Veterinary Care

Iguanas

Iguanas are tropical lizards of Central and South America. They can be fascinating as pets, but require responsible owners for their protection and care. Adults may reach lengths of up to 6 feet and weigh as much as 15 pounds. They can reach adult size within 2 - 3 years and live 10 - 15 years. Adult animals require a large amount of cage space and may be quite dangerous to handle. Their razor sharp teeth, sharp claws and tail can inflict serious injuries. The following information is designed to help you take the best possible care of your pet.

DIET
Diet is the single most difficult area to manage in iguanas. The most common disease problem in these pets is calcium and/or vitamin D deficiency, which leads to stunted growth, softened and broken bones, muscle tremors, seizures and death. Variety in diet is the key to optimum nutrition. Iguanas need to be fed daily, but adults may only eat 2 or 3 times a week.

Prepackaged diets (pelleted, ground or frozen) - Although many are labeled as "complete," pre-packaged diets do not provide a balanced diet. Plant proteins must be included.

Feeding by age:
  • Babies & juvenile iguanas (less than a foot in length, excluding tail) - An adequate daily diet consists of 20% prepackaged diet and 80% plant protein.
  • Adolescent iguanas (1-11/2 feet in length, excluding tail) - An adequate daily diet consists of 15% pre-packaged diet and 85% plant protein.
  • Adult iguanas (11/2 feet or more in length, excluding tail, or when growth has stopped) - An adequate daily diet consists of 10% prepackaged diet and 90% plant protein. Some adult pets may eat only 2 - 3 times a week. Dark green leafy vegetables should be priority.

Vegetables & fruits - The basic guideline for the plant protein part of the diet should consist of 75% vegetable and 25% fruit. All food should be chopped into small pieces, mixed well and fed in amounts that will be eaten within a few hours.

Recommended vegetables - Dark green leafy vegetables are the most important and should make up 50% of the vegetables fed daily. These would include: mustard greens, dandelion greens,  watercress, endive, carrot tops, turnip and beet greens, collard greens, and bok choy. These foods satisfy the dietary fiber and calcium requirements. Use a minimum of 3 types of greens daily. Iguanas also have a pellet diet, but pellets should be combined with other vegetables and fruits.

Other plant proteins - These are obtained from green beans; turnips; eggplant; radishes; carrots; cooked sweet potatoes; tofu; wheat grass; and alfalfa sprouts.

Recommended fruits - Papaya, mango, melon, figs, apples, apricots, dates, guava, grapes, kiwi, peaches, pears, plums, prunes, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and bananas are okay to feed to your iguana. Although iguanas crave fruits, they should be given in moderation. The more types of fruits mixed together, the greater the chance that nutritional needs will be adequately satisfied.

Do not feed animal protein such as dog food to iguanas. It is suspect in causing kidney disease as the animals age.

Water - Water should always be available in a good-sized, heavy bowl for the animal to drink out of and soak in. Water bowls need to be cleaned and refilled a minimum of once daily.

Vitamins & minerals - Vitamin and mineral supplements are not necessary if your iguana is fed a prepackaged diet, but a baby or adolescent iguana may require supplemental calcium and vitamin D. To avoid over-supplementation, your pet's veterinarian should be consulted before additional vitamins or minerals are given.

ENVIRONMENT
Providing the proper temperature, humidity and light requirements for an iguana is critical if the animal is to survive in captivity. A hiding area is also important for the iguana's mental well-being. A humidity box (see below) or any cardboard, wood or plastic container that is of sufficient size for the pet to enter and turn around in will suffice.

Do not allow your iguana to roam freely around the house. Many hidden dangers exist.

Cages - A twenty gallon aquarium or glass, Plexiglas® or wood cage are all suitable homes. The cage floor should be lined with newspaper, artificial grass (Astro-Turf®) or indoor-outdoor carpet. Do not use gravel, sand, soil or kitty litter which can be potentially fatal if ingested by an iguana.

Water - Iguanas will use their water bowls to soak in as well as to drink from. Many will defecate only in the water, which makes clean-up easier but also demands that the bowl be cleaned and refilled several times a day.

Temperature - Because iguanas are tropical lizards, they need supplemental heat in their environ-ment. Temperatures ranging from 85 - 90 degrees F. during the day are appropriate. Do not use "Hot Rocks®" as a heat source. They have been known to cause serious burns (especially on baby iguanas) because of uneven heating. Night temperatures may be lowered to 70 - 75 degrees F.

Gradient Temperature - There should be a temperature gradient in the cage. This is done by placing a heating pad under part of the cage and leaving it on 24 hours a day. There is no danger to your pet because he does not have direct contact with the pad. Several types of specially made reptile heaters are available to provide additional heat within the cage.

Basking Spot - Your pet needs a "hot basking spot" where temperatures reach 90 - 100 degrees F. Using an overhead heat and light source, this "basking" light should be left on 10 - 14 hours daily and should be turned off at night. Basking lights are available at most pet supply stores.

Allowing your pet to live constantly at "room temperature" will, in time, lead to serious health problems. Iguanas need higher temperatures in which to thrive.

Lights - UV light is important for vitamin D production in the animal's skin, which in turn is essential in facilitating the absorption of calcium into the body. Light bulbs that provide UV rays are recommended for your pet's cage. Vitalite® and Chromalux® bulbs are available. They should be placed so that the pet is no more than 2 feet away from the light source. (The advantage of Chromalux® is that it is also a heat producing bulb.) It is highly recommended that during warm summer months, when temperatures are 80 degrees F. or higher, you expose your pet to natural sunlight in an outdoor, secured playpen with a shaded area.

Humidity - Humidity in the tank can be provided by lightly misting the area once daily or using a humidity box (see below).

Humidity Box - A humidity box is an excellent way to provide the proper amount of moisture needed by your pet without having to keep the entire cage too moist. The box also serves as a hiding area (for the iguana's mental well-being) and a soaking area. The box is simple to construct and maintain.

Supplies needed to construct a humidity box:
  • Sphagnum moss - sold in packages in a dry form at most garden center stores. It is brown in color and consists of long strands.
  • A plastic box with a lid - just large enough to allow the pet to enter, lay down, turn around and exit.
Constructing the box:
  • Cut a hole in the lid or at one end of the box--large enough for the pet to enter and exit easily.
  • Loosely pack the box with the dry sphagnum moss; then wet it down with water. Let the moss sit for 10 -15 minutes to absorb the water. Pick it up in handfuls and squeeze out the excess water as you would with a sponge. Pour off any excess water in the box and replace the moistened moss. Put on the lid.
  • Place the box in the cage near a heat source. No more than ? of the box should be over the heat or it will dry too quickly. Place your pet in it for the first time only. Each iguana varies on how often he likes to use the box. Let him decide for himself.
Check the moisture content and cleanliness of the box every 1 - 2 days. If the animal does not defecate or take food particles into the box, the moss may stay clean for up to 2 weeks. The box should be disinfected periodically by discarding the moss and filling the box with a mild bleach solution. Let it stand for 30 minutes and then rinse well with clear water. Use new moss every time the box is cleaned or if there is any indication of a stale odor, fecal matter, or debris in the box. Additional moisture can be added between moss changes by misting the moss with clean water.

HANDLING
Handling should be kept to a minimum. Iguanas and other reptiles are not social and do not enjoy being handled. Therefore, the animal should be held only for cleaning or transporting.

HEALTH & MEDICAL PROBLEMS
Salmonella in reptiles - Salmonella is a bacteria which is responsible for approximately of the cases of diarrhea associated with food in iguanas. The most common way to contract salmonella is through contaminated food. This bacteria can be found in raw or undercooked meat, poultry and eggs.

Salmonella is perhaps the single-most infamous zoonotic disease associated with reptiles. A zoonotic disease is any disease which can pass from an animal host to a human. Salmonella in reptiles is best diagnosed by a veterinarian. Microbiological cultures of the animal's feces or blood may identify the organism.

A guide to salmonella prevention/control for reptile owners -
  • Never eat or put anything into your mouth when working with reptiles.
  • Never clean cages in the kitchen or anywhere you prepare food for human consumption.
  • Always wash your hands with a disinfectant soap after handling reptiles.
  • Have your veterinarian examine sick animals or perform necropsies on animals which die suddenly, to check for salmonella.
  • Make it a practice to keep cages, water bowls, and soaking bowls clean.
  • Young children, immuno-compromised individuals and people receiving medical care from their physicians should not handle reptiles and amphibians while taking medications.

If you feel that you have been exposed to salmonella bacteria or if you have any questions regarding human salmonellosis, see your family physician.

Protecting your family from reptile zoonosis -

DOS
  • Do wash your hands with hot, soapy water after handling any reptile, cage or cage accessories.
  • Do wear gloves and face protection while cleaning the reptile cage or during changing of the reptile's water tub, pond or soaking pool.
  • Do disinfect reptile caging and cage accessories frequently.
  • Do supervise children handling reptiles. Minimize their contact with reptiles.
  • Do house reptiles away from the kitchen, dining room, eating or food preparation areas.
  • Do keep other pets away from the reptile, his caging and water, tub, pond or pool.
  • Do have your reptile examined by a veterinarian frequently and have laboratory testing done to screen for potentially harmful disease organisms.
DO NOTS
  • Do not use your bathtub, sink or shower as a tub, pond or soaking pool for your reptile.
  • Do not kiss your reptile.
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke while handling your reptile or while cleaning his housing or water tub, pool or pond.
  • Do not clean the cage or dump the water in an area where food is prepared, dishes are washed (i.e., kitchen sink), or faces are washed and teeth are brushed (i.e., bathroom sink).
  • Do not ignore bites or scratches received from your pet; wash them with plenty of hot, soapy water, stop the bleeding and consult your physician. Reptile-induced wounds can become infected easily.

(The above dos and don'ts were taken with permission from
"Reptile Medicine & Surgery.")

(Some information within taken with permission from "Caring for Iguana," Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital, Illinois.)


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