Spiny-Tailed Lizards

Bearded dragon (Uromastyx) on sand and gravel in front of a log
James Gerholdt/Getty Images

Unlike the bearded dragon or leopard gecko, the spiny-tailed lizard—otherwise known as the dabb lizard, mastigure, or uromastycesis not a common pet. Due to trade regulations, only a few countries allow the export of this peculiar reptile, making it hard to acquire. However, for the lucky aficionado who can find one, both the care and temperament of this lizard makes it a pleasurable pet. In fact, feeding this herbivore is much lower maintenance than feeding its cricket-eating cousin. Still—low maintenance or not—any pet reptile needs a conscientious caretaker to assure its health.

  • Scientific Name: Uromastyx
  • Lifespan: An average of 15 years with a record of 30-years-old
  • Size: Up to 10 to 18 inches, from head to tail

Spiny-Tailed Lizard Behavior and Temperament

The spiny-tailed lizard likens itself to a gentle, small dinosaur partly because of its specially-designed tail that waves off predators in defense. The name of this reptile is actually derived from an ancient Greek word meaning "tail," "whip," or "scourge." Spiny-tails are found in the wild in parts of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and India. They are all herbivores and natural burrowers, living in deep burrows up to 10 feet in length.

The recluse nature of this pet contributes to its shyness in captivity. Most spiny-tail lizards will hide when you try to handle them. However, there are a few that will tolerate gentle handling and some have been known to eat straight out of their owner's hands.

Male spiny-tailed lizards may act aggressively towards other males due to their territorial nature. Therefore, keeping one male per group (or housing it alone) is recommended.

Housing the Spiny-Tailed Lizard

A large terrarium or fish tank is needed to house a spiny-tail lizard. This cold-blooded reptile needs to warm itself often and then move to more tolerable ambient temperatures in order to maintain homeostasis. A large tank will provide the various temperature gradients to support this behavior. A basking rock is a must, as well as many sizeable hiding, climbing, and eating spots. A tower of securely stacked rocks makes the perfect basking spot and a commercially-produced reptile shelter, situated among interspersed logs and rocks, should give your pet enough options for burrowing or cooling itself off.

Heat

Heating is best delivered through the use of heat lamps. You can choose a ceramic light, or a blue, red, or white heat light, but make sure that, whatever you choose, your lamp has the correct wattage to create a thermal gradient in the tank. The basking area should hover around 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and the cooler end of the tank should maintain a temperature somewhere near 90 degrees Fahrenheit. At night, the lizard's enclosure can drop into the 70s to replicate its natural desert environment.

Light

Spiny-tailed lizards need ample UVB exposure and a fluorescent or mercury vapor bulb provides this quite nicely. A fluorescent UVB light will also work for lizards housed in smaller enclosures. Purchase one from your local pet store with at least an 8 to 10 percent UVB output (a higher UVB output is fine, too, and preferred). And keep this bulb on a 12-hour cycle to mimic the sun's rise and fall.

Place your light about 10 to 12 inches away from where your lizard will sun itself. And make sure not to place it too close, as this can cause thermal burns and blindness in your pet. Being too far away, however, prevents your lizard from absorbing the UVB rays crucial for its health. And since mesh screens block a good portion of the light's invisible rays, mount it underneath the screen whenever possible. Any reflectors on the inside of a fluorescent fixture also help maximize the bulb's effectiveness.

Replace fluorescent bulbs every six months or follows the manufacturer's recommendation. Even if the build still emits white light, the strength of the invisible UVB may run out before the light fails.

Substrate

A happy lizard will have ample bedding material in its enclosure so that it can instinctively burrow, similar to its behavior in the wild. Natural sand sold as "washed play sand" or calcium-sand sold in pet stores works well. Some reptile owners use small grains, such as millet, or walnut shell-based substrates. Keep in mind, any bedding that can fit in your lizard's mouth has the possibility of causing an impaction. In order to avoid this, always feed your lizard on an elevated plate and make sure to scoop any leftover food out of the bedding. Or, you can avoid an impaction altogether by using a manufactured substrate like shredded felt, paper towels, or indoor-outdoor carpet.

Food and Water

Eating too much animal protein will cause this herbivore distress, often leading to serious kidney issues. Hence, a spiny-tail lizard's diet should consist primarily of a variety of dark leafy greens. Escarole, dandelion greens, endive, collard greens, mustard greens, and spring mixes should make up the majority of your lizard's food. And lentils, split peas, beans, and certain grains, like millet, should also be provided for added protein. Gut-loaded insects are best avoided but a rare treat is alright, and stay away from super worms altogether.

Healthy lizards who are fed a varied diet of veggies shouldn't need a calcium supplement, but many veterinarians still recommend giving one to your lizard a couple of times a week.

A water dish is not necessary, either, as spiny-tails get their water from their food source. However, a shallow dish for soaking provides a reprieve from the blistering heat.

Common Health Problems

Metabolic bone disease (MBD) is one of the most common illnesses found in pet reptiles, often resulting from calcium deficiency. MBD presents as swollen joints, trembling, and a lax jaw, and severe cases usually result in death. A balanced diet including calcium supplementation should prevent your lizard from succumbing to this affliction.

Dehydration can also result from an inadequate diet. Since spiny-tailed lizards rely on their food source for water, an abundance of leafy greens will prevent this. Also, allowing them to burrow and providing various hiding spaces will help your lizard regulate its own temperature to avoid water loss.

On occasion, your spiny-tailed lizard may refuse food, for even up to a week. Possible causes include stress, a change in seasons, cold temperatures in its enclosure, or sickness. Adding variety to your pet's diet can possibly avoid this issue. If fasting does occur, try adjusting a few of your husbandry tactics to see if it helps.

Choosing Your Spiny-Tailed Lizard

Before purchasing a spiny-tailed lizard, research its origins. Is it a captive breed? Or is it a captured wild lizard that has been imported? Obtaining your reptile from a breeder assures the health of your pet and doesn't contribute to the controversial importation practices which deplete wild populations. Also, captive-bred lizards are already accustomed to life in a cage and will startle less when being handled.

Different Species of Lizards

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For more information, check out these other profiles of lizard breeds.