Beginner's Guide to Keeping a Bearded Dragon
Bearded Dragon Origin, Temperament, and Traits
Bearded dragons are arguably one of the easiest lizards to care for and make excellent pets. As with any animal, it is important to educate yourself on the husbandry requirements for a species before deciding to bring one home. Let's start by familiarizing ourselves with the background of the bearded dragon.
Bearded dragons are native to the deserts of Australia, and are part of the Agamidae family of lizards. They have a distinctive broad, triangular-shaped head and a relatively flat body; their jaws and torsos are lined with thorn-like scales. Adults grow between 18 to 24 inches in length including the tail. Males tend to be much bigger than females in most cases.
These lizards get their name from the gular pouch on their throat. When the bearded dragon feels threatened, it will flare the gular pouch to look much larger than it really is. The throat area will also darken to a blackish-purple color that resembles a beard, hence the name bearded dragon. The majority of dragons available in the pet trade today are inland or central bearded dragons, although there are eight species in total.
Necessary Supplies for a Bearded Dragon
- Enclosure (at least a 30-gallon breeder tank)
- Wire mesh screen top
- Fluorescent full-spectrum light bulb for reptiles with shielded fixture
- Heat lamp, or ceramic heat emitters with dome-style fixtures
- Heating pad (if needed)
- Two digital or mercury thermometers minimum
- Food and water bowls
- Hide box
- Decor items
- Driftwood or rocks for a perch
- Insect and vegetable food items
Species Distribution in Australia
Why Bearded Dragons Make Excellent Pets
In recent years, bearded dragons have soared in popularity amongst pet owners and enthusiasts. They are even outranking the iguana as the most sought-after lizard pet available. There are many reasons why it is such a popular pet—here are just a few of their admirable qualities:
- Calm Behavior: Bearded dragons are renown for their calm behavior and fun demeanor; they are docile and even submissive creatures. It is difficult to find a one that doesn't love to be picked up and handled once they get used to their owners. This great attitude makes it very easy to build a solid relationship with your lizard which is another reason why they have become such a popular pet.
- Easy to Maintain: Dragons are very easy to maintain compared to many other lizards in the pet trade. Their dietary needs are not as particular as other lizards either. As long as you take a little time to properly clean and maintain their habitat daily, keeping a bearded dragon is a cinch.
- Unique Appearance: One of the most attractive attributes of this species is its appearance. They have a cool, dinosaur-like look and come in a variety of different colors. You can easily find them in shades of red, orange, yellow, and even pastel. Their billowing beard is also one of their likable qualities.
- Small Size: Dragons are relatively small and grow between 18 to 24 inches in adulthood. Thier small stature makes them attractive to pet owners since it is much easier to house and handle them. This is one advantage that they have over iguanas or monitors which can grow up to six feet long and can occasionally become aggressive.
- Long Lifespan: It's not unlikely that they can live up to 15 years of age when raised in captivity. Their hardy health is another attractive quality, as they are not as fragile as many other reptiles such as chameleons or turtles.
How to Spot a Healthy Lizard
- Clear, alert eyes
- Active, not lethargic
- Has an appetite for both insects and vegetables
- Clean anal region
- No lumps or lacerations on skin
- Jaw and mouth appear normal, no sagging or disfigurement
- Contains five toes on each foot, with claws
- Complete tail
- Good coloration, no dark or bruised areas
Selecting a Healthy Bearded Dragon
Once you have decided that a bearded dragon is the right pet for you, it is time to select one. This is an extremely crucial step. You never want to purchase a sick or unhealthy dragon. I know it's very easy to feel sorry for a sick and hurting baby bearded dragon, but it is very difficult for an amateur to bring one back to health (and frequent visits to the veterinarian can become quite expensive). Here are a few things to look for when choosing your dragon:
- Observe the Habitat: The majority of baby bearded dragons are purchased via pet stores, while many can be bought directly from breeders. When selecting from a pet store, the first thing you want to do is observe the habitat. Make sure it is well-maintained with no old fecal matter or food laying around. Check to see if the habitat is over-populated. If there are 20 or 30 babies housed in one 10-gallon habitat, that is way too crowded. An overcrowded habitat could lead to injuries like missing tails or broken and missing toes. Check to make sure the pet store is providing a basking area with plenty of heat for the babies and that there is a lamp with UV-B rays.
- Observe the Bearded Dragons: Look at the bearded dragons themselves. Sit back and watch them for a few minutes. You want to choose one that is very active and alert. Move your hand in front of the habitat, and see how they react. They should move their eyes attentively towards the movement. Some dragons may jump at quick movements, but most will just watch with a certain curiosity. You want a bearded dragon that is alert, active, and appears to be eating well. Avoid any that look lethargic and skinny.
Perform a Basic Health Check on Your Lizard
Once you have picked out a specimen that meets your criteria, ask someone at the pet store to take it out of the habitat so you can take a closer look. The bearded dragon should act lively and may squirm a bit at first. Make sure you have a good hold on it, but not too tight. Observe the following:
- Examine the eyes. Again, make sure they are clear and alert, and make sure there is no crust around the mouth or eyes.
- Check the toes and feet to ensure they are intact. There should be five toes per foot, and they should have the entire claw. Make sure the toes aren't swollen or deformed.
- Check to make sure the tail is complete and not broken or deformed. Examine the entire body for any lacerations, lumps, or bruises. Rub the skin to make sure it feels healthy and is in good shape. The skin should retain some elasticity.
- Flip the lizard over and examine the belly. It should be white to off-white in color with no lumps or lacerations.
- Examine the anal region, it should be clean and not have any leftover fecal residue or clumps.
Diet and Nutrition Requirements
Although bearded dragons have a wide palette and their tastes are varied, there are some things to know about supplying a well-balanced diet. Lizards have different dietary needs at different stages of their life and require a varied and balanced diet with plenty of nutrients and vitamins.
Feeding a Baby Bearded Dragon
Bearded dragons are considered babies up to four or five months of age. During this stage, the baby will grow rapidly and requires nutrients and vitamins. Babies should be fed a variety of insect feeders and finely chopped vegetables. Mixed vegetables and fruits should make up 20 to 40 percent of their diet, and insect feeders should make up 60 to 80 percent of their diet. Some excellent choices for insect feeders include pinhead crickets and small wax worms. Always make sure that what you are feeding your baby bearded dragon is never bigger than the space between its eyes.
Feed the bearded dragon three or four pinhead crickets per meal. To facilitate their rapid growth, babies need to be fed small, frequent meals each day. It is better to give them three or four smaller meals rather than one large meal each day. Avoid feeding your baby too many wax worms because they are high in fat content and can lead to obesity later in life. Offering one or two wax worms per day is a great start.
Avoid feeding a baby mealworms. Mealworms can contain a hard outer coating (or shell) that can be very difficult for a baby to digest. Avoid giving crickets that are too large. The jagged hind legs of the cricket can cause tears in the tender digestive system of the babies.
Vitamins and Minerals
When feeding a baby bearded dragon, each meal should be dusted with a calcium and vitamin D3 supplement; this is to promote healthy bone growth and development. It is very important to supply these vitamins and minerals during the baby stage in order to keep up with their rapid growth.
Vegetable Feeding Guide for Baby Bearded Dragons
Dandelions (leaves and flowers)
Fruit Feeding Guide for Baby Bearded Dragons
Chopped apples (with skin removed)
Seedless grapes (with skin removed)
Feeding a Juvenile Bearded Dragon
A bearded dragon is considered to be a juvenile when it is between 5 and 18 months of age. At this stage of its life, you should steadily increase the amount of mixed fruits and vegetables offered and slowly decrease the number of insect feeders. The variety of insect feeders will also multiply. You can also increase the size of the insects offered. Remember: Never feed your bearded dragon anything that is larger than the space between its eyes.
Here are some insects you can feed a juvenile:
- wax worms
- super worms
- fruit flies
During the juvenile stage of life, the number of insect feeders offered should drop to about 40 percent, while the number of fruits and vegetables offered should increase to about 60 percent. Juveniles can be fed two small offerings of vegetables each day and one small offering of insect feeders.
Vitamins and Minerals
Once it reaches the juvenile stage, the supplement can be reduced to a dusting every other day.
Feeding an Adult Bearded Dragon
The adult feeding routine is much different from the baby and juvenile routines. Adults require more leafy vegetables and fewer insect feeders. After the bearded dragon reaches 18 months of age or older, their diet should consist of 80 percent vegetables and fruits, and 20 percent insect feeders.
Adults should be offered a decent portion of leafy greens mixed with diced vegetables like carrots, sweet potato, and green peas about twice a day. Cut down the insect feeders to about two or three times per week. The adults do not need as much protein and fat as babies and juveniles.
Vitamins and Minerals
Adults can be given a broad-spectrum vitamin supplement once per week to provide added vitamins and minerals needed at this stage.
Vegetable Feeding Guide for Adult Bearded Dragons
Dandelions (leaves and flowers)
Carrots (including the tops)
Fruit Feeding Guide for Adult Bearded Dragons
Apples (skin removed)
Grapes (skin removed)
Bearded Dragon Housing
Once you have decided to own a bearded dragon, you will need to supply adequate housing for it. The right habitat is key to keeping a happy, healthy lizard.
- Figure out what type of enclosure you plan to use. There are many different types of terrariums and tanks available on the market especially made for housing reptiles. You could also build your own enclosure for a custom look. It is best to initially use an enclosure that is large enough to house an adult right off the bat. This will eliminate the need to continually buy enclosures as they grow.
- Bearded dragons are not much for climbing and are free-roaming animals; an enclosure that has ample floor space is recommended. Use a 30-gallon breeder tank at minimum. This tank measures 36 inches long, 18 inches wide, and 13 inches tall. The more floor space an enclosure provides, the better.
Glass vs. Acrylic
- A glass terrarium is one of the best options as they are relatively inexpensive and easy to maintain. There are also terrariums constructed of acrylic. Acrylic enclosures are much lighter than glass but are also much easier to scratch. After a couple of years, an acrylic tank can begin to look sandblasted from the scratching of the lizard; this will hamper the visual appeal for you and your pet.
- Make sure to use a snug-fitting wire mesh screen cover on top of the cover to keep children and other pets out of the bearded dragon's home. Avoid using glass lids as they will filter out needed UV-B rays from the full-spectrum lighting.
- Substrate is what you use to cover the floor of the habitat. Substrate is a highly debated topic within the bearded dragon community. Many owners prefer to use natural non-silica sand as a substrate to offer a more realistic habitat, while some prefer to use old newspaper because it is easier to maintain.
- You can use whatever suits your needs, but avoid using substrates that contain small particles to avoid impaction. Impaction is when the lizard swallows an object that it cannot digest; the object then creates a blockade in the intestinal tract. Impaction can be fatal unless it is caught early on and treated by a vet.
- Avoid using pebbles, aquarium rocks, ground walnut shells, and anything else that could easily lead to an impaction. This is especially true for baby bearded dragons.
- Plants and Furnishings: To liven up the habitat, you can add plants and other furnishings. Choosing plastic or silk plants is the best option. They are easy to clean, never need water, and reduce the chances of your bearded dragon swallowing them. If you select live plants, make sure they are not toxic to your pet, and that they are free of any chemicals. Always have live plants in a small pot to make it easier to move when cleaning or rearranging the habitat.
- Hide Box: Bearded dragons also need a hide box. There are many hide boxes available in pet stores. Many of these hide boxes are constructed to look like rock caves and make an excellent addition to the habitat.
- Perching: Perching in the basking zone is one of a bearded dragon's favorite past times. You can find a great selection of sandblasted driftwood pieces at pet stores. Make sure it is sturdy enough to support your bearded dragon.
Heating and Lighting Requirements
Providing your bearded dragon with the proper heating and lighting is extremely vital to its survival. Since this species comes from the warm desert regions of Australia, it is important to mimic that environment as much as possible. In the wild, they perch upon rocks and other items while basking in the sun's warm rays. It is important to replicate this environment as much as possible while in captivity.
Create Basking Areas and Cooler Areas
- Bearded dragons need a warm basking area to perch on that is between 95 to 100 degrees F for babies, and about 90 to 95 degrees F for adults. Use heating lamps, ceramic heat emitters, or heating pads to develop the correct basking temperatures. There are instances where a combination of these may be needed. Avoid using hot rocks as a heat source. Hot rocks are infamous for causing burns on the belly and are not recommended.
- A cooler zone should be created that should stay between 80 to 87 degrees F. The cooler region is where they will go to cool off a bit in case it gets too hot in the basking area. Maintaining a temperature gradient throughout the habitat is important for the well-being of the lizard.
- Always place a digital or mercury thermometer in both the basking area and the cooler area so that you can constantly monitor temperatures and adjust accordingly.
Supplying UV-A and UV-B Rays
- UV-B and UV-A rays from the sun are also vital. These rays are produced naturally by the sun but may not be present inside a home.
- A full-spectrum light specifically designed for reptiles will be required in order to replicate UV-A and UV-B rays. UV-B rays are essential to aid in the synthesis of vitamin D3 and calcium, which is needed for good bone development. UV-A is believed to help increase appetite and produce hormones.
- Full-spectrum light bulbs should be replaced every 6 months to ensure that they receive adequate amounts of UV-B and UV-A rays.
Pre-Prepare Your Bearded Dragon's Habitat
Have all heating, lighting, and décor set-up at least a week prior to bringing your dragon home to reduce the chances of stress and shock. Never bring a bearded dragon home without supplying heat, ultraviolet lights, and food. Turn on all of the equipment to make sure it is operating properly. Turn on the basking lights, heat pads, ceramic heat emitters, and monitor temperatures in the basking and cooling zones. Make sure they are at desirable levels.
Have all décor items in place, such as the substrate, wood, rock perches, and plants, and have the hide box ready to go. Place a small bowl with some chopped vegetables and fruit in the habitat just before picking up the bearded dragon from the pet store. Also, provide a small, shallow bowl of water.
Enjoy the Company of Your Dragon
Bearded dragons are wonderful pets to own. With a little maintenance and a lot of love, you will have no problem keeping one of the most amusing and entertaining pets imaginable.
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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.