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

Picking a healthy iguana

©1996, 2002 Melissa Kaplan


When you go to the pet store, you will likely be faced with one or more tanks of hatchling iguanas (2.5-3" svl), and possibly one or more older igs ranging from less than one year of age to several years. The older iguanas are all preowned - other people owned them, couldn't deal with their normal (untamed) behavior, or didn't want to deal with the daily grind of cleaning and feeding, or the iguana was sick and they didn't want to have to pay the necessary vet bills. So, how do you select a healthy one from all the iguanas available?

You will have to hold several iguanas. If the store isn't willing to take the time to pick out the ones you want to see, go elsewhere. Unfortunately, there are likely several stores in your area selling them, and you will be sure to find a store who will do this for you. Hold each iguana in both hands, using the fingers of one hand to gently move the arms, legs, and dewlap so that you can inspect the iguana from head to tail tip. Look for the following things:

General Appearance

    Is the skin clean, clear, firm, free of scratches and bites? (Bites and scratches may lead to infected abscesses later on.)

    Is the belly free of burns? (Burns may heal, but the skin from then on may always be sensitive to bottom heat.)

    Is the belly free from ground-in feces? (Dirty iguanas indicate an unsanitary environment and probably a weak and sick animal.)

    Is the vent free of dried feces and urates? (Presence indicates a weak, and possibly parasite- and protozoan-loaded lizard.)

    Can you feel the iguana resist you as you move its limbs? (Weakness or shakiness indicates a severely debilitated lizard or one suffering from calcium deficiency.)

    Are the body, limbs, and tail free of lumps and bumps and swelling other than the joints? (Abscesses, cysts, and broken bones require veterinary care and treatment.)

    Are there any black, dark reddish brown, or bright orange dots (mites) moving around the iguana's body (look especially carefully around the ears, armpits, and along the neck and dorsal crest)? (Indicates overall poor care and lack of concern in the store and possibly weakened and sick lizard.)

    Are the back legs shaped normally, or is there a large hard knot in both thighs? (One hard swollen leg may be a broken bone; both similarly swollen is likely to be severe calcium deficiency.)

    Are the limbs like twigs, or is there some flesh on the bones? Is the body extremely wrinkled, dull looking? (Emaciated, dehydrated; possible internal parasite and/or bacterial infections: requires veterinary care.)


    Are the eyes bleary, weepy, crusted? (Possible respiratory infection or eye inflammation.)

    Is the nose free of wet or dried mucous (note: salty deposits are normal)? (Bubbly or dried mucous indicates respiratory infection; requires veterinary care.)

    Is the interior of the mouth pale or grayish pink? Stringy, ropey, or sheeting mucous? Small yellowish, whitish or greenish patches in gums, tongue or roof of mouth? (Gently pull down on the dewlap to open the mouth) (Systemic infection causing secondary mouthrot; requires veterinary care.)

    Is the lower jaw swollen out equally on both sides? (Indicates probably metabolic bone disease.)

    Are there any lumps or swellings on the face, neck, or dewlap? (Note: large sexually mature males often have large fleshy jowls surrounding the large subtympanic scale and soft swellings on the top of their heads--both of which are normal and healthy.) (Swellings, hard or soft, may be infected abscesses; requires veterinary care.)


    A tamed, highly socialized iguana will be relaxed around strangers, although such a lizard may seek to climb to the holder's shoulder or head. It will be alert to its surroundings and respond positively to having its back or even head rubbed. Healthy hatchlings and untamed (whether or not pre-owned) juveniles and adults will be feisty and try to get away, may whip or crocodile-roll in trying to escape from your hands, and may be resistant to being picked up to begin with.

    A sick baby, juvenile, or adult may still try to avoid being caught and held, and may still try to flee, but will do so with less strength, noticeable once you have them in hand. An iguana who just lays in the tank, uninterested in its surroundings, unresponsive in your hands, is either too cold or extremely ill, suffering from internal parasites and possibly systemic bacterial infection. If there are lateral folds (running along the ribs on the side of the body from the forelegs to hip area), this would indicate that the iguana is also likely moderately to severely dehydrated and emaciated (starving) as well.

Raising an iguana is neither easy nor something done quickly. Other than the information presented in this document, there are no real shortcuts. You are working with a wild animal, with the instincts and responses of a wild animal, including very strong ones surrounding the drive for self-preservation. A healthy baby iguana is going to fight to stay out of a predator's way...and when you begin your relationship, as far as he is concerned, you are out to hurt or eat him, and you make him very uncomfortable and insecure by placing him in situations and an environment where he is most vulnerable - alone without crowds of other iguanas who provide safety just by their presence. This is not a recommendation to get more than one iguana (one is hard enough to deal with to start) but that so you begin to realize why your iguana is thrashy and nippy, why he needs a hide box, why he won't eat when you are staring at him. In the wild, hanging out on its own, eating while alone, or sleeping in an exposed place alone is a pretty direct route into a predator's mouth.

Related Articles:

Picking a Healthy Reptile

"Rescuing" Reptiles From Pet Stores

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