How and What to Feed Your Pet Lizard
Table of Contents
The eating habits of lizards vary as widely from species to species as do the habitats. There are lizards that eat animal food or a plant diet exclusively. Some species live on plants as well as animal prey. In any case, whichever lizard you are keeping, providing as much variety in the diet as possible is extremely important because that is the only way the animals will receive sufficient amounts of the necessary vitamins and minerals.
For the plant-eating lizards, the most valuable foods are wild grasses and weeds. Among these are, for example, dandelion, plantain, clover, and chickweed. You can gather the weeds yourself, but don't take them from along the edge of a highly traveled road: the level of polluting materials on the plants would be too high. Fruit and vegetables from your own garden — those treated with as little commercial fertilizer and pesticides as possible — are also valuable foods.
Especially important in addition are: citrus fruit and sweet red peppers (high in vitamin C), carrots (contain important precursors for Vitamin A), spinach and kale (rich in vitamin B and minerals). If you don't have your own garden, you should take care to buy naturally raised and ripened fruits and vegetables as much as possible. For instance, bananas that are harvested green in the tropics and then artificially ripened in transit or after arrival at the market are less nutritious than plums or strawberries that have been naturally ripened nearby. In the same way, the untreated and perhaps therefore spotty, wormy apple is preferable to the sprayed and waxed one. In the winter months it is especially difficult to provide the lizards with fresh food. Cooked unpolished brown rice that has been made tasty with bananas or apples, diced small, or unsulfured figs, dates, and raisins has proven to be a good variation during the cold months. To avoid any deficiency diseases, the rice-and-fruit mixture should be enriched with vitamin and mineral supplements.
Lizards that eat animal food also need as varied a diet as possible to remain healthy. The data in the descriptions of specific lizards should help you to fulfill the diet requirements of your pets.
A long list of lizard species love fish. Never offer fish filleted — only whole, with scales, bones, entrails, stomach contents and all, to ensure provision of a continued supply of vitamin and mineral elements. You can buy fish of various sizes for feeding in pet stores. If you know a fisherman, perhaps you can get some of his catch once in a while. Make sure that the fish comes from water that is as unpolluted as possible. Pollutants can collect in the tissues of reptiles and cause injury to their inner organs. If you have a freezer, you can freeze fish to have some in reserve. Follow the recommended procedure for the storing of table fish.
Snails and Worms
In damp weather you can collect slugs and small snails (Cepaea species and Helix aspersa), which for some skinks are the preferred or only food. These mollusks can be kept in a closed container, sufficiently large and with air holes in it, in a cool room or in a refrigerator for three to four weeks. Some lizards will also gladly accept earthworms. These can be dug up or collected on warm rainy days. Gardeners can find the worms in compost heaps. But you can also buy them in bait-and-tackle shops.
Insects, Spiders, Small Mammals
Many insects and spiders (arachnids) can be caught with a net, for example on weedy vacant lots. But you may not net insects in protected areas and you are not allowed to have any protected species in your catch. Information about conservation laws and regulations can be obtained from your community or state authorities or from conservation groups. Since these conservation regulations change often, you should keep yourself currently informed.
For the young of any species of small lizard, plant lice (aphids) — offered with the leaves and branch on which the insects live — are suitable food. You can also buy food insects or small mammals (mice and rats for the larger lizards) in a pet store. There are also farms that specialize in raising food animals. You can get the food for your animals from these by subscription.
Vitamins are life-supporting elements that the lizard body either cannot make or cannot make enough of because of living in a terrarium. They must thus be added to the diet. Vitamins perform various functions:
- Vitamin A is important for vision and for skin and gland maintenance. In addition it influences growth, the immune system, and fertility.
- Vitamins in the B group are important for the utilization of plant and animal protein and influence the metabolism of nerve cells and cell division.
- Vitamin C is important in defense against infectious diseases.
- Vitamins in the D group promote bone growth and maintenance.
- Vitamin E plays a role in muscle development and is significant in the birth and egg-laying processes.
- Vitamin K is important for blood clotting.
The minerals that are essential for lizards include calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. They are primarily used for the development of teeth and bones. Therefore enough of them must be provided, above all for young animals still in their growth period. If young animals do not receive enough minerals, rickets may result.
Female lizards, especially, require increased mineral intake for the production of eggs and their shells.
Trace elements — recognized ones include iron, iodine, fluorine, and selenium — are involved, for example, in the production of enzymes and hormones.
Mineral supplements, if required, are added to the food like vitamin supplements.
Diurnal (daytime-active) lizards are fed during the course of the day or else during the day phase that is established by the time clock. Nocturnal (nighttime-active) lizards receive their food toward evening.
Feeding Herbivorous Lizards
Rice and cut-up fruit and vegetables are offered in a bowl. It should be made of glass or pottery, especially for the big lizards. Lightweight plastic bowls may tip if the animal should step on them while eating. Weeds, grasses, and leaf vegetables can be laid on the floor of the terrarium. If there are several lizards, you should lay the greens in different places so that the lower-ranking animals will also find the food. Food supplements are not necessary for herbivorous lizards during the summer months if there are enough naturally ripened weeds, fruit, and vegetables available. During the times when vegetation is scarce, you must add a vitamin-mineral supplement (for example, Vionate or Pervinal). Because these change the appearance, taste, and smell of the food, you must accustom the lizards to them by slowly increasing dosage.
An effective and economical calcium source is available in crushed eggshells or cuttlebone, which are well liked by many lizards.
Feeding Carnivorous Lizards
Slugs and small snails with shells may be put into the terrarium alive in small quantities. The lizards like to crack open the shells by themselves. Large edible snails should be scalded before being fed to lizards, shells removed, and be cut up.
Plant lice can be placed in the terrarium still on the plants and leaves on which they are found.
Living insects should be thrown to the particular lizard so that the insect is eaten as soon as possible. Escaped crickets disturb the lizard-keeper and his neighbors with their nightly chirping. Besides, the uneaten insects can eat the plants and even bite the lizards.
To avoid this, the lizard can be accustomed to receiving the living insect with tweezers. Or the insect may be scalded before it is fed to the lizard. Roaches should be scalded before being fed in any case. Mice and rats should be killed and offered with tweezers. Living animals can be tormented when they are hunted by the lizard. Only during the acclimation period for newly acquired lizards should you place living food animals in the terrarium. The movements of the prey excite the lizard's appetite. Caution: Animals that have been removed from the freezer must be warmed enough before feeding so that they reach room temperature all the way through. Food supplements must also be given to carnivorous lizards. If living insects are being used, put the cricket or grasshopper in a closed box (or a plastic bag) in which you have put a pinch of vitamin-and-mineral supplement beforehand. The box or bag is then shaken hard, and the “floured” insect is fed right away so that it can't shake the powder off again. For large lizards, the vitamin-and-mineral supplements can be sprayed in the abdominal cavities of dead mice, rats, or fish. Smaller lizards, which ingest their daily drinking water drop by drop, are given their vitamins in drinking water.
Some lizards are also very fond of crushed eggshells or cuttlebone (calcium). Try out different grain sizes.
Don't try to force the food supplements into your lizards under pressure. The stress produced by being caught and having the mouth forced open can do more harm than the vitamin and mineral intake would do good. Such measures should be used only when the animal must be caught and force-fed or treated any way.
Many minerals not needed by the lizard's body will be excreted in the urine. Calcium deposits on the interior organs are not, as is often wrongly supposed, due to the intake of too much mineral supplement but to metabolic disturbances and overdosage of vitamin D.
A lizard that has refused food for a long time must be force-fed. You can hold a small lizard in your left hand and open the mouth of the animal with your right hand. For a larger lizard you need someone to help you. While one person holds the lizard, the other must try to open the mouth of the animal. If there is a dewlap or enough skin in the under jaw, the lizard may be grasped there and the mouth opened with a steady pull. For animals that have no dewlap or skin folds, press a fingernail or plastic kitchen spatula in the backmost corner of the mouth between the teeth and block the jaw open. To keep the mouth open, press two fingers in the corner of the lizard's mouth with a firm grip. Or you can lay a plastic spatula or a piece of rubber tubing there.
Caution: Never use a metal lever to pry open and block the jaw; you will injure the lizard with it!
Carnivorous lizards receive a fish, a squashed cricket, or a young mouse. Animals with fur should be lubricated with raw egg white so that they will slide down more easily. You can give herbivorous lizards fruit and edible tender leaves. Wait a while to see if the lizard swallows the food. If this does not happen, you must introduce the animal or the vegetable morsel deep into the throat. But be very careful doing it!
Forced feeding is repeated up to three times at intervals of several days. Change the food often so as to stimulate the lizard's appetite. If you are not successful in inducing the animal to feed within seven to ten days, have it examined by a veterinarian.
Force-feeding a caiman. The mouth is wedged open with a piece of rubber tubing. During feeding the soft palate is pressed frontward so that the fish can be pushed into the esophagus.