Many pet store and reptile show visitors often encounter savannah monitors, or Varanus exanthematicus (opens in a new tab). Naturally, their cute faces and small size as hatchlings pique the curiosity of reptile lovers.
Due to their size and dietary requirements, savannah monitors are considered an intermediate species – better suited to someone who’s already had experience and success with other lizards, like bearded dragons or geckos.
They’re certainly NOT ideal for anyone short on space or time.
What You’ll Learn In This Savannah Monitor Care Sheet:
- Background information on savannah monitors
- Where to buy a healthy savannah monitor
- Relative cost of a savannah monitor
- Proper diet for all ages
- How to properly set up a savannah monitor enclosure
- Health concerns to be aware of (plus how to prevent them!)
- Handling & bonding tips
- & So much more!
A five-foot lizard simply won’t fit inside most commercial aquariums, let alone thrive!
And no one wants to deal with an animal of such size and strength that hasn’t received the attention and time needed to make it tame and safe to care for in captivity.
Fortunately, savannah monitors make great, intelligent, and even affectionate pets for those who can provide the required effort AND investment.
Whether you’re wondering if a savannah monitor will make the right pet for you OR you’ve already succumbed to the sweet face of a hatchling and made your purchase, below you will find out all you need to know (and then some!) to raise a happy and healthy savannah monitor!
Savannah Monitor Background Information
Like their namesake, savannah monitors are native to the savannas and grasslands of central Africa. Their preferred natural habitat is sparse, dry, and desolate, but they also inhabit open forests, rocky areas, and woodlands.
These lizards are various shades of tan, brown, and gray with pale spots over their back. Being ground-dwellers, savannah monitors are stocky and stout compared to their arboreal and aquatic cousins.
Their neck and tail are short compared to other monitors. Meanwhile, their limbs and head are more squared and muscular to help them dig.
Savannah monitors make popular pets due to their intelligence and friendly nature. Still, they do require time and effort to tame and train.
In an appropriately sized enclosure with good husbandry, you can expect your pet savannah monitor to be your companion for the next ten to fifteen years.
🔑 Savannah Monitor Background Key Takeaways: Hailing from Africa’s savannas and grasslands, the savannah monitor is a stocky, ground dwelling lizard that, when properly cared for, can live up to 15 years in captivity. Their intelligence and friendly demeanor makes them popular pet choices for those willing to put in the time to tame and train them.
The Basics – Where to Buy a Savannah Monitor
Before you make your purchase, you should try to decide whether you want a captive-born or wild-caught savannah monitor. Most wild-caught savannah monitors are still babies, so they’re still easily tamed.
Wild-caught lizards may be more affordable… but they tend to also carry more parasites and diseases.
In contrast, captive-born individuals are typically healthier, but they can cost more. You should ALSO consider the ethical impact of purchasing an animal that was removed from the wild.
A third option exists, known as captive-farmed. Captive-farmed means that the animal was bred in captivity on a large-scale farm in its country of origin and shipped to the United States.
A baby savannah monitor will cost you $20 to $40, depending on the seller and the source of the animal. Adult individuals of pet or breeding quality usually cost more.
🔑 Savannah Monitor Purchasing Key Takeaways: Those looking to buy a savannah monitor will essentially have 3 choice: wild- caught, captive-born, or captive-farmed. The MOST ethical of the 3 will certainly be captive-born, especially when doing business with a responsible and reputable private breeder. This will also be your best bet at acquiring a healthy pet. Expect to spend anywhere from $20 to $40 on average for a baby.
Savannah Monitor Diet & Feeding
The majority – at least 75% – of your savannah monitor’s diet should consist of a variety of insects and other invertebrates.
With the remaining 25%, you can offer variation in the form of rodents, eggs, chicks, meat, or commercial foods.
If you still notice your pet becoming chubby, cut back on the amount of food and the frequency of feedings. Savannah monitors should be slim and muscular, WITHOUT hip bones or ribs showing.
As you might expect, feeding a giant lizard enough insects to sustain it, sometimes daily, can become quite costly. It can also become inconvenient if you don’t enjoy frequent trips to the pet store.
Most monitor keepers end up finding that it is much more affordable to breed their colony of feeder insects to use as the base diet.
As a bonus, you will know that your reptile’s food was raised healthfully and humanely.
Use tongs or a bowl to offer the food to your savannah monitor. Hand feeding can cause your pet to mistake your fingers for food, which will lead to bites.
The substrate in the enclosure may pose an impaction risk, so some keepers opt to feed their savannah monitor in a small, bare-bottomed tub.
What their Diet Consists of:
- Insects: Crickets, waxworms*, mealworms, earthworms, super worms*, silkworms, grasshoppers, roaches, canned insects
- Rodents: Mice*
- Other: Ground turkey, crayfish, canned dog food, commercial monitor food, fish, egg whites, chicken giblets, chicks, ducklings
- Vitamins and supplements: Dust insects, pinky rodents, and meat with calcium powder. Gut-load insects by feeding them fresh vegetables and fruits, or a specially formulated commercial “insect gut load” made with vitamins and nutrients. For further peace of mind, you can also provide a commercial reptile multivitamin once or twice a week.
*These food items are high in fat. As such, you should cut back on them or stop offering them altogether if your savannah monitor is overweight.
How Diet Varies By Age
In the wild, baby and juvenile savannah monitors eat mostly grasshoppers, crickets, and similar insects. Adult savannah monitors eat mostly millipedes, beetles, and insect larvae.
You can do your best to try to imitate this natural dietary graduation in captivity.
Besides the difference in insect types, juveniles and adults’ diets are mostly the same – carnivorous, with insects being the primary source of protein.
However, your savannah monitor’s feeding frequency may change once they reach maturity.
Feeding Schedule: How Often to Feed to Feed Them
As with most reptiles, growing babies and juveniles will require more frequent feedings than adults. See below to get an idea of how often to feed your pet based on age…
Baby Savannah Monitor Feeding Frequency
Young and sub-adult savannah monitors should receive food five to seven times a week.
Adult Savannah Monitor Feeding Frequency
Adult savannah monitors can be fed as often as once a day to as little as two to three times a week, depending on how much food you offer them and their body condition.
If your pet starts to put on too much weight, start cutting back on how often you feed it.
🔑 Savannah Monitor Diet Key Takeaways: As obligate carnivores, the bulk of a savannah monitor’s diet (at any age) will consist of primarily of protein. The majority of this protein should come from insects and invertebrates, such as crickets, mealworms, earthworms, roaches, grasshoppers, and the like. Many owners will find it more affordable to breed their own insects. When it comes to feeding frequency, babies and juveniles will need to eat at least 5 times a week, whereas adults can be fed 2-3X a week. Because obesity is prevalent, weight should always be monitored.
Savannah Monitor Habitat & Enclosure Setup
Size of the enclosure
Most owners will find it beneficial to first start with a smaller enclosure for a baby savannah monitor, and graduate to a larger enclosure once they reach maturity.
This will make mastering the temperature zones, humidity, and lighting setup easier.
The minimum enclosure size for a hatchling savannah monitor is 36” x 24” x 20”, whereas the minimum enclosure size for an adult savannah monitor is 6’ x 5’ x 4’.
Preferably, the enclosure will be twice as long as your monitor, the width of the enclosure will be at least equal to the length of your lizard, and the height will allow for a branch, rocks, and the ability to climb.
Since they’re ground-dwelling lizards, floor space takes priority over height. Also, please keep in mind; these are the minimum guidelines. Your savannah monitor will ALWAYS appreciate more space!
Type of Enclosures
Given the massive amount of space required, you will probably need to use a custom-built enclosure. Commercial aquariums don’t typically meet the minimum dimensions needed for an adult savannah monitor.
Custom enclosures are constructed from wood, plastic, glass, acrylic, wire, or a combination of them.
Since these lizards inhabit arid landscapes, the habitat will require proper ventilation. This is easier to achieve with a wire or screen top.
You will also need to have a sufficient amount of ventilation ports installed if you opt for an entirely wood, plastic, glass, or acrylic enclosure.
Any wire or screen on the enclosure needs to be resistant to your pet’s claws.
Ideal Temperatures and Lighting
Savannah monitors are pretty hardy when it comes to temperature fluctuations. However, they do require high temperatures to digest their food and thermoregulate.
The basking area should reach 100°F to 130°F. This doesn’t mean that the whole enclosure or even half of the enclosure should be this hot. A basking spot can be achieved by placing a branch or rock a few inches underneath a heat lamp – this will allow your savannah monitor to climb up and bask if he wants without physically touching the heat source and burning himself.
It’s still not universally agreed upon whether or not savannah monitors require UVB lighting. Many keepers claim that their monitors receive all of the Vitamin D3 that they need from a healthy diet.
However, just like with us, UVB rays may offer a wide array of health benefits, so there is no harm using a UVB bulb as one of your pet’s heat sources.
The UVB light should only be left on for ten to twelve hours a day.
Solid materials like glass and plastic block UV wavelengths, so it’s best to keep the light fixture inside the enclosure or over a screen top. Replace the UVB bulb every six months. Even if it still emits light and heat, the UV output will diminish.
The cool side should stay around 75°F-80°F, whereas nighttime temperatures should dip below 72°F. If they do, you should consider adding an under tank heating pad, cable, or tape, which can additionally assist in maintaining an ambient temperature of 85°F-88°F on the warm side.
But, what if you can’t or don’t want to use a heating element under the enclosure? No problem!
Ceramic heat emitters (CHE) and radiant heat panels are good alternatives that can remain powered on twenty-four hours a day WITHOUT disrupting your savannah monitor’s day/night cycle.
In fact, CHEs are actually the MOST recommended heating element by lifelong owners due to how safe and reliable they are.
All heating elements should be set up with a thermostat to ensure that nothing gets dangerously hot.
Periodically monitor the temperature of the basking spot, the warm side, and the cool side of the enclosure with an infrared thermometer.
Ideal Humidity Level
Always provide your savannah monitor with a large, non-porous water dish full of fresh water. It will drink from it every day, and it may even soak if you provide a large enough dish.
Replace your lizard’s water every day, and clean the bowl with soap and water every week.
High ambient humidity isn’t required, given their native habitat. If your home’s humidity is particularly low, you may want to consider misting your savannah monitor’s enclosure daily.
Ideal humidity is between 40% and 60%. Use a hygrometer in the enclosure to ensure that these levels are maintained.
In the wild, savannah monitors will burrow deep into the ground to build moist burrows. You can replicate those burrows by supplying a deep layer of substrate. When you moisten it, the top layer will dry out quickly, but the bottom layer will stay damp. Your savannah monitor will be able to dig down and reach this humid environment if he feels the need.
Alternatively, you can provide a humid hide or cave with damp sphagnum moss.
Sufficient access to humidity and moisture will help to facilitate your savannah monitor’s shedding. Shedding occurs every four to six weeks, or more often for growing hatchlings. Old skin comes off in large patches.
As mentioned before, savannah monitors L-O-V-E to dig! It offers an excellent source of exercise, enrichment, and the ability for your pet to regulate the level of humidity she’s exposed to.
The BEST substrates that allow your lizard to exhibit their natural burrowing tendencies are loose and light. The ideal substrate depth is one to two feet.
Some examples of great burrowing substrate include:
- Cypress mulch
- Organic potting soil
- Coconut fiber
- Reptile-safe sand
Unfortunately, loose substrate has a history of causing an impaction if your savannah monitor accidentally ingests it with its food.
If you prefer NOT to use loose particle substrate, you can use:
- Butcher block paper
- Outdoor carpeting
If you go the route of a solid, non-particle based substrate, you’ll need to utilize numerous, adequately-sized caves, hides, and branches to replace the exercise and enrichment opportunities that loose substrate would provide. Hide boxes need to be large enough for your savannah monitor to turn around in.
A humid hide can be engineered by placing damp sphagnum moss under a cave or covering on the warm side of the enclosure.
A dig box would also be beneficial. Ensure that it’s large enough for your savannah monitor to turn around in, and the soil should be one to two feet deep.
Decor and Accessories
It can be challenging to find caves and hides large enough for adult savannah monitors…
When it comes to creating a DIY hide or cave, many people opt to use a thin piece of plywood propped up on a rock or a burrow dug out underneath where it is lying flat. Cardboard boxes or plastic dishpans and litter boxes with holes cut out are also practical.
If you prefer a more natural look, you might be able to find and purchase large pieces of cork bark in a reptile shop or online.
Make sure to provide an opportunity for your savannah monitor to climb and bask within a few inches of your UV heat light, WITHOUT being able to touch it and burn itself.
You can use a large rock or a branch, or both for a basking spot.
Rocks have the added benefit of helping to keep your lizard’s nails filed down, but they should be relatively smooth and free of sharp edges for safety purposes.
🔑 Savannah Monitor Enclosure Key Takeaways: Due to their large size, savannah monitors require fairly large cages of at least 36” x 24” x 20” for hatchlings and 6’ x 5’ x 4’. Custom built cages are typically your best bet. For temperatures, you MUST have a basking spot between 100-130°F, and humidity levels should be between 40-50%. At night, if temps drop below 72°F you should provide an additional heat source. Loose particle based substrate are great for digging, but solid substrates will best prevent against impaction. All enclosures should include accessories such as hides/caves, branches, rocks, etc.
Savannah Monitor General Health Information
Obesity and Fatty Liver Disease
The MOST common health complication that savannah monitors face is obesity and associated fatty liver disease.
Since they are opportunistic predators and even scavengers, they will likely eat everything that you offer them. If you notice that your pet is packing on the pounds, feed them less often, offer less fatty food, and give them more opportunities to exercise – inside and outside of their enclosure.
An obese savannah monitor will NOT live a long life.
Nutritional Secondary Hyperparathyroidism or Metabolic Bone Disease
This disease is common among lizards and other reptiles that receive an improper diet.
Most feeder insects have a high phosphorus to calcium ratio, so reptiles’ food needs to be dusted with calcium powder to avoid metabolic bone disease. UVB lighting also assists in preventing this unfortunate disease.
Symptoms of Metabolic Bone Disease in Savannah Monitors Include…
- Deformed bones
- Bowing legs
- Shortening of the face
- Stunted growth
Usually, the situation can be resolved over time with husbandry improvement and increased calcium supplementation. This is especially true if caught early.
Unfortunately Burns are common… but they are 100% preventable!
Simply run your heating elements on a thermostat and keeping overhead heating elements out of reach from your savannah monitor.
Reptile heat rocks are also NOT ideal, due to the burn risk that they pose.
External and Internal Parasites
Wild-caught and captive-farmed savannah monitors will likely have some degree of parasite load. Unfortunately, many commercially purchased feeder insects ALSO carry internal parasites.
If your pet starts to show the following signs of being sick, take them to the vet ASAP:
- Abnormal stools
- Loss of appetite
🔑 Savannah Monitor General Health Key Takeaways: Just like all animals, savannah monitors are prone to their fair share of health concerns, especially obesity and fatty liver disease. However, you can virtually eliminate their risk of this (as well as both metabolic bone disease AND parasites) by closely monitoring their diet, calcium intake, providing UVB, and breeding your own colony of feeder insects.
Savannah Monitor Handling & Bonding
Out of all of the monitor species, savannah monitors are the mildest mannered. Still, any animal with a mouth and teeth can bite, and an animal of this size is capable of delivering a painful bite, scratch, and tail-whip.
Baby savannah monitors may be especially flighty AND defensive due to their small size.
Over time, your pet will become accustomed to your appearance and your scent. It will learn to trust you, and you will learn to trust it. Providing additional enrichment can offer even more opportunities for bonding.
Daily contact and handling are required. Avoid sudden movements, but move with confidence. When holding your savannah monitor, provide support under their chest and hind limbs. Being terrestrial, they’re most comfortable when they feel a surface underneath their feet.
Although you should be comfortable handling your monitor, there will naturally be times where they do NOT want to be held or bothered.
Some obvious signs that your savannah monitor is NOT in the mood for handling include…
- Opening its mouth
- Enlarging its throat
- Standing on its hind legs
- Whipping its tail
Any further harassment will likely result in a bite, so you should ONLY proceed if you have reptile handling experience, and you are attempting to tame a particularly spunky individual.
Keeping your savannah monitor’s nails trimmed will lessen the frequency and severity of accidental and intentional injuries.
Nail trimming is a two-person job and, again, requires experience in the restraint of reptiles.
One pro to owning a monitor is that unlike other reptiles like snakes that don’t show love, savannah monitors have been known to display signs of affection towards humans they’ve bonded with!
This is especially true amongst monitors whose owners take the time to create extra enrichment for them to bond over together…
To provide extra enrichment for your monitor you can
- Modify Wiffle balls to hold freeze-dried or canned insects for them to play with
- Sprinkle different spices and new substrates for them to smell
- Hide pieces of food under pieces of terrarium furniture
- Provide weekly outdoor swimming sessions in a large kiddie pool for extra exercise and UVB
🔑 Savannah Monitor Handling & Bonding Key Takeaways: Savannah monitors will need to be handled regularly for taming and training purposes. With time, you should expect a well cared for monitor to trust you and even show signs of affection. However, there will be instances in which your monitor may act aggressive (such as through hissing) in which you will want to back off. It takes time and patience to develop a bond, but once solidified, that bond is hard to break.
Is a Savannah Monitor Right for YOU?
Savannah monitors may not make a great first reptile or even first lizard for beginners.
However, if you’ve already got some experience under your belt, these interactive “little” guys can make the perfect pick for your first pet monitor.
Their size, enclosure requirements, and diets exceed the difficulty of care required by other beginner lizards – like bearded dragons and leopard geckos.
And they’re not exactly an ideal fit if you’re low on space, low on time, or uncertain about handling giant lizards.
However, savannah monitors do, offer an excellent opportunity to experience the level of attachment and intelligence that other monitor keepers experience in a smaller, more affordable, more manageable package.
If you’ve got the time, money, space, patience, and previous experience with reptiles, expect to fall in love with the savannah monitor!