Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Care for your Iguana


Pet Column for the week of November 16, 1998


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Sarah Probst
Information Specialist

The common green iguana, scientifically known as Iguana iguana, is a reptile pet imported
from South or Central America or raised in captivity. Iguanas are the most popular lizard
for people to have as pets. Unfortunately, they tend to be a pet bought on impulse.
Consequently, owners often do not understand the needs of their pet.

Dr. Nancy McGuire, veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary
Medicine Teaching Hospital in Urbana, wants to prevent these pets' dying because they
were bought on impulse and put in an inappropriate environment. "Each reptile has
requirements for moisture, temperature, hibernation, and diet. Owning any reptile is going to
require work. You can't just buy it, throw it in a cage, and think it's fine. Do research about
your potential pet and find out the requirements," says Dr. McGuire.

One factor people forget about iguanas is that they grow continuously. In the wild iguanas
live 10 to 15 years and can grow as large as 7 feet. Reptiles in captivity can live up to 20
years if cared for properly. "People don't realize the commitment when they buy this little
cute thing and put it in a ten-gallon tank," explains Dr. McGuire.

"You should get a cage that is at least two times the length, from nose to tail, of the reptile.
Plus you will want to have room for it to move up and down so you'll want to have
branches for it to climb on." Dr. McGuire suggests you use newspaper or butcher paper as
flooring in the cage. "That way you can clean it daily," she says. Using corn cobs and wood
chips is not a good idea. Your iguana may eat these and get an obstruction in the gut.

Iguanas are herbivores. "Up to 90 percent of an iguana's diet should consist of dark leafy
green vegetables. Avoid too much spinach or broccoli because they are calcium binding,"
says Dr. McGuire. "If you feed meat or too much protein in the diet, it causes renal failure."
Some lizards are omnivorous (e.g., bearded dragons) or even completely carnivorous (e.g.,
monitors) so research your lizard's diet before feeding.

When you buy your iguana, have it tested for parasites. "Many iguanas die from parasitism.
A lot of them have coccidia when you purchase them," says Dr. McGuire. When a lizard is
sick, it may stop eating, drinking, and moving around. Skin disease and metabolic bone
disease are common ailments.

One problem owners sometimes encounter is aggressiveness. Male iguanas especially
become more aggressive as they get older. "Some males will get pretty vicious. One owner
who came to the vet clinic was attacked by her iguana and had to have plastic surgery.
Their small, very sharp teeth almost feel like razors when you get bit."

To prevent the problem of aggression, Dr. McGuire suggests that you spay or neuter your
pet early. "Early spays and neuters on iguanas can prevent aggression." If you have a female
iguana, an early spay can prevent egg binding as well. Female iguanas lay eggs at specific
times of the year. If the female does not have an appropriate nesting area or appropriate
humidity, she might retain eggs. "Most will have to be surgically removed if they get bound,"
says Dr. McGuire.

In their native environment, iguanas rest at night and begin the hunt for tender shoots,
flowers, and soft fruits after basking in the sun for a few hours in the morning. After eating
they bask in sun again to stay warm enough to digest food. Be sure to provide your iguana
with a source of ultraviolet light and the appropriate amount of heat. Keep a thermometer
available to monitor the temperature.

Iguanas are prey species, so a great part of the day is spent keeping a look out for
predators. Initially, you will be the predator it is protecting itself from. Socializing your
iguana is a time-consuming process but necessary to ensure your pet's longevity. Many
people end up getting rid of their iguana when it expresses its natural behavior of
aggressiveness towards the predator, us. However, with time and socialization with you,
your iguana will relax and be a happy safe pet.

Remember, most health problems in reptile pets are related to inappropriate diet,
environment, and husbandry. Take the time to socialize your pet into a creature that you can
handle and give it the environment it needs to survive.

For more information about your exotic pet, call your local veterinarian.