Swifts and Spiny Lizards as Pets

If you’ve tried to catch one (even in a terrarium), then you know that the robust, attractive Swifts are well-named! Although averaging 5-7 inches in length, Swifts and Spiny Lizards will not thrive in small terrariums, and usually “abhor” handling. However, if provided proper care and a large enclosure, most make hardy pets, and they oblige breeders by bearing live young – no pesky incubators!


The Swifts (genus Sceloporus) all share a similar body plan, but are none-the-less an amazingly-diverse group of lizards, with 96 species having been named so far. Formerly classified as members of the family Iguanidae, Swifts are now placed in their own subfamily, Sceloporinae, within the family Phrynosomatidae (which also contains the Horned Lizards).

Range and Habitat

Swifts reach their greatest diversity from the southwestern USA to Baja California, Mexico, but may be found throughout most of the USA and well into Central America. They are confirmed “sun-worshipers”, and are most often seen basking on rock piles, tree trunks, fences (several are known as “Fence Swifts”) and building walls.

Those native to the USA typically occupy sparse woodlands, arid scrub or deserts, but several in Mexico and Central America are found in humid and mountainous forests.

Appearance and Temperament

Averaging 5-7 inches in length, all Swifts are sturdily-built, alert and - as one might guess - fast-moving and clad in sharp, over-lapping scales. Some species use the thick, pointed tail scales to protect the body after wedging themselves within rock crevices. Males are brightly-colored, with many species exhibiting bright blue patches along the abdomen and neck. In others, such as Bocourt’s Swift, S. acanthinus, the entire body is colored various shades of brilliant green.

Many, including all those native to higher altitudes, bear live young.

Swift Lizard Housing

Swifts tend to remain high-strung in captivity. If provided with a suitably large enclosure, the commonly-available species make hardy pets. However, they will not thrive if confined to small terrariums, and are best thought of as pets to observe rather than handle. Captive-born individuals may respond well to handling, but unfortunately many in the trade are wild-caught. Hot basking temperatures (95-100 F) and access to UVB are essential to their health.

Swift Lizard Diet

Swifts feed upon ants, beetles, spiders, scorpions and other invertebrates; large individuals may take smaller lizards on occasion. The diet should be comprised of roaches, crickets, hornworms, sow bugs, butter worms and wild-caught insects, along with vitamin/mineral supplements.