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How to Handle a Lizard

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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You might wonder why you need to handle your lizard since a lizard has no innate need to be handled, no matter how gently you may do it. In fact, most lizards will not (and cannot) become accustomed to being handled. To a lizard, being picked up by something big and ugly (that's you) means it is going to die.

The personal downside to handling lizards is that they bite. Depending on the size and the type of lizard, being bitten may not hurt, or it may hurt a lot and need extensive medical attention (read "plastic surgery"). Even the "tamest" lizard can be spooked, feel a surge of hormones and become aggressive.

So yes, you can handle your lizard, but this won't be good for it and it may not be good for you. And you must always wash your hands thoroughly after handling your lizard or working in its terrarium to protect yourself from the possibility of contracting Salmonella, a bacteria that is often carried by reptiles and amphibians and which can cause illness in humans

Lizards That Can Be Handled

There are a few lizards that can become accustomed to being handled; savannah monitors and bearded dragons are among them. Both are readily available in the pet market, and the initial cost of these animals is fairly low for younger specimens.

The problem with savannah monitors is that they are one of the running lizards: They literally chase down their prey in the wild. They get big, too, to just over five feet in head-to-tail tip length. They also have big mouths and strong jaws, filled with teeth designed to disable and hold prey. There are people who take their savannah monitors to public places, swear it's "gentle as a kitten" and encourage other people to pet the lizard. From a non-lizard-keeper's viewpoint, even touching a large lizard is a thrill, but if the lizard gets spooked and someone gets bitten, a lawsuit is a real risk.

If holding or handling a lizard is important to you, a bearded dragon is your best choice. These lizards, though omnivorous when young, are vegetarians, dining quite happily on mixed vegetables and greens. There is nothing they enjoy more than basking under a 105-degree Fahrenheit spotlight. Once "beardeds" become accustomed to being handled, they seem to enjoy resting across a person's warm chest, atop a warm leg or on a warm arm. (The term "warm" may play a pivotal role in this enjoyment.)

To accustom a bearded to handling, scoop it up in your hands, with one hand under the front legs and the other under the hind legs and place it on a warm surface, like your chest. Do not let go if there is any chance that the lizard could fall off.

Other lizard species are to be handled as little as possible. Some smaller types, like the day geckos, have skin so fragile that it will tear if they are restrained. (From the day gecko's viewpoint, it's probably better to lose some skin than be eaten, although a day gecko with torn skin is a disquieting sight.)

Tips for Handling

So how do you handle a lizard, if only to move it from its cage to another enclosure while you clean its cage?

  • Scoop it up. If you're dealing with a small lizard that isn't a day gecko, you can scoop it up in your hand and hold its head carefully between your thumb and forefinger. Or you can scoop the lizard up, clasp it in your hand but grasp one of its front legs between your thumb and forefinger. The lizard will struggle (so would you, under the circumstances) but it isn't going anywhere without its front leg. If a small lizard bites you, it only amounts to a pinch.

  • Plastic cup. Alternatively, you can put a large plastic cup on its side in the cage, and "shoo" the lizard into the cup. Cover the opening with your hand, turn the cup right side up, and you've captured your lizard.

  • Use two hands. Larger lizards, like an 18-inch or larger iguana, may take two hands. Iguanas rake with the claws on their hind feet, so one hand is used to pin the extended hind legs back, along the tail. The other hand is used to hold the iguana under its front legs, again pinning these back alongside the body. The iguana will wriggle, much like a fish, so hang on and keep the "holding" part of your relationship with your iguana short.

  • Pillowcase method. If you only want to move your iguana from one cage to another, and you've already established that it does not like to be touched for any reason, you can use a pillowcase. You open the pillowcase and flop it over the iguana's head. The animal already wants to get away from you, so it will usually move forward into the pillowcase. You continue to pull the pillowcase over the iguana's body and it walks into the bag.

    Once the lizard is "in the bag," you lift up the open end of the pillowcase. Gather the neck of the pillowcase bag, and wrap some sturdy string tightly about it, and tie the string. Your iguana is ready to move, with little trauma on anyone's part.

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