Loving those Lizards! (with specific reference to iguanas)

Lizards are great!  But they’re not for everyone.

On the other hand, caring for lizards presents a unique challenge, as well as a window onto a different sort of lifestyle and existence.  Numerous different sorts of lizards are kept in captivity, including plant eaters and meat eaters.  Partly because of the aesthetics of feeding prey to meat eating lizards and partly because of husbandry challenges, iguanas have until recently been the most commonly kept lizard in Canada.  Though it has been changing, the kind we most often see at Park Veterinary Center in Sherwood Park is the green iguana – this blog will focus on that species.

Common (or green) iguanas come from sub-tropical Central and South America.  They are usually quite shy, and although they can climb and swim well they are not good at running long distances.  That is why in the wild they are often found sitting on branches overhanging water.  Anything frightening comes along and SPLASH – the iguana is off, swimming to a less dangerous place.  Iguanas are mainly plant eating, and spend much time sunning themselves.  Because of these characteristics, an ideal temperature range for an iguana is 28 – 33 degrees Celsius with a humidity greater than 50 percent.  Branches should always be available to climb on, ideally in areas of direct sunlight, and clean water should always be available.  In places where it is too cold to set up this type of environment outside it is best mimicked in a large terrarium with special reptile ultraviolet-B lamps. Over time, these bulbs wear out and produce less beneficial radiation than is needed, so replace them every six months or so.

Feed should consist of a wide variety of vegetables and greens, chopped into bite-sized pieces.   Calcium rich vegetables such as turnip and beet greens, Swiss chard, spinach, romaine lettuce, parsley and dandelions are an important part of the diet.  Frozen mixed vegetables are also a useful source of dietary plant matter.  Although iguanas are plant-eating reptiles they can eat small amounts of protein type food such as cooked white chicken, tuna (canned and packed in water), cooked egg, or lean hamburger.  In growing iguanas such protein sources can make up about 15 percent of the diet.  In mature adults (over three years of age) they should not make up more than 5 percent of dietary intake.  Young iguanas should eat daily while older ones may eat only a few times per week.  Supplementation with a vitamin/mineral supplement containing calcium is a necessity, to help prevent bone problems.

One of the most common diseases we see in iguanas has to do with calcium deficiency. The calcium level in the body relates to the level of vitamin D made by the skin, which requires direct sunlight to do its job.  Again, the use of artificial sun lamps made for reptiles is essential here, but even the best ones offer only about 2 percent of the ultraviolet exposure that direct sunlight does. That is why calcium-rich vegetables are so important in the diet, and a vitamin-mineral supplement is a requirement too.  You may also give liquid calcium, available at your friendly Sherwood Park Veterinarians here, at a rate which varies by species, body size and dietary calcium intake.  Theoretically, it is possible to give an iguana an overdose of calcium, but I have never seen that to be a problem in iguanas kept in Alberta.

As with all pets, it is a good idea to request a veterinary check up prior to the purchase of any iguana.  Especially when groups of iguanas or other reptiles live together, disease can be devastating.  The most common diseases seen among captive reptiles are due to improper husbandry, including improper diet or a dirty environment.  Other common conditions include bacterial infections, parasite infestations, metabolic disease, and injuries.  Several intestinal diseases of reptiles can be spread to humans, so proper diagnosis and treatment is very important. Remember to wash your hands after handling your lizard!  Your friendly veterinarians at Park Veterinary Centre can help with more specific information and advice.

Just today I was looking after an iguana that was more than 17 years old – feel free to give us a call at Park Veterinary Centre and let us help  your iquana live a long and happy life too.