Melissa has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and has a bachelor's degree in biology.
Vegetarian Pet Lizards
Due to the fact that most lizard species consume a primarily omnivorous, insectivorous, or carnivorous diet, owners of these reptiles are generally faced with having to feed frozen/thawed whole prey or even live insects to keep them successfully.
Lizards and reptiles in general that are mostly or completely herbivorous are less common, however, some do exist and can be owned as pets, providing an option for keepers who do not want to deal with live feeding or raw meat.
It should be noted that these animals have somewhat special needs and are not great pets for most people.
Green iguanas are, unfortunately, some of the most popular lizards in the reptile pet trade, however, they really shouldn’t be. Most casual pet owners aren’t too keen to construct a large walk-in enclosure that must be adequately lit with expensive specialty lighting that is in frequent need of replacement.
Green iguanas however do get a bad rap as being very hard to care for, when the real issue is that most people find their requirements to be more involved than what they are willing to put into a reptile. Green iguanas are reasonably easy to care for depending on who you are, and they require a 100% plant-based diet.
While some outdated information suggests iguanas can have some animal protein and that they might occasionally eat insects in the wild, the most current evidence points to even small amounts of animal-based foods being harmful to iguana kidney health .
Most animals, regardless of nutritional needs, may consume things they shouldn’t in the wild, but this doesn’t need to be replicated. Green iguanas are the obvious choice for a “vegan” pet reptile, however, there are other iguanids that can be fed a herbivorous diet when kept as a pet.
Lesser Antillean Iguana
These iguanas, nearly identical in appearance to green iguanas with the exception of their unique coloration, are also closely related to them, being of the same genus (their species is Iguana delicatissima).
As their name implies, they are native to the Lesser Antilles of which they are also endemic. Lesser Antillean iguanas are critically endangered as of 2020 .
They are uncommonly kept as pets however there are a small number of breeders who offer them for sale. They should receive the same exact care as green iguanas.
This beautiful and endangered iguana species will be included here, however, they are listed as Appendix I by CITES which prohibits their international trade except for scientific purposes. They are generally not seen being kept as pets in the United States however some people keep them in other countries such as Canada and there may be some present in the U.S. Unfortunately, these animals are most likely descendants of animals that have been illegally smuggled into the country.
These iguanas are, of course, native to Fiji, as well as Togo. Some owners believe they are omnivorous while others see no evidence they are not mostly plant-eating lizards .
Other Iguanas: Cyclura
This is a genus of iguanids that are known as the rock iguanas and there are a few species found within the pet trade. Rock iguanas as a group may be considered to be the most endangered lizards in the world .
Unlike green iguanas, some members of this genus are omnivorous, but even though those species can consume some animal matter they can be successfully kept on a completely plant-based diet .
This is a large, heavy-bodied rock iguana, and it is the most common rock iguana species in captivity. While some sources suggest that the rhinoceros iguana is an omnivore and can have a small amount of animal matter, as some rock iguanas have been observed consuming small animals and insects in the wild, it is not necessary to feed them animal protein. In fact, feeding them meat may do more harm than good as too much animal protein can affect their kidneys.
Like the green iguana, the rhinoceros iguana's large size makes it evolutionarily adapted to consume a plant-based diet, as they've evolved more complex colons to absorb more nutrients from plants .
Cuban Rock Iguana
As the name suggests, the Cuban rock iguana is distributed throughout Cuba in dry and coastal areas. This large iguana species is again, primarily herbivorous, however, there have been reports of Cuban iguanas opportunistically consuming crabs, birds, and even younger iguanas.
These lizards will happily accept insects in captivity, however, feeding them animal protein is, again, unnecessary and a risk to their renal health. Iguanas can gain all the protein they need with a varied and nutritious plant-based diet .
Grand Cayman Rock Iguana
Characterized by its powder blue coloration, this species is only found on the island of Grand Cayman and their populations have been scarce since their collection in 1938.
Declared functionally extinct in 2005, they were the most endangered lizard species in the world, making their collection for the pet trade illegal. However, recent reintroduction efforts have been largely successful and the species was downgraded from critically endangered to endangered in 2012.
Like other rock iguanas, it is a mostly terrestrial species and consumes a plant-based diet with some omnivorous leanings. In the wild, they may also eat dead birds, crabs, slugs, and insect larva .
GCR x Cuban Rock Iguana
While a "pure" Grand Cayman rock iguana is illegal to keep as a pet there are Cyclura Lewisi hybrids that are mixed with the Cuban rock iguana and these are allowed as pets. Their husbandry requirements are the same as both of these Cyclura species .
These are iguana species of the genus Ctenosaura. These lizards are technically omnivorous, although they consume more animal prey as juveniles when their protein demands are higher. As adults, they should be fine with high quality sources of plant protein. Some species that are found in the pet trade include:
- Ctenosaura Melanosterna (Honduran spiny-tailed iguana)
- Ctenosaura Palearis (Guatemalan spiny-tailed iguana)
- Ctenosaura similis (Black spiny-tailed iguana)
- Ctenosaura Acanthura (Northeastern spiny-tail iguana)
- Ctenosaura pectinata (Mexican spiny-tailed iguana): The diet of juveniles is more than 80% insects, however, they rarely consume animal protein as adults.
- Ctenosaura defensor (Yucatan spiny-tailed iguana): May prefer more animal protein than others.
- Ctenosaura bakeri (Utila iguana): Needs animal protein as a juvenile.
- Ctenosaura flavidorsalis (yellow-backed spiny-tailed iguana).
- Ctenosaura conspicuosa (San Esteban Spiny-tailed Iguana)
- Ctenosaura Palearis (Guatemalan spiny-tailed iguana)
- Ctenosaura hemilopha (Cape spinytail iguana)
This United States native is a relatively large lizard that prefers dry, rocky areas in the Southwestern regions. In fact, they are the largest non-venomous lizard in the United States. While these lizards can be offered animal protein at younger ages this is probably not necessary and they should be fed only plants as adults.
Chuckwallas have very similar dietary requirements to green iguanas, although they are very uncommonly kept as pets in comparison .
Uromastyx or Spiny-Tailed Lizard
Though similar-looking to the chuckwalla, the uromastyx is native to North Africa and the Middle East. These desert-dwelling lizards prefer very warm temperatures with a basking spot that should be 100-110 degrees F. Dietary-wise, they are predominately vegetarian, but some owners chose to feed insects. This is unnecessary, however, and a uromastyx that is fed a well-supplemented plant-based diet should have no problem with the omission of insects .
Solomon Island Prehensile-Tailed or Monkey-Tailed Skink
This highly unusual lizard, native to the Solomon Islands, is unique for a few reasons: it is crepuscular and nocturnal, it has a prehensile tail as its name suggests, and it is a primarily herbivorous non-iguanid. These skinks should have an arboreal cage set up with high humidity.
Diet-wise, again, a salad designed for green iguanas would be adequate if it is accepted. Finicky eaters can be offered sweet potato baby food or the shoots of the fast-growing pothos plant. This species may practice coprophagia, consuming its own or other skink's feces .
Honorable Mention: Gargoyle Gecko
This species of gecko that hails only from the island of New Caledonia gets a mention here because while like most small lizards they consume some insects in the wild, it is often practiced and even recommended to feed this species a commercial diet that contains mostly a mash of fruit exclusively (it is designed for crested geckos). Insects may be offered as a treat, however, this is not necessary, and some individuals may not even accept them.
Crested geckos are very similar to gargoyle geckos however most hobbyists suggest supplementing that species' diet with insects .
- Animal Veterinary Hospital of Orlando. Chuckwallas.
- Candy, Cameron. Husbandry Guidelines: Rhinoceros Iguana. 2009
- Crutchfield, Tom. Cuban Rock Iguana Care Tips. June 16, 2014
- Durtsche, Richard D. "Ontogenetic plasticity of food habits in the Mexican spiny-tailed iguana, Ctenosaura pectinata." Oecologia 124.2 (2000): 185-195.
- Egnatios-Beene, J. 2002. "Cyclura cornuta" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed September 30, 2020 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Cyclura_cornuta/
- Kaplan, Melissa. Animal protein and green iguanas. 2001.
- SEAVS. Uromastyx Husbandry and Preventative Healthcare.
- Lemm, Jeffrey, and Allison C. Alberts. Cyclura: Natural history, husbandry, and conservation of West Indian rock iguanas. Academic Press, 2011.
- Malfatti, Mark (2007). "A look at the genus Ctenosaura: meet the world's fastest lizard and its kin". Reptiles Magazine. 15 (11): 64–73.
- Marie Egurom, Marie. Care of Cyclura. 1998.
- Maryon, Daisy & Brown, Tom & Lee, David. (2020). Ctenosaura bakeri (Utila Spiny-tailed Iguana): DIET.
- New England Herpetoculture. A detailed guide pertaining to the care of Rhacodactylus auriculatus & Correlophus ciliatus.
- Paul, Kelly. Spiny Tailed Iguana Care Sheet. August 7, 2012
- Reptile Talk. Fiji Banded Iguana (Brachylophus fasciatus)
- van den Burg, M., Breuil, M. & Knapp, C. 2018. Iguana delicatissima. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T10800A122936983. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-1.RLTS.T10800A122936983.en. Downloaded on 17 October 2020.
- Wright, Kevin M. "Captive Husbandry of the Solomon Island Prehensile-Tailed Skink, Corucia zebrata." Bulletin of the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians 3.1 (1993): 18-21.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2020 Melissa A Smith
Maren Elizabeth Morgan from Pennsylvania on October 17, 2020:
I found going to the pet shop each week for crickets very tiresome.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on October 17, 2020:
Very elaborate and very informative article. Thanks.