How to Care for Your Spiny Tailed Iguana

Spiny-Tailed Iguana Care Sheet

Spiny-tailed iguanas (Ctenosaura sp.) are a group of semi-arboreal lizards found in Mexico and Central America. Their preferred habitat is generally hot and dry, such as tropical dry forests, desert areas, and rockland.

Spiny-tailed iguanas’ specific appearance varies based on species. They can be 10” long or 4’ long, and patterning is distinct to each species. However, all spiny-tailed iguanas have a row of prominent spines down the length of their tail (thus their common name).

Spiny-tailed iguanas are generally intermediate- to advanced-level pet reptiles due to their large potential size and how it can sometimes be difficult to find specific care information. However, with good care, they may live 20 years or more.

Each Ctenosaura species has slightly different care requirements, but they’re similar enough that certain generalizations can be made. However, it’s best to do additional research on your specific Ctenosaura species of interest before moving forward.

Minimum enclosure size for spiny-tailed iguanas

The absolute minimum enclosure size for larger spiny-tailed iguanas is 8’L x 4’W x 6’H. Smaller species can be kept in a minimum of 3’L x 1.5’W x 3’H. Of course, if you can manage it, larger is always better!

Housing multiple spiny-tailed iguanas in the same enclosure is not advised.

Do spiny-tailed iguanas need UVB?

Yes! Spiny-tailed iguanas require access to UVB light to survive in captivity. UVB lighting helps provide a clear day/night cycle, supplies all of the vitamin D that your pet needs, strengthens the immune system, facilitates better digestion, and provides other benefits.

If you are housing your spiny-tailed iguana outdoors in an appropriate climate, then artificial UVB lighting is unlikely to be required. However, if you are housing your iguana indoors, then you will need artificial UVB lighting.

Here are the best UVB bulbs for spiny-tailed iguanas:

  • Arcadia Desert 12%
  • Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO 10.0

For best results, the bulb should be roughly half the length of the enclosure and housed in a reflective fixture like the Arcadia ProT5 or Vivarium Electronics. Position the lamp on the same side of the enclosure as the heat lamp. The UVB lamp should be mounted inside the enclosure, with the basking platform placed so the lizard’s back will be 17-18” below the lamp.

Spiny-tailed iguanas are sun-lovers, and likely to benefit from bright grow lights as part of their environment. 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 spiny-tailed iguanas

Spiny-tailed iguanas should have a basking air temperature around 106°F, as measured by a wall-mounted digital thermometer placed near the basking site. Temperatures in the rest of the enclosure can vary between 75-85°F, and can drop as low as 70°F at night. It is best to place another digital thermometer on the cool end of the enclosure to get a good idea of your temperature gradient.

Provide heat for your rhino iguana with a cluster of halogen heat bulbs placed above the basking platform. You will need enough lamps to evenly heat an area at least the size of the iguana’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. 

Heating should be turned off at night. If your home gets cooler than 70°F at night, use a radiant heat panel connected to a thermostat to boost ambient temps.

If you are housing your rhino iguana outdoors in an appropriate climate, then supplementary heating is unlikely to be required.

Best humidity levels for spiny-tailed iguanas

Although spiny-tailed iguanas are native to a fairly tropical area, they actually don’t need much in the way of ambient humidity. They should be fine with misting each morning from a large pressure sprayer or automatic misting system.

Best substrate for spiny-tailed iguanas

Providing a layer of naturalistic substrate (“bedding”) in the enclosure will help maintain correct humidity, cushion your iguana’s body, provide a digging medium, and also help make your enclosure more attractive! 

We recommend the following substrates for spiny-tailed iguanas:

Substrate should be at least 6” deep and completely replaced every 3-4 months. Some spiny-tailed iguanas like to dig and burrow, so deeper may be needed. Remove poop and urates daily, along with any contaminated substrate. Removed substrate should be replaced with clean material.

How to decorate a spiny-tailed iguana enclosure

An empty enclosure makes for a bored 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!

Here are some ideas to get your started:

  • hideouts/caves
  • sturdy branches
  • ledges/platforms
  • large hollow logs
  • live, edible plants

Training and designing enrichment activities are also good ways to help keep your iguana engaged, as well as provide a nice opportunity for bonding!

What to feed to a spiny-tailed iguana

Spiny-tailed iguanas are omnivorous, which means that they need both plant and animal matter in their diet. For a healthy, happy iguana, it’s also best to provide as much dietary variety as you can! 

Juvenile spiny-tailed iguanas should have daily access to a mixture of leafy greens, vegetables, and fruits. Insects should also be offered every other day, no larger than the iguana’s head.

Adult spiny-tailed iguanas should have a similar diet, but with insects only offered as treats rather than a regular part of the diet.

Leafy greens for iguanas: dandelion greens, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, escarole, watercress, endive, chicory, chard, kale, spinach, bok choy, cilantro, parsley

Other vegetables for iguanas: green beans, snap peas, okra, parsnip, yucca root, bell peppers, carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, squash

Fruits for iguanas: figs, dates, papaya, mango, cactus fruit, berries, kiwi, apples, bananas, grapes, nectarines, pears, melon

Insect options: crickets, dubia roaches, discoid roaches, silkworms, hornworms, mealworms, superworms, grasshoppers


You will also need calcium and vitamin supplements to prevent your lizard from developing a deficiency. Use Repashy Supercal LoD dusted on all feeder insects, and Repashy Superveggie lightly dusted on all salads.


You will also need an appropriately-sized water bowl to help keep your iguana well hydrated. Change the water at least twice a week and scrub the bowl with a reptile-safe disinfectant weekly, or whenever it becomes soiled.

How to handle your spiny-tailed iguana

Reptiles generally don’t appreciate petting and handling in the same way that dogs and cats do. Captive-bred spiny-tailed iguanas generally tame down well, but it still takes patience and persistence to build a bond with this pet.

If you want to build a trusting relationship with your pet rhino iguana, you will need to develop a firm 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. 

If you need to pick up your spiny-tailed iguanas, here’s how to do it: Don’t grab the lizard from above. Instead, scoop from below. Then support as much of its body as possible. Getting your iguana accustomed to being picked up will make things easier for situations when it’s necessary.


*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!

"ctenosaura similis" by Bernal Saborio G. (berkuspic) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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