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How to Care for Your Bearded Dragon

How to Care for Your Bearded Dragon


Introduction

What is a bearded dragon?

Bearded dragons are a reptile that originates from Australia. Most bearded dragons available in the US pet trade are the Central Bearded Dragon, Pogona vitticeps. There are seven other species of bearded dragon: 

  • Pogona barbata
  • Pogona henrylawsoni
  • Pogona microlepidota
  • Pogona minor minor
  • Pogona minor minima
  • Pogona mitchelli
  • Pogona nullarbor

However, it is unlikely that you will encounter these in the US due to strict Australian animal export laws. The name “bearded dragon” refers to the “beard” they appear to have on the underside of their throat, which is often used to display their moods.

Central bearded dragons (also known as “beardies”) are often promoted as the “perfect” pet lizard due to their easygoing nature and hardiness. When properly socialized with humans, they often become a friendly member of the family and rarely bite. However, they have been known to mistake fingers (especially painted ones) for food! Bearded dragons generally live 10-15 years in captivity, although some do live longer.

Although bearded dragons are often advertised as a “beginner”-level reptiles, they have specific care needs that must be met to keep them happy and healthy. Although more research is strongly recommended, here’s a quick rundown of what it takes to care for a pet bearded dragon:

Where can you buy a bearded dragon?

As one of the most common pet reptiles in the US, it’s not hard to find one for sale. They can be found from independent breeders, pet stores, local classifieds, and reptile rescues. Because bearded dragons are so common, there are always some that have been rejected by their original owners and are looking for new homes. Whenever possible, adopt your bearded dragon from a rescue or someone looking to rehome theirs — you’ll probably save money that way!

What should you look for when buying a bearded dragon?

If this is your first time caring for a bearded dragon, or just reptiles in general, it’s best to buy an adult rather than a baby. Although baby bearded dragons are very cute, they’re also extremely needy, delicate, and expensive to feed. Adult bearded dragons are more self-sufficient, hardy, and don’t need as many live insects to eat.

Here are some other attributes to look for when shopping for a bearded dragon:

  • If you’re looking to buy a baby bearded dragon, it should be no younger than 3 months old. Ask for proof of hatch date to verify.
  • Watch for general signs of alertness like energized movement and holding the tail high.
  • Spine and hips should not be easily visible.
  • Eyes should be clear and open. 
  • Arm and leg bones should be straight.
  • No open wounds.
  • Ask for proof of a recent clean fecal check for parasites.

Enclosure

How big of a terrarium do you need for a bearded dragon?

Bearded dragons typically grow to adult size by the time they’re 12-18 months old, so it’s best to buy an adult-sized enclosure even if you buy your bearded dragon as a baby.

Bearded dragons should be housed in a 48” x 24” x 24” (120 gallon) terrarium minimum. Claims that they can be kept in a 40 gallon for their whole lives are based on outdated information. Bearded dragons are active lizards that like to explore and climb, so if you can provide a larger enclosure, do it! This is one of the best ways to spoil your pet.

Only house one bearded dragon per enclosure. Bearded dragons are not social, and are likely to fight and injure each other if they have “roommates.”

Bearded dragon quarantine procedure

Note that it’s best to quarantine your new bearded dragon first. Quarantine is the practice of keeping an animal isolated and under sterile conditions in order to reduce the potential spread of disease. 

Even if you don’t have other reptiles that could potentially get infected by anything the bearded dragon might be carrying, maintaining quarantine conditions for the first 3-6 months will enable you to more easily monitor for concerning symptoms and more easily treat them as well. You can do this with the enclosure that you plan to keep the lizard in long-term, or you can do this with a tall, lidless plastic tub. As long as it is set up appropriately, a tub can make appropriate short-term quarantine housing.

Some rules for successful bearded dragon quarantine:

  • Keep the beardie in a separate room from other reptiles.
  • Do not use the same equipment for the new bearded dragon as for your other reptiles.
  • Fully disinfect the enclosure weekly.
  • Get the beardie checked by an experienced reptile veterinarian and treated for parasites if needed.
  • Test for possible diseases, such as atadenovirus.
  • Observe for symptoms of disease or illness.

A bearded dragon should be completely healthy before being transferred out of quarantine to its long-term setup.

Lighting

Do bearded dragons need UVB lighting?

Yes!

Bearded dragons will die without UVB as part of their environment. In the wild, they get it from the sun. In their enclosure, they need to get it from a special UVB lamp created for reptiles. The best UVB bulbs for bearded dragons are:

The UVB lamp should be half the length of your enclosure and placed on the basking side along with the heat lamps. It should also be housed in a reflective fixture, ideally Arcadia ProT5 or Vivarium Electronics.

The basking area should be 12-16” below the lamp to give your bearded dragon the right amount of UVB. However, if there is mesh between the lamp and your dragon, then the basking area should only be 7-10” below the lamp, because mesh blocks up to 40% of UVB rays.

UVB is blocked by glass and plastic, so you can’t give your beardie UVB by placing its terrarium in front of an open window. Also make sure that the fixture your UVB bulb is in does not have a clear plastic bulb cover.

How to measure UVB for a bearded dragon

UVB strength is measured by UV Index, or UVI. This is most accurately done with a device called a Solarmeter 6.5. When you hold the Solarmeter vertically near the basking surface at the height of the bearded dragon’s back, the device should read between 4.0-6.0.

Factors such as the density of the mesh over your enclosure and the exact fixture you’re using can affect exactly what basking distance is needed to achieve the right UVI.

Other lighting needs for bearded dragons

As a diurnal (day-active) species, bearded dragons are stimulated by and benefit from bright light in their environment. Heat and UVB lamps are not enough to simulate the brightness of sunlight. In addition to your heat and UVB lamps, it’s best to install a ~6500K LED or T5 HO grow lamp long enough to illuminate most of the enclosure. 

Heating

What basking temperatures do bearded dragons need?

Bearded dragons like it hot! They should have a basking surface temperature of 108-113°F. The basking surface itself should be a large, flat piece of rock or a thick wooden branch. Do not use a hammock as a basking spot.

The cool side of the enclosure should stay between 77-85°F, and nighttime temperatures should be between 55-75°F. A nighttime drop in temperature is important for helping your dragon rest well, and can usually be accomplished by turning off the heat lamps.

How to heat your bearded dragon

Provide heat for your bearded dragon with a couple of halogen flood heat lamps placed close together on one side of the enclosure. Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, blue bulbs, or heat mats, as these are not very effective for bearded dragons.

How to measure temperature

The best way to measure surface temperature is with an infrared thermometer, also known as a temp gun. Simply point the laser guide where you want to measure temperature. This also works for measuring temperatures in the rest of the enclosure.

Note that using surface temperature as a way to monitor the amount of heat in the basking area is unlikely to be accurate if the basking surface is made out of plastic, resin, or ceramic. The best materials for a basking surface are stone, wood, soil, and sand.

Humidity

What humidity levels do bearded dragons need?

Bearded dragons should have average humidity levels between 30-60%, ranging lower during the day and higher at night. Measure the humidity in your dragon’s enclosure with a digital probe hygrometer placed in the middle of the enclosure.

If you live in a dry climate, it can be beneficial to lightly misting the enclosure with a sprayer first thing every morning. If you live in a more humid climate, misting only 1x/week is just fine. However, if your bearded dragon likes to dig, and you have a deep layer of naturalistic substrate, you can pour water into the substrate on the cool end of the enclosure so they can dig themselves a humid burrow as desired.

Will humidity give your bearded dragon a respiratory infection?

Although bearded dragons are commonly perceived as a desert species, that doesn’t mean they can live without water, or that they require bone-dry conditions. In fact, this is a good way to make your pet severely dehydrated! This is one of the reasons why conditions such as impaction and gout are common complaints with this species.

Only being exposed to consistently wet conditions with poor hygiene, poor ventilation, and/or low temperatures is likely to cause a respiratory infection in bearded dragons because this increases pathogen concentration and weakens their immune system. 

Substrate

What is a good bearded dragon substrate?

Your bearded dragon will need something to cover the floor of the terrarium: substrate. For your pet bearded dragon, you’ll need a 4”+ layer of substrate. Here are our best recommendations:

To keep the substrate clean and your dragon healthy, remove old food and waste every day, along with contaminated substrate. You will need to completely remove and replace your substrate every 3-4 months.

Avoid wood mulch/bark substrates, paper-based substrates, or substrates with dyes. However, paper towels are convenient and appropriate to use as a substrate when your dragon is being kept under quarantine conditions. Sick bearded dragons should not be kept on loose substrate.

Is sand safe for bearded dragons?

Solid substrates like slate tile and terrarium mats are popular in the bearded dragon community because of the common myth that bearded dragons will get impacted if housed on a “loose”-type substrate (this only happens when the dragon is already unhealthy due to poor husbandry). If you’re nervous, you can certainly use a solid substrate, but they have some significant disadvantages:

  • Solid substrates need to be scrubbed or replaced frequently
  • Solid substrates don’t cushion your dragon’s joints
  • Solid substrates offer no enrichment value

It’s ideal to use a substrate that imitates the “substrate” that bearded dragons naturally live on in the wild. And according to Australian researchers, that substrate is a thick layer of fine sand, or sometimes soil with a lot of sand in it. This substrate cushions your dragon’s joints, doesn’t need to be regularly disinfected, retains heat well, and offers lots of enrichment value as a burrowing medium. Yes, wild bearded dragons may occasionally accidentally ingest small amounts of sand, but they’re perfectly capable of passing it.

In other words, natural sand is perfectly safe for use as a substrate for healthy bearded dragons. Avoid sand “substitutes” like calcium sand, vitamin sand, crushed walnut, etc!

How to clean a bearded dragon enclosure

When you replace your bearded dragon’s substrate, this is also a good opportunity to completely clean out the entire enclosure:

  1. Remove your beardie from the enclosure and place inside a temporary, escape-proof holding container. 
  2. Remove all substrate and decor.
  3. Vacuum and wipe down the enclosure to remove leftover particles.
  4. Apply a reptile-safe disinfectant to the floor and walls of the enclosure and let sit for the disinfectant’s recommended contact time.
  5. Meanwhile, soak branches, rocks, hides, and other decor in a disinfectant rated for porous materials for the recommended contact time.
  6. If required, rinse the enclosure and the accessories with clean water to remove disinfectant residue. Allow everything to dry.
  7. Pour new substrate into the enclosure. Mix in water until uniformly moistened but not wet.
  8. Arrange decor.
  9. Reintroduce your beardie to the clean setup.

F10SC, CleanBreak, and bleach solution (1:10 dilution) can be used for disinfecting porous materials. The same can be used for nonporous materials, although the concentration of bleach solution should be changed to 1:50.

Can bearded dragons have a bioactive setup?

Yes! 

As a semi-arid species, bearded dragons are definitely compatible with bioactive when it’s done properly. Bioactive setups can work great with bearded dragons because it gives them plenty of substrate to dig in and edible plants to forage from. Plus, bioactive eliminates the need for routine total cleanouts, tends to have a fresh, earthy smell; and is generally very attractive to look at.

On the other hand, bioactive setups can be inconvenient with bearded dragons because the vivarium needs at least one month to get established before adding the lizard, some bearded dragons will eat their plants down to stubs, and CUC critters are likely to get routinely eaten. Moisture levels can also get dangerously high if the enclosure is not well ventilated or if you use plants with high watering requirements. Setting up a bioactive enclosure is also usually more expensive than other options, and it’s best practice to partially replace the substrate on a regular basis to help reduce pathogen concentration and keep the soil healthy.

To create a bioactive setup for your bearded dragon, you will need all of the usual supplies mentioned in this article, as well as:

  • bioactive-ready desert substrate mix
  • clean leaf litter
  • live, edible succulents
  • semi-arid CUC (Clean Up Crew) organisms to maintain the soil

If it’s your first time setting up a bioactive vivarium, it’s best to use a commercial bioactive substrate mix, such as Bio Dude or Josh’s Frogs, rather than mixing your own, as this reduces your likelihood of error. Appropriate CUC for a bearded dragon vivarium include dwarf white isopods, powder orange/blue isopods, springtails, mealworms, and superworms.

Décor

What décor can you use in a bearded dragon terrarium?

It’s terribly boring for a bearded dragon to be stuck in an enclosure with nothing in it except substrate and food/water bowls. It doesn’t matter how big your beardie’s enclosure is if you don’t put things in it for your dragon to use and interact with. At bare minimum, you will need a “cave” for the dragon to hide in, a sturdy climbing branch, and a large piece of flagstone or slate for a basking surface.

But that still leaves a very bare enclosure. So here are some other things you can put in the enclosure to entertain your beardie:

What live plants can be used with bearded dragons?

Bearded dragons are omnivorous, so any live plants you decide to use in the enclosure must be edible and sturdy enough to withstand nibbling. To prevent injury, they must also be spineless. Here are a few options that work well in a brightly-lit, low-moisture environment:

  • Aloe
  • Christmas cactus
  • Echeveria
  • Elephant feed
  • Gasteria
  • Haworthia
  • Iceplant
  • Jade plant
  • Mother of pearl plant
  • Opuntia (spineless variety)
  • Sempervivum

Note that larger plants are usually sturdier and more resilient.

Are bearded dragons good climbers?

Absolutely! Although they’re technically classified as terrestrial, wild bearded dragons are frequently found surveying their surroundings from trees, and many pet bearded dragons will enthusiastically take any opportunity to climb. This is one argument for increasing the minimum recommended enclosure size from 2’ tall to 4’ tall.

It’s best practice to provide sturdy branches and similar objects for your bearded dragon to climb on. This is very good exercise for them, which improves muscle tone and guards against obesity, and also provides a welcome form of environmental enrichment!

Food

What do bearded dragons eat?

Bearded dragons are omnivores, which means that they need both plant- and animal-based foods in their diet to stay healthy. More specifically, they need to eat mostly leafy greens and insects. 

Bearded dragons need different ratios of each type of food depending on what life stage they’re in:

  • Hatchlings (0-6 months old): Insects 2x/day, vegetables daily (60-80% protein)
  • Juveniles (6-12 months): Insects 1x/day, vegetables daily (50-60% protein)
  • Subadults and Adults (12+ months old): Insects 1-2x/week, vegetables daily (20-30% protein)

Variety is the key to providing a healthy, balanced diet for your bearded dragon. The larger variety you can provide, the healthier and more engaged your dragon will be! Do not stick to just 1-2 types of insect and/or vegetable. This will bore your dragon and create a nutritional imbalance in their diet.

Feeder insect options for bearded dragons

Here is a list of bearded dragon feeder insects that you can use as part of your feeding rotation:

Vegetable options for bearded dragons

Here is a list of leafy greens that are appropriate for feeding to bearded dragons as part of your rotation:

  • alfalfa
  • arugula/rocket
  • bok choy
  • brussels sprouts
  • cactus pads
  • carrot greens
  • cress
  • collard greens
  • dandelion greens
  • dill
  • endive
  • kale
  • mustard greens
  • radicchio
  • red leaf lettuce
  • romaine lettuce
  • spinach
  • turnip greens

You can also give some vegetables to your bearded dragon, but most of the vegetation in their diet should be leafy greens. These are more “occasional” foods than something to offer regularly:

  • bell pepper
  • carrots
  • celery
  • cilantro
  • green beans
  • mint leaves
  • squash
  • sweet potato
  • wheat grass
  • zucchini

Flowers such as clover, dahlia, hibiscus, dandelion, and nasturtium can be a great way to spoil your dragon when they are in season! Just make sure to harvest them from a chemical- and pesticide-free area.

Treats for bearded dragons

Treats should be given in small quantities and only occasionally, as too many treats can lead to obesity and/or dental decay. 

Fruit treat options for bearded dragons:

  • apple
  • banana
  • blackberry
  • blueberry
  • cherry
  • fig
  • grape
  • mango
  • papaya
  • peach
  • pear
  • raspberry
  • strawberry

Protein treat options for bearded dragons:

  • butterworms
  • pinky mice
  • wax worms

Do bearded dragons need dietary supplements?

You will also need calcium and vitamin supplements to prevent your dragon from developing a deficiency. You will need a calcium powder with a low amount of vitamin D, and a multivitamin powder. Feeder insects should always be lightly coated with calcium powder. A little bit of multivitamin powder can be occasionally added to salads.

How to provide drinking water for your bearded dragon

Another common myth about keeping bearded dragons is that they don’t use water bowls, or that providing a water bowl will raise the humidity levels in your enclosure unacceptably high. Neither is true, and not providing drinking water to your beardie is likely to cause more problems than using a water bowl.

Your bearded dragon should have access to clean, fresh water at all times. Provide a medium water bowl, shallow enough to prevent drowning, and too small for soaking. Change the water daily and scrub the bowl with a reptile-safe disinfectant weekly, or whenever it becomes soiled.

Handling

Common Bearded Dragon Behaviors

Bearded dragons have some very unique behaviors traits that you will be able to observe. Each one has a different meaning, and can be useful in telling you how your dragon is feeling.

Arm waving: This is a submissive gesture letting whatever is around your dragon know that they are present and not a threat. Your dragon may even wave at you! If they do, feel free to wave back and let them know that you are friendly.

Black bearding: When a dragon darkens and puffs out their beard, it can mean a few different things such as anger, excitement, distress, or pain. Context can help clue you in to the meaning.

Gaping: If your dragon’s mouth is open a little bit and they’re basking, that’s just a way for them to manage their body temperature. But if your dragon’s mouth is open very wide and their beard is dark, this is an aggressive signal telling you to go away!

Head bobbing: Your dragon may bob their head when they see another dragon, their reflection, or even nothing at all! Sometimes they do this to signal dominance and show that they are the boss. They may also stomp their front foot and darken their beard. This is especially common in adult male bearded dragons. 

How to hold your bearded dragon

Bearded dragons are usually calm and docile, but it’s important to hold them correctly so they feel secure with you. 

When picking up your dragon, scoop from below — don’t grab from above. Grabbing from above is what predators do, and you don’t want to be mistaken for a predator. When you’re actually holding your dragon, support as much of its body as possible, especially its feet. This will help it feel like it’s not about to fall. 

How to tame your bearded dragon

Taming your bearded dragon means teaching it to trust and feel comfortable around you. This requires consistent positive interactions to build the trust relationship. While a negative experience or two won’t ruin your taming efforts, it can slow them down, so it’s best to be consistent. It’s best to encourage the dragon to come out of the enclosure and climb onto you on its own, rather than forcibly grabbing it. Avoid removing it from its hiding places, as hides are supposed to be safe, private places.

Using treats, or tong-feeding, is a great way to bribe your bearded dragon into interacting with you and learning to trust you!

Enrichment ideas for bearded dragons

Enrichment is what good zoos use to keep their animals happy, active, and engaged. Some say that reptiles are too stupid to benefit from enrichment, but this is false. Reptiles, including bearded dragons, can absolutely benefit from enrichment when it is provided in appropriate ways for a terrestrial lizard.

Here are some ideas for enrichment activities that your bearded dragon is likely to enjoy:

  • Rearrange the enclosure. If total overhauls are too stressful, move one thing every so often at your beardie’s pace. For some individuals, that may be once a month, for others they might like once a week.
  • Puzzle feeders. Try putting a bug in a puzzle ball or hanging a bouquet of greens from the ceiling!
  • Scatter feeding. Rather than offering all of their food in one bowl, try putting it in various places around the enclosure.
  • Supervised explore time outside of the enclosure. Make sure to keep them away from situations that you can’t get the dragon out of, and be particularly careful if you want to take them outside. For outdoor excursions, it’s best to use a pen to prevent them from running off.

Health

Signs you need to take your bearded dragon to the vet

Veterinary care is an important part of having any pet, including bearded dragons. If you notice any of these signs or symptoms, make an appointment with an experienced reptile vet to get them checked out immediately.

  • Noisy breathing
  • Mucus discharge from the mouth/nose/eyes
  • Persistent lethargy
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Persistent lack of appetite
  • Straining/inability to defecate
  • Large patches of missing scales
  • Open wounds
  • Swelling or bumps anywhere on the body
  • Sudden, unusually aggressive behavior

Bearded dragons should be taken to the vet shortly after you bring them home, and then at least 1x/year for a general checkup and parasite check.

Outside of that, if you are concerned about your bearded dragon’s health due to a change in their appearance or behavior, don’t go to the internet for medical advice — book an appointment with a professional! You can find an experienced reptile veterinarian near you at ARAV.org.

Frequently Asked Questions About Bearded Dragons

My bearded dragon is shedding — what do I do?

When a bearded dragon is growing, they need to shed the outer layer of their skin in order to make room for a new layer; a baby dragon can shed as often as every couple of weeks while an adult dragon may shed as little as twice per year.

While your dragon is shedding, it’s best to leave them alone. Shedding is uncomfortable, and they’re usually cranky during this time. Never try to “help” them by pulling off pieces of dead skin — this may tear off skin that isn’t ready to come off with it, which causes pain and injury. If your dragon is having particular difficulty shedding, it can help to give your dragon a lukewarm bath and brush gently at their shed with a soft bristle toothbrush. 

Does my bearded dragon need a friend?

Bearded dragons are naturally solitary creatures. In the wild, they only meet either to mate or fight. So your bearded dragon will be healthiest and happiest if it doesn’t have any roommates.

Pet stores will often keep multiple bearded dragons in one tank together, but this is not best practice. 

Is my bearded dragon’s poop healthy?

Your dragon’s poop can tell you a lot about their health. A healthy dragon stool will be a formed “log” with a white part, which is their urate, in the end, the poop should be brown and not black or green and should be formed, not a mess. It is okay if some liquid comes out when your dragon has a bowel movement as this can just mean a little overhydration, but the urate/urine part is the white part that comes out with the brown log and should be a pure white color if it is discolored this can indicate dehydration if it is too hard this can mean too much calcium or inadequate calcium absorption from not enough UVB.

Bearded Dragon Resources

This is not all of the information you need to take care of your dragon — make sure to read other sources and never stop learning about your wonderful new pet! Here are some suggestions for further reading:

  • The ReptiFiles Bearded Dragon Care Guide
  • Bearded Dragons Network
  • How Not to Slay the Dragon - Pogona vitticeps
  • Previous article How to Care for Mourning Geckos