A tamed, highly socialized iguana will be relaxed around strangers, although such a lizard may seek to climb to the holder's shoulder or head. It will be alert to its surroundings and respond positively to having its back or even head rubbed. Healthy hatchlings and untamed (whether or not pre-owned) juveniles and adults will be feisty and try to get away, may whip or crocodile-roll in trying to escape from your hands, and may be resistant to being picked up to begin with.
A sick baby, juvenile, or adult may still try to avoid being caught and held, and may still try to flee, but will do so with less strength, noticeable once you have them in hand. An iguana who just lays in the tank, uninterested in its surroundings, unresponsive in your hands, is either too cold or extremely ill, suffering from internal parasites and possibly systemic bacterial infection.
If there are lateral folds (running along the ribs on the side of the body from the forelegs to hip area), this would indicate that the iguana is also likely moderately to severely dehydrated and emaciated (starving) as well.
Raising an iguana is neither easy nor something done quickly. Other than the information presented in this document, there are no real shortcuts. You are working with a wild animal, with the instincts and responses of a wild animal, including very strong ones surrounding the drive for self-preservation. A healthy baby iguana is going to fight to stay out of a predator's way...and when you begin your relationship, as far as he is concerned, you are out to hurt or eat him, and you make him very uncomfortable and insecure by placing him in situations and an environment where he is most vulnerable - alone without crowds of other iguanas who provide safety just by their presence. This is not a recommendation to get more than one iguana (one is hard enough to deal with to start) but that so you beging to realize why your iguana is thrashy and nippy, why he needs a hide box, why he won't eat when you are staring at him. In the wild, hanging out on its own, eating while alone, or sleeping in an exposed place alone is a pretty direct route into a predator's mouth.
An animal kept in captivity who is never reconciled to it's condition lives in a continual state of stress. An iguana who is never tamed and socialized becomes stressed each time it sees or is forced into contact with the main object of stress - humans. An untamed iguana is no fun to interact with and a vicious cycle is established, with the iguana running away and scratching, lashing and even nipping or biting whenever it is caught. As most owners of untame iguanas cannot hold onto them long enough to trim their nails, they either stop trying to hold the iguana or resort to using enormous, or enormously thick, gloves which not only scares the iguana even more, but can cause injury as they are often too thick to be able to accurately gauge the pressure being put on iguana bones. When the
iguana has a calcium deficiency, broken bones are all too common. As most vets prescribe complete inactivity and the removal of all cage furnishings during the recovery period, an already barely tamed iguana becomes totally wild (and takes longer to heal due to the lack of weight-bearing activity).
Most of the calls I get, and house calls I make, are related to untamed iguanas. Most of the iguanas I am given are wild; at best, they are barely tolerant of very short episodes of human contact. The reason most often cited for getting rid of iguanas two or more years of age is that they are difficult or "impossible" to deal with or the owners start to feel guilty for leaving it locked in a cage day after day while it glares out at them every time they walk by.
It is not an impossible task to tame and socialize iguanas. It does take time, it will involve the loss of some skin (yours) and some sleepless nights (yours) and some occasional despairing thoughts (yours). On the flip side, there will be increased mental and physical health (yours and the iguana's), increased interest in its surroundings (the iguana's), and an opportunity to teach your children and others how to interact and get to know another living creature.
In the wild, iguanas are somewhat social animals. They are found in groups in trees, basking and foraging together. Amongst herbivores there is little competition for food when food is plentiful. And as long as there remains forest, there is plenty of food for the iguanas living in the trees. There is, however, competition for prime basking areas and, during different seasons, competition for seasonally available fruits and flowers, and for territory and females during the breeding season.
Males are the most competitive, with adult males vying for the alpha position - the best basking perch, the biggest territory, the most females. Females are only occasionally territorial, primarily reacting offensively when they wish to be left alone. Young males who are not yet ready to take on mature males may hang out with dominant males, but are always watchful for signs of aggression. When the dominant male begins territorial and attractant behaviors, most younger males take off for the periphery, avoiding as much as possible the attentions of the dominant males. Young males who have reached sexual maturity but who are not yet able to compete successfully against a bigger male often do not adopt breeding colors, retaining instead their juvenile colors which are essentially those of the females, a survival tactic found in many different species throughout the animal kingdom.
In captivity, the owner and owner's family are first considered potential predators, later being transforming into competition as the iguana becomes assured that it is not going to be eaten. When you first bring your iguana home, it reacts like most other small animals who find themselves temporarily at the bottom of the food chain: thrashing, puffing up, lashing its tail, opening its mouth so you can see how pink and dangerous it is and, when that doesn't work, it attempts to run away.
When you do manage to pick it up, it whips its tail, scratches, crocodile rolls - in short doing everything possible to get away from you. When it does get away or when you give up trying to get it out of its enclosure, you have taught the iguana that it can make you go away. The next time you go to get it out, it will act up again, often more vigorously than it did before. When you go away yet again or put it down as soon as you get scratched or bit, you will have once again reinforced that behavior.
(Note: if your new iguana does not act like this but lays placidly in its enclosure and barely objects when you pick it up, you have not lucked out by managing to select an already tame iguana. What you have is a sick iguana. Get it to an experienced reptile veterinarian as quickly as possible; if you can, take a fresh fecal sample with you.)
It is at this point that most owners make their biggest mistake. They decide to wait until the iguana calms down; some owners believe that once the iguana settles in or gets a little older, it will be tame. Not! What they do get is a 5 foot, 10 pound iguana who is just as wild and crazy as when they bought it, only now when it doesn't nip, it bites with a set of very powerful jaws and the whippy tail becomes an armored razor-edged lash. It becomes a frightening prospect to remember that the iguana is still not full-grown.
Some owners or primary caretakers are able to develop a relationship with their iguana, but the rest of the household gets subjected to the same wild behavior. What happens in this situation is that the owner or primary caretaker has not put up with the wild behavior and so has been established as the alpha entity. The iguana then tries—and usually succeeds—in dominating everyone else. Some owners and families are able to tame their iguana so that it is well behaved with the immediate family but when any outsider to that family unit comes in, even friends of family members who visit frequently, the iguana acts to dominate them.
Iguanas threaten by using a variety of physical behaviors. When not being held, they stand tall with all four limbs extended; they laterally compress their body to make themselves look even taller; the dewlap swings out to full extension to increase the silhouette-size of their head; the tail twitches and lashes; the open mouth threatens to bite; and "push ups" and bobbing forequarters warn of impending movement. The body is broadside to you to reinforce the illusion of size. When you reach in to pick it up, it may continue to present, may hiss or click-hiss with open mouth, and whip its tail; it is at this point that most people give up.
When held, the iguana may claw with all feet, trying to climb out of your grasp, whip your arm or face with its tail while it rolls around inside your grip ("crocodile rolls") in the attempt to wriggle free. Open mouth hissing and click-hissing and nipping complete the threatening behavior. Many determinedly untame iguanas become quite adept at snaking their necks around to deliver a painful
These are the behaviors you must not walk away from. When you are holding the iguana in your hands, you should not put it down when they occur, even if you are getting bit and scratched. Sounds easy, but it takes some nerve, patience and perseverance on your part..and a willingness to lose some skin. And blood! (Note: try not to jerk your hand away when you get bit - this will actually make the injury worse than it might otherwise have been.
You can trim their claws before you get into heavy training sessions...of course, you have to get enough control over each toe to hold it still enough to cut off just the tip of the claw...without taking off the entire toe! Used the stubby claw nippers with the half-circles cut out of each "blade" and have an open container of blood stop powder--and a handler--close at hand.
When you reach in to get the iguana out of its enclosure, make sure you are well balanced; it won't do either of you any good if you lose your balance just as you grab the iguana, dropping it before you crash to the floor dragging the Vitalite with you. If the iguana continues to elude you, dodging between the basking branches and hide box and water bowl, remove as many furnishings as you need to be able to have a clean shot at him, and take away any places he can hide behind. Don't give up. If it is taking longer than you thought it would and you are getting to (or past) the point where you just don't care any more, don't give up! If you do, the iguana will have won that encounter. You will have reinforced the fact that it can indeed make you go away.
If the iguana has gotten out of its enclosure (a polite way of saying that when you finally got him out, you let him get away from you!) and is running around the room or the house, you must get it. It may mean crashing and banging into furniture (you more than the iguana), intruding yourself into that small, dusty place beneath the dresser or behind the bookcase and rearranging the furniture as you move it all to try to get to him, but do it you must.
Once you are finally able to pick him up, hold him for at least a couple of minutes. It must be your decision to put him down, not his. If he gets particularly wild, if he scratches, lashes or bites you, do not put him down. If you do, you will have reinforced the concept that scratching, lashing and biting works. It's pure cause and effect, a concept the iguana can easily understand: he hurts you, you put him down. Yes, you are playing a game of wits and nerves with a little green lizard. It may sound stupid, but it is surprising how many people lose this game!
Let him climb from hand to hand and roll freely within your hands. Talk gently to him, using his name often. Rock back and forth with him. Try holding him in your hand and extending your arm upright over your head. The iguana should settle down and stop writhing around. After a moment or two of calm, slowly bring him down to your eye level. Support his body in both your hands, thumbs under the belly/chest area, his hind legs resting on your forearms, your fingers arched over his back, his face within a few inches of yours. Continue talking softly, using his name. At this point the iguana should settle down for a few moments. The more often you do this, the less preamble (fighting, lifting) you will have to go through and you will both experience longer periods of calm. The iguana will learn that you won't put it down until it calms down, resulting in an iguana who settles down sooner each time.
Expect regression. You may have gone to bed one night ecstatic about the progress you two have made only to find your iguana's evil twin has moved in over night. Just keep at it. Remember that you are bigger and smarter. Or are supposed to be. Frequently remind yourself of these facts.
Take the time to do it right. Be patient. Just as you spent a great deal of money and time setting up the iguana's tank and strive to provide it with the proper environment and diet, use the same patience to work with your iguana. It will take anywhere from 6-8 months (or longer, depending upon the individual's temperament) to reach the point where your iguana is comfortable in most situations. That is a short period of time, indeed, when weighed against the potential lifespan of 20+ years.
Be sure to play with the tail when they are young and as they grow. Get them used to it being touched and gently tugged. An iguana who is not freaked when his tail is grabbed is an iguana who is not going to lose it when some untamed little child comes up and yanks on the iguana's tail to get your attention. When you go to grab your ig, place one hand under the pelvis/base of tail area, then slip the other hand under the chest, and scoop it up. This will enable you to pull it out or up out of harms way and lets you swing him easily into a forearm carry (the ig's belly resting on your forearm, legs dangling over each side of your arm, your fore- and middle fingers cradling the neck, tail between your arm and ribs).
Most young children (and this includes many kids up into their early 'teens), do not like being scratched and are generally not the ones who should be primarily responsible for the ig's taming and socializing. Taming iguanas should be a family effort as all members of the family ultimately will be sharing their living space with a strong-willed lizard the size of a medium, albeit low-slung, dog. Taming older iguanas is not necessarily more difficult than working with youngsters, but some may never become as fully tame--comfortable and secure in all interactions--as do ones tamed early on. But it can be done and there is no reason not to start now to retrain yourself and your iguana.
Iguanas have very individualized personalities, each with their own likes and dislikes. Part of the taming process is to learn what your iguana likes and doesn't like and, as much as possible without compromising the taming and socialization, respect those needs and likes. Though the training and taming time are intense, the rewards great for both you and your iguana.