How to Choose and Care for Pet Lizards

Choosing pet lizards involves understanding the level of care you are willing to provide. Lizard care requirements vary based on the region that the lizard is from, the lizard diet (insects, meat, rodents, plants), the size and type of terrarium , and how well a particular species does in captivity. In general, Lizards caught in the wild are not as easily held in captivity as a Lizard bred for this purpose and are not recommended.  Given care requirements, Lizards are best left to adults or older children.

Quick Links to information on pet lizards:

pet lizards
The two best selling Pet Lizards the Bearded Dragon (left) and Leopard Gecko (right)

Pet lizards do have several advantages over other pets. They can be left alone for several days with enough food, water and light. People also do not have lizard allergies, making them a hypoallergenic pet.   They also do not smell. 

Pet lizards are different than other pets in that they cannot regulate their own body temperature (called ectohtermic). The body temperature change based on the temperature of the local environment. Terrariums need to provide areas for lizards to stay warm, such as a basking area with a heat lamp. Conversely, the lizard will also require areas to get cool after basking. Timers can be used to vary daytime and night time temperatures. The type of environment varies based on where the lizard is from.  For example some are from the desert while others are good swimmers and live in tropical or aquatic environments.

Lizards also use the lounge to smell and taste food or to determine what type of objects are ahead of them. The tongue captures air particles into the mouth which are then detected and translated into an object.  They can hear from the ears (in some lizards like Geckos you can see through the ear out to the other side).

In general pet lizards do not like to be handled. Exceptions are Green Iguanas and Bearded Dragons.  Others such as Chameleons become stressed when handled.

Lizard skin is delicate and consists of smooth or rough scales. Some have spikes. All lizards shed the skin which is then eaten by most species. The inner layer of skin (dermis) produces pigment.  They can also detach their tails when running away from prey in order to distract the predator.

There are a number of pet lizards sold in the typical pet store. Geckos are probably the most popular and easiest to keep due to their small size and the relative ease with which they can be kept in a small 10 gallon home terrarium. Other popular pet lizard species are anoles, iguanas, skinks, chameleons, bearded dragons and agamids.

The largest type of lizard, a Komodo Dragon can grow to 10 feet. It is difficult to determine the sex of a lizard without the help of an expert or veterinarian. Gila monsters, Skinks and Bearded Lizards are particularly difficult.

Considerations when Choosing a Pet Lizard

There are several considerations when deciding whether or not you should keep a pet lizard. These include:
  • Do you have the space that matches the size terrarium required for the type of pet lizard under consideration?
  • Can you maintain the type of environment required for the type of lizard you selected (woods, desert, Savannah, semi aquatic)?
  • Can you afford a lizard, including veterinary care?
  • If you intend to keep more than 1 lizard, check to see if they can be kept in the same cage.  Many adult males cannot be kept in the same terrarium.
  • Can you provide the required diet, particularly if insects (crickets, mealworms) or live rodents are preferred?
  • If the pet reptile is for a child, are they mature enough to provide daily care?
  • Will vacations interrupt your ability to care for the pet lizard?
  • Lizards can live for 20 years or more, are you ready to make that length of a commitment?
  • Do you have other pets that will try and attack or be harmed by a pet lizard?
  • Do you have the time to care for a lizard including cleaning feces, changing the water daily, plant care, removing dead insects.

Pet Lizard Costs

Pet lizards can range in cost from $2.00 to as high as $1,000 (frilled lizard).  Routine veterinary can cost $100 per visit.  If the pet lizard eats insects, live insects will need to be purchased or bred.

Lizards can be purchased in pet stores, from Reptile Expos or online from a wholesaler. The habitat is one of the biggest expenses, with owners needing to balance the functionality of the terrarium with the look or beauty of the mini-zoo you are building.  The cost is also driven by the type of habitat you need to create. A small desert lizard  such as a Leopard Gecko may be easier to care for in a small aquarium vs. a larger semi aquatic lizard that requires a large habitat.  Habitats can range in cost from under $50 to as much as $500.

How Long Will Lizards Live?

The average life span of pet lizards can be as long as 20+ years, as is the case with a Gecko.  Here are the lifespans of some popular lizard species:

Lizard Species
Bearded Dragon
5 to 10 years
Green Anole
4 to 8 years
Green Iguana
5 to 15 years
Leopard Gecko
20+ years
Old World Chameleons
3 to 8 years

Lizards as Pets - Diseases that can be spread to Humans

Pet lizards can spread Salmonella to humans. Salmonella in humans can be life threatening. People with a weak immune system, children under the age of 10, older adults and pregnant women should avoid handling reptiles.  Symptoms include:
  • Upset stomach
  • Cramps
  • diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
Tips for Avoiding Lizard to Human Disease Transmission:

Other diseases that can be spread from Lizards to people include parasites, fungal diseases and protozoa. To avoid the spread of disease practice good hygiene.  This includes:
  •  Hand washing with a disinfectant soap after handling a Lizard
  •  Use disposable gloves
  •  disinfection of the cage
  • Keep the lizard away from the mouth
  • Keep the Lizard away from human food preparation or eating areas
  • Always supervise children
  • Disinfect any counters that come in contact with the pet Lizard
  • Disinfect an broken skin that was bitten by a Lizard
  • Have your Lizard checked by a Veterinarian for diseases

Questions to Ask When Purchasing a Lizard

  1. Pet Lizards Bred in Captivity or Caught in the Wild: Lizards caught in the wild may be stressed from shipping and from being held in a captive environment, not to mention the ethics of removing any animal from its' natural habitat. Health may also be a problem for lizards caught in the wild (parasites) vs. those raised in a hygienic environment.  Only buy from a reputable retailer as some less scrupulous stores might sale wild lizards as being bred for captivity.

  2. Check the Age: Most lizards have an ideal age for being moved to a new environment.  For example, Geckos should be 6 weeks of age.

  3. Healthy Appearance: The pet lizard should look healthy.  Signs of a well nourished healthy lizard include:

    • clear eyes (no discharge) that are not swollen or crusted
    • clean nostrils (some lizard species have what looks like salt deposits around the nostrils).
    • closed mouth that is clean, pink interior (most lizards). If you see yellow, green or white spots in to the mouth, it might be signs of a lizard disease or health problem.
    • body that is not bony
    • healthy weight,
    • no infection in toes and claws
    • no wounds, scratches or bite marks
    • no lumps or skin discoloration
    • alert/active behavior
    • no projected hip bones or visible tail bones
    • no feces around area where it is expelled from body
    • mites on the body (looks like small red, orange, brown or black specks - can be treated, but a sign of poor conditions)

      Tip: When purchasing a Lizard bring a picture of a healthy juvenile for comparison.

Lizard Food and Diet

Most pet stores carry what are called "complete" diets for lizards. Whatever you decide to feed your lizard, we suggest a variety of foods, started early in life, to ensure that the lizard receives a range of vitamins and protein sources. This in addition to a calcium/vitamin D supplement for lizards that don't receive enough sunlight should keep your pet healthy for years. The key is to understand the best diet for the specific specie of lizard being raised.  Lizards generally fall into four dietary categories. The category indicates the lizards primary source of food and protein.
  • Carnivores (meat eaters, frozen or live)
  • Herbivores (plant eaters, green leafy vegetables, fruit)
  • Insectivores (insect eaters, crickets, worms, etc)
  • Omnivores (meat and plant eaters)
In the wild a lizard will tend to eat from more than one food group.  They also eat a variety of foods such as rodents, insects (worms, crickets), green leafy vegetables, plant blossoms and fruit.  In captivity, the diet might be more restricted, requiring the owner to understand the variety of foods necessary for a particular species of lizard. Lizards also depend on natural or UVB light for Vitamin D, a nutrient that is required to metabolize calcium.  If the diet doesn't contain enough of a particular vitamin or if the lizard is UVB deprived, then a multi-vitamin and calcium supplement will b needed.  Calcium is often dusted on insects.

In general, young lizards are fed every day.  Older lizards are fed 2 to 3 times per week with vitamin and calcium dusted food.

Click here for more information on lizard food.

Lizard Names and Species

The Linnaean system names lizards based on how they look Scientific names are often in 3 parts, with the first part referring to the genus (group having similar characteristics), followed by the species (similar organisms that can interbreed and produce offspring), followed by the third word, which is where the race is identified.  Not all species have multiple races.

Common Lizard List of Species

Popular small lizards include desert nigh lizards, leopard lizards, fat-tailed geckos, skinks, lacertids.  Lizards can be categorized by what they eat or where they come from (Savannah, Desert etc.)

The most popular pet lizards are Leopard Geckos and Bearded Dragons.

Click below for types of lizards commonly kept in captivity at zoos or at home based on dietary habits or native environment.

Lizard Lists by Diet: (click for complete list)

Herbivorous Lizards (plant eating lizards - Green Iguana, Chuckwalla, Spiny Tailed Agamid etc.)

Insectivorous Lizards (primarily eat insects - glass lizards, alligator lizards, geckos, skinks, chameleons)

Carnivorous Lizards (Meat Eating Lizards such as rodents; monitors, Tegus)

Omnivorous Lizards (Eat Plants and Meat): This is the largest category of lizards (bearded dragons, skinks, whiptails etc.)

Lizard Lists by Habitat Type: (click for complete list)

Desert Lizards (swifts, horned lizards, earless lizards etc.)

Savanna Lizards (also spelled Savannah, Geckos, Skinks, Glass Lizards, Bearded Dragons etc.)

Water Lizards (Water Dragons, Basilisk)

Woodland Lizards (Anole Lizard, Chameleons, Day Geckos, Emerald Tree Monitors

Where to Buy Lizards

Lizards can be purchased in local pet shops and online from a dealer. Dealers are usually located in California, Florida and New York. Breeders also can supply lizards that are already checked by a veterinarian and acclimated to captivity. Most dealers require that payment and shipping costs are paid in advance or COD. Do not purchase via shipping in cold months or very hot moths since this can affect the health of your pet.

Reptile Cages and Habitats

Reptile cages vary based on the size and height.  The specific lizard cages required for your pet is based on the number of lizards, lizard size, habits, and required height. For example, some lizards require areas for basking in the heat, and cooler areas when not basking. Others like to climb or hide. In general, most are stressed in captivity and require hiding places.

Most lizards require the some of the following items in their habitat:
  • Lizard Tank (size, materials such as glass, Plexiglas)
  • Substrate: this is the material used on the bottom of the habitat.  Choices include:
    • Crushed walnut shells: might be too sharp if ingested by some lizards
    • Corn cobs: swells when damp, might cause intestinal blockage if swallowed by lizard
    • Vitamin infused sand: perfect for most lizards some impaction concern in the digestive system, but rare
    • Cyprus mulch: good choice
    • Redwood bark: good choice
    • Aspen bedding: for lizards in a low humidity environment
    • Newsprint or paper: good choice
    • Potting soil: perfect for some lizards
    • Pine shavings
  • Furniture
    • Plants (plastic or live) and/or tree branches if appropriate
    • Limbs
    • Climbing Rocks
    • Log hides
    • Caves
    • Humidity chambers
    • Waterfalls
  • Drip systems to moisten plants
  • Tank Cover (hiding boxcreen)
  • Tank Stand
  • Lizard heat lamp or reflector (ceramic or bulb)
  • Thermostat
  • Tank substrate to cover bottom such as sterile dirt or sand
  • UV fluorescent light (for live plants if any)
  • Night viewing bulb
  • Water dish (if required for your lizard, some drink droplets from plants that are misted daily)
  • Food dish
The type of environment necessary for Lizard care depends on where a particular species is from. The cage and its contents should be tailored to your animal. The terraria dapted from an aquarium made for fish.

Home Made Lizard Cages

Baby lizards can be kept in a home made lizard cage (wire mesh or silicone glass). Pieces of glass can be sealed with a silicone aquarium sealant. The same sealant can be used to attached hinges that would hold a wire mesh or other type or cage cover.

If you need a larger cage, two glass aquariums can be stacked, with the bottom removed on the top tank.  Tape the two tanks together on the size not facing anyone that would be viewing the terraria.

Another approach is to purchase a shower stall that has a plastic backing on two sides and glass on the other two sides. Any wire mesh used to hold large lizards should be at least 1/2 inch x 1/2 inch (12.7) mm).  Lizards can get their feet caught if the mesh is too small.

Ask your pet shop or breeder about housing your lizard.  Many lizard species such as male iguanas, monitors and tegus cannot be kept with another lizard in the same cage during adulthood. This is not the case when they are young.

Small Lizard Habitats

For smaller lizards, terriaria can contain a hollowed cholla, cactus skeletons, rocks or plastic caves. One caution with cholla is that they can provide hiding places that will make it difficult for you to access the lizard. Do not use cedar lizard hide boxes and go for plastic instead, since oils in the wood version could be harmful.  Rocks are not recommended since they can result in injuries.

Large Inside Lizard Habitats

For larger lizards hide boxes can be made from an inverted cat liter box. Cork bark is also a preferred material.  Lizard cages reflect the animals natural environment. For example, Savanna Monitors will need a Savanna like environment, which is primarily made up of dry land.

Larger lizards such as Iguanas require a habitat as large as 8 ft x 8 ft. x 6 ft. Iguanas also need ultraviolet light and a basking area.

Outside Lizard Habitats

Outdoor lizard habitats can be decorated with buried clay, rock piles and hollowed limbs. Limbs should be cut to the length of the glass terrarium and secured using silicone aquarium sealant. Plants are also welcome by lizards since they provide a sense of privacy and security. An active iguana or monitor that is 6 feet in length should be kept in a cage that is at least 8 feet x 10 feet.

Lizard Lighting and Heating

The light and heat requirements of lizards depends on the species. Lizards are either sun baskers (heliotherms) where they like the sunlight, or terrestrial heliotherms where they absorb heat from items in the the environment. Most heliotherms need to maintain a body temperature of between 68 to 95F (31 - 35C). Lizards found in rainforest's need temperatures of 78 to 85F (25.6 - 29C).  Check what is required for the specific species you are caring for.

Water Dishes

Not all lizards require water dishes. They can actually be harmful for lizards that live in the desert and need low humidity levels. Others need to be misted. A new approach is to make your own hydration chamber which actually rain into the aquarium or enclosure. For example a Check with your breeder or pet store for water requirements.

How to Handle a Lizard

In the wild lizards have learned that to be captured means that death is near.  Because of this, they have adapted traits such as speed and other mechanisms to escape, such as biting the handler. Adult lizards are territorial and cannot share a cage with another lizard.  Not every lizard is the same, with some accepting being handled while others try to immediately set themselves free. Lizards may also change impermanent depending on the time of year. For example, if it is mating season for a lizard, they should not be handled.

Lizards are unique in that many species can break off the tail when threatened. The tail continues to move as the lizard escapes.  This can also happen when the lizard is being handled. When handling a lizard approach slowly and do not appear threatening. Geckos in particular will sit in your hand while some skinks can be slowly held onto.

Tip: Larger lizards might be easier to handle, but if they bite, they can spread bacteria in to the wound. Be sure to disinfect any broken skin areas if bitten.

Lizard Diseases and Health

There are several commonly seen lizard health problems..  In general if you do not see improvement in one to two days, seek the advice of a veterinarian or consult an online veterinary service.  For less urgent questions you can send questions to our Vet and have them answered for free by filling out the form on the bottom of this page.

Common lizard disease include respiratory disorders (symptoms include lethargy, raspy breathing, sneezing) and parasitic problems. For respiratory problems, try and keep the basking area of the terarria at 100 degrees F while keeping the rest of the enclosure at normal temperature.  If you don't see improvement after a day, consult a veterinarian.

Other problems include parasites.  These are usually found around the eyes. For mites, an over the counter insecticide such as DeFea Reptile Spray can be used. The other type of common parasite is ticks. For these, they can be be removed with a tweezer.  Make sure that you remove any embedded mouth parts.

Have a Lizard Related Question for our Vet? We Will Answer it for Free!

Do you need some pet lizard advice? Just ask a question and our Vet will answer it as soon as possible.

If your question is medical or behavior-related, please include information such as species, age, diet, habitat, and anything related to the medical history of your lizard.

Please upload a picture of your lizard, especially if you believe it will help the Veterinarian. Please know that we receive many questions and answer them on a first-come, first-served basis. If you need an immediate response, we suggest you use this online veterinary service that is available now to answer your questions.

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References on Pet Lizards:

Lizard Care from A to Z (Best Book on Everything Lizard)
by Bartlett, R.D. and Bartlett, Patricia

Leopard Gecko, Your Happy, Healthy Pet
Indiviglio, Frank

Merck Manual for Pet Health

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