Care and Husbandry of the Bearded Dragon
Inland bearded dragons have become one of the most popular lizards kept as pets. This can be attributed to their size, engaging personalities and relative ease of care. As with all reptiles, proper husbandry is the key to keeping your bearded dragon happy and healthy.
At least seven species of bearded dragon exist in the wild, all belonging to the genus Pogona. They live in arid, rocky, semi-desert areas of Australia. The inland or central bearded dragon, Pogona vitticeps, is the most common species found in the pet trade, but increasing numbers of the common bearded dragon, P. barbata, and the Rankin’s bearded dragon, P. henrylawsoni, are becoming available in the pet trade as captive breeding becomes more widespread.
At 15 to 20 inches, an adult bearded dragon is not a huge lizard. Though they may not be very large, they can be very active. This high activity level demands a large enclosure. A 40-50 gallon aquarium is a good minimum size for a single adult beardie. Bearded dragons are fairly social lizards and small groups can be housed together if the enclosure is sufficiently large with multiple hiding spots. Care must be taken especially when housing males with other beardies as the males can become territorial and aggressive resulting in serious injuries or even death to cage mates. A variety of substrates have been recommended for enclosure flooring including sand, gravel, indoor-outdoor carpeting, and newspaper. Caution should be used if sand is chosen as this can leading to intestinal impactions if inadvertently ingested. Corn-cob, walnut-shell, tree bark, kitty litter, moss and alfalfa pellets should all be avoided as these can retain moisture and lead to mold. Branches for climbing and basking and caves for hiding should also be provided.
Ensuring the enclosure is kept within the preferred optimum temperature zone is extremely important for maintaining proper health. Significant exposures to temperatures outside of the normal range can lead to digestive disorders, decreased activity and weakened immune systems. Bearded dragons should be provided with a range of temperatures within the enclosure with the cool side of the tank in the mid to upper 70′s and the warmer side of the tank in the mid to upper 80′s. Ideally your beardie should be provided with a hiding spot on both ends of the temperature range. At night the temperature can dip into the low 70′s. A basking spot which is 90-105 F should also be provided. Multiple thermometers should be used to check the temperature in each of these areas. Heat can be provided by overhead lights and ceramic heating elements or by under the tank heating pads. Often a combination of heat sources will be required to maintain appropriate temperatures throughout the day. Thermostats are available which can be connected to your heating sources to more precisely control the temperature.
Lighting is also critically important to the health of your bearded dragon. As diurnal lizards, beardies are normally only active during daylight hours. However, white lights should not be left on all the time as nighttime sleep is important for good health, with beardies requiring 10-12 hours of darkness at night. Red lights or ceramic heating elements can be used to provide radiant heating at night without interfering with normal sleeping cycles. Typically several lights will be needed for the enclosure. One of these is usually a basking light which produces heat in addition to visible light. A second fluorescent light is needed to provide critical ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths of UVA and UVB light. UVA is important for reptile vision and lack of UVA wavelengths can change the appearance of food items or tank mates leading to decreased appetite and altered behaviors. UVB wavelengths are essential for normal calcium metabolism, and are required for your beardie to convert vitamin D to its active form. This activated vitamin D allows calcium to be absorbed from the diet. Bearded dragons which do not receive adequate exposure to UVB wavelengths ultimately suffer from problems related to calcium deficiency including metabolic bone disease. Metabolic bone disease results in muscle weakness, bones that are prone to fractures and a poorly functioning digestive system. As a semi-desert species, bearded dragons should receive relatively high levels of UVB light. A fluorescent tube which emits 5 to 7% UVB is recommended. Lights such as the Repti-Sun bulbs (made by Zoo Med), Exo-Terra (made by Hagen) and the Desert Reptile bulbs (made by R-Zilla) all seem to provide adequate levels of UVB. These bulbs should be changed frequently as most will stop emitting UV wavelengths after about 6 months even while still visibly functioning. Mercury vapor bulbs are also available which emit heat, visible light and UVA/UVB wavelengths. Caution should be used when choosing a mercury vapor bulb as many of these can emit unacceptably high levels of UVA. At this time there is still much debate as to whether these high UVA levels may be dangerous to people and pets. For this reason it is difficult to recommend a specific metal halide bulb until more research has been conducted.
A healthy bearded dragon should have a healthy appetite. As omnivores they should eat a mixture of veggies and animal matter. In the wild, beardies would consume a wide variety of food items and this variety should be maintained in captivity. Offer vegetables consisting mainly of shredded leafy green vegetables such as mustard greens, kale, dandelion greens, escarole, parsley, cilantro and collard greens. Smaller amounts of fruits and other vegetables should also be offered. These may include squash, green beans, carrots, strawberries and cantaloupe. Animal protein often is supplied by feeding insect prey. These can include crickets, mealworms, wax worms, cockroaches, and king worms. Large bearded dragons can be fed pinky mice. Care must be taken not to feed prey which is too large to small bearded dragons. Feeding prey which is too large can result in gut impactions, paralysis and even death. Medium to larger bearded dragons can accept food items which are about 2/3 the size of their heads. For young beardies, even prey this size is too large. They should be fed pinhead crickets or freshly molted small mealworms. Most insects as purchased from pet stores contain very little nutritional value. For this reason, it is important to feed or gut-load your prey items before feeding them to your beardie. Commercial cricket diets are available for this purpose. Insects can also be fed fresh vegetables. In addition to gut-loading, prey items should be dusted with a calcium supplement prior to feeding to your bearded dragon at least 3-5 times per week. For more information on gut loading insects click here.
Many bearded dragons do not drink standing water. Even so a water bowl should be provided for those that do wish to take the occasional drink. In addition, a larger, shallow pool of water can be provided in the enclosure for soaking. Alternatively, you can soak your beardie in a separate enclosure 2-3 times per week. Regular soaking will help maintain hydration and aid in shedding. Bearded dragons will also enjoy an occasional shower and may be lightly misted with a spray bottle once or twice a day. Many bearded dragons will lap up the water droplets in the tank. The enclosure should not stay wet, however, as excessive humidity can lead to mold.
By following these basic husbandry techniques you can help keep your bearded dragon happy and healthy. Please feel free to contact any of our health care professionals with any additional questions you may have.
Tony Poutous, VMD