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Iguana Care 101: Signs of a Healthy Iguana

Keeping a pet iguana healthy and happy requires specialized care that is quite different from more conventional mammalian pets like dogs and cats. From heat lamps and terrariums to vegetarian diets and special humidity levels, it takes knowledge and planning to keep a reptile healthy—and iguanas—due to their large size—present special care requirements. An annual checkup with an exotic animal veterinarian will ensure that you are staying on top of any health concerns.

Between veterinarian visits, here's what you should look for in a healthy iguana:

  • Clear eyes. Your iguana's eyes should be clear, with no tears, discharge or dry, crusty residue. Your iguana should be observant and attentive to what's going on in his environment. Iguanas have a third eye on top of their head that is called a parietal eye, and it looks like an oval-shaped pearl with an opaque covering. It is an actual organ, and is used to detect predators that may lurk above your iguana. This eye should also be clear and free of discharge.
  • A healthy nose. Iguanas sneeze regularly to rid their bodies of excess salt, and after your iguana sneezes, you'll certainly notice small salt deposits on his nose. These nasal salt deposits are a normal part of your iguana's life and are not a cause for concern. An excessively runny nose or discharge, however, is a sign of trouble and should be investigated.
  • Healthy skin. Your iguana's skin should be free of parasites, lesions, abrasions and sore spots. A healthy iguana will shed his skin anywhere from several times a year to once a year, depending on his size and age. You may need to help remove some of the dead skin from your iguana when he is shedding, but only if it can be done with little or no effort. Soaking, bathing and misting can also aid in the shedding process. Ask your veterinarian for tips on helping your iguana shed his skin.
  • A pink mouth. Besides being reasonably clean, the inside of your iguana's mouth should be a healthy pink color and should be free of discharge or any sign of infection. Stomatitis (“mouth rot”) is somewhat common in iguanas, and may go unnoticed without routine checks.
  • Strong bones. Pet iguanas are prone to Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD), which can be caused by lack of calcium in their diet, lack of UVB lighting or improper habitat temperatures. One of the first symptoms are thin bones that are easily broken from normal activities like climbing or jumping. You may notice swollen or bowed “Popeye” legs that feel lumpy or bumpy to the touch. Spinal cord injuries can also result from MBD, and can lead to paralysis if untreated. A spongy jawbone can also indicate MBD, and could cause a loss of appetite due to pain or difficulty eating. You can easily prevent MBD by taking proper care of your iguana.
  • A generally happy pet. Your iguana's normal behavior should be active and perky. He should be aware of his surroundings and he should be alert. He should have a steady gate when he walks, and he should be able to move around easily using both arms and legs, as well as his tail, without limping or favoring his limbs. Lethargy and disinterest can be signs of an ill reptile or a parasite problem so if you notice a change in your pet's normal physical activities or eating habits, consult with your veterinarian.
  • A good appetite. A serious drop in appetite—or avoidance of food altogether—can be an indication of illness. If your iguana gets too cold he will avoid eating until he's warmer; this is because reptiles need heat in order to digest their food. Monitor your iguana's droppings too, as any significant or prolonged change in habit or abnormal-looking feces could be an indicator that something is wrong.

Appropriate Habitat Size:

Make sure your iguana's habitat is the proper size for his size. Your iguana should be able to move around freely and turn around easily in his habitat. There should also be enough space for a hiding area and branches for a basking area.

You may sometimes notice your iguana repeatedly rubbing his face or nose against his habitat, occasionally to the point of causing skin damage. While nose rubbing can be a sign of various frustrations—such as stress or breeding season—it's very often seen when the iguana's habitat is just too small. Iguanas require a surprisingly large habitat in order to thrive, and if this need isn't met, your pet can respond by nose rubbing. If other health or stress issues aren't present, consider providing a larger habitat for your iguana.

Despite your affection for your pet, and despite the fact they live in your home with you, iguanas are nonetheless wild animals, and do not always show obvious outward signs of illness (doing so in a natural environment can put them at risk to predators). It's up to you to be on the offense as a pet parent. Be attuned to your iguana's normal routine, appearance and behaviors so you can detect a problem before it becomes serious. Luckily for you, this simply involves spending time with your pet, which is something you likely wish to do more often anyway.