Caiman lizards (Dracaena spp.) are 4-5’ long, diurnal, semi-aquatic lizards native to South America. They prefer a tropical rainforest habitat, and typically inhabit swamps, marshes, flooded woodlands, and other forested areas near bodies of water.
Caiman lizards have a crocodilian appearance which inspired their common name: blunt triangular head, prominent brow ridges, a stout body and limbs, bumpy skin, a laterally-flattened tail, and long toes with sharp claws. Caiman lizards’ coloring varies depending on the species. Dracaena guianensis has a green body and a reddish-orange head, while Dracaena paraguayensis tends to be more of a uniform olive or brown color.
Caiman lizards are not easy animals to keep as pets, which is one of the reasons why they’re not very common in the hobby. They’re large, are sensitive to poor husbandry, and vary in tameness. However, when kept with patience and dedication, they can be very rewarding. With good care, a caiman lizard can live 10+ years.
Minimum terrarium size for caiman lizards:
The absolute minimum enclosure size for a single caiman lizard is 8’L x 4’W x 6’H. This may seem huge, but keep in mind that these are large, active lizards that need opportunities for both climbing and swimming within their enclosure. Of course, if you can manage it, larger is always better!
Housing multiple caiman lizards in the same enclosure is not recommended.
Do caiman lizards need UVB?
Yes! Caiman lizards require UVB lighting for their survival. UVB lighting helps provide a clear day/night cycle, provides all of the vitamin D that your pet needs, strengthens the immune system, facilitates better digestion, and other benefits. Here are the best UVB bulbs for caiman lizards housed in a 8’x4’x6’ enclosure:
For best results, house the UVB bulbs in a reflective fixture. Position the lamp on the same side of the terrarium as the heat lamp. If the UVB is mounted over mesh, place the basking branch 12-13” below the lamp. If the UVB is mounted inside the enclosure, place the basking branch 20-22” below the lamp.
They are also likely to benefit from plant grow lights as part of their environment as well. Add a ~6500K LED or T5 HO fluorescent grow lamp to provide extra illumination, as well as help any live plants in the enclosure to thrive.
Lights should be on for 11 hours/day during winter and 13 hours/day during summer to simulate seasonal changes in day length. All lamps should be turned off at night.
Best temperature for caiman lizards:
Caiman lizards should have a basking surface temperature of 120-130°F, as measured by an infrared thermometer. The air temperature around the basking area should be between 80-90°F, and between 70-80°F on the cool side, as measured by a digital probe thermometer.
Provide heat for your caiman lizard with a cluster of halogen heat bulbs placed above the basking branch. You will need enough lamps to evenly heat an area at least the size of the caiman lizard’s body. Halogen bulbs are the best way to imitate the warmth of sunlight indoors, and considered to be a superior form of reptile heating by experts. Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective.
Best humidity levels for caiman lizards:
Caiman lizards are a tropical species, so the humidity inside their enclosure should be fairly high: 70-80%, and no lower than 60%. Humidity should be measured via digital probe hygrometer, with the probe placed in the middle of the terrarium.
Increase humidity by misting your caiman lizard’s enclosure 1-2x/day with a large pressure sprayer or automatic misting system. Mist first thing in the morning and then again at night if needed. If you need more help maintaining humidity, install a cool mist humidifier connected to a humidistat.
Caiman lizards are semi-aquatic, so they need more than just humidity to meet their water needs — they also require a pool of water that is deep and large enough for them to dive into and swim around in. This means that it should be at least 12” deep, and occupy 1/2 to 1/3 of the enclosure’s floor space. The water should be kept heated to ~78°F with an aquarium heater rated for the volume of water in the pool.
Your caiman lizard’s pool water will need to be changed once weekly or whenever it gets spoiled. Give the pool a good scrub with disinfectant before refilling. Using a siphon (or better yet, a powerful mechanical water pump) and a hose will make maintaining your lizard’s pool faster and easier.
Best substrate for caiman lizards:
Although caiman lizards spend most of their time either in the trees or in their pool, they do occasionally spend time at ground level. Providing a layer of naturalistic substrate (“bedding”) in the enclosure will help maintain correct humidity, cushion your lizard against falls, provide a digging medium, and also help make your enclosure more attractive!
We recommend the following substrates for caiman lizards:
Layering clean, chemical-free leaf litter on top of the substrate can help with humidity as well as add enrichment value.
Substrate should be at least 6” deep and completely replaced every 3-4 months. Remove poop and urates daily, along with any contaminated substrate.
How to decorate a caiman lizard enclosure:
An empty enclosure makes for a bored caiman lizard, reducing its quality of life. Keep your pet entertained and engaged with its environment with the strategic use of décor items that encourage it to exercise natural behaviors!
Since caiman lizards are both arboreal and aquatic, at bare minimum you will need a large, sturdy branch for them to bask on and a sufficiently large pool for swimming. However, it’s best to include other items, such as:
- more branches
- live or artificial foliage
All climbing branches should be securely anchored into the walls/floor of the enclosure to prevent collapse.
Training and designing enrichment activities are also good ways to help keep your caiman lizard engaged, as well as provide a nice opportunity for bonding!
What to feed to a caiman lizard:
Caiman lizards are carnivorous, which means that they require a whole animal-based diet to get the nutrition that they need. How often they need to eat depends on life stage: Caiman lizards younger than one year should be fed daily, but after that point they should be fed just 2-3x/week. Each meal should be slightly smaller than the lizard’s skull.
The key to providing a healthy, balanced diet for your caiman lizard is VARIETY. Here are foods that are appropriate for a caiman lizard to eat:
- snails (captive-bred only)
- dubia roaches
- whole fish (tilapia, salmon, pollock)
- frozen rodents
Young caiman lizards are more likely to be interested in insects than adults.
Fruits such as banana, mango, papaya, and berries can be offered as an occasional treat.
You will also need calcium and vitamin supplements to help keep your caiman lizard healthy. We recommend Repashy Calcium Plus LoD, lightly dusted on all foods except whole prey. It’s okay to occasionally skip a dusting.
How to handle your caiman lizard:
Reptiles generally don’t appreciate petting and handling in the same way that dogs and cats do. Regarding caiman lizards specifically, they vary in their tolerance of humans. Some tame down well, while others prefer to be left alone.
If you want to build a trusting relationship with your pet caiman lizard, you will need to develop a foundation of positive interactions. Offering food from feeding tweezers works well as an initial bribe, and it’s best to get the lizard to come to you rather than simply grabbing it.
Here are some more tips for success:
- Don’t grab the lizard from above. Instead, scoop from below.
- Support as much of its body as possible.
- Start with short handling sessions at first, then gradually make them longer.
- Put the lizard back in its enclosure only when it’s calm.
*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please further your research with high-quality sources. The more you know, the better you will be able to care for your pet!