Other Animals

Caring for Your Pet Gila Monster, Part 1

Gila monsters are the largest lizards native to the United States. By: walterpro

Today we’re focusing on a rather unusual animal: a monster.

Gila monsters are venomous lizards who are often bred in captivity in the United States and kept as pets. Be warned — this is not an “easy” pet that requires little care. This lizard needs constant vigilance to ensure that her needs are met. Laws regulate where Gilas can be kept, and the penalties can be stiff for circumventing them.

With that in mind, if your state allows Gilas to be kept as pets, read on. If not, perhaps a gerbil is the perfect pet for you.


Gila monsters — or Heloderma suspectum — are native to the deserts of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. Gilas are the largest lizards native to the U.S., reaching lengths of 2 feet and weighing in at over 5 pounds. They acquired their name from the first place they were spotted, Arizona’s Gila River basin, in 1869.

These lizards are strikingly beautiful, with black bodies that have pink, yellow and orange patterns traced on their skin. In traditional lizard style, they have forked tongues. Their bodies are stout and their legs are wide, with curved claws tipping the feet.

These cold-blooded lizards spend a great deal of time underground when in the wild, usually surfacing during the morning or on particularly warm evenings. They eat only a few times a year; their diet consists of eggs (reptile and bird), birds, insects and smaller mammals. Gilas have a keen sense of smell and can dig up eggs hidden as deep as 6 inches.

Obey the Law

Research the laws in your state to ensure that you are allowed to keep a Gila. For example, in many states, you may only keep a Gila monster who has been bred in captivity. Capturing one in the wild is strictly prohibited. And in some states, it’s completely illegal to own a Gila monster.

States such as Arizona and Utah actively watch their Gila populations and are not afraid to charge poachers. In Massachusetts, it’s illegal to own a Gila monster, period. Do your homework, or else you might be out your pet and a hefty chunk of change in fines.

Before you get a Gila monster as a pet, make sure your state allows it. By: Nefci


The Gila likes underground burrows and rocky crevasses in the wild, so you’ll want to try and replicate that as best you can. Your Gila will also need plenty of “elbow room” to be happy.

The Enclosure

“Gila monsters are rather large animals, and need large enclosures,” says Petra Spiess on Kingsnake.com. “The minimum dimensions for an individual Gila monster enclosure should be 4 x 2 x 2 ft. (1.3 x .66 x .66 m), bigger is always better. Large cattle stock tanks work very well for groups of Gilas, as long as ample heat and hiding spots are provided.”

When purchasing your enclosure, be sure it has a cover, not only for your Gila’s safety but for others’ as well. Remember, these lizards are venomous and are wild animals who won’t take kindly to being poked and prodded by others.

The enclosure should be at minimum spot-cleaned daily, with a weekly disinfection of the cage and all items within, so be sure you have the appropriate cleaning materials on hand. Do not use phenol-based cleaners, which can be toxic to pets — stick with chlorine or alcohol based cleaners. All items should be rinsed thoroughly so that any cleansers are fully removed before replacing items into the enclosure.

Check out this man’s pet Gila monster:

The Substrate

Appropriate substrates include:

  • Playground sand
  • Bark chips
  • Peat moss
  • Newspaper
  • Naturalistic substrate (can be purchased from retailers on and offline)

Substrate should be deep enough to absorb moisture — but not so deep that you can’t find feces or uneaten food. Remove soiled substrate immediately; the goal is to keep the enclosure as dry as possible.

Periodically, you should discard all substrate and replace it with fresh material. Animalworld.com recommends replacing the substrate every 1-2 months.

To summarize, when deciding whether to acquire a Gila monster, you should:

In Part 2, we’ll cover the items that go inside the enclosure, as well as feeding and care of the Gila.

Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 in a 2-part series on caring for Gila monsters as pets. Look for Part 2 of this series next week.

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