If you’ve ever had a blue-tongue skink (our recommended “prerequisite” before getting a tegu), the best way to summarize a tegu is that it’s basically a BTS — except larger, stronger, and smarter. We’re talking about up to 5’ and 15 lbs of muscular predatory lizard here. Tegus are incredibly bright and curious lizards that make wonderful pets, but first you need to tame them properly.
Colombian tegus have a reputation for being difficult to tame, but Argentine tegus aren’t typically aggressive, and both will eventually tame down with patience and regular, gentle handling. In fact, fully tame Argentine tegus have been described as “dog-like.” Some even go so far as to say that tamed tegus bond with their keepers and depend on them for companionship, seeking and demanding attention from humans. Personally I’m not comfortable going that far, and more research needs to be done on the tegu brain to prove whether this is anthropomorphism or a form of domestication.
Tegus are also extremely intelligent! They can solve problems to get to food, be target trained, and even respond to their names as well as a few vocal commands. I won’t be covering that in this guide, but it is really cool.
Tegus aren’t bearded dragons that might send you to the bathroom for a band-aid if you get bitten. They have muscular limbs, a powerful jaw, strong claws, and a long tail capable of dealing a “rat-tail”-like whip.
Young and/or untamed tegus see you as a predator that is planning to eat them, and they will run/fight for their life against you. Your job, then, is to prove to them that you are not a threat through gentle but persistent tegu handling.
Taming Young Tegus
The best way to tame a tegu is to get it as a hatchling. Argentine tegu hatchlings are only 7-10” (17-25 cm) long, and Colombian tegu hatchlings are even smaller. They’re easier to handle at this size, and are more likely to run rather than bite or tail whip. The more you interact with them, however, the tamer your tegu will be as an adult.
This is also great time to starting training food aggression out of your tegu. Whenever you offer food, stay nearby — specifically your hand. Move your hand around as your tegu eats. Touch them, stroke them, etc. This also helps your tegu learn the difference between your hand and food. If they bite, they are too small to do any real damage.
Your biggest challenge is that hatchlings are naturally flighty, as the world around them is seen as big and dangerous. Anything that moves could be a potential predator, especially anything that suddenly swoops down from above.
PRO TIP: Young tegus between roughly 18″ and 30″ long go through a developmental phase where they are extremely aggressive/defensive and seem to uniformly hate everything, including you. Some people compare it to human puberty. Don’t take it personally, give your tegu their space, and wait it out — it will end!!
Taming Adult Tegus
Untamed adult tegus are bold and defensive. They will tail whip and bite to protect themselves, making adopting one of these a project best left to the most experienced reptile keepers. This will require a pair of welding gloves and thick boots.
First, lay a foundation of trust
Tegus are opportunistic hunters in the wild, which means that they are curious and easy to condition in captivity. The key to success is repeated positive interactions that teach the tegu that humans are not a threat. This can be accomplished with patience, consistency, and frequent (but short) handling sessions.
First, place a recently-worn (preferably sweaty) shirt in his/her hide so that they come to associate your scent with security.
After a couple weeks, accustom it to your presence. Ignoring your tegu is actually a great way to tame him/her. Reading a book, checking your phone, watching TV – eventually the tegu will get curious and come over to check you out. If you can’t resist, you can try resting a hand in the enclosure, but don’t try to grab them just yet.
Every once in a while, start petting them and offering treats like blueberries, hornworms, or a scrap of meat. Don’t always have food in your hands, however, or else you may accidentally spark food aggression.
Never disturb your tegu while it is in its hide. That is their sacred space; invading that space is predatory move and a sure way to lose (or damage) your tegu’s trust.
Tegu handling tips
When the time comes to handle your tegu for the first time, approach him/her from the side where they can see you, not from above like a predator. Front-opening enclosures are especially useful for facilitating this.
Start by placing one hand under the base of tail, then slide your hand up to the chest to secure the front legs. For added security, tuck the tail under the nearest arm and hold the tegu close to your body.
Be gentle and never attempt to manhandle your tegu. The harder you fight, the harder he will fight — and you will lose.
If it starts flailing, this means that it doesn’t trust you or doesn’t feel secure. Adjusting your grip or additional taming may be needed.
If your tegu tends to get “hangry,” be sure to feed him/her before a handling session.
Around the 18-24 month mark, all tegus go through a period of adolescence affectionately known as “guberty.” Like human puberty, this is a time of important hormonal shifts in a tegu’s brain and body. Also like human puberty, this is a time when tegus will become distinctly unpleasant to be around.
Even if they were formerly perfectly hand-tame, your tegu at this time will experience a completely personality shift, where they will want nothing to do with you, and may even become violent. You may get the impression that they hate your guts. This sudden behavioral change surprises many unprepared tegu keepers, and is the most common age for tegus to be rehomed or abandoned as their keepers find themselves overwhelmed.
Guberty lasts for several months, and can be frustrating to endure as you care for a pet that you purchased to be a companion and yet now spurns you entirely. DON’T GIVE UP! Let them have their space. Don’t force yourself on them. Just feed them, make sure their enclosure is clean and comfortable, and if you have to handle them for any reason, wear long sleeves and a thick pair of leather work gloves.
It may feel like the process takes forever, but your tegu will eventually come around and remember you as its loving keeper. As suddenly as the intensely defensive behavior began, it will disappear, and with continued taming efforts, you will have a calm, confident, pleasant adult.
Mating season for tegus begins after brumation, which is around March-April in the United States. Male tegus may be sensitive to and exhibit courting behavior toward human females, but they are not typically aggressive during this time. If anything they may be overly affectionate.
Sarah Curry, the owner of Winston the Tegu on social media, has reported that Winston bounces his jowls while with her. Sometimes it is just a sign of contentment, but other times it is a mating display. While jowl bouncing, his eyes will open wide and he will produce a long, frequent chuffing sound as an indication that he wants to mate. Male tegus have been known to attempt mounting their female owners, so take caution.
Do tegus bite?They can bite, but it doesn’t mean they always will.
The good news: Tame tegus are unlikely to bite. The bad news: Accidents happen.
Because tegus are large lizards with strong jaws, an aggressive bite from an adult tegu can be quite serious. Wild or untamed tegus are most likely to bite. Here are some behaviors to look out for:
- Frequent, fast tongue flicking: Means that the tegu smells something potentially tasty. Your hand likely smells like something they want to taste — wash your hands immediately. The bite that follows, however, is usually slow and gentle.
- Arched back, head down, heavy breathing: Aggressive posture that means “don’t mess with me!” If you approach a tegu that looks like this, back away slowly. Coming closer will likely result in either a hasty retreat (if you’re lucky) or tail whipping and/or biting.
- “Snake tail”: Tail twitches erratically or waves like a snake. Means that the tegu is about to charge, so your best bet is to get away ASAP.
This video does a good job of showcasing tegu defensive behavior, as well as an ability to briefly sprint on their hind legs:
Other things you can do to prevent getting bitten by your tegu is to avoid hand-feeding (tongs are fine) and keep the tegu’s mouth away from your face.
IF YOU HAVE BEEN BITTEN: wash the wound with mild soap and water. If it is deep or severe, go the hospital and be honest with the doctors about what happened. Stitches will likely be required, along with antibiotics.
- Introduction to Tegus
- Shopping List
- List of Tegu Species
- Terrarium Sizing for Hatchlings, Juveniles & Adults
- Temperature & Humidity Requirements
- Substrate Options
- Decorating Your Tegu’s Enclosure
- Feeding Your Tegu
- Handling Tips
- Benefits of Free-Roaming
- Common Problems & Questions About Tegu Health
- Additional Resources