Spiny-Tailed Iguana Care SheetSpiny-tailed iguanas are gaining popularity in the U.S., with increasing numbers being bred in captivity.

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Spiny-Tailed Iguana Care Sheet

Care sheet for the spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura spp.)

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Spiny-tailed Iguanas (Ctenosaura spp.)

Spiny-tailed iguanas (Ctenosaura spp.) are native to hot and dry areas of Mexico and Central America. They can make great pets or display animals. Despite laws to protect them, most spiny-tailed iguana populations are declining in the wild due to hunting, loss of habitat and poaching for the pet trade. Every effort should be made to purchase captive-born-and-bred animals because they generally are hardier and less skittish, and purchasing them helps take pressure off wild populations.

Spiny-Tailed Iguana Availability

Spiny-tailed iguanas are gaining popularity in the U.S., with increasing numbers being bred in captivity. Wild-caught spiny-tails are also available, most commonly the club-tailed iguana (C. quinquecarinata). There are also introduced populations of the black spiny-tailed iguana (C. similis) and Mexican spiny-tailed iguana (C. pectinata) in Florida, and many of these two species are sold in the pet trade.

spiny tailed iguana

Photo Credit: Kelly Paul

This is a male Mexican spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura pectinata).


Spiny-Tailed Iguana Size

Spiny-tailed iguanas range in size from the small Yucatan spiny-tailed iguana (C. defensor), which reaches an overall length of 10 inches, to the black spiny-tail, which can grow to 5 feet.


Spiny-Tailed Iguana Life Span

Spiny-tailed iguanas can be long lived, easily living to 15 years of age. Many male spiny-tails can live up to 25 years of age or more.

Spiny-Tailed Iguana Housing

Caging requirements for spiny-tailed iguanas vary depending on the species and size of spiny-tailed iguana you keep. Below are my recommended minimum enclosure sizes for a single spiny-tail or a pair.
Smaller spiny-tailed iguanas measuring less than 18 inches in overall length: 36 inches long, 24 inches wide, 24 inches tall Spiny-tails with lengths of 18 to 40 inches: 4 feet long, 24 inches wide, 24 inches tall
Larger species, such as the black spiny-tailed iguana: 6 feet long by 24 inches wide by 30 inches tall.

This is a male San Esteban Island spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura conspicuosa

Photo Credit: Kelly Paul


This is a male San Esteban Island spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura conspicuosa).


Spiny-Tailed Iguana Lighting and Temperature

Spiny-tailed iguanas are sun-loving saurians. Outdoor enclosures are great for them. Indoor enclosures should have full-spectrum bulbs running two-thirds to the entire length of the enclosure, in addition to a basking bulb (or two, depending on the size of the cage) at one end. To provide maximum health benefit from the full-spectrum lights, basking shelves or other sites should be situated no more than 10 inches from the bulb(s).
The ambient temperature in the enclosure should be between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit with basking areas reaching 95 to105 degrees.

Spiny-Tailed Iguana Substrate and Accessories

I use cypress mulch substrate with my spiny-tails. I live in Arizona where it is very hot and dry, and I mist their enclosures in the morning to replicate the high morning humidity of their natural habitat. Rabbit pellets can also be used, but do not mist these. Provide plenty of branches and/or corkboard for your spiny-tails to climb on. Various hide spots, such as cork bark hollows of appropriate size, should also be provided. I like to include live edible plants, such as hibiscus, of which both the flowers and leaves are edible, in my spiny-tail enclosures. Purchase plants at least 30 days before you plan to use them, as many systemic pesticides and fertilizers may remain active in the plants and soil for at least 30 days.

Outdoor cages are ideal for spiny-tailed iguanas

Photo Credit: Kelly Paul

Outdoor cages are ideal for spiny-tailed iguanas.



Spiny-Tailed Iguana Food

Feed adult spiny-tailed iguanas a wide range of food, such as mixed greens, shredded carrots, mulberry and hibiscus leaves, and edible wild plants such as purslane, clover, dandelions, greens and flowers. Seasonal fruit and vegetables can also be offered (mine love figs). I feed baby and juvenile spiny-tails the same as the adults, except I also give them some insects, particularly crickets about half the size of the young lizards’ heads. I have also offered Zoophobas, tomato hornworms and silk worms. I have never fed vertebrate prey such as mice to my Ctenosaura, but know keepers who have with no harmful effect. Calcium and vitamin supplements should be provided two to three times a week (gravid females should receive supplemental calcium every day). Dry commercial iguana diets are also available.

Water misting is my preferred method of watering, particularly for baby spiny-tails, as they will drink the droplets off the plants. I also keep a water dish inside the enclosure; be sure it’s heavy enough so it doesn’t tip over. Misting into the water dish can help draw your spiny-tails’ attention to it. Do not mist if you use rabbit pellets as a substrate.

Spiny-Tailed Iguana Handling and Temperament

Spiny-tailed iguanas have been considered ill tempered, but this is not true for all Ctenosaura, especially in regard to captive-born-and-bred animals that behave differently than their wild-caught counterparts. Captive-born-and-bred Mexican spiny-tails (C. pectinata) and Baker’s iguanas (C. bakeri) can make great pets with very little effort. The San Esteban Island spiny-tailed iguana (C. conspicuosa), Sonoran black iguana (C. macrolopha) and Honduran black-chested iguana (C. melanosterna) can also tame down quite nicely with a little effort and patience. Wild-caught Guatemalan spiny-tailed (C. palearis) and club-tailed (C. quinqucarinata) iguanas can make great display animals, and with time they will often take food from your hand.

This is a young male Ctenosaura melanosterna.

Photo Credit: Kelly Paul

This is a young male Ctenosaura melanosterna.


A great way to build trust and calm new Ctenosaura is by hand-feeding them. Once they are comfortable with your presence and are taking food from your fingers, you can begin to pick them up. When picking up a pet spiny-tailed iguana, it is best to approach slowly and place your hand palm side up in front of the lizard. Try putting your other hand behind it and gently coax the spiny-tail onto your hand. Never restrain your animal by the tail, as it can break off. Every spiny-tailed iguana is different. Some are so tame and inquisitive they seem to enjoy human interaction. Others are a little flighty and require a bit more patience when interacting. Any spiny-tailed iguana that does not like to be handled will still make a fine display animal.

Kelly Paul is a hobbyist with a lifelong interest in reptiles. He has bred more than two dozen species, including six Ctenosaura. He has been a guest speaker at several events, including the International Herpetological Symposium. Email him at blueghostreptile@msn.com.

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