By Dr. Becker
September 8 is National Iguana Awareness Day, and its slogan “Hard to Care For, Easy to Love,” is worth remembering. When you see a mouse-sized iguana at a pet store or fair, it may seem like an intriguing pet, and, indeed, these lizards are fascinating.
But a mouse-sized iguana is a hatchling, which means it’s got a lot of growing left to do. Millions of iguanas are bred in Central and South America and imported into the US for the pet trade. However, they are one of the largest tree-climbing lizards in the world.
They can grow to be five or six feet… or longer, which requires ample space, special lighting, and habitat that can cost upwards of hundreds or thousands of dollars to properly create and maintain.
Many pet owners who were drawn in by the iguana’s hatchling-size cuteness are not so thrilled to have a six-foot lizard sharing their home. And so, as reported by the Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary in Illinois:1
“They [iguanas] are the reptile species most often turned in to rescues, and the species LEAST adopted from rescues. Because they are farmed in poor countries, they are one of the most profitable and exploited reptiles in the pet trade.
Some large pet companies, like PetSmart, have actually stopped selling iguanas due to ethical concerns, while still acknowledging iguanas were their most profitable reptile.
Unfortunately many pet stores and unscrupulous dealers continue to import hatchling iguanas faster than abandoned adult iguanas can find homes. This leaves reptile rescues with a major problem. It can take months or years to find a suitable home for a large iguana!”
As a result, many reptile rescues can’t accept iguanas into their care. This means, if you’re considering an iguana as a pet, you’d better be sure it’s a commitment you can handle for its entire life.
Iguanas Require Complex Care
Some lizards do make wonderful pets. Beginners often do well with leopard geckos, bearded dragons, blue-tongued skinks, or green anoles, for instance. Iguanas… not so much.
A full-grown five- to six-foot iguana is a strong animal with an even stronger personality. Although they are herbivores that require freshly prepared fruits and vegetables daily, they may develop tastes for other, less healthy foods, making feeding time difficult. Although there are commercially available processed foods for iguanas, I don’t recommend them. A fresh food diet is optimal for these lizards.
If your iguana doesn’t receive regular handling and attention, it may be difficult to keep tame, and an irritated iguana can leave you with painful bites or lashes from its whip-like tail (which may make up at least half its body length).
They also require appropriate UV lighting, without which they are susceptible to a metabolic bone disease that results from an improper ratio of calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D in their body.2 Proper humidity levels and temperatures must also be maintained.
And, as mentioned, these are large animals, which means they’ll need a suitably sized enclosure. As in, some people give their iguanas their own rooms. According to Reptiles Magazine:3
“An adult green iguana requires an enclosure at least 12 feet long by 6 feet wide by 6 feet high. The height of 6 feet is very important as, these lizards are primarily arboreal in nature.”
Iguanas have a relatively long lifespan as well – about 20 years in the wild (although many live far shorter in captivity since many owners are not aware of appropriate care).4 Sadly, many captive iguanas die during the first year due to improper care (and many others are turned loose or given to rescues that will accept them).5
Iguanas Are Fascinating Animals
It’s easy to see the allure of iguanas. Their dinosaur-like appearance is exotic and, unlike some other reptiles, they can learn to recognize and respond to their caregivers.6
They’re also quite fascinating, capable of surviving 40-foot drops from trees, acting as excellent swimmers (that can stay under water for 28 minutes!7) while at the same time being remarkably fast and agile on land.
If given the choice, some iguanas will spend their days in the treetop canopies and come down only to mate, lay eggs, or find a new tree. They’re found in a variety of locales, from Mexico and Central America to the Caribbean Islands and southern Brazil (in Central America, green iguanas are also a popular food source known as “bamboo chicken” or “chicken of the trees”).8
Iguanas also boast an impressive survival mechanism: they can detach their tail if caught by a predator, then grow a new one with no lasting damage.9 Some iguanas can also inflate themselves during flooding for safety. Also intriguing is their “third eye” located on top of their head. As noted by Iguanas 101:10
“It contains a lens and a retina-like structure that connects through the nerves to the pineal gland in the brain. Although it does not form images, it is very important for iguanas; such that it governs production of hormones related to time spent for basking.”
If you decide an iguana is the right pet for you, and you’re prepared for its complex care, please adopt one from a rescue organization rather than purchasing a hatchling from a pet store.