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Why the Tegu Is the Best Pet Lizard

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Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He works mostly with dogs and exotic animals.

Tegus make great pets.

Tegus make great pets.

The Tegu Lizard Pet

If you are among the millions who climb into bed every night dreaming of the best pet, I have the answer you have been looking for. I have owned iguanas, monitors, many other species of smaller lizards, and I currently own about 20 or 30 geckos. (It is hard to keep count since they run free in my kitchen.)

None of them are “the best.” I have found the best, the perfect pet lizard.

The best pet lizard is the Tegu.

Actually, I keep several of these great pets around my house. My oldest, however, lives in my front room. His cage rests on the floor, and when I am eating my breakfast, I flip it open so that he can crawl out and lie in the sun with my dogs. When he gets bored (or maybe just warm-he has never told me which), he goes back to his cage and checks his dish to find out what is for his breakfast.

Tegus are big, mellow, affectionate, easy to care for, and with a good diet can live about 20 years.

Can there be a better pet?

Is the Tegu as Tame as a Dog?

No, Tegus are never as tame as a dog, despite some claims. They are one of the most intelligent of reptiles, and even seem to be interested in humans, at times. Tegus do resist training, though, just like a cat.

They can be as tame as a cat in several other ways.

According to the animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell, one of the big differences between dogs and cats is the way they treat food. If a dog does not have enough, she will feed her puppies (or other dogs in the pack) and go hungry. A cat will take care of her own needs first.

Tegus are like cats in that they always think of number one. They like to eat, do not care too much about what is in their bowl, and do not really care who is doing the feeding.

Yes, many of those Tegus do like kids.

Yes, many of those Tegus do like kids.

Feeding a Tegu

One of the common complaints about keeping exotic pets is how difficult it is to feed them. Dogs and cats can be fed just by going out and buying food from the pet store. What about a Tegu?

A lot of sites will recommend that the Tegu diet be composed of canned cat food, ground turkey, eggs, and calcium and vitamin supplements.

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That diet is okay for a Monitor lizard, but not really needed for a Tegu.

A study of what wild Tegus eat showed that about 2/3 of their stomach contents was actually plants and only a third made up of things like snails, crabs, and other small animals. This makes sense, as in the wild Tegus can usually be found at the base of fruit trees, picking up the fruit that has fallen, and looking underneath for worms or other bugs that they might find.

Here are some suggestions for what you can feed your Tegu. Do not worry if you get things a little wrong. Tegus are forgiving, and not likely to develop nutritional diseases like Iguanas and some other lizards. If you feed your Tegu correctly, he may grow a little slower than those on a potent, high-protein, Monitor-type diet. He might also live longer.

Tegu Diet

If your Tegu has been spoiled by a meat diet, and is relucant to eat veggies,you can make a small plate each feeding and cover it with a raw egg.

Meat, only about 1/3VegetablesFruit

Eggs

Squash

Figs

Ground Turkey

Zucchini

Grapes

Canned Cat Food

Peas

Bananas

Worms

Green Beans

Strawberries

Fresh Fish

Pumpkin

Cherries

Fresh Seafood

Greens (turnip, collard, etc)

Tropical (papaya, coconut, guava, etc)

Life With a Tegu

My Tegu does wear a collar (around his waist, not his neck) and I leave it on him all of the time. I only put his leash on when he is strolling around the house or outside in the front yard. The leash is not really necessary in the house, since if he climbs under my bookshelf or bed, my dog will tell me where he is (if I ask nicely). With the leash on I can keep an eye on him if he crawls into a hiding spot.

When he climbs back into his cage, I take the leash off.

Some mornings I will take him out and let him wander around my garden when I am working. I leave his leash on and tie him to a banana tree so that he'll have some shade. He likes this since he can be out in the sun but still hide if he wants.

He does not care for the beach where it is open, and he does not have somewhere to hide. In this, he is very much like a cat—have you ever seen anyone take their cat to the beach?

What Are the Cons to Owning a Tegu?

  • If you do not handle your Tegu, they can become aggressive. They have teeth that will slice through flesh, and wild Tegus are responsible for a lot of the dogs in our area walking around with hunks missing from their noses.
  • They need a large enclosure, or at least a decent sized cage and plenty of opportunities to get out and walk around.
  • My geese do not like the tegus. I think it may be because of the long tail, or maybe it is that tongue flicking out every once in a while. I guess they think a Tegu looks like a snake and when a lizard is sitting in the doorway, they will not even try to go inside.
  • Tegus are not like a dog or cat in that they cannot be trusted with small animals. If you have a hamster, gerbil, or other small animal, it must always be caged when your Tegu is strolling around the house. My parrot can handle himself in a fight, but he always treads carefully when the Tegu is running around the house.

What Are You Waiting For?

But is a Tegu the best lizard to share a house with? Definitely.

Is there anything I regret about having one of these pets? I just regret not getting a Tegu sooner. I have worked around Tegus since the mid-1970s but always thought there was another type of lizard or snake that would fit my family even better.

I was wrong. Tegus are the best pet lizard!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: What does a Tegu cost and how much does it take to feed them each month?

Answer: There are many sources of Tegus but a lot of sites will sell young pets for about $200 and some pet shops that stock reptiles might even be a little cheaper. You just need to look around where you live.

As far as monthly expenses, it depends what you feed. Live food costs more so review the foods in the article. (If you want to feed newly hatched chicks I am not a source for that.) Plan on at least $25 per month. You also need to plan on monthly expenses like electricity (heating the cage), vitamins, bedding, and keep something available at all times in case your Tegu needs to see the veterinarian.

Question: How would I train or at least show a Tegu who is the boss?

Answer: You do not train a Tegu, and, whatever you do, you should not try the outdated "alpha wolf" techniques to show them you are the top dog. A reptile can be tamed, and can even perform simple tricks using operant conditioning, but you can not ask them to sit on command, nor can you force them to act correctly.

Instead of being the boss, you should focus on being a good owner or a friend of your tegu. Feed him, let him run around your house, and spend time touching him.

Think of him as a pet bobcat, not a dog.

Question: As a first reptile pet for a six-year-old, would you suggest an Argentinian B & W over a bearded dragon?

Answer: The reason bearded dragons are selected as first pets for young kids is that they are small and not threatening. The same cannot be said of a tegu. I would not get one as my child's first pet.

I did buy my daughter a corn snake for her first pet. They are small, easy to care for, easy to cage and handle. She did cry when I brought home the pinkies to feed him, but that was many years ago, and feeding pellets are now available. https://hubpages.com/reptiles-amphibians/corn-snak...

Question: What is the friendliest, tamest and most docile type of Tegu?

Answer: In my opinion the Argentinian Black and White tegu is the tamest and best animal to work with.

Question: What do I do to assure my Tegu's health during the winter in Canada?

Answer: Your Tegu will need to live inside your house throughout the whole year anyway, so there is no difference during the winter. If your house or apartment is colder during the winter, he will be less likely to come out of his cage, and will spend a lot of time buried in his substrate.

Question: Is it good to have a hiding spot before I try to tame my Tegu?

Answer: The only hiding spot that your Tegu really needs is his enclosure. If he feels too stressed out by your handling, or you have another pet that is too interested in him, he should be able to climb up and get back into his enclosure.

If you provide too many hiding spots, it is possible to make your Tegu too shy.

Question: What cage do you use for your Tegu? Did you make your own?

Answer: I made my own cage. It is a good idea, since Tegus are too large to use an aquarium and most of the containers that are sold commercially.

Make sure that your cage is large enough for your Tegu and has high enough sides (or a lid) so that he does not crawl out.

Question: What species of tegu is the best, and what should a beginner owner start with?

Answer: I think the black and white is best. Some people call it the Argentine tegu.

It is fine to start with that species.

Question: I read a lot of articles about salmonella and reptiles--a lot of scary articles saying you have to treat everything the reptile touches as contaminated. How can you let them out to roam a house? Or hang out with them on the couch, etc? Are these articles over kill?

Answer: I would not kiss my Tegu, let him up on the kitchen counter, or share utensils with him. His bowls belong only to him.

As far as wandering around the house though, unless you are immune comprimised there is very little danger. (I cannot tell you absolutely none.)

Yes, I think those articles are overkill. I have heard of a case of a young boy gettig salmonella from kissing his turtle. Again, not something I would recommend.

Question: Is there a good book available for a lizard owner?

Answer: There is a book about "Tegus as Pets" available from Amazon.

Question: Would a huge dog crate be good for a white and black Tegu to stay in at night?

Answer: That is a great idea for a short time period. Just make sure that the screen in front of the crate is small enough so that your Tegu cannot escape.

Question: What if you never took care of a lizard before, can you still get and start with a tegu?

Answer: Even if you do not have experience taking care of a lizard, a Tegu is still a good animal to start out wtih. You do need to make sure you have adequate room for a cage, so some beginners will prefer a Leopard Gecko or Bearded Dragon since they are relatively small.

Those lizards do require a diet of insects so can be a lot more work for a beginner.

Question: Where do the Tegus that roam your house poop?

Answer: I have tile on the floor of my front room. They always go there; underneath my hammock where they won't be messed with. It is not a problem to clean up, but they are not housetrained like a dog.

Question: What about the tegu hibernation period? What do you do? How long does it last?

Answer: They do not have a real hibernation, just a period of reduced activity during our winter. It varies between four and seven months.

Tegus will usually stop eating when winter rolls around and locals in my area say that they "eat their tails to stay alive". Actually they just become very thin, so at the end of a winter a Tegu can look pretty emaciated.

Even when my lizards are not eating I open the cage every day, peek in to check on them and will usually put some food in there about once a week. If they do not eat, I toss it the next day.

Question: Is a Tegu lizard good for beginners?

Answer: It depends on the beginner. A Tegu can be a lot harder to handle than a Leopard Gecko or a Bearded Dragon because of his size. If you are concerned about feeding those little lizards, however, a Tegu is a lot better.

I took care of a pair of Tegus when I was 12.

Question: Is the Tegu a rare and endangered animal?

Answer: Tegu lizards are common. They are not an endangered species. If they continue to lose their habitat and the human population continues to encroach on their homes, they may become threatened. Many of the lizards available in the pet trade are bred in captivity.

Question: I am a reptile lover. I am looking for a friend or a pair of friends to help me deal with rats. Are any Tegus voracious rat eaters?

Answer: No, I do not think they would be a good choice. A Tegu might kill a mouse, but if it was a large rat, he would probably leave it alone. A large constrictor might take care of them for you, but also might escape.

I think your best bet to deal with rats is not a reptile but a dog. A small breed with a high prey drive (like a rat terrier, Miniature Pinscher, or a Standard Schnauzer) would be a lot better.

Question: Can a Tegu and a cat be friends?

Answer: Will they tolerate each other? Sure, since a lot of cats will lose their prey drive around animals in the family. Friends? I doubt it. Tegus ignore a lot but are not really "friends" with most other pets.

Question: What is better as a pet, an adult or juvenile tegu?

Answer: Starting out, definitely a young animal. He will get used to your house, your other pets, your routine, etc. An adult is a lot calmer but may just want to stay in his enclosure all of the time.

Question: Is owning a tegu legal in California?

Answer: According to the website tegutalk.com it is legal to keep them as pets in California. If you are looking for a source find someone in your area that sells the lizards and find out if there are any local laws.

Tegus are available at herp shows in California too so you should have no trouble finding someone local.

Question: Can you use a leash on a tegu?

Answer: Yes, but I attach it to a collar that is around its body just in front of its back legs. If you put the collar on its neck, it will only slip out of it.

Question: I have had 5 Bearded Dragons and one gopher snake; am I ready for a Tegu?

Answer: It sounds like you have plenty of experience and will make a great Tegu owner. Be sure to read all you can about diet, since feeding your Tegu can be easier than the other pets you have had, but should definitely be done right.

Question: How big are tegus?

Answer: They can get up to about 50 pounds, so imagine a pet as big as a medium sized dog.