Bearded Dragons are one of the most popular lizards in pet reptile industry. Their naturally docile nature, endearing personality, inquisitive nature and the color morphs available make them a great first reptile for beginners. These lizards will sit on your hand or your shoulder and rarely make any attempt to bite, scratch or escape. All bearded dragons available in the United States have been captive breed, thus making the problems of wild caught reptiles such as heavy parasite loads and eating disorders nonexistent. These lizards are diurnal (active during the day) making them an entertaining animal for their owner.
- Common Name: Bearded Dragon
- Scientific Name: Pogona vitticeps
- Distribution: Australia
- Size: Large males may reach to 2′. Females usually smaller. Average size is 16” to 22”.
- Life Span: With proper care, from 7 to 15 years
To create the proper environment for your Bearded Dragon you should first learn about the habitat where they occur in nature. Bearded Dragons come from the dry, hot deserts of central Australia. These lizards have adjusted to desert life. This is your first clue as to what you have to provide to keep you lizard healthy and happy. In their natural habitat if a Bearded Dragon becomes too warm, their way of cooling is to pant like a dog with their mouths wide open. Their open mouth allows for salivary evaporation to take place, the result being a cooler body temperature.
Young Bearded Dragons are social creatures and usually interact with other dragons and humans well. However as the males mature you may have territorial squabbles. It is best to separate the males at this point. They will continue to socialize with humans and female dragons well, but will have definite problems with other male dragons.
The color of Bearded Dragons in Australia depends on the region they live in. Their coloring will match the color of the soil from their native habitat. Breeders have used this color range to selectively breed these lizards to produce color morphs ranging from orange, red and white. Some will have markings on their backs and some will have clear backs. The price of your lizard may vary depending on the ease of breeding different morphs. Check out the different morphs and find the perfect one for you.
Creating the Proper Habitat
Housing a Bearded Dragon is relatively simple compared to some species. Remember from our discussion about the natural history of the lizard that they are docile reptiles. Knowing this you can house your Bearded Dragon in a glass enclosure built specially for reptiles or a fish aquarium. Even though they do not need as much room as more active species, the housing must be large enough to keep it happy and healthy. An adult Bearded Dragon should have a minimum of a 40 gallon terrarium. A juvenal can be kept in a 20 gallon terrarium, but know that Bearded Dragons grow extremely fast and the 20 gallon terrarium will only last for the first 6 months of his life. If you have an extra tank not currently occupied, start with the smaller tank. If you have to purchase a tank, you might consider getting the 40 gallon to start with. When planning your terrarium remember that heating and lighting are important and you should plan carefully for these before adding decorations. Hides and basking spots must also be taken into consideration.
Humidity should be considered whenever contemplating a new reptile. Bearded Dragons come from the desert, so the humidity should be kept low generally under 30% to avoid respiratory problems. If your pet is shedding a light misting once a day may be beneficial. You may also want to mist a plastic plant or a rock once a day. Some dragons like to lick the moisture.
Next we need to talk about substrates for Bearded Dragons. In the last few years there has been much discussion about what is best. One of the health problems with baby dragons is called compaction. Compaction happens when a reptile consumes sand with their food. The sand cannot be digested or passed. It becomes a ball in the gut. The lizard basically starves to death as it cannot digest food. For this reason Eco Carpets may be the best for baby dragons. Be sure to provide a hide for your baby dragon. Every lizard needs a place to feel secure.
As your dragon grows a great way to provide the security of a hide and a natural look to your terrarium would be to use Excavator Clay. You can form burrows and tunnels with Excavator Clay while it is wet and it dries solid maintaining the integrity of the tunnels.
When your Bearded Dragon becomes an adult, you may want to add a layer of Vita Sand. ReptiFresh or Aspen Bedding. It is best if you leave the Eco Carpet down over the under tank heater. This layer of insulation will help with the temperature gradient we will discuss in the next chapter.
At this point you can now finish decorating your terrarium. You may want to add a few plants and decorative food and water dishes. Perhaps a mushroom ledge. Have fun, make it your own, but leave a little room for you pet to exercise in.
Heating and Lighting
Heating and lighting for your Bearded Dragon is, again, made easier because we have learned about their habitat in the wild. Remember they are a desert species from Australia and like it dry and hot. The ambient temperature of the terrarium should be 82-88 degrees during the day. A daytime basking spot of 95-105 degrees should also be provided. A basking spot is small area, usually at one end of the terrarium, which is heated to a significantly higher temperature. An easy way to keep the ambient temperature in your terrarium correct is to use an under tank heater. The under tank heater should placed under the terrarium and not cover the entire bottom. Our goal is to create a temperature gradient. Lizards are cold blooded and use the temperature gradient to regulate their body temperature. This is important not only to prevent health problems, but to aid in digestion. During the day the basking spot can be heated using basking spot lamps or ceramic heat emitters in a lamp fixture. Thick branches, rocks or Mopani Wood is an excellent choice for climbing and basking. Night time temperatures for young dragons should not drop below 72 degrees and adults should have a minimum of 68 degrees. If the night time temperature in your house falls below this you may consider an infrared bulb and a mini deep dome combo light fixture.
The next thing we learned about dragons is that they are diurnal. Diurnal lizards are exposed to the sun’s rays and use the rays to properly synthesize vitamin D3. D3 is necessary for the absorption of calcium for strong bone development. Without enough calcium in their systems, dragons can develop Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD). Left untreated MBD can cripple and even kill your pet in as little as three months To replace the sun’s rays we must provide light in the UVB range. This is accomplished by using special fluorescent bulbs. These bulbs give off UVB rays for approximately one year and then should be replaced even if the bulb has not burnt out. These bulbs come in several different sizes to fit terrarium hoods and two different strengths. They also come in a compact fluorescent bulb that will fit lamp fixtures. These bulbs should be on over your pet for 10-12 hours a day.
Bearded dragons are omnivores, eating many types of insects and plant matter. In captivity, a diet of appropriately sized crickets, mealworms, roaches and a variety of dark, leafy greens should make up the majority of the diet. Packaged diets such as Zoo Med Bearded Dragon Food are excellent additions to your dragon’s diet. If live foods are too much of a hassle, bearded dragons easily learn to eat canned insects off of steel tongs, as long as they’re a little hungry and a little patience is involved!
These lizards will eat a lot, especially during their growth stage. Every bearded dragon is different, and will have slightly different preferences and eating habits. Keep in mind that you can feed them as much as they want to eat as long as it is part of a varied diet, and they are not allowed to become obese. Always remove uneaten food after each feeding
As a general rule, provide all ages of dragons with a salad of dark veggies every day. These veggies may include collard greens, mustard greens, kale, romaine lettuce, etc. Iceberg or head lettuce should not be used as it provides little in nourishment. We often use frozen mixed vegetables as a treat. Let them thaw out and place them in the food dish. Fruits such as apples, bananas, and figs may be offered occasionally as well. During winter, use of canned fruit or a nutritionally balanced canned diet can be an easy way to vary your dragon’s diet when fresh veggies are hard to find.
Insect prey should be size appropriate and offered in quantities no larger than what the lizard will consume in an hour or so. Baby dragons will easily eat 10 small crickets multiple times a day, while adults will be content with a bowl of giant mealworms and a handful of big crickets 4 times a week. Large adults may be fed the occasional pinky or fuzzy mouse for variety. If the chirping of crickets is an annoyance you don’t want to deal with, large adult dragons can feed on canned insects.
All food should be lightly dusted with a calcium/vitamin D3 supplement at every feeding for babies, and every other feeding for adults. A high quality reptile multivitamin is highly recommended, and should be used as per the manufacturers instructions.
To be sure that your pet is eating properly get to know your pet’s tail! Odd as that may sound this is the indicator of his overall health. If the tail stays the same and he’s not eating don’t worry about it. He’s okay. Adult reptiles do have periods where they just lose interest in eating for a day or two and don’t need calories. If the tail appears to be shrinking or getting thinner and the animal is not eating, then you have a problem.
Sexing – Do I Have A Male or Female
Your Bearded Dragon will need to be 3 mo. of age or older to determine its gender by looking at it. Put the animal on your open hand facing away from you and gently hold him in place with a thumb over his back. Gradually lift the tail towards the head to about a 90 degree angle being careful not to injure the animal’s spine. Do not push the tail too far over the animal’s back.. A bit up the tail just past the vent, a male will have two elongated hemipene bulges. Femoral pores will be evident on mature males. On the tail side, a female will have a central bulge right at the vent or no bulge at all.
Bearded dragons are, as a general rule, as close to “friendly” as a reptile can be. They can be picked up and handled with little effort, although very young dragons may be frightened at first, and should be kept close to the floor in case of a sudden dash.
As with any new animal, it will need a “settling in” period. Your pet should be observed but not handled when it first arrives for a full week and possibly two. It may not eat for several days until it feels secure in its new surroundings. During this time, the animal should not be handled or stressed. It should not be handled until you are sure it is settled and eating well.
Dragons do not like to be grasped firmly. Since they are more trusting than other reptiles, they don’t tend to hold onto you firmly. Be careful not to drop your pet. Lift your dragon by scooping a hand under him and supporting him on your open palm with your fingers curled loosely over his back. Dragons of any age seem to take well to being held in this manner.
As with any animal, care should be taken that you do not stress your bearded dragon with excessive handling. Although rare, it is possible that a young dragon, or one not accustomed to human contact may become stressed and uninterested in food if over handled. Simply pay attention to the signals that your pet is sending you, and you should have a long, happy relationship with your pet.