Pet Iguanas – What You Need to Know Before Getting One

Unfortunately, you cannot have a pet dragon. However, you can come pretty close by having a pet iguana. These lizards, native to South and Central America, are as close as you can get to having a real-life dragon living in your home.

The idea of having one of these creatures as a pet is alluring to many people, and for good reason, they’re incredibly beautiful reptiles with bright colors and a calm demeanor. However, owning an iguana involves a lot more than meets the eye.

These creatures are not beginner pets. They can grow very large and have sharp claws, big tail, and strong jaws. On top of that, it’s often quite the challenge to tame and bond with them. They need a lot of care to survive and thrive in captivity. It’s an unfortunate reality that a lot of pet iguanas die prematurely due to improper care.

In this guide, I’m going to go over everything you need to know before you decide to get an iguana as a pet. That way you can have an idea of what you should expect when you decide to adopt one of these lizards into your home. Hopefully, it’ll help you decide whether or not you’re ready to take on the responsibility of taking care of one of these beautiful animals.

What are iguanas?

a picture of a pet iguana

The most common iguana that’s kept as a pet is the Iguana Iguana also known as the green iguana. These creatures are very popular as pets. They’re one of the most popular lizards in the pet trade. In 1995 over 800,000 were imported into the United States and that doesn’t even account for domestic breeding which has become increasingly popular over the years.

The green iguana is a large, herbivorous reptile characterized by their stocky build, dewlap, and spines on their back. that’s native from Southern Brazil all the way to as far north as Mexico. Additionally, in recent years they’ve become an invasive species in several states such as Florida.

Pet iguana size

Baby iguanas are tiny, cute lizards. They’re only a few inches long. However, that doesn’t last long. Fully grown iguanas are among the largest lizards on the planet.

When they’re fully grown they can reach a length of up to 7 feet (over 2 meters) and a weight of 20 pounds. They reach their fully grown length in three to four years. Their length is longer than that of most humans which is definitely something that has to be taken into account when you decide to adopt one. You need to be sure that you have enough space to house one of these creatures, a small cage will not house an iguana properly for long.

Some people are under the impression that it’s impossible for an iguana to grow larger than their cage but this is a myth. The only factors that impact the size an iguana will grow to are their gender, species, diet, and health. Their growth is unaffected by the size of their cage. It’s impossible to keep your iguana small by keeping them in a small cage.

Many people underestimate the huge size these lizards grow to when they get an iguana. They buy a cute little lizard that’s only a few inches long and a couple of months later they’re the owner of a huge lizard that doesn’t fit in any cage. As you can imagine, this is quite a shock to many people.

As a result of this underestimation, a lot of iguanas end up abandoned or brought to shelters when owners realize they’re unequipped to properly take care of them. That’s why it’s so important that you know what you’re getting yourself into before you get one of these animals as a pet.

When you get an iguana, be prepared to have to build an enclosure for them by yourself because there aren’t any cages that are large enough to fit these lizards.

Housing a pet iguana

Housing an iguana is not easy. Whereas other pets can be simply kept in a cage that you can buy from a pet shop or online this is not the case for iguanas. Iguanas need a custom-built enclosure to ensure that it’s big enough for them. The minimum recommended size for an iguana enclosure is at least 12 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 8 feet tall. As you can see, that’s quite large and it means that you need to have adequate space in order to build this enclosure. If you live in a small apartment it’s probably not going to work.

You can find some good building plans for creating an iguana enclosure here.

Some people choose to repurpose a large cabinet or a spare room into an enclosure. This is also possible as long as you know what you’re doing.

These animals need several things in their enclosure in order to survive and thrive. They need the proper amount of heat, light, substrate, and humidity to be healthy.

The temperature of their enclosure

We’ve already established that iguanas are native to South and Central America which are quite warm places. Because of that, you’ll need to replicate this in their enclosure. If it’s too cold your iguana can actually freeze and prolonged exposure to the cold is very bad for their health.

They need a place in their enclosure that can be used as a basking spot. In the wild, they spend a lot of time basking and they should be able to do the same in captivity. This spot should be warmer than the rest of the cage and should be around 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (~37 degrees celsius).

The rest of their cage should be a temperature of 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Humidity

Another important part of getting their enclosure right is making sure it has proper humidity levels. Iguanas need a humidity level of at least 70% as this will help prevent poor shedding and kidney disease.

You can place a large bowl of water in their enclosure to increase the humidity. The water will evaporate and as a result, the air will be more humid. Alternatively, you can set up a humidifier to increase the humidity level in the enclosure. Using a humidifier is especially recommended if you live in a place with low humidity because it’s the most effective way of ramping up the humidity levels.

You can also use a mister to humidify the iguana itself. This is recommended to do twice per day.

Light

The third important component of creating a good enclosure is light. In nature, these lizards spend a lot of their time basking in the sunlight. They do this not only to heat their body but also because the light allows them to stay healthy.

You should use UVB lightbulbs to give the appropriate light exposure to your iguana. The lights should be on 10 to 14 hours per day. These lightbulbs mimic natural sunlight and therefore help your iguana produce vitamin D and calcium which they normally get from basking in the sunlight.

In the night they should be shut off so your iguana has a good day-night cycle.

Substrate

The substrate is another necessary component of a good enclosure.

The substrate you use should be easy to clean and disinfect. In addition, it should, of course, be non-toxic to the animal. Artificial grass, like Astroturf, is considered the best option. Other options include wood substrates, as long as it’s not cedar because this is toxic to lizards or newspapers.

The costs

Now that we’ve gone over all of the things that you need to house an iguana you might wonder what all of that’s going to cost. That’s a very good question and something very important to keep in mind when you decide if you want to get a pet iguana.

I have done a complete cost breakdown of owning an Iguana here, but I will also give a shortened version down below.

The upfront cost of getting an iguana is $360-$1750 depending on what kind of iguana you’re getting. This includes the cost of their enclosure, the iguana itself, and miscellaneous one-time costs.

The monthly costs you should budget for are around $40-$60 a month. This includes food, electricity, and vet costs.

Overall, the upfront and monthly costs of owning an iguana can be relatively high. It’s definitely something that you need to be sure that you have the budget for before committing to getting one.

Time commitment

Iguanas are not low maintenance pets. They will not require daily walks like a dog, but properly taking care of an iguana still takes a lot of time. You have to spend lots of time with them to bond with them and to tame them. If you do not spend the required time with them they can become very mean.

This means that you will have to spend a lot of time holding them, talking to them, and generally being in their presence for them to become good pets. If you do not do this they will never get used to you.

But that’s not all, you also have to take into account that you have to prepare their food every day, clean their cage and take them to the vet when you need to.

Overall taking care of an iguana will take up quite a lot of your time which is something you have to be prepared for.

Pet iguana lifespan

Iguanas have a very long lifespan. In fact, there’s a blue iguana named Godzilla that died in 2004 who was 69 years old!

Now, not all iguanas live that long, but they do have a very long lifespan. On average iguanas live around 20 years in the wild. In captivity, they unfortunately often die much sooner as a result of improper care. Nevertheless, if you take care of your pet iguana the way you should they can reach an age of 30 in captivity.

Since these animals can grow so old you’re making a long term commitment when deciding to adopt one. These animals will always be cool, but the novelty factor will eventually wear off. They’re not disposable pets and you cannot decide after a few years that you’re bored with them.

If you decide to get a pet iguana you have to be absolutely sure that you’re in it for the long haul. It happens all too often that people adopt an iguana without realizing that they’re going to have to take care of it for up to 30 years. As a result, many of them end up being released in the wild. This is something you can never do because they can easily become an invasive species like they’ve become in Florida. If you live in a climate that’s less hospitable to them than Florida, releasing them in the wild will almost certainly mean a gruesome death.

Temperament – are iguanas friendly?

The reason why iguanas are so popular as pets is not only because they look cool. It’s also because they have quite mellow tempers compared to some other lizards. The reason why they’re relatively laid back is most likely because they’re herbivores and therefore do not exhibit much aggressive behavior.

Nevertheless, just because they’re not particularly aggressive does not mean that they can not pose a threat. They’re equipped with sharp claws, strong jaws with sharp serrated teeth, and a very long tail. All of these can be used in self-defense if they feel threatened. On top of that, the fact that they’re so large makes them even more capable of defending themselves.

Especially during the breeding season, male iguanas can show signs of aggression. This is part of their instincts because in the wild they have to fight off rival males during this time. Even though you’re not a rival male, they will most likely still perceive you as such and might lash out. Such behavior is part of their instincts will remain throughout their life, they will always be wild animals.

Bonding – do iguanas show affection?

Most people get iguanas when they’re young and buy them from breeders. These iguanas have already been socialized and are more used to humans than wild iguanas. This makes them slightly easier to tame and bond with than wild iguanas, but it’s still no easy task.

If you do have a wild-caught iguana, it will be a big challenge to tame it and for that reason, it’s not recommended to ever adopt a wild-caught iguana. Wild-caught iguanas are usually cheaper, but it’s not worth the extra hassle.

In general, iguanas are quite tough to handle and bond with, but it is possible. Forming a bond with an iguana can take several years, but is very rewarding. One thing you have to keep in mind though is that these lizards will never be domestic animals. They’ll always retain their instincts and in essence, be wild animals. For that reason, it’s a distinct possibility that even an iguana that you’ve trained and bonded with for years might bite.

Risks – do pet iguanas bite?

The ownership of a pet iguana is not risk-free. Some visible and some invisible risks come with having one of the lizards living with you.

The visible risks are obvious; they’re the sharp teeth, claws and long tail I’ve mentioned previously.

It’s not uncommon for iguanas to bite their owners and the results can be very nasty. The bite of an iguana can do a lot of damage, not only because of the wound they inflict but also because of the bacteria that live in their mouth. An iguana bite will need medical attention and stitches to prevent it from doing further damage to your body.

Also, they can use their long tail like a whip and their claws to scratch. I’ve written a detailed guide about the dangers that come with owning an iguana which you can find here.

There’s also an invisible risk associated with owning an iguana: Salmonella. Salmonella is the same bacteria that can be found on some raw chicken. It can cause serious issues, especially in people with a compromised immune system and the elderly. The salmonella bacteria live in the intestines of the iguana, and from there spread all over their enclosure and their skin.

Because of this, you’ll need to have a bottle of disinfectant at hand at any time. You’ll also need to clean their enclosure frequently.

Pet iguana diet

I’ve mentioned before that many pet iguanas die prematurely. One of the most common reasons for this is that owners often give them the wrong diet.

The iguana is a herbivore and should therefore only be fed plants. Do not feed your iguana meat. If you give it to them they might eat it, but it’s not good for them. 80 to 90 percent of their diet should be vegetables and 10-20% should be fruits. However, even then, not all vegetables or fruits are good for them.

Many iguana owners make the mistake of feeding their iguana iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce is a food that consists almost entirely of water with very little nutrition. All it does it hydrate your iguana, but it doesn’t actually provide much in terms of nutrition. Other vegetables, such as spinach, can only be given in very small amounts because of the oxalates in it.

Some examples of good vegetables and fruits that your iguana need to thrive are:

  • Endive
  • Kale
  • Collard greens
  • Mustard greens
  • Arugula
  • Broccoli
  • Green beans
  • Parsley
  • Red or green cabbage
  • Bell Peppers
  • Peaches
  • Mango
  • Grapes
  • Bananas
  • Strawberries

For a treat, you can feed them flowers like geraniums and roses. I also recommend you to only feed them organic foods. Non-organic fruits and vegetables can have a lot of pesticides and since they eat a diet consisting exclusively of fruits and vegetables this can cause problems. If you do not have access to organic foods you have to make sure to wash the plants properly before feeding.

When you feed your iguana you should cut the foods you’ve prepared for them up in pieces. The reason for this is that they swallow their food whole and do not chew. You can feed them all of their food at once and remove any food that has not been eaten within a day. They will only eat fresh food, so food that’s been sitting in their cage will just start rotting and will not be eaten.

Another thing to note is that iguanas need more calcium than phosphorus in their diet. For that reason, many veterinarians recommend iguana owners to sprinkle the food you give them lightly with calcium powder 2 or 3 times per week. This ensures that they have enough calcium in their diet.

Overall feeding an iguana is quite challenging, especially if you compare it to some other pets that can subsist entirely on pellets.

What is the best iguana to have as a pet?

There are several variations of iguana that you can keep as a pet, but they’re all part of the green iguana family. The “best” pet iguana depends on 2 things: your budget and your preference. They’re all the same in care, so that shouldn’t affect your decision.

However, they’re not all the same in price. Albino iguanas are by far the most expensive, and regular green iguanas are by far the cheapest. The reason for this is simple supply and demand. Albinos are very rare and are therefore much higher in price.

You should choose the color iguana that you find the most appealing and that fits in your budget.

Checklist – are you ready for a pet iguana?

Now that we’ve discussed everything that you need to know before deciding if an iguana is for you let’s go through a checklist to see if you’re ready to own a pet iguana.

  • Enough money to take care of a pet iguana ($360-$1750 upfront and $40-$60 a month)
  • Space, and the ability to create a large enclosure
  • Time to bond and tame them
  • Understanding of the risks that come along with having a pet iguana
  • Confidence that you’re able to take care of them for the 30 years they can live
  • The ability to learn about what they can eat and the willingness to prepare it for them

If you can check all the items on this list you might be ready to take on the responsibility of adopting an iguana into your home!

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