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Iguanas - Feeding

By Rick Axelson, DVM

Care & Wellness, Nutrition, Pet Services

An improper diet is the most common cause of health problems in iguanas. Due to improved understanding of their nutritional requirements, the recommended diet for pet iguanas has changed a lot over the last 20 years.

What do iguanas eat?iguanas-feeding-1

Iguanas are mainly herbivorous, meaning they mostly eat plants. Specifically, they are folivores (an animal that feeds on leaves). In the wild, they feed almost entirely on the leaves of trees and vines, plus some fruits or flowers that are not readily available to pet owners. We do our best to approximate their nutritious herbivore diet in captivity. Iguanas are hindgut fermenters, which means that they require microbes (special bacteria and flagellate organisms) to ferment the high-fiber foods they ingest before the nutrients can be absorbed in the lower intestines and used by the body.

"Specifically, they are folivores (an animal that feeds on leaves)."

While some veterinarians recommend feeding only plant material for iguanas, many others feel that supplementing the diet with about 5-10% commercial canned or pelleted reptile food, legumes, sprouted seeds, tofu or alfalfa rabbit pellets are also acceptable.

How often should I feed my iguana?

Most young iguanas need to eat daily, while older iguanas can be fed daily or every other day, depending upon each pet's individual appetite.

What are some types of plant material I can feed my iguana?

Most (80-90%) of the plant material should be dark green leafy vegetables, and only 10-20% should be fruits. As a rule, anything dark green and leafy can make up a large part of the diet. Yellow, red and orange vegetables can also be included. Avoid fiber-rich, nutrient and vitamin-deficient light green vegetables including iceberg or head lettuce and celery, as their composition is mainly fiber and water with little nutrient value. The inner light-colored parts of some vegetables are less nutritious than the darker green outer leaves.

Acceptable vegetables that should represent a high percentage of the diet include collard greens, beet greens, mustard greens, broccoli, turnip greens, alfalfa hay or chow, bok choy, kale, parsley, Swiss chard, watercress, clover, red or green cabbage, savory, cilantro, kohlrabi, bell peppers, green beans, escarole and dandelion. A lesser percentage of the diet can include cactus, various squash, sprouts, cooked sweet potato, parsnips, okra, cucumber, asparagus, mushrooms, carrots, peas and corn. Fruit can include apples, pears, bananas (with skin), mango, grapes, star fruit, raisins, peaches, tomato, guava, kiwis, and melons. Fruits that are particularly healthy include figs (which contain high calcium), apricots, dates, raspberries and strawberries. Fruits may be eaten preferentially, are generally mineral poor and should perhaps be used sparingly as top dressing. As a treat, flowers such as geraniums, carnations, dandelions, hibiscus, nasturtiums and roses may be offered.

"Fruits may be eaten preferentially, are generally mineral poor and should perhaps be used sparingly as top dressing."

Vegetables can be offered cooked or raw although raw is more natural and retains more nutrients. Thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables. Flowers can be home grown or purchased from floral shops. Often, floral shops throw out older, wilting flowers. While these may be unacceptable for sale to the public, iguana owners can often get them at no charge. It is wise to be sure that no chemicals have been applied to the flowers or water.

"Cabbage, kale or mustard greens, as these contain goitrogens; excessive amounts of these items may lead to hypothyroidism."

Swiss chard, spinach and beet greens should be fed sparingly as they contain oxalates that can bind calcium and other trace minerals, preventing their absorption. Diets composed primarily of these vegetables can lead to nutrient deficiencies. Caution should also be exercised when feeding cabbage, kale or mustard greens, as these contain goitrogens; excessive amounts of these items may lead to hypothyroidism.

iguanas-feeding-2What are some acceptable animal-based protein foods I can offer my iguana?

Live food such as crickets, mealworms and pinky mice are enjoyed by iguanas but are not necessary and are considered by some to be poor dietary choices. If fed, they should be offered infrequently. Dog and cat food contain too much Vitamin D and fat, and should not be fed. Be sure to discuss these dietary options and choices with a veterinarian familiar with iguanas

Do I need to give my iguana vitamins and minerals?

Iguanas have a higher need for dietary calcium than phosphorus. It is recommended by many veterinarians to LIGHTLY sprinkle (2 - 3 times per week) all food offered to the iguana with a calcium powder (calcium gluconate, lactate, or carbonate). A LIGHT sprinkling of a good reptile vitamin mineral mix on the food is also recommended weekly, especially if it contains vitamin D3. Any supplements should be dusted onto small portions of salads or moist foods and those portions fed first to ensure that the iguana receives them.

A common problem seen in pet iguanas is over-supplementation with vitamins (especially vitamin D3) and minerals. Too much vitamin D3 can be harmful. Check with your veterinarian for specific recommendations for supplementing your pet iguana's diet.

What water requirements do iguanas have?

Fresh clean water should be available at all times for your iguana. Iguanas will not only drink from the water bowl but will often bathe in it as well. Provide water in a heavy bowl that is not easy to tip over. You must change the water and clean the bowl regularly, because iguanas often will eliminate in their water bowl while bathing. You may also want to mist your iguana with a water sprayer a few times a week.

Opinions vary regarding the nutritional needs of captive iguanas, and our knowledge in the subject is continually expanding. Therefore, you would be wise to discuss this very important topic with your veterinarian at each wellness visit or annual examination.

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