Leopard geckos: they’re small, docile, and incredibly cute. Their size and relative ease of care make them a great pet for new reptile owners.
It’s even cuter when they stick out their little pink tongues to taste the air, drink water, or lick their lips.
It’s adorable, but why do they do it?
Leopard geckos lick their lips to get more information about their environment, for tracking prey, or if they sense a mate nearby. They will also lick their lips when self-grooming or to loosen old skin around their mouths when shedding. You rarely need to worry about it unless your gecko is licking their lips excessively.
With so many possible explanations of why your leopard gecko is licking their lips, it can be a little overwhelming trying to figure out the behavior’s cause. By taking into account your gecko’s surroundings and current activities, you can begin to understand what they are doing and why.
With that in mind, let’s begin our exploration of leo lip licking!
Reason 1: Getting Information About Their Environment
Maybe you’ve just gotten your leopard gecko, or perhaps you’ve recently made some changes to their habitat, whether it be adding a new hide or moving the enclosure to a different room. Maybe you’ve just taken out your scaly little friend for some socialization or exploring.
That little pink tongue keeps coming out, flicking the air and then gliding across the lips. What’s going on?
Don’t worry, this behavior is perfectly normal!
Pet leopard geckos are often seen licking their lips when in a new environment or when something in their habitat has changed.
How does licking their lips help leopard geckos learn about their environment?
To answer this question, we have to understand a little bit about gecko anatomy.
Many animal species, from cats to snakes and from elephants to leopard geckos, have a little patch of sensory cells near the nasal cavity called a Jacobson’s organ. This organ helps the animal “taste the air” and sense all of the little particles, like odors or pheromones, that tell them about their environment.
In most animals with a Jacobson’s organ, tiny ducts connect it to the nasal cavity. In lizards and snakes, however, the organ opens directly into the roof of the mouth.
Leopard geckos use their tongues to transport odor particles from the air to the Jacobson’s organ, enabling them to get a better sense of their surroundings.
Licking their lips helps leopard geckos taste particles that are in the air or that have landed on their lips, helping them to understand their environment a little bit more!
Reason 2: Sensing A Mate
As we have just learned, leopard geckos lick their lips to learn more about their environment – including the presence of potential mates!
Like many other creatures (including humans!) both male and female leopard geckos emit pheromones, chemical signals that are released by an individual to communicate with other members of their species. Pheromones can reveal lots of different information about an animal, such as their readiness to mate.
Research has shown that both male and female leopard geckos lick their lips more frequently when in the presence of the opposite sex.
Female leopard geckos lick their lips more often in the presence of male geckos than when around other females and vice versa.
So, if you are keeping male and female leopard geckos together to breed – which is not recommended for the inexperienced gecko owner – lip licking simply means that they are trying to learn more about each other!
Reason 3: Tracking Prey
If you’re like most leopard gecko owners, you’ve watched your leo skillfully hunt and pounce on an unsuspecting insect. Leopard geckos also lick their lips more frequently when they catch a whiff of their prey, like a delicious cricket!
To learn more about the relationship between lip licking and prey, investigators that performed a study published in the Journal of Herpetology swiped two different cotton swabs across geckos’ lips. One swab had been moistened with distilled water, while the other had been rubbed on a live cricket.
Leopard geckos licked their lips many more times when exposed to the cricket scent than the distilled water swab.
The study suggests that lip licking plays an important role in leopard geckos’ ability to sense prey.
Your leopard gecko may also lick their lips when you approach around feeding time, before you even give them their meal! This simply means that your pet associates you with food, and they’re expecting to see some tasty bugs soon.
Reason 4: Grooming
Lip licking refers to when a gecko slides the tip of their tongue across the lips or surrounding area, and one of the most common reasons leopard geckos lick their lips is to keep themselves clean!
Leopard geckos have been observed to lick their lips the most right after they have swallowed, and research has suggested that it serves a grooming function.
While it may look like they are trying to get every last morsel of yummy food, it is more likely that they are trying to get rid of any lingering scents of cricket or mealworm that may be clinging to their lips to avoid attracting predators.
You can clearly see that the gecko in this video had a yummy meal!
Sometimes leopard geckos get little pieces of substrate stuck to their faces and will use their tongues to lick it away. This can lead to your pet accidentally eating pieces of substrate, so make sure that the substrate your leo lives on is appropriate for their age and species.
Reason 5: Shedding
Another common reason that leopard geckos lick their lips is that they are in the process of shedding and are trying to loosen the skin on their faces so that it will come off more easily.
Juvenile leopard geckos shed 2-4 times a month while adults shed every month or every other month. That’s a lot of shedding!
When leopard geckos – and other reptiles – are preparing to shed, their skin appears paler than normal. This is because of lymphatic fluid that is secreted between the two layers of skin. The added moisture helps the old skin come off more easily.
The fluid dries quickly once exposed to air, so sometimes leopard geckos need to add a little bit more moisture. Licking their lips enables them to add moisture to the skin around their mouth, helping with the shedding process.
If your leopard gecko seems to be really struggling to remove their old skin, you can help by giving them a warm soak, ensuring they have an adequate humid hide, or by using a shedding aid.
It Probably Isn’t Fear
Some animals, like dogs, lick their lips to show that they are feeling anxious. A dog might lick its lips to show another dog – or even a human – that it isn’t a threat. Dogs and cats also lick their lips when they are feeling nervous, like when they are going to the vet.
While lip licking can be a sign of submission in other animals, leopard geckos do not have obvious submission signals. They are likely to simply avoid the dominant gecko, perhaps giving up their usual sleeping spot or allowing the bully to eat first.
If you are cohabitating geckos and notice one is losing weight or exhibiting signs of stress, separate them immediately.
My Leopard Gecko Is Licking Their Lips. Should I be Worried?
As you have read, leopard geckos lick their lips for several different reasons. Lip licking is a totally natural behavior, and most of the time, you shouldn’t be worried.
However, if your gecko is licking their lips excessively, it could be a sign of a health condition that requires a vet visit.
Metabolic Bone Disease
Metabolic bone disease is an ailment affecting the skeletal system. It is commonly caused by mineral imbalances. If your leo is not getting enough calcium or vitamin D3, or too much phosphorus, it can lead to softening of the bones. MBD can also be caused by inadequate UVB lighting.
Why would MBD cause your leopard gecko to lick their lips?
MBD causes softening of the bones, including the jaw. With a soft jaw, your gecko will have a hard time chewing, leading to an increased amount of lip licking as your gecko struggles to eat.
Excessive lip licking should be cause for concern if it is accompanied by any of the following symptoms: lethargy, abnormal gait, misshapen jaw or limbs, fractures, twitching muscles, or lack of appetite.
Early MBD can sometimes be treated with changes in diet and husbandry. Contact your veterinarian if you notice the symptoms above!
Excessive licking of the lips can also be a sign of mouth rot. Also known as infectious stomatitis, mouth rot is a bacterial infection of the mouth that can be caused by stress, poor nutrition, high humidity, improper temperature, or a dirty cage that allows bad bacteria to fester.
Mouth rot is a painful condition that could lead to your gecko licking their lips more often in an attempt to alleviate discomfort.
Fortunately, mouth rot is pretty easy to identify. Be on the lookout for swelling or inflammation of your gecko’s mouth, pus, bleeding gums, darkened teeth, loss of appetite, drooling, or your gecko eating with only one side of their mouth.
If left untreated, mouth rot can spread to other areas of your leopard gecko’s body and cause additional problems. If you suspect your lizard may be suffering from this infection, consult your veterinarian.
As we have learned, there are a lot of reasons why your leopard gecko might be licking their lips. Reptiles behave differently from many other pets you may have owned in the past, and figuring out their behavior can be difficult!
However, by considering what is going on in your lizard’s environment and what it is doing, you can decipher the meaning of why it’s licking their lips. It is a natural, normal behavior, and it is usually no cause for alarm.
As with any pet, it is important to understand your leopard gecko’s various behaviors so that you know when all is well with your scaly friend, or if it is stressed, sick, or unhappy.
Understanding your leo’s language is a critical step toward good husbandry and a happy gecko!