A Home for an Iguana

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by Jeff Crosby

Iguanas are not overly active creatures, but they do need room to move freely. One of the most popular pet lizards available in pet stores today, iguanas are inexpensive to purchase, often misleading people to believe that they are cheap, easy to maintain and, sadly, practically disposable. Many pet stores will sell iguanas for as low as $10-20.00 yet fail to tell potential buyers that iguanas are costly, high maintenance and potentially dangerous, if not handled properly. Still interested in what keeping an exotic lizard, such as an iguana, entails? Read on to learn more about the housing needs of the common green iguana.

Iguanas are not overly active creatures, but they do need room to move freely. If cared for properly, a captive green iguana can live 15-20 years and can reach lengths of 5-7 feet. In other words, if you plan on raising an iguana, please realize that this reptile will require a great deal of space as he grows; while over half of their length is tail, one must still take the time to realize how difficult it must be to drag such a length around behind them, especially when quarters are cramped. Not only is there a great risk of injury, but your iguana will soon turn into something dirty and untouchable when he is forced to drag that long tail through his own waste.

Some people mistakenly believe that they can let their iguanas have free roam of their house, but nothing could be further from the truth. Letting an iguana free in one?s house is simply courting disaster! Remember that the 8? little lizard that you see today, will one day shred your curtains as he tries to haul his 18-20 pound body up your draperies. That cute little tail will one day be able to clear a table of china figurines with one swipe and, acting like the powerful crack of a bullwhip, it can actually cause harm to other house pets that get too close and nosy. Adult iguanas have actually been known to be capable of breaking a dog?s leg with a lash from their tail and a fight can erupt before even a watchful owner can intervene.

Additionally, iguanas should not be given free roam of the house because, much like human babies, everything that looks shiny, yummy, or vaguely interesting gets tasted and, quite often, ingested. This may lead to costly trips to the veterinarian?s emergency room or could even result in the death of your iguana, when foreign, non-digestible objects become impacted in the reptile?s intestines. Impactions are one of the most common reasons that iguanas are taken into emergency vet clinics; many animals injecting household objects such as spare change, socks and underwear, jewelry, cat toys and animal fur. Letting your iguana run loose in your house is not only dangerous to your waterbed, but to your scaly friend as well.

The most costly aspect of owning an iguana (aside from emergency veterinary care) is housing one of these magnificent reptiles. Unfortunately, few stores will inform potential iguana purchasers that, while you may only pay $20.00 for your new pet, properly caring for and housing him will most likely require a start up fee of more than $300.00. Setting up a home for your iguana entails far more than simply grabbing a 10 gallon fish tank, tossing a little Astro-Turf on the bottom and throwing in a heat rock and some crickets. One must imagine their iguana, not as the juvenile that he may very well appear today, but as the adult lizard that he will be in the coming months and even years. While a 10 gallon fish tank may seem plenty big today and your little lizard look lost in a 40 gallon aquarium, remember that a properly maintained iguana can grow up to one inch per month; within a couple of months, those small tanks are going to make him feel like he?s being compacted into a sardine can.

If one is balking at the idea of cost, please realize that one of the costliest blunders made by iguana keepers is buying a cage that the animal will quickly outgrow, then upgrading. While it seems like more money to hand over in the beginning, it is far cheaper to buy one large cage than to purchase 5 different tanks of varying sizes (not to mention the fact that all those empty and unused tanks encourage children to find something else to put into them). Thinking ahead will definitely help protect the pocketbook.

One common mistake that many new iguana owners make is thinking that mesh or screen enclosures will make for an inexpensive, yet safe, home for their new pet. Quite the opposite is true; mesh enclosures fail to maintain the heat that iguanas require, year-round, in order to help them to properly digest their food. The open nature of a mesh or screen enclosure can also leave your iguana feeling very open and vulnerable, as well as plastic mesh and window screen mesh easily shredding beneath the sharply hooked claws of a climbing iguana. Chicken wire, while originally thought to be suitable for iguanas, has proven to cause injury to the sensitive nose and long toes of iguanas. If you must use wire in the construction of your iguana enclosure, the best bet is to go with woven hardware cloth (preferably plastic-coated), which will run the least risk in harming your pet.

Another important factor, commonly overlooked by new iguana owners, is a good location for your iguana?s cage. Iguanas should be kept in a cage that is commonly active, yet free from excessive noise, such as a blasting stereo, barking dogs or yelling children. While this may prompt you to place your iguana somewhere quiet, such as a garage or basement, also realize that iguanas are very quiet creatures and are easily forgotten and neglected when placed out of sight. Ideally, your iguana will enjoy being in a room where he can watch his people doing quiet people things? And iguanas love to look; curious creatures, iguanas enjoy sitting in the safety of their homes and watching life move on around them. In addition to watching their people, they also enjoy being placed next to a non-drafty window, especially when they have the luxury of a butterfly garden, bird feeders, or a child?s swing set to observe.

An enclosure for a full-grown iguana is also going to be very large, so this must be taken into consideration when deciding upon placement. Standard iguana cages should be at least 6 feet tall, 3 feet deep (from front to back), and with a side-to-side width of at least 9 feet. Iguana enclosures are generally the size of a small bedroom, so be sure to keep this in mind when considering, not only where you could put an iguana, but whether or not you even have room for one in your home. Many people fail to realize how large an iguana can get and how much space is involved, often resulting in many of these beautiful reptiles being abandoned, passed on to other inexperienced owners, or set free to fend for themselves. Don?t be fooled by smaller cage brochures or advertisements that show a shot of a happy iguana head or say that it is ?suitable for iguanas.? A human being could survive in a Porta-potty, but it doesn’t mean that he?s going to be comfortable, happy and healthy in there!
Another thing to keep in mind, when placing your iguana enclosure, is the iguana?s tropical time-clock. Tropical creatures that they are, their body is adapted to existing in a world that has 12 hours of sunlight and then 12 hours of darkness. Depriving him of this long sleep period not only makes for a grumpy and temperamental lizard, but it can also lead to various health and digestive problems in your iguana. To maintain the heat at night, your iguana?s enclosure will also need to be set up with infrared heat lights or space heaters to prevent the temperature from dropping below 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit. During the daytime, an iguana enclosure should vary in temperature from 80-90 degrees and should offer a basking area of 90-95 degrees, where your iguana can sprawl out and enjoy the warmth. Just because your iguana likes his rays, however, don’t think that he can be subjected to extreme heat; the same as any other animal, being left in a closed up house or car during a hot day can kill your scaly friend.

Puzzling to many pet owners is the simple fact that, when an iguana becomes too hot in his enclosure, he will not naturally move to a cooler place in his home. In a similar situation, sick iguanas will often spend long periods of time in the cooler areas of their cages. For this reason, it is essential to ensure that an iguana’s enclosure maintain temperatures no lower than 75 degrees Fahrenheit and no higher than 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Also keep in mind that this is air temperature, not the temperature on a heat rock, branch or heating pad; these items should not be used for iguanas. While a cold animal will eagerly drape itself over a hot rock, this does not mean it is healthy, nor does the fact that pet stores are promoting these items or that they claim to be ideal for iguanas and other reptiles. Far too frequently, these rocks will malfunction and overheat, often causing severe thermal burns to reptiles which can not only cause scars but can, in severe cases, be fatal. Also realize that heat rocks and branches only heat their own surface, not the air around them. Would you like to lay out in the cold with just a warm rock sitting under your stomach and nothing else to keep you warm?

Equally important is to remember that all lights and heating elements pose a potential risk to your pet; placed inside the cage, electrical equipment can result in burns and possible injury and all lights must be watched to ensure they are not close to anything that could overheat, get knocked against the light, or ignite. Any electrical device, left unattended, is a potential fire hazard and the utmost care should always be taken with them.

Not only will your iguana require lamps to help heat and illuminate his cage, but he will also require special UVB lighting. One common misconception is that flourescent bulbs are UVB bulbs? this is very wrong! UVB lighting helps create an artificial sunlight which not only promotes good health in your reptile and prevents loss of bone quality, but also aids in digestion to help your iguana break down his food. While there are calcium supplements that you can add to your iguana?s diet, there is no real substitute for his required 12 hours of sunshine. Think that sitting him by a window for a few hours will cut it? Think again. Your iguana needs pure sunshine, not that which is being diffused through the glass of a window or his enclosure. To promote good iguana health, there is no substitute for UVB lighting and no iguana should go without.

The interior of your iguana enclosure is equally important; not only do iguanas require a comfortable temperature gradient, but they also need sturdy and safe methods of climbing up to various parts of their cage and room to stretch out comfortably when they get where they are going. Most pet stores sell wood branches for use in cages that have been prepared for animal use, but it is relatively simple to find your own branches and more cost-effective to prepare them yourself. Ensuring that the particular tree you choose to cut branches from is non-toxic (remember, iguanas lick everything), pick several strong branches that are wide enough around that will be able to support your iguana?s weight and allow him to stretch out on them comfortably, should he do so.

Removing all bark from the outside of your branch, as well as all sharp and jagged edges, soak your wild branches in a bleach water mixture for 24 hours (1 cup of bleach per gallon of water). After soaking it in the bleach water, take your branch out, rinse it thoroughly and then soak it for an additional 24 hours in a clear rinse water, without bleach. Once this is done, your branch should be taken out and allowed to dry in the sun for 2-3 days before using it; this will not only ensure that all bug infestations are killed off, but it will also eliminate any fungus, molds, or bacteria that could harm your pet.
Few people put much thought into what goes into the bottom of an iguana?s enclosure, and yet this is every bit as important as the rest of the set-up, if not more. Responsible iguana owners should never put materials such as sawdust, kitty litter, corncob or sand in the bottom of their iguana?s home. Any form of particle bedding, whether it be wood bark, “Calci-Sand,” or pet-store promoted lizard litter, will eventually be ingested by your pet and runs a risk of causing a blockage in his intestines. If it’s something that you wouldn’t want to roll your banana around in, prior to eating it, don?t expect your iguana to do so! Newspapers can also be equally troublesome. While they are inexpensive and relatively easy to dispose of, inks that are commonly used in newspapers can be absorbed in through your iguana?s skin, as well as giving off potentially toxic fumes when soiled. For best results, hemmed and regularly maintained artificial grass, butcher’s paper, or linoleum that has been cut to fit the bottom of your iguana?s enclosure are the be “floors” for his home.

Taking into consideration, not only the amount of work and the special care that an exotic pet requires, but also the cost of simply housing these beautiful creatures, is an important part of animal ownership. Requiring special consideration, treatment and diet, exotic pets are not for everyone and, like any pet, should be carefully researched, discussed and considered before a potential purchase is made.

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About Author

Devoted pet owner and now, devoted pet editor, Judi spent her time working in traditional offices, keeping the books and the day-to-day operations organized. Taking her dog to work every day for over a decade never seemed odd. Neither did having an office cat. She knows what it's like to train a new puppy and she's experienced the heartache of losing beloved companions.

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