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Tropical Lizard Care Sheet

Developed with and approved by a qualified veterinarian.

tropical lizard care sheet

Care recommendations can cover a variety of species, including:

  • Water dragons
  • Long-tailed grass lizards
  • Emerald swifts
  • Green ameiva lizards
  • Mountain-horned lizards
  • Neon tree dragons

 

Overview

Tropical lizards are found throughout the world in several different geographic locations. They have widely varied appearances and temperaments but share some commonalities in terms of care. Asian water dragons (also called green or Chinese water dragons) are native to Thailand, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Long-tailed grass lizards, mountain-horned lizards and neon tree dragons are also native to Southeast Asia. Emerald swifts originate in Central America, while green ameiva lizards (also called jungle runners) are found in Central and South America,

Tropical lizards, in general, are colorful reptiles who are able to change their coloration depending on temperature and mood.  As many tropical lizards have developed the defense mechanism of being able to release, or “drop,” their tails to escape predators who grab them by their tails, pet parents should never grab or restrain lizards by their tails.

 

Typical appearance and behavior

 

Water dragons:

  • Juvenile water dragons start off brownish green with light green to white bellies and white to cream-colored stripes running vertically down their sides. Once they shed, their upper bodies turn bright green. As they mature, their upper bodies typically change to darker green, and their lower bodies are white with light green to blue stripes running vertically down their sides. The color of the skin over their throats varies from yellow to orange to pink or purple
  • Males and females look similar until they are mature. Males develop larger heads, bigger jowls (skin under the neck) and higher nuchal crests (enlarged spines over the back of their skulls)
  • When stressed, their coloration darkens and they may try to run away and hide
  • With regular, gentle handling, they tend to become tame and docile
  • These lizards are diurnal (active during the day), arboreal (tree-climbing) and spend most of their time up high
  • Males should not be housed together, as they are territorial and will fight. Females usually can be housed successfully together. If housing more than one in a habitat, house one male with two to three females
  • They use their long tails for balance while climbing and to whip potential predators

 

Long-tailed grass lizards:

  • These lizards are olive green to reddish brown on top with white, cream color, yellow or green on their abdomen and flanks. They have brown or black stripes with a thin white border plus light spots on their sides and back
  • Males have thicker tails than females and are more yellow-green in color while females tend to be white to cream-colored
  • These small, slender lizards get their name from their very long tails that can grow up to four times their body length
  • These diurnal, terrestrial lizards use their long tails to balance while moving swiftly (almost swimming) across tall grass

 

Emerald swifts:

  • These lizards are heavy-bodied with thin tails and small heads. Their scales are large and spiny looking, making them look rough
  • Males are stunning with bright yellow-green bodies with blue tails and patches of bright blue on their abdomen. Females are typically brown with darker spots
  • They are diurnal, very active and beautiful to look at but don’t tolerate handling well
  • Males can be territorial, so they should not be housed together. They may be housed individually or as one male with one or more females

 

Ameiva lizards:

  • These lizards have pointy heads and long, thin bodies to help them run quickly– hence their nickname, “jungle runner”
  • Their bodies have a dark green mottled pattern with brown and white spots along both sides
  • Males are typically brighter green with more mottling than females and have larger jaws
  • These active, diurnal lizards use their muscular limbs and long claws to dig and burrow, so they need deep substrate
  • They are generally skittish and jumpy and may have episodes of panic until acclimated to new habitats
  • Mountain-horned lizards:
  • Their appearance varies by species
  • They have very long tails and thin bodies with long toes and a crest (nuchal crest) that stretches from the back of their heads down to their tails
  • Most commonly, these lizards have olive green to brown bodies and yellow-orange coloring under their necks. They may become more yellow when relaxed and darker when stressed
  • These diurnal lizards are arboreal and prehistoric looking
  • When afraid, these lizards will remain motionless in the trees initially and then race to the forest floor if the threat continues
  • These lizards are very territorial and should be housed alone or in pairs
  • As pets, once acclimated, these lizards tend to be gentle and calm and are typically easy to handle

 

Neon tree dragons:

  • These lizards usually have dark brown to black bodies with bright green stripes running down their backs and in patches on their front legs and heads
  • They have long toes and short tails, and their heads are triangular with a small crest of scales on the back of their heads
  • Males have two long green stripes on either side of a central brown stripe running down their backs, while females have two rows of green patches on their backs bordering a central brown diamond pattern
  • These diurnal lizards have long toes to help them climb trees, where they spend most of their time, and stay hydrated from drinking water off leaves

 

Characteristics

Care Difficulty Intermediate
Average Life Span Depending on the species, up to 3-15+ years with proper care
Average Adult Size Widely variable, from 4-36 inches long, depending on the species
Diet Omnivore
Minimum Habitat Size Variable size and shape depending on the specific species and number of animals housed

 

Habitat

 

Habitat size

Tropical lizards need an appropriately sized and shaped habitat to accommodate normal behavior and exercise. Arboreal and semi-arboreal lizards need taller habitats to allow them to climb, while terrestrial lizards need more horizontal space for running. Some lizards may be housed in pairs or small groups, while others are better housed individually. Lizards housed in pairs or groups need more space than animals housed alone. Due to the varied sizes, requirements and growth rates of specific tropical lizard species, pet parents should consult a specific care sheet or Petco Pet Care Center associate regarding the needs of specific  species to determine their housing requirements.

 

Building your habitat

  • Décor – The habitat décor required by specific species varies depending on that species’ behavior. Regardless of the habitat size and shape, it should have a tightly fitting screen lid to allow proper ventilation and help prevent escape. Arboreal and semi-arboreal species such as water dragons, emerald swifts, mountain-horned lizards and neon tree dragons need numerous branches and vines for climbing on and basking. Terrestrial species such as ameiva lizards like to dig and burrow, so they need deep substrate to do so. Long-tailed grass lizards need plants (artificial or live) and driftwood for climbing on, hiding and looking for food. Tropical lizards, in general, need hiding areas to feel secure. In addition to plants, cork bark or commercially available hide boxes should be provided for lizards to hide in. Some water dragons may rub their noses against the glass of the habitat and cause injury. A 2- to 3-inch-high visual barrier, such as dark paper, can be placed around all sides of the outside and underside of the habitat to discourage the water dragon from doing this
  • Humidity – These lizards live in humid environments in nature, where they need moisture to stay hydrated and to shed properly. As pets, habitat humidity should be maintained at 70 to 90% by misting, as needed, every day. Adequate ventilation, typically through screened lids, provides air flow to help prevent mold growth. Live plants and moisture-absorbing substrate also help maintain humidity at proper levels. Having an open bowl of water in which lizards can soak and swim will aid in keeping humidity levels high through evaporation. Some pet parents build naturalistic habitats containing waterfalls or pools with bubblers. These moving bodies of water also help maintain high humidity levels but generally require an aquarium filter
  • Substrate – Tropical lizards require high humidity, so they need a substrate that can hold moisture. Substrate should be moist but not wet, or lizards can develop skin and respiratory tract infections. In general, cypress mulch, sphagnum moss and coconut fiber can be used as substrate. Coconut husk should be avoided with water dragons as it commonly causes eye irritation and infection. Lizards may unintentionally eat their substrate and develop life-threatening gastrointestinal tract obstructions, as most substrates are indigestible. To prevent this, feed lizards in a bowl off the floor, or use commercially available paper-based substrate that is digestible if eaten
  • Temperature – Specific temperature requirements vary slightly among tropical lizards depending on their species. Consult a specific care sheet or Petco Pet Care Center associate regarding the needs of specific species. As a general rule, most tropical lizards need a temperature gradient from 90 to 95°F for the warm end/basking zone to 75 to 80°F for the cool end. Nighttime temperatures should not fall lower than 70 to 75°F. Mountain-horned lizards are less tolerant of heat than other tropical lizards and should be housed at 75 to 80°F during the daytime, with a basking temperature of 90°F and nighttime temperatures in the low 70s °F. Monitor temperature with at least two thermometers—one in the cool zone and the other in the hot (basking) zone. Heat may be provided by an incandescent bulb or ceramic heat bulb. Heat sources should be attached to thermostats to regulate temperatures.  Hot rocks should not be used as a heat source, as they can burn reptiles. Reptiles not kept at the appropriate temperature ranges are more likely to become immunosuppressed and get sick
  • Lighting – Tropical lizards require  full-spectrum ultraviolet (UV) lighting for 10 to 12 hours a day to expose them to UVB rays to enable them to make vitamin D in their skin so that they can absorb dietary calcium. An incandescent day bulb, along with a UV bulb, also provides clear distinction between day and nighttime for tropical diurnal lizards to perform their normal behaviors. Change UV bulbs every six months, as their potency wanes

 

Cleaning your habitat

Thoroughly clean and disinfect water and food bowls daily. The habitat should be spot-cleaned daily to remove droppings and discarded food. Thoroughly clean the habitat at least once a week:

  • Place the lizard in a secure habitat
  • Scrub the tank and furnishings with a reptile habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution
  • Rinse the tank and all furnishings thoroughly with water, removing all traces of habitat cleaner or bleach smell
  • Dry the tank and furnishings before putting the lizard back into the habitat

 

Feeding

The native diets of specific species of tropical lizards vary slightly by species.

In general, a well-balanced tropical lizard diet consists of:

  • A variety of insects, including gut-loaded (recently fed) cricketsroachesmealworms, calci-worms, superworms, earthworms, butterworms, hornworms, black soldier fly larvae and waxworms
  • Some species also may eat small frozen/thawed rodents and common goldfish

Water dragons also will eat small amounts of fruits and vegetables, including shredded leafy greens (kale, mustard greens, romaine) and squash

 

Things to remember when feeding your tropical lizard:

  • Fresh, clean water should be available all the time
  • Do not use a microwave to defrost small frozen/thawed rodents (rodents are very high in protein and should only be offered sparingly to species that normally eat them). Do not prepare them in the same area that you prepare human food. If it is unavoidable, be sure to thoroughly disinfect the area. See the Feeding Frozen/Thawed Foods Care Sheet for more information
  • Vary the insects fed as often as possible so that lizards don’t get bored and reject food

As a general rule, insects fed should not be larger than the distance between the lizard’s eyes. If feeding larger insects, those that have recently molted (shed their outer covering or exoskeleton) are softer and easier to digest than very hard-shelled insects that may cause gastrointestinal tract obstruction if ingested

  • Sprinkle food with calcium supplement daily and a multivitamin supplement once a week
  • Feed only as many insects as the lizard can eat in a few minutes
  • Feed juveniles once a day and adults three to four times per week
  • Never feed lightning bugs to lizards, as they are generally toxic to most species
  • For vegetable- and fruit-eating species, discard food not eaten within 10 hours so that it doesn’t spoil in the habitat

 

Care


Lizards regularly shed their skin in patches. Most lizards shed every four to six weeks.

Before shedding, they may become a duller color. After shedding, many lizards eat their shed skin to prevent predators from knowing they are present. Ensure the humidity of the habitat is at the appropriate level to allow proper shedding. To facilitate shedding, provide a container of shallow water in which the lizard can immerse their entire body. Mist frequently during shedding to maintain elevated humidity levels, and provide a shedding box—a hide box filled with moist sphagnum moss—that will aid in the shedding process. Be sure to change the moss frequently so that it doesn’t become moldy

 

Where to buy

In store only Tropical lizards are available for purchase at your local Petco location. Please call ahead to check availability.

 

Supplies

 

 

Habitat mates

  • Research your specific species to determine whether lizards should be housed individually or in pairs or groups
  • Do not house different reptile species together

 

Health

 

Signs of a healthy lizard

  • Active and alert
  • Clear, bright eyes with no swelling or discharge
  • Full, muscular body and tail
  • Supple skin with no sores, swellings or discoloration
  • Droppings are firm, not runny or bloody
  • Eats and passes stool regularly
  • Clear nose and vent

 

Red flags (If you notice any of these signs, contact your veterinarian.)

  • Weight loss or decreased appetite
  • Discharge or bubbles from eyes, mouth or nose
  • Lesions, swelling or discoloration of skin or retained shed
  • Lethargy
  • Sneezing, runny nose, difficulty breathing
  • Weakness or paralysis of limbs
  • Runny or bloody stool or lack of stool

 

Common health issues

Health Issue Symptoms or Causes Suggested Action
Health IssueGastro-intestinal disease Symptoms or CausesRunny or bloody stools, caked or smeared stool around the vent, weight loss, loss of appetite caused by bacterial, viral or parasitic infection. Suggested ActionConsult your veterinarian.
Health IssueMetabolic bone disease/vitamin deficiency Symptoms or CausesInability to absorb calcium due to insufficient UVB light or improper amounts of dietary calcium/vitamin D3. If untreated, can lead to deformed, softened or fractured bones, swollen limbs, decreased appetite, weakness and lethargy. Suggested ActionConsult your veterinarian and provide ample UVB lighting, a balanced diet and the proper amount of calcium/vitamin supplements.
Health IssueRespiratory tract disease Symptoms or CausesLabored breathing, mucus and/or bubbles in the mouth or nose; can be caused by inappropriate habitat temperature and humidity, leading to secondary bacterial, viral or fungal infection. Suggested ActionConsult your veterinarian and ensure habitat hasi the proper temperature and humidity.
Health IssueSkin problems Symptoms or CausesRedness, swelling, lesions, discoloration of skin. May be due to infection with bacteria, fungus or parasites, or to an unclean habitat or inappropriate humidity Suggested ActionConsult your veterinarian, thoroughly clean the habitat, and ensure habitat is at appropriate temperature and humidity.
Health IssueDysecdesis (problems shedding) Symptoms or CausesRetained pieces of skin anywhere on body, especially over the eyes or around toes; caused by dry habitat or underlying disease. Suggested ActionIncrease habitat humidity; contact your veterinarian if there is no improvement.

 

FAQs

  • Is a leopard gecko a tropical lizard? No, leopard geckos are not tropical lizards. They are arid or desert lizards.
  • What type of tropical lizards make good pets? Water dragons, long-tailed grass lizards, emerald swifts, green ameiva lizards, mountain-horned lizards and neon tree dragons are all tropical lizards and they all make good pets.

 

Additional care sheets

Notes and resources

Ask a Pet Care Center associate about Petco's selection of products available for the care and happiness of your new pet. All products carry a 100% money-back guarantee.

Because all reptiles are potential carriers of infectious diseases, such as salmonella bacteria, always wash your hands before and after handling your reptile or habitat contents to help prevent the potential spread of disease.

Pregnant women, children under the age of 5, senior citizens and people with weakened immune systems should contact their physicians before purchasing or caring for reptiles and should consider having a pet other than a reptile.

 

Go to the Centers for Disease Control at cdc.gov/healthypets for more information about lizards and disease.