The Bearded Dragon Care Guide
Updated: Apr 6, 2020
The bearded dragon originally comes from the dry shrub lands and woodlands of our pals over the globe in Australia. The only difference between wild lizards and captive ones are just that - their biology is exactly the same. From this, we can understand why it’s so important to keep their environment the same, or as close to it as possible as compared to other pets such as dogs, they have complex needs and will take longer to set up than simply bringing a dog or cat home. Their needs include a suitable environment, a healthy diet, to either be housed with or apart from others, to be allowed normal behaviour and they should be kept safe from harm and protected. This guide is quite long, but it’s still a basic guide. You should still do some extra research before you buy one, such as talking to the store owners where you plan to buy your new scaley friend.
Let’s start with their biology. Bearded dragons get their name from the spiky folds of skin under their chin. When they’re excited or threatened these folds turn black and puff up, looking like a beard. Bearded dragons are mostly active during the day, making them great for pets as they’ll typically be awake when you are. They live mainly on the ground but do like to climb short ways, usually up onto branches and rocks. In the wild they get their body heat from basking in the sun, so in their habitat at home they’ll need a heat lamp to keep temperatures up.
They eat a variety of foods in the wild such as vegetation, fruits, live insects they find and occasionally, they’ll eat other reptiles, amphibians and baby birds. They’ll grow to around 45cm in length, or around a foot and a half in captivity and all bearded dragons available as pets are bred in captivity. Before you acquire your new bearded friend you must be entirely sure that you can provide the correct care for them and will be able to afford the costs for its whole life. You can choose a reputable breeder or a reptile shop but there are likely a lot of bearded dragons available for rehoming as they live for so long.
Your bearded dragons enclosure is called a vivarium, and it must be fully secure to prevent escape and also free from hazards that might cause injuries. This means that all of the wiring from the heaters and lights etc. need to come out of the vivarium and have a full seal around them and if you have glass doors it’s important that they lock in place - if they don’t then we suggest buying small wedges that are made specifically for this that wedge between the panels to keep the glass in place. Good ventilation is essential in reducing the risk of respiratory infections and difficulties and the vivarium should be made from solid material such as wood. Glass is okay but keep in mind that it’ll be harder to keep in heat and you’ll spend more on electricity keeping the viv at the right temperature.
The minimum size vivarium we recommend for a single adult bearded dragon is 120cm x 60cm x 60cm.
In terms of temperature, bear in mind that reptiles are ectothermic (or cold blooded), which means that they use the environment to warm up and cool down when needed. To help with this, you need to position the heat source at one side of the enclosure so that they have a gradient in heat where one side is warm and one side is cool This allows the bearded dragon to regulate its body temperature to whatever it needs at that time.
Bearded dragons use light to detect the warmth, so they need a brightly lit “basking zone”. This zone should be lit by a 60 to 100 watt light bulb that’s positioned no closer than 30cm from the area where the bearded dragon will be laid. Underneath the light, place a natural stone that’s fairly flat so your beardie can stretch out and take in the rays.
Heat lamps must be guarded to prevent burns or injuries if the glass shatters. A thermostat, which is a simple device that regulates the temperature, must be used with all heat sources. Place the probe from the thermostat at the level where your lizard will bask. Adjust the thermostat temperature and check the basking zone with a digital thermometer until it reaches between 38 and 42 degrees celsius. The cool end should be between 22 and 26 degrees. Thermostats aren’t always accurate so be sure to check regularly after you install it, or when you change a bulb to make sure readings are consistent.
Use a digital thermometer at the cool and another one at the basking zone. An infrared thermometer can also be used to double check both zones daily. Position the vivarium away from direct sunlight, radiators or other sources of heat as this can affect the temperature and the readings. The temperature should not drop below 20 degrees celsius at night, so you might want to invest in a ceramic heater to maintain the air temperature during night hours.
Low humidity is key, it’s essential for your bearded dragons to prevent having skin issues or breathing difficulties. A Hygrometer can be purchased which measures the humidity level at the cool end - typically this will be around 30% to 40%. If it’s too high, you need more ventilation. If there is no way to get more ventilation then consider cutting a small section of the top out and covering it with a mesh to prevent anyone escaping.
Reptiles use natural daylight to help set their day and night time pattern. The sunlight contains visible light and UV light (ultraviolet) and bearded dragons can see part of this UV spectrum, called UVA. Another part of this UV light is UVB, which allows the lizard to make the essential vitamin D3 in its skin. This vitamin allows the lizard to store and use calcium, which is an essential mineral. UVB doesn’t pass through glass though, so placing the enclosure near a window won’t help. Instead, opt for buying a reptile UVB lamp to use inside the vivarium.
You can create a gradient in light going from bright to shady by positioning the light source close to the basking zone. Choose a high output of around 10 to 12% for the UVB tube, up to one half the length of the vivarium, and attach it to the roof as far into the hot side as possible. This will make the cold end also darker, just like in the wild. You can use a reflector of the correct length to direct the light onto your basking area. Check the manufacturer's instructions on how far away the light should be from your bearded dragon, as these sometimes differ. Keep the lights on for 12 hours, and off for the other 12. You can do this easily by buying a timer plug to set it automatically (most people go from 7am - 7pm to match outside’s light levels too).
Poorly maintained enclosures can become dirty quickly and create a health risk for you and your pet. Animal waste should be ‘spot cleaned’ as soon as it appears. Clean the vivarium once a month with a reptile-safe disinfectant, then rinse off well. Be careful as reptiles can carry Salmonella. Wash your hands before and after cleaning or handling to reduce the
spread of infection between you and the lizard and other animals.
Bearded dragons may not drink from water bowls often as a lot of their moisture is provided in their diet. However a large, shallow dish must be provided at all times in the cool end with clean, fresh water, should they require it. This must be replaced at least daily and as soon as it is soiled.
Bearded dragons are ‘omnivorous’, meaning they eat both live invertebrates (called ‘livefood’) and plants and vegetables (called ‘greens’). Safe greens include watercress, rocket, chicory, cress and grated butternut squash, as well as wild plants; dandelion, clover and plantain leaves. Research the other safe plants and vegetables to feed your bearded
dragon and provide as much variety of those as possible. Avoid feeding spinach as this prevents calcium absorption. Also, avoid too much cabbage or kale as these can affect hormone production.
Remove uneaten items every day and replace with fresh. Feed a variety of live invertebrates such as crickets (e.g. brown house crickets), locusts and ‘calciworms’, no bigger than the size of the dragon’s mouth. Feeder insects should be kept in a large, well-ventilated container. They should be fed safe vegetables and hydrated well for their own welfare and so that the nutrients are passed onto your beardie. Feeder insects
should also be ‘gut-loaded’ with vitamins and minerals by offering them an appropriate formulated gut-loading diet 24-48 hours prior to feeding them to your beardie. Remove uneaten livefood from the vivarium as some insects can bite your dragon.
Young dragons need more livefood than adults, so give them about 65% livefood, 35% greens, increasing the amount of greens as they grow. Baby dragons should be fed twice daily, with the greens chopped up small. Juveniles and adults should be fed once daily. Older
bearded dragons (larger than 30 cm) need about 40% livefood and 60% greens. Feed in the morning so that the dragon can digest its food during the day. It is a good idea to weigh your dragon regularly. Livefood should be dusted lightly with vitamin and mineral supplement powders before feeding. Vitamins and minerals can be over-provided so always follow the
manufacturer’s instructions (e.g. with sufficient UV light, you will not need to provide high dietary D3 levels).
It is important to provide opportunities for natural behaviour in captivity, called ‘enrichment’. Provide stones and branches for climbing. Place a hide at both ends of the vivarium so the bearded dragon can feel secure. In the cool end, a box such as a plastic tub with an entrance cut in the top, filled with a sand/soil mixture, provides opportunities for digging.
Substrate is the name for the floor covering in your vivarium. It is important as it provides something for the lizard to grip onto. It can also permit natural behaviours such as digging and stops mess from spreading, though you must still clean up waste as soon as you can.
There are many options of substrates for bearded dragons. With healthy adult dragons, sand substrate or a sand/soil mixture can be used. Always use reptile-safe sand such as clean children’s play sand rather than builders’ sand which has sharp edges.
Stone tiles with rough surfaces or pieces of natural slate may be used, with a product like reptile carpet underneath to make cleaning easier. However, these non-loose substrates prevent the dragon from performing natural digging behaviours, so if using slate tiles as the main substrate, also provide a digging box, as above. A product called ‘Calci-sand’ is dangerous because with an incorrect environment, such as too cold for good digestive function, it can clog the digestive tract and cause a blockage. This condition is called ‘impaction’. Loose substrates with large pieces such as bark and wood chips, crushed walnut or corn cob granules are unsafe as they can easily cause impaction if eaten.
Bringing your lizard home
Set up the vivarium and run it for a minimum of a week before introducing your bearded dragon. This will allow time for you to adjust the heating, lighting and humidity before the animal arrives. On the first day, carefully allow the dragon to climb into the vivarium.
Leave your beardie with some food and water but with no further interaction until the following day. This will reduce stress and allow the dragon to explore in its own time. It
is best not to start handling unnecessarily for the first week. Instead, let your dragon take
time to become used to its surroundings. For permanent housing, we recommend that owners provide a naturalistic environment and also consider a bioactive system. Keepers can research how to do this using expert books on the topic, or specialist keeper member groups online.
This is a territorial species and males lead a solitary life in the wild. Each bearded dragon occupies a range and will chase off visiting males. Females maintain a ‘pecking order’ and if kept in groups in captivity they may fight. Sometimes dragons bite off others’ toes and tails and smaller animals may even be killed so it is best to house bearded dragons separately.
Handling your bearded dragon often makes it easier to check for health issues. Never surprise or grab your lizard as this can cause stress and lead to a struggle. The bearded dragon should be gently scooped up with both hands so all four legs are supported. If your dragon backs away from you when you try to pick it up or threatens to bite, it is better to leave it alone and wait for another time. The lizard should not be taken from the vivarium for so long that its core temperature drops. Around 10 to 15 minutes at a time is a safe period for this, depending on the air temperature. Keep other pets separate, regardless of how trustworthy they have been before. If contained safely, such as in a secure pen, the bearded dragon can be taken outdoors on bright summer days for some natural UV and enrichment. In this case, ensure that your beardie also has access to shade and supervise constantly.
HEALTH & WELFARE
Clear, bright eyes are one of the signs of a healthy bearded dragon. A well-fed bearded dragon will have a thick base to its tail and the hips will not be protruding. Healthy dragons become brighter in colour after basking.
Bearded dragons shed their skin in large pieces. There is no rule as to how often this will happen but young bearded dragons will shed skin more frequently. When ready to shed, the dragon may look dull as the old skin becomes dry. The skin should then come off easily over a day or so. Do not pull off old skin if it seems stuck as it can tear the new skin underneath. If
patches still remain after a shed, try bathing the dragon in shallow, tepid water for about five minutes to soften it. Poor shedding on the feet can cut off the blood supply and lead to the loss of toes. However, if your dragon is well hydrated this should not be an issue. Most shedding issues can be corrected with adjustments in hydration and humidity. As long as it does not create high humidity throughout the vivarium, the digging box can be lightly sprayed to provide an area of humidity which aids shedding.
Brumation is a natural energy saving process, similar to hibernation, seen in some adult dragons over the cooler months. It is triggered by the reduction in room temperatures and natural daylight hours. Beardies will commonly reduce the amount that they eat whilst increasing the time spent sleeping, but typically should not lose weight, so monitor your beardie during this time.
Diseases & concerns
Bearded dragon droppings should be long and quite firm. They are made up from faecal waste (the dark part) and urates (the white part); there may also be a small amount of clear liquid when well hydrated.
If you need to transport your bearded dragon, for example to the vets, it is important that it is done safely. Choose a suitable sized carrier; young lizards such as hatchlings can be transported in ventilated plastic containers with soft, absorbent paper. Adults can be transported in a well ventilated plastic tub to prevent injury. This should be kept warm; the addition of a heat pack may be required but make sure this will not overheat. Keep transit time to a minimum to reduce stress.
Look for signs of abnormal droppings: constipation or diarrhoea coupled with weight loss, which can be due to internal parasites. If you have any concerns, have your vet run a parasite test on a fresh sample of droppings. One of the most common problems for captive reptiles is metabolic bone disease, ‘MBD’, a term used to describe a range of nutritional diseases. However, it is most often due to a lack of UVB lighting, resulting in vitamin D3 deficiency. This prevents the dragon absorbing calcium from food, causing muscle weakness
and softening of the bones. Symptoms include muscle twitching, swollen legs, fragile bones and eventually, permanently deformed limbs, jaws, the spine or tail.
It is quite common for female dragons to develop eggs even if they have never been with a male. This is not a problem if she is offered a digging box in which to lay her eggs but without this she may become ‘egg bound’, a serious condition. Remove any eggs you find and freeze them before disposal if there is a possibility they are fertile. In some cases a female may start laying eggs very frequently. This can place a dangerous load upon her calcium and energy reserves, so she will need careful supplement use. It is essential that you take the time to research further before obtaining a reptile. If you do get a bearded dragon, monitor its health and behaviour daily and see your reptile vet if you have ANY of the above concerns.
Thankyou for reading our care guide on bearded dragons. Remember that this guide, although long, is still quite basic as we don’t really go into supplements you may need or any illnesses and diseases. These are quite uncommon and you probably won’t need them but be sure to ask the store or breeder you’re buying your bearded dragon from for any advice! You never know what little points they make could actually come in very handy. And lastly, enjoy your new pet! Be sure to come back as we post new articles weekly.