Tegu lizards are popular 5-foot-long reptiles that qualify as omnivores. However, things may not be as straightforward as they seem because these lizards vary wildly in terms of dietary preferences and behavior.
Your Tegu’s dietary preferences may depend on numerous variables, such as the reptile’s age, natural ecosystem, environmental parameters, nutritional needs, and particular preferences.
It’s important to note that Tegus aren’t exactly a breeze to keep in captivity. But, if you’ve done your homework and believe you are up to the task, welcome.
Today, we will discuss the Tegu diet to figure out what you should be feeding your reptile in captivity based on its preferences, needs, and natural diet.
Natural Diet of Tegu Lizards
Interestingly, Tegus have an extremely varied diet in the wild, but not for the reasons you might suspect. Tegus qualify as omnivorous animals, but many people don’t realize that this classification is the result of the environment rather than the animal’s preferences. In short, Tegus prefer to consume animal protein than veggies and fruits.
The problem is that, in many cases, they need to consume veggies, plants, and fruits, too, simply because that’s everything that they have available at that point.
Despite being reptiles and having a slower metabolism than other animal groups, Tegus tend to eat more often than your typical lizard or snake.
An adult Tegu may consume one consistent meal every 2-3 days, depending on its age and size. Younger Tegus eat more often due to their faster metabolic rates.
Even more interesting is Tegus’ dietary change as the reptiles get older. Baby and juvenile Tegus have an almost exclusively carnivorous diet, while older reptiles tend to switch more to the omnivorous side, incorporating more fruits and veggies into their diets.
This can have several explanations, including the reptiles’ metabolic changes and their increased difficulty in hunting live food as they age.
Captive Diet of Tegu Lizards
Tegus’ captive diets should mimic their natural ones as much as possible. However, and this is a big ‘however,’ not all Tegus will exhibit the same feeding pattern.
Some reptiles, especially captive-bred ones, will prefer almost exclusively carnivorous-based foods. Animal-sourced foods are simply tastier and more nutritious for them than fruits and veggies.
It’s not uncommon for some Tegu owners to report that their lizards refuse anything that isn’t meat. Sure, their reptiles have a varied diet, but only in terms of animal protein.
This can be a problem because Tegus require a varied diet with plenty of vitamins and minerals to remain healthy physically and mentally.
This means that most captive-bred Tegus also require careful food supplementation to prevent nutritional deficiencies and improve their quality of life overall. We’ll discuss this point in more detail shortly.
Feeding Techniques and Tips
Now that you’ve got your Tegu, you should consider the critical steps necessary to feed the animal properly over the years. There are several of them to write down, including:
Preparing the Food
While Tegus aren’t exactly pretentious about their food items, you should be. You need to prepare their food properly to prevent complications during or after eating.
The life food should be of proper size, according to your Tegu’s size and eating capabilities. If the food is frozen, unfreeze and thaw it before serving for ease of consumption.
When it comes to veggies and fruits:
- Make sure that they are fresh and ripe
- Peel fruits that require it and thoroughly wash those that don’t
- Source the fruits and veggies from trustworthy sources to ensure their quality
- Make sure that the foods haven’t been contaminated with various chemicals, including pesticides and insecticides
More importantly, don’t feed your Tegu fruits and veggies collected from the wilderness, even from your backyard. These tend to be contaminated with various chemicals, many of which are airborne.
This is even more likely if you live in an urban or suburban area.
Learn your Tegu’s feeding frequency to prevent overfeeding and underfeeding. Both of these issues come with their unique side effects, including nutritional deficiencies, excess weight gain, leading to difficulty moving, Metabolic Bone Disease, heart problems, etc.
Tegus have a varied and progressive feeding chart, depending on the animal’s age.
Here are the main recommendations:
- Hatchlings – 0-6 months old – Daily meals, no exception. The meals should consist of 90% animal protein and no more than 10% fruits and veggies.
- Juveniles – 7-12 months old – Almost daily meals. You can skip one day per week, depending on the case. The nutrient table should be identical in terms of protein and plant-based nutrients.
- Subadults – 1-3 years old – 3-4 meals per week (one meal every other day for the most part.) Subadults require a diet consisting of 60-70% animal protein, 20-30% veggies, and fruits to cover the last numbers.
- Adults – Over 3 years of age – 2-3 meals per week at most. The meals should be 50-60% animal protein, with the rest consisting of veggies and fruits.
It’s important to note that the feeding frequency and meal profile differ wildly between the different Tegu species.
For example, Colombian Tegus eat a lot more protein as adults, up to 90%, compared to Argentinian Tegus, which only requires 60% protein.
Some Tegus may also eat more often than others, depending on their genetic predisposition and activity level.
The feeding amount also varies drastically between the different specimens based on their age and size.
As a general rule, the ideal meal size is equal to the lizard’s head. But this depends on the type of food your Tegu is getting and its overall activity level and appetite.
You should always start with the golden rule and go from there. If your Tegu appears unsatisfied with the amount of food it’s getting, take it up a notch. If the lizard leaves a lot of food leftovers behind, decrease the portion size accordingly.
You will become accustomed to your reptile’s meal and feeding preferences with time.
Offering a Balanced Diet
This is where many Tegu owners fail because these lizards require a varied and nutritious diet with many food items.
You can’t feed your Tegu 2-3 food items consistently and expect it not to experience nutritional deficiencies with time. The ideal Tegu diet should include numerous food items that you should be cycling through daily and weekly.
A well-rounded and healthy diet also includes vitamin and mineral supplements according to the animal’s nutritional requirements. This is why I recommend discussing your Tegu’s diet with a specialized vet or reptile nutritionist beforehand.
The main concern is calcium and vitamin D3 deficiency, which can lead to severe health problems, culminating with MBD.
We’ll discuss the risks and dangers of Metabolic Bone Disease shortly.
Overfeeding is a recurrent problem among reptiles, probably even more widespread than nutritional deficiencies overall. That’s primarily because of these animals’ slow metabolisms, rendering them unable to eat too much or too often.
This doesn’t mean they won’t try. Feeding your Tegu too often or providing it with too much food at once can lead to obesity and the entire range of health issues stemming from that.
You will soon observe your Tegu gaining significant weight, which will impact the animal’s normal functioning. The reptile won’t move as much, will stop climbing stuff, and may appear lethargic because of the extra weight it’s carrying.
Soon, it will also begin to experience additional health issues, including difficulties breathing and popping.
Most importantly, don’t rely on your lizard’s inputs when setting up the right meal size and frequency. Or, at least, take your Tegu’s behavior with a grain of salt, is what I’m saying.
Tegus can be quite voracious and greedy, and they might eat more than they’re supposed to. Speak to a vet about your Tegu’s ideal meal size and frequency to make sure you don’t overfeed or underfeed the animal.
Provide Clean Water
Tegus need a source of clean and fresh water 24/7. This is necessary to keep themselves properly hydrated, for which air humidity isn’t enough. Tegus also require a soaking spot, if possible, to keep themselves clean and well-hydrated.
So, consider a larger water bowl, large enough to accommodate a 3-5-foot-long lizard.
As you can see, there are quite a handful of aspects worth discussing when it comes to proper Tegu feeding. And we have more coming.
Food Tegus Should Not Eat
Believe it or not, there are probably as many foods that Tegus shouldn’t eat as there are those that they should.
Here are some good examples to consider:
- Oxalate-rich veggies and fruits – There are quite a few to name here, including spinach, tomatoes, concord grapes, strawberries, broccoli, carrots, and many others. The reason why oxalates are so dangerous is that they neutralize calcium present in food, as well as in the reptile’s organism. This can accelerate the animal’s calcium deficiency, setting the stage for Metabolic Bone Disease.
- Foods with low nutritional value – These include items like celery, cucumber, lettuce, corn (too low in calcium, too high in phosphorus), etc. In essence, there isn’t anything particularly wrong with these foods, except for the fact that they have poor nutritional value. In other words, the lizard will consume foods that don’t benefit it from a nutritional standpoint, which will eventually translate to nutritional deficiencies.
- Goitrogen-rich foods – There are as many goitrogen-rich foods as are those rich in oxalates. These include spinach (again), bok choy, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, peaches, and many others. Goitrogens are essentially chemicals that block the absorption of iodine in the body. This leads to thyroid dysfunction, causing swelling of the neck (the goiter effect) and several other health issues.
- Raw meat – It may sound weird that I speak against raw meat for Tegus since raw meat is such a staple food for them. However, raw meat is known to carry a lot of bacteria and parasites that could infect your reptile. I’m not saying you should remove raw meat completely from your Tegu’s diet, but exercise caution. Sure, Tegus consume raw meat frequently in the wild. This is one of the reasons why they’re sickly and live shorter lives than those in captivity.
- Toxic foods – I’m thinking specifically of plants like lilies, azaleas, and daffodils, which are toxic to Tegus and reptiles in general.
- Dairy products – Tegus are lactose intolerant; feeding them dairy products will facilitate diarrhea and other digestive issues. This applies to all reptiles, not just Tegus.
- Citrus fruits – No oranges, lemons, or other citrus fruits. These are highly acidic and will cause digestive problems.
- Highly processed foods – Keep your Tegu away from foods like junk food, sweets, potato chips, or other food items high in salt, sugar, and artificial additives. Sure, your Tegu will happily eat them, but this doesn’t mean that they should. The same applies to humans.
I suggest writing down a list of the main foods that your Tegu can and can’t have for a plus of control and safety.
Challenges Feeding a Tegu
As a first-time Tegu owner, you have several challenges to consider from a feeding perspective, such as:
- The costs – Tegus require a varied diet with multiple food items for you to cycle through constantly. This can increase the feeding costs considerably, especially if your Tegu is consuming more meat regularly. We also include here the time and efforts spent to plan, acquire, and prepare the lizard’s meals, which are considerable, given the animal’s diet diversity.
- Pretentious lizards – Tegus have technically the same dietary needs but not the same dietary preferences. This is where things become more subjective and uncertain, as some Tegus may have wildly different meal preferences than others. For instance, some Tegu owners have reported their reptile pets as only consuming meat-based foods. This is especially true for Colombian Tegus, which prefer more meat in their diets. And then you have some Tegus simply preferring different food items overall compared to other Tegus.
- Digestive issues – This is an umbrella term for a multitude of problems, including constipation, impaction, diarrhea, internal parasites, etc. Digestive problems are often the result of inadequate diets, poor enclosure husbandry, insufficient water, spoiled or contaminated food, and the list goes on. Tegus aren’t particularly sensitive to digestive problems, but they aren’t impervious either. If your Tegu vomits, shows signs of diarrhea, or doesn’t poop as much as it should, contact your vet for more in-depth analysis and diagnosis.
- Nutritional deficiency – Nutritional deficiencies are almost strictly dietary-related. In other words, you’re either not feeding your Tegu enough, or you’re not providing the right foods. And then you have the Tegu itself not eating what it should, further exacerbating the problem. When it comes to reptiles in general, the notion of ‘nutritional deficiency’ refers primarily to calcium and vitamin D3 deficiency. But Tegus can lack a variety of other nutrients like vitamins from the B complex, iron, manganese, vitamin A, phosphorus, etc.
All of these issues can be easily avoided by doing your research beforehand. Learn what Tegus need on a regular basis, provide yours with fresh and nutritious food, and adjust to the lizard’s preferences.
More importantly, if you have a picky lizard, always consider supplementation as a must-have.
Tegu lizards are quite voracious but pretentious reptiles too when it comes to food.
They can consume a lot of food and require a varied diet to remain healthy and in peak condition.
Keep in mind that Tegus qualify as pretentious reptiles, so you should set your expectations high.