Should I Get an Iguana? Or: The Top 5 Contributors to Early Iguana Death

This is no joke - an estimated 1,000,000 iguanas are imported into the United States each year and most of them die. Yes, I mean it, hundreds of thousands die. Almost none live more than ten years, and many don't live more than 2. (Their lifespan is 20+ years!!) The culprits are few and well known. Despite their amazing popularity, green iguanas are simply one of the reptiles least suited for captivity.

What does this have to do with you? Well, I would like you, the potential iguana owner, to take a few things into consideration before you buy an iguana. Hopefully, after reading this, you will either decide not to buy an iguana (and thus help reduce the demand for imporation) or you will strive to learn all there is to know about them before you get one, and end up treating yours to a long and healthy life.

This is not a complete caresheet! For loads of more information please visit The Complete Guide to Keeping Giant Green Iguanas in Captivity. I just hope this short page will help people make a difficult decision.

"If you don't want a 7 foot sofa, don't get one.
If you don't want a 6 foot iguana, don't get one.
Seems pretty simple to me..."
--Melissa Kaplan

The Top 5 Contributors to Early Iguana Death:

#5 - Stress - The reason why we need to worry about things like internal parasites with captive reptiles is that captive reptiles are generally under a great deal of stress. Just as humans are more susceptible to illness when stressed, iguanas can become very ill when they are not housed under the proper conditions. You must be able to provide a very large cage for your potential iguana (taller and much wider than the iguana's total length) along with appropriately sized climbing branches and/or shelves. You must not subject the iguana to loud radios or bright televisions when it is trying to sleep. You must interact with the iguana so that it does not become bored out of its mind. Treat the iguana as you would like to be treated: give it plenty of food, exercise, attention, room to live and breathe, and treat it with respect. These are not little lizards that you can throw into a cage and watch them when you feel like it; an iguana is much more like a dog. You wouldn't throw your dog into a cage for the rest of its life and neglect it, would you?

#4 - Poor Diet - An iguana's nutritional demands are so far greater than most other reptiles (very few reptiles are strict herbivores) that many iguanas wind up with nutritional deficiencies despite a seemingly varied diet. It is important to understand that in the wild, iguanas eat 40-50 different varieties of leaves and flowers. In captivity, an iguana offered 5 different kinds of vegetables is lucky. You must learn to offer many different kinds of vegetables, you must learn which vegetables are the best ones to offer and which vegetables to stay away from. And, despite what you may have heard, dog food, cat food, and monkey food are not suitable foods for iguanas. Iguanas fed these foods regularly die of kidney failure by age 10. And these are not 10 happy, thriving years. It has been shown multiple times that iguanas in the wild are purely herbivores. Any insect matter they may take in is purely incidental. Do not expect to be able to open a can once or twice a week for your iguana's food. It will not survive long. Please see The Complete Guide for more important diet information!

#3 - Not Enough Sun - Not only do you need to consciously provide your potential iguana with a diet that is calcium-rich (most vegetables are calcium-poor) but you also have to provide your potential iguana with exposure to light in the UV-B range. That means direct, unfiltered sunlight. This is necessary for calcium absorption - without it, precious calcium will pass through the body unused. You need to be willing to take your iguana out into the sun during the summer months. Construct an outdoor cage. Construct a window seat of sorts. At the very least, buy full spectrum fluorescent bulbs to mount in your iguana's cage, and replace them every 6-12 months. These bulbs emit only a minute fraction of the UV-B emitted by the sun, so when used in lieu of natural sunlight they need to be turned on for 12-14 hours a day. And the iguana needs to sit less than 18 inches away from the bulbs. Without exposure to UV-B radiation, iguanas frequently suffer from calcium deficiency, leading to metabolic bone disease, which is lethal when untreated. Metabolic bone disease is one of the biggest killers of iguanas in captivity, and you can probably see why!

#2 - Neglect - It is very important that you are aware of your iguana every day. Look at its eyes, look at its body, touch it, interact with it. Unless you know exactly how your iguana looks, feels, and acts, you will not recognize problems when/if they arise. If you do not look at your iguana's stomach for many weeks at a time, it could very well be developing a fungal infection and you wouldn't even know it. Iguanas can and do suddenly die from systemic bacterial/fungal infections because their owners were not aware that there was a problem. The better you know your iguana, the better you will understand its needs. Please interact with your iguana. You'll become great friends.

#1 - Misunderstanding - You must learn what an iguana is, what it will grow up to be, and what it needs. Don't think you can change it, or that you can change with it. A healthy iguana will grow to be 5-6 feet in length, and will require a very large cage or an entire room to live in. It needs to climb. It needs stimulation. Iguanas are not suited to be "cage pets" - they are not happy just sitting in a cage all day with no attention or human interaction. They can and do get depressed. They do get sick. They do need medical (veterinary) attention. An iguana is a living creature, just like you. You are thinking of taking one into your home and dictating its entire future. You need to be responsible. You need to be able to provide it with what it needs and you need to be able to pay for it. So many iguanas are given away or abandoned when they get to be too big or too much trouble. This is traumatic for an iguana. Iguanas are not mere possessions - they live and breathe. Their eggs are stolen from the wild and the hatchlings who are lucky enough to make it to their country of destination alive have yet to endure more shipping, pet stores, and frequently, multiple owners. If you decide to buy an iguana, please make its next stop its last. Understand its needs, give it a good home, and keep it forever.

Help an iguana! If you still want to have an iguana of your own, consider contacting your local herpetological society, humane society, and/or animal shelters. Iguanas are given up all the time, and they need homes or they will be destroyed. Adopt an iguana. By doing this, you are not only helping the iguana you adopt - you are also helping to reduce the demand of importation by not buying one. As long as people continue to pay pet stores for iguanas, iguanas will continue to be imported by the hundreds of thousands.


Adam Britton
Jennifer Swofford