Our discussion this month leads us to the common green iguana, known in the scientific community as Iguana iguana. They hail from much more tropic climates than we currently are weathering, coming from Central and South America. Iguanas have been a popular pet store item for about the past 20 years. While those little green hatchlings about the size of your thumb look very enticing in the aquariums in the store, the purchase of an iguana means a lot of research and commitment for the owner, both time wise and financially, toward the care of the reptile.
Iguanas can potentially live to the ripe old age of 15 to 20 years in captivity, growing to 5 feet within the first 5 years and in some species weighing up to 18 pounds. Their size alone makes housing an iguana properly a challenge. They soon outgrow the aquarium and need either an expensive commercial cage designed for a large climbing reptile or need a custom built option. Because they are tropical creatures, in our northern climate we need to improvise in creating a constant temperature range of 75 to 85 degrees in the cage, with basking areas ranging higher from 85 to 95 degrees. This can be accomplished with different, if not multiple heat lamps above the cage. Heat rocks, while aesthetically pleasing, are poor sources of heat and often cause thermal burns on the iguana. The heat must be concentrated in one end of the cage, to give the iguana a chance to move to a cooler area if so desired. Iguanas tend to bask in the sun after eating and then move to slightly cooler branches of trees to rest when they are in the wild.
The iguana is an herbivore by nature. They have been documented to munch on 50 different types of plants during the course of a year. The iguana owner has a difficult task of trying to duplicate the variety an iguana needs to stay healthy. A poor diet is one of the biggest health concerns of iguanas we see. Iguanas need different plant proteins, fiber, vegetables, and fruit options on a daily basis. They can be very picky eaters, ignoring new plant options for several attempts until they are ready to give it a try. However, variety is what the iguana needs, and certain types of green lettuces/plants, along with vegetables and fruits are better than others. Non-pesticide treated dandelions fresh from your yard are a fantastic diet option for your iguana. Because we cannot duplicate what the iguana would naturally eat in the wild, in captivity we also need to provide some vitamin supplements to balance their nutrition.
Iguanas are prone to metabolic bone disease like other reptiles. Their bones become soft as a result of the calcium being removed in the disease process, and the owner may see swollen legs as a result of trauma and fractures, or a swollen jaw as the disease progresses. They need the right ratio of calcium in their diet and they need UVB light sources to allow them to process vitamin D. Fluorescent bulbs labeled for reptiles can replicate the UVB light they would get from sunlight. These lights need to be on a 12 hour on and 12 hour off cycle to imitate the normal photo cycle the iguana would receive in the wild. Sunlight through a plastic or glass window or cage enclosure wall does not allow UVB light to pass through. It is also recommended to change the fluorescent bulbs at least once a year to be sure the iguanas are receiving the proper amount of light.
There are no vaccines for iguanas but we do recommend periodic veterinary examinations to counsel you on their care. Reptiles are very adept at hiding their illnesses until too late. We can guide you in providing the proper cage, diet, temperature, and general care. We can also determine if there are any problems starting to surface that we need to take care of. Female iguanas are susceptible to dystocia, or difficulty with laying eggs. In some cases, we may need to perform an ovariohysterectomy, or spay, on your iguana. Iguanas can also harbor intestinal parasites and bacteria and we can submit fecals to our lab to have it checked out. Iguanas are potential carriers of salmonella and households that have iguanas along with infants/toddlers, elderly, or immunocompromised individuals need to take special precautions.
Iguana ownership is not for everyone. They are very rewarding reptiles in their behavior and beauty. However, they do require a substantial commitment from their owner. If you are interested in purchasing an iguana, we strongly recommend you do your research first and make sure it is the pet for you. Feel free to stop by the office and talk to one of our veterinarians. We would be glad to answer any questions you might have regarding these amazing reptiles.