How to keep a bearded dragon

The Inland Bearded Dragon

Natural History

Australia is home to a number of dragons, a name given to many of their agamid lizards which include the popular bearded dragons and water dragons. Australia has very restrictive export laws relating to its wildlife; thus, the bearded dragons found in the U.S. pet trade are descendants from founder animals imported from Europe. Bearded dragons are gaining popularity as pets. Wonderfully tempered, intriguing in appearance, quizzical in countenance, these lizards do not get very large (especially in relation to the green iguana), and require little in the nature of active training or taming to make them calm and handleable. As with all reptiles, there are important things to know before buying a bearded, and to keep them healthy and long-lived.

Bearded dragons are agamid lizards belonging to the genus Pogona (formerly Amphibolurus, under which name they are found in books published up to just a couple of years ago). There are seven species (Sprackland 1994; six according to Fogle 1993) of which the most common in the pet trade is the P. vitticeps, the inland or central (also called the yellow-headed) bearded dragon is the most widely available. In smaller numbers, the common bearded (P. barbata) and the Rankin’s (P. henrylawsoni) have become more widely available and the number of captive-bred animal slowly increases. The other Pogona dragon species include the western (P. minima), the dwarf (P. minor), the Northwest bearded (P. mitchelli), the Nullarbor (P. nullarbor), and the P. microlepitoda. (This article will discuss the care associated primarily with P. vitticeps and P. barbata.)

Bearded dragons live in the arid, rocky, semi-desert regions and arid open woodlands. They are adept climbers, spending time on branches and in bushes, even found on fence posts when living near human habitation. They also bask on rocks and exposed branches in the mornings and afternoons.

These diurnal lizards are omnivores, voracious eaters of invertebrates and small vertebrates alike. They also forage for soft plant matter, including greens, fruits, and flowers. Like most desert dwellers, beardeds spend the hottest part of the day in underground burrows and are well adapted to the cool desert nights.

The bearded’s blunt arrow-shaped head is typical of the agamids. The scales along the skin of the throat and the side of the head have specialized into spiny points. The scales along the sides of their bodies also carry these pointy extensions. When threatened, the dragons flatten out their bodies, making themselves look wider. The “beard” in the dragon’s name comes from its flared-out throat, done to scare off conspecifics and potential predators. This threatening vision is enhanced by a gaping mouth. Such behavior is rarely seen in captivity, however, as these lizards adapt so well to their human caretakers. The most one usually sees is a flattening of the body and a small flare to the black “beard.”

Dragons are social animals, which is one of the reasons they are engaging and interested in their surroundings in captivity. They frequently become very secure in their environment and soon stop displaying their beard. The young especially perform a distinctive “wave” as a way of communicating nonaggression. Beardeds also use their tongue to check out their environment.

Bearded dragons reach reproductive age at one to two years of age. During breeding season, the beards of mature males turn black. Males can also be differentiated from females by the presence of pre-anal and femoral pores (which are almost impossible to see on very young dragons, making them difficult to sex).

what to feed bearded dragons

Taking Care of the Bearded Dragon

  • When you decide to buy a bearded dragon, whether from a breeder or a pet store, look it over carefully. Some things you should notice right away are: How alert and active the dragon is. You don’t want a dragon that can’t lift its head or looks lethargic. When you walk up to the enclosure, the dragons should be watching you with interest and should have bright, alert eyes. They should have no sores, burns, pus, external parasites, or any deformities. Many dragons will be missing toes or bits of their tail, but this will not cause them any discomfort as long as the wound looks healed and shows no sign of infection.
  • One of the most important things is to look at the size of the dragon. Dragons under 6 inches in total length are not recommended. Baby dragons can be very fragile and more apt to become ill or overly stressed. It’s much easier to care for a more developed Bearded Dragon.

1. Purchase a terrarium.

  • Young dragons under ten inches in length can be housed in a 20 gallon, long terrarium. This will last them for a few months only though, as they grow quickly.
  • Adult dragons should be housed in nothing smaller than a 40 gallon breeder tank. Look for 55 gallon terrarium, easily found at most pet stores, due to the extra length it gives them to run.
  • Screen lids should be used for the top of any aquariums. Do not use glass, plexiglas or wood to cover your cages. This will not allow enough air circulation and will also trap humidity in the cage. Screen tops allow air flow, allow your lighting and heat sources to work correctly, and also allow humidity to escape.

2. Provide lighting.

Bearded dragons require full-spectrum lighting (e.g. the Reptisun 10.0 fluorescent bulbs) for 12-14 hours a day. There are also other brands of lighting available, such as the Reptiglo or Lumichrome bulbs. These fluorescent bulbs should stretch the length of your dragon’s enclosure, and the dragon should be able to come within 6-8 inches of the light. Place the UVB strip light over the cage and not directed through the glass, since the glass will deflect the UVB rays. Follow the directions on the package of the bulb for replacement frequency. You should use a minimum of 10% UVB and only reptile specific UVB bulbs. UVB promotes vitamin D3 production in the skin which in turn metabolises calcium.

3. Provide heat. To produce heat and a basking spot in your enclosure, you can use a ceramic heat emitter, a reptile white basking light – avoid other colours and plain old household light bulbs, reptile specific ones last longer, have a wider spectrum and can provide UVA. The best fixture for any of these choices is a porcelain dome light fixture. This type of fixture is a must with a ceramic heat emitter due to the amount of heat they produce.

  • The temperature for this basking spot you created should be around 110°F (43C) for juveniles and can be around 95°F (35C) for adults.
  • Any temperatures above 110°F (43C) are not recommended, but within a few degrees of these basking temperatures will be sufficient.
  • The cool side of the enclosure should be around 85°F (30C) during the day. Once again, within a few degrees of this temp is fine.
  • Nighttime temperatures can fall as low as 65°F (18C). It is fairly easy to keep your night temperatures above this, even in the winter. If you can’t keep your temperatures above this, you may want to consider buying an under-tank heater (UTH) .
  • One thermometer on the “hot side” and one on the “cool side” will make sure that your temps are in the range they should be in.

4. Provide flooring. For baby to juvenile dragons, use newspaper, paper towels, butcher paper, or reptile carpet. These choices are cheap, easy to clean, and hold no health risks to your animal.

  • If using reptile carpet, the type that looks and feels like grass is the best. The felt kind has little loops of fabric that may catch the nails of your dragon and cause injury.
  • Do not use sand, shavings, or any other loose substrate for baby to juvenile dragons. They can be very clumsy eaters, and they are also very curious and like to taste everything. Any kind of loose substrate can pose a serious health risk to the dragon. If they eat a loose substrate, they can become impacted (which is a blocking of the intestines) and die.
  • For adult dragons, use either tiles or the special calcium sand designed for reptiles. Do not use play sand or brick layer sand as these can pose a risk to your bearded dragon. You can also use coconut fiber bedding, or artificial grass which you should purchase from a Reptile shop. If you do not buy genuine substrates you put your bearded dragon at risk of illnesses.

5. Provide food. Bearded dragons are omnivorous, meaning that they eat both animal and plant matter.

  • Any and all food items that your bearded dragons eat should be no bigger than the space between their eyes. If the food items are bigger than the space between their eyes, it can cause impaction and/or hind leg paralysis or they risk choking. Either way, your dragon will suffer horribly.
  • Your dragon should be given fresh greens daily. Spraying the greens with water will help them last longer and will also help keep your Bearded Dragon hydrated. You should also sprinkle them with calcium as this is vital in a captive dragons diet. Another good idea is to purchase Reptile multivitamins, these can either be purchased online or at your nearest Reptile shop.
  • There are a wide variety of greens available that are good for your dragon. Dandelion greens, collard greens, mustard greens, bok choy, kale, turnip greens, escarole, lettuce and chicory are among the easiest to find and the best to use.
  • Spinach should be avoided as calcium binds to it and will not be digested by your animal.
  • A wide variety of other vegetables can also be offered: butternut squash, yellow squash, spaghetti squash, acorn squash, all other varieties of squash; green beans, parsnips, sweet potato, snow peas, and carrots.
  • Carrots should only be used as a treat, due to the high amounts of vitamin A. Any food with high amounts of vitamin A should be avoided as reptiles do not absorb a lot of vitamin A. Feeding your dragon a lot foods such as carrots can cause vitamin A toxicity, which is deadly.
  • Squashes will either have to be cooked or microwaved before feeding them to your dragon. This will soften them up and they can then be minced and eaten easier. Fruits can also be used, just avoid any citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruit.
  • Baby and juvenile dragons should be offered appropriately-sized crickets two to three times per day. Offer as many as your Beardie will eat in a 5-10 minute time frame. When your Beardie stops eating, stop offering. Young bearded dragons can eat anywhere from 20-60 small crickets a day.
  • Sub-adult to adult dragons only need to eat prey items once a day, along with fresh greens. Once they are this age, you can also offer them locusts, cockroaches, mealworms, waxworms, Zophobas worms, silkworms, butterworms, red worms, earthworms, and just about any other worm available. All of these should be used as treats, with crickets and greens being the stable part of your dragon’s diet. Silkworms are a good staple diet only if you have a sick or pregnant dragon.
  • Do not feed your dragon insects that you have caught in your backyard! They could have parasites that could be passed on to your dragon, or they could have been exposed to poisons that could kill your dragon. Lightning bugs can also kill your dragon, so it is much safer to stay away from wild-caught insects.
  • Prey items should be dusted once a day with a calcium/vitamin D3 supplement such as the one Rep-cal makes. All prey items should be dusted once a week with a multivitamin supplement such as Herptivite, also made by Rep-cal.
  • Any uneaten prey items should be removed from your dragon’s enclosure.

6. Sometimes a Bearded Dragon may not eat. This may be because he is about to shed. If he does not eat after more than a 3 days and there is not sign of shedding then he may be ill and you should take him to the vet.

7. Provide water. Offer fresh water daily in a shallow bowl. This water bowl should be disinfected once a week to avoid any bacterial build-up. Many dragons may not drink from a water bowl, so you may have to drip the water slowly onto your dragon’s snout. Wiggling your finger in the water may also get their attention. Bearded dragons like things that move, so creating ripples in the water may get their attention.

8. Provide baths. Bathing your dragon once a week will help keep them hydrated and will also aid in shedding.

  • Bath water should be warm on your wrist and not hot, much like bath water for a small child.
  • Make the water only as deep as your dragon’s chest, or half-way up their front arms. Fill the tub until the water reaches the second knuckle on your index finger for your adults and the first knuckle for the juveniles. #*Never leave your Bearded Dragon unattended in the bath – accidents only take a second to happen.
  • It’s a good idea to disinfect your tub when the bath is over because dragons will often defecate in the water.

9. Keep their environment clean.

  • Use 1/4 cup of bleach mixed with a gallon of water. This can be done easily the entire surface of what you are cleaning and leaves a container full for when your spray bottle is empty.
  • All surfaces that get feces on them should be disinfected, including water bowls, food bowls, and cages.
  • Remove your Beardie from the cage, and use hot, soapy water to wipe away any dirt or feces. Then spray the entire surface of what you are cleaning until it is soaked and let it sit for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, scrub the surface with a rag making sure any old food or feces is removed. Rinse all surfaces repeatedly until you can no longer smell bleach. If you still smell bleach rinse again.

10. Keep yourself clean. Hand washing is very important when owning any reptile. Washing your hands before and after handling your dragon will help keep you and your new pet healthy. If you wash your hands before handling, you reduce the risk of passing anything on to your dragon. Washing your hands after handling greatly reduces the risk to you of contracting salmonella. The risks of getting this are very slim to begin with, but hand washing will even further reduce the risks. Your chances of contracting salmonella from the food you eat are greater than your chances of getting it from your dragon.

11. Handling
Gently scoop up your dragon with your hand under its belly. Dragons tend to be very trusting and will not necessarily hold on as will other lizards, so always take care to support your dragon. They do not like being firmly held; let them rest in your palm with your fingers gently curled over the back. Dragons are inquisitive animals, so create a controlled space in which it may do some exploring.