SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

How to care for a bearded dragon

Every year, thousands of animals of all shapes, sizes and ages come into SPCA centres around the country, all looking for a forever home. It’s important that the pet you choose to adopt is the right pet for your lifestyle. In this article, we discuss bearded dragons!

Just like our more common furry friends, bearded dragons are living beings with specific needs, wants and feelings. Adopting a bearded dragon is not a decision to take lightly.

They are amazing pets, but they are also a serious commitment. Bearded dragons can live for around 10–15 years, so make sure you and your family understand what’s required to become a long-term, loving, bearded dragon guardian. Consider carefully if you can adequately provide for the welfare needs of a bearded dragon. Exotic animals such as bearded dragons routinely suffer from malnutrition, inadequate husbandry, insufficient companionship, poor environmental enrichment, and lack of appropriate veterinary care when they are kept in domestic situations.

Even if you are able to adequately provide for your dragon, SPCA does not support the breeding of these animals to prevent offspring from suffering poor care and welfare. Also, it is important to check your local council’s regulations that relate to keeping bearded dragons. Keeping these animals may not be allowed everywhere in New Zealand.

A dragon’s enclosure

Did you know that bearded dragons can grow to be approximately 30–60 cm long? You need to make sure you provide your bearded dragon with a tank or suitable enclosure that will best fit their needs. A 50–75-gallon tank is the recommended minimum size, but if you have a dragon that is 50–60 cm, they will require a 120-gallon tank. There are several types of enclosures you can use – glass aquariums, melamine cages, PVC cages, and vision cages. Always make sure your tank has a cover. Bearded dragons are the ‘Houdinis’ of the reptile world and can escape easily.

Your dragon’s enclosure should also include:

Appropriate humidity and temperature

Bearded dragons come from the desert, so they require low humidity in their enclosures. Their enclosure should have a thermal gradient: the hot end (where you should have a heat source, such as a heat lamp) should be 2–3 degrees C above the dragon’s preferred body temperature, and the cool end of the enclosure should be 2–3 degrees C less. This allows the dragon to control its body temperature. Bearded dragons have a preferred body temperature of 34–35 degrees C. The correct temperature of your dragon’s enclosure depends on their age, but their tank should have a warm side and a cooler side to allow them choice, and the ability to help regulate their own body temperature.

Lighting

Special lighting, such as a UVA/UVB tube light, and a basking light should be included to keep your dragon healthy and warm. The right kind and amount of lighting is critically important for dragons, because it helps them to make vitamin D, which they need to help them absorb calcium. Lights should be kept on for 12 hours a day and turned off at night.

Hide box

Bearded dragons should be given a place where they can have alone time, away from people and light so they feel safe and secure. This encourages relaxation and reduces stress levels.

Substrate

This is the material used to cover the bottom of your dragon’s enclosure. It’s a good idea not to use sand as a substrate to avoid the risk of them eating it and resulting in an intestinal impaction. Appropriate choices for substrate include newspaper, paper towelling or reptile carpet (if using the latter, make sure there are no loose threads or areas that can catch on dragon toenails).

​A good diet

A bearded dragon’s diet should consist of pellets, vegetables, insects, and occasionally non-citrus fruits. It’s important to offer a variety of food so your bearded dragon doesn’t get bored, and is consuming all nutrients to stay healthy.

All food should also be small enough for your dragon to eat. A good way to judge this is if the portion of food is larger than the space between your bearded dragon’s eyes, then it is too big. Young bearded dragons should be fed approximately three to five times a day. They also require more insects than vegetables to help them grow. Adult dragons should be fed approximately twice a day.

Health and welfare

Your bearded dragon should visit a reptile veterinarian once or twice a year to make sure they remain healthy and happy. Misting your bearded dragon is a good way for them to stay hydrated. You can do this by using a clean spray bottle filled with water and gently misting them so they can lick the water that drips off their nose. This mimics how they would get water from rainfall. Bearded dragons will also often need vitamin D3 and calcium supplements to keep them healthy. It is also important to put their food in a shallow dish to avoid blockages forming in their gut from consuming substrate along with their food.

Signs of a healthy bearded dragon include: normal appetite; alertness and an upright posture; normal-sized belly (not swollen); normal-sized nails and toes; normal colouring; wanting to bask; clean rear end; and their eyes, mouth and nose are free from discharge. Some health concerns commonly seen in bearded dragons include tail/mouth rot, bone disease, impaction, dehydration, or paralysis.

Signs of illness include: low energy; sneezing; discharge around eyes, nose and mouth; shallow breathing; limping; stooping over; lack of appetite; discoloured stomach/mouth; or a change in their faeces. Bearded dragons lose their old skin as a result of growing, a process called shedding. You should never pull your dragon’s old skin off as this can damage their new skin, but you can help their shedding process through controlled misting with some water or a 10–15-minute soak in shallow warm water.

Natural dragon behaviours

Natural behaviours for bearded dragons include climbing, hiding, digging, drinking, eating, basking and sleeping. Some other behaviours you might notice in your bearded dragon include:

  • Arm waving: it is thought that arm waving is a form of communication – it looks like they are waving hello
  • Head bobbing: this usually occurs between two bearded dragons to establish dominance; it can also happen if you have a single dragon
  • Beard fluffing: the spiny pouch located under a bearded dragon’s chin is referred to as their beard; when a dragon is showing aggression or excitement, they will fluff out their beard to make themselves look bigger
  • Open mouth: if your bearded dragon is keeping their mouth open for long periods while basking, it often means that they are trying to regulate their body temperature.

Another behaviour is brumation, which is the reptile version of hibernation. It doesn’t always occur with companion bearded dragons because they have consistent access to light, warmth and food. However, some bearded dragons will still perform this natural behaviour. Digging, burrowing and hiding could be a sign that your bearded dragon is trying to prepare for brumation. They could also be trying to cool down, or just wanting to hide away during the day. Ask your veterinarian about how to help your dragon prepare for brumation, then let nature take its course.

Enrichment and exercise

Providing an environment for your dragon to carry out natural behaviours is vital for their mental and physical wellbeing. Items that you can add to their enclosure to promote these behaviours include branches, rocks, plants, hay, food and water dishes (with varied food at meal times), hideouts and a reptile hammock. Supervised exercise is a great way to keep your bearded dragon physically stimulated.

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. Always supervise them if you are letting them have a swim. Remember to make sure they don’t overdo it though – just like people, dragons get tired too.

Fun facts about bearded dragons

  • Bearded dragons prefer to live alone, as they are naturally solitary animals, except when pairing up to mate
  • When threatened, bearded dragons will often hiss
  • Bearded dragons can be green, yellow, brown, or grey in colour
  • Bearded dragons can sleep while standing up U Bearded dragons can run as fast as 14.5 km per hour
  • Males are bigger than females
  • Baby bearded dragons weigh about 2 g when they are born
  • Bearded dragons have a behavioural trait called arm waving in which they lift one arm up slowly, and then back down again – this is believed to be a form of communication
  • Bearded dragons can develop unusual dark marks on their belly and/or chin – these are called stress marks
  • Bearded dragons don’t like being surprised – make sure they can see your hand coming when you go to pick them up.

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