If you’re a reptile or a lizard fan specifically, the Tegu lizard is probably among the top animals you would choose as a pet. Tegu lizards are notorious for their size, behavior, easy-going demeanor, and intelligence, but are they pet material?
More importantly, are they difficult to keep, and how should you care for one? So many questions but so little time. So, allow me to assist in this sense.
Today, we’ll discuss Tegu lizards in more detail to shed some much-needed light on one of the most popular reptiles in the world.
Pros and Cons of Owning a Tegu
All reptiles (hell, all pets) have their own pros and cons, depending on the animal and your expectations and resources.
The same goes for the (in)famous Tegu. So, let’s see what we’re dealing with:
- Smart lizards – Tegus are very intelligent animals, capable of a variety of unexpected behaviors. This includes recognizing and bonding with their caretakers, which is what makes Tegus so beloved in the reptile trade. You can even teach them simple tricks that they will remember and perform for treats.
- Long lifespans – Tegus can live up to 20 years or more in captivity, which is pretty much standard among giant reptiles. This is due to their slow metabolism, which decreases the animal’s aging considerably. Such a long lifespan will essentially elevate the Tegu to the status of a family member over the years.
- A varied diet – This can be both a minus and a plus, depending on your expectations, available time, and resources. In other words, you can feed your Tegu a variety of foods and now worry about running out of a particular food item.
- Size – Again, the reptile’s size can be a plus and a minus, but we’ll consider it a minus for today because we’re primarily looking at the difficulty of care. Tegus can reach approximately 5 feet, which is average by reptile standards; some snakes can get to 20 feet or more. But it’s quite impressive by lizard standards. This means that Tegus require a lot of space, and we’re not talking about a terrarium.
- The difficulty of care – Tegus are fairly demanding, requiring specific environmental conditions, strict diets, and constant care and socializing to remain tame and well-behaved. This makes them unfit choices for inexperienced keepers and rather difficult ones for expert ones.
- Aggression and territoriality – Tegus tend to be calm and friendly, but they are wild animals, after all. They are known to exhibit aggressive tendencies at times, especially during mating season, when stressed, or when unfamiliar with their keepers yet. They also possess sharp teeth and considerably biting force, making them a real threat to humans.
- Legality issues – Tegus aren’t legal to own and keep in all states, and they are heavily regulated in others. This can make it difficult to own one, depending on where you live.
There may be more pros and cons that I could’ve thrown in, but these are the basics. Overall, I would say that there are slightly more cons than pros when it comes to owning Tegus, but that’s without considering the sheer pleasure one draws from keeping such a massive lizard. Because that pleasure alone may overcome all of the cons with ease.
So, don’t let this list stop you from choosing whatever you see fit.
If I were to compare Tegu lizards with other reptiles like bearded dragons and ball pythons in terms of care requirements, Tegus are definitely trickier and more demanding.
So, you should only invest in a Tegu if you’re already an experienced reptile keeper with sufficient knowledge about reptile behavior, requirements, and risks.
Legal Considerations for Tegu Ownership
If you’re thinking about getting a Tegu, you should first assess the following aspects:
- Legal status – Is the lizard even legal to own in your area? If not, that most likely means importing or acquiring the lizard legally is impossible. The same goes for keeping it as a pet.
- Permit or license – Some states and countries allow Tegus as pets but require you to get a special permit or license first. And you may only get one once you prove your qualifications in the field of reptile keeping in the first place.
- Import laws – Even if the previous 2 points don’t apply to your region, or you’ve checked them off the list, you still have to consider the particular import laws that apply to your state. Many countries have strict import laws and regulations regarding the import of exotic animal species. Make sure you comply to avoid fines and even the possibility of having your lizard confiscated.
- Necessary quarantine – Some countries and states have quarantine laws in place. In other words, your Tegu may be quarantined for a period of several days to several weeks before being allowed to enter the country. The reasoning is that exotic animal species can carry various pathogens that could affect the local fauna.
- Specific regulations – Even if the Tegu’s legal status is green, you’ve acquired the necessary permits, and gone through the quarantine phase, you still need to abide by specific regulations regarding the overall care. The goal is to protect Tegu lizards against improper handling and keeping practices, and these regulations are quite widespread when it comes to exotic animals in general.
As you can see, the situation is considerably more colorful and complex than you might have guessed. This is part of why Tegus are fairly difficult to manage in captivity.
Tegu Care Requirements
So, you’ve overcome all of the legal requirements and milestones necessary for acquiring and getting in possession of a Tegu. Now what? Well, now you need to get yourself acquainted with the lizard’s standard requirements.
As a new Tegu owner, you want to provide your Tegu with the best care possible to boost its quality of life and lifespan.
Here are the main areas of concern:
Enclosure Size and Setup
Tegus are large, active, and curious lizards, so they need sufficient space to stay active and healthy. Consider an enclosure that’s at least 8 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 4 feet tall.
This is the absolute minimum for an adult Tegu, although you can always go bigger if you have the room for it. These lizards are smart and love to patrol and inspect their habitat daily.
Regarding the overall setup, not much is necessary. Although Tegus qualify as semi-arboreal, they rarely climb anything. Add some rocks for variation and maybe a hiding area in case the animal needs some alone time, and that’s about it.
Make sure that the enclosure is properly ventilated to keep the lizard comfortable and manage temperature and humidity with ease.
I recommend using sturdy materials when creating the Tegu’s habitat. These are large and powerful reptiles that tend to poke at their habitat’s walls to play or investigate when bored.
Aim for PVC, glass, or melamine, and make sure that the lizard cannot break, dislodge, or climb the material to escape the enclosure.
Substrate and Enrichment
One thing you should learn about Tegus, and that’s the fact that they are burrowing lizards. This can create a vast list of challenges, given the lizards’ impressive sizes.
So, you need a fitting substrate to satisfy your Tegu’s need for exploration, comfort, and digging. Aim for a mix of coconut coir, cypress mulch (the best option, in my view), a mixture of soil and sand, or any other substrate that is considered safe for Tegus.
Don’t use sand alone, as this will irritate your lizard and lead to severe health issues, including respiratory or digestive nature. Aim for a substrate depth of 4-6 inches, depending on your Tegu’s size.
When it comes to the various enrichments, tread carefully. Avoid sharp objects that could hurt your massive and clumsy lizard, and opt for decorative elements like branches, leaves, caves, and flat rocks.
Tegus aren’t excellent climbers, but they don’t mind conquering some mild heights occasionally. It will keep them entertained and in good shape, mentally and physically.
Temperature and Humidity
Tegus require a specific temperature gradient, which is natural for reptiles in general.
In essence, the lizard’s enclosure should be divided into 3 main areas:
- Cold area – 75-80 °F
- Hot area – 90-95 °F
- Basking area – 100-110 °F
You may notice that there are some intermediary temperature values missing from the picture. Those are transitionary values that link one area to the next.
So, the lizard’s temperature gradient should vary smoothly from one area of the enclosure to the other. This allows the Tegu the freedom to migrate between the different regions to regulate its body temperature properly.
Humidity levels should remain between 60-80% for the most part, which is ideal for adequate hydration and digestion. Feel free to adjust any of these parameters based on your Tegu’s preferences.
Lighting and Basking Bulbs
Tegus need 2 types of light sources: a UVB light and a normal one for heating (basking light). The UVB light should fall into the 10-12% range, depending on your Tegu’s physiological requirements.
These lizards demand UVB radiation for proper calcium metabolization and vitamin D production. Without that, Tegus can experience low bone density due to calcium deficiency, which can degenerate into Metabolic Bone Disease.
MBD is deadly in advanced stages and has no cure, so it’s not fun.
The basking light is also necessary to ensure proper heat, preferably in the 100-110 F range. The basking light should occupy 30% of the enclosure’s entire surface at most.
Diet and Feeding
Tegus are some of the most adaptable species of reptiles in terms of feeding and food preferences.
These lizards qualify as opportunistic scavengers and predators because they can both hunt, scavenge, and steal food from other animals with relative ease. There’s almost nothing they won’t eat, so long as it’s nutritious and they can digest it.
Some of the foods that the Tegu will accept include:
- Insects and invertebrates (crayfish, crickets, roaches, silkworms, earthworms, frogs, snails, waxworms)
- Meat (seafood, fish, turkey, beef, liver, heart, and other organs from various animals)
- Fruits (cherries, cantaloupe, blueberries, mango, papaya, kiwi, pumpkin, watermelon, etc.)
- Veggies (radish, green beans, asparagus, bell peppers, butternut squash, dandelion greens, zucchini, mustard greens, etc.)
You can also feed your Tegus various supplements and lizard-specific canned food, depending on your and your lizard’s preferences. Keep in mind that Tegus may require calcium and vitamin D3 supplementation, so discuss the issue with your vet.
The situation varies when it comes to feeding frequency and meal size. Tegus tend to eat once every 2-3 days as adults and up to once per day as juveniles.
That’s because juveniles have more active metabolic rates and digest the food faster. In terms of meal size, the ideal portion should be no larger than the Tegu’s head.
Stick to these standard rules to prevent overfeeding.
Hygiene and Maintenance
Tegus are fairly messy animals compared to other lizards. There are several reasons for that, including their varied diet, leading to a bunch of food leftovers, the pooping frequency, and the soiled substrate. These require daily cleaning to keep the lizard’s habitat safe and healthy.
Once every 2 months, you should perform generalized cleaning, removing the substrate and disinfecting the entire area.
The goal is to eliminate bacteria, viruses, fungi, or mold growth that can lead to skin and respiratory infections.
Health Problems of Tegus
Tegus can experience a variety of health issues, but they’re not particularly sensitive to any condition.
Instead, they risk the same health issues that most reptiles struggle with, such as:
- Respiratory infections – These are the result of improper temperature and humidity or dusty substrate, causing the lizard to inhale harmful particles daily. Respiratory infections can become deadly when untreated and depending on the cause of the problem.
- MBD – Metabolic Bone Disease is triggered by severe calcium deficiency, but other factors can play a role in it as well. Poor genetics is one of them. MBD starts off slow but progresses fast and has no cure.
- Parasites – These can be external or internal, and they each produce different symptoms and effects. They can even stress the lizard or cause anemia and other health issues that can aggravate it even further.
- Bacterial infections – These tend to result from improper living conditions, poor enclosure husbandry, and injuries that get infected. Bacterial infections necessarily have to do with dirty enclosures and lack of enclosure cleaning and maintenance, so keep that in mind.
Other health issues may diverge from improper care, like inadequate diet, insufficient space, constant stress, and so on. In other words, Tegus’ quality of life depends on the living conditions, diet, and overall lifestyle in captivity.
Equipment for Tegu Lizards
Tegus require the standard equipment that’s necessary for most reptiles in captivity. This includes a UVB bulb, a basking light, a humidifier, a thermostat, a humidity gauge, and any other component that can help you control, assess, and monitor reptiles’ environmental parameters.
Consider adding a water dish to the enclosure so that the Tegu can drink whenever necessary. Make it large, as the reptile may prefer to soak in it occasionally. Tegus tend to do that to cool off and clean themselves of dust, dirt, and maybe mites.
Cost of Buying and Owing a Tegu
Fortunately, Tegu lizards won’t suck your wallet dry. These reptiles are fairly affordable, with prices revolving around $200 for most specimens. Some get cheaper, and others may double in price, depending on numerous variables.
- The lizard’s size and age
- The competition in the area and the general price range in your local market
- The lizard’s morph if that’s something that interests you
If you’ve decided to invest in a Tegu, though, bear in mind that acquiring the lizard requires considerably upfront work and preparation. You can’t just get the first Tegu you come across and call it a day.
Here are some tips to consider:
- Always set up the enclosure first – You already know that Tegus can reach 3-5 feet and weigh around 10-12 pounds or more. They are also fairly active and powerful and can exhibit some climbing behavior occasionally. So, the enclosure needs to be sufficiently large, sturdy and customized to the lizard’s natural preferences. Check this off the list before getting your Tegu.
- Verify the seller and the product – Never settle for the first seller or the first Tegu you’re getting. If you’re really pretentious about your purchase, and you should be, prioritize private sellers over common pet shops. When it comes to private sellers, always verify the seller’s background, expertise, and popularity. Also, assess the Tegu itself and check its health status, appearance, and behavior (some Tegus are friendlier and more tamable than others).
- Understand what you’re getting yourself into – There’s no denying that keeping a reptile is generally more demanding than you would think. There’s also no denying that keeping Tegus is more demanding than caring for many other reptiles. But we’ll discuss this in more detail in the following section.
Tegu Behavior and Interaction with Humans and Other Pets
Now, let’s take a look to the behavior of tegus and how they interact with humans and other animals kept as pets.
Tegus are very intelligent and can develop tight bonds with their handlers, which is atypical in the reptile world.
Reptiles are generally known as cold-blooded, both literally and figuratively, in the sense that they cannot express or even experience any meaningful emotions. Most snakes and lizards are widely indifferent to their owner’s affections and will only accept your touch because it’s warm.
Tegus are different, though, as they seem capable of actual bonding. They can recognize their owners, become tame with time, and even enjoy being petted and cuddled. They can even play with you once you get to know each other better.
This being said, Tegus remain wild animals, no matter the degree of taming. So, you should always exercise caution. These lizards are large, strong, and possess sharp teeth that they’re not afraid to use when scared, stressed, or uncomfortable.
Learn your Tegu’s behavior, and don’t overdo your interactions if the lizard appears uncomfortable and would prefer some alone time.
This is a lot sketchier than the first section. Tegus are predators, and they tend to behave as such toward other animals. Especially smaller ones like cats, small dog breeds, and other mammals, birds, or even reptiles.
They may not always attack, as Tegus can exhibit social behavior in general. So, they might play with the pet until something happens that triggers the lizard’s predatory instincts.
It could be anything like how the animal is moving, its smell, or maybe the Tegu bites it by mistake, and it draws blood.
So, I would say that Tegus are definitely not pet-friendly. If you do want to introduce them to your pet, always be present to monitor the situation and intervene if necessary.
Real-Life Examples of Tegu Ownership
Tegus have been owned by a variety of people and still are, but not without some bumps along the way.
The following document explains quite clearly the ups and downs of owning a Tegu, especially the challenges that may arrive along the way.
- Getting a wild-caught Tegu – This is definitely not recommended because wild-caught adults, or even juvenile Tegus, cannot be tamed. They won’t recognize their owners, will exhibit extreme defensive and offensive behavior, and may experience stress and poor quality of life in captivity. Not to mention, wild-caught Tegus can be infected with a variety of parasites, bacteria, and diseases that turn them into contagious hotspots.
- Purchasing an adult Tegu – Even if you decide to get a captivity-bred Tegu, you still need to go for a baby, not an adult lizard. The Tegu needs to grow by your side and become accustomed to your presence gradually over time. An adult Tegu will be less likely to tolerate your presence and bond with you over the years.
- Unstable behavior – No matter how tame they are and how much you’ve bonded with them, Tegus will always remain wild animals. Some owners experience this volatility themselves, as their Tegus sometimes exhibit aggression and irritability seemingly out of nowhere. Fortunately, it doesn’t last much, and Tegus are unlikely to become extremely aggressive. But it doesn’t hurt to be wary of their behavioral shifts.
- Different personalities – Just because you read about many Tegu owners having the time of their life with their lizards doesn’t mean that that will be your case as well. Tegus are different individuals with distinct personalities, which means you should expect different experiences. Some Tegus are easier to tame than others, while others are smarter and cuddlier than some. Choose your spirit animal carefully and ask the seller for additional information about the lizard’s behavior, personality, and overall vibe.
- Dietary differences – Tegus are usually omnivorous, but they qualify as predominantly carnivorous. This has led to some Tegu keepers encountering some problems along the way. One of them is the fact that their Tegu refuses any type of veggie or fruit. They eat animal protein exclusively, which isn’t necessarily bad. If that’s what your Tegu prefers, that’s what you should feed it. Just keep an eye on the lizard’s nutritional input to make sure it’s safe from nutritional deficiencies. Supplementation may be necessary to avoid that.
Interestingly, many Tegus are pet-friendly and have no issues playing with cats and dogs peacefully. But don’t take this tendency for granted.
If you’re interested in assessing the Tegu’s behavior more in-depth and reading a professional’s long and colorful experience with one, consider the following link.
As a closing note, keep in mind that Tegus qualify as an invasive species in many US states. This means you are completely forbidden from releasing them into the wild.
These large and powerful reptiles can devastate the local fauna and flora with relative ease. Because of this, you may not even be allowed to breed your Tegus in captivity in some areas.
There’s no denying that Tegus are amazing exotic animals that require specialized care to thrive. A well-kept Tegu can live up to 12-15 years in captivity, with some even reaching 20 years.
That aside, be wary of the fact that these lizards aren’t your typical dogs, despite matching them in size. These are still wild animals that can be unpredictable in the right circumstances.
An interesting note here: Tegus aren’t as popular as other reptile pets due to their increased difficulty of care.
So, if you manage to get and tame one successfully, share your story so others can learn from it.