Iguanas are one of the most popular reptiles to be kept as pets. Unfortunately they are also one of the most commonly seen by vets for illnesses due to lack of proper care. Like all reptiles, they have relatively strict feeding and housing requirements and many new owners are not provided with enough proper information by pet stores to care for their new pet. While the effects of an improper diet or incorrect housing may not be seen for a few months, the consequences can be devastating for the iguana. Therefore anybody considering a pet iguana should only use this guide as a starting point and should make every effort to read dedicated iguana care books as well as get advice from experts.
Note that iguanas can also become very large as they mature – some reaching 6 feet in length and weighing as much as 15 pounds – so don’t be seduced by the cute green baby you see in the pet store! They can also become less easy to tame and more aggressive – in some cases, downright dangerous to handle, given their razor-sharp teeth, claws and lashing tail, which can cause skin lacerations and eye injuries. Having said all that, with careful, committed owners and proper care and handling, iguanas can make good pets.
Meet the iguana…
Iguanas originate in Central and South America and are tropical, arboreal lizards. They are herbivorous, feeding on jungle leaves, fruits and flowers in the wild. They also have a unique digestive system where they derive a large proportion of their energy from the fermentation of complex carbohydrates in their gut, via bacterial activity, and hatchlings will eat the faeces of adult iguanas to acquire the beneficial bacteria. This fermentation process is assisted by basking in the sun and iguanas will usually seek temperatures above 85 degrees F (30 degrees C).
Iguanas can be housed in glass, Perspex or wooden enclosures, providing that they are large. A good starting size for a young iguana is a 20 gallon aquarium tank as these reptiles grow incredibly rapidly in the first few months of life. The best substrate is a lining of artificial grass (e.g., Astroturf), newspaper or even indoor-outdoor carpet – anything that is easy to clean. Avoid things like sand, gravel or soil as they could be eaten and cause a potentially fatal intestinal impaction. Make sure you provide hiding spaces to help the iguana feel secure – something that is large enough for the reptile to enter easily and turn around in. A simple cardboard, wood or plastic container will suffice. Make sure also that you maintain humidity levels in the enclosure by misting the area at least once daily or by providing a humidity box. In addition, you should provide fresh water daily in a water bowl and many iguanas appreciate a daily soak and a swim in the bathtub or sink.
Despite what you may see in wildlife documentaries, iguanas are not social animals in captivity and putting two together may result in serious injury or even death. Even if they manage to co-exist in “peace”, the less dominant animal will suffer, in terms of food and environment, and will become sickly and not grow properly as a result.
Lighting and Temperature Needs
Like all reptiles, iguanas need an artificial source of heat and a temperature gradient maintained in their enclosure. As they are tropical lizards, they like things fairly hot. However, avoid “hot rocks” as these can cause serious burns, sometimes even death. Undercage heating provided by a heating pad is a better choice (placed under the cage so that animals cannot have direct contact with it.). Make sure you also provide a specific basking spot, using an overhead light and heat source. The temperature should be in the region of 90-100 degrees F and it should only be available for about 10-14 hours per day (turned off at night).
While artificial UV light sources claim to supply all the necessary radiation to facilitate Vitamin D production in the skin (and thus calcium absorption), there is really no substitute for natural sunlight. Naturally, this is a scarce resource in the UK! However, take any chance you can to allow your iguana to “sunbathe” in natural light, especially during the warmer summer months. This can be done on a leash and harness or by putting the iguana in a purpose-built outdoor playpen with a shaded area.
This is the area most inexperienced owners fall down on, leading to calcium and /or vitamin D deficiency. This in turn leads to softened and broken bones, stunted growth, muscle tremors, seizures and even death. One of the problems is that juvenile iguanas have very different dietary requirements compared to the adults and the most appropriate diet is still much debated. There is now a large range of commercial iguana foods available but despite their claims, none are really adequate as a “complete” diet. They are best fed as 75% of the main diet, supplemented with plant material. Half of these should include dark green leafy vegetables such as mustard greens, dandelion greens, kale, Swiss chard, endive, lettuce, carrot tops, endive and turnip. Make sure that you always give at least 3 different greens daily as excessive use of one or two types will quickly cause nutritional disease. The rest of the plant material should be made up of things like squash (of any type), green beans, and pea pods. Broccoli, Okra, carrot, tomatoes, cooked sweet potato and fruits such as mango, melon, berries and banana. In general, the more variety at each meal, the better.
Young iguanas should be fed daily whilst large adult iguanas may only feed 2-3 times a week. Always chop any supplementary food up into little pieces and only give small amounts which can be eaten up in a few hours. Remember, this is only a very basic summary of iguana feeding requirements and you must thorough research by consulting specialist books and experts if you’re thinking of getting an iguana as a pet.