SPCA New Zealand

How to care for your dragon

09 February 2024

It’s Chinese New Year, and 2024 is the year of the dragon. While mystical animals may come to mind, recently SPCA’s Nelson Centre had a real-life dragon come into its care – a bearded dragon, Doug. When considering adopting an exotic animal like him, it is vital to understand the species’ unique needs to ensure they don’t suffer improper care. This is Doug’s story.

How to care for your dragon

It’s not just cats, dogs and rabbits we care for here at SPCA. Though much less common in our Centres, we do also have species like axolotls, turtles, and bearded dragons too.

Just like their furry counterparts, these species can also end up in situations where they are abused, abandoned or neglected, and wind up needing SPCA’s help. This sadly was the case for Doug, who had been living in an environment where his needs were not being met.

When considering taking any animal into your home, it’s important to think about the unique welfare needs of their species. If you don’t know about them, there’s plenty of resources online as well as a community of dedicated owners to seek advice from.

SPCA Kids’ Portal is one such valuable resource. We have species-specific detailed advice on what an animal needs to be happy and healthy, considering nutrition needs, suitable environments, behaviour to be mindful of and more. You can look at our information on bearded dragons here.

In Doug’s case, not receiving the care he needed in his former home led to unnecessary suffering, which has unfortunately had lasting impacts. Reptiles are hugely reliable on their environment to ensure good health, so it’s really important to make sure you can guarantee that for any reptile you take in.

Shedding – the need for a helping hand

Like all reptiles, bearded dragons shed their skin as they grow. This is a natural process and for the most part should not be interfered with. Animals shed when they are ready, and at their own pace. In their natural habitats, reptiles will find ways of assisting the shedding process within their environment. When owned as companion animals and living in domestic environments, sometimes they may need assistance – particularly when humidity is kept too low.

As can happen, Doug’s skin became stuck on him and didn’t come away properly during a shed. This is not uncommon, but when it happens they do need assistance from their caretaker and veterinarian to remove the buildup.

Doug did not receive this assistance, meaning the skin remained stuck around his toes, so much so that it cut off blood flow to the area. His toes were so constricted that they eventually fell off. If you look at the above photo, you may notice he is missing the end of his toes and, crucially, his claws. This means Doug is no longer able to climb surfaces such as rocks, which will be something he is affected by for the rest of his life. Unable to climb atop logs and rocks to bask and get the essential heat and light all reptiles need, his future owner would need to ensure he can access these from ground level.

When Doug came into the care of our Nelson Centre, Madison was a vet student from the North Island on a work placement with us at the time. It is important for reptiles to have specialist vet care to ensure their unique needs are being met. Already owning a reptile himself at home (a leopard gecko), as well as being experienced in reptile vet care, Madison looked after Doug, and taught our Centre team how to do the same.

This included lessons in how to help – not hinder – the shedding process. Doug started enjoying regular baths of warm, shallow water, and being gentled scrubbed with a toothbrush on areas where loose skin was not coming away on its own.

If you have a bearded dragon at home, remember that 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. If they need more assistance than that, we recommend that you consult with your veterinarian.

Before long, Doug recovered, albeit affected by ongoing conditions which will simply be part of his life from here on. With responsible care though, we knew Doug would live a long and happy life – we just needed to make sure we went to someone who would take the upmost care of him this time. Luckily… that’s just what happened.

Doug gets the best forever home

When it came time to find Doug his new family, the team didn’t need to look far! While bonding with Doug during his placement in the Nelson Centre, vet student Madison had absolutely fallen in love with the bearded dragon. Not only this, but he recognised Doug’s need for dedicated and specialist care, and knew he could provide this, and give him an amazing life.

“I had a pretty good idea what he needed as a reptile,” Madison says, “but each species has really, really specific needs. For that reason I did a wee bit of research and learning before I made a final decision. Once I felt sure I was able to give him what he needed, I organised to move him back home with me.”

It’s been a match made in heaven for Doug. Part of responsible animal ownership is being able to read their cues and body language. For bearded dragons, that means recognising the signals they are sending when they employ the “beard” effect for which their species is named.

Bearded dragons can fluff out their beard and change the colour of the area around their neck to a darker hue to communicate to others. Some of the reasons they may do this include when they are feeling frustrated, aggressive or fearful.

As with any animal parent, Madison loves taking photos of his pet too, but noted quickly that Doug was extremely wary of the camera. If he notices it – such as he has in the above photo – he lets Madison know he doesn’t like it by changing his chin area from yellow (as seen in the top image) to a dark brown… and throws dad a little shady side-eye for good measure!

Being able to interpret the unique signals of any species is key to understand how they're feeling, and make sure you're always helping them feel comfortable. Madison put the camera away as soon as he noted his changed colour, and Doug soon was back to his normal yellow self.

Cameras aside, Doug is as happy as could be in his new home. He enjoys going for walks with Madison, sitting atop his shoulders, and captivates everyone he meets with his “old man personality.” He loves head scratches but will give a wee slap when he’s decided he’s had enough. This is one little man with loads of personality!

“What I love most about having him,” Madison says, “is how he peers out of the glass at me when he wants a hug! It's so funny because I don't typically think of dragons as being cuddly, but this one is! He will sit there and stare you down until you give in and bring him out for a hug session… which he loves.”

We’re so happy Doug has found his perfect match in Madison.

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