Chuckwallas as Pets

Chuckwallas are much valued for their laid-back attitudes and insects-not-required dietary preferences. These desert-dwellers do need high temperatures and lots of UVB exposure, but in return will reward careful owners with an eagerness to hand-feed and a lifespan of up to 25 years - their many fans agree that this is a wonderful deal!

The Common Chuckwalla (Sauromalus obesus), is the most common species of pet Chuckwalla. Assuming it is provided with appropriately-high temperatures and ample access to UVB light, this attractive desert denizen may live for over 25 years in captivity. Rarer Chuckwalla subspecies and species are more often seen in zoos than private collections, but interest in several is growing.


The five Chuckwalla species are classified in the family Iguanidae. The Common Chuckwalla, a subspecies of the Northern Chuckwalla, Sauromalus ater, is widely bred by hobbyists. Less often seen (in the wild and captivity) are the Spiny Chuckwalla, S. hispidus, the Spotted Chuckwalla, S. klauberi, the Monserrat Chuckwalla, S. slevini and the Piebald Chuckwalla, S. varius.

Range and Habitat

Chuckwallas are found from the southwestern USA to southern Baja California, Mexico, and also inhabit nearby islands. The various subspecies of the Northern Chuckwalla range from California, Nevada and Utah south to northern Mexico, while the Spiny Chuckwalla inhabits Baja California and extreme northern mainland Mexico. The remaining species are restricted to small offshore islands in the Gulf of California – Santa Catalina (Spotted Chuckwalla), Monserrat, Carmen and Soronados (Monserrat Chuckwalla) and San Esteban, Roco Lobos and Pelicano (Piebald Chuckwalla).

Chuckwallas occupy deserts and arid, rocky scrublands, and are usually associated with cactus, creosote bushes and other such vegetation. Rock piles are essential as basking sites and retreats, and Chuckwallas rarely range far from them. When threatened, Chuckwallas squeeze their somewhat flattened bodies into rock crevices and inflate themselves with air. Thus securely wedged, they are difficult to dislodge.

Appearance and Temperament

The stoutly-built Common Chuckwalla averages 8-10 inches in length (but may top 15), and is among the heaviest of the USA’s native lizards. Most other species are in this general size range, but the Piebald Chuckwalla may exceed 30 inches in length.

Chuckwallas are large lizards that grow up to 16 inches in length. They are robust, with flattened wide bellies and thick blunt tails. The skin has a granular texture and loosely folded on the neck and sides of the body. Males have body colors ranging from light gray to yellow-orange and reddish pink. Head and limbs are usually black. They also have the characteristic femoral pores on the thighs. Females have spotted markings and light and dark bands of yellow or gray.

When food is abundant, and several males are present, a dominant Chuckwalla will claim his territory (by changing colors, head bobbing and opening the mouth). Territoriality is conditional and mostly ignored during lean times. Juvenile Chuckwallas acclimate to captive environments easier than adults. When threatened, a Chuckwalla runs towards rocky crags and sneaks into a tight crevice and inhales to inflate its body and wedge itself so that predators can’t pull it out.

Chuckwalla Housing

Chuckwallas make long-lived, easily-handled pets if they are provided with suitably high temperatures (basking sites should be kept at 100-110 F) and abundant natural or artificial UVB exposure. A large terrarium is essential if a healthful temperature gradient (areas of hot and cooler temperatures) is to be established.

The large Chuckwalla is best kept in a large dry desert-type cage with rocky formations that are stable enough for the lizard to climb, bask, or dig under for hiding. A 2- to 4-inch substrate of sand and gravel would be ideal for their burrowing nature. A small water bowl should be provided for drinking. Day temp: 86-100F; night temp: 64-68F; basking temp: 104F; lighting: 14 hours, UV radiation required.

Chuckwallas are best kept in pairs or groups with only one male. A good misting in the morning, once or twice a week is recommended. Under ideal conditions, Chuckwallas may have a lifespan of about 25 years.

Chuckwalla Diet

In the wild, Chuckwallas feed largely upon the flowers, leaves and fruits of desert plants, but take ants, beetles, spiders and other invertebrates as well.

As pets, Chuckawallas need a wide variety of fibrous greens and vegetables, supplemented with crickets, roaches and other insects, for proper nutrition.