stressed when on their backs. They can’t breathe as easily because they lack a diaphragm.
What to do if Your Leopard Gecko is Hiccuping
Because hiccuping behavior could be something serious, it’s best to take your leopard gecko to a vet who has experience with reptiles. That being said, there are four steps you can take immediately to try and solve the problem.
1. Evaluate Enclosure
Your leopard gecko’s enclosure is its home. But it’s also the first thing you should look at if your pet shows signs of hiccuping because it can often be the culprit.
If you are using a substrate, make sure that it can’t cause serious complications if swallowed, such as sand, crushed walnut shells, bark, or most sharp materials.
Stick to the best substrates for leopard geckos such as soil, large pebbles, or even tiles. Make sure there is a temperature gradient in the tank, places to hide, and that the enclosure is the right size.
2. Reset Temperature and Humidity
Your tank temperature and humidity settings can cause carnage for a leopard gecko if set incorrectly. This can result eventually in panting and even seizures, which can be mistaken for hiccups.
Check that the temperature is 77-90 degrees (25-32 degrees Celsius) and the humidity is between 30% to 40% as recommended by groups like the RSPCA.
And don’t forget to make sure you have the right temperatures at night, too!
3. Assess Stressors
Leopard geckos are easily affected by stressors in their environments.
If you are keeping your geckos with other reptiles in the same enclosure, this can often cause stress for your pets.
Busy environments outside of your enclosure, loud noises, and overhandling can also cause stress.
Check out our 11 things that can stress your leopard gecko article for more info.
4. Improve Nutrition
Vets clearly advise that malnutrition in reptiles is a huge contributor to illness and poor outcomes.
It’s essential to know what’s the best leopard gecko diet to avoid these risks. Some of which, can result in hiccuping behavior.
As you can see, leopard geckos can exhibit behavior similar to hiccuping, but it normally indicates something that you’ll need to investigate.
It’s always a great idea to consult a vet, and you can peruse all of our leopard gecko articles to help answer almost any question you can think of when taking care of your reptile buddy.