The Bearded Dragon
Caring for a bearded dragon is fun and relatively easy. Bearded dragons are one of the friendliest and most interactive reptile pets. Known to have gentle dispositions, they’ll make great pets for adults and children alike thanks to their hardiness and laid-back demeanor.
Full-grown bearded dragons can reach up to 2 feet in length from their head to the tip of their tail. Despite their spiny appearance, they’re quite soft to the touch and enjoy being handled once they become accustomed to it.
History of the Bearded Dragon
Bearded dragons originated in the deserts of Southeastern Australia. Aside from deserts, their natural habitats include arid and rocky areas, dry forests, savannahs and scrublands. They get their name from the spiny pouch of skin at their throat that they can flare up like a beard to intimidate predators or signal to other bearded dragons.
Bearded dragons didn’t begin appearing in the United States until the 1990’s. They have continued to grow rapidly in popularity as pets ever since.
Caring for a Bearded Dragon
Creating your Bearded Dragon’s Habitat
Bearded dragons are active animals that need room to roam and explore. The most commonly used housing for pet bearded dragons is a glass aquarium or terrarium with a secure screen lid.
A juvenile bearded dragon can be housed in a 20-gallon long aquarium (30” x 12” x 12”) for starters, but a full-grown adult will need an enclosure that is 3 to 4 feet long, such as a 40 to 55 gallon aquarium (36” x 18” x 18” or 48” x 12” x 20”).
Juvenile bearded dragons can sometimes be housed together, but sub-adult to adults are happiest housed alone.
Cage carpet is the best substrate for juvenile bearded dragons under 12”. For smaller dragons, loose substrates such as sand could be a possible impaction risk. This is where indigestible material causes a blockage in the digestive system, causing illness and possibly death.
For dragons over 12”, impaction is less of a risk, and sand makes a great substrate. Make sure you are using calcium sand made for reptiles.
Bearded dragons enjoy rocks and branches for climbing and basking–just make sure they’re arranged in a stable manner so they can’t topple and fall on your pet. Also, make sure the dragon cannot burrow underneath any objects and be trapped or squashed.
Avoid using any rocks, branches, driftwood, or other materials that you have found outside. They may have been exposed to pathogens or pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals that could be dangerous to your reptile. It’s much safer for your bearded dragon if you use only professionally cleaned and sterilized items that are known to be safe.
Artificial plants can also be used to decorate the habitat and are much safer to use than live plants. Be very cautious if using live plants because bearded dragons will try to eat them, and many common plants may be toxic to bearded dragons.
Other Necessary Supplies
- Water dish
- Food/mealworm dish
- Thermometer (preferably digital)
- Spray bottle for misting
- Calcium/multivitamin supplement
- Cricket cage
- Cricket food
- Reptile-safe cage cleaner
- Basking platform
- Reptile “hide”
- Tank background
- Timer for lights (optional)
- Sand sifter scoop (optional)
Heating & Lighting
Bearded dragons, like all reptiles, are cold blooded (aka ectothermic) and don’t produce their own body heat. They rely on the temperature of their surroundings to heat or cool them. It’s important that a habitat include a temperature gradient, so the beardie can self-regulate its body temperature.
Daytime ambient air temperatures should range from 85-90° Fahrenheit at the warmer end of the habitat to 75° Fahrenheit at the cooler end. The basking spot should reach a surface temperature between 100-110° Fahrenheit.
Lights should be on for 10-12 hours a day and then off at night. Most bearded dragons prefer a drop in temperature at night and can tolerate temperatures down into the low 60s as long as it warms up to proper temperatures during the day. The exception to this is very young bearded dragons under 2 months of age. They’re more delicate than adults, and may need a supplemental heat source at night, like a red heat bulb or ceramic heat emitter.
Bearded dragons are desert animals, so it’s important for them to have a source of both light and heat. For proper calcium absorption, they need special UVB rays that regular bulbs don’t provide. Inadequate UVB lighting can cause metabolic bone disease. (link bone disease article)
There are two ways to go about providing both heat and UVB for your bearded dragon:
- The Mercury Vapor Bulb (or MVB) is the only way to provide both heat and UVB in one bulb. Although MVBs may be more costly compared to other types of bulbs, only having to buy one fixture and one bulb will save you money (and electricity) in the long run.
- Another method is to use a regular reptile heat bulb in one dome fixture, and a UVB-producing fluorescent bulb in a separate fixture. Regular heat bulbs provide heat but no UVB, and fluorescent UVB bulbs provide UVB rays, but not heat. For this reason, it’s necessary to have two bulbs in two different fixtures.
The diet of a bearded dragon varies depending on its life stage. Up until about a year of age, they grow very rapidly and need increased protein to support their growth. At this stage, you should base their diet on 75% insects and 25% vegetables.
Once your beardie reaches a year old or full maturity, it will no longer require as much protein. At this stage, 75% or more of its diet should be composed of veggies with up to 25% of insects.
Many younger bearded dragons greatly prefer insects to veggies, and must be taught to eat their veggies. It’s best to get them used to eating vegetables when they’re young so it’s easier for them to make the transition as adults. This can be done by feeding finely chopped greens in the morning when the beardie is hungrier and waiting until afternoon or evening to feed it any insects.
You can also sprinkle live mealworms or phoenix worms into the dish of greens. The bearded dragon will be attracted by the movement of the worms and may grab a mouthful of greens by accident. Gradually, it will get used to eating veggies on their own.
A healthy diet goes a long way to preventing diseases like metabolic bone disease.
Vegetables and Fruit
Dark leafy greens should be the main vegetables in a bearded dragon’s diet. Good choices include collard greens, mustard greens, kale, red leaf lettuce, romaine, chard, and dandelion greens.
It’s a good idea to rotate or mix different greens for variety. You can also grate or finely chop other veggies to sprinkle over the greens. Most beardies enjoy carrots, squash, snow peas, green beans, broccoli, and bell peppers.
You can give small amounts of fruit as a treat, including grapes, banana, berries, melon, papaya, or mango.
Some of the healthiest insects for a bearded dragon include gutloaded crickets, roaches, or phoenix worms. You can also feed mealworms or waxworms, but these are higher in fat and should be offered more as a rare treat.
When young and growing, beardies will often eat 20-50 crickets per day. It’s best to feed baby beardies two to three times per day and juveniles once or twice per day–as many crickets as they can eat in 5-10 minutes. Adults over a year old can be given insects several times a week.
Dangerous Food to Avoid
Chocolate and candy, chips and junk food, alcohol, apple seeds, grape seeds, avocado, rhubarb, cabbage, iceberg lettuce, spinach, citrus fruits, spices, garlic, onions, and pickles. Caring for a bearded dragon means making sure it doesn’t eat anything unhealthy.
Insects that should be avoided include fireflies (or other bugs that glow) and insects caught in the wild as they may have been exposed to harmful parasites or pesticides.
There are several ways to provide your dragon better nutrition through supplementation. Insects should be dusted with a powdered calcium/multivitamin just before feeding your beardie. Food can be dusted at every feeding for juveniles, and two to three times per week for adults.
Insects should also be gutloaded. This involves feeding nutritious foods to the feeder insects so your bearded dragon also benefits. You can gutload the insects with a variety of fruits and vegetables or with commercially-made cricket food.
Pets on Broadway has a HUGE SELECTION of reptile supplies, including habitats, substrate, supplements, feeder insects…. anything you need to care for a bearded dragon.
Hydrating & Soaking
In addition to a constant source of fresh, clean water in a shallow water dish, water should be misted onto greens daily with a spray bottle. Misting the cage each morning is a great way to replicate the moisture that bearded dragons receive in nature from the morning dew.
Baby and juvenile dragons should be soaked two to three times per week in a lukewarm (94-96°F), shallow water bath (not above the dragon’s chin level). Soaks can last 15-30 minutes. Adult dragons should also be soaked once or twice weekly.
If your beardie is dehydrated, constipated, or shedding, bathing it more frequently will help. Be sure to immediately remove any fecal matter as beardies do drink the water they’re soaking in.
Remove soiled bedding and stale food daily. Spot clean several times weekly or more often as needed. The entire cage should be cleaned and sanitized at least monthly. Clean enclosure and any décor with a 3% bleach solution, distilled vinegar/water (50/50), hydrogen peroxide, or a pet-safe cleaning product.
Beardies brumate in the late fall or early winter in response to light and temperature changes. Brumation is a kind of hibernation, and the extent varies with every beardie. Your beardie might sleep and skip meals for several days, weeks, or not at all.
Beardies will shed anywhere from a couple of times a year to every few months. Warm baths can help your beardie through the process, but resist the urge to peel away dead skin as this can harm the new growth!
Signs of a Healthy Beardie
- Bright, shiny eyes that are free of discharge or secretions
- Nostrils free of discharge and no signs of sneezing, wheezing, or labored breathing
- Claws that are even and not overgrown
- Firm body weight–not too obese or thin
- No abnormal lumps or scabs
- Alert and inquisitive nature
- Loss of appetite, weight loss, and/or lethargy
- Labored breathing
- Swollen limbs or joints, weak or deformed limbs
- Paralysis of hind legs
- Abnormal feces
- Sores, bumps, abrasions
Scientific name: Pogona vitticeps
Lifespan: Around 10 years
Size: 16” – 24” long
Bearded dragons use body language to communicate with each other.
The beard is actually spiny skin that darkens and puffs out if they feel threatened or are displaying to a mate or rival male.
Head-bobbing is a show of dominance. Waving an arm in a circular motion is a submissive gesture to other dragons.
Changing their shade of skin from light to dark, and vice versa, is a way to regulate their temperature.
There are many online resources that cover bearded dragon care and health. Here are a couple of great sites with more info:
The information provided here is meant to be a fun and helpful outline of the animal and its care requirements. By no means is it a comprehensive or exhaustive list. Always be sure to do your own research and consult an expert, such as a veterinarian, before making any decisions about your reptile’s health.