Enriching Your Lizards Life
By Chris M Jones
There are currently nearly 4’800 lizard species around the world, all of which have slightly different habits and will require specialised care if kept in captivity. It would be impossible to create an information sheet that could apply to all species of lizard. However, this article should give you a good idea how to create the best possible environment for your lizard, and how to keep its mind stimulated for a long, healthy and happy life. Lizards with no mental stimulation can eventually succumb to anorexia, hyperactivity, obsessive disorders and persistent attempts to escape from the enclosure.
The first and foremost thing that you should do as a keeper is to research the particular species of lizard you wish to keep. Find out what country the lizard would naturally come from, what habitat it prefers to live in and the temperatures and humidity their habitat would be exposed to at different times of the year. Find out how the lizard lives; is it nocturnal or diurnal, insectivorous, carnivorous, herbivorous or omnivorous? Unlike most species of snakes, a large proportion of lizards are social animals that may live in pairs, groups or even large colonies in the wild. Usually one male will dominate this group and control a large number of females. Is it a solitary species or does it live in families or groups? Is the species a fairly inactive species, or does it regularly travel some distance in order to drink, hunt etc…? Is your lizard terrestrial or arboreal (tree dwelling) or perhaps even aquatic or semi-aquatic? Once you have determined what categories your lizard will fall in to, you can learn from the following points and enhance on the quality of life your lizard has.
Most lizards will make good use of a spacious terrarium, and I would therefore recommend that you provide the largest amount of space possible. It has been documented that much like fish; reptiles will grow slower, and perhaps not as large as it could when kept in a small, confined enclosure. As a general rule, most lizards should be kept in a terrarium which is a minimum of double the total length of itself. This however is just a general rule, keeping a 15cm Green Anole Lizard for instance in a 30cm enclosure would not justify the high activity levels this lizard possesses. However, keeping a 40cm Blue Tongued Skink in an 80cm enclosure would be a little more reasonable. Lizards are generally not intimated by space like many snakes are, so providing a large sized enclosure will only benefit the lizard. To ensure there is no intimidation, provide several hide areas and a variety of décor across the terrarium.
Terrarium furnishings and substrate play an important part of any lizard’s enclosure. Not only does it serve as more interest to the lizard, but adding different substrates and varying décor items will also make the terrarium more appealing to you. Give the lizard varying depths and types of substrate. This can be done to almost any lizard enclosure, no matter whether they are a desert of rainforest dwelling species. You can create different levels by forming natural barriers in the terrarium with rocks, wood or cork bark. Depending on where your lizard originates from, you could offer varying types of substrate to replicate their natural habitat. A desert species may benefit from a mix of dry soil, sand and small pebbles. Lizards that naturally occur in rainforests may do well on a substrate with a mix of soil, leaves and bark chips. Depending on the species of lizard, live plants or small bushes could be planted in the enclosure. This will not only look pretty, but will add new fragrances into the enclosure potentially causing the lizard to explore more. Be careful which plants you decide to use, many can be toxic if ingested so it is vital that only safe, edible plants are put into the terrarium. Plants should also be pesticide free, so be sure to spray it down with water. Re-arranging the cage furniture from time to time will keep the lizard stimulated and active.
It is important to realise not only what temperatures your lizard should be exposed to, but also in what manner they are offered. In the wild, heat is gained by use of the sun, but this is not to say that every lizard must have a basking area with heat or light from above. You should first find out where your lizard comes from and the daily habits which it would naturally go through.
Nearly all diurnal snakes will bask in the sun; it is therefore only natural to offer a spot bulb type of heat. This will mimic the sun and should allow the lizard to bask directly underneath the area which the bulb is pointing. The sun also moves throughout the day, meaning that many a time, the lizard will also have to move. Often, diurnal species do not bask during the middle of the day; instead they will bask in the early morning and late afternoon. By placing 2 spot bulbs in different areas of the terrarium wired into a timer, you can mimic the effect of the sun and give the lizard the chance to search out a new, better basking site. If you have a large budget and terrarium to play with, you can offer further basking sites for different times of the day. You could even set up the lamps with timers on dimming thermostats so that the temperature output could lessen or greaten depending on the time of day. Diurnal species will also require UVA and UVB rays normally gained through the sun. This can be given in the form of a spot / UV bulb in one, or can be offered separately in the form of a UV Strip Light.
Many nocturnal or rainforest dwelling species will not bask in the sun, but should be exposed to a higher day time temperature. Although it is recommended that you offer varying temperatures, there should be an overall air temperature. This can be achieved by using a power plate. A power plate is a 75Watt heater that is attached to the ceiling of your terrarium and provides a wider range of heat from above, making it more efficient at raising the actual air temperature than other heaters. Lighting should still be offered for these species, although in the form of a fluorescent tube. At night, a red bulb or moon bulb could be used for background heat and to allow better viewing of the lizard.
Nocturnal, terrestrial species that do not live in a rainforest environment will often obtain their heat from the ground surface, usually on flat rocks which have been exposed to the sun during the day and allowed to heat up. This heat is retained for some hours throughout the evening. Hot rocks are available to mimic this behaviour, although it is only suggested that you use these for a few hours at the appropriate time; generally as lights go out until 4 hours later.
Water is generally offered in a small water dish which doesn’t even allow the lizard to fully submerse itself. Although this is preferable for many desert dwelling species, other species will regularly travel to streams, ponds or puddles to drink, bathe and swim. Offering water in a larger dish, away from the heat source will often stimulate many species of lizard to bathe and swim more often, allowing for more exercise. Be sure to watch for faeces in the water, as many lizards will commonly excrete during bathing. Allowing water movement through a pump, air bubbles or even a small waterfall will also stimulate the lizard to bathe and drink regularly. For rainforest dwelling species, a drip system and / or misting system will simulate rainfall in the wild. This may be very important for some species such as Chameleons that will predominantly drink from water droplets that gather on leaves or branches.
Foods and feeding methods play an important role in stimulating the natural responses of most lizards. In captivity, it is ever popular to attempt feeding your lizard by hand. This may be fun and rewarding for you as a keeper, but if done too often will result in a lazy lizard with little self drive to hunt or forage for its food.
Herbivorous lizards will naturally find their food in different areas. They may have to climb to different levels on mountain side to find their preferable choice of flower, or move from tree to tree to find the best leaves. It is therefore only common sense to realise that placing all of the lizards food into a bowl in one area of the terrarium will not stimulate any natural feeding responses and result in a lazy, overweight lizard that may potentially succumb to anorexia or other behavioural problems. Putting a different food item into the bowl from time to time does not class as enrichment, as it does not change the way a lizard feeds. However, placing the items in different areas of the enclosure may change the way the lizard forages for food and therefore does class as enrichment. Clips can be bought which stick to the side of a terrarium and will hold leaves at different heights for the lizard to reach. Placing a live, edible plant in the terrarium will stimulate the lizards scent responses and will make for a much more exciting meal that could last for days. You could even try hanging a branch from the roof of your terrarium so that it sways around as the lizard attempts to feed on it. Some vegetable or fruit matter could even be hidden from your lizard. Placing a peeled banana behind a rock or under some leaves will tempt most herbivorous lizards.
Carnivorous and Insectivorous lizards can also benefit from feeding techniques and food items offered. Unlike vegetable matter, live insects will move, and different species of insect may move and act in a different way. This may result in a different hunting technique your lizard has to adapt to. Offering brightly coloured or fast moving insects is something that makes many lizard species extremely excitable. Try catching and feeding the occasional Daddy Long Legs; many lizards will go crazy over these. It is important that your lizard’s staple diet has been ‘gut-loaded’. This means that your lizard’s food item should also be fed itself, after all, there is little point in feeding a malnourished cricket to your hungry lizard. Applying the appropriate calcium and mineral supplements is also important. Research should be carried out as to what supplements and which foods should be fed to the particular species of lizard you own. Many keepers will place live food into a bowl where they cannot escape from, or they may dismember the insects so they cannot move. This certainly makes life easier for the lizard, but certainly not a natural one. A slow release insect feeder is recommended, and will overcome the problem of lots of insects running around at the same time, resulting in hidden, uneaten insects. Many species of lizard; Monitor lizards and large Skinks in particular will eat small mammals and birds. Live mammals and birds should not be fed in captivity and are not necessary. In fact, many of these lizards will primarily feed on carcases of dead animals. Hiding the food underneath leaves or even burying it under the substrate will stimulate most monitor lizards to dig and find the food. You can also try hanging the food from the roof of the terrarium.
It is not wise to tie the food with string or other non-digestible material; however, a mouse tail for instance could be trapped in the lid of the terrarium or some kind of clip. With the force of the lizard tugging at the food, it should break free. This will make it a little harder for the lizard to feed, as the food will sway around as it attempts to bite it. Tease feeding is an excellent method to re-create a wild animal’s movements. With a pair of long forceps you can grip the food item and move it around, simulating the movements of the animal in the wild. If the lizard shows interest, move it further away and around the enclosure, enticing the lizard to chase and hunt the food.
Handling your lizard on a regular basis is a similar situation to taking your dog for a walk. It is a way of taking the lizard out of its usual environment to provide exercise and an array of unusual smells. Many wild caught lizards, or lizards not used to being handled should have limitations on the amount of time spent handling. The last thing you want to do is stress the lizard by over-handling. Captive bred individuals that are regularly handled will however enjoy human interaction and the chance to move around different surfaces. On a warm day, take your lizard outside in the garden and let it roam around on the grass. The natural UVA and UVB rays the sun produces will also benefit the lizard more than any commercial bulb is able to do. Be very careful not to take your eyes off the lizard though, the last thing you want is for it to quickly burrow into the ground or worse still, grabbed by a passing predatory bird. Being able to handle your lizard will not only allow exercise and scent stimulation, it will also allow for easier maintenance and veterinary care if needed.
Although human interaction will stimulate the responses of your lizard, other lizards may also be beneficial. Bearded Dragons for instance will naturally live in groups of one dominant male to several females and perhaps juveniles of both sexes. Many geckos will live in large colonies, often having the same nesting area for a large number of females. Some skinks live in families and their young may not depart the family for many years. Other lizards may sometimes provide the natural stimulation a captive lizard needs, and depending on the species and sex of your lizard, should be considered for the health and wellbeing of your pet.
Lizards can make wonderful companions and can live for many years. By providing a fulfilling and happy life for your lizard you will no doubt prolong it and get more enjoyment out of it yourself. This article, together with your own ideas should prevent your lizard from become overweight or inactive, further resulting in behavioural problems.
We would love to hear if you try any of our methods, or have your own methods you would like to share with us. Please visit our web site and let us know how you and your lizard are getting on!
By Chris Jones
Director of Pet Club UK Ltd.
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