Red tegus belong to the species of salvator refuscens, which is quite popular in the pet trade and second only to the most common Argentine tegu (salvator merianae).
True to their names, red tegus tend have a reddish skin which often looks almost like raw meat, and compared to black and white tegus they tend to get quite big in size.
They are relatively easy to tame and make for great pets under the right conditions, but they have slightly higher humidity requirements as they seem to be more prone to skin-related health issues.
The most famous example of Red tegu is MacGyver the Lizard, an internet celebrity known for its friendly personality, intelligence and “chonky” appearance.
Since its debut in 2012, MacGyver has reached over 50 thousands subscribers and millions of views on social media.
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Red Tegu Care Sheet
|Scientific Name:||Salvator refuscens (formerly Tupinambis rufescens)|
|Common Names:||Red tegu|
Argentine red tegu
|Regions Found:||Western Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay|
|Class:||Terrestrial living in savannah and grassland habitats|
Juveniles have arboreal tendencies
|Sexual Maturity:||18-36 months|
|Adult Size:||4-5 feet|
|Temperament:||Generally very docile as adults|
|Foods:||Various insects, meats, eggs, fruits and vegetables.|
|Temperature:||Air temperature of 28-30°C (82-86°F) with a basking spot of 38-46°C (100-115°F)|
|Humidity:||75% – 90%|
|Clutch Size:||1 clutch with 10-70 eggs (average of 30)|
|Gestation Period:||2-3 weeks|
|Incubation Period:||60 days|
Argentine red tegus are some of the largest species of tegu lizards. They originate from the temperate climate of Argentina and are especially active during summer, while going into brumation for several months in winter. In the wild, they are diurnal and terrestra, and opportunistic feeders who eat mainly insects, small rodents and birds, eggs and fruits. As juveniles they look like regular lizards with green-brownish striped patterns, but they grow up to 4.5 feet in the span of 2-3 years from hatching and assume a vivid red coloration, brighter in males than in females. Males also develop large jowls.
A tegu lizard in the wild can live for up to 12 years, but in captivity life expectancy can go up to 15-20 years. Some people have reported tegus living up to 22 years. Because of this, caring for a tegu is considered a big life commitment – much like getting a dog. Make sure you do extensive research before you decide to adopt one of this animals.
The red tegu is known to grows quite rapidly, typically reaching maturity in two to three years. Salvator rufescens is one of the largest species of tegus together with the salvator merianae, and male red tegu adults can often reach up to 4.5′-5′ feet in length head-to-tail. Pets that are fed daily and do not undergo brumation will get larger in size compared to those who are fed more sporadically and allowed to hibernate in winter.
Tegu growth chart
|Species||Average size for adult male|
|Black and white tegu||4’-4.5’|
When setting up an enclosure for your tegu you will need a lot of room for it to roam freely. While juvenile tegus can be kept in 10- or 20- gallon aquariums, fully grown lizards will need anything between 8 and 16 square feet of space, depending on their size. Red tegus tend to grow quite big, and males grow larger than females. A 8x4x4 enclosure may suffice for smaller specimens, but the bigger the better.
Tegus are cold blooded and need sources of external heat to warm themselves up. Because of this, it is crucial to set up their enclosure in a way that offers both warm and cool spots, allowing them to thermoregulate their body temperature.
Make sure to have a warm environment with day time temperature ranging from 100-110F and another cooler area inside the cage with temperatures between 80 and 85F. Not having a well lit, heated spot in the cage may lead to the tegu going into brumation during winter, in this period of time the tegu will mostly retreat to their cage and refuse to eat regularly.
This is a totally normal form of hibernation that occurs in nature that will not hurt your tegu, and is actually needed for females to be able to breed. Tegu owners who are not interested in breeding generally prefer to avoid letting their pets go into brumation because they will cease nearly all interaction during this period, and may halt their growth due to the limited food intake.
All species of tegu require 12-14 hours of UVB light exposure per day. Ideally, let the tegu roam outside to get access to sun rays as often as possible, while keeping a UVB light inside their cage using an automated heat lamp with a 12 hours on-off schedule. A heat lamp will provide both precious UVB and a source of heat during the day. If you intend to start brumating your tegu, shorten the timer on your heat lamp to 8 or 6 hours to simulate shorter day times, and eventually turn them off completely.
Tegus are burrowing animals which need a substrate depth of around 12-24″. Burrowing is necessary for tegus to keep their bodies active and claws filed without the need of nail trimming by their owners. As the majority of tegus come from wet areas with plenty of rain, it is important to choose a bedding substrate that holds humidity. The best substrate for tegu is cypress mulch, which can be mixed with topsoil and sand. Other DIY mixes often include coconut shells or reptisoil.
Red tegus require a high level of humidity, around 75-90%. This can be achieved by choosing adequate humidity retaining soil, by spraying the top soil and tegu itself with water regularly, and leaving a bowl of water in the enclosure every day, which the tegu will use for both drinking and “freshening up”. Make sure any water bowl you introduce to your tegu enclosure is tip-proof and big enough for your pet to soak in it.
Replace the water daily. More than other speciesfo tegu, the salvator rufescens is particularly prone to health issues related to humidity, so it is recommended to invest in a hygrometer (humidity meter) and to keep an eye on humidity levels at all times.
Your enclosure needs to provide your tegu with both hiding spots and sources of entertainment. Tegus, particularly young ones, often fall prey to birds and larger reptiles and you will need to provide them with a hide box or “cave” where they can feel safe from predators and sleep comfortably. A dog kennel or large plastic bucket can be used for adult tegus. If you can get your hands on a very large hollow log, that will also do the job. Keep in mind that tegus are highly intelligent creatures and as such, they tend to get bored easily: they need to interact with their environment, play with it, and at times they tend to destroy everything in sight. Make sure to keep your tegu entertained by adding plants, barks, boxes and “toys” around. Many owners will occasionally hide their pet’s food or offer live prey to give the tegus an opportunity to scavenge and hunt as they would in the wild.
Tegus are scavengers who eat just about anything. In the wild, their diet relies heavily on insects, plants, fruits, eggs and small animals such as rodents. In captivity, it’s important to feed your tegu a mix of meat and veggies, with the occasional whole prey, but they will most likely munch on anything you throw at them. Argentine tegus are considered omnivore, in nature they have been observed eating fruits, vegetables and meat in almost equal amounts. In captivity, it is best to provide them with a balanced diet that minimizes fats and sugar in order to avoid obesity and other potential health complications.
Juvenile red tegus should be fed a diet high in protein in order to promote growth. This can be achieved by feeding mostly insects such as cockroaches, crickets, grasshoppers, earthworms, mealworms, silkworms and snails. As they grow larger, you may be able to start feeding them pinkies and reptilinks. Eventually, you can feed them raw chicken and turkey, raw or boiled eggs (with the shell), fish and shrimp; as well as vegetables and fruits such as carrots, bell peppers, squash, pumpkins, dandelions, strawberries, blueberries, apples, grapes, cherries, cactus pads and fruits. Argentine tegus need plenty of fruits and vegetables in their diet as adults, but it’s best to go easy on fruits which are naturally high in sugar. As a rule of thumb, aim at the following diet percentages:
|Juvenile red tegu (0-2 years)||90% protein, 10% fruits and vegetables|
|Adult red tegu (>2 years)||60% protein, 30% vegetables, 10% fruits|
How often you need to feed your tegu depends largely on its age. The younger your pet, the more often it needs to be fed. Fully grown adults only need to be fed a couple of times a week, although you may still decide to feed them daily (make sure you don’t over do it or you risk ending up with an obese lizard).
|Hatchlings (0-6 months)||Feed every day|
|Juveniles (7-12 months)||Feed almost every day|
|Subadults (1-3 years)||Feed every other day|
|Adults (>3 years)||Feed twice a week|
Foods to avoid
- Wild caught insects
- Processed meats
- Canned food that is high in sodium or sugar
- Azalea flowers
- Azalea leaves
- Buttercup flowers
- Marijuana leaves or flowers
Feed in moderation:
- Raw eggs – can lower vitamin B7 absorption
- Citrus and acidic fruits such as oranges and tomatoes
- Fruits that are high in phosphorus or sugars – see: how to choose the best fruits for your tegu
- Vegetables with poor nutrient contents such as lettuce and cucumber
- Vegetables high in oxalates and goitrogens – see: how to choose the best vegetables for your tegu
- Raw fish containing thiaminase (such as anchovies, bass, bream, carp, goldfish, tuna) – can lower vitamin B1 absorption
Calcium supplements are especially recommended for reptiles. Choose a calcium supplement that is free of phosphorus and vitamin D3 and dust your tegus’s food with it once to twice per week. Occasionally feeding whole prey (e.g. frozen mice, whole fish with bones) can also help provide calcium as opposed to ground meats. Finally, you may also gut load live insect preys with calcium and then feed them to your tegu.
Once a week, you can sprinkle or mix a multivitamin with your tegu’s food as well. These recommendations are the same for all tegus regardless of age and species.
Brumation is the reptile equivalent to hybernation. The process of brumation in nature lasts about 6-8 months during winter, when days are shorter and temperature cooler. During this period, the lizard appears to be “dormant”, spending most of its time inside the enclosure, conserving energy, and only rarely venturing outside for food.
For female tegus, the process of brumation is crucial in order to prepare for breeding: a captive tegu that hasn’t undergone through brumation in the first couple of years of her life most likely won’t be able to lay eggs. That said, it is not necessary nor “unhealthy” for a tegu to skip brumation.
When pet owners decide to brumate their tegus, they often do so in order to save time and money since the lizards won’t need as much light, heat or food until the next summer. If your tegu is currently in brumation, it is recommended to still leave some food out of their cages every week or so, and remove it shortly after if the tegu refuses to eat.
Common health disorders
- Nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism (metabolic bone disease)
- Respiratory infections
- Obstruction from substrate ingestion
Common disorders in tegu can be prevented with adequate diet and by supplementing enough calcium. Make sure not to overfeed your tegu and limit the amounts of fruits (which are naturally high in sugar) in order to prevent obesity. Keeping your tegu in a large enough enclosure and allowing for enough room to wander and burrow will also help keeping it fit and healthy.
When it comes to water, it’s important to provide fresh, clean water to your tegu every day. Red tegus are particularly prone to shedding issues and require a high humidity. Remove any scales that may stay partly attached to your tegu’s body during shedding manually.
The enclosure also needs to be maintained regularly by cleaning every piece of decor / furniture with detergent every couple of months and replacing the substrate once or twice a year. When feeding your tegu, it’s best to use tongs or to place the food in a bowl outside of the enclosure in order to avoid your tegu accidentally ingesting soil with their food.
On rare occasions, a tegu may drop their tail – as with other types of lizard, this is generally not a cause of concern as they can regenerate it fully. Tegus may drop their tail following an injury or if they feel threatened – when a lizard is grabbed by the tail by a potential predator, they may drop it as a survival mechanism that allows them to escape.
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PetsWithScales.com is an informational website about big lizard pet care. We collect and provide information from different sources across the web on how to keep and care for reptiles as pets. The species we mainly deal with are tegus, monitor lizards, skinks and geckos. Our aim is to provide high quality information to help pet owners make better, more informed decisions about their animal’s diets, health and life.