The best types of pet lizards are suited to their keeper and get great care... and it starts here!
Lizard Information and Care
There are all sorts of lizards kept as pets. With approximately 3800 distinct species of lizard, it is not surprising that there are so many types of lizards available as pets.
You'll find a wide variety of lizards at your pet store to choose from. You may also find a few lizards running around in your back yard, in an open field or woods, or just about anywhere that there is a natural outdoor environment.
The characteristics of lizards are fascinating and diverse. They range from a tiny 1" (3 cm) up to 11 feet (3.5 m) or more. Most of these animals are very agile, but some are nervous and quick while others are have a calm and relaxed nature. Instinctive aggressiveness runs the gamut from lizards that always bite, to those that occasionally bite, to others that seldom or never bite.
Along with size and behaviors, each type of lizard also has its own unique needs and care requirements. Lizard types range from those that are great for beginners to those that need an experienced keeper.
So take a little bit of time looking at and learning about the different types of lizards and then choose the right one for you.
- Lizard characteristics
Lizards come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, colors, temperaments, and habits. These characteristics vary some with each lizard species.
- They range in size from 1" (3cm), like the tiny gekkonids to 11 feet (3.5m) or more in the Komodo dragon, the largest lizard.
- The smallest lizards have a lifespan of about 3 to 5 years, medium sized lizards range from about 5 to 15 years, while large lizards can live upwards of 20 years.
- All lizards have two lungs, unlike some snakes which have only one lung, and amphibians which breathe through their skins as well as through lungs.
- The lizard skin structure is a thick horny layer. It provides them protection from heat, dryness and sunlight.
- Lizards molt or shed their skin. They generally molt in patches on an ongoing basis, though occasionally some will shed their whole skin at one time.
- Lizards thermoregulate their body temperature by following the sun. As "sunseekers", they seek out warmth for hunting and digesting and choose cool hiding places when they are too hot.
- Lizard movement
Lizards are very agile, with strong limbs and tails. Each type of lizard has movements that correspond to its habitat and instinctual behaviors.
- Climbing lizards
Many lizards are great climbers, even able to walk across walls and ceilings. They have muscular wiry legs, and they are great jumpers.
- Ground lizards
Ground lizards are often heavy with short legs and short stumpy tails. There are some ground lizards that are so terrestrial, that their bodies are snake-like. These lizards use a wriggling or swimming motion for forward movement. They have very little development in the legs, and there are even some lizards with no legs at all.
- Lizard tail
Lizards use their long tails to orient their direction, especially seen in climbing lizards. The lizards trunk and tail often work together in a lateral body and limb movement for a forward and jumping motion.
Some lizards will use their tail as a means of defense or will practice autotomy where they simply shed it. The tail will regrow, though usually it will be shorter and not as elegant at the original tail.
- Social behaviors of lizards
Lizards don't need companionship unless you are breeding.
- Lizards don't get lonely and are not by nature social creatures.
- Most lizards are territorial, owning their own piece of turf
- Putting two lizards together causes stress and can keep them from feeding properly.
- Occasionally lizards of the same size that don't fight can be put together. But lizards only see other lizards as competition for food, and often territory, so they are unwelcome.
- Separate means better quality care for each lizard and better environmental control.
Understanding your lizard's characteristics will help you determine what type of cage or enclosure your pet will need. Your pet's housing is what provides its sense of security. For different types of cage and terrarium setups see Reptile Care: Types of Terrariums. Also check on the guide describing your particular lizard to find its particular housing needs.
- Cage supplies and requirements
- Size - What is the lizards size?. A lizard needs to stretch out to full length and be able to move around.
- Cage top - The enclosure needs a secure, escape proof top or access opening.
- Ventilation - Good ventilation and air circulation are important to prevent excessive humidity. Humidity can cause bacterial and fungal growth, and these can lead to infections.
- Floor covering - The material on the floor, the substrate, should be absorbent (like bark or rabbit pellets) or else use a reptile carpet. It is not recommended to use gravel, stones, soil or dirt as they are hard to keep clean. Provide sand in a plastic box for burrowing lizards.
- Decor - Keep the decor simple and suitable for the type of lizard you are housing.
- Hiding Place - All lizards need a hiding place of some sort. A climbing limb with vining, a bark slab, a piece of splinter-free driftwood, a box or a ceramic log placed on the cool side of the cage, all these can work well as hiding places.
- Plants - Plants are fine for some lizards, but not so good for large ground dwelling lizards like monitors.
- Water - There must to be fresh water for the lizard to drink and occasionally bathe in.
- Cage heating and lighting
For most lizards that are not nocturnal, you will need full spectrum lighting 10 to 12 hours per day so they can absorb and utilize calcium and vitamin D.
Heating is essential for lizards. Below a certain temperature the lizard's body simply does not work. Above a certain temperature their bodies will go out of control. Either extreme will kill a lizard. Each type of lizard has its own temperature requirements.
Lizards have a temperature sense controlled by a gland located under a special scale on the top of their head called a "third eye". The lizard will move from area to area to regulate itself, this is called "behavior thermoregulation".
See Reptile Care: Terrarium Supplies for more about lizard cage requirements and supplies, along with in-depth lighting and heating information.
Lizard Food and Feeding
Lizards are commonly insectivores with some of the larger species being partially or totally vegetarians. Their digestive systems are designed to eat whole animals for a complete diet.
- Good food sources include crickets because they contain very little chitin (the shell or indigestible exoskeleton in insects). Mealworms can be offered occasionally, though they are not as good because they have more chitin than meat. This can eventually block the lizards gut if this is the only food they are offered. Soft larvae foods like waxworms and butterworms, pinkies for larger lizards, and occasionally a good quality, meaty dog or cat food are also good choices.
- Bright green and yellow vegetables and various fruits are good, even offered occasionally to the confirmed insectivore lizard. Iceberg lettuce is not recommended due to its lack of vitamins and food value, only providing mostly liquid and some fiber.
- It is very difficult to duplicate a lizards natural diet, so in captivity we need to add vitamin and calcium supplements to prevent deficiencies.
- Provide your pet lizard with a bowl of fresh water daily, or water that drips on plant leaves for those who need to lick up dew drops.
See Reptile Care: Diet for more complete feeding information.
Sexing lizards can be difficult with many species. This can involve either sexing with a probe or using an internal endoscope, and should be done by a professional. A blood test can also be done but they are not always reliable
There are a few distinctions that may be found during breeding with some lizards that can be used as guidelines.
- Males usually have brighter coloration on their heads and more ornamentation.
- Males often have larger pores along the legs just above the anus and the edges of the anus are more swollen.
- Males may be stimulated by a higher temperature and the scent put off by a female.
- Males will show themselves off to interest their mate and often appear to become violent, biting and butting the female. Generally the female is not hurt, though sometimes she can be.
Once they mate, the eggs are fertilized internally. The textured shell protects the developing infant from dehydration. Some species give live birth where the egg is held in the females body until they hatch. Other species lay clutches of eggs. The young emerge from the eggs as miniature adults rather than in a larval stage. They are immediately ready to be on their own!
Also, see each individual lizard's care guide for their breeding information.
Where to Find Lizards
Beginner lizards are generally available and inexpensive. You can find lizards for sale at a pet stores, from a breeder, and online. You can also collect lizards where allowed.
Wild caught lizards are seasonal due to their breeding times and can be difficult to adapt to captivity. Captive bred lizards, though more expensive, are generally easier to get. Captive bred lizards are generally healthier than wild caught lizards, they adapt easily to cage conditions, and they are relatively parasite free.
Lizards as Pets
People have a variety of reactions to reptiles, ranging from absolute intrigue and fascination, to varying degrees of distaste. Lizards, along with turtles and tortoises, are the most widely favored groups of reptiles. But no matter which type of reptile it is, their interesting appearances and behaviors makes them a fascinating group of animals.
- Why Lizards make good pets
There are a wide variety of lizards to choose from for a pet. If you are willing to learn about lizards and take good care of them you will find them to be amazing pets. As your skills and knowledge increase, you will gain an even greater appreciation of these incredible animals that are so different from ourselves.
- Lizards make ideal pets because they can take up a relatively small amount of space and their care is not particularly time consuming or expensive.
- They are not very noisy or messy, and they don't have to be fed everyday.
- Lizards are as different in their personalities and nature as people are. They can be very intelligent and have the ability to learn. For example if a lizard escapes it will often return for its food, and if recaptured it will remember how it escaped and do it again.
- Lizards can also get used to a routine. You may find that after keeping your pet for a while and maintaining a regular feeding schedule, it can become very excited when you come to feed it. Lizards demonstrate their awareness with excitement.
- Is a lizard pet right for you?
Keeping a pet lizard requires a commitment to thoroughly research their care requirements. Be sure to learn about the lizard you are interested in to determine if it is the right pet for you. Here's some facts about lizards that should be considered before deciding on this type of pet::
- Beginners do best starting with those species that stay small, are easy to care for, and are quite hardy.
- Reptiles in general are not affectionate, cuddly pets and lizards are no exception.
- Each lizard has its own personality, even if you get a species that generally enjoys being handled, your particular lizard may not.
- Many species of lizards are comfortable with handling, yet there are others that will stress easily.
- Lizards that are prone to stress can be more difficult to maintain and keep healthy.
- Some lizards are not suitable for handling at all, so are kept as visual pets. These may deliver a very painful bite when agitated or frightened.
- Many pet lizards are very demanding in captivity, and those should kept by advanced keepers with plenty of experience.
- What's the best type of lizard?
When deciding which lizard is for you, think about what type is best suited to you. Considering each of these basic questions will help narrow down the lizard selection to those species that best fit you:
- How much do you want to spend?
- How much space do you have for it?
- What type of disposition do you want in your pet?
- How hardy is it and how easy is it to feed?
- What color, shape and size do you want?
- How long will it live?
- Is the lizard you want readily available?
Note: Many reptiles are protected so check with authorities in your area on laws governing your reptile selection.
Choosing a Pet Lizard
There are a number of good lizards that make excellent pets for beginners, and many more for those that become advanced keepers. No matter what your skill level however, there are a few primary factors to consider when selecting any pet lizard. In all cases, captive bred lizards are better choices than wild caught specimens. Wild caught lizards tend to be more stressed, are more difficult to tame, and may have parasites or diseases.
How easy or hard a lizard is to depends on the individual characteristics of each species, but also depends on the keepers level of commitment. Types of pet lizards are grouped as beginner to advanced according to size, ease of care, personality, and handleability, as well as availability and the costs associated with setup and maintenance.
- Beginner Lizards
These pets are generally recommended as great lizards for any beginner. They are small to medium in size, easy to care for, have a docile demeanor, are easy to handle, and are relatively inexpensive to buy and maintain.
- Leopard Gecko Eublepharis macularius
The Leopard Gecko is one of the most popular pet lizards and one of the top choices for a beginner. They are small. easy to care for, and are available in many colors and patterns. They have a friendly personality making them easy to handle. They require a small tank and don't need special UVB lighting. They are insectivores, so need regular feeding of crickets, waxworms, and mealworms.
- Crested Gecko Rhacodactylus ciliatus
The Crested Gecko is quickly becoming a favorite pet lizard. It is another good choice for a beginner that is easy to care for and docile. Like the Leopard Gecko, they are available in many pleasing colors. They also require a small tank and don't have any special heating or lighting considerations. They are insectivores, so need regular feeding of crickets, waxworms, and mealworms.
- Fat-tailed Gecko Hemitheconyx caudicinctus
The African Fat-tailed Gecko is a cute little beginner lizard, with a brown body sporting darker broad bands and a light stripe running along the top of its back. It is very similar to the Leopard Gecko, being easy to care for and handle. They also require a small tank and don't need special lighting. They are insectivores, so need regular feeding of crickets, waxworms, and mealworms.
- Bearded Dragon Pogona vitticeps
Bearded Dragons, affectionately known as "beardies" make a great choice for a first pet lizard. They range between 14 - 24 inches in size, but are friendly, docile, and willing to be handled. They are easy to care for but due to size, need a relatively large tank, and they do need UVB lighting. They are omnivores, so require both proteins and vegetation. They will eat crickets, waxworms, and mealworms and need fresh greens on a regular basis.
- Spiny-tailed Monitor - "Ackie" Varanus acanthurus
The Spiny-tailed Lizard, commonly called "Ackie" by hobbyists, is a prettily red colored dwarf monitor. They range between 16 - 26 inches in size and active, but are usually easy to tame and handle. They also are easy to care for but due to size, need a relatively large tank, and they do need UVB lighting. This lizard is a carnivore, and will feed on insects, spiders, snails and other protein foods.
- Blue Tongued Skinks Tiliqua spp.
Blue Tongued Skinks are popular pet lizards characterized by their colorful cobalt blue tongues. They can get good sized, up to 24 inches, but are generally docile and adapt well to handling. They are fairly easy to care for but due to size, they need a pretty large tank and they do need UVB lighting. These lizards are omnivores, so feed on a variety of insects, snails and other protein foods as well as wildflowers and fruits.
- Beginner Lizards - Specialized
These lizards make good pets for the beginner, but have more specialized considerations than those listed above. They range widely in size, from small to fairly large, and are basically easy to care for. But some of these lizards can be easily stressed with handling and are best observed from a distance, and not handled. Others need to be adapted to held regularly when young to have a handleable pet as an adult. In cost, they range from inexpensive to moderately inexpensive to buy and maintain.
- Green Anole Anolis carolinensis
The Green Anole, also called the "American Chameleon" is a very common and very inexpensive lizard. They are quite small, ranging from 5 - 8 inches in length. But these are high-strung, nervous little critters. They stress easily, so should not be handled on a regular basis. Due to their small size, they don't need a large tank, but they do need need UVB lighting. They are insectivores, so need regular feeding of crickets, waxworms, and mealworms.
- Green Iguana Iguana iguana
The Green Iguana is perhaps one of the most popular pet lizards. That's not surprising because they are extremely intelligent and social, and are very beautiful. But they are also one of the largest lizards kept as pets. These huge lizards grow to between 5 - 6 feet. Housing, food, and maintenance for these large animals is quite expensive. They are inexpensive to purchase as a small juvenile, but the keeper must be prepared for a very large pet.
Due to their enormous adult size, Iguanas require a very large enclosure with controlled heating and lighting. Iguanas make excellent pets, but they require a great deal of time and care, and adult males can become aggressive when in a breeding state. As adults they are herbivores and will eat fruits and vegetables.
- Savannah Monitor Varanus exanthematicus
Savannah Monitors can make good pet lizards for dedicated beginners, especially when obtained as captive bred specimens. These are quite hardy lizards and juveniles are fairly inexpensive to purchase. But they grow very large, reaching 3 - 4 feet, so housing and maintaining them is more costly and time consuming than many other types of pet lizards.
These monitors also have more stringent care and handling requirements than other beginner lizards. They need to be handled when young and then ongoing throughout adulthood to be docile pets. Tamed adults are wonderful pets, but untamed adults can be very aggressive.
Due to their size, Savannah's need a large habitat with controlled heating and lighting, and they need humidity. They also need a lot of food. They are carnivorous, but primarily feed on insects (like crickets), molluscs (like snails), and other crustaceans. They are fed rodents in captivity, but this practice is becoming somewhat controversial as Savannahs are specialized feeders and prone to obesity. Some feel feeding rodents may be a cause of health problems.
- Argentine Black and White Tegu Tupinambis merianae
The Black and White Tegu from Argentina makes a great pet lizard if it is properly socialized. Starting as a juvenile and continuing into adulthood, it requires regular handling. If properly socialized this Tegu will become a calm, docile pet that can even be trained to walk on a leash.
The Black and White Tegu is a large lizard ranging between 3 - 4 1/2 feet as an adult. It is a fairly active too, so needs plenty of room in its enclosure. It needs a very large sized habitat with controlled heat, UVB lighting, and humidity. It is more costly and time consuming to feed and maintain then smaller types of pet lizards.
- Intermediate to Advanced Lizards
Most other lizards are more challenging to keep than beginner lizards. They can make excellent pets, but they range in difficultly to those that are just a bit more stringent in their requirements to those that are extremely touch and difficult to keep. All factors must be considered for each species. Everything from the size of the animal, the proper habitat requirements, handling ease and diet, to the time commitment and expense must be carefully determined and planned for. It takes proper planning and preparation to successfully keep these lizards.
Some of the more common intermediate to advanced lizards are:
The more challenging Agamid species include the Chinese Water Dragon, Red-headed Agama, Spiny-tailed Lizard (Uromastyx), Frill-Necked Lizard, Australian Water Dragon, Ground Agama
Chameleons species include the Jackson's Chameleon, Panther Chameleon, Veiled Chameleon, Graceful Chameleon, Fischer's Chameleon, Indian Chameleon
Some of the more difficult Gecko lizards include the Giant Day Gecko (pictured above), Day Gecko, Golden Gecko, Tokay Gecko,
- Girdled and Plated Lizards
This group includes the Angolan Girdled Lizard, Armadillo Lizard
Monitors and Tegus are fascinating lizards, and there are number of different species available including the Nile Monitor, Blue Tree Monitor, Water Monitor or Salvator Monitor, White Throated Monitor, Spiny-Tailed Monitor
There are several Tegu species besides the Black and White Tegu above, including the Red Tegu and the Gold Tegu
Some favorites in this group include Fire Skink, Five-lined Skink, African Striped Skink
- Swifts and Typical LIzards
These are usually small lizards that are very nervous and fast. These are types of fence lizards like the Eastern Fence Lizard, Western Fence Lizard, and Southern Fence Lizards seen in many rural and urban areas as well as others including the Common Lizard, Collard Lizard, Jeweled Lizard
- Venomous lizards
There are only two venomous lizards, and they are extremely dangerous. If kept in captivity, they should be kept by advance to expert keepers. These two lizards are the Beaded Lizard and the Gila Monster
Handling Your Lizard
Never grab a lizard by the tail. Some lizard practice autotomy this is where they simply drop the tail, or shed it. The tail will grow back, but it will be shorter and never as nice as before. For other lizards whose tails will not break off, like the Bearded Dragon, Savannah Monitor, and Blue-tongued Skink, being grabbed by the tail causes discomfort.
Safe handling is knowing how to pick up a lizard. The best practice is to only handle your lizard when necessary. This is generally when you need to move it to a place where it will get some exercise. Be gentle so as not to bruise or hurt it. Besides not grabbing it by the tail, never pick it up by the head.
The majority of pet lizards are small and incapable of any real harm if they bite. However if you have a lizard that is prone to biting or is large, you can use gloves. Some lizards such as iguanas have sharp claws and can cause deep scratches.
How to pick up a lizard:
- Small lizards
For lizards up to about 7 3/4" (20cm). Grasp by placing your hand over the body and restraining the neck area with your thumb and forefinger.
- Medium lizards
For lizards up to about 19 1/2" (50cm). Grasp with one hand on the section of the lizard where you can straddle across its back at the front legs. Use your other hand to take hold of the hips.
- Large lizards
For lizards over 19 1/2" (50cm). Grab firmly around the neck with one hand and around the waist with the other and pull it into your body under your elbow to restrain the legs and tail. Two people may be necessary for large lizards. They can inflict deep bites and deep scratches with their claws!
Note: Always wash your hands before and after handling!
- Animal-World References: Reptiles, Amphibians, and Land Invertebrates
- John Coborn, Snakes and Lizards: Their Care and Breeding in Captivity . Tetra Press, 1995.
- Richard D. Bartlett, Digest for the Successful Terrarium.Tetra Press, 1989
- David Alderton, Petkeepers Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians. Tetra Press, 1986
- Johann Krottlinger, Keeping Reptiles & Amphibians,.T.F.H. Publications, Inc. 1993