Tegu lizards are unique reptiles that can be very rewarding to own. Their distinct appearance, enjoyable behavior, and impressive size, these creatures are great pets for the right kind of owner.
The guide below will teach you everything you need to know about tegu care. We’ll cover their diet, enclosure setup, lifespan, size, and more!
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Tegu lizards, often referred to as the mononym “tegus,” are a unique reptile species with a distinct reputation. Despite their large size and somewhat intimidating looks, tegus are one of the most tamable lizards out there.
Tegu lizard pets are capable of forming strong bonds with humans, presenting docile behavior that many compare to a dog. Some owners even report tegus coming to them after calling their name!
Originally from South America, both wild-caught and captive-bred tegus are available. This species is popular among breeders. Unfortunately, their wide availability has led to issues in some parts of the world.
Expert Tip: Tegus are considered invasive in some parts of the world due to unprepared owners releasing them into the wild. These lizards can be a joy to own. But like any other reptile, they require a lot of care and attention to keep.
Types Of Tegu Lizards
Around 2012, tegu lizards went through classification changes in the science community. While many herpetology enthusiasts talk about these reptiles collectively, there are several distinct types of tegu lizards.
They all belong to the same family of lizards, but slight differences in their natural habitat result in unique needs across the board. Here are some of the most common varieties you’ll encounter in the pet trade.
The Argentine tegu is one of the most popular types you’ll find kept as pets. As you can gather from its name, this variety is endemic to Argentina and nearby countries in South America. It first came to the pet scene in 1989.
Thanks to its docile nature, manageable care requirements, and willingness to breed in captivity, the popularity of Argentine tegus has grown significantly!
They’re most known for their signature bead-like skin. The unique texture accompanies a muted tone of black and white. Thick bands of black and splotchy patches of white adorn the skin, creating an eye-catching look that stands out.
Known for their attention-seeking behavior, Argentine tegus care is pretty straightforward. They need a stable home environment to become docile. But once you gain their trust, these lizards are some of the most personable in the tegu family.
Black And White Tegu
Also known as the Colombian black and white tegu, this variety looks very similar to the Argentine lizard. At first glance, they have nearly identical color markings. However, closer inspection will reveal some telltale differences.
First, black and white tegus have smoother skin. It’s not as pebbly or bead-like as the more popular variant. Black and white tegus are also smaller, dwarfing the Argentinian species by about a foot!.
Black and white tegus also prefer warmer environments. They live as far north as Panama, which is far closer to the equator than Argentina. Their natural habitat is much hotter, leading to distinct requirements when it comes to their care.
If you want a variety on the rarer side, blue tegus are the way to go. These lizards have similar skin patterns to the standard Argentine tegu. However, the main difference is the subtle blue tinge their skin takes.
Most blue tegus have less black on their head and body, leaving the light blue hues to shine through. In the wild, these reptiles come from Colombia, La Pampa, Brazil, and surrounding areas.
This type of tegu lizard was introduced to the pet trade differently than others. A handful arrived in a shipment from Colombia. Upon realizing the distinct coloration, they were quickly used for selective breeding.
Blue tegus are smaller than the Argentine variety. However, their needs are virtually identical.
The yellow tegu is one of the rarest types of tegu lizards, and one that you’ll hardly ever see as pets. They come from Brazil and are heavily protected. Currently, the Brazilian government forbids the exportation of this species.
These tegus have vibrant yellow-gold coloration. Black markings cover the face and body, creating a stunning pattern that many reptile enthusiasts dream of seeing every day!
If you see a yellow tegu at a pet store, it’s likely not the real thing. Some stores sell gold tegus in place of the yellow variety. They have similar yellowish coloration, but they’re nowhere near as vibrant as the true yellow tegu.
The average tegu lifespan is about 10 to 15 years. In rare instances, they can even reach 20 years old!
Like any other reptile, there’s no way to guarantee life expectancy. Genetics can impact a tegu’s lifespan just as much as the quality of care you provide. Of course, providing excellent tegu care will decrease the chances of health complications and early death.
Average Tegu Size
Tegus aren’t for the faint of heart! They can get pretty big compared to other lizards in the pet trade.
The typical tegu size is around five feet in length. This is for the Argentine tegu, which is the most common type you’ll find available in pet stores. That measurement is from the snout to the tip of the tale.
Other varieties max out at about three or four feet long, making the Argentine the biggest of the bunch.
Expert Tip: While many refer to tegus as monitor lizards, that’s not the case. These reptiles belong to an entirely different genus. They’re both big and have many similarities, but tegus are not the same as monitor lizards.
Intelligence and personability aside, providing excellent tegu care does require a bit of effort. Many novice reptile keepers make the mistake of thinking that this species is a walk in the park. While their tamability certainly makes certain aspects of raising a tegu more manageable, these lizards are anything but low-maintenance.
There are several important aspects of tegu care that you need to be familiar with if you want them to thrive. Failing to provide the basics can lead to a bevy of health issues, problems with aggression, and a much shorter lifespan.
To avoid all that, read our care guidelines below.
The first thing to take care of is finding an appropriately sized enclosure. An important part of tegu care is managing the size of these lizards once they’re fully grown.
Young hatchlings are only 10 inches long at most, so they can live in a smaller space. Basic 40-gallon models at least 36 inches long, 18 inches wide, and 18 tall should suffice. A habitat of that size will provide plenty of room to grow in the juvenile phase of development.
However, you’ll need to upgrade before they reach adulthood. Tegus grow about an inch a month during the peak of their growth cycle, so a 40-gallon tank won’t cut it for very long.
Adults need an enclosure that’s at least 72 inches long, 36 inches wide, and 36 inches tall. That’s the bare minimum for a single mature tegu. But if you want to give your lizard the best quality of life possible, go even bigger!
The preferred enclosure size for full-growth tegus is 96 inches long, 48 inches wide, and at least 36 inches tall.
You can use a standard reptile terrarium or a large glass aquarium. Equip it with a mesh top or a lid that offers ventilation, and you’re good to go.
Expert Tip: Above all, make sure that the lid is secure! Tegu lizards are notorious escape artists. They’re too smart for their own good, and will quickly bypass loose covers to get out of their habitat.
What To Put In Their Habitat
For the most part, tegus are ground-dwellers. They can climb low-hanging trees and branches in the wild, but these reptiles prefer to stick to the ground.
Start your decorating efforts with a thick layer of the substrate material. You have many options here. The best options are coconut coir, cypress mulch, aspen mulch, or a reptile sand mixture. Steer clear of heavily scented aggregates or oil-filled mulch products.
You can technically use newspapers or a reptile carpet. However, doing so would deprive the lizard of its favorite activity:
Tegus can burrow several feet into the ground. To accommodate that activity, create a layer that’s eight to 12 inches deep. Alternatively, you can install a dig box. Some owners also use tiered enclosures, creating a designated burrowing spot with plenty of substrate on one side.
Expert Tip: If you have room, you may want to add some enrichment items to the enclosure as well. Climbable tree branches, tree trunks, and hide boxes are all suitable choices. Keep in mind that the lizard will need room to move. Avoid overstuffing the habitat.
Temperature & Lighting
Like all reptiles, tegus need a temperature gradient in their habitat to thermoregulate. To create one, you can use heat emitters and a basking lamp.
- The ambient temperatures on the cooler side of the enclosure should be around the mid-70s. Aim for about 75 degrees Fahrenheit. A small drop to the low 70s is acceptable at night.
- On the warmer end of the habitat, set the temperature to about 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
- To establish a basking spot, heat one enclosure’s corner to temperatures between 90 and 95 degrees. Those in colder climates often create basking spots as hot as 110 degrees. However, do so with caution. Prolonged exposure to that kind of heat can be dangerous, so those peak temperatures shouldn’t be constant.
Finally, don’t forget to install your UV lights! Tegu lizards need to absorb UV rays for calcium synthesis. Without it, they can suffer from all kinds of health problems (more on that later). This element of tegu care is missed by many new owners in the research phase, causing them to scramble at the last minute.
Use a full-spectrum UVB light and set it on a timer. Tegus are diurnal, so a typical day and night cycle is preferred.
High humidity levels are a must for tegus!
Install a hygrometer and make sure that humidity levels are consistently between 70 and 80 percent. Temporary levels up to 95 percent are acceptable, but you should never let the relative humidity go below 70 percent.
Expert Tip: An absorbent substrate will do a lot to maintain the humidity. You can also mist the enclosure daily with clean water or install an automatic mister.
Your tegu lizard should always have access to clean, dechlorinated water for drinking and soaking.
Install a large water container in the enclosure. It should be big enough for the lizard to climb in. Tegus like to soak to speed up the shedding process.
Keep the dish clean and replenish its water frequently. Your tegu might defecate in the container, so keep an eye on its cleanliness.
Tegu lizards can benefit from bi-weekly soaking sessions. During these “bath” times, you can let your tegu soak in a much larger tub or kid-sized swimming pool. Just make sure to keep an eye on them the entire time for safety.
Tegu Food & Diet
Tegu lizards are natural omnivores. In the wild, they feed on a plethora of food sources. From insects and fish to seeds and fruit, they eat it all!
A varied diet is vital for this species. You want to provide them with as many vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients as possible. Sticking to a single food source their entire life would be detrimental to their health.
Expert Tip: Mixing foods up can also disguise the flavor of items that tegus aren’t too fond of eating. For example, some show an aversion to vegetables despite their nutritional importance. In those cases, you can use the proteins to sneak them into your tegu’s diet.
Here’s a small selection of commonly fed foods you can incorporate into your tegu lizard’s meals.
- Dubia roaches
- Pre-killed mice
- Ground turkey
Hatchlings and juveniles need to eat once a day. The focus should be on gut-loaded insects and protein.
After three years of age, you can transition to feeding your tegu every two or three days.
With every other feeding, dust the food in calcium and Vitamin D3 supplements. You can also provide multi-vitamins for good measure.
Potential Health Issues
Tegus are relatively healthy animals, but they can encounter some complications like any other reptile.
Respiratory infections and mouth rot are two common ailments that can affect tegu lizards. Respiratory infections usually occur when humidity and temperature settings are off. Bacteria, fungi, and foreign viruses can cause infections, too.
Mouth rot is typically a product of bacteria. Symptoms for both conditions usually include inflammation and discharge, so they’re easy to spot.
Fortunately, most infections are easy to treat with veterinary care. They’re even easier to avoid with proper enclosure maintenance. Spot clean messes as soon as possible, and perform a deep clean every four weeks. During the deep clean, use reptile-safe sanitizing products to minimize bacteria cultures.
Another health condition you need to be wary of is metabolic bone disease. This condition is a direct result of calcium deficiencies. Affected tegus usually suffer from the disease because of no UV light exposure.
Metabolic bone disease causes the bones to become brittle and injury-prone. To avoid this condition, check your UV lights frequently to ensure that they’re operating efficiently. Also, incorporate calcium supplements into your tegu’s diet.
Behavior & Temperament
Tegu lizards have a reputation for being docile and easy-going. For the most part that’s true, which is why tegu care is considered manageable by so many people.
But even though these reptiles are less likely to bite you than other species, they’re fully capable of doing so if they feel the need to defend themselves.
These reptiles often show signs of shyness and fear when they first enter a new home. However, they tend to relax after getting comfortable with their surroundings. Once settled, tegus are quite tamable and rarely show signs of aggression.
Tegus are very intelligent and have many dog-like qualities that make them easy to train. That said, they can bite if you are too rough or intimidating with the lizard.
And make no mistake, their bites can hurt! They have strong jaws that can cause a lot of pain. You don’t want to get on a tegu’s bad side! Even if you’ve had your tegu for many years, be respectful and gentle at all times.
When you first meet your new tegu, make sure to start handling them pretty early on. Handling is a big part of the taming process. They become more at ease as they learn you’re not a threat.
One popular taming method is to let the lizard roam free in a small, enclosed room. This experience enables the reptile to investigate on its own accord while getting used to your calm presence.
Over time, your bond should grow stronger. Eventually, they’ll take well to handling. Your tegu might even come to you as you approach their enclosure, as many thrive on human interaction and handling.
Of course, tegus can bite you if they’re not feeling up to the experience. Always be gentle and avoid making sudden movements that could scare the reptile. It’s important to avoid direct eye contact, as that’s viewed as a threatening behavior for these lizards.
Expert Tip: If you’re worried about bites, don’t be afraid to wear gloves in the beginning. Building trust takes time, and gloves provide a sound safety barrier against accidental bites before establishing that bond.
As long as you’re willing to dedicate the appropriate amount of time to these pets, tegu lizard care shouldn’t be intimidating. While their size makes owning these reptiles more challenging than other species out there, any committed owner with enough space should be able to make things work!
We’re happy to help if you have any questions about this unique species of lizard. It’s one of our favorites!