Tegu lizards are terrestrial reptiles native to South America. They are somewhat similar in appearance to monitor lizards, of which they are distant relatives, the two animal families being an example of convergent evolution.
Tegus are one of the larger species of lizard that can be kept in captivity and have become quite popular as pets in the US, UK and other parts of the world. These animals are appreciated because of their intelligence, they are fun to keep around, and at times even affectionate, which makes for overall some great exotic pets to care for.
Below you will find a generic caresheet for the three common species of tegus in captivity. For more specific information, see the individual care sheets for each species:
- Salvator merianae (Argentine black and white tegu, Blue tegu, Chacoan whiteheaded tegu)
- Salvator rufescens (Red tegu)
- Tupinambis teguixin (Colombian tegu a.k.a. Gold tegu)
Tegu Lizard Care Sheet
|Scientific Name:||Salvator merianae (Argentine tegu)|
Salvator rufescens (Red tegu)
Tupinambis teguixin (Colombian tegu)
|Regions Found:||Southeastern Brazil, eastern Paraguay, Uruguay, eastern Argentina|
|Class:||Terrestrial living in savannah and grassland habitats|
Juveniles have arboreal tendencies
|Sexual Maturity:||18-36 months|
|Adult Size:||4-4.5 feet (male Argentine tegu, Red tegu)|
2-3 feet (male Colombian tegu)
|Temperament:||Generally very docile as adults|
|Housing Size:||8x4x4 (Argentine black and white tegu, Red tegu)|
6x3x3 (Colombian tegu, Blue tegu)
|Diet:||Omnivore (Argentine tegu, Red tegu)|
Mainly carnivore (Colombian tegu, all juvenile tegus)
|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:||50% – 80% (Argentine tegu, Colombian tegu)|
70%-90% (Red tegu)
|Clutch Size:||1 clutch with 10-70 eggs (average of 30)|
|Gestation Period:||2-3 weeks|
|Incubation Period:||60 days|
Types of Tegus
There are over 400 species of lizards that are classified as tegus, but only a few are commonly kept as pets. The three most popular types of domestic tegu are the Argentine tegu or Black & White tegu (salvator merianae), the Red tegu (salvator rufescens) and the Colombian tegu or Gold tegu (tupinambis teguixin). These have similar requirements in captivity, although the Argentine tegus are generally considered more docile and easier to domesticate, whereas the Colombian tegus are deemed somewhat more aggressive and difficult to tame. Another typology of tegu often found in the trade is the so-called “Blue tegu” which is actually a morph of the Argentine black and white tegu. This specimen will look like a smaller version of the Argentine tegu, with slight blue undertones which are only visible in fully adult individuals, and it’s one of the most beginner-friendly tegus to keep.
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.
Tegu lizards can grow really big rather quickly. Argentine black and white tegus, the largest species, can grow up to 4.5 feet and weigh over 20 pounds as adults. Keep in mind that it is not possible to estimate tegu size by age as each specimen grows at different rates based on diet and environmental factors. As a rule of thumb, males grow larger than females, and pets that are fed daily and do not undergo brumation will get larger in size compared to those who are fed more sporadically.
Tegu growth chart
|Species||Max size for adult male|
|Black and white tegu||4’-5’|
All tegu species are native to South America, where they can be found in a variety of natural habitats such as the Amazon rainforest, savannas, and semiarid, desert-like environments. Because of their high adaptability to new environments they pose the risk of becoming invasive species outside of their native areas. This is especially a concern in the United States where non-native tegus have been released in the wild in Florida and Georgia. In captivity, it is important to provide adequate husbandry by creating an enclosure that is large enough to house a fully grown adult, and which allows for burrowing and hiding.
Tegus are quite intelligent animals and with proper training they can become great pets. Taming a tegu requires time and patience but Argentine tegus especially are known to become attached to their owners and may even show forms of “affection” by climbing on their caretaker’s lap and interacting with them. Their behavior is somewhat similar to that of cats – they will spend most of their time exploring their environment, hunting or eating, playing around and destroying things. They love to dig and burrow, but they have also been spotted climbing at times and they can swim. Because of their intelligence they are quite good escape artists as well, so make sure your enclosure is sturdy and secured to avoid them finding their way out and surprising the neighbors.
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. Remember that Argentine tegus tend to grow bigger than colombian tegus, and males grow larger than females. A minimum enclosure size of 8x4x4 is generally recommended for Argentine black and white tegus and for Red tegus, whereas a 6x3x3 enclosure may suffice for Blue tegus and Colombian tegus. The length of the cage should be no less than twice the length of the lizard.
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.
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.
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.
Please note that dietary requirements are different between Argentine tegus and Colombian tegus! Argentine tegus are in fact considered omnivore (they eat roughly as much vegetables as they do meat), whereas Colombian tegus are considered carnivore as they eat mostly meat.
All young tegus, regardless of species, 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 black and white tegu will need plenty of fruits and vegetables in their diet as adults, whereas Colombian tegus do not.
As a rule of thumb, aim at the following diet percentages:
|Young tegus (0-2 years)||90% protein, 10% fruits and vegetables|
|Argentine tegu (>2 years)||60% protein, 30% vegetables, 10% fruits|
|Colombian tegu (>2 years)||90% protein, 10% fruits and vegetables|
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|
Tegus are carnivorous as hatchling, so fruit and vegetables are unnecessary and since they are still growing at such a fast rate, it is okay to feed hatchlings as much as they will eat. Insects and small rodents such as crickets, cockroaches, meal worms, wax worms, silk worms, butter worms, and pink mice are all recommended. Chicken or turkey meat, fish and cooked poultry eggs can also be offered if small enough to be swallowed.
At this stage, tegus are pretty large and although they can still be fed on insects, it becomes quite expensive. Fruits and vegetables are now on offer and since they are still growing at such a fast rate, it is okay to feed yearlings as much as they will eat. Chicken or turkey meat, fish, cooked poultry eggs, small rats and mice, berries, melons, and dark leafy greens are all recommended.
As adults there is not much room for growth and so the tegus diet needs to be regulated more in order to prevent obesity. One substantial meal every other day should be enough. Chicken or turkey meat, cooked poultry eggs, medium rats, adult mice, fresh fish, day old chicks, berries, grapes, tomatoes, melons, apples, bananas, and dark leafy greens are all recommended.
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
- Acidic fruits such as citrus. See: best fruits for tegu
- Veggies high in oxalates and/or goitrogens. See: best veggies for 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 including tegus. Preferably opt for 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 some multivitamin with your tegu’s food as well. These recommendations are the same for all tegus regardless of age and species.
Developing lizards shed their skin every couple of months as it is replaced by new, larger and unspoilt skin underneath. It is important to check regularly if your tegu has successfully shed and that there are no regions of trapped shed still attached to the body. Trapped skin usually occurs on fingers and tail ends, and can be the result of poor diet or low humidity. Red tegu seem to be particularly sensitive to shedding issues and a higher humidity is generally recommended.
If shed skin is not removed by the tegu it may be necessary to gently massage the area with a cotton bud or tissue. Try to push the skin off without damaging any limbs, and if that is not possible it may be time to visit your vet.
Brumation for reptiles is the 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 going into 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. During brumation itself tegus do not need food, but you’ll still need to make sure they get access to fresh water regularly.
- 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. You can also provide enrichment via scatter feeding and by using toys.
When it comes to water, it’s important to provide fresh, clean water to your tegu every day. 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.
If your tegu has lost their tail it’s important to keep the area clean and disinfected while a new tail grows and to make sure your tegu gets enough nutrition in its diet to replenish energy used to grow the new tail.
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.