Care of Bearded Dragons
Adapted from a handout written by Scott Stahl, DVM, DABVP (Avian).
Bearded dragons can be housed alone, in breeding pairs, or in groups with one male and two or more females. Provide a terrarium size of at least 72 inches long by 16 inches wide by 17 inches high for a single adult dragon. A minimum of eight square feet is needed for up to three adults with another four square feet for each additional dragon. A minimum of 10-20 gallon aquarium is necessary for juveniles. It is recommended that juveniles be housed alone, but small groups of similar sized juveniles can be placed together if ample food is provided and if the smaller ones are separated out if they are not thriving. Newspaper or paper pulp material is recommended as a substrate as it is easily cleaned and will not cause gastrointestinal problems if eaten. Play sand (finer than #30) should not be used because sand ingestion may cause problems, and sand is difficult to keep clean. Another alternative is indoor/outdoor carpeting cut to fit the dimensions of the cage. Provide branches, driftwood, cork bark, and/or large rocks for climbing. Trim the toenails on a regular basis to avoid having them catch on items in their environment. If several dragons are housed together, provide ample basking sites and hiding areas. Provide a temperature range of 80-85° F with a basking area of 95-100°F. Place a thermometer in the cage on the cool and hot sides of the tank to accurately monitor the temperature range. Night temperatures should be approximately 60-70°F. A night heat source, such as a heat strip, ceramic heating element or red bulb may be helpful. Provide 12-14 hours of full spectrum light including ultraviolet B (UVB) in the summer and 10-12 hours in the winter. UVB is important for absorption of calcium from the gastrointestinal system. Change the UVB bulbs every six months as the UVB production diminishes with time, even if the bulb is still producing light.
Adults are primarily herbivores (plant eaters) and should be fed a variety of dark green leafy vegetables such as romaine, red/green leaf or Boston lettuce, collard greens, kale, endive, spinach, parsley, bok choy, and broccoli (leaves and florets). Limited amounts of other vegetables such as carrots, squash, peas, and beans can be offered. Chop or shred greens and place them in a bowl or on a plate and spray with water prior to feeding. A calcium supplement can be dusted on top of the salad. Offer gut-loaded insects two to three times per week. To properly gut load, provide insects with a complete diet, such as rodent chow, dry dog food, or pelleted food for parrots. Dust insects with a calcium/vitamin D3 supplement twice weekly and every other week with a multivitamin. Crickets should be the primary insect fed, but mealworms, giant mealworms, and wax moth larvae can also be fed in smaller amounts. Never feed fireflies—they are toxic to bearded dragons! Pinkie or fuzzy mice can be offered, occasionally. Commercial bearded dragon diets (moistened with water) can be offered, but should not make up more than 50% of the diet. If they are readily eaten, it is important to reduce other vitamin and mineral supplements.
Juveniles are omnivorous (eating approximately 50% plant and 50% animal material). A variety of leafy green vegetables, as described for adults and appropriately sized crickets (no longer than the width of the dragons head) should be offered twice per day. Dust crickets with a calcium/vitamin D3 supplement four to five times a week and a multivitamin once a week. Placing the crickets/insects in a deep bowl or dish will provide a feeding station for young dragons to easily locate and catch the food items. Placing too many insects in the enclosure at once can make it difficult to know if the young dragons are eating and can be stressful if the insects crawl all over them. Up to 50% of the diet can be moistened juvenile commercial bearded dragon food, but it is important to reduce other vitamin and mineral supplementation if it is being readily eaten.
Provide clean fresh water in dishes or bowls that the dragons can easily climb into. For juveniles, offer water in smaller containers that they can sit in or run through. Dragons can be encouraged to drink by dripping water on their heads with a water bottle. The environment (but not the dragons themselves) can be misted to encourage them to drink the water droplets. Soaking dragons occasionally in a warm water bath may also encourage drinking.
Use only bearded dragons in good health and body condition for breeding. A pre-breeding cooling down period is recommended from early December to mid-February. Reduce the light cycle to 10 hours and provide 14 hours of darkness. Reduce heat to an environmental temperature of 75-85°F during the day, with a nighttime temperature of approximately 60°F. Dragons will often be inactive, not eat, and stay hidden during this cooling period. Fresh water should be provided daily. The dragons can also be soaked weekly in lukewarm water to help keep them hydrated. At the end of the cooling period, return to 14 hours of daylight and 10 hours of darkness with a normal heat range. Feeding will resume and breeding will begin within several weeks. Females will “wave” their arms and males will become more aggressive, bobbing their heads and chasing the females. Watch the females for excessive trauma to the skin as the males will bite and carry the females around by the skin of the head and neck. Eggs will be laid two to three weeks after breeding, and females will become restless and begin to dig in the enclosure. Freshly dug garden soil, damp sand, a sand/peat mixture, or moist mulch can all be used but should be placed in a container at a depth of 12 inches or more to provide an adequate nesting site within the enclosure. “Starter” burrows can be dug out in the nest chamber to entice the females to burrow and lay eggs. Eggs can be incubated in moistened coarse vermiculite (ratio of five parts vermiculite to four parts water by weight) in a sealed container, poked with small holes, to allow a small amount of air exchange. The eggs should be placed in the moist vermiculite (approximately two thirds buried) in the same position as they are laid and maintained in that position throughout the entire incubation period. The vermiculite (not the eggs themselves) can be misted with water once weekly if it appears to be dry. At a constant temperature of 84°F, the eggs will hatch in 50-75 days. Hatchlings can be left in the incubator for the first day or two after they leave the egg. Hatchlings can then be placed in a separate sweater box, poked with air holes and lined with moist paper towels, and kept in the incubator for a day or so. Feed and house them as outlined above for juveniles.
Diseases of Bearded Dragons
Parasites – Gastrointestinal parasites (coccidia, pinworms, and flagellates) are extremely common in bearded dragons. A fecal examination should be performed on all dragons and, if necessary, appropriate anti-parasitic treatment should be prescribed by a veterinarian. Coccidia are the most common and problematic parasite. Heavy coccidian loads lead to diarrhea, anorexia, weight loss, and secondary bacterial infections. Fastidious cage cleaning is the most critical step in eliminating from the environment. While much more benign than coccidia, pinworms can cause GI discomfort and rectal irritation leading to cloacal lesions.
Hypocalcemia and Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) – Hypocalcemia (low calcium levels in the blood) is the most common nutritional disorder encountered in bearded dragons. Initially, this causes the dragon to feel weak, depressed, anorexic, and reluctant to move. As it worsens, more specific signs of hypocalcemia can be seen. Very young bearded dragons may be tremendously bloated and uncomfortable due to low-calcium-induced gut stasis. Occasionally, twitching of toes and limbs is noted prior to handling or when stressed by handling. Other signs of metabolic bone disease include: swollen limbs (fibrous osteodystrophy), kinked tails, and softened jaws (rubber jaw). Prevention of hypocalcemia is easier than treatment and is best accomplished by providing calcium in the diet and using a UVB light source for the natural production of Vitamin D3. A calcium powder, like calcium carbonate, should be offered 2-3 times weekly by dusting insects. A multi-vitamin powder including D3 should be used once every two weeks, unless the lizard has access to unfiltered natural sunlight, in which case no additional vitamin D3 should be given.
Eye irritation – If sand or a similar granular substance is used for bedding, bearded dragons can occasionally develop irritation of the eye. You may notice the dragon holds its eye closed or excessive tearing from the affected eye. Depending on how long the eye has been affected, it may resolve with antibiotic eye drops.
Rectal prolapse – Fortunately this condition is not common, but it can occur following defecation or laying of eggs. There is usually an underlying cause, such as internal parasites or poor nutrition, but it’s not always possible to identify the cause. Prolapses can be repaired under anesthesia, but the risk of re-prolapsing at a later time will always exist, and multiple repairs under anesthesia may be necessary.
Cancer – Cancer can occur in any body system at any age. Liver, spleen, lungs, reproductive tract, and skin can be involved. Cancer can be either benign (not likely to spread) or malignant (easily spread).
* The above list of diseases is not intended to include every possible disease of bearded dragons, but to provide bearded dragon owners information regarding common diseases and their symptoms.