One of the most challenging aspects of iguana ownership is taming your iguana. Iguanas are not domesticated animals the way dogs and cats are – that is, they have not been bred in captivity for many years to breed out traits that are unsuitable in captivity. Iguanas still have all the instincts and behaviors that help them survive in the wild, and that means that you should expect it to take some time before your iguana becomes comfortable and tame. In addition, it is important that you continue to work with and handle your iguana in a positive way on a daily basis, or it will tend to revert back to its wild behaviors again. Iguanas that are not handled properly and with care will never tame down well, because they will associate handling with fear or discomfort. Therefore, it is important that you learn how to handle your iguana safely and comfortably.
Handling babies -
Picking them up: When you handle your baby iguana, you should always remember that it will be much more squirmy than an adult iguana. Generally, a healthy baby green iguana is active and jumpy, although there are the few individuals who have always acted calmly.
It is important that you handle a baby iguana daily. Until you are certain that the iguana won't jump off, run away, and possibly get stuck somewhere, handle the iguana in a small iguana proof room, such as a bathroom. Wedge a towel under the door so the iguana can't squeeze under it, make sure the toilet seat is down, and if the garbage can has a plastic bag or edible things in it, place it in the vanity or put it outside the door.
Probably one of the worst things to do with a young, untamed iguana is to just reach in and grab it. Always remember to go slowly and gently. When approaching your iguana, do so calmly. Talking gently or whispering may help. Gently stroke the iguana along its body and the top of its head. Slip one hand under its front feet, and kind of scoop up the iguana with your other hand. Make sure the iguana is situated solidly in one hand before you actually lift it; with a new baby iguana don't scoop and lift at the same time as this might frighten it. One important thing to remember is to never pick up or grab an iguana by the tail. The tail will break off as a defense mechanism. Although the tail will probably grow back, the breaking process will be traumatic for both you and your iguana.
Holding them: You can support a small iguana's entire body, or close to it, with one hand. The front end of the iguana will be supported by your fingers, while the back end is supported by the palm of your hand. With untamed, skittish babies, you may want to keep your other hand cupped loosely over their body to prevent them from scampering away when you least expect it. Once you've picked up the iguana as described above and carried it to the iguana-proof room, you can allow your iguana to lay on your arm, walk up and down you, etc. As with adult iguanas, early morning or late evening can be an ideal time to handle the baby, as it may be more docile while sleepy.
Provide support, be gentle, don't grab. Those are the three things you should remember while handling a baby iguana.
Handling adults -
Picking them up: Bluntly put, adult iguanas can be a pain to pick up. Their instinct is to hang onto whatever they're currently resting on as tightly as possible when they see you reaching for them. For this reason, it is important that you pick your adult up slowly and gently. Do not quickly yank it off of its perch without first loosening the grip of each of its feet. Doing so risks yanking out claws or otherwise hurting your iguana. This step can be a bit tricky. If you take too long with it, your iguana has gotten a good grip again with the first feet you loosened by the time you loosen the last one! After a bit of practice, you will be able to swiftly loosen your iguana's grip and gently pick it up.
To actually pick your iguana up, approach it from the side so that it can see you coming. Use one hand to loosen the grip of the front feet while at the same time, use your other hand to loosen the grip of the back feet. Once your iguana's grip is loosened, slip one hand under the front shoulders and the other under the back legs and lift your iguana off its perch. Be mindful of the long tail, and be sure you don't bend it or whap it on something as you maneuver your iguana around.
Holding them: As is true with babies, adult iguanas must be held in a way that comfortably supports their weight. There are a couple of ways you can hold an adult, depending upon its size and temperament.
For a calm adult, you can carry and hold it by slipping your hand under the front shoulders and supporting the body with your forearm. Your hand supports the shoulders, and the front legs dangle down comfortably in between your fingers. Your iguana will probably get a good grip on your arm with its back legs. If your iguana is calm and still, you can keep your grip relaxed, but can quickly tighten your fingers around the front shoulders should the need arise. The photo below shows a typical handling method for a calm adult. Notice how the body is completely supported by the forearm.
An adult iguana that is very comfortable being handled will often happily use its owner or any other handy human as a basking tree. In the photo below, Primrose enjoys hanging out on a friend's arm. You will notice that she is hanging on herself, rather than being held onto. This type of relaxed handling is only wise when you are in an area that is safely enclosed and quiet, and where your iguana will not become startled and jump or dart away before you can react.
For an adult that is a bit more active, you can use the same handling method, but can use your body to provide additional control. By holding your arm close to your body, and tucking your iguana's tail between your body and arm, you can control an iguana that is being a bit skittish. Iguanas that are fearful of being held will often do better when held closer to your body, because it gives them an added sense of security and more support. This handling method is demonstrated in the photo below.
For larger adults, the two-handed method of handling may be preferable. In this method, one hand is used to support the front of the body, and the other is used to support the back legs. This works better for iguanas that are heavier and/or too squirmy for the one-arm method described above. One thing to keep in mind when handling adults is that it is a good idea to keep your iguana's head and teeth facing away from you - to avoid bites - should your iguana get angry or frightened. Also, keeping the tail towards you gives you better control and protects the tail from being hit on things as you carry your iguana around. The photo below shows the two-handed holding method.
Sometimes your iguana absolutely does not want to be held. It will "voice" its displeasure at your handling attempts in a variety of ways – quickly expelling air through its nose to make a displeased huffing noise, giving you the evil eye, swatting your hand away as you reach for it, or squirming and/or crocodile rolling when you finally get it picked up. Of course you cannot let your iguana get away with this behavior all the time, or it will "train" you to leave it alone and it will never become tame and easily handled. It is okay to occasionally decline to handle your iguana when it asks you to, but don't make a habit of it. In addition to causing problems later, there are situation where you need to pick up and handle your iguana, whether it wants you to or not. For instance, your iguana may be out and needs to be returned to its enclosure. You may need to carry it to the tub, outside to its basking cage, or hold it at the vet's office or while you trim its claws or administer medication. If your iguana is not being cooperative and is hard to handle, you might try the "taco iguana" method of handling, which you can see in the photo below. If your wrap your iguana fairly tightly in a towel, you can control scratching claws and flailing tail. This method also allows you to un-tuck one arm at a time, trim claws, tuck that arm back in the towel, and repeat the process until all the claws are trimmed, for instance.
Another way to handle an aggitated iguana is to hold it firmly in two hands and then lift it above your head. This will often calm struggling iguanas - pehaps because they find themselves up high where they feel secure. When the iguana has become calm and has stopped struggling, you can then return it to its normal position.
As time goes by, you and your iguana will become comfortable with one another, and you will find the handling method that works the best for the two of you. The key is to continue to handle your iguana in a way that is, if not wonderfully pleasant for it, not unpleasant, so that it learns not to fear being picked up and held. Once you fall into a handling routine, you and your iguana will be able to enjoy each other's company a lot more.