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Iguanas are native to South America, but have migrated up into the southern United States, and are now common residents of Florida, the Everglades, and parts of Texas. Although they are quite beautiful reptiles, many people consider them nuisance pests because they raid vegetable and flower gardens for food.
FEEDING & NUTRITION - KEEPING YOUR IGUANA HEALTHY
Iguanas are vegetarians. They eat leafy greens, vegetables, and fruits. Baby iguanas, especially, need to eat greens that offer a good daily source of calcium. Be sure to offer your iguana plenty of variety. If it eats the same thing every day, it will soon refuse to eat anything but that one food.
For best results, feed a mixture of calcium-high foods such as turnip greens, collard greens, escarole, mustard greens, parsley, broccoli leaves (NOT the flourettes, which are low in calcium and dangerously high in phosphorus), and dandelion leaves & flowers (make very sure your lawn has not been fertilized or treated with weed poison within the past two weeks).
For variety, try feeding your iguana very small amounts of peas, carrots, corn, lima beans, zucchini, summer squash, sweet potatoes, green beans, radish sprouts, apples, peaches, strawberries, oranges, blueberries, raspberries, or pears. These foods have very low calcium content, and should be treated as desserts or occasional treats for good behavior.
Do NOT feed your iguana lettuce, especially iceberg (salad) lettuce. It offers absolutely no nutritional content. Your iguana will starve to death on a steady diet of iceberg lettuce.
Baby iguanas need to eat twice each day. Their food should be chopped finely, and mixed well. As they get older, they can eat coarsely chopped leaves, and will only need to be fed once a day. Adults (over 3 years old) only need to be fed every other day.
Don’t let your iguana (even an adult) chew on whole leaves--especially large tough leaves like broccoli or collards--because iguanas do not have a “gag reflex.” They will keep biting, and chewing, and trying to swallow...and if the stem doesn’t break in their teeth, they will choke on it.
Even healthy iguanas can benefit from vitamin supplements. Iguanas need large amounts of calcium to keep their bones strong and healthy. Phosphorous can be deadly. If you buy a calcium supplement for your iguana, make sure no other vitamins or minerals are included.
HOME SWEET HOME - YOUR IGUANA’S CAGE
With proper handling, iguanas can be very gentle and affectionate...but they are not the world’s smartest animals! ;-) NEVER use a heat rock in your iguana’s cage. Your iguana will love the warmth--but it may not realize that the heat rock is actually burning and scarring its belly. Iguanas in the wild lie on branches and soak up the sun’s heat. If you think your iguana isn’t getting enough heat, place a heat lamp at a safe distance from its cage, and shine it down into the cage. But also provide a shaded place for your iguana, because too much heat will kill it.
Never place your iguana’s cage or tank in front of a window. A little sunlight each day is good and healthy, but filtered sunlight is useless. Window glass and plastic both filter out the healthy UV rays that will keep your iguana healthy. Plus, your iguana will overheat and die if exposed to sunlight for several hours with no shade.
Do not put aquarium gravel in your iguana’s tank. It may rub his belly raw. Also avoid using kitty litter, as it may try to eat it (did I mention that most iguana’s aren’t very smart??) and this will cause severe internal damage. Iguanas will also try to eat wood chips and newspaper. Cedar chips are fatal to iguanas, so even though they look nice...avoid them! Carpet will not hurt your iguana, and indoor/outdoor carpeting (like a utility door mat) can be trimmed to fit your cage with any sharp pair of scissors. It can be lifted out, washed off, and placed back in the cage with a minimum of fuss. Shredded coconut bark is also a safe substrate, and is easily available at most reptile-oriented pet stores.
Always make sure your iguana has fresh water available. Water should be changed every day, because some iguanas like to bathe (and defecate!) in their water bowls. Iguanas are native to Central and South America, where it rains constantly, so this is normal and healthy behavior for them.
Many iguanas also love to be “misted” with clean water a few times each day. Don’t aim your sprayer directly at them, aim it above them and let the mist drift down onto them. Or you can “mist” their food if they don’t seem to like being sprayed. The important thing is to make sure your iguana takes in plenty of water, either through its skin, or through eating and drinking. Iguanas (especially baby iguanas) can die rapidly from dehydration.
As your iguana gets older (and bigger), it will need a larger enclosure. Iguanas often grow as much as a foot per year during their first 4 or 5 years. Plan now where to house your iguana when it outgrows its current cage. Many owners buy second-hand macaw cages, which allow their iguana to climb (any solid smooth branch will make a wonderful basking spot for your iguana), or they allow their iguana to roam freely through their house. For its own safety, you should wait until the iguana is at least three feet long before allowing it free access to your home.
WHY DOES IT DO THAT? - BASIC IGUANA FACTS
Iguanas can live up to 20 years old, but most live between 12 and 15 years. They will get between 4½ and 6 feet, depending on sex. (Males are generally bigger, heavier, and longer.)
As it grows older, you will notice your iguana losing its brilliant green color. It may become a gray, yellow, or brownish color. This is perfectly normal. In the wild, baby iguanas hide from predators by blending in with small green leaves. Large iguanas blend with their basking branches. The change in coloration helps to keep them alive.
Iguanas sneeze. This does not mean they have a cold. Iguanas have special organs called “nasal salt glands” in their snouts. They sneeze to get rid of salt that builds up in their bodies. You may not actually see them sneeze, but you may notice a buildup of salt on your iguana’s cage wall. This is perfectly normal. Just use a washcloth and water to scrub it away, so that your tank walls stay nice and clean.
Nose rubbing is the most common iguana injury. Nervous iguanas will rub their noses against their tank tops or wire cages in an effort to escape. If not stopped, they will rub the skin right off their snouts. The most common cause of nose rubbing is a cage that’s either too small, or too cluttered. Iguanas need space. If you notice swelling and rawness on your iguana’s snout, gently treat it with an antibiotic ointment, and change your iguana’s environment. If possible, move it to a larger cage. If this is not possible, remove some of the things in its current cage. Consult your vet if the wound doesn’t heal within a few days.
Remember to trim your iguana’s claws! In the wild, an iguana’s claws are worn down by climbing trees. An iguana’s claws are razor-sharp. Your pet may accidentally hurt you or itself if its claws get too long. They should be clipped every month. Use the same kind of clippers you’d use for a cat or bird, hold your iguana securely (or have someone else hold it while you snip), and remember only to clip the sharp tips. If you cut too deeply, the nail will bleed. Any clotting agent like Kwik Stop or cornstarch will stop the bleeding quickly.
Iguanas shed as they grow. This is normal and healthy. If your iguana looks “patchy,” bathing will help loosen the dead skin. If at all possible, don’t pull off the dead skin yourself. This can hurt and frighten your iguana. It will generally peel off the dead skin by rubbing against its branch or anything abrasive in its tank.
An iguana’s tail will grow to 2 or 3 times its body length. But it can be broken off. So NEVER try to catch your iguana, or pick it up, by the tail. But don’t panic...if your iguana does lose its tail, this is not a fatal wound. And it will grow back eventually. Just keep it clean, so that no infection occurs, until it heals.
HENRY OR HENRIETTA?
It’s virtually impossible to determine the sex of a baby iguana. Males and females are both the same color and size. A juvenile (1-2 years old) iguana can sometimes be identified by the shape of its skull; male heads are often more square, while females often have longer, thinner heads.
When your iguana is about 2½ years old, you can tell whether it’s a male or female by looking at the “femoral pores” under its back legs. A male will have what looks like small white circles dotting his thighs. A female’s femoral pores are almost invisible. If you can see them clearly...you have a male.
Also, the male's sub-tympanic membrane (that huge jewel-like scale beneath its tympanic membrane, or ear membrane) will be streamlined and tucked up against the jaw in a female, but a male will have heavy "jowls" which make it look more massive.
WHERE DID IT GO? - SAFETY AND HANDLING
Iguanas like to climb. They also like to hide in high, dark places like bookcases and closets. This makes them feel safe from possible danger. If your iguana has disappeared, look in high dark places...and you will probably spot its tail hanging out of a cabinet or behind your TV. An iguana's "body image" does not include its tail, and it will think itself perfectly well hidden...never realizing that its tail is still in full view. (I did mention that they're not the world's smartest animal.....)
Always handle your iguana gently and carefully. This is especially important for baby iguanas, which have very delicate bones. Never grab or squeeze your iguana. You can crush its inner organs, and this will kill it.
And yes, you can take your iguana for a walk. Most pet stores sell sturdy iguana harnesses for iguanas that are at least two feet in length. Just remember one thing: When you take your scaly friend for a walk...it will go where IT wants to go. You cannot lead an iguana, or force it to go in your direction! If you’re willing to let it lead, and carry it when it gets tired or cranky, you should have a great time “walking” your iguana.
DR. JEKYLL OR MR. HYDE?
As your iguana gets older, it will develop a definite personality. Handle your iguana every day, spend time with it, carry it around or let it ride on your shoulder, feed it by hand whenever possible. This will help keep your iguana hand-tamed and gentle.
Note: Some iguanas will exhibit hostile behavior as they reach breeding age (about 5 years old). Patience, persistence, and gentle handling can eventually calm even the wildest iguana. Once the mating season has passed, your iguana should revert to its normal placid behavior again.
A QUICK WORD ABOUT VETS
Every town has at least one veterinarian. But many vets do not specialize in exotic animals. Be sure to ask your vet whether he treats iguanas before your pet gets sick or injured. Most vets will refer you to a colleague who specializes in exotic pets if they don’t feel confident that they can treat your iguana themselves.
There are many wonderful reference websites online. In addition, below are some excellent reference books about iguanas.