Handling Pet Iguanas

What to Expect with a New Iguana

Hand touching pet iguana
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Iguanas are beautiful lizards and can make wonderful pets - but many owners are surprised by how large, strong, and sometimes aggressive iguanas become as they mature. Regular, consistent, gentle handling is absolutely necessary to tame iguanas and keep them tame and manageable as they get larger.

Often a new iguana is quite docile for the first few days after he is brought home. At this point many owners think that taming their iguana will be no problem, and are somewhat startled in a few days when the iguana starts showing signs of aggression.

This is normal - at first the iguana may have been too nervous and intimidated by his new surroundings to assert himself. However, as the iguana becomes more comfortable, he is more likely to show his displeasure with handling. (For the sake of clarity, iguanas are referred to as males in this article, although the information here applies equally to male and female iguanas.)

The difficulty owners will face in taming their iguana depends somewhat on the iguana, his age (older is sometimes better, as a tame baby may change a lot when he/she reaches sexual maturity) and his background. Pet store iguanas are likely to be at least a little stressed by their experiences (shipping, handling, and housing). Getting an iguana from a rescue is a wonderful idea, but remember some will have been neglected and even mistreated so it may take a little longer to gain their trust. Taming requires gaining trust, and this is something that will not happen overnight - trust must be earned over time.

Depending on your iguana it may take months - so be patient and persistent, and you will have a much happier life with your iguana.

A note on the damage iguanas do: they have lots of weapons so you do need to be careful. This is not said to scare you, just to warn you what to watch out for. They have sharp teeth and do bite, and they may try to whip you with their tail which can be extremely powerful (and the dorsal spines along the tail are very sharp).

They have very sharp claws, so at least expect some scratches when first handling an iguana. It is also a good idea to acquaint yourself with body language and behavior (the resources given at the end of the article are both excellent for this) so you can read the warning signs. Head bobs and extension of the dewlap may signal that the iguana feels threatened and may defend itself; tail twitching is a definite sign of aggression. Read the resources so you can get a feel for what your iguana is trying to tell you.

Taming is also a balance between not pushing too hard and showing the iguana who is in charge. You have to be firm and persistent without completely stressing out the iguana. At the same time, if the iguana is aggressive or struggles and you immediately back off or put him down, your iguana thinks he has "won" and thinks that when he is aggressive he will get his way. This may be easier said than done when an iguana is scratching you or trying to bite or lash you with his tail, but try to make it clear that you are making the decisions and in charge of the interaction.

The following are the basic steps involved, followed by links to some web pages that cover the topic in much greater depth.

1. Give a new iguana a couple of weeks to settle in before starting the taming process. Establish a routine for feeding, cleaning, etc. - a predictable daily routine will provide a sense of security for the iguana.

2. Talk to the iguana as you do routine tasks, and keep the iguana in a place where it can observe the you going about your routine. This will help get him used to our presence.

3. Spend time just watching and talking to the iguana. Use his name as they do tend to recognize their names.

4. Place your hand in the cage and approach the iguana. Do this from the side rather than from above, which the iguana will likely perceive as a threat. If the iguana makes aggressive postures or scrambles around in a panic, back off a bit but keep trying, while speaking in a soft gentle voice. Make sure movements are slow and smooth.

If you immediately stop trying, the iguana thinks he is training you! Repeat this step for a while until the iguana is more used to your hand.

5. Try to pet the iguana. The same tips apply as for the previous step.

6. Now try to pick up the iguana. If it is a smaller iguana, then scooping it up under the belly should be sufficient, but if he is larger, then supporting both under the belly and the pelvic (lower belly, upper tail) areas will be necessary. Before attempting this, make sure the room is iguana proof, with no means of escape (block of any space, however small, an iguana could squeeze through) and any breakables put away (remember iguanas are good climbers too). If the iguana gets away on you, this will help in the capture process.

7. Try not to put the iguana down until he is calm - that way it learns that being calm is what gets it put down rather than struggling. If the iguana gets away from you, don't panic and chase him - let him calm down, then approach slowly speaking quietly. You may end up having to chase the iguana of course, but this is best avoided if possible. Never grab for the tail - iguanas can drop their tails as a defense and you will be left holding a tail while the iguana is still on the loose!

8. As the iguana becomes more accepting of handling, you can be more responsive to his moods - if he is usually okay with handling but is tense or signaling with body language that he is not comfortable, then you can respect that.

The following are excellent in depth resources that will help with this process:

  • Taming and Socialization - by Melissa Kaplan - Chapter 5 of this PDF document is actually a complex series of articles on behavior, socialization, and taming that every owner should read.
  • Taming an Iguana (and Aggressiveness During Breeding Season) - by Tricia Power - excellent advice on taming as well as the body language of iguanas.