Environmental Enrichment: The Art of Decorating Your Tegu Enclosure

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A tegu enclosure of sufficient size, with proper heating, lighting, substrate, and food/water bowls is not enough for the long-term welfare of your pet. Sure, it meets a tegu’s most basic needs. But 1) this kind of setup is, frankly, ugly. And 2) — more importantly — minimalistic setups like this are horribly boring for your pet and do nothing to keep them entertained or help them feel secure.

Tegus are incredibly intelligent reptiles. They get bored easily, and when they’re bored, they get destructive. Worse, they turn into scaly, mindless blobs without personality. Even if you let them free-roam regularly for enrichment and exercise, that doesn’t give you an excuse to keep them locked in an empty box at all other times. If you want a tegu with personality (which of course you do — that’s probably why you’re getting one!), you need to nurture their brain.

Aside from being attractive, enclosure decorations play a very important role in a reptile’s mental and physical wellbeing by mimicking their natural environment and providing things for them to smell, explore, climb, hide under, and otherwise interact with. This is called environmental enrichment, and it’s how zoos keep their animals happy and healthy. For a more in-depth discussion on this topic, I recommend reading Environmental Enrichment For Reptiles: What? Why? and How?

Here are some ideas of items and accessories that work well for making your tegu enclosure more functional as well as more attractive:

Hide Box / Cave

When your tegu is young and small , you can use commercially available “reptile caves” to give your pet somewhere secure to hide and sleep in. The nice thing about these products is that they are fairly attractive and can assist with the overall decor of your enclosure aside from serving a practical function.

However, tegus grow quickly, and you will find that within ~1 year they will need something significantly larger. Unfortunately, there are no commercially available hides on the market suitable for an adult or even a young adult Argentine tegu. So you’ll have to dust off your DIY skills a bit. Here’s some solutions that other tegu owners have come up with:

  • Large plastic storage bin — Select a bin that looks just big enough to hold your tegu. Flip the tote upside-down and cut a tegu-sized hole in it for an entrance. Stuff with moistened sphagnum moss.
  • Plastic dog kennel — For a closer fit (tegus tend to like their hiding places tight), use the top half only.
  • Covered cat litter box — Comes with a pre-made entrance and is large enough to admit a cat comfortably, so it should be large enough to admit an adult tegu just fine! Just fill with substrate and sphagnum moss instead of kitty litter.

Large Water Tub

Although they’re not semi-aquatic, tegus like to have the option to soak every once in a while, especially when they’re preparing to shed (and especially if you have a Colombian tegu).

This means that you need to be able to provide a water tub large and deep enough for your tegu to soak its entire body in, without creating a drowning risk. (Between the huge water tub and huge hide box, are you starting to see why you need such a big enclosure for your tegu?)

Plastic under-bed storage totes work phenomenally for this purpose, as they’re both large and fairly shallow. I recommend buying these at your local home improvement store, as shipping is too expensive to make buying them online worth the convenience.

Thick Substrate

We’ve already covered the importance of a thick substrate layer for tegus. But, like the water bowl, this aspect of your enclosure can pull double duty by giving your tegu an opportunity to satisfy its natural instinct to dig and burrow. This is also a great way to keep your tegu’s claws filed down! For best results, provide at least 12″ of substrate and moisten it periodically (you should be doing this for humidity anyway).

Not all substrates are burrowable. In order to hold a burrow and be good for digging, it must have small particles that clump together well. The DIY soil mixture recommended on the Substrate page offers this function.

Large Logs/Branches

Large branches and hollow logs give tegus something to climb and hide inside. You may be able to find appropriate logs and branches at your local pet store when your tegu is young, but this gets challenging once you’re trying to find decor appropriate for a 4-5′ lizard.

If you live near a wooded area, you can collect fallen branches and trees for decor. Alternatively, if you know anyone who is chopping down a tree or ripping out a tree stump on their property, ask them for the pieces.

Live or Artificial Plants

Plants! They’re an essential part of creating a beautiful tegu enclosure. There’s just one problem: plants (even the artificial ones) are pretty fragile, and adult tegus are pretty heavy. In other words, without careful planning, your beautiful plants will get destroyed.

Artificial plants

The nice thing about artificial plants is that they’re more durable than the live ones. They also always keep their size and color (ex: always in bloom), and they never die.

The downside to them is that they can be risky to use with reptiles. The plastics and dyes that they are made from can release toxins into the air around them, and the concentration of these chemicals can build up inside of a standard enclosure. The effects that this has on reptiles is still fairly unknown, but we do know that reptiles have more sensitive respiratory systems than humans have, and “indoor pollution” from artificial materials in human homes is rapidly becoming a concern for human health.

If you choose to use artificial plants in your tegu enclosure, try to make sure that they are:

  • large
  • durable enough not to fall apart
  • low-VOC or VOC-free
  • not placed under the heat source

Live plants

Live plants require more upkeep than artificial plants, and they are definitely more fragile. You’ll also need to make sure to install high-output 6500K LED grow lights (I recommend the Arcadia Jungle Dawn LED Bar or The Bio Dude Glow & Grow ) to make sure the plants get enough light to be healthy.

But as long as you use nontoxic varieties, they shouldn’t pose a health risk if your tegu decides to take a nibble. In fact, they’ll likely increase the oxygen concentration in the air. Plus, they can also help maintain healthy humidity levels.

Here are some live plant varieties that are nontoxic and are more likely to survive in your tegu’s enclosure. For the best chance of survival, buy them as adults:

  • bamboo
  • boston fern
  • dracaena
  • english ivy
  • grape vine
  • hibiscus (rose of sharon)
  • irish moss
  • pothos
  • ornamental grass
  • snake plant
  • split-leaf philodendron
  • squash
  • umbrella plant

Using planters or keeping the plants in their pots (I recommend repotting them into something larger than what you bought them in — most plants are very rootbound when you buy them) is a good way to help defend them against getting their roots dug up by the tegu.

Assume that any potted plants you buy (especially from large chains like Home Depot and Lowe’s) have been exposed to a lot of pesticides and fertilizers. When you bring them home, take them outside, take them out of their pots and rinse most of the soil off with a hose until the roots are as clean as possible. Then repot with organic topsoil or place in your tegu enclosure. If possible, let them sit outside of the enclosure for at least a month to “purge” any remaining chemicals from the leaves.

If you see a plant at your local nursery that looks like it might be large and durable enough for your tegu, check The Tortoise Table‘s database first to make sure it’s not toxic. When in doubt, don’t use it!

argentine tegu enclosure
Contributed by Ash Whatcott

“Toys”

It hasn’t yet been determined whether tegus are capable of true “play”. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that they may be able to:

  • In this viral video, a tegu is shown chasing a thrown ball.
  • In this video, a tegu seems fascinated with its owner’s socks, chasing and pouncing on them.
  • In this video, a tegu manipulates a puzzle ball to access the Reptilink food placed inside.

Additionally, another highly intelligent reptile — the Komodo dragon — was recently recorded demonstrating what some experts are arguing to be “true” play behavior. If Komodos can play, then maybe tegus can, too!

Either way, providing objects specifically to encourage your tegu to think, explore, and exercise is a great way to create enrichment opportunities in their enclosure. Here are some ideas:

  • Autumn leaves
  • Boxes
  • Hanging whole fruit from the ceiling
  • Hidden food
  • Live insect, bird, or mammal prey
  • Puzzle balls with treats or food placed inside
  • Rearranging the “furniture” in the enclosure
  • Scrunched up balls of newspaper
  • Snake sheds
  • Tunnels

Keep reading:

  1. Introduction to Tegus
  2. Shopping List
  3. List of Tegu Species
  4. Terrarium Sizing for Hatchlings, Juveniles & Adults
  5. Temperature & Humidity Requirements
  6. Substrate Options
  7. Decorating Your Tegu’s Enclosure
  8. Feeding Your Tegu
  9. Handling Tips
  10. Benefits of Free-Roaming
  11. Common Problems & Questions About Tegu Health
  12. Additional Resources