Even though leopard geckos have a reputation for just sitting around like little living statues, anyone who keeps a leo long enough knows that these lizards do a lot more than just sit around!
But one of the more confusing behaviors is digging. It’s cute, and most leos seem to enjoy it, but you’re still probably wondering why your leopard gecko is digging.
So why do leopard geckos dig?
Leopard geckos commonly dig to build a den, keep cool, or simply as a result of instinct. In some cases, digging can be a sign of stress or poor husbandry. Females may dig when gravid (even if they haven’t mated). Context clues can help you understand which explanation makes the most sense for your leo.
We’ll cover everything you need to know with more detail on each reason so let’s get started!
6 Reasons Why Leopard Geckos Dig
Let’s take a closer look at each possible reason for a digging leopard gecko.
Reason 1: To Create A Den
Finding hiding spots is a normal and natural instinct for leopard geckos and digging is a great way to find a secure location for a nap. Leopard geckos come from the deserts of Asia and the Middle East where there’s plenty of hard sand to dig into.
Leopard geckos don’t burrow like moles or travel underground snakes but a little digging is still a great way to clear out some space and make themselves more comfortable. Some leopard geckos just don’t seem happy until they’ve added their own spin on their enclosure which usually includes digging a little den under one of their hides.
That’s not necessarily a problem, but if you’re seeing a lot of digging you should make sure you have plenty of hiding spots available for your leopard gecko (at least one on the warm side and one on the cool side) but even with enough hides, some leos may still decide to dig out a new spot from time to time. This is even more likely with a softer and easier-to-dig substrate.
There could also be an issue with the type of hide you’re offering and leopard geckos may prefer something more enclosed or hidden.
Even though it can be a sign of stress, digging a little nook on its own doesn’t mean your leopard gecko is stressed. If your leopard gecko is otherwise acting normal, then it may just want a new spot to crawl into. But if your leopard gecko starts to dig when you approach them it’s possible that they’re feeling stressed or scared.
Take some time to help your leopard gecko relax and work on building your bond but don’t prevent them from digging!
Reason 2: To Keep Cool
Digging is a natural response to hot temperatures for leopard geckos and many other species of reptiles. But herps aren’t alone in this technique and digging to find cooler ground is used by mammals too with dogs being one of the more common examples!
Leopard geckos come from a hot rocky desert habitat where days can become scorchingly hot. Even though leopard geckos appreciate some time in the sun, they can still get too hot. Digging reveals cooler dirt that hasn’t been baking in the sun and can even create some shade for a small leopard gecko.
Unfortunately for pet leos, the substrate within their enclosure is rarely deep enough for this technique to work and they’re working off instinct instead of any kind of reasoning. That can explain why leopard geckos can be seen “digging” into undiggable substrates like artificial grass.
Leopard geckos should have a warm side of around 80-85°F and a cool side of around 75-80°F. Leopard geckos that don’t have access to a cool side or a warm side that’s too hot may dig to try and regulate their body temperature.
But even if you’re already following best practices, you may still have a temperature problem depending on where your leopard gecko’s enclosure is located. If your reptile room gets a lot of direct sunlight, your designated cool spot may not be so cool after all.
The best solution is to make sure you’re carefully monitoring the temperatures in your leopard gecko’s enclosure throughout the day so you can rule out temperature issues as a possible explanation for digging.
Reason 3: Looking For Food
Leopard geckos primarily eat insects and while they don’t always appear to be good hunters in captivity, wild leopard geckos have to work to find food. That includes digging to find worms and other bugs from time to time.
Even though you probably aren’t hiding your leopard gecko’s meals in their substrate, the instinct to dig is still alive and well. In fact, it’s usually a good idea to not hide food in the substrate as that could contribute to impaction since leopard geckos can easily eat some substrate along with their meal.
There’s usually no harm in digging around for food, as long as leos don’t eat any substrate in the process, and it can actually be a good form of enrichment. Just make sure not to encourage or associate food with substrate by burrowing any of their meals.
Reason 4: Your Leopard Gecko Is Ready To Lay Eggs
This explanation only applies to female leopard geckos but frantic and frequent digging could be a sign of a gravid (pregnant) leopard gecko that’s about to lay eggs. While it may surprise you, this can happen even if leopard geckos live alone and have never met (or mated with) a male leopard gecko.
Like chickens and many other reptiles, leopard geckos can lay infertile eggs without a male present. However, this is quite rare so it shouldn’t be your first explanation.
Gravid leopard geckos will usually dig all over their enclosure around a week before they lay eggs. You can even see eggs inside your leopard gecko and the video below does a great job explaining how to safely check. Just make sure you don’t flip your leopard gecko on their back when checking as that can stop them from breathing.
Leopard geckos reach sexual maturity at around 35 grams and that usually happens between 18 and 24 months. So if you’ve had your female leo since they were a baby, you may not have ever noticed any digging. But once they reach sexual maturity that can change and digging may suddenly become a top priority as their reproductive instincts start to kick in.
But even without eggs, many keepers have reported that female leopard geckos seem to just dig more than males.
Reason 5: Stress and Fear
Assuming leopard geckos aren’t sharing their enclosure with another species, they don’t have to fear predators like they would in the wild.
But that doesn’t mean leopard geckos don’t get scared or stressed and excessive digging can be a sign that they’re trying to find a safer spot to hide. In the wild, digging wouldn’t be the first defense but without other spots to hide in it may be some leo’s go-to option for dodging danger.
However, you shouldn’t assume that digging is immediately a sign of fear and you should expect to see other signs of stress (like loss of appetite or more time hiding) before you make this assumption. Additionally, you should look for new stressors like a change in their enclosure or anything that’s different outside the enclosure.
Reason 6: Instinct, Entertainment, and Boredom
Even though there are plenty of good reasons for leopard geckos to dig, in other cases it may just be pure instinct or boredom that drives leos to dig. These little lizards and their ancestors have dug in the dirt for millions of years and while it’s not the most satisfying answer it’s sometimes fair to say that leopard geckos dig simply because they’re leopard geckos!
In other cases, leopard geckos that are understimulated or lacking enrichment could turn to digging for something to do. Leopard geckos don’t experience boredom as we do but if their food doesn’t require hunting and finding hiding spots doesn’t require digging they may not know what to do with themselves. That can lead to some strange behaviors including digging around their enclosure.
Allowing your leopard gecko to hunt and giving them plenty of areas to explore (including some areas to climb) can give leos more than enough mental stimulation.
Still, that doesn’t mean they’ll stop digging and some leopard geckos simply enjoy digging!
Should You Worry?
Digging can be just something that leopard geckos do…or can be a sign of lacking husbandry.
So when should you worry?
Most of the time, digging is just something that leopard geckos do and not a huge concern. However, if you see a lot of digging compared to usual or the behavior starts suddenly then it’s a good idea to double-check the basics of your husbandry and look for any signs of stress.
Make sure you have enough hiding spots and that they’re in the right locations with at least one on the warm side and one on the cold side. Double-check the overall temperature of your enclosure and if you don’t already have a thermometer then this is a good time to get one. But if all the basics are under control then you may just have a leopard that likes to dig!
However, if digging is accompanied by other behavior changes like a lack of appetite, excessive hiding, weight loss, or glass swimming then it’s time to take a close look at your leopard gecko and consider consulting a veterinarian. But if you’re ever unsure, talking to your veterinarian is always a good idea.
Digging isn’t the first thing that people think about when it comes to leopard geckos but it’s one of many normal leopard gecko behaviors. Most of the time, digging can be explained by a leopard geckos natural instincts to find food, comfortable shelter, and feel safe. But it can also be something that they just seem to enjoy.
What do you think? What explanation best explains your leopard gecko’s love of digging?