Reptile Health & Care

Iguana Care, Diet Tips & Housing

It is important to keep in mind that most veterinary problems with iguanas are a direct result of poor husbandry. The following is the basic information you will need to keep your iguana happy and healthy.

Iguanas are large, egg laying, semi-arboreal lizards. In the wild, they can be found from Mexico into Brazil, and generally, live within 50 meters of a water source. Iguanas typically reach adult-size at 2-3 years of age, and they can live between 10 and 15 years of age if they are properly cared for.

Iguana Diet Tips

Diets for captive green iguanas are just beginning to be understood. It is recommended to feed as wide a variety of foods as possible, not relying on any one food for the bulk of your iguana’s diet.

Iguanas are folivores (leaf eaters) in the wild, so be sure to feed a lot of leafy greens that have a dark green color. This includes collard, mustard, turnip tops or greens, alfalfa, timothy hay, broccoli rabe, and dandelions (flower, stems, and leaves). Other dark, leafy greens include swiss chard, clover, kale, beet greens, escarole, parsley, spinach, watercress, savoy, and kohlrabi. Spinach, beets, and swiss chard should be fed in moderation. Overall, iguana rations should include 97% vegetables and 3% fruits.

Fruit does not have as much nutritional value for iguanas, yet they will eat them preferentially over more nutritious foods. Think of fruit products as more of a treat that can be given from time to time. Figs are one of the few fruits that are rich in calcium, which is good for your iguana. Apples, apricots, dates, grapes, kiwi, melon, mangoes, peaches, papayas, pears, plums, prunes, raisins, strawberries, tomatoes, and raspberries are all fine in small amounts.

Protein is an important part of an iguana’s diet, but they derive most of their protein from their vegetable intake. If you must give a form of protein, give an occasional boiled egg or tofu. No dog food or meat should ever be fed.

Calcium and multivitamin supplementation are an important part of the iguana diet. At every feeding sprinkle a light dusting of calcium carbonate, lactate or gluconate on their food. Iguana diets tend to contain excess phosphorus, so calcium supplements with phosphorus are not recommended. Omitting calcium from the diet will eventually cause metabolic bone disease. Multivitamins should be given no more than 2-4 times per month. If multivitamins are given more frequently, vitamin D toxicity could become a concern.

Housing for Iguanas

Owners should invest in a larger aquarium initially or be prepared to buy a large one later. A 20-gallon aquarium is adequate for juveniles, but within a few years, most owners must build larger glass, plywood, and screen cages. Provide as much vertical space as is practical to accommodate their arboreal lifestyle. Hardwood driftwood branches for climbing and basking are appreciated, however, make sure they are not too high in the cage as iguanas can fall off and break limbs. It is not advisable to allow iguanas free roam of the house because of the numerous hazards they can encounter.

The bottom of the cage should be lined with newspaper or large wood chips (large enough that they cannot be eaten) mixed with peat moss, sphagnum moss, orchard bark or alfalfa pellets. Avoid sand, gravel, dirt, kitty litter, bark mulch, crushed corn cobs or crushed walnut shells as substrates because they can cause numerous problems and are difficult to clean.

A water bowl big enough for the iguana to enter and soak also is needed and should be cleaned whenever dirty or at least twice a week. Iguanas need access to water at all times.

Cage temperature should not drop below 75ºF at night and gradually rise to between 85º and 90ºF during the day with a localized hot spot or basking area of 95º to 100ºF. Assuring your iguana a basking area is important for proper digestion. Make sure that there are not any heating sources hot enough to burn the iguana present inside the cage. A heating source that is too hot to rest a hand on or under for several minutes will eventually burn your iguana. Additionally, a heat source that feels normal to the human hand can cause a burn if an iguana sits on it for a long period of time, which is why heating sources outside of the cage are much safer. Keep the cage humid by spraying it several times per week or using a humidifier. Iguanas live in the tropics and enjoy the humidity, it also helps them to shed.

Ultraviolet light is essential for the photochemical production of vitamin D-3. Black lights have more UV irradiance than other fluorescent lights but produce dim purple visible light. Combine a black light with a vitalite© in a two bulb fixture (less than two feet from the animal) and it will produce brighter visible light. Lighting should be kept on a timer for 12 to 14 hours, so the iguana gets an adequate amount of daylight. Current studies also show sun lamps to be an excellent source of UV lighting.

Purchasing an Iguana

Always remember to buy your iguana from a reputable pet store with a knowledgeable staff, preferably one that specializes in reptiles. Avoid iguanas with missing toenails or toes, thin, listless or nervous iguanas, dark brown or black coloring on the body, nasal discharge or abnormal jaw alignment or white cheese-like paste in the mouth. Missing tails will grow back. Look for iguanas that are alert and active, climbing on branches, eating at the food bowl, have bright coloring and are not over-excitable. Ask the clerk to trim the iguana’s nails prior to going home, this will help you to avoid getting scratched when you begin handling. Consult with All Creatures Veterinary Hospital as to the best way of handling your iguana as well as for advice on taming.

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Turtle Health & Care in Salem, MA

Recently, Dr. Charles Innis, the veterinarian who cares for all of the penguins, seals, turtles, sharks and the tiniest seahorse at the New England Aquarium, spoke to a small group of veterinarians about his passion for medicine and surgery of turtles, as well as the aquarium’s mission to rescue stranded sea turtles.

Dr. Charlie, as he is called in the exotic pet veterinarian rounds group, let us know that right now, out in Cape Cod Bay, there are hundreds of leatherback turtles. They are preparing for their trip south to warmer waters for the winter. They can be seen surfacing if you look closely from your boat or from land. Dr. Charlie manages a team of volunteers at the rehabilitation center that helps many Kemp Ridley’s turtles and some Leatherbacks that have cold-shock and end up immobile on the beaches of Cape Cod. The Audubon in Welfleet has a team of volunteers who walk the beaches twice daily to rescue the unfortunate turtles that wash up. The aquarium team maintains pools for the cold turtles. They warm the turtles up gradually; take blood samples to determine if they are dehydrated. The turtles receive fluids subcutaneously if they require them and if fishing lines injures them or motorboats and they are a good candidate for repair surgery they receive anesthesia and surgery.

Dr. Innis has had a passion for turtles since he was a kid, just as I did. He knows how challenging it is to have a water turtle for a pet. He reminded us that it is illegal for stores to sell turtles with a shell less than four inches in diameter. He also reminded us that it is illegal to own Red-Eared sliders, Blandings turtles, Spotted turtles or Wood turtles, all common in New England. Red–Eared slider ownership was declared illegal only 4 years ago. If you have had an illegal breed for a bunch of years it is OK to keep it, as it may not survive in the wild. Also if an endangered turtle has been housed with other species of turtles it is better to not release.

He recommends that if your child wants a water turtle it is best that she research the turtle health & care requirements. Usually a big 30-gallon tank is required and it needs to be sump pumped out at least twice weekly to prevent deadly bacterial infections. Turtles are cute and so prehistoric looking. They also eat a lot and defecate a lot in their water. An excellent filtration system helps as well. They love to swim so have a bathtub sized 30-gallon aquarium so they have lots of room to paddle. Fill the tank to about two or three inches below the rim so they don’t lift themselves up by their strong arms and topple over onto their heads.

You need to research the species of turtle you are acquiring. Is it an herbivorous turtle that likes dandelion greens, collards and kale, or is it a carnivorous turtle that likes earthworms and small rodents to eat? A wide variety of foods, in addition to the commercial diets, should be fed. My water turtles loved shrimp and chowed down on my expensive aquarium plants.

All turtles love heat from above so they can bask. An incandescent lamp or a ceramic heat element can be mounted above a rock that juts out of the water for many hours of happy basking. Turtles and tortoises should be examined by an exotic reptile veterinarian every 6 to 12 months.

If all this sounds like too much work, a terrestrial turtle, commonly called a tortoise, may be more your speed. They don’t need an aquarium full of water. You do, however, need to make a good variety of chopped green vegetables with a little protein such as egg and small amounts of fruit. Some species of tortoise, such as the Sulcata (which originated in Africa but is now bred in captivity) love to munch on succulent timothy or alfalfa hay. These hays provide some good protein and calcium that is essential to shell growth. Humidity and temperature also have to be regulated. Tortoises also need UV light. The cage has to be cleaned every week. Amazingly enough, some tortoises wander freely around the house and hibernate in the winter under blankets near a radiator. Just investigate the breed and make sure they don’t grow to 400 pounds. You don’t want to be cleaning up after a 400-pound tortoise.

If you are struggling to make a decision on what type of turtle or tortoise to get, make an appointment with a veterinarian who takes care of reptiles. They may have some useful advice to help you in your decision making process.