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Beginner's Guide to Pet Iguanas


Hi! I'm Steve Ford ("I'm not an expert, but I talk like one") and this is my iguana care guide for new iguana owners. It is intended to be short enough to be read at one sitting. It should get you started on the right track, but you will need to obtain more complete information as time goes on.

If you're just thinking about getting an iguana, please read: http://www.geeky-boy.com/buy_ig.html (it's very short).

If you're curious about what your iguana thinks about you, then you might like my iguana story. If you like that one, then you might like my second iguana story. Like it or not, I now have a third story, but this one is a true account of my iguana's recent trip to the vet. And if you still haven't had enough, you can read my iguana poem. Or you can run while you have the chance.

Sfordsez: if you haven't seen my standard disclaimer and copyright at http://www.geeky-boy.com/standard.html then please check it out now.

Table of contents:

Resources

When you're finished reading this, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE get ahold of a longer and more complete iguana guide:

Between the two of them, these guides will teach you almost everything you need to know about keeping your iguana happy and healthy.

Melissa's entire website http://www.anapsid.org/ is a treasure-trove of information on reptiles in general).

Another pretty good resource for a new iguana owner is the rec.pets.herp ("rph") newsgroup. But as you probably already know, newsgroups can be a mixed bag. You can get a lot of well-meaning people giving what they think is good advice ("Feed your ig lettuce, spinach, and bean sprouts") but in reality will kill your iguana. Be aware that some of the advice in this blurb is the subject of much debate on rph. In general, trust Melissa Kaplan's advice. Melissa is one of the real experts of iguanas (and lots of other reptiles too).

Another VERY important resource is to get a vet that specializes in herps. See http://www.anapsid.org/vets/ for listings of reptile vets. One test for a potential vet - ask him if you should include spinach as a staple food. If he says yes, then find another vet. If he says no, and talks about oxillic acid, then he's probably OK. (Although small amounts of spinach won't hurt an iguana, it won't particularly help him either. Large amounts will hurt him.) Anyway, take your ig to the vet once a year.

One resource that you should probably NOT use (IMHO) is your local pet store. Many pet store workers have neither the time nor desire to learn much about their exotic animals. They only need to keep the animal alive long enough for you to buy it. Their advise is more often wrong than right, and they often make owning an iguana sound a LOT easier than it really is. (I've received an e-mail from a pet store worker who takes exception to this paragraph. See my answer at http://www.geeky-boy.com/ig_pet_store.txt.)

As a matter of fact, there are a lot of unwanted (i.e. "free") iguanas available from people who didn't know what they were getting themselves into. Contact your local (?) herp society.

Advice

Enough of resources, here's some specific iguana advice from an admitted non-expert.

Probably the most important thing is his food. Without the proper diet, your iguana will get very sick and will die. Unfortunately, he won't show any symptoms of his illness until it's almost too late. I've heard conflicting reports about commercial iguana food; see http://www.geeky-boy.com/mk_ig_diets.html for Melissa Kaplan's view. Most people in rph swear by Melissa's "salad" - go with it if you can. I prefer a slightly different recipe, which I'll describe later on.

Keep him warm. He should have a basking spot which is kept in the mid-to-upper 80s F during the day, but he should also have an area he can get to which is cooler. (His body can't regulate it's own temp, so he has to manually regulate it by moving between warm and cool spots as needed.) Veteren rph'ers call that a temperature gradient.

He will be happiest if the basking spot is kept warm by radient heat from above (I use a regular 150 watt bulb with a reflector). Stay away from "hot rocks". WARNING: iguanas aren't exactly rocket scientists; they will burn themselves on surfaces that are too hot. The basking light should be separated from the iguana by screen, with the bulb a couple inches from the screen. The iguana will often get as close to the bulb as he can.

Also, during the day he needs a source of UV-B ultraviolet light; without UV-B he will get sick and die. No regular (incandescent) light bulb in the world can give him UV-B, even the ones advertised as "full spectrum", so you need to get a floresent tube which is designed for UV light. I have heard that "VitaLight" is about the minimally acceptable source; the ZooMed "ReptaSun" is even better. This light should be separated from your iguana by screen, NOT GLASS OR PLASTIC. (Glass and plastic block most of the UV-B light.) A mail-order source for UV-B lights is http://www.bigappleherp.com/ (look under fluorescent lighting).

While on subject of light, iguanas need darkness too. If you're a night owl and stay up late most days, then you may want to get a cover for his enclosure so that he can get a good 8-10 hours of darkness each night. I've heard that iguanas can become stressed (i.e. unhappy) if they don't get regular darkness.

Try to give your iguana baths. NO SOAP!!! Just plain warm water. They like to scratch and even swim. It is good for their skin. BUT - iguanas usually poop (deficate) in warm water, so be ready to clean up after him. It is also a good idea to spray him with a plant mister once or twice every day. Young igs especially benefit from high humidity, which a plant mister can help with.

Iguanas LOVE to climb. If at all possible, get an enclosure that is tall, and put in some branches (well secured) or shelves for him to climb. Even if the enclosure isn't very tall, put a fireplace log or two in for him to climb around on. (It would be a good idea to disinfect the log first -- soak it in a bleach solution for a half hour, then rinse it several times.)

For more information on enclosures, see: http://www.anapsid.org/iguana/caging.html Also, if you have a lot of money to spend, see /http://www.jworlds.net/ for enclosures made by Jay W. Nelmes. They look fantastic, but I suspect that they would run in the thousands.

If posible, let your iguana out of his enclosure regularly, especially if his enclosure isn't very tall. He will enjoy roaming around and climbing on your furnature. If you could put a "tree" next to the enclosure, then he will love climbing that. Just remember that igs aren't always very graceful and they don't care about your stuff; they will knock things off of tables and shelves.

You should also handle him pretty frequently if you want him to stay tame. If you're having trouble taming him, see http://www.geeky-boy.com/ig_taming.html for a short guide on taming. (Melissa K. has a taming guide too.) I want to emphasize how important it is to keep your iguana tame. If you have a busy schedule and go for a week without much contact, your iguana will start to lose his tameness. Once that happens, it tends to reduce even further the amount of time you handle him. After a month of this, you could end up with an iguana who always acts like mine does during a visit to the vet. See http://www.geeky-boy.com/perry3.html and imagine your iguana being like that at home too.

Finally, there has been a lot of debate about the risk of salmonella infection from Iguanas. The concensus of the debate on rec.pets.herp seems to be that MOST iguanas have some form of salmonella appearing at various times in their poop (feces), but for reasons I don't understand, the risk of infection is pretty low. One problem with iguanas is that they are not careful about where they drag themselves; it's not unusual to see brown smears on their belly and tail, and those smears might be contaminated.

The best idea is to use caution. Very young or very old people have reduced immune systems - keep them away from iguanas "just in case". Also, you should wash your hands after handling your iguana or cleaning up after him, EXPECIALLY if you plan on eating again (don't bother if you're starting a hunger strike). I frequently get some small scratches when handling my Perry; I always wash with soap after handling him.

One last thing. My iguana suffered from "dry rot" on the end of his tail. The vet had to amputate part of the tail to save my iguana's life. See http://www.geeky-boy.com/ig_tail.html for a writeup of the procedure.

Food

The larger iguana guides mentioned above do a much better job than I could at giving you comprehensive food info. The only general thing I'll say here is that you should stay away from animal products (meat, eggs, fish, dog and cat food, insects, etc). I've heard conflicting reports about commercial iguana food; see http://www.geeky-boy.com/mk_ig_diets.html for Melissa Kaplan's view.

Many people write to me saying that they're worried about their iguana not eating very much. There are many reasons why that might be; see http://www.geeky-boy.com/picky_ig.txt for what to do about it.

Unlike many other pets (like dogs), Iguanas will not overeat, so it's OK for him to have food available pretty much all the time. If he regularly cleans his plate, you need to be feeding him more. He should get his food in the morning so that he can digest it in warmpth during the day. The bacteria in his gut need the warmpth to break down the food; he can actually end up malnourished if fed at night.

In addition to the staple food described below, I try to give Perry treats every day. His favorite is fresh dandelion leaves (bought from the grocery store; I don't trust lawn chemicals). He loves them and they're good for him. Don't give your iguana lettuce; he may love it, but it's like potato chips for humans - it fills him up without providing ANY nutrients. Other good treats are strawberries and hibiscus flowers. See Jennifer Swofford's Iguana Guide for a good treatment on which foods are good and bad.

Here is what I feed my Perry. It may not be perfect (I wish it didn't depend so much on the freezer), but it can't be too bad since my vet says he's healthy.

*** Steve Ford's Iguana Glop ***
(Yes, I've tasted it. It's not as bad as it sounds.)

From the fresh food area of the grocery store:

From the frozen food area (or fresh if available):

From the "health and beauty" section, I get the following "human" products, and grind each into a powder in a blender:

From a pet supply store, I get:

Thaw the frozen stuff. Soak the rabbit pellets in water to soften them. Grind the fruit, okra, and green beans to a "glop" using a food processor or blender. Coarsely chop the fresh leaves with a knife into medium-sized peices, maybe 2-3 cm long (about 1 inch). This gives the glop some nice texture. Add a good sprinkle of the vitamin, calcium, and brewers yeast. Mix well.

This makes a HUGE bowl of food that lasts me about 3 weeks. (well, maybe 2 weeks lately.)

All this gets shoveled into zip-lock plastic bags which I press flat (about 1 cm thick (1/4 inch)) and freeze.

Feeding should be done in the morning, so that the bacteria in the Iguana's hindgut can be toasty-warm (it helps the iguana digest). Break off a few chunks of the frozen glop and thaw. Be careful if you use a microwave oven - you wouldn't want hot spots burn his cute little tongue. Mix it with your finger till it's uniformly warm.

Yum!