Tegu body condition, or: but they’re SUPPOSED to have huge cheeks!!1!
Tegu lizards can make fantastic reptile pets for the experienced owner, but because of their stocky build and highly developed pterygoid muscles (those are the jowls you see), it’s often really difficult to assess their body condition. I took these photos at a reptile show recently. The jowls of a tegu are the first thing people see, and that’s usually all that ever gets talked about. Somebody says “he looks fat” and then somebody else says “he’s supposed to have those cheeks,” but friends, let me tell you a secret: tegus store fat in places other than their jowls. So what I’ve done here is taken a couple of pictures that show you some other ways to assess tegu body condition… without using the jowl size alone as an indicator of obesity!
These pictures are of a female. She’s ½ black and white, ¼ red, and ¼ blue. Phenotypically she has a mix of traits- because she was under a red light, it was very hard to get a picture of her showing her true colors, but she does have the blue’s “burnt” nose and seems to have mostly red coloration. She is three years old, she is not gravid, and her breeders had her for sale for one thousand dollars.
The casual observer would probably say something like “dang, that’s a fat lizard!” The well-meaning tegu enthusiast would probably say in response “actually, no, tegus just look like that!” But that’s not true. We shouldn’t be promoting unhealthy animals and spreading misinformation. These pictures are a good example of some hallmarks of bad body condition in a tegu. To show you what those are, I’ve gone through and marked them in these edited versions. This tegu is basking, meaning she’s all spread out to maximize her surface area and soak up the warmth- but even in this position there’s hallmarks of ill health.
1. A hallmark of obesity is the ear being obscured by fat. When a tegu is basking, the jowl rises to cover a little bit of the ear- but when the ear’s completely covered like that, it’s a bad sign.
2. The mouth should close all the way. If the mouth doesn’t close all the way, the owner should know what caused it and have taken appropriate steps to correct it if possible. Obviously for some congenital things, there’s nothing you can really do- and it can frequently be an injury or the scars of a poor diet that you can’t correct. You’ll see that in rescue tegus a lot. But that’s something a responsible owner is on top of! Jaw deformation can occur in the form of a lateral malocclusion (a side-to-side crossbite), an overbite, an underbite, or a droopy lip that’s dragged down by the massive fat pad the animal’s carrying.
3. There shouldn’t be folds of fat over the wrists and elbows. There should be a clear delineation between the upper and lower forelimb, but these should be strong and muscular.
4. This is a very tricky one. Tegus are supposed to have a ridge of skin called the lateral line. When they’re obese, it shrinks and sometimes flattens against the body. However, it will usually flatten against the ribs while basking (that’s what it’s supposed to do, it maximizes surface area to let them take in sunshine) and when gravid. I include it here because the lateral line is something that you might not see on a healthy tegu- you have to consider a lot of factors when looking at an animal! This is especially true for females. If they’re gravid (pregnant), they’re going to be VERY pear-shaped and look really obese around the abdominal area. Tegus can lay up to 70 eggs at a time- of course she’s gonna look bulgy! But this girl? Not pregnant. I asked, and the breeder just kinda stared at me for a second, wondering what kind of clueless halfwit would ask if she was selling a pregnant trihybrid.
Let’s take a look at this gal’s back half.
5. The tail shouldn’t be… for lack of a better word, puffy. A regenerated tail is another story, those can take a number of weird shapes- but this tail is way too fat.
6. There shouldn’t be fat rolls around the limbs. There should be a clear delineation between thigh and calf- there should be an actual joint there- but there shouldn’t be a bulging roll of fat.
7. The feet and toes shouldn’t be swollen. While the front toes- the digging claws- should be fairly stout and strong, the back toes should be slender and long. The foot itself should have a solid appearance and shouldn’t have dimples or rolls of fat going over the toes.
There are many other markers of health that you can see in tegus- some that show good health, some that show poor- and just as many that you can’t see. For a viewer who’s not super familiar with lizard body shapes, a tegu can be very confusing. They’re built for power, not speed or maneuverability. But when you are looking at an animal, these are some of the things that with a little observation, even the most casual observer can look at! Remember, the animal’s a complete being- it’s not just the jowls!