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There are many species of lizards. Some of the more popular domestically kept species include iguanas, bearded dragons, chameleons, and geckos. The specific behavior of lizards varies depending on species. Some species, such as iguanas, are active during the day, while others, like the leopard gecko, are active at night. Some species of lizards, such as similarly sized bearded dragons, do well in groups, while others, such as chameleons, should be housed individually.
In general, lizards should be handled gently under the body and never caught or picked up by their tails, as their tails can sometimes break off. Certain lizards, such as young iguanas, are quick and jumpy. Older iguanas, which can reach several feet in length, can be aggressive and dangerous, whipping their tails and biting, especially when they reach sexual maturity. Other lizards, such as bearded dragons, tend to be gentler and more amenable to handling. While chameleons are beautiful to look at, they often resist handling and are kept more for display as handling can be stressful to them. Regardless of the species, many lizards carry Salmonella bacteria; thus their cages and feeding bowls should be kept away from human food, and any surface they have contact with outside of their enclosures should be disinfected. Care should be taken to wash hands after handling any lizard.
Specific housing requirements vary according to species. Smaller lizards, such as geckos, may be housed in well-ventilated aquariums protected by screens on top so that other predatory pets, such as cats and dogs, don’t have access to them. Larger lizards, such as bearded dragons and iguanas, need enclosures at least 2’x4’ and should be high enough to enable climbing. Chameleons generally do better in wire enclosures with a minimum size of 2’x2’x3’. Acceptable substrates for the tank bottom include paper towel, newspaper, recycled paper products, or rabbit pellets.
Particulate matter bedding, such as sand, soil, gravel, corncob, walnut shells, and wood shavings/chips are not recommended, as they are indigestible if eaten, can encourage bacterial/fungal growth, and can sometimes be irritating. All lizards should have hide boxes, large rocks on which to rub off shedding skin, and open water bowls in which to bathe. Lizards also generally need to be misted with water daily. Iguanas, in particular, need high environmental humidity, while bearded dragons do better with a much lower moisture level. Chameleons will not drink standing water but require a drip system (commercially available).
Chameleons and iguanas, especially, must be provided with branches for climbing. All lizards require supplemental heat (provided by an over-the-tank bulb) so that a temperature gradient is established, with a hot/basking zone (approximately 90-100°F, depending on species), and a cooler/shade zone (70-75°F, depending on species). All lizards also require 10-12 hours a day of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light in the UV-B wavelength; UV bulbs must be changed every 6 months. Commercially available “hot rocks” are not recommended, as they can cause burns.
Some lizards, such as iguanas, are herbivores (eat plant matter only), while other lizards, such as chameleons and bearded dragons, are omnivores (eat both plant and animal matter). Still others, such as some geckos, are carnivores (eat animal/insect matter only). Every day, iguanas can be fed calcium-rich greens such as collards, turnip and dandelion greens, bok choy, romaine, kale, Swiss chard, spinach, cilantro, and escarole. They may also be offered alfalfa hay and grass and lesser amounts of other vegetables (carrot, squash, pepper, broccoli, peas, beans, okra, sprouts), plus occasional fruits (banana, apple, melon, papaya, berries, kiwi, plum).
Bearded dragons may be fed mealworms, crickets, superworms, wax worms, and pinkie mice. These food items should be dusted with a vitamin/mineral supplement containing calcium several times a week for young dragons and weekly for adults. Dragons also should be fed greens, similar to those fed to iguanas, smaller amounts of other vegetables (like iguanas), and even lesser amounts of fruit.
Young, growing dragons eat insects daily with lesser amounts of greens; adults tend to consume more greens and fewer insects and are fed every to every other day. Chameleons predominantly eat insects (mealworms, crickets) and may also eat roaches, snails, and silkworms. Care must be taken not to overwhelm chameleons with insects, as insects can chew on chameleons and injure them. Young chameleons should be fed daily; adults 2-4 times a week. Chopped greens, vegetables, and small amounts of fruit also may be offered.
Chameleons also should receive supplemental calcium dusted on prey. Leopard geckos live mainly on insects dusted with calcium powder (every other day for adults). Juvenile geckos are fed daily, while adults are fed 2-3 times per week. Crickets should not be longer than the length of the gecko’s head, and generally should not be fed in excess of 4-6 per feeding.
All lizards should be examined by an exotic animal veterinarian initially after purchase and annually after that. They should receive a complete physical examination, as well as a check of the feces for parasites. Dietary and environmental requirements should be reviewed, and every lizard should be de-wormed at least once.
All new lizards should be kept separate from other reptiles for at least a month. Good preventative medicine helps ensure a long, healthy life for your pet lizard.