Leopard geckos are insectivorous lizards, so they typically eat anything that moves, flies, and is small enough to swallow.
But what about hornworms? What are these exactly, will your gecko eat them, and are they actually good for your lizards?
Coincidentally enough, that’s exactly what we will be discussing today. Let’s jump right in!
Nutritional Value of Hornworms
Unfortunately, hornworms rank pretty much at the bottom of the nutritional chart when compared with other types of caterpillars and worms.
Here are the primary nutritional indicators to consider:
- Protein – 9%
- Calcium – 464 mg/kg
- Phosphorus – 1,394 mg/kg
- Calcium/Phosphorus ratio – 1:3
- Fat – 3%
- Moisture – 85%
So, if you’re not familiar with these nutritional facts, what do these values and percentages tell you?
Well, they first tell you that hornworms have abysmal protein content. 9% is certainly not enough when compared to vastly superior protein sources like mealworms, superworms, and butterworms.
All these worms stay above the 15% mark and even close to 20%, as is the case with superworms.
Also, please note the calcium/phosphorus ratio. 1:3 isn’t great because the extra phosphorus binds to calcium molecules, rendering the mineral useless from a nutritional standpoint.
You’re looking for meals that deliver a 1:1 ratio or, even better, a 2:1 ratio, with calcium being the predominant element. That being said, hornworms contain far more calcium than superworms, waxworms, or other worm and caterpillar types.
The 3% fat is great, though, given that leopard geckos shouldn’t have too much fat in their diets. For a better perspective on the matter, butterworms have a nearly 30% fat content, while superworms, which are the richest in protein, stay at a little over 17% fat content.
The 85% ratio content simply translates to ‘These worms sure contain a lot of water.’
In conclusion, hornworms are by no means great in terms of nutritional value. They contain too little protein and have a suboptimal calcium/phosphorus content.
Does this mean that your leopard gecko should avoid them entirely? Not necessarily. So, let’s discuss that!
Are Hornworms Safe for Leopard Geckos?
Yes, but only under certain conditions. Here are some instances where hornworms aren’t safe for geckos:
- If they’re too large – Hornworms are some of the largest caterpillars, capable of reaching 4 inches in their adult form. Most leopard geckos can only reach 8-10 inches, which means that adult hornworms can reach 50% of the gecko’s entire size. This means that geckos can easily choke while attempting to eat an oversized hornworm.
- If the gecko eats them too frequently – We’ve already established that hornworms aren’t great in terms of nutritional value. Feeding them to your gecko too frequently may cause the lizard to experience nutritional deficiencies.
- Wild hornworms are hazardous – You should only rely on feeder worms grown in safe conditions. Wild hornworms may contain environmental contaminants, bacteria, or parasites that make them unfit for consumption.
Other than that, there’s nothing wrong with feeding your gecko some occasional hornworms. It’s the feeding frequency that matters above all else.
Benefits of Feeding Hornworms to Leopard Geckos
Hornworms are generally good for your gecko for several reasons.
- The added calcium – Hornworms contain up to 465 mg of calcium per kg. Compare this with superworms and their 177 mg, butterworms with 125 mg, and silkworms with 177 mg, and you can see where this is going. Calcium is vital for leopard geckos, given that reptiles are naturally prone to calcium deficiency. It’s not to say that hornworms should be your gecko’s sole calcium source, but they have a role to play in this sense for sure.
- Their appearance – Hornworms are green, large, and wiggly, so your geckos will easily notice and hunt them. They are also quite meaty, which means that the lizard will thoroughly enjoy eating them. Leopard geckos prefer to eat live insects because it keeps their hunting instincts sharp.
- Adequate hydration – Hornworms contain a lot of water, which is great for geckos in general. Leopard geckos typically get their necessary water from their food, making hornworms highly beneficial in this sense. Especially for sick geckos that cannot move much to drink.
- Easily digestible – Hornworms don’t contain chitin or any other form of exoskeleton. This makes them easily digestible by juveniles and adult lizards alike.
More importantly, hornworms come in multiple sizes, with one package often containing differently-sized worms.
This means you can feed them to geckos of different sizes in case you have several pet lizards.
How to Prepare and Serve Hornworms?
The preparation phase is minimal, given that lizards prefer to eat their hornworms whole and alive.
I actually recommend feeding your leopard gecko pet live hornworms to scratch their hunting itch.
If the hornworm is too large, you can try to cut it, although I wouldn’t recommend it. These juicy worms are filled with water, which, when spilled, will cause the warm to flatten out. You want your hornworms meaty, juicy, and round.
Save your bigger worms for the larger reptiles and feed your gecko the smaller ones.
Potential Risks of Feeding Hornworms
We’ve discussed the benefits, now let’s look into the risks associated with geckos eating hornworms.
- Low protein content – We’ve already learned that hornworms only contain traces of protein compared to other worm types. 9% isn’t enough for a proper nutritious meal. This makes hornworms good as treats but unfit as regular food items.
- Cannot gut-load them – You should always gut-load your lizard’s insects before feeding them to it. The problem with hornworms is that they cannot be gut-loaded due to their preference for sweets and sugar. They won’t eat anything else, which can be a problem.
- The risk of addiction – Leopard geckos love hornworms due to their tastiness, but this can be a problem. All animals are prone to developing food addictions, and reptiles are no different. You should only feed your gecko hornworms sparingly because of it.
- The difficulty of feeding – Hornworms are fast growers, quickly outgrowing the point where your gecko can consume them easily. This makes them unfit for baby and juvenile geckos. You also can’t store hornworms for more than a couple of months, making them unfit as a long-term food option.
- Expensive – Hornworms come with prices varying between $5 and $10 per piece, depending on the size. This is almost obscene if you think that your lizard will eat the worm in one go. You can find better uses for your $10 than getting a worm that your lizard will eat during one meal with little nutritional value.
Can Baby Leopard Geckos Eat Hornworms?
They can, but they shouldn’t. Baby geckos need a varied diet to support their fast growth rate and active metabolism.
They need all of the nutritional support they can get during this time and hornworms have no place here.
There are far better feeding options out there with more calcium, protein, and other minerals and vitamins than hornworms.
Alternatives to Hornworms
So, if hornworms aren’t exactly the ideal snack, what other option is there? Well, you could just stay with hornworms, to be honest, especially since you won’t feed them to your gecko too frequently.
But, if the price is an issue, and it almost always is if you ask me, consider other alternatives like mealworms, silkworms, superworms, etc.
These are great snacks due to their high protein content and delicious taste, but they only qualify as treats. You shouldn’t consider any type of worm as part of a regular meal plan.
These insects and larvae are suboptimal in terms of nutritional value and usually contain too much fat, not enough calcium, and only moderate amounts of protein.
This makes worms completely optional for a healthy and well-balanced diet; they’re fine as occasional treats, but that’s about it.
Leopard geckos much prefer a varied diet with plenty of more nutritional insects like cockroaches, crickets, locusts, grasshoppers, black soldier fly larvae, etc.
Leopard geckos can consume hornworms occasionally, as they come with moderate benefits and a great taste.
But just because your gecko enjoys its worms doesn’t mean it should eat them regularly.
Stick to the ideal diet recommendation and keep hornworms and other larvae as optional treats.