Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Playing With Your Iguana

©2000 Melissa Kaplan


The Background Stuff
Play is described by biologists as engaging in those behaviors that would under other circumstances be done to find and capture prey, evade a predator, establish and defend territory, court mates, and mate, in other words, behaviors that train and reinforce the animal's ability to meet its basic needs once it is on its own. In green iguanas, such behaviors would include running, jumping and leaping, tail lashing, and the types of posturing involved in establishing or maintaining territorial and social dominance and courtship.

Practicing these behaviors in play or playful ways is typically seen in young animals who are dependent upon their parents or social unit to provide them with food, shelter and protection from predators, and to teach them the ropes, so to speak. We see this frequently in mammals and even in some birds. Behavioral enrichment programs which are increasingly employed in zoos are to expand the opportunities for the animals to engage in natural behaviors. One example is a hollowed log or holes drilled in stone that are packed with peanut butter and nuts and other tasty treats. The primate finds a suitable twig (from those also placed around the enclosure or ripped and formed from the natural plantings included in their enclosure) and begins to dig out the goodies out, similar to what they would do in the wild when coming across a colonial insect nest.

Behaviors have also been observed, however, which don't fall into any of these utilitarian categories - calves cavorting and eliciting play, for example, just as we frequently see in our dogs who want us or another dog to play with them - bounding up, nudging them, retreating and falling into a well-recognized rear-end up with tail waving, front end down on the forelegs, mouth slightly agape, tongue lolling out, the eyes sparkling posture. (Of course, it could also be said that this play was indeed utilitarian - that such play between two animals reinforces the social bond between them. Similar play can be found in humans - everything from board games to field sports teach and reinforce body movement and coordination, logical and/or creative thinking, and social bonding between peers or parents and offspring or other social units. And here you thought you were just having fun!)

Reptiles are different from mammals and birds in many ways, one of which is that the young are precocious when born or hatched, that is, they aren't dependent upon a parent for food, shelter or, in most cases, protection (the young of a few species will stay in close proximity to their parent for a short time, but are still on their own when it comes to feeding and shelter). Green iguanas never encounter their parents when they emerge from their nest - they are on their own from the start, their only protection from predation being their clutchmates. When your iguana runs, jumps and leaps, tail lashes, or engages in the types of posturing involved in establishing or maintaining territorial and social dominance and courtship, you will need to figure out the context and why he is doing it.

With new iguanas who are not yet tamed, the answer is pretty obvious. With hatchlings, they are trying to make you go away and find something else to eat. Once they realize you aren't going to eat them, they try to make you go away from their territory. Many owners inadvertently reinforce their iguana's sense of territory by keeping them in enclosures that are too small, and, when interacting with iguanas inside and outside of their enclosures, by backing off from their iguanas when they thrash and whip and nip and make "big lizard" postures.


The Play Stuff
All that being said, many iguana keepers have reported play behavior that doesn't meet the above definitions. The reported behaviors were repeated and don't, upon careful analysis of the context, seem to be related to meeting basic needs. The following contains information on how you can recognize some play behaviors and encourage such play with your iguana. The important thing to note is that, other than Food Play, the behaviors were those initiated by the iguana and reinforced by the owner; they weren't forced upon the iguana by an owner trying to get the iguana to "do something".

Food Play
In my Iguanas for Dummies book, I talked about how iguanas will "play" with their food and poop. When the food goes flying, it may be an accident, but most often it is a way of letting you know that your iguana is displeased with the day's menu - or with you. When iguanas share food and water bowls with other iguanas, one of them may stand with his foot in the bowl as a way to keep the other iguanas away from it or restrict access to it. This isn't play, but a way of asserting dominance or defending a resource or letting you know what he thinks of you on a particular day. "Poop painting" in particular falls into the latter category.

Hanging a leafy green in your iguana's area, or giving him an edible ornamental plant to eat, is a way of providing some fun food, especially if he has to work a bit to get to it. You can also plant a nursery flat with some tender alfalfa, collard, mustard, dandelion and other greens, putting them into his enclosure or area for some al fresco dining. If your iguana is particularly hard on plants, try planting several flats with greens, rotating them in and out as he works them over. The flats will then have some time to refresh themselves, especially if you help them along with periodic feedings.

While the above isn't technically play, it is a fun alternative to his getting all his food from the same boring old food bowl. If you place the flats or clipped leaves at different levels within his indoor enclosure, he will get some exercise and activity moving around "harvesting" them. The same will happen if you plant trailing edible vines, like grapes, and hang pots and flats of edible plants in different areas and levels of his outdoor enclosure. You can do the same with free roaming iguanas, by providing "fun" food at different places in his area, or including a nursery flat for him to graze on.

Water Play
Besides throwing their food into their water bowl, or pooping in it, some iguanas seem to like to play in their water. Or, perhaps a better way to describe it is that these iguanas apparently like to fantasize that they are cliff diving in Acapulco: leaping off their basking area to flop in their water tub. Is it the thrill of the dive? The satisfying splash of water wetting the area around the tub? The look on your face when you come to clean it up? Who knows? That it seems to give them some sort of pleasure is indicated by the fact that these iguanas climb out of the tub, back up to their shelf, and do it again...and again.

If your iguana developing an interest in high diving, be sure that his tub is big and deep enough to prevent injury, and make the area around the tub as waterproof or water-resistant as possible. Linoleum on the floor and several inches up the side of the walls is one way to do this. Laying in a supply of terry cloth towels, with some going under and around his tub, is another way, with the extras being used to clean up all the splashes.

Furry Mammal Play
Many iguanas get along with their human's dogs and cats. Often times, they can be seen hanging out together, watching the world pass by out the window, or napping together. Sometimes funny little routines develop over time, behaviors that may have started out being investigation and self-defense, but which evolved over time into play. When an iguana is first "investigated" by a curious dog or cat and the scrutiny becomes too close or involves direct physical contact, the iguana will generally let go with a sound tail thwack that usually makes direct contact with a tender mammalian nose. As the two animals become more used to each other, a game of keep-away may develop, where the mammal sees how long he can sniff or nose the tail before the iguana lets go - and jump aside to evade the blur of scale-covered muscle aimed in his direction.

One iguana keeper relates how her iguana always approaches her cat and gives her a big lick on the mouth. The result is always the same: the cat, apparently startled, jumps away. While it is not surprising that this occurred the first time or two the iguana licked the cat, this lick-and-startle has been going on long enough that the cat may enjoy being "scared" (well, humans put themselves on roller-coasters, don't they?) and the iguana enjoys eliciting the response.

If your iguana and dog or cat get along with one another, make sure that such encounters only happen when you are home. No matter how well they seem to get along, tempers - and instinctive reactions - can flare in the blink of an eye. Injury can occur even when you are there, but is more likely to be much worse when you are not.

Curtain/Drape Play
While Tarzan of the Jungle used vines as a way of getting from one place to another, some iguana keepers have reported that their iguanas just seem to like hanging around, swinging back and forth, clinging to the drapery pull cords or the drapes themselves. Needless to say, this type of play means that you will eventually be investing in new drapes. If your iguana likes the "swinging" life, rig up some securely mounted ropes or fabric where he can swing all he wants without ruining anything. Some iguanas may be more inclined to use such things if they think it is something you have put up for you, rather than for them, and so they may be more inclined to try it out if you make like it is yours (many iguanas operate under the "what's mine is mine and what's yours is mine" theory of property ownership). So, play with the ropes or fabric yourself when your iguana can see you, batting the ropes or hanging cloth around so they swing enticingly. A few furtive looks over your shoulder in his direction can only reinforce your possessiveness of this new addition to your environment, making it all the more enticing to the iguana.

Jump and Leap Play
Jumping and leaping are natural behaviors for green iguanas. They provide a quick way for wild iguana to get from Branch A to Branch B, or from Branch A into the river. Jumping and leaping may be done to escape predators, avoid dominant iguanas, move to a sunny or shady spot when thermoregulating, or just to move for the sake of moving. When an iguana has been kept in a too small enclosure, or is growing out of hatchlinghood, they need to learn to leap and jump safely and build up the muscle strength and coordination used for leaping and landing accurately and safely. One way some seem to do this is by ignoring the climbers you so patiently made and installed for them, instead doing horrifying belly flops from their high basking areas to the floor of their enclosure or area.

One iguana keeper related that, for a time, her iguana would slide down her bare leg, then climb back up into the her lap for petting. After a minute or so, the iguana would move to her knee and slide again, repeating this several times over the course of several days. The iguana then progressed to jumping off her keeper's knee, apparently trying to leap farther each time. After her leaps, she would turn around and look back at her keeper. The keeper called her, whereupon the iguana came back to the keeper, climbing on her lap, accepted some petting, and then moved to the knee to leap again. One day she repeated this 30 times. This behavior continued for a month, and then stopped. This could have been skill and confidence building, which ended once the iguana felt comfortable with her newly developed muscles and coordination. To have repeated it so many times in a row and involved the iguana's keeper, one suspects it was also fun to do.

Since shelves and branches installed in an enclosure do not have the "bounce" of a tree branch attached to a tree trunk or other branches, and the floor of the enclosure lacks the soft cushion of years of decayed fallen leaves (and decomposing bodies, and insect colonies hastening the recycling of such nutrients...but that's another article somewhere down the line...!) use your imagination to create some suitable targets for your iguana. Cushions made for pet mammal beds (not the cedar-filled ones!) work well, as will a bed pillow, or mound of spare blankets, or the hammock describe below.

Plant Play
Plant Play is a subset of Jump and Leap Play. Many iguanas are especially enticed by hanging plants and other objects that appear to be suitably plant-like for landing upon. Targets may include that antique vase of flowers, an oil painting depicting a garden, a sleeping kitty, your child who is engrossed in a video game, or that hanging potted plant you've tended so lovingly for the past several years. Strange as it may seem, these targets rarely appreciate being the landing pad of a flying iguana.

If your iguana seems to like to "go for the green," try providing some green stuff to land on. You can find hammocks made for pets and for toys at various pet and toy stores, or make your own with a jungle-print fabric you buy at the fabric store, and some grommets, eyebolts, and S-hooks from the hardware store to securely mount the hammock to the enclosure walls - or other walls, such as spanning the corner of the room under his free-roaming basking shelf, or a larger one hung in an outdoor enclosure (make sure you mount them securely in supporting studs, or you may end up having to repair huge holes in your drywall as the iguana gets bigger and heavier). Craft and pet stores sell fake vines but they are rarely big or strong enough for an adult iguana, and landing on them may lead to serious injuries as the iguana and vines go crashing to the floor. (Be careful with any fake plant: on many, the wire that supports them is too thinly wrapped and pokes out after being manipulated for a short time, and others have small pieces which too easily detach to be swallowed by iguanas and others, causing a choking or gut obstruction hazard.)

Object Play
An object is pretty much anything that isn't a plant or animal. Stuffed animal toys, clothing, gloves, and inflatable pool toys are some of the things iguana keepers have observed their iguanas "playing" with. Play with these objects isn't what we would see in a child playing with them: they aren't held or manipulated for fun or pleasure (except during breeding season by male iguanas). Specific items of clothing may be pulled out of dirty clothes hampers (or piles in your bedroom) or dumped off your closet shelf. Often times these clothes are green and used by the iguana to sleep on or lounge on, especially during your absence. These activities are not really considered play, either. It may be touching, if the iguana has chosen your shirt with your scent still on it to sleep on because it makes him feel more secure in your absence...but it could just as easily be his way of saying, "Huh! I'll teach you not to leave me. Today, your clothes. Tomorrow - the china cabinet!"

One iguana keeper has an iguana with a deformed lower jaw due to a severe burn from a heat light that occurred at the pet store before she bought the iguana. The exposed upper jaw on that side gets irritated from eating, and so she bites things, apparently trying to soothe the irritation, but biting hard things just irritates it more. The keeper started a regular game of "bite the bag", using a crumpled brown paper bag. Her iguana seems to like biting on it and they will engage in this "feint-and-bite" activity for several minutes at a time during their quality time periods. Depending on the situation with other iguanas who enjoy this type of activity, it could be an effective way to displace aggression; in this particular iguana's case, it is probably soothing to her jaws, rather like a teething human baby chews on a teething toy or biscuit. As with designating play things for other types of animals, make sure that whatever you encourage or allow your iguana to play with isn't something you wear or use, as you may find your iguana trying to play with it while it is on your body...and iguana teeth can be quite persuasive.

Human Play
Iguanas often use their humans as climbing trees. One keeper relates how her five-pound female likes to climb all over her, from her shoulder, down her back, then turning around and climbing up again, crossing the shoulder to the front and over the other shoulder, with an attempt during this travel to climb her keeper's head. Once she crosses the far shoulder, she proceeds down the back and up again, repeating the circuit. This iguana has other opportunities and objects to climb, but seems to relish the time spent climbing on her keeper, especially if the keeper makes it easy by wearing a sweater.

Holding your iguana and letting him climb along your arms or legs, moving him around to another position and letting him climb back, are playful activities that can be entered into if your iguana responds well to this. If you start getting tail thwacked or the iguana makes a concerted effort to get back to his basking area (or under the bed), this probably isn't going to do much for your relationship with him if you persist in trying to make him play with you..

Quiet Time Play
Visiting with your iguana is a form of play. Whether you are sitting together watching the birds out the window or dinosaurs on the Discovery Channel, spending time companionably with your iguana provides a change of routine for him. If you spend part of that time petting him, or hand-feeding him some treats, so much the better. Some iguanas may solicit this time, throwing themselves at the wall of their enclosure when they hear you come home. Others may come up to you and plant themselves on your lap, or nudge you with their nose to get your hand away from whatever it is that it is doing instead of what it could be doing: petting them.

A walk in the garden, picking edible flowers and greens, can also be a quiet time activity. Holding your iguana outside while walking and talking with him, offering him colorful bits to eat, can be an enjoyable activity for the both of you. If he is too nervous or excited to eat your offerings just then, you can just pocket them and give them to him once you are back inside.


How to Encourage Play
There are basically two types of play in which iguanas have reportedly engaged: individual play (activities the iguana does with an object or place (such as tub diving or curtain swinging) and partner play (activities involving another animal or human).

Not all play is safe. Iguanas who are overly persistent in soliciting - or rejecting -- play from a dog, bird or other household pet may find themselves severely, even fatally, injured. While scaling clothes or linens in the closets and shoving them to the floor may be cute (and annoying), it can be dangerous when the same activity is done in a bookshelf or displays of heavy or fragile objects. Skin and bones can be broken when the iguana hits the floor, landing just before and underneath a heavy object, or leaps down amidst the pile of glass or pottery shards that used to be one of your wedding presents.

You can encourage play by paying attention to what your iguana likes to do, and encourage that play which is safe by allowing it to occur and providing structural support, if necessary. If your iguana likes to swing from the drapery pulls, provide some sturdier ropes that are securely attached to the wall or ceiling for him to swing on, rather than the relatively fragile hardware typically used in drapery installations (unless, of course, you specified to the installers that you wanted hardware strong enough to sustain a 15-pound iguana playing Tarzan). If your iguana like to high-dive into water, make sure that the tub is large enough so that the iguana's body and limbs fit inside the tub, and that you have a waterproof or a water-resistant floor underneath.

If you have other household pets, make sure they cannot come into direct contact with the iguana unless you are there to supervise. While they may be great friends and always play nice, everyone can have an off day, and you don't want it to be when you happen to be at work.

Offer your iguana different opportunities and activities to see if he in interested in them...and remember that, as he grows, his interests will change: that swinging rope that is ignored this spring may become his favorite activity next spring. Remember, too, that iguanas spend most of their time in the wild doing nothing but laying around, relaxed yet alert to their surroundings. If your iguana doesn't seem to engage in any play activities, that's perfectly normal. Trying to force an iguana to play with something will just be confusing and annoying to him and ultimately frustrating and disappointing for you. In this case, it is better to learn from your iguana: just lay back, relax, and enjoy the view!

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