Today, approximately 3,000 species of Lizards are known to exist throughout the world, from northern Sweden to the southern tip of South America. Lizard species vary greatly in size; the Virgin Islands Dwarf Gecko (Sphaerodactylus parthenopion) from the West Indies rarely exceeds a total length of 3.75cm, while the famous Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodensis) can grow to over 3m. In fact, in terms of distribution, appearance, habitats and habits, Lizards are more diverse than any other group of Reptiles. The recent explosion in the human population, however, has put extreme pressure on wild populations of all reptile species. Habitat destruction, fragmentation, pollution and the introduction of domestic animals, Cats, for example, or vermin, such as Rats have combined to threaten their success. Although some species have adapted to these changing times and are able to colonise these new man-made habitats, other populations have declined dramatically and in many unfortunate cases species extinction has been the ultimate outcome!
On the plus side, people are now taking more of an interest in Reptiles, putting aside historical misconceptions and fears. The fact in the wild Lizards play a beneficial role, controlling harmful insect populations and reducing incidence of disease or crop destruction, or are an important part of the food chain, forming the main part of the diet of other animals, for example, has led to the increased awareness of the need to conserve these remarkable animals. The ‘craze’ to keep exotic or unusual animals has become ever more popular, in recent years the improvements in technology and our scientific understanding has meant that the keeping of Lizard species in captivity in a domestic setting is now more viable than in the past. Because of the threats to wild Lizard populations and bans on certain exports, as well as the increased demand for captive animals, there has never been a better time to care for and breed these fascinating animals. This section hopes to outline the basic captive maintenance and requirements for keeping Lizard species as pets; including Buying, Handling, Housing and Feeding.
In the last 10 years the numbers of companies selling Lizards, general pet shops, specialist dealers, internet and mail order companies – has been estimated to have increased fourfold in Western Europe and the United States, making a decision about where to buy your Lizard can therefore be the first dilemma. I would always recommend buying a Lizard from a specialist shop or dealer. This will mean that although specialists don’t generally an overly wide range of animals for sale, they will be more likely to sell strong and healthy animals and quality equipment and be able to offer sound advice on all aspects of a Lizards care. A specialist will also be able to offer educated advice on which species would most suit your particular situation or experience. Wherever you buy your Lizards, or any animals for that matter, make sure they are kept in good, clean, suitable conditions and that they are not overcrowded. In general, I cannot recommend buying animals through mail order or online, although the prices may seem cheap, the conditions the animals are kept in and the quality of the animals you will receive is always a gamble, not to mention the welfare concerns. That said some internet companies do provide a quality service. Before buying any animal, you must do three things, RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH! Ensure you know everything there is to know about your chosen species, the research may even change your mind of which Lizard you will ultimately buy. Some species are best avoided by inexperienced keepers, some may be expensive, short-lived, highly aggressive or difficult to care for. Joining a local herpetological society or internet forum will give you access to an excellent source of information about keeping Lizards. When buying a Lizard, some general points should be considered. A healthy Lizard should appear alert and be generally eager to avoid capture. It should be well-fed but not overweight. Its skin, mouth, eyes, limbs and digits should be in good condition and free from deformities or parasitic infection. Always quarantine a new Lizard before adding to an established group for around six to ten weeks, to reduce the chance of spreading disease. If you’re buying more than one specimen try to choose Lizards of roughly equal size in order to reduce potential bullying or cannibalism. When choosing a Lizard consider the fact juvenile or sub-adult individuals generally adapt better to new environments than mature Lizards, but are harder to sex accurately.
Although it is very tempting, generally speaking, you should handle your pet Lizard as little as possible. Lizards can be easily stressed and damaged when incorrectly handled. There may however be times when it is unavoidable, such as when you clean them out, treat them for a disease, or clip their nails for instance. It is particularly important to avoid handling Lizards when they are sloughing their skins or gravid (pregnant), they are likely to be more irritable and aggressive, and there is an increased chance of hurting the animal. When handling small or medium Lizards (<60cm) it is important to remember that they are agile and fast so care should be taken to not allow them to escape. Once safely and carefully captured, the best way to handle a Lizard is place the thumb and forefinger of your dominant hand around its neck, applying sufficient pressure to restrain but not suffocate it. Lay your palm along the Lizard’s back and the remaining three fingers around the belly and hind limbs. Use your other hand to stabilise the tail by gently holding the base. For Larger Lizards (>60cm) handling can be more difficult, due to their greater size and strength. Hold the Lizards head with your non-dominant hand and the tail with your dominant hand, or in the case of particularly strong individuals restrain the tail between your legs. Avoiding the strong whipping tail, strong bite and claws of larger specimens may mean that leather gloves and thick clothing maybe a requirement when handing larger Lizards.
Lizards are normally housed in vivariums. These range from essentially simple glass jars to large and elaborate display tanks. The species you keep will decide which set up is suitable for you. The aim is to provide the animal with an environment in which is can behave naturally and does not become stressed or unhealthy. It is possible to choose from a wide range of vivariums especially designed for Lizards, these are available online or from your local pet shops and dealers, or you could with research design and build your own. Some are made entirely of glass, while others have a glass ‘viewing’ front and solid sides. I prefer the vivariums with solid sides, as some more nervous species can feel more secure when not overly ‘exposed’ by the 360 degree of glass. Vivariums come in a variety of sizes, and can be furnished range of materials to meet your species requirements, with real or artificial plants, a burrowing substrate, and rocks for example. The vivarium should be sited in a light position, but never in direct sunlight to avoid overheating. Lizard vivariums, dependent on species being housed and the climate they are kept in, should be equipped with time controlled lighting, thermostatically controlled heaters and humidifiers. A good reliable thermometer should be an essential piece of vivarium equipment to ensure the correct temperature is being maintained. Good heating and lighting in a vivarium will ensure your animal stays healthy, stimulate appetite and invigorate reproductive activity. Ultraviolet light is particularly important for Lizards as it plays an essential part in the mobilisation and synthesis of vitamins and minerals. Good hygiene is an important part of preventing disease and infection in captive Lizards, therefore vivariums should be clean out at least every 7-10 days. This entails washing or replacing the substrate, and disinfecting any decorative objects and water bowls etc. On a day to day basis all faeces, shed skin, and uneaten food should also be removed.
To maintain your Lizard in good health you must give it a well balanced diet that will provide it with all the essential elements that are present in its natural diet in the wild. Some species are notoriously difficult to feed and are best avoided by the inexperienced keeper. How much and what to feed your pet Lizard is dependent on their size and species. In general, Lizards can be divided into five groups when it comes to feeding:
1. Specialist Feeders
These animals only except one form of food, for example the Caiman Lizard (Dracaena guianensis) which only feeds on freshwater snails. In general these animals are difficult to keep in captivity, although some can be trained to eat other food stuffs, especially if it is very hungry, this is not always successful. As I have mentioned I believe an animal should be free to express natural behaviours, part of this includes feeding, due to the specialism of these animals I think they are probably unsuitable to be kept in a domestic setting in the majority of cases.
The majority of smaller Lizard species are insectivores, feeding primarily on insects. Insects and other invertebrates are widely available at reasonable prices in pet shops and other stockists. There are also a number of species available, Crickets (Acheta domestica), Locusts (Locusta migratoria), Fruit Flies (Drosophila melanogaster) and Mealworms (Tenebrio molitor), meaning a more interesting and varied diet for your Lizard can be created.
Carnivorous Lizards, especially larger specimens, generally require a more substantial meal than just insects. Small rodents, chicks, eggs, fish and tinned dog food can be offered dependent on the species. When feeding food that has been frozen it is important to ensure is has completely defrosted and come up to room temperature, otherwise it can be harmful.
Herbivorous Lizards also require a well balanced diet, so ensure a range of different fruits, vegetables and other greens are available. Make sure all food is as fresh as possible and washed to ensure that commercial fertilisers and pesticides do not harm your pet.
Omnivorous Lizards eat a combination of plant and animal based food. The ratio between plant and animal based foods being dependent on the species involved. Ensure a range of different food stuffs are available to the Lizards to make sure they remain healthy.
Vitamin and mineral supplements are also available in liquid, powder and tablet form especially formulated for Lizards to help ensure a balanced diet is given to them to maintain their health, and growth and breeding potential.
Water is essential, both for Lizards to drink and to provide humidity in a vivarium for some species. In most cases, water should be provided in a shallow bowl to avoid drowning. Although species that enjoy bathing will require a suitably larger water container.