A Helpful Guide to Savannah Monitor Care

As far as keeping monitor lizards as pets go, the savannah monitor comes in the first place. Here’s a helpful guide on savannah monitor care.

Choose a monitor lizard that’s right for you

When it comes to choosing a monitor lizard, pick one that’s right for you. Big lizards need big enclosures. If a monitor is kept in too small of an enclosure, it will probably rub its nose off and fail to thrive.

There are smaller monitor lizards such as ackies and Timor monitors which won’t require an enclosure as big as what’s needed for a water monitor.

Here’s another point to take into consideration, monitor lizards are high maintenance pets.

Monitor lizards work out great as pets for some but others may want to choose a lizard that stays smaller (although most still need large enclosures). I kept many monitor lizards over the years including water, mangrove, savanna, Argus, and a Timor.

They all have voracious appetites and most need to eat every day. They also must be kept warm and at proper humidity levels for shedding purposes and overall positive health.

The biggest challenge to keeping monitor lizards as pets

I find the most challenging part of keeping monitor lizards is keeping their water tub clean. Monitors require a large water tub to soak in. 99% of the time, they defecate in their water tub, sometimes twice a day. That means I dumped and cleaned their tubs at least once a day if not twice. I would go through this routine before and after work. Thankfully I had a large slop sink at the time.

These lizards need your time

While I’m not trying to discourage anyone from keeping these amazingly entertaining lizards as pets, I want to make a point in saying that there’s a lot of responsibility and commitment involved. They’re not as easy to brush off for a day or two as a pet snake.

Friendly Savannah monitor
Just like a pet dog. Them seem to enjoy human interaction.

The savannah monitor as a pet

Out of all the monitor lizards available in the pet trade, it’s hard to beat the savannah monitor. The only other monitor that compares temperament-wise is probably the Asian water monitor. The water monitor gets much larger thus requiring a larger enclosure than what the savannah monitor needs.

Still, you can walk your savannah monitor on a leash and they are very receptive to their keepers. While they get big, they rarely get too big to handle. The savannah monitor is also recommended for first-time monitor lizard keepers, but experienced hobbyists enjoy them too. I guess you can say the savannah monitor is the corn snake of monitor lizards.

Savannah Monitor Facts

  • Experience level: Beginner
  • Temperament: Usually docile
  • Family: Varanidae
  • Scientific name: Varanus exanthematicus
  • Lifespan: 15 years
  • Hardiness: Hardy
  • Stress level: Moderate to low
  • Food: Small rodents, insects, eggs, poultry, meat
  • Reproduction: Egg laying
  • Average Temperature: 85° Basking: 105°
  • Humidity: 50 to 80%
  • Habitat: Terrestrial
  • UVB lighting: Recommended
  • Enclosure size: 6'L x 3'W x 4'H
  • Substrate: 6" deep
  • Average price range: $25 - $50

Origin

As the name implies, the savannah monitor comes from the African savannah. As such, these monitors are able to tolerate lower humidity levels than many of their strictly tropical cousins. Savannah is a mix of woods and grasslands leaning heavier on grasses. Think open space, but not nearly as hostile as a desert. Most monitors available through the pet trade are of true tropical origin where humidity levels are higher.

Such monitors require higher humidity levels in captivity. While this isn’t too hard to do, it’s not as big of a concern with a subtropical savannah monitor. Savannah monitors are kept at 50-80% humidity. Always offer a tub of water in their enclosure big enough for the lizards entire body to fit in.

Lifespan

A healthy savannah monitor can live fifteen years or more. Avoid obesity in these lizards to reach their full lifespan potential. To help keep their body-fat in check, be sure to include insects in their diet. I’ll like using canned insects and snails lightly dusted with vitamin D3 powder. Keep in mind that fifteen years is a long time and a big commitment before purchasing a monitor lizard.

Price

These lizards are readily available and cheap. I prefer buying hatchlings over full-grown specimens so I have control over developing its temperament. Hatchlings are usually just as hardy as adults. Farm-raised specimens range from $25 to $50. Buy them online from reputable dealers or at reptile conventions.

Size

The savannah monitor is a medium-sized monitor lizard. Quite frankly, they have a tendency of getting fat. Make sure your savannah monitor is fed a varied diet including insects to help avoid obesity. While these lizards are known for being on the plump side, down-right obesity isn’t healthy, even for these guys. Adults become lazy, especially after a few years pass by. Taking your monitor out for walks is a good idea.

Setup

The setup for a savannah monitor is relatively simple. I recommend full spectrum UVB/UVA lighting, either with a single mercury build or separate UVB/UVA lighting domes. Mercury and separate UVA bulbs also provide heat which is very important. Fluorescent UVB bulbs by themselves do not provide any heat.

Be sure to have a water tub large enough for the entire lizard to fit into. Offering a hide box of some sort is also recommended and must be big enough for the entire lizard to fit into.

Branches and other decorations

Branches and other decorations are optional. Under the tank heating pads are great when controlled by a separate thermostat. Avoid inner-enclosure heat stones, they often cause burns to reptiles.

Monitor the temperature and humidity of the enclosure. Offer a warm side, and a cooler side so the lizard can easily thermoregulate its body temperature. This is why a large enclosure is necessary when keeping monitor lizards.

Heating and humidity

Keep the ambient temperature at about 85°F and a basking area of about 105°F. Nighttime temperatures can drop to the upper seventies or at about 80°F. Keep humidity levels between 50-80%.

Coconut nuggets bedding
Coconut nugget bedding.

Substrate

I highly recommend coconut husk/nuggets as bedding for several reasons. First, if your monitor accidentally swallows any substrate like mulch, it can cause impaction. They easily pass coconut husk/nuggets if accidentally ingested. Coconut husk/nuggets also holds humidity better than any other substrate.

Beneficial bacteria grow in coconut nuggets when it gets wet which keeps the substrate clean and without odor. That’s the way to go in my opinion, it’s the only substrate I’d keep monitor lizards on. Avoid using sand. It’s not good for humidity control and gets soiled easily. For something like a collared lizard, I’d definitely recommend sand, but not for monitors.

Savanna monitor set up
A 55-gallon tank is okay for a young monitor lizard but upgrade to a larger enclosure once they quickly outgrow it.

Enclosure

A hatchling savannah monitor can start out in something small like a 55-gallon fish tank. They’ll quickly outgrow this within the first six to eight months. I’m leaning more towards six months before your savannah monitor needs an upgrade. No problem, if you’re handy, you can build a custom enclosure.

Just make sure it’s made from a material that can handle water.  Other options include buying a 3 x 6-foot glass fish tank. They’re pretty expensive but a one-time cost. 

I recommend getting a stock tank from a tractor supply store originally intended for livestock or as a watering trough. These are big enough and the sides are also steep. I then build a cover with a wooden frame and chicken wire mesh. Lighting domes place easily on top of the chicken wire mesh as any other screen lid.

Savannah monitor feeding
Feed monitor lizards with such tools as hemostats or forceps to avoid injury.

Savannah monitor diet and feeding

Anything and everything that’s made from flesh is alive or was alive. In captivity, a varied diet is preferred. Many people feed their monitor lizards rodents exclusively. I don’t recommend this. Feed savannah monitors a varied diet consisting of insects, snails, eggs, rodents, and poultry such as raw turkey.

Like all monitor lizards, savannah monitors are strict carnivores and don’t eat any kind of vegetation. They readily carrion feed but definitely take moving prey items as well.

Raw, grounded turkey

When preparing raw, grounded turkey, I mix in raw eggs and vitamin D3 powder supplementation. I then place the meat in ice-cube trays and place them in the freezer. This way you can store the turkey and take only what you need.

Pop-out an ice-cube size piece of frozen turkey and allow it to fully thaw before offering it to your monitor lizard. Do not heat it up in the microwave.

Keep in mind that accidental feeding bites are not unheard of. Keep your wits about you while offering them food. I suggest using hemostats, tongs, or forceps for feeding. While hand-feeding is fun and personally satisfying for some people, it’s actually a poor feeding habit. Mistakes happen.

Savannah monitor care sheet at Snake Hacks
Offer a hide box in the enclosure big enough for the entire lizard to fit into. In this particular case, I used and big plastic bowl and cut an opening in it.

Supplementation

There are different ways of looking at adding certain supplements to the diet of your monitor lizard. If you offer a multi-vitamin specifically meant for reptiles, avoid beta-carotene.

The only time lizards like this need a multi-vitamin supplementation is if you’re not offering a varied diet.

After all, that’s the purpose of multi-vitamins, even with humans. You’re basically supplementing what you’re not getting naturally from your diet. So, if you’re only feeding your savannah monitor a diet of canned insects (which they love), then yes, do offer multi-vitamin supplementation.

Vitamin D3 supplementation

Secondly, I mostly cover the need for vitamin D3 supplementation. Personally, I always used UVB and a UVA bulb (full spectrum lighting) for my monitor lizards. UVB helps with calcium absorption. Like snakes, monitor lizards fed rodents in their diet usually fills their calcium requirements.

When I fed my monitor lizards insects, snails or ground turkey, I added vitamin D3. Better safe than sorry. On the other hand, don’t overdo it. Too much isn’t good either. Use sparingly as common sense dictates. If you’re feeding a captive lizard that’s strictly insectivorous, omnivorous or vegetarian, UVB and vitamin D3 is an absolute must. Collared lizards are a good example of subjects needing such supplementation.

Savannah monitor
Coconut husk nuggets are my preferred substrate when keeping any kind of monitor lizard.

Intelligence

All monitor lizards reek of intelligence and this includes the savannah monitor. They recognize people they come in contact with often, especially those feeding and caring for them. They also know when it’s time to eat so be careful when feeding them.

Temperament

The savannah monitor is known for having a generally docile and even temperament when properly conditioned. As with any monitor lizard, the time you spend with it determines its temperament.

This lizard has the potential and reputation of being “dog tame”, while those ignored become nippy. In my experience, I only got bit by these lizards at their hatchling stage. Once they reached adulthood, bites were no longer an issue.

Savanna monitor
A happy, healthy savannah monitor makes a great pet.

Savannah monitor bite

If you must get bit by a monitor lizard, a savannah monitor is the way to go. I’ve taken bites from hatchlings that never broke the skin. On the other hand, I once took an accidental bite from an Asian water monitor which was like getting bit by a shark.

An adult savannah monitor may deliver a painful bite as an adult when stressed or unacclimated.

Again, spend time with your monitor

Spending quality time with your savannah monitor will greatly reduce the risk of getting bit. Nevertheless, when in doubt, wear protective leather gloves.

Their nails are worse than their teeth in my opinion but these are easily clipped to keep them from becoming too sharp. Do this on a regular basis. Like cutting the nails of a car or dog, make sure not to hit the vein in the nail. Just aim for the sharp tips.

Salmonella warning and prevention

Humans can contract salmonella from reptiles. Always wash your hands with warm water and soap thoroughly after handling your monitor lizard (or any other reptile or amphibian). This includes cleaning and coming in contact with its enclosure.

Illnesses

While savannah monitor lizards are relatively hardy, they are prone to disease in certain situations. 

Ways to keep your monitor lizard healthy include the following: 

  • Keep them at the right temperature and humidity. Avoid cool drafts.
  • Be sure the enclosure is kept clean. Do not allow a monitor to sit in a dirty water tub in its own defecation for any amount of time. Change the water out, clean the tub, and replace it with fresh water (wash your own hands thoroughly with warm water and soap after handling or cleaning any part of the enclosure)
  • Feed your monitor lizard correctly.  This means avoiding both overfeeding and underfeeding. Offer your monitor lizard a varied diet. One warms days, take it outside for a walk. Exercise helps reduce obesity.
  • Avoid burns by not using heat stones in the enclosure. Keep light domes far enough away from your monitor, especially mercury bulbs.
  • Make sure the substrate in the enclosure doesn’t get too damp. Avoid having any standing water other than the water tub. This can cause bacterial infections on the feet.

Symptoms of a sick monitor will often display include:

  • Vomiting and weight loss (parasites, worms, bacterial infections, viral infections)
  • Sneezing, coughing (upper respiratory infection)
  • Refusing food (mouth rot/stomatitis)
  • Sluggish behavior (various illnesses)
  • Runny, pungent feces (we all know healthy monitor feces isn’t pleasant but it smells even more repugnant when the lizard is ill)
  • Shedding problems (humidity too low, nutritional deficiency)

Take your sick monitor lizard to a qualified reptile competent veterinarian.

Sexing

Sexual dimorphism becomes apparent as adults. Avoid probing. While popping might work there is a great risk for injury. As adults, males have wider heads than females. Females have longer body lengths. Males also have a noticeable bulge near the ventral scales.

Breeding

Breeding monitors in captivity is a challenge. Nevertheless, determined and advanced keepers have come a long way over the years. Today, more and more monitor species are being bred in captive situations. Captive-bred specimens breed easier than those caught in the wild.

The difficulty in breeding monitors is due to the space requirements needed to trigger a breeding response. It also takes time and a lot of patience. Be sure you have a firm grasp on monitor husbandry before you even attempt breeding. Understanding their biology and natural conditions in the wild give insight into successful propagation. 

Mangrove monitors
Mangrove monitors for sale at a reptile convention. The mangrove monitor is my favorite monitor lizard to keep.

Seasonality

Seasonality is everything when breeding these lizards. The savannah monitor mates during hot summer months after which males go dormant through winter. This isn’t considered hibernation but it does mean no breeding, eating or much of anything else. Such conditions are difficult to replicate in captivity and are beyond the scope of most hobbyists.

Females need extra calcium supplementation to breed. Courtship behaviors include ritualized combat and females must be receptive to courtship for any breeding to take place.

This goes back to my point that breeding these animals is best left to those with the proper facilities and resources to do so. 

Conclusion

The Savannah monitor is a great lizard to start out with if you’re new to keeping monitors. They’re also favored by veterans like myself due to their hardiness and usually gentle disposition. The Savannah monitor is easy to care for, especially when compared to tree monitors and other more stress-prone members of the Varanidae family.

These lizards are also readily available and are usually cheap. While acquiring captive-bred specimens usually isn’t an option due to the vast complexity of their breeding needs, they’re often farm-raised which is the next best thing. I suggest going with a hatchling Savannah monitor unless you find an adult that is fully tame. Otherwise, raising up a hatchling is the best way to guarantee a gentle giant.

What are your personal experiences with the Savannah monitor? Add your comments in the section below and share your wisdom.

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