Crested gecko tail loss occurs when a gecko is over-stressed or feels threatened. Tail drop, or autotomy, is a defense mechanism to distract predators: as the gecko flees to safety, the tail flops about in front of their attacker. Many crested geckos feel that we humans are predators and may throw their tails to get away from us! In some especially skittish animals, loud noises can cause a tail drop, and sometimes there is no discernible reason at all.
Some geckos don’t seem to mind poking and prodding at their tails, as when you help them remove stuck shed. The gecko’s tail breaks along fracture planes at the base of the taile; when the gecko contracts the muscles in front of this weak area, the tail “pops” off. Don’t worry, a tail won’t just fall off unless the gecko decides to let it go. Tendency to tail drop varies with each gecko. Signs to look out for are frightened and jerky movements of the tail; a deliberate “S” shaped slithering; a spazzy gecko.
Help! My gecko lost his tail!
A lost tail poses no lasting harm to a gecko. The loss of a tail is a purely cosmetic issue. After a while, your gecko will learn how to walk and jump normally.
Here’s what to do if your crested gecko loses his tail:
There is no need to put antiseptic on the tail stub, it should heal on its own. If you house your gecko on a particulate substrate normally, you might want to temporarily house him in a “hospital” tank on paper towel to ensure a sterile environment while it heals. Substrate can stick to the wound, cause irritation and infection. If it does get red or puffy, try putting honey or neosporin (without pain reliever) on the wound. If it starts to ooze or doesn’t heal, you will need to take the gecko to the vet.
Crested gecko tail loss is still a stress event and you should avoid handling your gecko for a week or so for them to settle down and return to life as normal.
Will it grow back?
Unfortunately, no. Unlike other Rhacodactylus species, such as leachianus and gargoyle geckos, R. ciliatus does not regrow lost tails. Perhaps it is too costly for the individual to regrow it, unlike other lizards that regenerate their tails. Those animals generally stop growing and stop reproducing to do this, as energy is transferred to regeneration. Likely, there is little benefit for an adult crested gecko to regrow their tails, so they evolved to live without it once lost. Similarly, adult iguanas are less likely to regrow a tail once lost, unlike younger ones.
Preventing Tail Loss
A spazzy gecko is more likely to throw his tail, so try to keep your crestie calm while handling. Be gentle! If he shows signs of pending tail drop, put him in his enclosure. Captive breeding seems to have reduced the tendency to autotomy, or perhaps has bred calmer geckos. Adults found in the wild have mostly, if not all, been tail-less, while many of today’s adult geckos have full, beautiful tails. We’d love to keep it that way, but sometimes crested gecko tail loss is a part of life with particularly crazy individuals!
Tail nips and injuries
Housing crested geckos together, especially juveniles, tends to result in tail nips. Tips of the tail bitten by cagemates or hurt by other injuries, such as getting caught in a closing tank lid, can heal quite readily. However, some tail tips may become necrotic (dead tissue) and eventually fall off, leaving the tail shorter than normal and without the gripping tail pad. Sometimes, the tail will heal without necrotizing but have a kink at the injury site. This is not related to any calcium deficiency, so should not be confused with a wavy or zigzag tail.
After a tail nip or other injury, especially in young geckos, make sure that the tail does not retain shed. Always inspect the toes and tails of juveniles and remove any stuck shed to make sure that it does not constrict blood flow, which can lead to further problems.
Should I force a tail drop?
There may be instances where you feel that a tail drop will benefit the gecko.
Floppy Tail Syndrome (FTS) happens when a gecko’s tail flops over head or off to the side while the gecko is in a head-down position. As many geckos seem to prefer to sleep head-down on the glass of their terrariums, this is thought to be a cause. However, there may be genetic and dietary factors as well. In the worst cases of FTS, this is more than a cosmetic issue: the hips and pelvis become twisted as well, a significant problem with female geckos, as eggs may become stuck during laying. Some females will lay infertile “virgin” eggs, so pet-only females are also at risk.
Another concern is a necrotizing tail, either from a cagemate bite or other injury, that doesn’t seem to be healing on its own. More of the tail becomes necrotic (dead) and seems to spread upwards towards the body.
Many feel that removing the tail is the best option in severe cases of FTS (hip deformity) and tail necrosis. Without a vet’s opinion, I would not advise forcibly removing the tail. If you are an experienced reptile keeper, you may be able to safely remove the tail by inducing a tail drop along the natural fracture plane. Assisted tail drops are usually accomplished by keeping a firm grasp on the tail at its base and letting the gecko try to get away, and dropping the tail of its own accord. Yanking or pulling on the tail is not recommended, as the gecko may be surprised and not ready to release the tail.
In a case of advancing necrosis, some keepers may decide that cutting the tail is the best option. This should only be attempted after other methods to heal the wounds have been attempted: neosporin or other antiseptic, soaking the tail to loosen shed skin, etc. Ideally, this amputation should be done by a vet or highly skilled keeper.
Cutting a tail is amputation. A tail drop is a survival tactic, and the wound created will easily heal over due to the nature of the fracture plane. Both procedures may be painful to your gecko, so if you are not comfortable with this, it is advised that you consult with a reptile vet, where anesthetics can be used and pain medicine prescribed.
Removing a tail is only for severe cases and should not be used to “prevent” injuries to the tail.