Savannah Monitors

These lizards are popular pets

Savannah Monitor lizard, studio shot
Martin Harvey/Photodisc/Getty Images

Savannah monitors are larger pet lizards that are known to be some of the more docile lizards of the monitor group. They aren’t really active lizards but usually tolerate handling quite well.

This is not a pet for an amateur herpetologist. Savannah monitor lizards are popular pets in the United States but don't always thrive in captivity. Very specific conditions are required to keep these lizards healthy.

 

  • Names: Savannah monitor, Varanus exanthematicus, Bosc monitor.
  • Lifespan: They often live to 10 years, sometimes as long as 15 years.
  • Size: These lizards will grow to be about 3 to 4 feet long.

Savannah Monitor Behavior and Temperament

Being native to Africa, savannah monitors were historically kept in dry, hot environments in captivity, which were thought to mimic their natural habitats. More recently, though, monitor owners are seeing better results by providing more humidity and areas to burrow, just like the native grasslands of Ghana offer.

They spend most of their time in the wild grasslands of Africa basking in the sun, burrowing in the soil, and eating a variety of small prey food such as rodents, smaller lizards, and insects.

Savannah monitors are carnivores and prone to obesity, so it is vital to monitor their weight to prevent excess weight gain. Feeding juveniles a few times a week is fine, but adult savannahs may only need to eat once a week.

Regular handling makes them tamer, but like all monitors, if they are not a captive bred baby or are not handled often, savannah monitors can become aggressive.

Housing the Savannah Monitor

Savannahs are strong, large escape artists. A large, secure enclosure is necessary to house any savannah monitor.

A full-grown savannah needs a minimum of an 8-by-4-feet enclosure, or twice the length of the monitor.

A juvenile (young) savannah will be fine in a 55-gallon aquarium for a short period of time, but since they grow quickly, most owners have their adult set-up ready when they bring home a baby.

The height of the enclosure should prevent them from escaping and allow a branch or other decoration in the cage on the off chance they want to climb. Monitors can be destructive, so other than some rocks and hides, decorations aren't necessary.

A large water dish that will allow the entire monitor to submerge itself should be in the cage as well. A large cat litter box is a popular alternative to reptile dishes sold at the pet store. They usually defecate in their water dishes, so make sure the water stays clean.

Screen-sided enclosures will be shredded, so glass or Plexiglas housing is best. Make sure the cage has a secure lock and a place for heat lights and UVB lighting on top.

Provide a good soil and sand mixture for them to burrow in as well: a recommended 24 inches of soil and sand mixture for a full-grown savannah.

Heat and Lighting

Warm temperature of 95 to 100 F and a basking spot between 110 and 130 F (but sometimes even higher, according to some owners) should be provided, along with a temperature gradient down to 85 F in the day and as low as 75 F at night.

 Ceramic heat emitters are better than lights for achieving nighttime temperatures.

UVB lighting is necessary for almost all lizards. A high-percentage UVB output bulb (8 to 10 percent) should be on for a 10- to 12-hour cycle daily to mimic the sun. These bulbs should be changed every six months even if the light doesn't burn out, since the invisible UVB rays expire. Diseases such as metabolic bone disease will occur without appropriate UVB rays.

A hygrometer should be visible to properly monitor humidity in the enclosure. Provide a gradient in the soil of almost 100 percent humidity and try to keep it above 60 percent in the coolest part of the cage. It is OK to have a lower hygrometer reading in the basking area (even zero percent is fine if you have a good gradient in the other part of the enclosure).

Substrate

Savannah monitors can be voracious eaters. Therefore if they have bedding that is bite sized they may get a mouth full when trying to grab their food. If your savannah will be enjoying his dinner on his bedding, choose a bedding that won't cause an impaction. A more natural bedding that they can burrow in is best.

Paper towels, butcher paper, towels, repti-carpet, felt and other easily cleaned and changed, flat bedding options are best for messy savannahs. If you prefer a more natural look go for small substrate like calcium sand that is semi-digestible in very small amounts, or just don't feed your savannah on his bedding (use a separate tank to feed to keep his enclosure clean).

The area set aside for burrowing (with the soil/sand mix) should not be used for feeding.

Food and Water

As with any exotic pet, the more natural the diet, the better. Savannahs will eat gut-loaded insects such as crickets, roaches, and earthworms along with appropriately sized rodents. Pinky mice, fuzzies, adult mice, and various sized rats are the usual fare in captivity.

Calcium powder should be dusted onto insects and young rodents that don't have good bone density. A low-fat, high-quality (grain-free) canned dog or monitor food should be fed only occasionally, as too much protein can lead to disease like gout.

Common Health Problems

These lizards are prone to parasitic infections. The symptoms of an internal parasite include sluggishness, lack of appetite, and vomiting. They're also frequently afflicted with external parasites, or mites, that suck the lizard's blood through the skin. Both of these conditions are potentially life-threatening and unfortunately common in savannah lizards kept in captivity. 

Like many reptiles, savannah monitors are also susceptible to respiratory infections. Open-mouthed breathing, wheezing, and mucus in the mouth are the most common symptoms. All medical conditions require a visit to a reptile veterinarian for treatment.

Choosing Your Savannah Monitor

Try to aim for a savannah monitor that has been "ranched," meaning that it has been bred in a native but controlled environment, or from a reputable breeder.

When savannah monitors are imported, the experience is often stressful for them and can affect their health. Be prepared to house your monitor in a very clean cage, and keep a close eye on its skin and eyes for any signs of a health issue. 

Similar Species to Savannah Monitors

If you’re interested in other lizards similar to the savannah monitor, check out:

You also can check out all of our other monitor lizard profiles.