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Iguanas - Housing

By Rick Axelson, DVM

Care & Wellness, Pet Services

What type of cage does my iguana require?

You can start a smaller juvenile iguana in a 10 or 20-gallon aquarium. However, adult male iguanas can weigh 15 - 20 lbs (7 - 9 kg) and big ones can grow to 6 feet (1.8 m) in length under the right conditions. The average adult iguana is 3 - 5 feet (1 - 1.5 m). As your iguana grows, he or she must be moved to a larger enclosure, with accommodation for both horizontal and vertical movement.

"Glass or Plexiglas enclosures with good ventilation are ideal."

Your iguana should be provided with a ground area for walking around, exploring, eating, drinking and defecating, and a vertical area such as a branch on which it can climb and bask in the light and heat. You may choose to purchase or build a cage for your pet. Your veterinarian or pet store may have examples of these larger enclosures to give you an idea of the proper habitat for an adult iguana. Glass or Plexiglas enclosures with good ventilation are ideal. A cleanable cage bottom capable of being properly disinfected plus a source of heat and ultraviolet (UV) lighting are necessary requirements. The cage should have a screened top to prevent your pet from escaping, while still allowing some ventilation. A visual barrier around the lower perimeter of a glass or Plexiglas enclosure will prevent your iguana from rubbing or striking its nose (causing sores) as it explores its environment.

Does my iguana need bedding in his cage?iguanas-housing-1

Substrate, or bedding material, should be easy to clean and disinfect and be nontoxic to the iguana. Newspaper, butcher paper, towels, or preferably artificial grass such as Astroturf is recommended. When using Astroturf, buy two pieces and cut them to fit the entire bottom of the cage. By having two pieces, one can be placed in the cage and the other can be a spare that is ready to use when the first one is soiled. Clean the soiled turf with ordinary soap and water and disinfect with diluted bleach (1 part bleach to 10 parts water) Avoid harsher products unless your reptile veterinarian approves their use. After washing, thoroughly rinse it and hang it to dry until needed at the next cage cleaning.

"Cedar wood shavings are toxic to reptiles."

Alfalfa pellets can also be used for bedding and are often eaten by the iguana, which is acceptable. AVOID sand, gravel, wood shavings, corn cob material, walnut shells, and cat litter, as these are not only difficult to clean but can cause impactions if eaten. Cedar wood shavings are toxic to reptiles!

What else do I need in the cage?

Iguanas enjoy access to natural tree branches. Make sure they will support the animal comfortably and that they are secure and will not fall onto the lizard and injure it. Ideally, the branch should slope from the bottom of the enclosure to the top and end near a proper light and heat source so the iguana can bask. Large rocks in the cage also allow for basking. A hiding place is appreciated by all reptiles. Artificial plants or real non-toxic plants can be arranged to provide a hiding place, as can clay pots, cardboard boxes, pieces of bark, half-domed hollow logs and other containers that provide a secure area.

Reptiles are cold-blooded, meaning that their body temperature is the same as that of the external environment. They need a range of temperatures within the cage to regulate their internal body temperature. Environmental temperature determines the activity of the iguana. They slow down in cooler temperatures. A heat source is necessary for all reptiles. Ideally, the cage should be set up so that a heat gradient is established, with one area of the tank warmer than the other end. In this way, the iguana can move around its environment and warm or cool itself, as needed. Purchase two thermometers that cannot be damaged; place one at the cooler end of the cage and one at the warmer end, near the heat source. The cooler end of the cage should be approximately 70o-75 o F (21 o -24o C), while the warmer end should be 90 o -100 o F (32 o - 38 o C). An inexpensive way to do this is to supply a focal heat source using a 100-watt incandescent bulb with a reflector hood; you can also purchase other types of heat lamps or ceramic heating elements at a specialty pet store. Use these heat sources as directed. Your heat source should be placed OUTSIDE and above one end of the cage, which should be covered by a screen top to prevent the iguana from escaping or burning itself on the bulb. At night, when sleeping, extra heat and light are not necessary as long as the temperature remains at 65 o - 70 o F (18 o -24 o C). You must provide your iguana with a "night time". In the wild, the nighttime temperatures usually fall gradually.

A heating pad may be placed under one end of the cage for warmth; speak with your veterinarian to learn the correct way to use them so that you avoid burning your pet.

"Hot Rocks" or "Sizzle Rocks" are dangerous, ineffective, and should be avoided!

What about ultraviolet (UV) light?

A wild reptile may spend many hours a day basking in the sun, absorbing ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light is essential so that the skin can manufacture the vitamin D3 that the iguana needs for proper calcium absorption from the intestines. Failure to provide UV light can predispose your pet to nutritional metabolic bone disease. This overly common and completely preventable condition of pet reptiles is fatal if left untreated. The UV light should emit light in the UV-B range (290-320 nanometers). UV-A light (320 - 400nm), although important in terms of behavior, does not aid in the manufacture of vitamin D3. Most bulbs sold for use in reptile housing provide both UV-A and UV-B. Examples of commercially available UV-B emitting lights are the RetisunTM, Iguana LightTM, Power SunTM (by Zoo Med) and Repti GloTM lamp by Exo Terra. The UV output of these lights decreases with age so they should be replaced every six months or as directed by the manufacturer. For UV light to work, it must reach the pet in an unfiltered form, which means that you must make sure there is no glass or plastic between the pet and the light. The light should be within 6-12 inches from the animal in order for the pet to receive any benefit. These bulbs are expensive, but worth the extra cost, and often mean the difference between a healthy reptile and a sick or dying reptile. Regular exposure to natural DIRECT sunlight outside (unfiltered through glass) is encouraged and recommended whenever possible. When outdoors, you must provide your iguana with a shaded area so it can escape from the sun if it chooses. Your pet should always be supervised if taken outside to bask in the sun, to prevent escape or attack from other roaming animals in the neighborhood.

"For UV light to work, it must reach the pet in an unfiltered form, which means that you must make sure there is no glass or plastic between the pet and the light."

Consult a veterinarian familiar with reptiles if you have any questions or concerns regarding proper lighting or other housing issues for your iguana.

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