Caring for bearded dragons
Bearded Dragons are active, inquisitive, reptiles native to Australia’s arid woodlands and deserts. They can grow to 30-50cm and can live for around 10-15 years!
Bearded dragons are omnivores. This means they need a diet that includes plants and insects. A bearded dragon’s diet should consist of pellets, vegetables, insects, and occasionally non-citrus fruits.
It is essential to make sure that the pieces of food and insects you feed your bearded dragon are small enough to fit in your dragon’s mouth and be comfortably eaten. A good way to judge this is by looking at the space between your bearded dragon’s eyes, if the piece of food is larger than this space, then that piece of food is probably too large.
Bearded dragons should receive salads every day (such as dandelion, microgreens, beetroot tops, collard greens, carrots, parsley, basil, squash and zucchini) and a variety of insects a few times a week. They also need calcium and multivitamin supplements to thrive.
It is always best to consult a reptile veterinarian for the best possible diet for your bearded dragon.
Bearded dragons require clean, fresh water every day. Beard dragons receive a large portion of their water requirements from the vegetables they eat, and therefore, you won’t see them drinking often. Some bearded dragons may find it hard to see the water in their water dish, due to the lack of movement in the water, which can hinder their water intake. If you notice your bearded dragon is not drinking water, try dripping water on their nose so that it runs across their mouth and not into their nostrils.
Bearded dragons will sometimes scurry over their water dish or use it as a toilet and/or bath, so checking their dish multiple times a day and replacing the water as needed is essential. Be sure to thoroughly wash their dish with reptile-safe soap and water each time you refill the water to prevent illness.
Bearded dragons need a large enclosure. Their tank needs to be a minimum of 120cm long, 60cm wide, and 60cm high, with a basking spot and plenty of places to hide, burrow, and climb. Enclosures need to be appropriate for your bearded dragon’s size. Larger dragons will require larger tanks.
Tanks/enclosures always need to have a cover, as bearded dragons can escape easily.
Bearded dragons should be provided with substrate on the bottom of their enclosures. Loose substrate for your dragon to dig through provides enrichment and is beneficial for bone health. A combination of 70% organic topsoil and 30% play sand is recommended. If you choose to use loose substrate, it’s encouraged to have a feeding platform away from the substrate where your dragon can eat without any risk of ingesting the substrate.
Commercially available substrates for reptiles, including reptile carpet and calcium sand are not safe for bearded dragons and should not be used. Fake grass and carpet can facilitate the growth of harmful bacteria and parasites, and calcium sand can cause impaction and other issues.
Temperature and Lighting
Bearded dragons need a T5 UVA/UVB light and a basking light in their enclosure. UVA/UVB lights help keep dragons healthy, while basking lights help keep them warm. Lights should be kept on for 10-12 hours each day and turned off at night.
Proper temperature and lighting also helps bearded dragons get the nutrients and vitamins from their diet. UV lights are essential for bearded dragons to synthesise Vitamin D3, which they need to absorb calcium and other nutrients. UV lights should be 10.0-12.0 (UVB), from a reputable seller. They should be replaced every 6-12 months. The UV light should cover no more than ½ of the enclosure, to ensure bearded dragons are able to move away from the light, to avoid producing too much Vitamin D3.
Bearded dragons are basking animals, so they should have a strong basking spot regulated by a dimming thermostat so they don’t get too hot or too cold (basking temperature should be about 40-45°C and the cool end of the enclosure should be about 20-24°C). During colder months (e.g. < 16 °C) bearded dragons may need to be provided with extra heat at night. A ceramic heat emitter or deep heat projector is a good source of night heat. Never use heat mats or heat rocks, as bearded dragons can’t feel heat on their stomachs and therefore they can cause injuries.
Bearded dragons come from the desert – because of this, they require low humidity (20-40%) in their enclosures. A humidity gauge is the best way to keep an eye on humidity levels.
Even though bearded dragons need heat, they also need a place where they can escape their basking light and cool down a bit. You should create a warm side and cool side to their enclosure. The temperature of your enclosure depends on your dragon’s age. Temperature should be checked frequently. It is recommended to keep digital thermometers and thermostats in your enclosure.
Your bearded dragon should visit a reptile veterinarian once or twice a year to make sure they remain healthy and happy.
Ensuring your bearded dragon is healthy is extremely important. There are certain signs to look for that show your bearded dragon is in good physical condition. These signs include:
- Healthy appetite
- Upright posture
- Healthy sized body (not swollen!)
- Normal sized nails and toes
- Wanting to bask in their light
- Clean vent (bottom)
- Eyes, mouth, and nose free of abnormal fluid
Common bearded dragon illnesses include:
- Parasites: characterised by sunken fat pads and lethargy
- Impaction: where a bearded dragon is unable to digest food properly.
- Stuck shed: Humidity that is too low can prevent bearded dragons from shedding their skin properly. If bearded dragons can’t shed their skin periodically it will accumulate and restrict circulation. You should never pull your bearded dragon’s old skin off as this can damage their new skin.
- Metabolic bone disease (MBD): can be caused by improper or insufficient UV lighting.
- Vitamin D3 toxicosis: can be caused by providing too much UV light, by covering too much of the enclosure or adding extra vitamin D3 supplements.
Providing your bearded dragon with an enclosure that replicates their natural habitat as closely as possible is the best way to encourage the expression of normal behaviours. Natural behaviour for bearded dragons includes climbing, hiding, digging, drinking, eating, basking, and sleeping. Providing an environment for your dragon to carry out these activities is vital for their mental and physical well-being. Not providing your bearded dragons with proper enrichment can lead to problems such as, obesity, bone deformities, and metabolic bone disease.
Some items that you can add to their enclosure to promote these behaviours are:
- Thick branches
- Safe, non-toxic plants
- Food and water dishes (with varied food at meal times!)
- A safe loose substrate e.g. 70% organic topsoil and 30% washed play sand
Supervised exercise is a great way to keep your bearded dragon physically stimulated as well. Letting them out in a safe area to chase a ball or giving them the opportunity to have a swim in the bathtub is ideal for their health. Remember to make sure they can’t escape, get too cold and are never left alone.
Note: To protect your companion bearded dragon’s welfare and our New Zealand ecosystems, never release a bearded dragon into the wild. Releasing a companion bearded dragon into the wild is an offence under the Animal Welfare Act and, may also breach Regional Pest Management Plans.
In general, bearded dragons prefer to live alone. When they share their tank, dragons can become aggressive and their stress levels can rise. You may think that your bearded dragon would like a friend, but they prefer to have their own space. If you do have more than one bearded dragon, it’s best to have them in separate enclosures or in a very large enclosure with their own areas. This stops them from feeling the need to compete for resources.
Visit the SPCA Kids’ Education Portal (www.spca.nz/kids) for more information on caring for your companion turtles, including enrichment tips and helpful videos!