While Hollywood likes to show iguanas crawling alongside dusty Mexican roads, in the wild, green iguanas are typically found in the rainforest, spending most of their time up in the forest canopy. Being tree dwellers, it’s obvious that they are excellent climbers, but less known is the fact that iguanas are also excellent swimmers.
Iguanas are a large family of lizards with over 700 species found through much of the temperate and tropical regions of the Americas. The iguanas showing up in pet stores are typically the common green iguana and likely have been imported from tropical iguana farms.
As we know, all reptiles are “cold-blooded” which means their activity increases or decreases with their body temperature. Iguanas are accustomed to sleeping during the somewhat cool nights of the tropics and coming out to warm up in the morning sun. They then head out to look for plants to eat – and to keep a watchful eye on territorial rivals. Next they bask in the afternoon sun, as their bodies need to be warmed to at least 35C for proper digestion.
While most reptiles and amphibians have diets consisting of insects and other small creatures, iguanas are vegetarians, eating leaves, flowers and some soft fruits. They should not be fed anything containing animal protein, which can be hard on their delicate digestive systems. They typically get their water from the vegetation they consume but will take the occasional drink.
Now, let’s talk about iguanas as pets. Iguanas, if raised in a healthy, friendly environment can become eventually quite tame, even enjoying an occasional back or head rub. While they are not dogs (or parrots), iguanas are social animals and do develop a (lizardly) bond with their human owners. Be warned though: they have a mouth full of sharp teeth that can easily slice open your skin if they decide you’re deserving of a bite. An iguana’s strong serrated tail can also lash out and cause some damage if it catches a handler in the face.
Iguanas, and many other reptiles for that matter, have very special living requirements (housing, temperature, humidity, lighting and special food). While an iguana in a pet store for $25-$50 may look like a good price for a pet, you should be looking to spend at least another $300 in housing and climate control equipment for starters and another good chunk of cash on a first trip to the vet. And once you bring home your new pet, you need to be ready for years of daily food preparation, cleaning and disinfecting the cage.
Still ready for a vegetarian lizard in the family? A couple more items might change your mind. Those cute little iguanas you see in the stores are probably less than a year old. A few years from now that little guy will be five to seven feet long and weigh up to 20 lbs.! This basically calls for a cage the size of your bathroom. And healthy iguanas can live up to 20 years of age or longer. Unfortunately a lot of iguana owners are not fully prepared for the responsibilities of this increasingly popular pet and many ill and dying lizards end up in the care of humane societies. In the end, you might decide to just visit iguanas in the local zoo or on your next trip to Acapulco.
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While iguanas can be hard to handle due to their large adult size, there are many other smaller species of lizards that, while requiring significant care, are much more suited to life in a home terrarium. Check out your local pet shop and look into anoles, chameleons, skinks among many others.
NOTE: I highly recommend any research you do on any pet be done over the Internet or in specialist magazines. Most books, even ones printed in the last 10 years, typically are 20-30 years out of date in terms of the latest developments in animal care. Consult several current sources and use your judgement in the case of conflicting advice. If you end up bringing a pet into your life save the better websites so you can stay up to date and quickly get answers to the questions that inevitably crop up…..Naomi