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

Bearded dragons need a large enclosure, as they’re active, semi-arboreal, reptiles. 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.


Substrate

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. 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.


Humidity

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

​A good diet

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, 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.

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.

Enrichment and exercise

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:

  • Non-toxic branches
  • Rocks
  • 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.

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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