Most of the problems we see in sick iguanas has to do with improper care and feeding. This handout is designed to help you care for your pet Iguana properly and thus keep it healthy.
Start with a 60 gallon tank with a secure lid. Glass enclosures are available with a fixed screen across half the top of the tank and a hinged glass lid across the other half. Set up the tank in a quiet area in your home to reduce stress on your new iguana. Note that a properly cared for iguana should outgrow a 60 gallon tank within a year, and outgrow a 100 gallon tank by the end of 18 months. Try provide enough height for the iguana to be able to climb on suitable branches; shelves may be fitted into wooden tanks.
Artificial grass, indoor/outdoor carpeting, butcher paper or paper towels can all be used.. Be sure to trim any frayed edges and strings. Newspapers should be avoided: the ink gets into the reptile’s skin and fumes may cause health problems. Do not use cob, shavings, gravel, sand, rock or alfalfa pellets as they may cause impaction if ingested, or bacteria and molds may grow in the material when it gets moist. The so-called ‘iguana-approved’ barks and litter are also not recommended as iguanas are ingesting the pieces, resulting in intestinal impaction, and death.
Provide a hiding place: a half-log (available at pet stores) or an empty cardboard box work equally well. The box or log should be big enough for the iguana to hide its entire body inside; it does not have to cover the entire tail. Replace the box with larger ones as your iguana grows.
Iguanas love to climb, so provide one or more branches, ropes for it to climb and bask on.
Branches collected from the wild will need to be treated first. If they fit in your oven, bake at 200-250 degrees for 2-3 hours. Let cool completely. Larger branches can be placed in a tub of bleach-water solution ( cup bleach per gallon of water), and soaked for 24 hours. Dispose of the solution, then soak again for a day in fresh water. Let dry in the sun for 2-3 days before use.
Special lighting is needed to provide the benefits of sunlight. Lights such as a Vita-Lite(R), ZooMed Iguana Light(R) or Reptile Light(R) or other full-spectrum fluorescent lights which produce ultraviolet B (wavelengths in the 290-320 nm range) and have a CRI of at least 90, mounted in the proper reflector hood, are essential (note: the words “full-spectrum” on the package does *not* mean the light produces the necessary UVB!). These lights aid in the synthesis of vitamin D3, which is required to metabolize calcium. To be effective, these lights must be no farther than 18 inches from the iguana; 12-15 inches is better. Make sure that the fixture is firmly attached to the roof of the enclosure and that the iguana cannot try to climb up into it –
In situations where access to real sunlight, unfiltered through glass or plastic, is unavailable or severely limited, using a BL black light (not a BLB poster light) in conjunction with the Vitalite, ZooMed Reptile or Iguana Light or other full-spectrum light is recommended.
The full-spectrum light should be on a 12 hour on/off period. Plugging the light into a household appliance timer makes this very easy: set the light to go on at 7am, and off at 7pm. The same photoperiod should be kept during the winter to assure that the iguana is receiving enough UV radiation to continue to synthesize D3.
These bulbs must be changed whenever black bands appear around the ends of the tubes, about every nine-twelve months.
The growth of an iguana is based on: heat, activity, and food. To properly stimulate appetite and digest their food, iguanas must have access to a basking area that remains between 88-92F for at least 12 hours a day (95 is too high). The rest of their enclosure must sustain a temperature gradient between 76-88F, with the night time up to 84F. While adults (18 months old and at least 9 inches snout-vent length) can tolerate nighttime drops to 70F, for younger iguanas the lowest temperature should not fall below 73F.
Equipment to avoid: Hot rocks and sizzle stones may burn your pet. Use alternate methods of heating the cage.
Iguanas in warm-to-hot climates generally do well with a regular heating pad placed under one-half of the tank during the warmest summer months. To boost the heat during the day, regular 75-100 watt incandescent light bulbs or properly installed ceramic heating elements can be used. VitaLites cannot be relied upon to help boost the temperature. At night, a light can also be used to boost the heat into the optimum nighttime range, but do not use a white light! The best bulbs are blue-colored floodlight bulbs or the new deep blue nocturnal lights for reptiles.
If it gets too hot, you can plug the light or ceramic heating element into a dimmer switch, using it to raise and lower the light as needed to regulate the degree of warmth provided. In winter, a thermostatically controlled UL-approved room heater (preferably equipped with an automatic tip-over shut-off) may be used to keep temperatures in the optimum range.
It is important to use at least two thermometers in the tank to know what the actual temperature is instead of guessing. Pet stores sell high range, self-adhesive thermometers that go up to 105F. Make sure the iguana cannot get at them. Keep it at the same height in the tank that the pet normally sleeps at.
Iguanas are strictly vegetarians and should only be fed vegetable matter. Their digestive system is structured to process a high-fiber plant diet, and to extract much (but not all) of their water needs from the foods they eat.
Alfalfa is an excellent source of plant protein. Alfalfa pellets (also called rabbit food, or rabbit chow) mixed in with their vegetable salad provides a good source of protein and calcium.
Tofu is not a great food for iguanas because it is high in fat and protein, and fat impedes calcium metabolization.
When fed in excess, vegetables including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, and bok choy cause hypothyroidism, a thyroid deficiency. This slows down the metabolism, causes lethargy, muscle and joint aches, and some weight gain. These vegetables may be fed in small amounts in addition to the regular vegetables, mixed into their salad, but should never comprise the primary part of the salad.
Spinach, rhubarb, beets and chards are high in oxalic acid and may cause gout over a period of time. Additionally, these foods bind calcium, effectively preventing the body from utilizing the dietary calcium. Over a period of time this causes metabolic bone disease, with the body resorbing calcium from the bone to use for various metabolic and cellular processes.
Frozen Vegetables and Greens. It has been determined that some of the green vegetables lose their thiamin as a result of being frozen Thiamin (vitamin B1) is important for the nervous system and, in conjunction with the other B vitamins, helps reduce the effects of stress, promotes growth and aids digestion. It is O.K to use some mixed vegetables in case of emergencies for a couple of meals (be sure to replace with fresh packages at regular intervals to guard against vitamin loss). The addition of Brewer’s Yeast will ensure adequate thiamin.
Remember: no amount of vitamin powders, pills or liquids are going to compensate for a poor diet.
Fruits should compose the smallest part of the diet in iguanas since they are low in calcium and often high in phosphorus. Iguanas like bananas but they should constitute only a small portion of the diet.
Dark leafy greens are nutritious and should be a part of the diet. Cut the greens to about the size of the iguana’s head, and serve them in a heaping pile. Use two or more of the following greens daily: collard, mustard (including flowers), dandelion (including flowers), escarole and water cress. You can use wild-collected dandelion greens and flowers if you are positive they have not been subjected to pesticides, herbicides and other toxins.
Use romaine, green leaf and red leaf only in emergencies, and then only for a limited amount of time; although they are more nutritious than their paler cousins, it’s not by much. Don’t even bother with head (iceberg), Boston and butter lettuces–they lack nutrients and iguanas often become hooked on them to the exclusion of other greens.
Bean and vegetable sprouts do not have much in the way of nutrition.
Edible plants include hibiscus (flowers and leaves) nasturtium (flowers and leaves), rose petals, violets (flowers and leaves), and geraniums. Indoor plants include wandering Jew, spider plant and Ficus.
Iguanas do not chew their food, instead gulping it.. Use a food processor to prepare the salad ingredients to a size that is easy to ingest. Store prepared salad in an air-tight container in the refrigerator. If the leafy greens have been similarly prepared (leaves separated, washed, blotted dry, torn into pieces and placed in a ziplock bag with all the air squeezed out), then feeding the iguana quickly -each morning is a snap.
Basic Salad: The base salad should consist of fresh, raw vegetables including at least one green and one orange vegetable, parsnip, parsley, a fruit, and protein and calcium supplements. At least twice a week, a multivitamin is added in addition to the calcium.
For the green vegetable, use green beans, snap peas or snow peas, carrot tops or parsley. Occasionally, a small amount of broccoli, bok choy greens or Brussels sprouts may be added to the regular green vegetable.
For the orange vegetable, select orange-fleshed squashes., microwave the harder squashes until they are just soft enough for you to cut into lengths which will fit in the shredder. Also shred the parsnip. Sweet potato and yams may be used occasionally.
Carrots, contain a certain amount of calcium oxalic acid,. So they should be used sparingly with the squashes.
Sprouted vegetable and beans may be used in addition to the vegetables listed above. Occasional use of mushrooms, bell peppers, onions, oregano, basil, cilantro, other root vegetables, cactus pad, star fruit, asparagus, okra, and any of the summer yellow and green squashes will be helpful.
For the fruit, figs are the highest in calcium, with dried figs highest of all. Raspberries, strawberries, papayas, pears, plums, mangos, apricots, cantaloupe, dates, grapes, soaked raisins, prickly pear cactus and kiwi (both skinned) are all good fruits. They should be steel-knifed or finely chopped, then mixed in with the vegetables.
Protein, in the form of alfalfa chow, can be ground in the food
Add the calcium and vitamin supplements, and mix thoroughly again. Place in an airtight container and keep refrigerated.
Basic Salad Recipe – Makes 4 cups:
- 1 cup shredded green beans
- 1 cup shredded squash
- 1 cup alfalfa pellets
- 1 medium parsnip
- 1 cup minced fruit
- ¼ tsp. calcium supplement
(During the parsnip crop’s off season, use canned cooked lima beans, plus additional calcium)
Serve on a plate, jar lid or, for larger iguanas, in wide-mouthed bowls or crocks, with the leafy greens piled nearby.. If you find the iguana is eating the greens and ignoring the salad (which is common as they do not initially recognize the salad as being “food”), put down the salad in the morning and offer the greens in the afternoon after the salad has been eaten.
Food Tips and Tricks
Asian markets are a good place to find greens like mustard and peavines. Carrots and some form of orange squash can always be found or supplied by first year baby foods such as sweet potato, carrot, and squash when necessary; use the peas or green beans too. Baby food fruits such as apple-blueberry, mango, etc. can also be used on occasion.
Try including some leftovers: rice, plain chopped cooked noodles, whole wheat or grain breads mixed in with the salad; boost the calcium supplement a bit to counteract the high phosphorus content of these foods. Watch out for cheese or fatty sauces and, spicy or sugary foods–iguanas can develop bad eating habits just as easily as people…and they are just as difficult to correct!
Be careful when hand-feeding iguanas so they don’t become spoiled.
Iguanas often do not accept new foods when they are first offered. It may take several days before they realize it is food. This is one reason why vegetables and fruits should be finely chopped, grated or shredded and mixed thoroughly together–it makes it difficult to pick out the “good” bits.
Iguanas are diurnal animals who forage, eat and begin digesting the day’s food during the mid-day hours, not during the cooler night-time temperatures. A hungry iguana may well eat heartily at night, but much of the digestive processes are delayed, hampering the body’s ability to process the maximum amount of nutrients available for uptake.
Iguanas do drink and so you should put a bowl of fresh water in for some limited period of time, like a half hour a day. Make sure that the iguana can see into and reach the water in the water bowl but not be able to drown in it. Iguanas will defecate in their water bowl. The dirty bowl should be washed thoroughly and disinfected before being reused.