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

Bathing and Swimming: Not Just A Bathroom Activity

©2000 Melissa Kaplan


Many iguana keepers come to appreciate the benefits of tubbing their iguanas. Not only do most tubbed iguanas prefer to potty in the tub (making it very easy for their keepers to clean up after them and disinfect the surfaces), but the daily immersion helps improve the iguana's overall hydration status, a critical factor in kidney health. Baths also help during shedding, keeping the loosening skin soft and pliable, ensuring its easy separation.

The fight that many iguanas put up when first introduced to the bathtub leads many iguana keepers to assume that iguanas are afraid of the water. The fact of the matter seems to be that captive iguanas are afraid of the bathtub, whether or not it has water. Some do fine in the empty bathtub, but freak out when you start to run water.

In the wild, green iguanas live near rivers, streams and lakes. Swimming, diving, and floating are commonly observed activities. In fact, some iguanas have to swim within days of hatching. The hatchlings who emerge from their nests on Slothia, an islet off the coast of Barro Colorado Island in Panama, have to swim across the inlet (82 yards/75 meters) to make it to the main island where they will spend their lives, with the exception of the females who will once again swim across the inlet to the Slothia to lay their eggs. Others swim still farther, taking longer routes to Barro Colorado or to more distant neighboring islands.

So, what makes your bathtub so different from the lakes, streams and rivers? Aside from the lack of lush tropical vegetation, colorful birds, mammals, other animals, insects, and the occasional caiman? It sounds and feels a whole lot different. The slick, bright tub surface and the loud echoing noise of the water rushing from the faucet are a far cry from even a swiftly moving river surrounded by a cacophony of animal calls. It probably doesn't help that you are standing up over the iguana, staring down at him.

Fortunately, iguanas can and do get used to baths, many coming to demand them by climbing into the tubs on their own, scratching and pulling in objects from the rim if you don't get in there fast enough to run the water for them. The length of time it takes for an iguana to get used to baths varies with individual iguanas, but it may take a month or more or steeling your heart and nerve and making him stay in the tub until he poops or has spent at least 20-30 minutes in there.


Bathtub Tips
Just as you probably abhor a cold bath, so does your iguana. The water should be warm enough to not allow his body temperature to drop too rapidly from the time he is taken from his basking or other warm area and put in the water. Water that is 83-85 F (28-29 C) is suitable for iguanas; over time you may find that your iguana prefers it a bit warmer or cooler. The longer your iguana bathes, the cooler the water will get. If your iguana is partial to long baths, or he hasn't pooped yet, you will need to let some of the cooled water out and refresh the tub with warm water. Repeat this as often as necessary to keep the bath – and bathroom – warm.

If you run the water into the tub after the iguana has been placed in there (suggested only if your iguana likes the bath and won't leap straight up in the air and attach himself to your face with his claws when you turn the water on), make sure he is far enough away from the incoming stream of water for you to be able to get the temperature adjusted before it reaches him. Most iguanas don't like being startled with very hot or very cold water. If you see their tail jerk and quiver, test the water with your hand – it may be too hot.

Generally speaking, there is no reason to add anything to the water – no soap, disinfectants, etc. If your iguana has wounds or incisions, or is being treated for mites, then you can add some Betadine (povidone-iodine) to the bath water once your iguana has had an opportunity to drink.

If your iguana poops in the water but still wants to soak, you will need to drain out the tub (some people use a cup or scoop to pull the feces and urates from the tub to dispose of it down the toilet rather than let them go down the tub drain), rinse it thoroughly, and refill it. If there are any concerns about zoonotic infection, the tub should be disinfected before the replacement bath is run. This can be problematical: what do you do with the iguana for the minimum 10 minutes it takes to disinfect surfaces? Leaving him in an empty tub (empty but for the sprayed-on disinfectant, assuming you are using the iguana-safe disinfectants Nolvasan or Hibiclens [chlorhexidine diacetate or chlorhexidine gluconate, respectively]) is going to result in a cold, possibly ticked-off iguana. Because these chlorhexidine disinfectants (not bleach-water solutions, quaternary ammonia compounds, or similar disinfectants) are safe to use to flush wounds, including flushing the mouth when treating for stomatitis, one could spray down the tub, gently moving the iguana to one side to reach all surfaces, let it sit for a few moments, and then run the fresh water in, leaving the chlorhexidine in the tub. It will be doubly diluted (the dilution you first made in the spray bottle, typically 4-6 tablespoons of Nolvasan per gallon of water, which is further diluted by the bath water) and below the 1% concentration recommended as a wound irrigation solution.

The slippery surface of the tub is a problem for many iguanas. This can be easily dealt with by putting self-adhesive safety decals (as used for children and frail elderly) on the tub's bottom. Decals can be tricky as they can trap fecal material, so you will need to go over and around them with a sponge when cleaning and disinfecting the tub after the iguana's bath. Another way to deal with the slippery surface is to put a towel on the bottom, either laying it flat, crumpling it up, or rolling it up like a log. The only problem with this is that, after the bath is over, you are left with a soaking wet, possibly poopy towel that has to be wrung out and transferred to the washing machine for washing with laundry soap and bleach (to disinfect). Fortunately, the majority of iguanas get used to the surface and stop thrashing about like you and the tub are trying to kill them. The best thing, if you have to use something, is a rubber bath mat. Not only does it give the iguana something to stand on, it has the added advantage that it doesn't permanently mar the tub, and can be left in the tub for cleaning and disinfecting.

If you have a tub/shower enclosure with sliding doors mounted on the rim of the tub, adult green iguanas can easily jump up and latch a claw or two over the door track and haul themselves up. This is useful for them getting in and out of the tub on their own. Unless, of course, you don't want them getting out of the tub at that particular time. If that is the case, keep the doors closed far enough so that they cannot get out, leaving a gap through which you can easily observe them. If you have a tub with a shower curtain, they may not so easily be able to get in and out, unless they figure out that they can get a boost by getting a hind foot on the drain lever or faucet. In this case, it is best to keep the shower curtain in the tub, leaving a gap at the end away from the faucet and drain for observation.

To help iguanas get in and/or out themselves, you can attach Velcro strips to the inside and outside of the side of the tub, an inch or so below the edge. Put Velcro on some washcloths, attach them to the strips when needed, and your iguana now has something to grab onto to haul himself up. Other things that work are rubber bath mats draped over the edge, or a rubber-backed bathroom rug. For smaller iguanas, there is a product sold in kitchenware shops or aisles in supermarkets: a rolled-up sheet of rubbery mesh made to lay on kitchen shelving to allow glasses and plates to drain while making it less likely that they will topple over or slide into one another. Draped over the edge of the tub, like the bath mat or rug, small iguanas can easily climb it to get in and out. It is easier to clean and disinfect than a bathroom rug, assuming your iguana decides to do a little poop-painting.

If your tub doesn't have a stopper, or your only option is a shower stall, you can get flat rubber disks in the kitchenware aisle of the supermarket or hardware store, used to block up the kitchen sink drain. They work equally well to stop up a bathtub or shower drain. The drawback to this is that you have to stick your hand in poopy water to remove it from the drain so the water can drain out. Disposable gloves, or latex gloves that you can easily clean and disinfect, can be used for this purpose.

When your iguana is small, you may be lucky enough to see him swim in the tub. Very, very cool to watch. They lay their arms against their sides, while their legs may be against their tail or bent out a bit away from the body. Their tail does all the work, propelling them through the water, while they steer themselves by bending from side to side at the equivalent of their waist. If you've ever seen film or video of a crocodilian swimming, you will have a good idea of what your iguana's swimming technique will be.

Iguanas large and small are quite capable of diving under water and staying there, completely freaking their keepers out. While submerged, they do not breathe. Because of their complete stillness and the lack of bellows movement normally seen as they breathe in and out, they look dead. While iguanas can drown, they can also hold their breath for 30 minutes or so. Their heart pumps blood and circulates oxygen throughout the body differently than ours does, and their body is capable of accessing more of the oxygen in their blood. (Reptiles in general are so unique in this area that the blood factors of certain species, and equipment modeled on other species' circulatory systems, are being used in human medicine to get patients more safely through prolonged surgical procedures.) This means that while they are snoozing underwater, they will not asphyxiate from lack of oxygen unless they exhaust their body's supply. If you touch them, you may startle them awake and send them to the surface. This won't harm them, though it is likely to earn you a splashing and a dose of Stink Eye.

Once your iguana is done with his bath, you can pick him up in a towel to transfer him back to his enclosure or area. You needn't dry him off, but the towel will help soak of the worst of the drips so you don't leave a trail through your house. If your iguana gets out of the tub by himself, you might want to put some bathroom rugs or bath towels down on the floor leading from the tub to the bathroom doorway so that the drips are pretty much dropped by the time he crosses the threshold.


Green iguana swimming in pool

Rugwort swims at the 1998 Northern California P-ig-nic.
Photo © 1998 Marian Briones


Swimming in the BIG Tub
As discussed above, iguanas live near water and are not adverse to using the rivers, streams and lakes as aids to relocation. Flopping in from branches overhanging the water, or walking down or jumping in from the bank, iguanas can swim or float their way to a new location. As there are various large snakes, crocodilians and raptors who may be hanging around waiting for an alfresco iguana dinner, iguanas include diving and swimming underwater to their aquatic repertoire. While your swimming pool may be less picturesque than what a wild iguana is used to, and may be less fraught with dangers of the wild kind, it may well be inviting to your iguana. You need to be smart about letting your iguana swim, however, as there are dangers of another sort that lurk in and around the pool.

If the water quality of a swimming pool is safe for a human to swim in, it will be safe for an iguana. This means that if the pool has been freshly treated and humans are to stay out of it for 24 hours, so too should iguanas. If your iguana has shown any sensitivity to pool chemicals (see the articles on Reptile Allergies and Harmful and Edible Plants for symptoms of toxic or irritant contact and ingestion), it will be best to stick to the bath tub.

Iguanas may swim leisurely in the water, but that doesn't mean they are not capable of sustained bursts of speed. Combined with the ability of many iguanas to launch themselves out of the pool and hit the deck running, it is not a good idea to let your iguana in the pool while you are by yourself. Better for you and your iguana to have at least one other person on the other side of the pool, ready to do a mid-air snatch or ground tackle to get the iguana before he is up the nearest tree and over the fence.

The more visible humans are around the pool, the less likely a predacious bird is to spend flying overhead checking things out. This is going to make your iguana feel better, as their parietal eye is there in part to watch for overhead predators. Fewer predators means less of a reason to go launching out of the pool or diving for the drain at the deep end. If your iguana isn't used to dogs, letting your dog or someone else's cavort around the pool edge isn't a good idea, as it may send the iguana into the same flight or dive response as will an aerial predator.

As mentioned in the Bath section above, iguanas, like many reptiles, can hold heir breath for a half hour or so, efficiently making use of the oxygen in their bloodstream. The problem is in surfacing again if in the meantime the iguana has gotten too cold. If the iguana is at the bottom of the pool and is too cold and sluggish, he will not be able to surface when he needs be prepared to do a little diving and breath-holding yourself! And yes, you can do CPR on lizards: depending on the size, use your thumb or finger tips to do the chest compressions, and administer breaths by cupping your mouth over their nose and mouth, expelling your breath into their nostrils. Remember that your lizard has lungs far smaller than yours so do not force in all your breath into him. Keep one hand on his chest to feel it expand; keep the other around his upper and lower jaw to prevent him from biting your lips should he come out of it quicker than you thought he would.

If you share your pool with others, please be concerned about them. Not everyone likes iguanas, and some may object strenuously to having them in their pool. A sad attitude, and their loss, but if you are a renter or even a condominium owner in a complex with a common area, be a considerate reptile owner and respect other people's fears and issues.

Another potential problem is that of cleanliness. If you don't poop your iguana before letting him in the swimming pool, you can't be surprised if he does what comes naturally in there. Believe me when I say that cleaning poop out of a swimming pool is not the same as cleaning and disinfecting a bathtub...especially when others may be watching who are not as understanding and knowledgeable as your own family and who may have legitimate concerns about Salmonella. Of course, if the bystanders are your less-than-understanding family, you will have to deal with their Stink Eye, too.


Interesting Reading
Orientation in dispersing hatchling green iguanas, Iguana iguana. Hugh Drummone and Gordon M. Burghardt. In, Iguanas of the World: Their Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. Noyes Publishing, Park Ridge NJ. 1988, pp. 271-291.

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