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.
You 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.
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.
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 female owners, but they are not typically aggressive during this time.
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, a 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.
- 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.