What to Expect From a Pet Iguana

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Iguanas are certainly one of the most popular lizards to have ever been kept as a pet. There are a multitude of online resources available to iguana owners or potential owners but their popularity has thankfully been decreasing as pets over the years.

Pet Iguana Popularity

Iguanas were one of the more recent "fad" pets, becoming readily available in many pet stores, often at very low prices and at fairly young ages. Small and young iguanas appeared to be exotic, beautiful, readily available and easy to care for—a myth often perpetuated by retailers hoping to sell the abundant lizard.

Of course, they are very cute but, as with all reptiles, iguanas have fairly strict feeding and housing requirements. And they grow (to actually be very large lizards if they survive that long) they can be difficult to tame and become aggressive if not regularly handled.

This is not to say that iguanas cannot make good pets but they need the proper care right from the start and owners need to have the right expectations. Many new reptile owners do not realize how large their lizard of choice gets, how long they live, and what kind of food is needed to keep them healthy. As more and more people realized that iguanas are a large and long term commitment (they live 15 to 20 years) they have decreased in popularity.

Salmonella and Iguanas

Like most pet reptiles, it has been found that iguanas carry Salmonella, meaning it is present in the digestive tract without causing disease. Following common sense hygiene practices when handling iguanas should prevent humans from having any problems related to this bacteria but if there are young children, pregnant women, immunocompromised people, or elderly persons in contact with the iguana, extra care will have to be taken to prevent Salmonella infections. If the iguana is to live in a household with people that fall into any of the aforementioned groups, a reptile may not be the right pet for your family.

iguanas as pets, what you need to know about diet, housing, health, and more
Illustration: Cassandra Fountaine. © The Spruce, 2018 

Housing Iguanas

Iguanas can grow to be up to seven feet long when their tail is included in the measurement and they will weigh about 20 pounds (much larger than most people think an iguana gets). Therefore an aquarium or small reptile enclosure is a very short-lived home for a green iguana. Custom-built enclosures, and more often than not, bedrooms or large closets, are utilized for keeping pet iguanas safe and warm.

Large enclosures also mean a lot of lighting. UVB and heat lights need to provide appropriate basking temperatures and areas for your reptile 10 to 12 hours per day. The iguana is a tropical animal. He wants to bask at 95 F and his tank or room shouldn't drop below 75 F. You can use heat lamps for this rather than hot rocks. Mercury vapor bulbs can be used for large enclosures or rooms. You can use compact fluorescent lights or tubes for a juvenile enclosure.

Large branches and shelves in the enclosure will allow your arboreal iguana to climb up to and enjoy basking in the warmth of these lights (which should reach 120 F).

Feeding Iguanas

Fresh food is the key to a healthy iguana. Old thought processes included feeding cat food to help bulk up iguanas quickly but owners found out that all that protein caused kidney failure in their pets and their life spans were shortened greatly. Iguanas in the wild are strict herbivores, so they are not evolved to eat animal protein and they don't eat insects except by accident.

Dark leafy greens, some fruit, and calcium supplementation must all be provided to keep your iguana healthy. Fruit and calcium supplementation should only be added about once a week to the diet. Avoid diets high in protein with your iguana. You may want to monitor your iguana's blood chemistry to ensure he is getting enough calcium and other nutrients.

Iguanas need fresh water when feeding and between feedings. Iguanas need a temperature of about 85 F in order to digest their food properly.

Handling Iguanas

Iguanas are typically sold as small juveniles which are easy to handle but as they get larger they become stronger and can be more difficult if they have not been trained. Iguanas will learn to recognize their caretakers and can be like puppies following them around.

They are intelligent and if they are used to being handled they can be very rewarding exotic pets. Large iguanas that aren't handled regularly can deliver a nasty bite and whip their tails. Hormonal iguanas can also be unpredictable (gravid females).

Iguanas are not for beginner reptile enthusiasts but they can still make great pets for the right person.

Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT