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Free Roaming Iguanas

How To Successfully Allow Your Iguana To Free Roam

Free Roaming Iguanas

Let’s face it; iguanas grow to be very large lizards in a short amount of time. If you are not prepared to house your iguana in an appropriate-sized enclosure, or do not have an extra room to spare, dedicated to your iguana, the only other option is to “free-roam” the iguana. Many people successfully free-roam their iguanas and provide a wonderful environment for their iguanas to thrive and grow, helping to make them a regular member of your household.

Unlike the controlled-climate and environment of a fixed enclosure, free-roaming requires additional diligence and care to ensure that your iguana is safe, happy and remains healthy for its lifetime. The following points are a basic outline to help you set up your iguana for free-roaming. This information has been collected from many sources when our 7 year old male iguana, Rex, decided he no longer wanted to be confined to a cage. The decision was more his than ours, but in the end everyone, including Rex, is happier.

Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)

Size Matters

Most of us started out with a tiny little green lizard. Baby and juvenile iguanas are quick, prone to explosions of speed and rather bitey and tail-whippy. During the iguanas “childhood” a properly set-up enclosure is best for a few reasons.

Baby iguanas are small and skiddish. They are extremely uncomfortable in their new surroundings and will naturally take every opportunity to run away from perceived danger and hide in the most unlikely places. Some can be so frightened that they will hide for days, forsaking food and water. In fact, many iguanas who escape their enclosure end up lost forever and succumb to malnourishment and dehydration.

It is important to start your iguana off in a properly sized enclosure that will afford them the comfort and security of a small “territory”. This allows the iguana to acclimate to the new surroundings and begin to develop a level of comfort and trust among the human captors. This is a very important step in the socialization of your iguana, as this is when you will begin the process of handling and developing trust with your iguana. During this time, daily handling and socialization exercises, with an eye to free-roaming in the future is time well spent for you and the iguana. It’s important that the iguana trusts you that you are not a predator out to do the iguana harm, and thus eliminate the reason for the iguana to flee from you.

When the iguana reaches a size that prevents it from scurrying away (due to increased confidence brought on by a larger-sized body and having acclimated to the surroundings) and hiding in and under most furnishings, it’s time to begin the gradual process of free-roaming "training."

Assuming your iguana is properly socialized and allows you to handle it without constantly trying to run off, you can begin by interacting with the iguana in a small room, bathrooms seem to work well for this. Hold your iguana in the secured room for several minutes, talking to it and allowing it to begin to wander out of your secure grip. The iguanas curiosity will eventually kick in and it will begin to move away from you. This is a much different behavior than the “flee” response of its younger days. During curiosity behavior your iguana will slowly, one step at a time, begin to leave the security of your grip and begin to explore the new surroundings. You will likely see a step-tongue flick-step behavior. With each step the iguana will tongue-flick to learn about the new environment and remember where it is. During this time you should be talking to your iguana, building confidence by letting it know that you are still there and if anything goes wrong, you will be there to help.

As the iguana slowly learns the surroundings (over the course of many days or even weeks), you will see the confidence building and the iguana will move around less cautiously and much quicker.

An important point at this step of free-roam training is being able to re-secure the iguana without a struggle or flee response. Let’s face it—it can be hard enough to remove a fleeing iguana from a cage, let alone a large room! So, it’s important to be able to pick the iguana up without much struggle (this is where the “small” room comes into play). It may take some time for the iguana to realize that once you decide to pick it up, it is a waste of energy to flee, but it is essential to a properly trained free-roamer.

When you finally reach a point where the iguana is confident enough to roam freely, without fear, and doesn’t try to run away when you pick it up; it’s time to move on to a larger room, perhaps a bedroom. You then start again with the same process. If you are confident that your iguana is comfortable in the new cage-free environment and is not able to run and hide in or under anything, and can be recaptured without issue, then you and the iguana are ready to begin free-roaming.

Iguana Proofing

Much like snakes, iguanas use tongue-flicking to “taste” things. Iguanas are opportunistic feeders and as such will eat things that may or may not be good for them (i.e. Socks, stockings, coins and any small object it can fit into its mouth). Realizing this, it is VERY important to remove anything small from the environment that the iguana can ingest.

It’s also important to make sure there is nothing that the iguana can knock over, spill or destroy while free-roaming. Once the iguana is fully confident of the surroundings, it will begin to explore every inch of it from the floor to the highest point it can climb to. For this reason, be sure anything the iguana can come in contact with will not be damaged or cause harm to the iguana. Remove any potted plants, glass or delicate objects from the iguanas defined territory.

Also be sure that anything the iguana can climb on is secure and will not fall over or down and possibly cause harm to the iguana. This includes anything the iguana can climb on, like drapes, shelves or tables. Iguanas are arboreal by nature and are most comfortable in the highest place they can climb to, and they will reach it in short order.

It is a very good idea to remove any mirrors in the room, or things that cause a clear reflection. Your iguana will recognize these images as a rival iguana trying to interlope on their territory and react accordingly. Even without an aggressive reaction, your iguana will succumb to stress and may stop roaming or eating.

Finally, be sure the “territory” where your iguana will free-roam is properly secure. This includes doors that shut properly, windows that are closed and locked and heavy-duty screens in all windows. Many iguanas have clawed their way through window screens to “freedom” and were never found.

Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)

Basking Spots

Just like the controlled-climate of a properly set-up enclosure, free-roaming iguanas require the same type of components in a much larger setting. Realizing your iguana will “seek out” the sun, it’s best to place a basking shelf near a window where the iguana can bask and survey the outdoors.

A basking shelf should be wide enough for the iguana to turn completely around on it safely without the risk of falling off. It should be built of a strong material (Vinyl-coated metal utility selves covered with tight-loop carpet or non-skid material, found in most home improvement stores work great for basking shelves) and properly secured to a wall.

Many people will create ladders that help the iguana move from floor to basking shelf with security and ease. If an iguana needs to use a drape to reach the basking shelf, you can be sure the drape will be shredded in no time and you risk a dangerous fall every time the iguana goes up and down the drapes.

Knowing that iguanas are most secure in the highest spot, be sure your basking shelf is located high enough for security and still reachable by you without the use of a ladder or stool. Several basking shelves will allow the iguana to pick the temperature it is most comfortable with and give it the opportunity to move between basking shelves as necessary.

Proper Lighting

As with the properly set up enclosure, your free-roaming iguana will need proper UVB light and heat set-up at the basking shelves. This is achieved by permanently mounting a light fixture at the suggested distance from the shelf. This distance will vary with the type of bulb you use; anywhere from 6"–24". It is always best to place the lamps on a timer so the lights go on and off at the correct times each day. Always be sure that the lamp is secure and protected from the iguana. Wire screen “cages” around the fixture work best.

Modern glass is UV-filtered and will NOT allow the suns UVB rays to penetrate the glass. So, even though you see wonderful sunlight streaming through a window onto a shelf, there are no beneficial UVB rays in that sunlight, so it is very important to provide an artificial source of UVB.

Proper Heat

These same principles apply for the heat source. Make sure it is securely mounted, at the proper distance and protected from your iguana. Thermal burns are a serious injury and many are found too late to heal the injury.

Recognizing that iguanas are cold-blooded creatures, receiving their body heat from the temperature around their body, it is critically important to monitor the heat at the basking spot. Iguanas do not sense temperature the way humans do. The heat is absorbed through their skin, is circulated through the blood stream and warms the internal organs. When the core body temperature finally reaches the desired level, the iguana is triggered to move to a cooler location. This process can take some time. It is the reason why iguanas can suffer thermal burns without quickly moving away from the heat source.

Many people will use a human heating pad on the basking shelf (covered with a towel) to provide heat for the iguana. Set on “low” and controlled by a timer, this method works just fine, though overhead heating sources are more natural for iguanas. If you decide to use this method, be sure that the heating pad is thermostatically controlled with a safety device that will shut it down if it overheats.

Be DILIGENT in monitoring your iguanas basking shelf heat. A proper temperature is between 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit. Several factors need to be taken into account when trying to adjust basking spot temperatures. The distance of your heat source (be it the lamp or a heating element coupled with the ambient room temperature AND the position of the sun in the sky (thereby determining the strength of the suns rays coming through the window and for how long) all play a factor in the temperature of the basking spot.

For this reason it is best to use a remote thermometer which allows you to place the sensor right in the basking spot and the actual monitor somewhere where you can easily read it. This method allows you to constantly monitor the basking shelf temperature throughout the day and make adjustments to the heat source(s) as necessary. Remember, iguanas will NOT quickly move away from a dangerous heat source.

Humidity

Humidity is the bane of every free-roaming iguana! Even in the best, most well-equipped enclosure, captive iguanas suffer from chronic dehydration. So, in an open, free-roaming environment, your iguana is at even greater risk. This is the one area where you need to take extra care over and above what you would provide in the conventional enclosure.

Realize that there is a big difference between “humidity” and “hydration.” They are not really connected to a great degree for captive iguanas. Humidity deals with the ambient humidity in the environment and can be easily achieved with a cool-mist humidifier placed near the basking shelf and protected from the iguana, and by frequent spraying with water. Higher humidity does NOT mean better hydration! It simply provides the proper “natural” environment for the iguana to thrive.

Hydration is achieved through fluid intake. For this reason, it is important that your iguana have a fresh, accessible supply of clean water at all times.

Food - Water

There is no real difference in the food and water supply of a caged iguana over a free-roaming iguana. You should provide a properly balanced, daily supply of varied greens and vegetables with a bit of fruit. For a free-roaming iguana it is best to have a separate shelf, off the floor for the iguana to feed on. The basking shelf is too hot and the floor is too insecure for the iguana to comfortably feed. So, a mid-level shelf, above the floor, but away from the heated basking area is best.

As with the basking shelf, be sure the shelf material is strong and secure with plenty of room for the iguana to move around WITHOUT knocking the food dish off.

Food should be processed, chopped and/or shredded no bigger than the size of the iguanas head. It may take a few days for the iguana to become comfortable enough to eat, so do not be alarmed by a non-feeding free-roaming iguana. Iguanas are prey creatures and feeding is one of the most insecure and unprotected times in the iguanas day. They do it slowly and very cautiously. Rest assured that once they recognize the feeding spot and begin to feed they will thrive.

The Pooping Spot

The second biggest problem with free-roaming iguanas (after humidity) is the pooping spot.

During your early socialization and taming process it is helpful if you have achieved a regular routine for your iguana to poop. Some iguana owners use the “tubbing” method whereby they soak their iguana each morning and encourage defecation in the bathtub, others have managed to “paper-train” the iguana. Unfortunately there is no tried and true method to properly training an iguana to defecate in one spot.

What we found worked best for Rex was for him to identify the spot where he would freely poop everyday, in our particular case it was on the Kitchen floor in front of the oven. Once we recognized his pattern, we began placing newspaper there. Each day Rex comes down from his cage, walks to his pooping spot and poops on the newspaper.

You’ll need to monitor your iguana and use whatever method you can to identify the spot and take proper measures to make it easy for you to clean.

Pooping from the shelf may be what your iguana chooses. If this is the case, place an additional shelf below the pooping shelf and cover it with an easily cleaned material like linoleum.

This process will take some time to work out, but once you do your life will get much easier.

Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)

Multiple Free-Roaming Iguanas

Iguanas are by nature solitary creatures and it is not recommended to house multiple iguanas together. Though, if you insist on creating an unnatural environment for your iguanas or you happen to have a bonded pair, there are some additional considerations for their free-roaming territory.

The free-roaming area needs to be large, large enough for one iguana to stay out of the way of the other. Everything needs to be doubled, double basking shelves, double feeding areas and double pooping spots. You must monitor stress and aggression constantly. Iguanas live by a clear hierarchy, quickly establishing an “Alpha” and less-than-Alpha structure. The Alpha iguana will get the best basking spot, eat the best food, and choose the most convenient pooping spot. The rest get the leftovers. Double components and a large free-roaming area will minimize the stress placed on the “lower” iguana(s).

Constant monitoring for aggressive behavior and daily body checks for injuries is required when you house more than one iguana in the same space. It is also helpful to have a handy reptile First-Aid Kit and money set aside for emergency vet care. Whether by establishing individual territories or through establishing a proper “pecking order,” iguanas will fight each other, sometimes viciously and some times to the death. So, be VERY careful with multiple iguanas!

Environmental Safety

Similar to having a toddler in your home, you need to be very aware of the iguana’s movements, habits and behaviors in order to prevent any accidents or tragedies. If they can swallow it—remove it, if they can climb it—secure it properly, if they can claw through it—modify it, and if they can attack it—be aware of the possibility and take the necessary steps.

Consideration For Other Pets and Humans

No matter how well you think your iguana gets along with other animals or humans, the “territory” should belong to iguana and other pets should not have free access to it. Iguanas will attack violently if they see no other option and many other animals have been maimed and even killed by iguanas who perceive them as a threat. Always be sure that doors and windows to a free-roamers space are secure from other pets getting in.

As with other pets, iguanas may perceive “lesser” humans (ones that don’t really care for them or have not developed a trust with them) as a threat and may be prone to attack without cause. For this reason, establish rules in your household on who should interact with the iguana and how they should interact. Humans should never back down from the iguana (in the iguana’s mind it has run-off the interloper and will do it repeatedly until it no longer works). Instead, if the iguana is prone to attacking one or two family members (especially children) you’ll need to monitor interactions closely and instruct the other humans on how to deal with the aggression.

One method I’ve found very helpful is the use of a broom. When you enter the room and the iguana charges put the broom in front of the iguana to block the charge. Speak loudly and clearly “No!” as you thwart the iguana’s effort to run you off. After a few times of doing this the iguana will recognize that the efforts are wasted and revert to less aggressive measures like posturing and minor threats. Consider this a win for the poor human!

Seasonal Behaviors

At certain times of the year and depending on the gender of the iguana they may become much more aggressive and territorial (even to the primary caregiver). These are difficult times for free-roaming iguana owners and you need to take steps to ensure your—and the iguana’s—safety. The key is to closely monitor behavioral changes and being prepared to react quickly if things change suddenly. Be sure you are well protected with clothing, carry a broom and use voice to help the iguana differentiate between good and bad behaviors.

Most iguana seasonal behavior will subside as the season passes. It may be helpful to use a “love sock” or glove to help the iguana satisfy its need to mate. Just use extra caution during these times and always remain in control of any interaction.

Free-Roamers To Captive

Iguanas that have been free-roamed will not take well to be placed in confined captivity. This is also true for large, full grown and properly socialized iguanas. The stress placed on the animal by a sudden change to confined quarters will do more harm than good. Be considerate of the iguana’s prior housing and make adjustments as necessary.

Regular Vet Visits

As with any iguana, regular and thorough examination by a qualified herp vet will not only reduce the cost of care, it will help you remain in a proactive state, rather than reacting to injury and illness that can become VERY costly. It is recommended that iguanas be vet checked with proper fecal exams and x-rays every 6-12 months, or more frequently depending on your iguanas’ condition.

Conclusion

If handled properly and provided for a free-roaming iguana can become a wonderful family pet to enjoy. Not all iguanas are cut out to be free-roamers, some are by nature more aggressive than others and caging may be the best solution.

After taking all the information and requirements into consideration, you should be able to decide if your iguana is better suited for free-roaming or caging.

Attribution

Author: Dominick Giorgianni
Orange Green Iguana © Cary Bass [CC-BY-SA-3.0]
Partial Orange Iguana © Daniel Schwen [CC-BY-SA-4.0]
Floridian Iguana © Dominika Durtan [CC-BY-SA-3.0]