How to Care for Bearded Dragons
Bearded dragons, or "beardies," can be good-natured companions, whose natural curiosity and apparent enjoyment of human company make them a popular pet. It’s important that you take care of your bearded dragon so it stays healthy and happy.
Part 1Choosing a Bearded Dragon
1Bearded dragons have specific needs that must be met, so owning one requires some advance knowledge. At this time, you decide whether a beardie is the right pet for you, and make sure that you have everything you need before bringing your dragon home. Be aware that bearded dragons, while they make delightful pets, are not ideal for young children. They require close attention to detail, such as correct temperatures and regular replacement of UVB bulbs.
2Baby 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.
3 When you walk up to the enclosure, the dragons should be watching you with interest and should have bright, alert eyes. You don't want a dragon that can't lift its head or looks lethargic.
4It should have no sores, burns, pus, external parasites, or deformities. Note, however, that many dragons may 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.
5Shortly after purchasing your dragon, make an appointment to visit the vet, who can check for any parasites and evaluate the dragon's overall health. It may help to bring a stool sample on your first visit. Inquire about this when you call to make the appointment. There are no vaccines recommended for bearded dragons. Visits to the vet should be a habit, whether or not your dragon is sick. Aim to take your bearded dragon to the vet for a check-up once every 3 months.
Part 2Providing the Right Habitat for Your Bearded Dragon
1Larger beardies may be aggressive towards smaller ones, and males tend to be territorial. This is further complicated by the fact that it can be difficult to sex bearded dragons when they're young, so you may not know whether you have a male or female beardie at first.
2As opposed to a terrarium or aquarium, which have four glass sides, a vivarium has solid walls on three sides with a glass frontage. A terrarium is difficult to keep adequately hot, so your beardie will either be chilled or your heating bills sky high. Note that the vivarium has to be at least 3'x1'x1.5'. If a vivarium is not available, opt for a glass aquarium with a screen top. If you're building an enclosure yourself, keep in mind that it must be well ventilated, easy to disinfect, and able to maintain high temperatures (see below). Cages with wooden sides must be sealed with polyurethane or a similar waterproofing agent, and the joints must be caulked for proper cleaning and disinfection. Ensure that fresh polyurethane be allowed to dry several days and air the cage out thoroughly before placing your beardie in it, otherwise toxicity may result.
3Beardies can grow up to 2 feet (61 cm), move fast, and like to climb, so they need plenty of space in their home. For young dragons, a 10 gallon (39 L) tank is adequate, but this will last them only for a few months, as they grow quickly. An adult dragon requires much more room: a minimum of 55 to 60 gallons (208 to 227 L) is required, but 75 to 120 gallons (284 to 454 L) is preferable. If you're building an enclosure, make sure it is at least 48 in (122 cm) long, 24 in (61 cm) wide, and 18 in (48 cm) high. To save money, you can purchase a large adult habitat immediately. Consider using adjustable partitions to increase the living space as your beardie grows.
4Do not use glass, plexiglass or wood to cover your cages. This will not allow enough air circulation and will also trap humidity in the cage. Screen tops ensure there's adequate air flow, allow your lighting and heat sources to work correctly, and also let humidity escape. Ensure that the lid fits tightly.
5The bottom of the enclosure should be lined with a substrate that is safe for your dragon and easy to clean. It is very important to choose a material that does not put your dragon at risk: beardies often eat bedding made of small particles, which can result in impaction (blockage of the intestines) and death. Use flat newspaper, paper towels, butcher paper, or reptile carpet. These choices are cheap, easy to clean, and pose no health risks to your animal. Make sure that the very bottom of the vivarium is covered with a white or brown unheated mat. This will ensure that if your beardie decides to dig under whatever bedding you placed, its most vulnerable part (its stomach) will not make contact with the cold bottom of the tank.
6Create an environment where your beardie can climb, hide, and bask – all behaviors that it needs for well-being. Never use anything from nature. Natural logs and other objects could carry parasites, no matter how much you clean them. Instead, use ready-sterile logs and sticks from stores. Wash them with warm water and let them dry before placing them in the tank. Add some branches for climbing and basking. They should be securely located under the secondary heat source (see Part 3). Make sure they are as wide as your bearded dragon. Oak is a good choice, as are boards covered in carpets. Avoid wood with sticky sap or pitch. Provide some smooth rocks for basking and wearing down nails. Give your beardie a place to seclude itself. You can add an empty cardboard box, cardboard tube, or flower pot. The hiding place should give a snug fit and be placed high in the enclosure. If your dragon doesn't use the hiding space, try moving it to a new location or using a different object. Put in a few plants to provide shade, humidity, and a sense of security. Make sure the plants you choose are nontoxic to bearded dragons (such as Dracaena, Ficus benjamina, and hibiscus). It is important that the plants and their soil have not been treated with pesticides, vermiculite, fertilizer, or wetting agents. Before putting the plant in the cage, wash the plant with a water spray and pour water enough water on the soil so that it drains out the bottom: this helps remove any toxic chemicals. You may also want to keep newly purchased plants in a separate part of the house for a while before introducing them to the bearded dragon’s enclosure.
Part 3Controlling Temperature and Light
1You'll need a source of heat that maintains temperatures within the enclosure at a level comfortable for the bearded dragon. Dragons like temperatures between 78 and 88 F (25 to 31 C) during the day, and evening temperatures between 70 and 79 F (21 and 26 C). Use a series of incandescent lights above the top of the cage. Keep in mind that they'll need to be turned off at night, when another heat source will be necessary, depending on the temperature in the room. Try a heating pad under the cage or a ceramic infrared heater as an evening source of heat. There are reptile-specific incandescent bulbs which emit heat but little visible light; however, these are expensive. For larger enclosures, adjust the room temperature with a thermostat or space heater. Always include a fire alarm in a room where light or other heat sources are in operation.
2Beardies like a temperature gradient in their habitat, allowing them to move between warmer and cooler spaces. The secondary heat source provides them with a spot where they can bask. This area should cover about 25-30 percent of the total enclosure surface, with a temperature of about 95-100 F (35-38 C). You can use a special basking light, or opt for a simple 30-75 watt incandescent bulb in a ceramic base. The source should be securely mounted where the animal cannot touch it. Never use hot rocks as a heat source! Note that baby bearded dragons in a smaller cage space will need a lower wattage, otherwise the enclosure may become too hot. Any temperatures above 110 F (43 C) are not recommended, but within a few degrees of these basking temperatures will be sufficient. One thermometer on the "hot side" and one on the "cool side" will make sure that your temperatures are in the correct range.
3Bearded dragons require ultraviolet light in order to produce Vitamin D, which in turn aids calcium absorption; insufficiency can lead to metabolic bone disease. You can use either fluorescent or mercury vapor bulbs; the former need to be replaced approximately every six months, since UVB output diminishes over time. They should have about 12 to 14 hours per day of exposure. Make sure the fluorescent bulb has at least 5 percent UVB (check the packaging for these specifications). Look for light strips that cover the length of the enclosure. Consider reptile-specific black lights in the 290-320 nanometer range. (Note that these are not the same as plant-grow lights or psychedelic black lights, neither of which produces UVB rays.) You can choose bulbs that emit both white light and UVB, or UVB only. Ideally, the UVB light source should be about 10-12 in (25.4-30.5 cm) from wherever the bearded dragon spends most of its time (such as the basking site) to ensure adequate exposure. It should be no farther than 18 in (45.7 cm) away. Keep in mind that UVB rays do not pass through glass. Your UVB source should be above the mesh top of the enclosure, and the mesh should not be too fine. The sun is the best source of UVB rays. On sunny days when the temperatures are in the appropriate range (see Part 3, Step 1, above), place your beardie outside in a secure screen or wire cage with a locking door. Remember to provide some shade and hiding spaces, as well.
Part 4Feeding Your Bearded Dragon
1One of the most important things to keep in mind when feeding your beardie is that any and all food items it eats should be no bigger than the space between its eyes. If the food items are larger than this, it could cause choking, impaction, and hind-leg paralysis.
2Beardies are omnivores, meaning that they eat both animal and plant matter. However, hatchlings and juveniles have specific dietary needs. Offer as many tiny insects as your beardie will eat in a five-to-ten-minute time frame. When your beardie stops eating, stop offering. Young bearded dragons can eat anywhere from 20-60 pinhead crickets a day. Provide hatchlings with a diet of small insects. If you are caring for a very young bearded dragon, you'll need to give it very small prey, such as pinhead crickets and tiny, freshly molted worms. You can very gradually introduce day-old pinkie mice when they are ready. Feed juvenile dragons (two to four months old) a mix of 80 percent small insects and 20 percent greens (see below for recommendations). Young dragons need to be fed two to three times per day.
3The adult diet is about 60 to 65 percent of plant foods and 30 to 45 percent of prey items. Calcium-rich leafy greens and other veggies should make up the bulk of the diet. Feed a "salad" based on collards, dandelion greens and flowers, escarole, endive, grape leaves, mustard greens, turnip greens, and/or watercress. You can add the following to the salad to balance it out: acorn squash, red and green bell peppers, butternut squash, green beans, lentils, peas, pumpkin and other winter squash, snow peas, sweet potatoes, and turnips. Cook or microwave squashes before feeding to soften them up. Give the following veggies sparingly as treats: cabbage, chard, and kale (which are high in calcium oxalates and can cause metabolic bone disease); carrots (high in Vitamin A, which in high levels can be toxic); spinach, broccoli, and parsley (high in goitrogens, which decrease thyroid function); and corn, cucumbers, radishes, sprouts, and zucchini (these are low in nutrition). Spraying the greens with water will help them last longer and will also help keep your bearded dragon hydrated. Shred the veggies and mix them together in the salad to encourage your beardie to eat a variety of foods, rather than just picking out its favorites.
4You can also give your bearded dragon bites of the following: apples, apricots, bananas, berries, cantaloupe, figs, grapes, mangos, oranges, papayas, peaches, pears, plums, tomatoes, Ficus benjamina, geraniums, hibiscus flowers and leaves, pansies, petunias, pothos, rose petals and leaves, snail vine, and violets.
5You can try feeding crickets, super worms, wax worms, mealworms, pinky mice, and hissing cockroaches. "Gutload" the prey by feeding it a nutrient-rich diet one to two days before serving it to your beardie. For example, you can feed it ground legumes, cornmeal, carrots, sweet potatoes, collard greens, mustard greens, broccoli, spinach, apples, oranges, cereals, and rolled oats. Any uneaten prey items should be removed from your dragon's enclosure. It is advisable to purchase the prey, since wild-caught prey (for example, something you catch in your yard) may have been exposed to toxic chemicals or have parasites that could be passed on to your dragon. Lightning bugs are toxic to your dragon. Silkworms are a good staple diet only if you have a sick or pregnant dragon.
6Buy a calcium supplement in powder form (without phosphate added) and sprinkle it over the salad and prey right before serving. Do this once per day for juveniles (under two years of age) and once or twice a week for adults. You may also want to supplement Vitamin D3. Consult the product directions and/or your veterinarian about the amount of supplements to give, since over-dosing can lead to toxic levels.
7When it is time to shed, a bearded dragon may not eat. However, if it does not eat after more than three days and there is no sign of shedding, then your beardie may be ill. In that case, call your veterinarian to schedule an appointment.
8Offer the water in a shallow bowl. Wiggling your finger in the water may also get their attention. Bearded dragons like things that move, so creating ripples in the water may pique their curiosity. However, many dragons do not drink from a water bowl, so you may have to drip the water slowly onto your dragon's snout with a dropper. Beardies often defecate in their water bowl, so change the water once a day (or immediately if you notice fecal matter). For the same reason, you'll need to disinfect the bowl once a week with a 1:10 bleach-water solution to avoid any bacterial build-up. If your beardie is uninterested in drinking, spritz it lightly with water: it will lick the drops off its skin.
Part 5Maintaining Hygiene
1Bathing your dragon once a week will help keep it hydrated and also aid in shedding. Bathwater should be warm on your wrist and not hot, much like Bathwater 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 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. Use a 1:10 solution of bleach and water.
2You'll need to clean their enclosure, as well as the food and water bowls, once a week. Mix a 1:10 solution of bleach and water in a spray bottle. Remove your beardie from the cage. Have someone hold it, or place it in a safe enclosure. Use hot, soapy water and a clean rag to wipe away any dirt or feces. Next, spray the bleach solution across 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 or paper towel, making sure any old food or feces is removed. Rinse all surfaces repeatedly with water until you can no longer smell bleach. If you still smell bleach rinse again.
3Hand 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 them. Your chances of contracting Salmonella from the food you eat are greater than your chances of getting it from your dragon. Because bearded dragons may carry Salmonella, use a separate sponge to clean their food and water bowl, supervise children when handling them, and don't let them crawl around the kitchen. Also, avoid kissing your beardie, no matter how much you love it.
Part 6Handling Your Bearded Dragon
1Bearded dragons tend to be curious, mellow creatures that appear to enjoy human company. Regular handling helps them get accustomed to people and minimizes stress during events like enclosure cleanings and trips to the vet. Pick up your beardie by placing your hand under its belly and gently scooping it up. Let the dragon lay on your palm, and lightly curl your fingers around its abdomen.
2Bearded dragons have very rough skin, so this may protect you from light scratches.
3Your dragon's nails will get needle-sharp, so be sure to maintain them. Wrap your beardie in a towel, leaving one leg exposed. Have an assistant hold the beardie. Use human nail clippers to take off the very tip of the nails. Do just a little, as lizards have a vein, called a quick, running through their fingers. If you do cut into the quick, stop the bleeding by dabbing a little cornstarch onto the nail with a cotton swab. Alternatively, you can file your dragon's nails, or have a vet cut them for a nominal fee.
4You'll understand your beardie better by recognizing certain gestures it makes. Inflated beard: When a lizard wants to show dominance, or feels startled or threatened - this particularly happens during breeding season - it puffs its throat out. Mouth gaping: As with the inflated beard, this gesture is meant to make the dragon look menacing, as a show of dominance or to scare off a potential aggressor. Bobbing head: Males show dominance with this gesture. Arm waving: Sometimes a dragon may hold up one front leg and slowly wave it, which is a sign of submission. Raised tail: This is commonly seen during the breeding season. It can also be a sign of alertness and activeness. Juveniles tend to raise their tail when they're hunting prey.
5After your initial veterinary visit, it is important to bring your beardie for an annual check-up. This helps detect any potential issues early, and keeps your friend as healthy as possible.