Iguanas Climb the Popularity Scale as This Year’s Trendy Christmas Pet : Animals: Experts say interest in reptiles, rodents means Americans want less-demanding companions.


The chic pet of Christmas ’95 won’t fetch slippers or play catch. But it doesn’t shed or bark either, and it won’t clamor for a walk in the middle of a snowstorm.

Meet the lizard with the punk haircut--the iguana. Their fans say iguanas are intelligent, trainable creatures with an independent, easygoing nature.

“They are the neatest things I’ve ever seen,” said Sebastienne Mitrisin of Aurora, Colo., who has a 4-year-old green iguana named Marius.


“They’re not slimy at all,” said Joey Scott of Estero, Fla., who has a 4-foot, olive-green female named Lola and a 4-foot, two-tailed chartreuse male named Fred. “It’s kind of like petting an alligator purse.”

The popularity of iguanas is the latest trend in the pet industry, which is fed by America’s love affair with animals. In a majority of homes, pets are beloved members of the family, honored with gifts, special meals and vacation trips.

Iguanas and other reptiles constitute the fastest-growing category in the pet industry, said Geri Mitchell of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. About 900,000 iguanas were imported in 1993, up from 100,000 in 1988. They also are bred domestically, but no figures on the U.S. business were available.

Most industry observers believe that the popularity of reptiles is a sign that busy Americans have less time and energy for animals. But instead of forsaking pets altogether, they are opting for easy-care critters.

Dogs typically require companionship, exercise and supervision at mealtime. Small animals are more independent and can be left unsupervised for longer periods.

For the last five years, the cat has been at the top of the pet world, with 63 million in U.S. households in 1994, compared to 54.2 million dogs.


“People are more mobile now. They travel a lot on weekends as well, as both parents generally are working. [A cat needs] less maintenance,” said Michael Brim of the Cat Fanciers Assn.

“Instead of getting up at 5 a.m. to walk the dog before going to work at 7 a.m., it’s changing a litter pan once a week.”

There also were 31 million birds and 12.2 million small, or pocket, animals, which included ferrets, rabbits, hamsters and gerbils. Pet reptiles--snakes, turtles and iguanas--totaled 7.3 million.

Overall, industry retail sales of pet products, services and livestock totaled $17 billion in the United States in 1994, up from $15.5 billion in 1993 and $5 billion in 1972, the industry council reported.

Nationwide chains of large discount stores catering to pets have cropped up, as have services that range from pet-walking to lavish boarding hotels--and even “scooping” services to collect pet droppings.

In a recent survey of 1,006 pet owners, the American Animal Hospital Assn. found that 48% of Americans prepare special meals for pets; nearly 60% take pets on trips; 77% regard themselves as parents or guardians of their pets, and 33% call home to talk to their pets through telephone answering machines.


Fifty-four percent would prefer their pet’s company to that of a human if trapped on a deserted island, the survey found, and 80% give their pets holiday or birthday gifts.

Most dogs and cats are purchased through breeders, animal shelters or private owners since they have become too labor-intensive for most pet stores, Mitchell said.

The hospital association, which is based in Lakewood, Colo., indicates that most people purchase dogs or cats for $200 or less, usually at 1 year of age or younger.

Birds, fish, reptiles and the so-called pocket animals are available through stores and private owners, she said.

The increase in reptile ownership is being driven by iguanas, prompting many veterinarians to learn more about exotic pets, said Dr. Merry Crimi, hospital association president-elect.

In her Portland, Ore.-based veterinary practice, Crimi treats pocket pets on a daily basis, birds every other day and an average of one iguana every couple of weeks.


Iguana owners “tend to be different people with different needs,” she said. “Because they are not furry or fuzzy, we tend to underrate how much value people get out of them as pets.”

Iguanas typically are purchased when they are young--a little longer than the length of an index finger. They relish vegetables and live in humid aquariums equipped with a long branch to laze on and special heat lamps.

Adult iguanas range from 3 feet to 6 feet, have long, sharp nails and typically are even-tempered, said Dr. Ted Cohn, an Englewood veterinarian.

“Most of these guys are used to being handled and usually they are not real aggressive,” he said.

Mitrisin, who manages the reptile section of Pet Palace, takes Marius for walks and car rides. “People freak out,” she said.

In Florida, Scott said it took her a little while to get used to iguanas, but now she can see an independent personality in each one. Lola is the inquisitive one, while Fred clings to her.


“They’re observant and they know you,” she said. “I’ll stand there at the door so they can see me when I’m fixing their breakfast, and they’re just bobbing their heads.”

Scott also has 12 dogs, four cats, two guinea pigs, two rabbits and some birds and fish.

Of all of them, she admits, she likes the dogs the best.