Playing With Your Iguana
©2000 Melissa Kaplan
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.
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.
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.
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.
and Leap Play
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.
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.)
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.
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..
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.
to Encourage Play
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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