Cage DesignSubstratePrivacyStress
Outside the CageLightingHeatingAvoid


Cage Design

Start with a least a 60 gallon tank with a secure lid. Glass enclosures are available with a securely fixed screen across half the top of the tank and a hinged glass lid securing half of the top. These tanks are easily cleaned and disinfected. Set up the tank in a quiet area in your home; blaring TV and radios, people rushing around, kids yelling, dogs barking - all of this will frighten and stress 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. Remember that while baby iguanas start out on the ground, they are more comfortable in trees. Try provide enough height for the iguana to be able to climb on suitable branches; shelves may be fitted into wooden tanks. If you are buying a wooden tank, or the time comes to build your own, don't fall prey to the typically bad designs and sizes out there. There are some basic cage design problems that you should be aware of and avoid.

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Substrate.

Choose a suitable substrate which is safe for the iguana and easy for you to clean. Hemmed or well trimmed artificial grass, indoor/outdoor carpeting, butcher paper or paper towels can all be used. If using the artificial grass or carpeting, always have one or two pieces cut to fit in reserve. When a soiled piece is removed for washing and disinfecting, one of the spare pieces can be put into the tank. The cleaned piece must be completely dry before reusing. Be sure to trim any frayed edges and strings. Newspapers should be avoided: the ink gets into the reptile's skin and the out-gassed fumes, undetectable by most people, inhaled at close range by the iguana, may cause health problems.

Do not use walnut or corn cob, kitty litters of any kind, wood shavings, gravel, sand, rock, pebbles, bark, "lizard litters", or "iguana-approved bark" or any other particulate matter as substrate. No matter how closely you watch your iguana, they will end up ingesting them, on purpose or accidentally. They can cause injury to the gut wall as they pass through the gut - if they pass through the gut. Too often they get stuck in the gut, causing impactions. The iguana stops eating, is unable to defecate, and so wastes build up in the system, and trapped food rots causing bacterial infections and gas. Dehyration generally sets in as the body tries to move the mass.

Ultimately, the iguana will die. Vets have pulled out all of these substrates from the guts of iguanas, as well as strings from unhemmed or untrimmed astroturf, push pins, pennies, balloons, even condoms and human and dog hairballs. I cannot stress enough just how important it is that no particulate substrate be used, and that you pick up after yourself and your kids. Iguanas are very much like human babies in that whatever they see that is new is very likely going to end up being licked and ingested.

As to the question of why manufacturers and pet stores continue to sell products that too many pet owners have found harmful, it is because most owners don't complain. I know several iguana owners whose iguanas have died, and many more whose iguanas have suffered terribly and then had to undergo major surgery to remove substrate impactions who, despite their griping and complaining to me, never bothered to put pen to paper to write a letter to the manufacturer or store. A complaint form letter has been devised to help make the complaint and notification process a little easier. So please: if your pet is harmed by a product that you presumed to be safe and appropriate for your reptile based on the marketing of that product, and you used it according to the instructions or illustrations provided by the manufacturer or pet stores, please write them when your reptile is harmed or killed by it! If you don't, nothing will change and more reptiles will needlessly suffer and die.

The only safe particulate substrate still has some problems. Alfalfa pellets may be used as they are safely edible, but, if they are ingested dry, they may cause impaction as they lodge in the gut or injure the gut lining. Bacteria and molds will grow in the pellets dampened by food and urates.

My preference is for the easily cleaned and disinfected. Set up properly, your iguana will not be spending much time on the ground, coming down primarily to feed, drink and defecate. In glass tanks, paper towels, terry towels or butcher paper may be used. I recommend lining the bottom of wooden enclosures with linoleum. You can buy reasonably priced self-adhesive squares in wonderful colors and patterns at home building supply and tile stores.

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Privacy.

Young iguanas need a place to get out of visual line of sight of their surroundings, especially, in the beginning, you. 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 length of the outstretched tail. If you start off with a small log or box, you will need to replace it with larger ones as your iguana grows.

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Exercise/Stress Reducers.

Iguanas love to climb, so provide one or more branches, ropes or towels for it to climb and bask on. If using branches collected from the wild, you will need to treat them first to assure that you do not bring in any unwanted visitors. Trees and branches provide homes for hosts of bugs and beetles, even spiders. You don't want them hatching in your iguana's cozy environment.

If they are small enough to put in your oven, back at 200-250 degrees for 2-3 hours. Let cool completely. If too big for the oven, place in a tub of bleach-water solution (1/2 cup bleach per gallon of water), and soak for 24 hours. Safely dispose of the solution, then refill the tub with fresh water, and soak again for a day. Let dry in the sun for 2-3 days before use.

Be sure to firmly anchor ropes, towels and branches to prevent them from falling. If the ig is on a falling branch, or a branch falls on him, he could be seriously injured. Limbs can also be injured if the rope or towel cuts loose while the iguana is climbing or jumping on to them.

Iguanas feel secure when they are up high. So expect your iguana to spend a great deal of time in the upper part of his enclosure, and make sure that it is both warm and safe for him up there.

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Lighting.

Special lighting is needed to provide the benefits of sunlight. Lights such as a Vita-Lite®, ZooMed Iguana Light® or Reptile Light® 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 have subtle positive effects on iguana behavior and they are essential in the synthesis of vitamin D3, a vitamin which is required to metabolize calcium. The lights made for aquaria and plants, and the new incandescent lights, including those made with neodymium, do not produce the necessary UV radiation and should only be used to provide heat and to superficially enhance your iguana's coloring. There are no "truth in advertising" laws regulating the pet care supply industry, and there is an incredible amount of deception occurring in the industry at this time as a result of the booming trade in reptiles.

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 - a yearling iguana is big enough to unseat the tube and cause it to come crashing down, throwing glass splinters and fragments all over the enclosure--and the iguana. You can cut a piece of hardware cloth (¼ to ½ inch mesh) to fit just inside the rim of the light fixture. If you find your iguana constantly trying to get into the light fixture, or clinging to the mesh protecting the light, then you are keeping the enclosure too cool.

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. For a list of fluorrescents that produce UV B, please see the table of lighting on the main iguana care page. 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 6am, and off at 6pm. If you wish to have your iguana a little more awake when you come home from work, you can set it to go on at 7-7:30am, off again at 7-7:30pm. The same photoperiod should be kept during the winter to assure that the iguana is receiving enough UV radiation to continue to synthesize D3.

The UV radiation eventually degrades to the point of uselessness long before the fluorescent tube burns out. Therefore, it is essential that these bulbs be changed whenever black bands appear around the ends of the tubes, about every nine-twelve months.

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Heating

The growth of an otherwise healthy iguana is based on these three elements: heat, activity, and food. The warmer they are ( and over 95F is too high) the more active they will be and the faster they will digest their food, enabling them to eat again much sooner than iguanas kept at below-optimum temperatures. Despite the fact that iguanas are tropical animals, in captivity they are too often kept in subnormal temperatures, often not even above the low 80s. 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. The rest of their enclosure must sustain a temperature gradient—a range from cool to warm. For all iguanas, the daytime gradient should range 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. When night time temperatures are within the proper range, young iguanas will often wake during the night eat some more food. This not only increases the amount of exercise your iguana gets, but also the amount of food it eats.


 Equipment to avoid.

Despite the advertisements showing iguanas happily draped across hot rocks and heated "branches," these products are not suitable for iguanas. Hot rock and sizzle stone manufacturers have jumped on the iguana band wagon, sticking iguanas in ads for all their products (well, it seems like all of their products!) whether or not that product is suitable for iguanas. Hot rocks and sizzle stones do not heat up anything but themselves and what ever happens to be plastered to them. All too often, their internal temperature regulator fails, and the rock becomes hot enough to severely burn--sometimes fatally--the iguana. Branches, like rocks, do not heat up the environment, and so are unable to provide the type of environment required by the iguana. They are also expensive and your iguana will outgrow it rather soon if you are caring for it properly.

In the wild, iguanas are warmed by radiant heat:the tropical sun warms up the air. Resting on branches, the iguanas are bathed in heat that is available to them wherever they move around in their environment. Many iguana owners insist that their iguana "loves" its hot rock. The fact that the rest of the iguana's enclosure is barely 80F doesn't seem to register with these owners - but of course, the pet stores, hot rock and sizzle stone manufacturers love it: once you buy it and use it, there's no returning it. Despite the fact that the top current reptile veterinary and popular literature all say that hot rocks should not be used for iguanas (Mattison, 1987; Frye, 1991; de Vosjoli, 1992; Blair, 1993) or any other radiant basking animal, pet stores still push them on new iguana owners.

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. Vitalights and similar full-spectrum lights do not generate much heat, and so 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! Using a white light 24 hours a day will stress your animal. Stress leads to illness, reduced appetite and inactivity. The easiest bulbs to find are the colored interior incandescent or exterior flood light bulbs. found in any hardware or home builder's-type store; the
blue-colored bulbs are best as they produce the dimmest light while producing the same amount of heat as a similar wattage bulb in white. Another option is 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.

A key factor overlooked by many iguana owners is that the iguana lives in a three dimensional environment and thus requires a three-dimensional thermal gradient. A warm-to-cool gradient running from side-to-side and front-to-back are two of the dimensions; the third dimension is from bottom to top. Due to their preference for basking in high places, the basking area is best placed near the top of the warmest end of the tank. The heat will dissipate as it spreads down and across
the tank. To prevent the tank from getting too cool on the warmer sides of the gradient, a subtank heating pad and additional heating light or element should be used where appropriate.

One thing I have learned is that it is impossible to accurately guess what the temperature is. There are, however, a variety of thermometers that will take the guess work out of assuring that your iguana's temperature gradients are being maintained. Pet stores sell high range, self-adhesive thermometers that go up to 105F. Any regular thermometer can be securely taped to the enclosure; these are often found at reduced prices at biological supply houses and inexpensive ones at hardware stores. Make sure the iguana cannot get at the regular ones as they may be knocked down and broken. Get at least two - one for the cool side and one for the warm;ideally, you need a third one at the basking area. They must be placed at the same level as the iguana's normally basking and sleep areas. Putting a thermometer several inches above the area will give you a reading that could be quite different than the temperature where the ig actually is. Placing a fourth thermometer in the room itself will give you an idea, over a period of time, of how changes in the room air temperature affects the temperature inside the iguana enclosure. The placement of the enclosure within a room or house can also affect how well it heats up or retains heat. If placed on the floor or in a part of the house that stays cool even during hot weather, you are going to have to work harder getting and keeping the proper temperatures. Conversely, getting too hot is also a problem. As the highest a self-adhesive thermometer goes is 105 F, if your thermometer is reading 105 F, it may well be much hotter than that, hot enough to cause your iguana severe problems.

Those individuals who are electrically inclined (or know someone who is), the heating equipment can be wired directly into a thermostat and the temperatures programmed and maintained automatically through that mechanism.

A note on lighting and heating...

Too many people confuse these two distinct elements of a reptile's environment. Matters are not helped any by the misleading marketing engaged in by light bulb manufacturers and pet store staff who are themselves clueless about the differences. They are not the same thing. Please check out the articles in the Lighting cluster, especially the article, Lighting and Heating on the Iguana Care Page to more fully understand the differences between the two concepts, and what the various products on the market do do, and what fluorescents are providing suitable amounts of UVB for your iguana and other reptiles.

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Integrating Iguanas Into Your Life
Iguanas are alert, curious and interested in their surroundings, eager to explore new spaces and find great places to bask, sleep and, at least initially, hide. One of the fastest ways to tame your iguana, and the best way to ensure a mentally healthy iguana, is to give it as much time out of its enclosure as you can.

Out time requires a bit of preparation. As with a young child, you must iguana-proof the room or rooms the iguana is going to be allowed access to. This means a bit of time on your back and knees, roll of duct tape in hand, covering up holes and openings under and inside cabinets in the bathroom and kitchen, under appliances, between appliances and cabinets. Assure that all window and door screens are free of rips and holes and are securely fitted. Remove all toxic houseplants.

Three pieces of equipment I find indispensable are a hand mirror, long stick (I use my 5' hickory walking stick or 6' snake hook) and a powerful flashlight. The mirror enables me to look under and behind things without having to get down on the floor; the flashlight is useful when those places are dark (which they usually are!). The stick enables me to encourage a reluctant iguana to come out from behind the bookcase or from smack in the middle of the floor under my king-size bed. (Someone also recommended keeping two strong men armed with screwdrivers around to disassemble the furniture, but these items are more difficult to store when not in use!)

Make sure that the room you are letting the iguana out into is warm enough. It is not necessary to keep the room at 92F, but you do need to provide a basking area, preferably one several feet (5-6') up above the floor where the iguana can look out the window. You can make an easy climber for the iguana by wrapping a board in sisal rope or a towel and bracing it against the shelf of the basking area (securely fastened towels, bird ladders and double layers of fish netting also work well).

Show your iguana around the house. Show him where his water and food are, and where the basking area is. They may not remember the first time out, but iguanas do have good memories for interesting things like basking and hiding areas and will eventually settle on two or three favorite places. You may wish to keep the toilet and any closets and boxes you do not want the iguana exploring closed; one of my iguanas has a favorite spot when he wants to be alone - the second shelf of the towel stand over the toilet in my guest bathroom; another prefers the bathtub in my bathroom. Include your iguana into your daily routine. A plastic hook stuck on the tile wall of your shower with a washcloth securely hanging from it makes a nice place for your baby ig to hang out while you shower. A shoulder is a comfortable perch while you are eating meals, paying bills, working on the computer, doing your homework. Hold your iguana and let it sit with you or explore the couch or chair while you talk on the phone or watch TV.

Expect it to get "lost." As long as it is healthy and nighttime temperatures are within the lower limits of the iguana's required gradient, it will not be the end of the world if it spends the night out of its enclosure. As mentioned above, they begin to frequent the same places over and over again and eventually all you need to do is make the rounds of their favorite spots to make sure they are there and comfortable. Well, safe. I've seen some scrunched up in some pretty funny positions all in the attempt to make themselves invisible.

Taking It To The Streets.
Early on you should begin getting you and your iguana used to being outside. This does not mean you stick your iguana on a bush and walk away. Nor does it mean that you pop a leash around its neck and go walking down the street. It does mean that as you begin to build up trust with your iguana inside the house, you need to begin building up the same trust outside. But, while inside the house you do not have to constantly have your hand on the iguana, outside you need to be in constant contact with the iguana to safeguard against its jumping and taking off.

I do not recommend the use of leashes, especially the so-called "iguana" leashes that are merely ferret and rabbit leashes repackaged with a picture of an iguana. If a collar/leash is on loose enough so that it does not hurt the iguana, it is loose enough so that the iguana can rapidly dorsally and laterally compress itself and wriggle out. If it is on tight enough so that the iguana cannot get out, then it is too tight, and you risk strangling your iguana should he leap off. You will also destroy the dorsal spikes in the area immediately beneath and on either side of the leash. There are new harnesses out now, with a sling-like piece which goes under the iguana's chest and through which his forearms are placed. The same problems occur with this harness as with the figure-eight, except that if the harness is loose enough to not injure the spines, it is on loose enough for the sling to slip and a thrashing iguana to break a leg.

Get the iguana used to the presence and touch of other people, noise and movement. You will eventually find places that welcome you and your iguana, and places that do not. Respect those who do not. Respect local health codes and the owners of restaurants and markets and do not take your iguana inside. Pet stores and nature stores are often great places to introduce your iguana to new people and to do a little educating on your own.

 
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