Ten Things You Should Know About Pet Lizards

If you are about to obtain your first pet lizard, congratulations. Lizards are, in my view, the most wonderful, fascinating and beautiful creatures on Earth. Part of their appeal is their incredible diversity; there are more species of lizards than all the mammals or amphibians, and they range from three-inch legless burrowers to the mighty 200-pound Komodo dragon. Some are coloured with somber tans and ochre, and others rival the most ostentatious of butterflies with gaudy green, red, and yellow markings. Some glide on fragile wings, some run across the water, and some can stick to ceilings. With my sincere apology to Samuel Johnson, it is my opinion that “when a man gets tired of lizards, he is tired of life”!

That said, here are ten valuable guidelines to help you and your lizard get off to a good start, and stay on a safe and happy course. I speak with a wee bit of experience, having kept lizards since 1961, and going on to spending over 30 years as a professional herpetologist. These tips are just a starting point, but they cover ten really important points!

1) Start by getting a lizard that is easy to care for! Many lizards are very demanding in captivity, and those should be left to experienced keepers. Among the best starter lizards are the Australian bearded dragon and blue-tongue skinks, which grow to a total length near 13-inches. They do not become stressed when properly handled, are generally tame, and eat a wide variety of foods, from fruits, vegetables and flowers to insects, moist dog food and small mice. Savanna monitors are also good for beginners, but get a young specimen and raise it to adult size; freshly imported adults may be aggressive, but captive bred/raised specimens are excellent animals for beginner keepers.

2) Avoid getting a species that people think of as “pets” but are really very challenging to keep properly. Among those species to avoid: iguanas, Nile monitors, chameleons, and small species that grow to only 3 – 8 inches in length.

3) Read up about your lizard, because there is no excuse for doing a poor job as its keeper. For books, you can consult Bibliomania! at http://www.herplit.com, one of the largest reptile book dealers in existence. Then subscribe to one of the magazines published for reptile keepers, which include REPTILES (www.reptilechannel.com/rmrc_portal.aspx), REPTILIA (www.reptilia.net/html_english/inter-print2.html), REPTILES AUSTRALIA (www.reptilesaustralia.com.au/), and Britain publishes REPTILE CARE (www.reptilecareuk.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=10&Itemid=11).

4) Remember that lizards and snakes are very closely related groups of animals, but lizards need very different care. Unlike snakes that may need food only once a week or month, lizards usually need to eat every day, and sometimes more than once per day. But do not leave rotting or dirty food in the terrarium, because it could be contaminated with germs and cause your lizard to become sick.

5) Do not grab or hold a lizard by the tail. Even though the tail of a bearded dragon, blue-tongue skink, or savanna monitor will not break off, it is uncomfortable for the lizard. Get used to holding the lizard by putting your hand under its belly and supporting its weight from below.

6) Never use your lizard to frighten anyone! Strange as it may sound, some people are afraid of reptiles, and that kind of fear has led to many laws and regulations being passed that make owning reptiles in some places difficult. It is much better for the lizards – and the rest of us keepers – if you use your lizard to help teach other people how wonderful they really are!

7) Never release an unwanted pet reptile into the wild. Most pets are from other continents and will not live long where you live. It is also possible, especially in a place like Florida, that the released pet will do well and, if many such pets have been released, found a colony of foreign animals. This is not good for the local wildlife and really upsets conservationists and Fish and Wildlife officials.

8) All diurnal (active during the daytime) lizards need some ultraviolet light in their lives. But UV light does not penetrate glass, so it doesn’t help to put a terrarium near a window. In addition to a heat light (all lizards need a temperature of at least 78 degrees F, many much more), you will need a good full-spectrum UV light. These are now produced to fit in either a screw-in socket or a standard fluorescent tube socket. For examples of excellent products check the Zoo Med website at http://www.zoomed.com.

9) Always be sure your lizard has access to fresh, clean water! Some lizards only drink dew drops from leaves, but these species are not among the beginner’s species. Even desert lizards – and that includes all of the beginner species I’ve listed – can and will drink from a dish, and even enjoy soaking if the dish is large enough. Soaking also makes skin shedding easier for your lizards.

10) Do not crowd your lizard. If you are getting two lizards to start with, make them both the same species, preferably one of each sex, about the same size, and house them in a terrarium that is large enough. Overcrowded lizards become stressed and may refuse to eat. They are also more likely to catch an illness. If you cannot offer enough space, do not get the lizard. Period.

BONUS TIP 1) A fourth excellent starter lizard is the leopard gecko, a delicate and very popular nocturnal species that has been bred into many colour morphs (it’s something like the lizard keeper’s equivalent of the guppy!). Unlike the other starter species I mentioned, leopard geckos are smaller (to about 6 inches), have soft, delicate skin, and have tails that are easily broken. Yes, they grow back, but only as stiff rods that never look as good as the original. They also require more gentle handling than the larger starter species. They do not need UV light, but they still need a warm terrarium (70 – 78 degrees at night, 78 -95 degrees by day), sandy soil, and places they can hide. Feed them live insects, especially crickets, young roaches, and wax worms.

BONUS TIP 2) Do not use heat rocks to keep diurnal lizards warm! The lizards are, frankly, not “wired” to know that their bellies are actually cooking, and they may stay on the rock until badly injured or dead! Leopard geckos, however, will be fine with a heat rock or two.

Other things that you should know include washing your hands well after handling your lizards, do not tease or annoy the animals, and be sure to keep the terrarium clean.