Iguana: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Iguana on a tree branch
Azri Suratmin/Getty Images

Native to Central and South America, iguanas are one of the most popular pet lizards. However, they are a major commitment and need a high level of care. Iguanas have strict feeding and housing requirements, can grow quite large, live a long time, and can be very strong. They also can be difficult to tame and might become aggressive if not regularly handled. This isn't to say iguanas can't make good pets, but they need an owner who understands the commitment right from the start.

Species Overview

Common Names: Iguana, green iguana, American iguana

Scientific Name: Iguana iguana

Adult Size: Up to 20 pounds and up to 7 feet long

Life Expectancy: 10 to 12 years in captivity, though up to 20 years is not uncommon

Iguana Behavior and Temperament

Pet iguanas will never be truly domesticated animals, and many of them will try to escape their enclosures and even your home. Captive iguanas need to be picked up and held routinely for taming purposes, so they can learn to trust you and be comfortable in their environment. However, this can be a challenge because they often find human contact unnatural and might resist it. So it’s important to handle your iguana with care and patience.

Baby iguanas can move quickly, but adult iguanas often become quite lazy and docile, at least when they don’t feel threatened. When out of their cage, some iguanas might prefer to climb on their owners. They do have sharp claws, so wear protective clothing if your pet iguana likes this activity. Additionally, an iguana can cause real harm with its tail. An adult iguana’s tail is strong enough to break a human bone. While this is relatively rare, iguanas are still powerful creatures. So pay attention for any struggling or aggression when handling them, especially if children or other pets are present.

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Housing the Iguana

Iguanas can grow up to 7 feet long when their tail is included in the measurement, and they generally weigh around 20 pounds. This size often surprises people who start with a little baby iguana. Therefore, an aquarium or a small reptile enclosure is a very short-lived home for a young iguana. 

Most commercially available cages do not meet an iguana’s space needs. Many iguana owners opt for custom-built enclosures complete with many ramps, shelves, and branches that this tree-dwelling species can climb. An adequate enclosure for a single iguana is around 12 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 8 feet tall. Many people even choose to convert an entire room or a large closet to their iguana’s habitat. 

To keep your iguana’s enclosure clean, remove uneaten food, feces, shedded skin, and other visible waste every day. Also, clean the food and water dishes daily. Once a week, move your iguana to a temporary cage to clean its main enclosure. Discard the substrate (the bedding that absorbs waste and odors), and scrub all surfaces and decorations, such as rocks, with a pet-safe cleaner. Wait for everything to dry thoroughly before reassembling the enclosure. 

Heat

The iguana is a tropical animal. It wants to bask at 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and its habitat shouldn't drop below 75 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, the iguana needs a temperature around 85 degrees Fahrenheit to properly digest its food. This should be closely monitored, especially if you're adjusting the climate of an entire room for its habitat. You can use heat lamps typically positioned less than a foot away from basking ledges (follow the instructions on your particular light) to achieve an optimal temperature.

Light

A large enclosure means a lot of lighting. Use UVB bulbs designed for reptiles to provide your iguana with appropriate light exposure for 10 to 12 hours per day. This mimics the benefits it would get from natural sunlight, namely promoting vitamin D production. Mercury vapor bulbs can be used for large enclosures or rooms, while compact fluorescent lights or tubes can work for small enclosures. Large branches and shelves in the enclosure will allow your tree-dwelling iguana to climb up and bask in these lights.

Humidity

Iguanas need at least 70% humidity in their environment. You can increase the humidity of your iguana’s habitat by adding a pool of water to the enclosure or using a mister. It’s generally recommended to mist your iguana two times a day to increase humidity and maintain healthy skin.

Substrate

A wood substrate, or bedding, is typically fine for iguanas. Because they're a tree-dwelling species, they spend most of their time climbing instead of burrowing in their bedding.

Food and Water

Fresh food is the key to a healthy iguana. Iguanas in the wild are strict herbivores. They avoid eating animal protein, including insects. In fact, diets high in protein can cause health issues, such as kidney failure, in an iguana. 

In addition to a quality pelleted commercial diet, provide your iguana with dark leafy greens, some fruit, and a calcium supplement. Plus, iguanas need fresh water available at all times. Follow your veterinarian's instructions on the quantity to feed to maintain a healthy weight for your pet's size.

It’s important to remember that iguanas swallow their food whole without chewing, so everything you offer must be chopped or shredded into tiny pieces. Remove and discard any food that hasn’t been eaten within 24 hours.

Common Health and Behavior Problems

Like most pet reptiles, iguanas carry salmonella. This means salmonella is present in the iguana’s digestive tract without causing disease to the animal. But humans can acquire it from touching the iguana or items in its environment. 

Follow common sense hygiene practices when handling iguanas. Wash your hands well before and after spending time with your pet, and avoid touching your face. This should prevent the spread of the disease in most cases. However, if there are young children, seniors, pregnant women, or immunocompromised people in your home, take extra precautions. An iguana might not be the right pet for your family.

A common health issue for iguanas is kidney disease, often due to dehydration. If your iguana is lethargic, has swelling on its body, and is frequently drinking or urinating, get it to a vet immediately. Moreover, iguanas often face metabolic bone disease due to insufficient calcium and vitamin D, which is why a calcium supplement and UVB lighting are so important. Also, many iguanas come down with respiratory diseases from habitats that are too cold.

In terms of behavior, most iguanas can become tame with proper daily handling. They prefer a predicable routine, which makes them feel secure. However, they do have a strong self-defense instinct and will bite, scratch, and whip their tails if they feel threatened.

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

Choosing Your Iguana

Iguanas are readily available from pet stores, breeders, and rescue groups. In fact, many end up in rescues when their owners realize they can’t meet the species’ care needs. They’re often available to purchase or adopt for around $20 to $50.

Don't be fooled by a pet store selling you a small iguana and claiming it will stay that size. These animals grow very quickly. Look for an iguana that is active with clear eyes, healthy skin, and normal feces. Red flags include a low body weight, mucus around the animal’s nose or mouth, bumps or sores on its skin, and lethargy.

Finally, check your local laws or consult with an exotic animal veterinarian to confirm the legality of owning a pet iguana in your area. You also should make sure there’s a vet near you who accepts iguanas as patients.

Similar Species to the Iguana

If you’re interested in similar pets, check out:

Otherwise, check out other types of reptiles and amphibians that can be your new pet.