Spiny-Tailed Lizard (Uromastyx): Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Bearded dragon (Uromastyx) on sand and gravel in front of a log
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Unlike the bearded dragon or leopard gecko, the spiny-tailed lizard is not an ordinary pet. It is a rare find, but in reptile owner circles, you will commonly hear it being called by its scientific name uromastyx or uro for short. Due to trade regulations, only a few countries allow the export of this peculiar-looking reptile, making it hard to acquire. If you are lucky and can find one, you will discover that the care and temperament of this lizard make it a pleasurable pet. Based on its diet alone, this herbivore is much lower maintenance than its cricket-eating cousins. Spiny-tails live in the wild in parts of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and India.

Species Overview

Common Names: Spiny-tail lizard, uromastyx, uromastyces, mastigures, or dabb lizards

Scientific Name: Uromastyx

Adult Size: 10 to 18 inches

Life Expectancy: 15 to 30 years

Spiny-Tailed Lizard Behavior and Temperament

The spiny-tailed lizard is like a small, gentle dinosaur that uses its tail to wave off predators in defense. The name of this reptile comes from an ancient Greek word meaning "tail," "whip," or "scourge." 

It is a natural burrower, living in deep tunnels up to 10 feet long. The reclusive 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 will eat straight out of their owner's hands.

These lizards have a powerful jaw, and the bite can hurt but they rarely do so; it is usually a defensive mechanism.

Male spiny-tailed lizards may act aggressively towards other males due to their territorial nature. So, either keephk one male per group or house it alone.

Of most of the lizards in the pet trade, this is one of the most low-maintenance of them all. You probably need to devote about 15 minutes per day to the care of this pet.

Housing the Spiny-Tailed Lizard

A large terrarium or fish tank (40 to 55 gallons) is needed to house a spiny-tail lizard. 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.

Once you set up the enclosure, you can automate the heater and lights on a timer to make things easier. You will need to remove everything and deep clean the lizard's entire enclosure once a month. Between deep cleanings, you will need to spot clean or scoop up visible feces.

Heat

Provide heating with heat lamps. All cold-blooded reptiles regulate their body temperature by moving around its environment. The basking area at one end of the tank should be about 120 F, and the cooler end of the tank should maintain a temperature at 90 F. At night, the lizard's enclosure can drop to the 70s to replicate its natural desert environment. For lighting, you can choose a ceramic light, or a blue, red, or white heat light bulb.

Light

Spiny-tailed lizards need ample UVB exposure provided by a fluorescent or mercury vapor bulb. Purchase bulbs that have at least an 8 to 10 percent UVB output (a higher UVB output is excellent, too, and preferred). And keep this bulb on a 12-hour cycle to mimic the sun going up and down.

Place your light 10 to 12 inches from the spot where your lizard suns itself. Since mesh screens block a good portion of the light's UVB rays, mount it underneath the screen if possible. Any reflectors on the inside of a fluorescent fixture also help maximize the bulb's effectiveness.

Replace fluorescent bulbs every six months or following the manufacturer's recommendation. Even if the bulb still emits light, the invisible UVB rays stop emitting after six months.

Humidity

This lizard cannot tolerate high humidity; it can kill it. The ideal humidity range for this lizard is no more than 35 percent. This lizard typically burrows to find moisture, so provide a humid hide or container for it (no more than 65 percent humidity) to simulate its burrow. It may need this humid environment to help it shed its skin. To monitor the moisture level, use a hygrometer or humidity gauge.

Substrate

Reptile owners sometimes use substrate or bedding to line the bottom of a cage. Since spiny-tailed lizards are diggers, they will appreciate substrate for burrowing.

Provide 6 to 8 inches of bedding material in its enclosure so that it can instinctively burrow. 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.

Any substrate that can fit in your lizard's mouth has the possibility of causing an impacted colon. To avoid this, feed your lizard on a plate covering the substrate, so it cannot swallow it by mistake. You can prevent an impaction altogether by using a manufactured substrate like shredded felt, paper towels, or indoor-outdoor carpet. However, those cage liners will not allow the lizard to burrow.

Food and Water

Spiny-tailed lizards are herbivores. They may have the occasional insect in the wild, but too much animal protein can cause it distress or severe kidney issues. Avoid feeding any insects.

Feed a variety of dark leafy greens, such as escarole, dandelion greens, endive, collard greens, mustard greens, and spring mixes. Rotate the offerings to keep things interesting for your lizard. For added protein include lentils, split peas, beans, and certain grains like millet.

In the wild, these lizards can go weeks or months without food. Feed hatchlings and juveniles daily, but adults over 3 years old can eat four or five times a week. Feed in the morning, and offer as much as they will eat, they are not opportunistic feeders.

Healthy lizards that are fed a varied diet of veggies and should not need a calcium supplement, but many exotics veterinarians still recommend dusting calcium powder over your lizard's food a couple of times a week.

A water dish is not necessary since spiny-tails get their water from their food. However, you can provide a shallow dish for soaking in case the lizard needs to cool down.

Common Health Problems

Metabolic bone disease (MBD) is one of the most common illnesses found in pet reptiles, often resulting from calcium deficiency. Signs of MBD include swollen joints, trembling, and a lax jaw. A balanced diet, ample UVB lighting, and calcium supplementation should prevent your lizard from getting MBD.

Dehydration can also result from an inadequate diet. Since spiny-tailed lizards rely on their food as their source for water, an abundance of leafy greens will prevent dehydration. Also, provide ample substrate and space for burrowing. These creatures dig themselves into hiding spaces to regulate their body temperature and retain water.

On occasion, your spiny-tailed lizard may refuse food for up to a week. These lizards may experience a loss of appetite when feeling stressed, sensing a change in seasons, living with temperatures are too cool in the enclosure, or falling ill. They may also go on a food strike because they are bored by repeated food offerings.

Choosing Your Spiny-Tailed Lizard

Before purchasing a spiny-tailed lizard, search local reputable breeders or sellers that have a captively bred spiny-tailed lizards. If you can get your reptile from a breeder, they can account for the health of your pet, and most have hand-raised the lizards. Captive-bred lizards are already accustomed to life in a cage and will startle less when being handled. Do not buy an imported lizard; poachers are responsible for depleting wild populations.

You can often find reputable breeders through exotics vets, other reptile owners, and local reptile shows. At reptile expos, you can regularly meet breeders as well as shop for lizards and all your supplies in one place. Spiny-tailed lizards can cost from $100 to $300. Hatchlings usually cost the least since their mortality rate is the highest.

Signs of a healthy spiny-tailed lizard include smooth, even body; no traces of mites (small, reddish-brown spots around the face); clear, bright eyes; smooth jawline; and fat, rounded tail.

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