How to Train Your Iguana to Be Handled

Hand touching pet iguana

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Iguanas are beautiful lizards and can make wonderful pets, but many owners are surprised by how large, strong, and sometimes aggressive iguanas become as they mature. Pet store iguanas are likely to be at least a little stressed by their experiences of being shipped, handled, and housed. Getting an iguana from a rescue is a wonderful idea, but remember some will have been neglected and even mistreated so it may take a little longer to gain their trust.

Often a new iguana is quite docile for the first few days after he is brought home. At this point, many owners think that taming their iguana will be no problem, and are somewhat startled in a few days when the iguana starts showing signs of aggression. This is normal: At first, the iguana may have been too nervous and intimidated by his new surroundings to assert himself. However, as the iguana becomes more comfortable, he is more likely to show his displeasure with handling.

Identify When Your Iguana Feels Threatened

Iguanas have sharp teeth and do bite, and they may try to whip you with their tail which can be extremely powerful (and the dorsal spines along the tail are very sharp). They have sharp claws, so at least expect some scratches when first handling an iguana. It is also a good idea to acquaint yourself with body language and behavior so you can read the warning signs. Head bobs and extension of the dewlap may signal that the iguana feels threatened and may defend itself; tail twitching is a definite sign of aggression.

Be Patient and Predictable

Give a new iguana a couple of weeks to settle in before starting the taming process. Establish a routine for feeding, cleaning, and handling—a predictable daily routine will provide a sense of security for the iguana.

Talk to Your Iguana

Talk to the iguana as you do routine tasks, and keep the iguana in a place where it can observe you going about your routine. This will help get it used to your presence. Spend time just watching and talking to the iguana. Use its name as iguanas do tend to recognize their names.

Show Your Iguana You're in Charge

Taming is a balance between not pushing too hard and showing the iguana who is in charge. You have to be firm and persistent without completely stressing out the iguana. At the same time, if the iguana is aggressive or struggles and you immediately back off or put it down, your iguana thinks it has "won" and thinks that when it is aggressive it will get its way. This may be easier said than done when an iguana is scratching you, trying to bite, or lashing you with its tail, but try to make it clear that you are making the decisions and in charge of the interaction.

Approach and Handle Your Iguana Gently

Place your hand in the cage and approach the iguana. Do this from the side rather than from above, which the iguana will likely perceive as a threat. If the iguana makes aggressive postures or scrambles around in a panic, back off a bit but keep trying, while speaking in a soft gentle voice. Make sure movements are slow and smooth. If you immediately stop trying, the iguana thinks it is training you. Repeat this step for a while until the iguana is more used to your hand.

Iguana-Proof the Room

Before attempting to handle your iguana outside of its cage, make sure the room is safe and escape-proof, with no means of getting away; block off any space, however small, an iguana could squeeze through. Make sure all breakables are put away and remember iguanas are good climbers too, so this includes top-shelf treasures. If the iguana gets away from you, this will help in the capture process.

Pick up and Pet Your Iguana

Now try to pet and pick up the iguana. If it is a smaller iguana, then scooping it up under the belly should be sufficient, but if it is larger, then supporting both under the belly and the pelvic (lower belly, upper tail) areas will be necessary.

Put Down Your Iguana Only When It Is Calm

Try not to put the iguana down until it is calm. This will help it learn that being calm is what gets it put back down rather than struggling. If the iguana gets away from you, don't panic and chase it—let it calm down, and then approach slowly speaking quietly. You may end up having to chase the iguana of course, but this is best avoided if possible. Never grab for the tail—iguanas can drop their tails as a defense and you will be left holding a tail while the iguana is still on the loose.

Problems and Proofing Behavior 

Taming requires gaining trust, and this is something that will not happen overnight—trust must be earned over time. Regular, consistent, gentle handling is absolutely necessary to tame iguanas and keep them tame and manageable as they get larger.

As the iguana becomes more accepting of handling, you can be more responsive to its moods. If it usually accepts handling but is tense or signals with body language that it is not comfortable, then you can respect that.

To proof your iguana's behavior, you'll want to engage with it at different times of day, and in different situations. For example, you may want to bring it out of its cage during the day and at night, or when other people are around.

If another person wants to pet or hold the iguana, remind them that while your pet is tame, it may also be anxious around strangers. Have visitors take their time earning your pet's trust, and avoid allowing them to pet or hold your iguana if it seems stressed or aggressive.