Bearded Dragon Care

Bearded Dragons (Pogona vitticeps) originate from the semi-desert and dry scrub regions of Australia, where they typically bask during the day on tree branches or at ground level and hunt live insects, spiders and even occasional small rodents or birds.

The bearded dragon, given appopriate care, is among the most docile and hardy reptiles, and is a species well suited to captivity. Cared for properly, your bearded dragon can live for over 20 years, and it is the intention of this care sheet to help you provide the conditions necessary for a happy, health pet. Don't stop here though, read around and consider all aspects of care before purchasing your bearded dragon.

Choosing a Healthy Bearded Dragon

Bearded dragons are available from the majority of exotic pet shops, and many breeders will sell their livestock over the internet (though bearded dragons, like all reptiles, should never be sent by post or purchased without seeing the animal first). UK prices range from around £20-£80 for the natural or "normal" pattern. Some selectively bred dragons (eg. Sandfire, German Giant) demand higher prices, and some can run into thousands of pounds.

When choosing your dragon, shop around. Look at the overall conditions of the shop, the enclosure in which the dragons are kept, and most importantly, the animal itself. If you are concerned about the condition of the shop or any of the livestock, move on. Be particularly wary of large numbers of baby bearded dragons kept together. Fighting is commonplace, and aside from the stress this causes, many will have missing toes or damaged tails which will never grow back to their original appearance.

Some of us, with the best intentions, are tempted to "rescue" sick or poorly cared for animals, however this only encourages poor husbandry - the shop will have no reason to improve if animals are selling, and simply restock and mistreat another animal in its place, and you will be left with a sick animal. If you are concerned about an animal in any pet shop (exotic or otherwise), contact the RSPCA.

A bearded dragon should be alert and active. Untamed bearded dragons may be skittish at first.

The eyes and nose should be clear with no sign of discharge (which may indicate infection).

Avoid dragons which appear thinner than their tank mates, or appear to have a swollen or discoloured abdomen - this may indicate diesease or impaction (when items such as gravel or wood chippings become lodged in the lizard's gut and cannot pass - this may be fatal). Ideally the bearded dragon should be seen feeding before buying.

Another sign to look out for is deformity affecting the limbs, which can be a sign of MBD (metabolic bone disease). If the limbs appear malformed or the lizard to be dragging its back legs, it is best avoided.

When looking to purchase a bearded dragon, visit a few different dealers so that you become accustomed with what is normal bearded dragon appearance and behaviour. Visiting a range of dealers will also help you to identify which appear to be selling the healthiest and best cared for animals.

Housing Your Bearded Dragon

Bearded Dragons can be housed in an aquarium with a well ventilated lid, however a wooden vivarium (an enclosure specifically built for keeping reptiles and other exotics) is preferable.

An adult will require a vivarium at least 2' x 2' x 4' though the bigger the better. A Young dragon will require something smaller, to enable it to easily find food, and feel secure. Bear in mind that if you buy a setup with a young bearded dragon you will probably need to upgrade the setup within a year as your pet grows. An alternative approach is to create a partition in the vivarium to use when the bearded dragon is young, and move along the vivarium as the dragon grows, thereby increasing the space available.

For dragons of all ages it's best to use newspaper or reptile carpet to line the floor and not a substrate (sand, bark, etc). This reduces the risk of the dragon swallowing the substrate, which can lead to impaction.

Adults can be kept on LARGE wood chips, with no pieces smaller than the dragon's head (to ensure they are not ingested). Do not use commercial reptile bedding made of small wood chips or sawdust - this can lead to impaction in all age groups.

The enclosure should also include at least one hide, and a selection of branches at different distances from the heat source on which your bearded dragon can bask. A few other logs, large stones, etc will also help your bearded dragon feel more at home, the more places to hide and explore, the more secure your dragon will feel, which will have a bearing on its overall health.

Always set the vivarium up and check temperatures, etc for a few days BEFORE buying your bearded dragon.

Heating, Lighting and Humidity

Heat mats and at basking bulb or ceramic heater should be used to maintain a warm end of the vivarium in the region of 100'F during the day, cool end around 80'F, allowing a drop to around 70' at night (when all lights should be off) but not below 62'F at any time. How you achieve this will depend on the size and materials of the vivarium and the heating appliances available - ask your reptile stockist for advice and ensure the required temperatures are being reached and maintained in the finished setup.

Never use heat rocks as these can cause burns. If bulbs/heaters are within reach of your bearded dragon, use a light guard to ensure they do not come into contact with the hot surface.

UV light is required for bearded dragons. In addition to heating arrangments, a reptile specific UV emitting light tube (UV index 10.0 or higher) must be used, and must be of a suitable size and strengh for the enclosure. Most UV light tubes will need replacing every 6 months as their effectiveness decreases (they will still appear bright, but will not be emitting as much UV).

Humididty in your bearded dragon enclosure should be low. An occasional misting may be helpful if your bearded dragon is having difficulty shedding, but ensure the enclosure is well ventilated to avoid moisture accumulating. The water dish should be kept at the cool end of the vivarium for the same reason, as evaporation will increase in the warm end of the vivarium.

Feeding Your Bearded Dragon

Bearded Dragons benefit from a wide and varied diet.

Bearded Dragons will eat just about any of the commonly sold livefood and it is best to offer as much variety as possible. Crickets make up the majourity of most diets in captivity, and should be supplemented with occasional waxworms (maximum 3 a week, think of waxworms like beardie chocolate), morio worms and locusts.

Size should be determined by the size of the beardie's head - if the prey item is more than half as long as the head, it's probably too big.

Quantity will depend on a number of factors - feed your bearded dragon daily as much as she will eat in a few hours. Avoid leaving crickets in the enclosure for extended periods, as they have been known to bite reptiles.

Livefood should be dusted once or twice a week with Neutrobal and more frequently with a pure calcium powder.

As well as livefood, bearded dragons require vegetables in their diet. Recommended vegetables include:

Collard Greens, Dandelion Greens, Endive, Mustard Greens, Turnip Greens, Acorn Squash, Butternut Squash, Hubbard Squash, Green Beans, Peas, Parsnips ,Turnips, Scallop Squash, Spaghetti Squash, Summer Squash, Sweet potato, Figs, Mango, Papaya, Raspberries, Cactus Pads/Leaves. Ensure all fruits/vegetables are rinsed well before use, as the chemicals used in food production can be harmful over time.

Ratios of livefood to vegetable will vary according to the age of the dragon. Younger dragons need a lot of protein to facilitate fast growth, and will eat around two thirds livefoods, one third vegetables. As they get older, the balance shifts, and by 16 months this will have reversed toward a diet of two thirds vegetable and one third livefood.

Water should always be available, and should ideally be changed daily to avoid infection. Use a reptile safe vivarium cleaner to clean the water bowl and be sure to rinse well after use.

Breeding Bearded Dragons

Breeding bearded dragons is relatively straightforward, however this has resulted in an a large number of bearded dragons being available in recent years, to the point it can be difficult to find homes for the young. Only breed bearded dragons if you are sure you have homes lined up for the young, and can care for them long term should you find yourself unable to rehome them.

Many hobbyists wrongly assume that breeding reptiles is a lucrative opportunity, but the truth is very different. Increases in live food and heating bills will inevitably exceed the sale price of young bearded dragons (unless you are breeding a rare variety) and a lot of work and space is required to care for laying females and her young.

Health Problems

Impaction is perhaps the most common health problem, and is usually the result of swallowing the substrate. This is most easily avoided by choosing substrates the bearded dragon cannot swallow.

Respiratory infections are common where required temperatures are not met, or humidity is too high. Following the guidelines above will greatly reduce the risk of respiratory infections. Respiratory infections may present with a discharge from the nose, weight loss, or abnormal breathing (a late sign).

Metabolic bone disease is another popular illness among captive reptiles, and occurs when insufficient calcium exists in the diet to meet demands, particularly when a female is producing eggs. This is easily avoided by ensuring ample supplementation using neutrobal or simlar as above. Signs of MBD include leg deformity and "leg dragging". MBD will also occur if UV lighting is not provided for bearded dragons, as they become unable to absorb calcium (due to reduced vitamin D3 synthesis).

If your reptile shows signs of ill health the best course of action is to locate (ideally in advance) a vet competent in dealing with reptiles (not all vets have experience in this area) and arrange a consultation. In the meantime, experienced keepers on forums such as BugNation and Reptile Forums UK may offer advice.

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