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Bearded Dragon Care and Husbandry
Originally published in Herpetoculture House Digital Magazine vol. 2 issue 7
by Lillie Nyte
Bearded dragons are often referred to as the Labrador retrievers of the reptile world due to their high level of popularity and friendly personalities which make them perfect family pets. They are often highly recommended for beginners since they are a medium sized lizard and will tolerate a fair amount of handling without displaying any of the aggression that a larger lizard might or the flightiness of smaller lizards. They tend to be very attentive towards goings on outside of their enclosures and will even engage in very anthropomorphic gestures such as waving or tilting their heads.
Bearded dragons belong to the Agamid family of lizards, members of which can be found throughout Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Middle East. There are currently 9 known species and sub-species of bearded dragon which are all found on the continent of Australia – Eastern bearded dragons (Pogona barbata), Dwarf bearded dragons (Pogona minor minor), Mitchell’s bearded dragons (Pogona minor mitchelli), Western bearded dragons (Pogona minor minima), Banded bearded dragons (Pogona nullarbar), Small-scaled bearded dragons (Pogona microlepidota), Inland bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps), and Rankin’s or Lawson’s bearded dragons (Pogona henrylawsoni). Of these species the most commonly available in the pet trade is the Inland bearded dragon while the Rankin’s bearded dragon is less commonly known and Eastern bearded dragons are rarely offered for sale. There are also hybrid Rankin’s and Inland crosses known as Vittikin dragons. Due to the high percentage of Inland bearded dragons kept in captivity and the abundance of research done by various keepers and breeders into their captive care requirements this article will focus on care for the Inland bearded dragon.
Bearded dragons have rough bumpy skin with soft spikes along their sides and spiky beards. Captive breeding efforts have yielded smooth leatherback and scaleless silkback varieties as well. Baby bearded dragons at hatching are just under 4 inches in length and weigh about 2.5 to 3 grams while adults achieve lengths of 19 to 23 inches and weigh around 250 grams. In terms of longevity, bearded dragons typically live as long as five to eight years, although some have been reported to reach ten years of age or over.
Inland bearded dragons have a wide range of territory in the inland regions of eastern Australia and are found in a variety of habitats ranging from dry forests and scrub lands to deserts. They come from hot and arid regions where temperatures can reach upwards of 100 degrees. Bearded dragons are diurnal poikilotherms and maintain their body heat with help from the sun in their natural habitat and as a result have a few adaptations that assist them in maintaining their core body temperature. When they emerge from their night time hiding spots they will have a darker coloration which will help them absorb heat from the sun’s rays as they bask on rocks, exposed branches, or even fence posts with their broad backs oriented towards the sun. As temperatures reach their highs in the mid-day they will turn a lighter color and turn their backs away from the sun in order to absorb less heat. A hot bearded dragon may sit with it’s mouth agape and finally seek shade or shelter. In the wild bearded dragons will spend much of their time foraging for vegetation and insect prey. When threatened by predators they prefer to freeze their movements attempting to blend in with the environment until the threat has passed. However, if confronted at close range they will puff up their beards and bodies, and gape their mouths in order to appear larger and more aggressive before fighting back as a last resort. Bearded dragons also engage in a wide variety of social gestures such as head bobbing and arm waving.
Selecting a bearded dragon
When choosing a pet bearded dragon, look for healthy active individuals with bright, clear eyes, and clean vents. They should have well rounded bodies and all 4 limbs, 20 toes, and a thick tail that is completely intact. It is generally recommended to purchase a 6 to 8 inch juvenile rather than a baby as juveniles will have a lower mortality rate, are able to be sexed, and will be starting to develop their adult coloration. Do not select an individual that appears sickly, feeble, deformed, or malnourished no matter how well meaning your intent is, as that will only support the vendor and may even spread disease if you keep other reptiles. A dragon that remains on the ground with its eyes closed after brief periods of activity is most likely sick or weak.
While bearded dragons are relatively easy to care for, they do have some very specific needs that must be met. Bearded dragons are very active animals and therefore need a large amount of space with a minimum enclosure requirement of a 40 gallon breeder tank with dimensions of 36 inches by 18 inches for a single adult or more ideally an enclosure that measures either 4 feet by 2 feet for an adult or a pair of adults. Babies and juveniles will require smaller enclosures suitable for their size. BBRH offers many attractive options for housing bearded dragons including a bearded dragon breeder rack and stackable caging.
Dragons can be kept on a wide variety of substrates or even no substrate at all. Some keepers simply keep dragons in enclosures where the floor is made of ceramic tile or they may use non-adhesive shelf liners or reptile carpet. Other substrates include newspaper, butcher paper, and paper towels. Jungle Jewels Reptiles and BBRH strongly recommend the use of non-particle substrates for dragons to avoid the risk of impaction from the accidental ingestion of particle substrates.
Good quality cage furnishings are very important in dragon enclosures. Bearded dragons are semi-arboreal and therefore need climbing surfaces such as large sturdy grapewood branches, cork bark rounds, or rock slabs. Artificial ledges can also be created using a variety of methods. The key is that there should always be a raised area for dragons to use as perches and basking areas. Cork bark rounds and artificial cave shelters also serve as good night time hides and provide shade for a hot dragon. The addition of rough rock surfaces will also allow bearded dragons to wear down their nails to prevent them from becoming overgrown.
Heating and lighting are especially important for a diurnal lizard. Bearded dragons should have a temperature range in their enclosures from 75 degrees on the cooler end to mid-80’s on the warm end with a basking spot set at 90-100 degrees. This temperature gradient will allow the animals to self thermoregulate. Proper heating can be achieved by using incandescent or spot light bulbs or using a ceramic heat emitter of the proper wattage necessary to achieve your goal temperatures. Bearded dragons require UV-B lighting in order to produce vitamin D3 which aids in the absorption of calcium. This is especially important for young growing dragons in order to prevent the development of metabolic bone disease or MBD. Specialized UV-B emitting fluorescent bulbs are manufactured by companies such as Zoo Med and Exo Terra. Bulbs that are rated 10.0 are recommended because they have an effective range of up to 20 inches and have a higher level of penetration through screen tops that can filter out up to 50% of the UV rays. UV-B bulbs should be changed every six months as they start to lose effectiveness in emitting UV-B radiation. Bearded dragons should be provided with a light cycle which can be longer in the summer and shorter in the winter months or be kept at a consistent 12 hours on/12 hours off schedule. Bearded dragons do not necessarily need to be provided heating at night unless temperatures drop below 65 degrees in which case a low wattage infrared or black light lamp may be used.
Although bearded dragons can be provided fresh water via a bowl, this bowl will quickly and frequently become soiled as dragons will walk over it and even defecate in it. A better way to water dragons is to use a spray bottle and lightly mist the dragon and enclosure daily.
Bearded dragons eat a great deal which results in a lot of extremely smelly feces which needs to be cleaned daily. Moreover they are apt to befoul any food and water dishes which must also be cleaned out daily. Cage furnishings should also be cleaned on a regular basis and substrate should be removed and changed out as needed.
Bearded dragons are omnivorous and need a well balanced diet with a wide variety of different food types. Young dragons should be fed more live prey items while older dragons prefer more vegetation in their diets. Up to 18 months of age a dragon’s diet should consist of 75% protein sources (from live insects) and 25% vegetable sources. Past 18 months, a dragon’s diet should switch to 25% protein and 75% vegetable as too much protein may result in dragons developing issues with gout. Dragons should be provided a well-balanced and varied diet as much as possible. Babies and juveniles should be fed two to three times a day, young adults once a day, and older adults daily or every other day. For younger dragons under 8 inches in length, their food whether it is insects or vegetation should be dusted with a calcium and vitamin supplement once per day or once every other day for larger adults.
Insect prey for dragons include crickets, mealworms, super worms, wax worms, Phoenix worms, silk worms, and roaches. Invertebrate prey should be gut loaded by being fed a high quality nutritious diet and lightly dusted with vitamin and calcium powder before being offered. Bearded dragons can also be fed vertebrate prey such as pinky or fuzzy mice but only sparingly.
Bearded dragons can be offered many different kinds of fruits and vegetables. Their main vegetable staples should consist of the following:
arugula–collard greens–mustard greens–chicory greens–dandelion greens–turnip greens–endive–watercress–green beans
okra–parsnips–snap peas–squash–sweet potato–yucca root
They can also occasionally be offered the following as treats:
beet greens–bok choy–kale–parsley–swiss chard–asparagus–beets–bell peppers–brussel sprouts–carrots–cauliflower–celery
pears–raspberries–strawberries–watermelon–hibiscus blossoms–rose blossoms–calendula blossoms–clovers
Foods to avoid include any lettuces (which have poor nutritional value), cabbage and broccoli (which are high in oxalates), corn, unidentified mushrooms and berries, and most houseplants other than pothos. Fruits should be offered sparingly as too much fruit can upset digestion. Lightning bugs or fireflies are toxic to dragons and care should be taken that they are not eaten. Bearded dragons should also avoid venomous spiders such as black widows or brown recluses.
Sexing & Maturity
Bearded dragons are sexually dimorphic with males generally being slightly larger than females with larger and more well developed pre-anal and femoral pores. Males have darker colored beards and a wider tail base whereas females have a narrower tail base which tapers off more sharply. An expert handler is also able to sex dragons by lifting the tail and looking for hemipenal bulges and a well-defined post-anal groove in male dragons. Females also have a smaller cloacal opening than the males. Dragons can be reliably sexed at approximately 10-12 weeks of age, younger babies are difficult to sex with any degree of accuracy. Although bearded dragons reach sexual maturity at around 10-12 months of age, it is recommended that females should be bred only when they are at least 350-400 grams in weight and around 24 months of age. Females have the ability to lay up to 35 eggs per clutch approximately every 30 days for up to four months. Female dragons may lay eggs even if they have not been with a male.
In the wild bearded dragons are usually shades of tan or brown but captive breeding has brought out an array of colors from white to red. There is also a line that was developed in Germany that were bred specifically to produce larger sized individuals with silvery gold eyes known as German giants which can reach lengths of 26 inches. Bearded dragons have also been bred to produce individuals with smaller scales resulting in the leatherback morph, micro-scales, and also scaleless individuals called silkies or silkbacks. There are also trans or translucent bearded dragon morphs where the scales are lacking reflective cells and white pigmentation giving them a translucent quality allowing brighter coloration to show through.
It is not surprising that bearded dragons are kept and bred in large numbers as they make very amiable and social pets. They are relatively hardy and easy to care for as long as their needs are met, respond well to handling, and when hand fed will come to associate the keeper with positive interactions and even seek them out. They now come in a wide variety of patterns, colors, and even smooth scaleless morphs.