Savannah monitors are stunning reptiles that many people dream of owning. But due to their size, the requirements for their enclosure and habitat are usually a bit too inconvenient for them to manage.
This guide will cover all you need to know about savannah monitor care. You’ll learn about their size, diet, lifespan, enclosure setup, and much more!
Table of Contents
Savannah monitors (Varanus exanthematicus) are a species of large carnivorous reptiles. They’re native to sub-Saharan Africa and typically live in deserts or woodlands.
While there are many different types of lizards in the monitor genus, savannahs are among the most popular in the pet trade. Compared to other monitors, this species is more docile and easy-going. They’re friendlier to humans with proper socialization.
Even still, caring for a savannah monitor can be a handful. These lizards have distinct care requirements, and their large size can be demanding for inexperienced reptile keepers.
But if you have some experience, raising a savannah monitor can be a great experience. Not only are they a joy to have around, but the lizard’s sheer size and appearance can make these critters the centerpiece of your home.
Appearance & Colors
Like other monitors, savannahs are large and stocky reptiles. These animals are built for the rough environments of sub-Saharan Africa! They look intimidating and are far stronger than your average gecko or iguana.
There are a handful of different subspecies within the savannah monitor family, so there are slight variations in appearance. However, they all have a similar body type.
This species is large-bodied. They have slightly thicker necks than a similar African lizard, the Tegus. Overall, the monitor’s neck is short. The same goes for its tail.
The midsection is usually the fattest part of the lizard. Meanwhile, the tail is strong and muscular.
To get around, savannah monitors have strong legs with agile fingers. Like other lizard species, they grow sharp claws they can use for digging.
Savannah monitors are strict ground dwellers, so you won’t see them climbing trees.
The head of the monitor is wide and stout. The nose is fairly blunt, but ridges on the top of the head create a nice slope down to the nose and mouth. Vibrant eyes of red, yellow, or brown sit on either side of the dome.
When a savannah monitor opens its mouth, you’ll see a deeply forked tongue in blue.
For color, most savannah monitors are grayish-brown. Many lizards have yellow or tan-colored spots along the back. The same color accents the tail as rings around its diameter. On the lizard’s belly, the skin is usually lighter and gray-colored.
Expert Tip: There is no sexual dimorphism with savannah lizards. Males and females look nearly indistinguishable, so it’s best to seek help from a veterinarian or skilled herpetologist for sexing.
If you want a savannah monitor, be prepared for the long haul! These lizards have a similar lifespan to dogs, living around ten years. The average lifespan for most savannah monitors is eight to twelve years.
However, some can live far longer, reaching 15 years old.
How long your savannah lives depends on many factors, and there is no way to guarantee life expectancy. Everything from the quality of care you provide to genetics comes into play. The best thing you can do is give the best care possible to keep your monitor as healthy as possible.
One of the most challenging aspects of caring for a savannah monitor is accommodating its large size. While not the largest monitor in the pet trade, this species still gets surprisingly big.
A full-grown savannah monitor is between three to four feet from the snout to the tip of the tail. They can tip the scales at 13 pounds when mature!
This species is also a fast grower. You might get your savannah monitor as a juvenile when it’s a foot or less long. But by the time it reaches four years old, it’ll be at or close to its full mature size.
Savannah Monitor Care
Savannah monitor care requires considerable attention and time. While these lizards are considered much easier to manage than other monitors, thanks to their easy-going nature, that doesn’t mean that keeping them healthy is a walk in the park.
Savannah monitors are not a beginner-friendly species. But if you have some experience with reptiles, you can follow our care guidelines below to learn everything you need to know about keeping these unique animals happy and healthy.
Let’s start with the first hurdle you must overcome when caring for a savannah monitor: Its enclosure. Because these lizards are so big, a standard terrarium will not do. You need something big enough for the animal to live comfortably.
Young hatchlings and even small juveniles can live in standard commercial terrariums. Freshly born monitors can live in a typical 55-gallon aquarium. But as they get older, you’ll likely have to make or custom order an enclosure.
How big does it need to be? A good rule of thumb is to create a home with dimensions twice as big as the length of your monitor. So if you have a full-grown savannah, you’ll need a terrarium around eight feet long!
Experienced reptile enthusiasts typically recommend getting an enclosure around eight feet long, four feet wide, and at least three feet tall. You won’t find a stock terrarium of that size, so you may have to get creative or spend substantial money getting someone to make one for you.
A savannah monitor’s enclosure needs to be plastic or glass. Low-cost plexiglass is a great middle ground. Open enclosures or homes with wire walls won’t do because they can’t retain heat and humidity like glass or plastic.
Fortunately, you don’t have to worry too much about height. These lizards are not arboreal and will spend most of their time on the substrate. They’re also relatively inactive, so you don’t need a massive enclosure with space for running.
What To Put In Their Habitat
Once you have a properly sized enclosure, you’ll need to start filling it with items that mimic the monitor’s natural habitat. These lizards are from sub-Saharan Africa, typically in rocky deserts and woodlands.
Start with a layer of substrate material. You have a few options here.
The easiest substrate to use is a newspaper or reptile carpet. Many reptile enthusiasts recommend easy-to-clean materials like newspapers for rowdier monitors. Whenever your lizard makes a mess, cleaning is simple and doesn’t require much time.
But if you have a more docile monitor, you may want to consider using something more organic. In those cases, reptile-safe substrates and organic topsoils work well.
Savannah monitors are diggers. They love to burrow and relax in the soil, so using soil-based substrates whenever possible is always a good choice. Be wary: You’ll need a lot of it! If you’re using soil, create a one- to two-foot thick layer.
Avoid any material that has large chunks. For example, never use rocks or pebbles. While the lizards are used to living among rocks, having them in captivity could pose a choking or impaction risk.
Expert Tip: Consider creating a dig box if you choose to use newspaper or reptile carpet. Depending on the size of your enclosure, you can use a small kiddie pool or a plastic container that’s big enough for your reptile to crawl in. Add about two feet of soil, and your savannah monitor has a dedicated place for digging.
Beyond the substrate, you must add enrichment items that comfort your lizard. Anything that they would encounter in their natural habitat is worth adding. Good options include climbable rocks and a few branches.
While savannah monitors don’t usually climb trees, they may get onto branches whenever they want to bask and get closer to the light. More on that later.
It’s also a good idea to include a hide box. You can purchase one made of plastic or create your own with a large cardboard box or cork bark. The hide box should be big enough for your lizard to fit their entire body into.
Temperature & Lighting
After establishing their enclosure and habitat, you must optimize the temperature. Here’s another challenge of raising a savannah monitor. Recreating the Sub-Saharan climate in a captive habitat takes work.
Fortunately, it’s doable with some guidance and vigilance.
For light, savannah monitors need about 10 to 12 hours of full light every day. It helps to maintain their circadian rhythm.
It’s not just a standard lighting rig you need. These lizards also need UVB light that mimics the rays of the sun.
Whether or not savannah monitors need UVB light to survive is still up for debate. Some argue that it’s a complete necessity. Others say that standard lights will do just fine.
Whatever the case, you can’t go wrong providing it. Lizards with UVB exposure have a much lower risk of developing conditions like metabolic bone disease. While you can combat those risks with a proper diet, UVB light exposure is like another layer of protection.
Set your lights on a 12-hour timer. You can install an infrared night lamp to view your lizard at night.
Your lighting rig will affect the enclosure’s temperature. Invest in a few digital thermometers and install them on both sides of the enclosure.
Like other reptiles, savannah monitors are cold-blooded. Therefore, they need to move around to thermoregulate. That means you’ll have to create a temperature gradient within the enclosure.
On the cooler end of the habitat, temperatures can be around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. They have no problem accepting “cool” temperatures around 90 degrees or more. These lizards are hardy and adaptable.
You should always monitor the temperature, but rest assured that your lizard will be fine if you keep things within the 80-degree range.
At night, temperatures on the cool end can drop to as low as 75 degrees Fahrenheit. However, you must install head emitters or under-tank heating pads if your climate falls below that when the sun goes down.
For the opposite hot side of the enclosure, temperatures can be around 95 degrees.
Then, you must install a basking lamp on one spot of the tank. The light should cover a focused area of the habitat. It can be in one corner, on a raised basking shelf, etc.
The lamp itself needs to be above the enclosure to prevent burning. During the day, it can raise temperatures in the basking area to 120 degrees. Your lizard will venture to that area whenever they are cold and need to warm up.
Humidity is another factor of savannah monitor care to consider. Luckily, these lizards aren’t as picky as other reptiles.
They come from desert environments with very little moisture in the air. Therefore, you don’t have to keep things super humid as you do with jungle-dwelling creatures.
That said, installing a hygrometer and staying on top of humidity levels is wise. Sudden changes can be disastrous for your lizard’s health, so maintenance is key.
Roughly 50 to 60 percent relative humidity is what you should aim for.
Beyond that, many reptile keepers recommend misting the substrate twice or thrice daily with clean water. The moisture levels of the substrate matter more than what’s in the air, especially if your monitor burrows regularly.
You can mist the tank manually or install automatic misters to make this task hands-off.
Finally, you need to install a water dish.
Savannah monitors don’t always lap up water to stay hydrated. However, your lizard will use the dish in other ways.
They can soak in the water to soften the skin. Some even use the water bowl as a place to defecate.
Use a large water dish that your lizard can easily crawl into. Many owners use cat litter boxes or shallow plastic containers.
Keep an eye on the water conditions throughout the day. Spot clean messes and replenish the water regularly to avoid bacterial problems and health issues.
Savannah Monitor Food & Diet
Thanks to their large size, savannah monitors have big appetites. Weight gain can be an issue with this species, so you must be careful about how much you feed them.
In the wild, these lizards are opportunistic eaters. They’ll eat whatever they can, including insects, rodents, and more.
Captive savannah monitors do best on a controlled diet of rodents and insects. You can feel your lizards:
- Dubia roaches
- Pinkies and fuzzies (feeder mice)
All insects you provide must be properly gut-loaded. Buying your insects from a pet store or reputable breeder is best. Never feed your monitor something you catch in your backyard. Gut-loaded insects you purchase are much healthier and have a lower chance of parasites.
You should also dust your insects with calcium and multivitamin powder. Supplement powders prevent metabolic bone disease and ensure your monitor gets the necessary nutrients to thrive.
Typically, juveniles need to eat every day. Meanwhile, adults can eat as little as two or three times a week.
If your monitor’s enclosure has soil, consider feeding them in a separate substrate-free habitat. These monitors can take time to eat. They need to sense the food with their tongues, so give your lizard plenty of time to eat their meals.
Potential Health Issues
Two major issues affect savannah monitors, and they are obesity and metabolic bone disease.
Obesity comes from overeating. These animals live relatively sedentary lifestyles (especially in captivity), so overfeeding can become a problem.
We recommend working with a vet to determine how much food you need to provide. Keep track of your lizard’s weight and adjust as necessary to maintain a healthy weight range.
Metabolic bone disease is a condition that causes the bones to become fragile and deformed. It can cause considerable pain and frequent fracture injuries.
The best way to avoid the condition is to use a UVB lamp throughout the day and dust all feeder insects in calcium supplements.
Other health issues are possible, but savannah monitors are hardy enough to stay fairly healthy. The best thing you can do is maintain the tank conditions and clean frequently.
Keep tabs on environmental conditions to avoid major fluctuations. Spot clean messes as they occur and perform a deep clean every month to keep bacterial problems at bay.
Behavior & Temperament
Reptile fanatics love the savannah monitor for its docile nature.
Of course, the lizard’s experiences will dictate how calm and friendly it is. But those raised in captivity and receive proper socialization tend to be docile around humans.
Expert Tip: Their behavior toward monitors is different. In the wild, these lizards live alone unless they’re mating. Never keep more than one monitor together in the same enclosure. Otherwise, there will be fighting.
Throughout the day, savannah monitors spend their time lounging around. You may see your lizard burrowing in the substrate. Sometimes, they may bask in the heat or climb onto decor.
But outside of that, these reptiles are relatively calm. They’re not rowdy or super active, so you shouldn’t worry about unruly or destructive behavior.
Savannah monitors tolerate handling well. However, you must work your way up to handling by building trust.
These lizards can get aggressive if they get scared. They have teeth, and they will deliver a painful bite!
To avoid that, socialize your monitor at an early age. Visit your lizard every day until it recognizes your presence.
When you lift them from the cage, approach your lizard from its front side. Avoid sudden movements and support the monitor’s entire body when you raise them. Support their weight and allow them to settle in your arms.
Pay attention to their body language. If you notice any signs of stress, put them back into their enclosure immediately. Signs of aggression or anxiety include hissing, snapping, opening its mouth wide, and whipping its tail.
If you think you’re up to the challenge, savannah monitor care isn’t something you should be afraid of. As long as you’re able to provide these lizards with enough space and a proper habitat, they should thrive in captivity.
Let us know if you have any thoughts or questions about the information in this guide. We’re always happy to help.