If you’re the proud owner of a leopard gecko, you have undoubtedly been licked. Multiple times. You may even remember the first time your leopard gecko licked you.
Maybe you were alarmed. Or perhaps you immediately decided it was the cutest thing you had ever seen. In some ways, maybe it filled you with a bit of confusion and even grossed you out a little. After all, you were very intentionally prodded by a gecko tongue.
The initial shock has since worn off, but the burning question remains:
Why does my leopard gecko lick me?
Leopard geckos gather information about their environment by collecting scent particles on their tongues and depositing them in a special sensory organ, called the Jacobson’s Organ, on the roof of their mouth. Your leopard gecko licks you to learn more about you and could be more likely to lick if you smell different than usual.
In this article we will look at the specifics of how leopard geckos gather information by ‘tasting’ scents around them and why your leopard gecko will lick you.
Reason 1: Exploring
‘Tongue flicking’ is a behavior that many reptiles have in common. A snake flicking its forked tongue in and out of its mouth frequently to ‘smell’ its surroundings is an example most people are familiar with (and this can also lead to some accidental licking). Leopard geckos also exhibit ‘tongue flicking’ to gather information about interesting new smells while exploring their environment. You can see exactly what I’m talking about here:
It’s hard to see, but leopard geckos also have bifurcated (forked) tongues like snakes. The difference is that a leopard gecko’s tongue is stouter, and the fork is smaller than its snake counterpart, but they serve the same function.
A leopard gecko’s tongue anatomy is specialized to help it interact with the world around it. Elastic muscle fibers help the gecko stretch and contract its tongue. A sticky secretion of mucous at the tip of its tongue helps grab scent particles from the surrounding air or from an object it touches (in this case, you).
These nanoparticles of scent are transported on the tip of your leopard gecko’s tongue back into its mouth, where they are transferred from the tongue to a specialized sensory organ known as the Jacobson’s Organ (vomeronasal organ). This organ is accessible through two small openings in the roof of the mouth towards the front of the palate, where the forked tongue can flick upwards into the openings, binding the chemical compounds at the tip of the tongue with the receptors in the nerve cells located in the Jacobson’s Organ.
These receptors then carry that information to the brain, where it is processed and interpreted, and the identity of the smell is determined.
To boil it down a bit, your leopard gecko grabs scent particles that we can’t see out of the air or off surfaces, transfers it to a special organ inside of its mouth, which then transfers that information up to the brain. And all of this results in your gecko learning the identity of what it touched or ‘smelled’ in the air. They’re also far from the only reptile to do this and bearded dragons will also lick to gather more information about their environment.
When applied to your gecko licking you, it means that it is exploring you on a highly sensitive, olfactory level in the same way that it explores everything else around it. It doesn’t matter to your leopard gecko that the two of you have met before, because on a chemical level, you’re bringing in different combinations of smells every time you interact.
Reason 2: Looking for Familiarity
Your leopard gecko may also be licking you to reconfirm that you are familiar with and safe. By establishing through their sense of smell (and taste) that they are not in danger, they can refocus their attention back to exploring other things around them.
Several factors can pique your gecko’s curiosity enough to check in on whether you are still a familiar part of their environment. First, you may just physically be in its path, and thus worthy of some extra consideration. You could also have recently handled food or something that smells foreign to them, which they then take time to investigate.
You could be wearing a fragrance you usually don’t wear or maybe you recently changed laundry detergent. leopard geckos are capable of picking up on all of these subtle scents and more.
From a survival standpoint, your leopard gecko is concerned with whether these new smells are edible, dangerous, or a potential mate.
What Does This All Mean?
To put it from a reptile’s perspective, leopard geckos are licking you for the same reasons they lick the world around them: It’s their way of using their strongest sense to ‘see’ and interpret information about their environment. We are a very tall, loud, constantly moving part of our gecko’s visual field.
It’s no wonder a leopard gecko dispatches a tongue jab or two to be certain we’re still safe and familiar, or to learn something new about the smells we brought with us.
So, do leopard geckos ever communicate emotion to their owners with licks? And is there ever a time when you should be worried about your gecko’s licking behavior?
It Isn’t a Display of Affection
While it’s easy for us as humans to equate a pet licking us with affection (after all, our dogs sure do make their feelings known), licking is not a leopard gecko’s way of communicating love or affection.
While leopard geckos can exhibit social behaviors through their interactions with their owners, that does not define them as inherently social animals. Unlike primates, leopard geckos do not get the type of satisfaction from social interactions (sometimes, it causes them stress instead).
There is currently no research that supports the idea that leopard geckos (and other reptiles) can form emotional bonds with human beings, although the debate still actively rages between reptile owners.
But don’t let this discourage you from building a unique bond with your leopard gecko. After all, part of a leopard gecko’s irresistible charm is that it is so different from us. Even if the proverbial jury is still out on whether geckos can feel adoration for their humans, we do know that they can learn to associate us with positive experiences (like food) and with safety.
Licking is Not a Request for Attention
Although some people claim that a leopard gecko licking their owner’s hand or arm indicates a desire to be picked up or given attention, this is untrue. Geckos do not desire or seek our attention- even if we think they’re reacting to being called by name. Arguably, they may expect our attention when insects are in short supply.
Geckos do not discriminate when it comes to prodding you with their tongue. It just so happens that when handling our reptile companions, our hands and arms are usually closest to them.
We also use our hands to interact with our environment, resulting in us carrying a lot of different smells on us that could attract a leopard gecko’s attention more than, say, our leg or shoulder would.
Even though their licking is not a request to be held, this doesn’t mean that your leopard gecko will not elect to use your arm as a human ramp. If your reptile is looking for higher ground or on a quest for food, you are not by any means off limits from getting crawled on (a fact most leopard gecko owners delight in).
Should I Ever Be Concerned About My Gecko’s Licking?
A leopard gecko occasionally licking you, other geckos, and its environment is all normal. There are also plenty of instances where your leopard gecko will lick its own eyes, nose, mouth, and vent. None of this is cause for alarm in and of itself. However, there are times when licking can be a sign of something more serious.
There are three follow-up questions to ask yourself if your leopard gecko’s licking behavior has you worried: Is the licking obsessive or repetitive in nature? If your gecko is licking a part of its body consistently (licking one eye more than usual, licking its mouth nonstop, etc.), does that area seem irritated, injured, or abnormal in any way?
Lastly, is the behavior accompanied by other troubling behaviors like refusal to eat or come out of its hide for an extended period? If one or more of these are the case, your leopard gecko may have a health concern that needs the attention of an exotic vet.
leopard geckos are very receptive to even the smallest changes in their environment, you included. Their tongues are one of their most complex tools, performing the key function of helping them capture and transfer scent particles, which are then interpreted for the purposes of exploring new scents or confirming familiar ones.
And while it’s easy to assign emotional meaning to the behavior of your gecko licking you, the reality of what your leopard gecko is doing is fascinating!
If there are no harsh chemicals on your skin that could be toxic to your gecko friend, being licked by your gecko is completely fine.
In fact, it could be said that it’s one of the unique perks of being a leopard gecko owner.