EnRICHing the iguana/keeper relationship through accurate care information and compassionate re-homing.
DO IGUANAS BITE?
Anything with a mouth can and will bite. Most of the time an iguana will give warning when it's about to bite. This doesn't mean that it will aways warn, or that the clues are so obvious you will have immediate warning. You might not understand the clue, or it might be too subtle for you to pick up. But the short answer is; yes, iguanas are capable of inflicting serious bite wounds. They have extremely sharp teeth and powerful jaws. They can adjust the degree of strength they apply to a bite. So one time it might be a soft bite that barely draws pinpricks of blood. Or it might deliver a bite that will require a trip to urgent care, and possibly stitches. Untamed and unsocialized iguanas are not to be trusted with bare fingers and the use of heavy-duty leather gloves is recommended when handling one.
Iguanas have anywhere from 80-120 small, sharp serrated teeth. Think of a steak knife bent in half with the serrated edges on the outside. Sometimes, when you are hand feeding your iguana a nice big piece of Collard green, he will accidentally scrape your finger. Hardly a major wound, but it will draw blood nonetheless.
Use extreme caution when encountering wild iguanas. While vacationing in Mexico, a woman witnessed a man chasing one of the wild iguanas. He attempted to catch it, but ended up with a trip to the hospital. She emailed to tell me her account:
"I just got back from a trip to Riviera Maya in Mexico and I observed a very stupid human who chased and caught a large wild iguana near the poolside, and he got VERY badly bitten, requiring a trip to hospital and 26 stitches. His hand and wrist/lower arm were eviscerated! He was gushing blood immediately after the bites. I don't know him, but just happened to be sitting nearby and observed the whole incident."
Please be very careful and respectful of the wild iguanas you see while visting them in their natural habitat! They are fast and a bite can happen in the blink of an eye. Use your camera for close ups!
WARNING SIGNS OF AN IMPENDING BITE
It will start with what I call "Yellow Alert". The iguana is lying on its favorite log with its legs thrown back. As a perceived threat appears, it will bring the arms forward and lift itself up. As the "threat" (and in his mind, this could be you) comes closer, he will deploy the dewlap, the flap of skin under its chin. This is a warning sign that says, "Better stay away". It will also inflate itself with air in order to make it look bigger and more threatening. The pupils of the eyes will "flash". In other words, they will constrict and dilate. This is one of the subtle clues that might be missed, because it's not very obvious. This flashing is the iguana focusing on the distance between itself and the threat. It's calculating in its mind how far it will have to go to bite and still be able to escape. By now the iguana will be head bobbing vigorously. Anytime now, it will open it's mouth and this is one step away from a hard bite. This is what I call "Full Red Alert". Do not attempt to handle an iguana that is displaying an open mouth threat. Other warning signs that are not to be taken lightly are "swipes". These are attempts to fake you out by swiping at you. Consider this a prelude to a bite. You will be surprised at how fast and accurate they can be.
Iguanas would really rather not bite or engage in fighting. This expends a lot of energy. Energy that would be better served using for pursuits such as breeding, feeding and maintaining metabolism. If it is necessary to handle an aggressive iguana, use a towel to throw over its head and wrap it up like a burrito. And don't forget the gloves!
WHAT TO DO IN CASE OF A BITE
First of all, resist the urge to jerk your hand/finger away. this will do more damage to your skin, and possibly damage to the iguana. Most of the time the iguana will bite and let go. If it won't let go, try to keep your presence of mind because you will have to act fast. If possible, distract it by turning it upside down, or if you have a water sprayer handy, spritz the face with water. As a last resort, you might have to gently squeeze the jaws open to extract your finger. The thing you do not want to happen is that it will not let go, and then it will start to "alligator roll". While this is an extreme example, it is true. This happened to a woman who had a very large, aggressive male iguana grab onto her finger at the first knuckle and commence rolling. She lost that knuckle due to the damage from the rolling. Fortunately, this is hardly the case with bites, otherwise iguanas would not be so popular a pet!
If you are given a hard bite, there will be profuse bleeding and torn, damaged skin. Rinse the wound with copious amounts of water and wash with warm soapy water. Iguanas carry gram-negative bacteria in their mouths. This is not life threatening, but it's a good practice to wash your hands anyway, when handling all reptiles. Apply an anti-bacterial such as Neosporin and wrap the wound in sterile gauze. You will have to determine if the wound is serious enough to require a trip to urgent/emergency care. Stitches are not always neccessary; that is a decision between you and your doctor.
What does a hard bite feel like? From personal experience, I can tell you it feels like a cross between a bee sting and getting your finger caught in a vise grip! I have been bitten to one degree or another, and only once did I make a trip to urgent care. The iguana gave me lots of warning, yet I stupidly tried to pick her up without protection.
A soft bite will require no more than a bandage. First, wash the wound with warm soapy water for at least a minute. Apply a topical anti-bacterial such as Neosporin. Treat as you would any other mild cut.
FIRST AID KIT
A good first aid kit will have items that can be used by human or iguana. The following is a list of what to keep on hand in case of emergency.
Box of miscellaneous bandages.
Sterile gauze, various sizes.
Anti-bacterial such as Neosporin®, preferably the cream kind.
Vet wrap, that stretchy type of bandaging that covers wound dressings.
Magnifying glass, or glasses.
Syringe plungers. These are the kinds without the needle. Sizes from 3ccs to 60ccs.
Gentle iodine, or Betadine®.
Any good quality blood-clotting agent used to stop bleeding when nail trimming accidentally cuts into the quick. Cornstarch also works well for this.
Refer to FAQ # 6 "Do Iguanas Need to be Groomed?" for additional grooming supplies to make a combo kit.