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Choosing a Savanna Monitor

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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Savanna monitors are popular Old World pets. The island continent of Australia has the honor of having the most species. Several of the more inexpensive species, the African savanna monitor among them, are popular impulse purchases in the casual pet trade.

This lizard is essentially insectivorous by nature, but also will eat small mammals, other lizards, snakes, amphibians, baby tortoises and tortoise eggs, bird eggs, mollusks, and carrion. Primarily terrestrial, the monitor can run swiftly when necessary and can inflict a nasty bite.

Hatchling savanna monitors can be purchased so cheaply, and are so endearing, that many are bought on impulse. But they can grow fast, and adult savanna monitors need more cage-space than many owners can provide. This is tragic because when that impulse-purchased baby monitor is an adult and no longer wanted, it is not always easy to find a new home. A well-cared for monitor can live 10 to 15 years.

Behavior

The savanna monitor is a large, rather heavy-bodied, predatory lizard. Young monitors can climb moderately well, but the species is primarily terrestrial. Wild savanna monitors bask extensively. This lizard has very strong jaws and sharp teeth, a formidable combination if you happen to be bitten. Additionally, the claws are sharp and the strong tail is used as a whip. As would be expected, wild-collected adults can be difficult to acclimate but babies are quite easily handled.

Farmed baby savanna monitors are the best choice for pets. With persistent gentle handling many become quite tame, some extremely so. There is some indication that sexually mature male savanna monitors may become less trustworthy and more difficult to handle during the breeding season. Even if your monitor is very tame do not give him an opportunity to bite.

Appearance

Baby savanna monitors have been readily available in the pet trade for the last 30 years. Because of this it may be the world's most recognizable monitor. Both adults and hatchlings have a sandy tan to gray (sometimes darker) ground color bearing a pattern of dark outlined light spots. The tail color is often lighter than that of the body with numerous thin, vertical, dark bands. The scales on the nape are greatly
enlarged and knob-like. The limbs are strong and the claws are sharp. Adult male savanna monitors can attain a heavy-bodied 4 feet in total length. Females are often somewhat smaller.

Feeding

Savanna monitors are traditionally fed a diet of small rodents and baby chicks. On this diet the lizards soon become unnaturally obese and lethargic. This is probably no healthier for them than it would be for a human. It has recently been demonstrated that a diet of insects and other low fat animal protein is better than rodents for the long-term well being of savanna monitors.

Crickets, roaches, grasshoppers and king mealworms are all avidly eaten and should form a large percentage of the diet, even of large monitors. Supplement this with some prepared commercial monitor food (chicken and fish based) and some mice. If you happen to be raising your own mice, raise them on a low fat diet. If mice constitute only 30 percent to 45 percent of your monitor's diet, there should be no problem.
A sizable shallow container of fresh drinking water should always be present. If this is large enough and kept warm, your monitor will probably also soak in it.

Fast growing babies and adult female monitors should be given a D3-calcium supplement twice weekly. For adult males, provide vitamin-mineral supplements at least once every two weeks.

Housing

Although a 7- to 10-inch long baby savanna monitor could, in a pinch, be kept in a 15-gallon terrarium, a larger cage is always better. An adult savanna monitor needs a cage at least 8 foot long by 4 foot wide by 4 foot high. Crisscross the cage with sizable diagonal and elevated horizontal limbs (at least the diameter of the lizards body) and a hidebox. Visual barriers offer the lizards a feeling of security that is important to them. Illuminate and warm one end of the cage, which includes a secure and often used perch (this will not necessarily be the highest perch), to 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit with a full-spectrum UV-B-heat bulb. The terrarium's ambient daytime temperature should be about 85 F. Nighttime temperatures can drop by a few degrees. A substrate of mulch (of some non-aromatic form) can provide ease of cleaning. Many monitors regularly defecate in their water receptacles. Be prepared to change this as necessary. Greenhouses and spare rooms can also be adapted as a monitor home.

Medical Concerns

  • Metabolic bone disease
  • Self trauma and escape behavior

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