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Bearded Dragon Care Guide

Jade has experience caring for bearded dragons and likes to share husbandry tips with other reptile enthusiasts.

My personal bearded dragon, Alice

My personal bearded dragon, Alice

This article will explain how to raise a bearded dragon from a baby to an adult. In this article, I'll be explaining how to pick a healthy bearded dragon, what kind of habitat and terrarium size you will need, a dragon's diet, and some common behaviors.

Bearded dragons are considered good beginner reptile pets as they are relatively easy to take care of, but you should always do your research before you get any kind of pet.

This is a basic care guide that will share the bare minimum of caring for your dragon.

My personal baby dragon sleeping in his food dish.

My personal baby dragon sleeping in his food dish.

Picking a Healthy Dragon

When you first get a baby dragon you should look to make sure you are getting a healthy one.

The first and possibly the easiest thing to look for is an active dragon with his head up and alert—you don't want to get a lethargic dragon that doesn't move a lot as it may be stressed or sick.

Another key to look for is any visible scarring or missing appendages such as toes or missing tips of the tails (dragons do not regrow appendages, so if it is missing the tip of its tail or some toes, they will not grow back).

If they do have injuries, look to make sure they are healed and not infected or fresh injuries. Other things to watch out for and avoid are runny eyes and noses or any kind of puss or mucus on their face as these are signs of an unhealthy bearded dragon.

If you go to a big chain pet store please be vigilant and don't be afraid to ask questions about the dragons and where they get them. There are numerous reports of people buying sick reptiles from big-name pet stores.

If you are able, look up local reputable bearded dragon breeders. These people tend to take better care of their dragons and will know more about them and will be able to better prepare you for your new pet.

Habitat and Terrarium Sizes

Now that you know what to look for in a dragon, you need to figure out how to set up their habitat! Here are some of the basic items you will need:

  • Terrarium or aquarium
  • Shallow food and water dish
  • Repti carpet or newspaper
  • Heat lamps with UVB bulbs and basking bulbs
  • Hiding spot/ climbing logs for basking
  • Temperature/humidity thermometer

Most big-name pet stores will have starter kits starting with 20-gallon terrariums. These are good to get a lot of what you need initially, however, most of them come with a sand substrate that is NOT recommended for baby or juvenile bearded dragons. This means you would still need to buy repti carpet or other safer substrate.

If you decide to buy everything separately it would cost a rough estimate of between $170 to $200 for the bare minimum.

Glass aquariums are the most popular and can be the cheaper option for reptile enthusiasts. Depending on your location you can even find some for free online or very cheap if used. These are easy to clean and allow you to see your pet from any angle as well. They can also be quite heavy so be careful when you buy one and make sure to empty it out if you need to move it after you have everything set up.

Tank size is important also when buying a new home for your dragon. If you have a baby bearded dragon, you are not going to want a large 40-gallon breeder tank as it can be intimidating for them, and they can actually get lost if you have a lot of decor.

The best and most suitable size tank for a baby dragon is a 20-gallon tank. This will give them plenty of space to play and grow and will make it easier to catch their food. As your dragon grows and gets older you will need to buy bigger cages. Here is an idea of what you will need as your dragon grows:

  • Baby dragons: 20 gallons
  • Early adult (10-16 inches): 40 gallons
  • Adult dragons (16-20 inches): 50 to 75 gallons
  • Adults 20+ inches: 75 to 120 gallons

Dragon sizes vary by breed, and the average size of an adult bearded dragon is usually about 18 inches long. It's rare that a dragon grows to more than 24 inches, but it can happen. One of the largest bearded dragons on record was about 28 inches and was a German Giant that are now sadly all gone.

Heating and Lighting

Heating and lighting are very important for your dragon as it helps them digest their food and gives them energy. You will need a UVA/UVB bulb and a basking (heat) light. These can be expensive but are a necessary purchase for baby and juvenile dragons.

Bearded dragons require 12-14 hours of basking light a day to be happy as they are desert dwelling reptiles. It is important that your dragon has a spot in the terrarium that they can come within 6-8 inches from the light source so be sure to have a raised basking spot in your tank.

Basking lights help them digest their food and ensure they have enough energy. You should stick with bulbs specifically for reptiles because regular light bulbs do not emit enough heat to keep your dragon happy and healthy.

A bearded dragons terrarium temperature should be between 95 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and they should have a cool side that is about 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Baby dragons need a bit more heat so the hot side should be between 105 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit. It is ideal but not necessary to have two thermometers for each side of the tank, but you do need at least one on the hot side or by the heating lights. This temperature guide is for during the day, at night the tank can be as cool as 65 degrees but it is recommended to keep it at around 70-75 degrees.

Your UVA/UVB will need to be a full spectrum light in order to mimic natural sunlight for your dragon. UVA/UVB lights help in preventing your dragon from getting Metabolic Bone Disease among other complications. You can also take your dragon outside on hot sunny days as long as you have a secure area for them or a harness. If you take your dragon outside make sure the temperature is at the very minimum of 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Humidity should be low to keep your dragon happy and healthy so it is ideal to invest in a humidity gauge or to buy a thermostat that also shows the humidity. If you find your terrarium humidity is too high try removing the water dish. Your dragon can keep hydrated with food and regular baths.

**NOTE: Do not use heated rocks for your dragon as they can cause burns and injuries to the underside of your dragon**

Substrate Options

Bearded Dragon substrate can be tricky when choosing what to use for your baby or adult dragon. The substrate should not be loose as baby and juvenile dragons can potentially eat it and become impacted. It should be something that can be easily washed or replaced when your dragon potties on it. With that said, there are several types of substrates you can safely use such as:

  • Reptile carpet
  • Newspaper
  • Paper towels
  • Cotton towels
  • Linoleum

A lot of experts and avid reptile enthusiasts will tell you loose substrates are not good for young dragons and can cause a lot of complications. Loose substrates to avoid for baby and juvenile dragons are play sand, calcium sand, crushed walnut shells and eco Earth to name a few.

Adult dragons can potentially live safely on loose substrate, but it still isn't recommended. Most experts recommended using reptile carpet as it's easy to clean and won't cause digestive problems because it can't be eaten.

I found my dragons like to burrow in the corners under the carpet when I had it for my baby/juveniles. The good thing about using reptile carpet is that you can usually wash it in a normal washing machine and let it air dry but still read the instructions on how to clean it.

Terrarium Accessories

Accessories for your bearded dragon's terrarium can be a fun way to decorate your dragon's home. Some fun and creative accessories for your dragon's terrarium can include but aren't limited to:

  • Custom backgrounds that you can place on one side of the terrarium
  • Reptile hammocks that can suction to the glass walls
  • Large decorative rocks—if you find any outdoors, be sure to thoroughly clean them before placing them in the terrarium
  • Tree branches or chunks of wood—if found outdoors, be sure to also thoroughly clean and sanitize the item before placing it in the terrarium
  • Something your dragon can hide in or under for a hiding spot

Backgrounds can be beneficial for your dragon if the terrarium is in an open space. Bearded dragons can sometimes get overwhelmed or scared if they feel too out in the open so a background covering one side of the terrarium can help make your dragon feel more secure.

Any kind of item you find outside will need to be washed and sanitized thoroughly. For rocks, you can use one part white vinegar and six parts hot water and boil it for about 15 to 20 minutes, and after it's cooled, rinse it off.

As for wood, clean off any visible dirt or grit and then you can bake it in the oven at 275 degrees Fahrenheit for about 45 minutes.

Another item that I found dragons seem to love is the reptile hammock! Dragons absolutely love to lounge in these hammocks and they come with suction cups so you can hang them almost anywhere if you have a glass aquarium.

One of the more important things on this list is a hiding spot for your dragon. This should be something that allows the dragon to hide from the light and from people. A hiding spot is also important for when they go into brumation, which is when a dragon goes into a heavy sleep almost like hibernation.

Feeding Your Dragon

Baby dragon dietary needs are different from adult dragons but one rule for both is that they shouldn't be fed anything larger than the space between their eyes with the exception of worms such as super worms and hornworms. Babies and young juveniles need a more insect-based diet and fewer greens. This is because it is still growing and needs as much protein as possible.

However, you should always leave fresh veggies in their cage and you should feed your dragon insects up to 3 times a day. A young dragon can eat anywhere from 20-60 insects each day! Let them eat as many insects as they can in a 10-15 minute time frame then remove the remaining insects from their cage.

Adult dragons should have more veggies than insects in their diet. You should still leave fresh veggies in their cage but you only need to feed your adult dragon insects once a day. Feed them as many as they can eat in a 10-15 minute time frame then remove the remaining insects from their cage.

Crickets are a good staple everyday insect but they can also have dubia roaches, hornworms, and silkworms.

Stay away from lightning bugs as they are toxic to your dragon. Avocados are also very toxic for dragons and should be avoided.

Some good staple vegetables and greens for your dragons include but are not limited to are kale, mustard greens, collard greens, yellow squash, acorn squash, and cactus pad.

Common Behaviors

If you ever see your dragon waving at you, they are not just saying hello. Arm waving is when a dragon stands high on their legs and raises one arm and waves it in a circular motion. One of the reasons dragons do this is to let other dragons know that they are aware of their presence. Another reason is submission: This can happen when a dragon is approached by a larger dragon or another large animal.

Head Bobbing is aggressive behavior that is often accompanied by a puffed-up black beard. This behavior more common in male dragons consists of a dragon raising and lowering their head at either a slow or very fast pace. Generally, this is a sign of dominance between two dragons. During the breeding season, a male will do this to demonstrate his dominance over the female. This can also be used to assert dominance toward other male dragons who might be interested in the female. Other times it's a sign of territorial aggression. The faster the head bobbing is, the more threatening it is. When it's an issue of territory both male and female dragons can participate in head bobbing.

Fluffing their beard is when a dragon feels threatened and tries to make themselves seem bigger. They can also flatten their bodies and open their mouths wide to make themselves seem bigger and more dangerous to predators. Fluffing is not to be confused with beard stretching. Sometimes your dragon will stretch out their beards during shedding to help loosen up the scales and make it easier to shed them.

Digging is a common behavior in dragons, usually females, who will often try to dig holes in their terrarium and move things around to make room to lay eggs. Female dragons can lay infertile eggs and will try to dig a den for them. Egg lying isn't the only reason for digging though as they can also do it when they are getting close to brumation. They will try to dig a den for themselves to sleep in for a long period of time.

An open or gaping mouth can mean your dragon is regulating their body temperature when they get too hot. Dragons do not sweat or pant as dogs do, and so this is the way that they cool off and control their body temperature.

Angry bearded dragon, beard fluffed up body flat.

Angry bearded dragon, beard fluffed up body flat.

This is what beard stretching looks like, the beard is more flat and it doesn't stay poofed out for very long.

This is what beard stretching looks like, the beard is more flat and it doesn't stay poofed out for very long.

Remember that this is the basic guide to how to care for your dragon and the minimum requirements you will need. You can always research separate topics to get a more in-depth idea of certain areas.

I hope this article was informative and helped you understand how to take care of your dragon. Please feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions.

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.

© 2014 Jade Hassenplug

Comments

Taylior on January 13, 2017:

i put sand in my cage and the vet said that it is not good for their digestive system and also what should i do to entertain my dragon while im away?

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