Desert iguanas (Dipsosaurus dorsalis) are medium-sized, diurnal, terrestrial lizards native to the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. They prefer a desert habitat with access to creosote bushes, which is one of their main sources of food.
Desert iguanas are relatively slender but sturdy lizards with a small, rounded head, short neck, and a long tail. They are gray/tan and cream in color, with pale spots and a ringed tail. Males and females look very alike.
Desert iguanas are not common as pets, and have special needs in order to thrive in captivity. They are generally considered intermediate-level pet reptiles. With good care, they are known to live at least 14 years.
Minimum terrarium size for desert iguanas
The absolute minimum enclosure size for a single desert iguana is 36”L x 24”W x 24”H. However, if you can provide larger, your pet will absolutely appreciate and use the extra space!
Cohabiting multiple desert iguanas in the same enclosure is possible if you do it right, although there’s no guarantee that the individuals you choose will get along. Females are most likely to get along, and males should never be housed together. If you choose to cohab, you will need a larger enclosure to make sure each lizard has its own space.
Do desert iguanas need UVB?
Yes! Desert iguanas 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, supports the immune system, facilitates better digestion, and provides other benefits.
The best UVB bulbs for a desert iguana housed in a 36” long enclosure are:
- Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO 10.0, 22”
- Arcadia Desert 12%, 22”
For best results, house the UVB bulbs in a reflective fixture, preferably Arcadia or Vivarium Electronics brand. Position the lamp on the same side of the terrarium as the heat lamp. If the UVB is mounted over mesh, place the basking surface so the lizard’s back is 8-12” below the lamp. If the UVB is mounted inside the enclosure, place the basking surface so the lizard’s back is 14-16” below the lamp. The basking surface should be the closest surface in the enclosure to the UVB lamp.
Desert iguanas are highly stimulated by bright light, so it’s best to install plant grow lights as part of their environment. Add at least one ~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 10 hours/day during winter and 14 hours/day during summer to simulate seasonal changes in day length. All lamps should be turned off at night.
Best temperature for desert iguanas
Desert iguanas need a hot basking surface temperature between 140-158°F, and between 70-85°F on the cool side. Temperatures should be measured via infrared thermometer. For best results, use a flat piece of stone such as flagstone, paver stone, or unpolished stone tile as the basking surface.
Provide heat for your lizard with a cluster of at least two halogen heat bulbs placed above the basking branch. 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.
Heating should be turned off at night to allow for a nightly drop in temperature. Nighttime temps should be no higher than 75°F, and preferably significantly cooler.
Best humidity levels for desert iguanas
Desert iguanas are exceptionally tolerant of low humidity in their environment, and humidity generally isn’t something to worry about too much with this species (unless it’s particularly high, of course). As long as you have a humid hideout or burrow available, they should be fine.
Keep track of the humidity levels with a digital probe hygrometer placed in the middle of the terrarium. Humidity should generally not get higher than 50%. It is beneficial, however, to lightly mist the enclosure each morning to simulate dew.
Best substrate for desert iguanas
Substrate (aka bedding) covers the floor of the terrarium and helps make the enclosure more attractive, but it also helps maintain healthy joints and provides something for your lizard to dig in (which they love to do!)
We recommend the following substrates for desert iguanas:
Substrate should be at least 6” deep (preferably deeper) and completely replaced every 3-4 months. Remove poop and urates daily, along with contaminated substrate.
How to decorate a desert iguana terrarium
An empty enclosure makes for a bored desert iguana, 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 desert iguanas are a terrestrial species that prefers rocky terrain, at bare minimum you will need a flat basking stone and a couple of places for them to hide. However, it’s best to include other items, such as:
What to feed to a desert iguana
Desert iguanas are 85-90% herbivorous, which means that they eat mostly plants. They should be fed as much as they can eat daily, with roughly 80-85% of their diet coming from leafy greens and flowers, and 10-15% of their diet coming from insects. Vegetables should be chopped into bite-sized pieces to help prevent choking.
Provide as much dietary variety as you can manage for balanced nutrition!
Leafy greens for desert iguanas: collard greens, cactus pads, spring mix, arugula, kale, alfalfa, bok choy, carrot greens, spinach, dandelion greens, hibiscus greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, parsley, romaine lettuce, escarole, watercress, clover
Other vegetables for desert iguanas: broccoli, rapini, zucchini, cauliflower, sweet potato, bell pepper, squash, carrots, okra, sprouts, pea pods, green beans, shredded carrots
Edible flowers such as dandelion and nasturtium can also be offered. Desert iguanas especially like the color yellow!
Insects such as crickets, roaches, and darkling beetles can be offered 1x/week.
You will also need calcium and vitamin supplements to help prevent your lizard from developing a deficiency. We recommend Repashy SuperVeggie and Nature Zone Bearded Dragon Probiotics & Prebiotics lightly dusted on all salads. Repashy Supercal LoD should be dusted on insects.
It’s best to occasionally skip a dusting to prevent potential vitamin/mineral overdose.
How to handle your desert iguana
Reptiles generally don’t appreciate petting and handling in the same way that dogs and cats do. Desert iguanas vary in their tameness — some learn to tolerate humans well, while others prefer to be left alone.
If you want to build a trusting relationship with your pet desert iguana, you will need to develop a foundation of positive interactions. Hand-feeding with soft-tipped 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.
- Handle regularly to maintain tameness.
*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!