Choosing Your Ig

Pet Trade Effects




 Your iguana is known to herpetologists (people who study reptiles and amphibians) as Iguana iguana, or the common green iguana. Your iguana came from one of many countries in Central and South America, and was either caught in the wild or hatched in captivity from an egg laid by a wild-caught or captive pregnant female. Observers in Central America report that huge numbers of wild iguanas are being exported from El Salvador, a country which, though it is signatory to CITES, does not have-or does not care to have-the structure in place to monitor infractions. Captive breeding of iguanas is not yet successful enough to supply the demands of the pet trade.

Green iguanas (who may not be green when they reach adolescence or adulthood) live in the rain forests of Central and South America; the ones commonly found in pet and reptile stores come from Columbia, Honduras, Peru, Mexico and Surinam. Because of the destruction of the rain forests and the demands of the wildlife and pet trade, green iguanas are considered to be "threatened" and are listed on Appendix II of the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). This means that the exporters and importers must have special permits to move these reptiles across borders, but it is legal for anyone to buy them once they reach their destination. Other types of iguanas are in danger of extinction and have different import and export laws regulating them.

Young iguanas are very green and blend in well with their habitat - the leafy dim lower levels of the rain forest canopy. Their tail is striped to help them disappear while lying still on a branch; their spots and stripes of body color also help them blend in. Older iguanas live higher up in the canopy where it is lighter and drier; young iguanas require a more humid environment. All iguanas are excellent climbers, easily scaling up and down vertical surfaces. They are also proficient swimmers, holding their legs close beside their bodies and using their tail to propel them through the water, similar to the way crocodiles and alligators swim.

In the wild, iguanas eat lots of leaves, tender new shoots, flowers and soft fruits. They get some water from catching rain and condensation on the flowers and leaves of the trees, but most comes from their food. In the spring they eat the leaves of plants in the bean family that are high in protein. Despite the information commonly found in the pet literature, field and lab research has repeatedly shown that iguanas are not omnivores - the are strictly herbivorous and should be fed as such in captivity.

The daily routine of an iguana goes something like this: as the morning sunlight begins to penetrate the overhead forest canopy, the iguanas begin to move from their night sleeping places to a branch where they can soak up the sun's heat. After a few hours, they are warm enough to move around and forage for food. After climbing, searching and eating for a couple of hours, they move to a basking site to catch the afternoon sun; they must be warm enough to digest the food they have eaten before they go back to their night sleeping places. During the day, the iguana has to be on the look-out for bigger iguanas and for other animals who consider iguanas to be a tasty addition to their diet; young iguanas especially are near the bottom of the food chain, food for other reptiles, large amphibians, birds and mammals. (This also explains why your new iguana is terrified of you--he thinks you're a giant predator ready for an iguana snack.) During breeding season, male iguanas are looking for females, and females are generally trying to avoid overzealous males. Their days are filled with bursts of activity punctuated by long periods of quiet rest.



 In the wild, iguanas are expected to live for 10-15 years, assuming they don't become the dinner's main course and have escaped being captured and crated for export. If cared for properly in captivity they may live for 20 years or more, reaching a length of 5-7 feet, weighing up to 18 pounds. You can provide your iguana with the necessities of life in the form of proper housing, heat, light and food.

Choosing A Healthy Iguana

When you go to the pet store, you will likely be faced with one or more tanks of hatchling iguanas (2.5-3" svl), and possibly one or more older igs ranging from less than one year of age to several years. The older iguanas are all preowned - other people owned them, couldn't deal with their normal (untamed) behavior, or didn't want to deal with the daily grind of cleaning and feeding, or the iguana was sick and they didn't want to have to pay the necessary vet bills.

You will have to hold several iguanas. If the store isn't willing to take the time to pick out the ones you want to see, go elsewhere. Unfortunately, there are likely several stores in your area selling them, and you will be sure to find a store who will do this for you. Hold each iguana in both hands, using the fingers of one hand to gently move the arms, legs, and dewlap so that you can inspect the iguana from head to tail tip. 


What To Look For When Choosing Your Iguana

  •  Is the skin clean, clear, firm, free of scratches and bites? (Bites and scratches may lead to infected abscesses later on.) 
  • Is the belly free of burns? (Burns may heal, but the skin from then on may always be sensitive to bottom heat.) 
  • Is the belly free from ground-in feces? (Dirty iguanas indicate an unsanitary environment and probably a weak and sick animal.) 
  • Is the vent free of dried feces and urates? (Presence indicates a weak, and possibly parasite- and protozoan-loaded lizard.) 
  • Can you feel the iguana resist you as you move its limbs? (Weakness or shakiness indicates a severely debilitated lizard or one suffering from calcium deficiency.) 
  • Are the body, limbs, and tail free of lumps and bumps and swelling other than the joints?   (Abscesses, cysts, and broken bones require veterinary care and treatment.) 
  • Are there any black, dark reddish brown, or bright orange dots (mites) moving around the iguana's body (look especially carefully around the ears, armpits, and along the neck and dorsal crest)? (Indicates overall poor care and lack of concern in the store and possibly weakened and sick lizard.) 
  • Are the back legs shaped normally, or is there a large hard knot in both thighs? (One hard swollen leg may be a broken bone; both similarly swollen is likely to be severe calcium deficiency.) 
  • Are the limbs like twigs, or is there some flesh on the bones? Is the body extremely wrinkled, dull looking? (Emaciated, dehydrated; possible internal parasite and/or bacterial infections: requires veterinary care.)
  • Are the eyes bleary, weepy, crusted? (Possible respiratory infection or eye inflammation.) 
  • Is the nose free of wet or dried mucous (note: salty deposits are normal)? (Bubbly or dried mucous indicates respiratory infection; requires veterinary care.) 
  • Is the interior of the mouth pale or grayish pink? Stringy, ropey, or sheeting mucous? Small yellowish, whitish or greenish patches in gums, tongue or roof of mouth? (Gently pull down on the dewlap to open the mouth) (Systemic infection causing secondary mouthrot; requires veterinary care.) 
  • Is the lower jaw swollen out equally on both sides? (Indicates probably metabolic bone disease.) 
  • Are there any lumps or swellings on the face, neck, or dewlap? (Note: large sexually mature males often have large fleshy jowls surrounding the large subtympanic scale and soft swellings on the top of their heads--both of which are normal and healthy.) (Swellings, hard or soft, may be infected abscesses; requires veterinary care.)

 As an increasing number of iguanas are imported every year, and improved care is keeping them alive, and living longer, we know that we are beginning to get it right. The information that has been out there for the past 15+ years is still too-slowly trickling into the pet trade from the biologists and researcher.

There have been lots of new products added to the pet store shelves in the past several years. If we were talking about animals who had short lifespans so that these companies could do generational studies on the effects of their foods, we could feel comfortable that we were probably giving our igs the best. But igs don't produce generations every couple of months...igs aren't reproductively successful until their second year, and they should live far longer than they have been due in large part to the poor diet information which presently still floods the pet trade. Thus we have commerical foods that cause metabolic bone disease when fed for a couple of years, and another frozen food product whose "secret" ingredient is Welch's grape jelly, or that simply cause low levels of chronic malnutrition, retarding development and leading to early death. There is also the trade's promulgation of false (and inhumane) beliefs such as "reptiles don't outgrow the size of their enclosure so they can be kept in a 10, 20 or 30 gallon tank for life". The latest trend seems to be telling buyers who are expressing some hesitation about buying a lizard that gets to be 6 feet long that the iguanasthey are selling are a dwarf species. There are no dwarf iguanas.

Look critically at ALL new products.  Claims such as "full-spectrum" and "iguana approved" are two highly abused terms.  If someone tells you to do things one way and you find that all his/her igs have died within 2-7 years, take the recommendations with a healthy serving of doubt.


Iguanas have become one of the most popular lizard pets, and, tragically, one of the most disposable. Pet stores that previously only sold supplies are now carrying reptiles, often showcasing their iguanas. Pet supply manufacturers are repackaging existing products and competing with each other to get as many new iguana products out on the market to cash in on the craze. When I got my first iguana, they were selling in stores for $100 or more; many pet stores now offer "specials," with iguanas priced as low as $10. Many people are loathe to spend more on the equipment needed to keep the iguana properly than they spent on the lizard itself. Pet stores that do not really know what iguanas require to thrive in captivity sell only minimal supplies. Many of those who do know what iguanas need, but don't want to see a potential sale fall through, sell whatever they can to a customer who may be more than a little reluctant to buy $200 worth of paraphernalia for a 8-10" lizard that costs less than $20. This aspect of selling iguanas does not even begin to address the problems and misconceptions with iguana nutritional requirements.

The 1974 International Zoo Yearbook stated that of the 403,319 live reptiles imported into the United States in 1971, 136,993 were iguanas. This was the largest number of any singles species imported into the U.S. that year. (The remainder included 27,727 boa constrictors and 39,892 lizards of other species.) In 1990, TRAFFIC USA (a program of the World Wildlife Fund) reported that 1-1.5 million live reptiles were imported into the U.S., as well as 3-4 million whole skins, 865,000 partial skins, and 20-30 million products manufactured from reptile artifacts, all totaling some $475-500 million in declared value. Of those one million or so reptiles, the green iguana remained at the top of the list, around 300,000 (1990 trade data). 1993 USFWS data showed that over 750,000 iguanas were imported that year. That comes out to well over 2.6 million iguanas that legally entered the country in the past 18 years. Given the fact that iguanas can, when cared for properly, live easily in excess of 15 years (with 20-plus years not unknown), why are we not seeing big, older iguanas? Because iguanas are not the simple, easy-to-care-for animal portrayed by the pet trade.

The excessively high iguana mortality rates are primarily attributable to two main problems:
inadequate temperatures and inappropriate diets. Done right, your iguana should enjoy a long and healthy life. If any of the necessities are not provided, your iguana may end up stunted, sick, deformed or dead.

A Note on "Rescuing" Iguanas From Pet Stores
Some folks see sick iguanas in pet stores and are tempted to buy the animal or help the store out by working with it. Please read this first before taking such a step.


Necessary equipment, supplies and services: 


  • Minimum 55 - 60 gallon tank (for hatchlings - they will out grow it within the year) 
  • Undertank heating pad
  • Substrate (suggested to start: paper or terry cloth towels) 
  • Hide box straddling the middle of the tank, or one at each end 
  • Branch for climbing nearer basking light 
  • Daytime basking light or ceramic heating element (100-150 watts) 
  • Nighttime heat light (if not using ceramic heating element) (60-100 watts) 
  • Thermometers (minimum two, better: three) 
  • UVB-producing light 
  • Timer (minimum one, for the UVB light; better: one for each of the lights) 
  • Dimmer switch (for daytime heat light or ceramic heating element) 
  • Water bowl 
  • Food dish 
  • Multivitamin supplement 
  • Calcium supplement 
  • Disinfectant 
  • Claw clippers 
  • Blood clotting aid 
  • Povodine-iodine 
  • Triple-antibiotic ointment 
  •  Reptile veterinarian

Summary of Key Points

  • Iguanas are not easy-to-care-for lizards.
  • Iguanas get to be 5-6 feet within 4-5 years.
  • Iguanas are folivores, not omnivores. Animal protein is NOT a required food item and should be
    avoided completely.
  • Iguanas are not suitable pets for children.