How to Handle Tegu Lizards

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One of the most important parts of having a pet tegu is handling it. This is because developing trust between a lizard and his owner is vital to a tegu’s overall health and development. If your pet trusts you, you can train it, take it out of its cage to confidently meet people, and other pets, and you can better understand what your pet needs.

This is a general guide on how to handle tegu lizards. There are several types of tegus, each with different temperaments and behaviors. It’s your responsibility as an owner to get to know your pet’s quirks, and you can only do this when you handle it carefully. We’ll discuss the differences of these lizards and how you can develop your pet to the best it can be through careful handling.

Short introduction about tegus

Tegus are large lizards that are more than brains than brawn, although they may look muscular and strong. Tegus are very smart and curious and hence make excellent and challenging pets. But the key to unlocking its capabilities is to train it well.

Columbian tegus are known to be very difficult to train while Argentine tegus are not aggressive. The two species will eventually become tame when you handle it regularly. Those who have Argentine tegus say that well-tamed tegus may resemble a pet dog. Some owners say that tamed tegus can bond with their owners and will solely depend on their keepers for companionship. Tamed tegus can also become very bossy and demanding.

Aside from these behaviors, careful handling will also unlock your pet’s intelligence. Tegus are known to be target-trained, can learn their names, can follow simple commands, and can solve problems in accessing food.

Important precaution

Tegus won’t bite like bearded dragons. But these have powerful limbs, jaws, claws, and tail that can deliver a strong whip. Understand when a tegu wants to be left alone. It will evade threats as much as it can, but it can also handle threats face to face.

Also, smaller tegus and untamed tegus may think of you as a predator, and hence, they may think that you want to eat them. These lizards will run for their lives to avoid you. And this makes it harder for you to train them and to prove that you are not a threat.

Taming young lizards

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The best way to start training is to get your lizard as a hatchling. Argentine tegus are 7 to 10 cm long while Columbian tegu hatchlings are smaller. The two types of lizards are easier to handle and are likely to run than a bite or use their tails to whip. And the more you interact with a young lizard, the more it will become tamer as it becomes older.

While your tegus are young, it is the best time to train how to reduce food aggression. To reduce this, whenever you offer food, stand near your pet and place your hand near. Move your hand near the lizard and around it. You can touch them or stroke them. This exercise will help your tegu differentiate between you and food. And if the tegu bites, they are too small to hurt.

Young tegus are flighty; they think that everything is dangerous because everything is just too big. It may think that everything that moves can be a potential predator which includes everything that moves above them

Also, keep in mind that juvenile tegus can be between 18 and 30 inches long and will go through a particular developmental phase. During this time, they are very aggressive and defensive to everything and even towards their owners. This stage is similar to puberty in humans, so don’t worry; this will pass. Just give your tegu space, and it will love you for it.

Earning a Tegu’s trust

The reason why we recommend starting tegu handling training as young as when the lizard is still a hatchling is that it can be too late for adult tegus. Untamed adults are bold and very defensive. These may whip their tails and bite you because it feels threatened. Adopting an adult untamed tegu should be left to experienced owners because this can be very difficult. But if you’re willing to give it a try, don’t forget to wear thick welder’s gloves and rubber boots. 

In the wild, tegus are described as opportunistic hunters. They are very curious and thus is easy to condition for a life of captivity. To ensure success, use repeated positive interactions that will teach the adult tegu that you are not a threat. You will need a lot of patience, short but frequent handling and training consistency.

Tegus associate experiences with scents. Use a recently-worn sweaty shirt to handle and train your tegu. It will learn to associate your smell with security.

Accustom the tegu to your presence. Let it remain inside the cage without handling it. Just let it be and ignore it. Sometimes ignoring this lizard is a good way to tame it! Just read a book, watch TV or check your phone while near the cage. Because of the curious nature of tegus, it will eventually come up to you to check out what you’re doing. Rest one hand inside the cage while still reading a book, watching TV, etc.

Once in a while, offer treats like berries, hornworms, a piece of meat, etc. But sometimes, place an empty hand. This will avoid food aggression behaviors. Sometimes the tegu will like to be alone and will retreat in its hide. If you see this, do not disturb your pet. Taking it out of its hide and disturbing it is a sure way to break its trust.

Finally, handling a tegu for the first time

After gaining your tegu’s trust, it’s time to handle it for the first time. The best way to start is to approach the tegu on its side and not from above. A side is a good place because the lizard can easily see you. Only predators swoop from above. A front-opening cage is the best way to approach your tegu from the side as opposed to the top-opening tank or cage.

To start, place one hand under the tail’s base. Slowly slide your hand to the chest to secure the tegu’s front legs. To control the tail, tuck it under a nearby arm and hold the lizard close to your body. Always be gentle and never manhandle the tegu. If you fight the tegu, it will also fight back, and in the end, you will lose.

If it starts flailing its legs and arms, then it means it’s too early to handle it, and it does not trust you. This behavior is also seen in human babies; these will cry and flail their arms and legs if a stranger suddenly picks them up. To correct this, adjust your hold. If the flailing arms persist, your lizard may need more taming before you start handling it.

Feed the tegu before handling training and wait at least 30 minutes before starting the training. A good tip is to never stare directly into the tegu’s eyes. Never make sudden moves using your hand. Be gentle and calm, and talk slowly to avoid frightening your pet.

As some pet owners can completely tame their tegu, they now start with leash training and walking with a leash. You can also do this as long as you have trust.

About adolescent tegus

Around 18 to 24 months, juvenile tegus undergo a period of adolescence or puberty called “guberty.” At this time, hormones are shifting in the lizard’s body and brain, and similar to humans, this is a time when your pet becomes ill-tempered and unpleasant.

If your pet was friendly and outgoing, then expect a complete shift in their personality. Juvenile tegus don’t want anything to do with you and will even start to become violent. This sudden change in behavior is the reason why most young tegus are rehomed or even abandoned.

Guberty can last for several months and can be very frustrating since the calm, happy, and docile pet that you once had is now gone! But don’t worry, just be patient, and this will all pass! The key is to just leave your pet alone and don’t force yourself and your training.

When feeding a tegu under guberty, just leave the food inside the cage. Continue to keep their cages clean and comfortable for your pet to live in. And if you need to handle your pet for any reason, wear thick gloves made of leather and thick long sleeves.

You might think that your pet has already forgotten about you, but you’ll be surprised that after the guberty, it will return to its lovable and trusting nature. After this period, continue your training, and soon you will have a confident, pleasant, and calm adult tegu.

Mating behaviors

Mating for tegus happens after bromating. This is from March to April in the US. Male tegus can be very sensitive at the stage and may show mating behaviors even towards human females. Males are not aggressive during the mating season but may become overly affectionate. 

When there’s no female nearby, a male tegu during the mating season may be attracted to its female owner. It may show its affection by bouncing its jowls around. Some owners say that this is a sign of contentment, but usually, this is a behavior that’s attributed to mating.

As the male bounces his jowl, his eyes will be wide open and will make a chuffing sound that means that it wants to mate. Male tegus may even go to the extent of mounting their female keepers, so take extra caution if you’re a female.

Will Tegus bite?

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Yes, tegus may bite, but this does not mean that a tegu will bite you for any reason. But if your tegu is well-tamed, they are less likely to bite, but accidents can always happen.

Be careful of aggressive, wild, adult tegus. This lizard has a strong jaw, and a bite can be fatal. Watch out for the following behaviors in wild tegus; these could mean that the tegu is ready to bite you:

  • Fast and frequent tongue-clicking means that the tegu smells something delicious, and your hand may smell like food. After feeding your tegu, wash your hands ASAP. If the tegu bites, it is likely that the bite is gentle and slow.
  • Heavy breathing, head down, and arched back means that the lizard is telling you to back off. It is showing its aggressive nature, and thus you should back off at once. If you come closer, you may be bitten, or you’ll experience a tail whip.
  • The snake tail is when the tail of the tegu twitches erratically, or the tail looks like the tail of the snake, then the lizard is ready to charge. It’s best to escape ASAP. The tegu will bite you.

To prevent being bitten by a tegu, especially a wild tegu, avoid feeding it by hand. Use tongs instead. Always keep the tegu’s mouth away from your face. It can smell your breath and can tell if you have just eaten and may think that you are a juicy meal.

Different Tegus and specific tips

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Recently, there is a lot of new and exciting changes happening in classifying tegus. In 2012, a large number of tegus in the Tupinambis genus were reclassified to the Salvator genus. Here is a recent list of different tegu classifications

Argentine black and white tegu or the Salvator merianae

The Argentine black and white tegu was initially introduced in the United States in 1989. This tegu has bead-like black and white skin that can be found all over its body. The life span is 20 years and can grow up to 5 feet in total and weigh up to 35 pounds.

The Argentine black and white are very docile and often seek human interaction when tamed. And once you have gained its trust, it will love you to the moon and back.

Argentine red tegu or Salvator rufescens

This tegu has little red coloration, but the red becomes intense as it becomes mature. These can grow up to 5 feet and become stocky and muscular. The Argentine red tegu is known to be playful and may act like a pet dog after regular and patient training. This tegu is from western Argentina and also found in Paraguay.

Yellow tegu or Salvatopr duseni

This is a tegu from Brazil and is not available for purchases in the United States. This is a rare tegu, and the government of Brazil does not allow the export of this species. This is a beautiful lizard with a strong yellow and gold color and black markings on the face and head. There is no data about taming and handling this tegu, but breeders are looking forward to handling this rare and wonderful tegu. 

Columbian black and white tegu or Tupinambis teguixin

The Columbian black and white tegu is from a warmer are in Argentina. It has a similar black and white coloration but is smaller, and the skin is smoother.

Columbian tegus are harder to tame than Argentine tegus; however, this may depend on the patience and the handling and taming technique of the handler. As with all tegus, establish trust first to guarantee success in handling and overall care.

Additional care tips

Along with training and handling your pet tegu, you must also learn basic care tips on diet and caging your pet. By learning these techniques, you will be better off in handling and caring for tegus and other lizard pets.

Housing a Tegu

A hatchling is around 7 to 10 inches long, and therefore a 40-gallon tank or an enclosure that’s 36 x 18 x 17 inches will work best but only for a short while. A tegu can quickly increase in size, and soon, their hatchling enclosure will be too small for their size. A tegu can grow an inch a month.

This is why tegu owners start with a 6 x 3 x 3 feet enclosure to prepare for your tegu’s growth. You may even use a larger 8 x 4 x 3 feet cage, especially when you’re taking care of a larger type of tegu.

For the cage substrate, use cypress mulch, coco coir, or sand and soil. This lizard needs around 70 to 90% humidity, and these substrates work best to retain moisture or water. Place a screen on top of the cage to improve airflow. Use a digital hygrometer and thermometer to measure humidity correctly.

Place around 4 inches deep of substrate for a hatchling. Make the substrate 8 inches or even deeper for adults. Usually, adults love to burrow under the substrate to rest. And just like caring for any lizard, never use substrates that are made of cedar or pine because these are dusty and resinous. This can be dangerous to pet tegus.

If you’re going to place the enclosure indoors,  use UVB lamps because this is important to a tegu’s health. Select the best bulb and ask around for the best design and brand. You can also find a good reptile lamp from a reptile or exotic pet store.

Use a split light cycle 12 hours daylight/12 hours nighttime. Proper temperature using a heat lamp over the basking area is important. The temperature in the basking area is 100 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit

Food and water

Hatchlings will eat as soon as it comes out of fits nest. Food must be dusted with calcium powder to supplement your pet’s food. Adults can eat frozen or freshly thawed rodents, fish, eggs, lean meat, and fruit. Captive tegus may first refuse to eat but eventually will get used to your presence and thus won’t mind being held.

The lizard must have regular drinking water in a dish. Offer treats once in a while, like fresh fruit. But don’t get carried away because a tegu can easily become overweight.

Tegus will love taking a bath, and you can do this weekly or more frequently when it is shedding. A warm bath will aid in shedding skin because old skin is easy to be removed when the skin is soft and not dry. Be sure that your tegu can easily enter and exit the soaking container. Be present when your tegu is enjoying its bath.

Handling precautions

Hand in hand with handling and taming a tegu is the care and cleanliness of handlers. Take note that tegus can carry Salmonella, which can be passed on to humans.  According to a recent study, around 87% of captive-born tegu test subjects tested positive for various kinds of Salmonella.

Salmonella can happen after 12 to 72 hours of infection in humans. Signs of Salmonella infection are diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and muscle pains. This is not a severe illness in healthy adult humans, but it can be dangerous for small children, seniors, and immunocompromised adults.

So, before and after handling your pet tegu, wash your hands with disinfectant soap. If you think you have salmonella, visit the doctor at once.

Protect your hands and your arms from your tegu, especially if it has become a large, heavy adult. Wearing protective clothing is important for handling wild tegus and also for dealing with overly-affectionate tegus.

Remember that tegus have sharp claws and muscular tails, and you can suffer from scratches if you are not wearing this protective equipment.

And before getting a tegu for a pet, check if this is allowed in your country or state. Despite the popularity of tegus, some countries do not allow the travel, possession, and the care of exotic pets like a tegu. Also, check if there are exotic vets near your area. If this is not available, then you may consider some other kind of exotic or domesticated pet instead. Understanding all these techniques and tips will help you become a good lizard pet owner.  

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