Savannah Monitor: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Savannah Monitor lizard, studio shot

Martin Harvey / Getty Images

Savannah monitors are large pet lizards that are one of the more docile species of the monitor group. They are not overly active creatures and usually tolerate handling. Savannahs are popular pets in the United States but don't always thrive in captivity. This lizard is not a pet for an amateur reptile lover; they have stringent care requirements to keep them healthy. This lizard hails from the savannah or grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa.

Species Overview

Names: Savannah monitor, Bosc monitor

Scientific Name: Varanus exanthematicus

Adult Size: 3 to 4 feet long

Life Expectancy: 10 years average; some may live up to 15 years

Savannah Monitor Behavior and Temperament

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

Regular handling from an early age makes it a tame, docile creature. But like all monitors, if it is not a captive-bred baby or handled often, the savannah monitor can become aggressive and can bite. Their teeth are small but sharp; their claws can also scratch; and it also uses its long, heavy tail as a whip to defend itself.

This lizard requires a large cage setup and strict environmental control; its care is comprehensive and not recommended for beginners.

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Housing the Savannah Monitor

Savannahs are strong and known for being escape artists. Make sure the cage is entirely enclosed and has a secure lock. A hatchling or juvenile savannah will live comfortably in a 55-gallon aquarium for about six months, but they grow quickly. Most owners have their adult setup ready when they bring home a baby. Its enclosure will need to be at least twice its length at adulthood. An adult lizard requires an 8-feet long by a 4-feet wide cage. It should be at least 3 feet high.

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 only provide rocks and hides; decorations aren't necessary. Their claws will shred screen-sided enclosures, so a glass or Plexiglas siding is best. Plan for a place to hang lights and heat sources above the cage.

Make room for a large water dish (you can also use a cat litter box) that will allow the monitor to submerge its entire body.

Feces should be spot cleaned every day from their enclosure, especially if it is in their water. Thoroughly clean the entire cage every two weeks and find a safe place to hold your lizard while doing so. Some owners use a hard plastic pet carrier or the bathtub.

Heat

Provide an average enclosure temperature of 95 F to 100 F and a basking spot between 110 F and 130 F. As cold-blooded creatures, all reptiles need to regulate their body temperature. The cage needs a temperature gradient down to 85 F in the day and as low as 75 F at night. Use ceramic heat emitters instead of lights for achieving nighttime temperature requirements.

Light

UVB lighting is necessary for most lizards, including monitors. 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's output. Change the bulbs every six months, even if the light doesn't burn out. The invisible UVB rays stop emitting after that period.

Humidity

Being native to Africa, savannah monitors were historically kept in dry, hot environments in captivity, which mimicked their natural habitats. More recently, though, monitor owners see better results by providing more humidity and areas to burrow.

A hygrometer inside the cage should monitor humidity in the enclosure accurately. Provide a gradient in the substrate of almost 100 percent humidity and try to keep it above 60 percent in the coolest part of the cage. The basking area will likely be a moisture-free zone.

Substrate

Reptile owners sometimes use substrate or bedding to line the bottom of a cage. Savannah monitors are diggers and will appreciate substrate for burrowing.

Savannahs are voracious eaters and may gobble up substrate with their prey item. Choose bedding that will not cause impaction or clog the digestive tract. Small substrate like calcium sand is semi-digestible in tiny amounts.

Paper towels, butcher paper, towels, reptile-safe carpet, felt, and other easily cleaned and changed, flat bedding options are best for messy or more aggressive lizards. If your monitor is on the tame side, try natural bedding like sand, organic soil, or a mixture of both that they can burrow down at least 24-inches deep. The used or soiled substrate will need to be changed regularly—at least every two weeks.

Food and Water

Savannah monitors are carnivores and opportunistic eaters that are prone to obesity. Monitor their weight to prevent excess weight gain. Feed juveniles three times a week, but adult savannahs may only need feeding once a week. You can also feed them at regular time to get your lizard used to a routine, if you want.

The amount you feed depends on the size of your lizard. On average, juveniles (up to 3 feet long) should eat about one to four fuzzy mice or one small mouse, supplemented with a few insects. Adults (larger than 3 feet long) should eat two to three adult mice per week or one rat, supplemented with some insects.

Feed savannahs gut-loaded insects, such as crickets, roaches, and earthworms. Gut-loading involves feeding nutritious food to prey items, so those nutrients pass on to the lizard.

Dust calcium powder 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 cause gout.

If you worry about impaction from the lizard eating its substrate with the prey item, don't feed your savannah in its cage. Get a separate, plain-bottomed tank for feeding time; it will also help keep its enclosure clean. Never hand feed this animal, it may mistake your fingers for food; you do not want your lizard to associate your hand with a tasty treat.

Change and clean its water container daily and replenish it with filtered water.

Common Health Problems

Common savannah monitor illnesses are treatable by an exotics veterinarian. These lizards are prone to parasitic infections, symptoms of which include sluggishness, lack of appetite, and vomiting. They can also get external parasites or mites that suck the lizard's blood through the skin. Both of these conditions are potentially life-threatening and 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.

These lizards can also acquire metabolic bone disease if they do not get adequate UVB rays and calcium and vitamin D supplementation.

savannah monitors as pets illustration
Illustration: The Spruce / Kaley McKean

Choosing Your Savannah Monitor

When buying your savannah monitor, look for one that has been "ranched," meaning it was bred in a native but controlled environment, or get one from a reputable breeder. Attend local reptile shows or expos to meet breeders and shop for lizards and supplies while there. They can cost from $25 to $100.

If you have a lot of experience with reptiles, inquire at reptile rescues or adoption centers for savannah monitors. Many inexperienced pet owners will surrender their animals once they grow to adult size and become harder to manage and care for. Keep in mind that many of these pets may not be hand-tamed, are stressed, and need rehabilitation from neglect.

Signs of a healthy monitor include smooth, even skin; no traces of mites (small, reddish-brown spots around the face); clear, bright eyes; rounded, full body; and a strong, even, smooth jawline.

Different Species of 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.