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How to Care for Your Bearded Dragon

How to Care for Your Bearded Dragon

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.

    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.”

    What basking temperatures do bearded dragons need?

    Bearded dragons like it hot! They should have a basking temperature of 108-113°F, as measured by a infrared thermometer or digital probe thermometer with the probe placed on the basking surface. 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.


    Provide heat for your bearded dragon with a couple of halogen 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.

    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. 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.

    What is a good bearded dragon substrate?

    First, your bearded dragon will need something to cover the floor of the terrarium: substrate. Solid substrates like slate tile and terrarium mats are popular 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 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.

    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.

    What decor 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 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: dubia roaches, discoid roaches, red runner roaches, crickets, black soldier fly larvae, hornworms, mealworms, superworms

    Vegetable options for bearded dragons: collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, endive, kale, spring mix, dandelion greens, alfalfa, cactus pads, squash, carrots

    Fruits can be offered as well, but only as rare treats since they contain lots of sugar. 

    If you’re wondering whether a certain food is safe to feed to your bearded dragon, check the Beautiful Dragons food list — it’s very comprehensive! 

    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.

    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

    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. 

    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.

    When should I take my bearded dragon to the vet?

    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.

    ***

    This is not all of the information you need to take care of your dragon — make sure to read other high-quality 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 
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