Bearded Dragon Care 101

Lauren Jones, VMD
Written by:
Published: June 30, 2022
Bearded Dragon Care 101

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Bearded dragons can make excellent, entertaining, easy-to-care for pets if given appropriate care and veterinary treatment. The average bearded dragon’s lifespan is 8-10 years, but the oldest ever recorded was 18 years old. They are typically easy to handle, docile, and rarely bite.

Bearded dragons get their name from the scaled and spiked area below their neck, which can change colors and expand based on mood. This “beard” typically turns black and may enlarge when they are defensive or as a display to other beardies.

Wild bearded dragons are dust-colored, blending into their native desert background of Australia. It is not legal to bring wild bearded dragons from Australia, so all bearded dragons in the United States are bred in captivity. Through selective breeding, multiple color types are recognized, including bright yellow or orange variants, along with smooth-scale variants called leatherbacks.

Bearded Dragon Housing

Like many other exotic species, pet stores and companies produce items marketed for bearded dragons with little or no research that the product is safe. In some cases, the products are directly harmful to bearded dragons. Keep this in mind when purchasing supplies for your beardie—just because a product claims to be good for a bearded dragon doesn't mean it always is! For example, many companies make sand as a bearded dragon substrate. However, this can cause gastrointestinal impactions and can even be fatal. Always check with your veterinarian about the products in your terrarium for safety!

Bigger is always better when it comes to enclosures for bearded dragons. Ten-gallon terrariums are only appropriate for short-term housing for juveniles or for quick transport of adults. A 75-gallon terrarium is the minimum size for an adult beardie. However, a larger terrarium is always advisable. Generally, an enclosure should be at least three times the beardie’s snout-to-tail length. Many bearded dragons are around 2 feet long, with males usually growing longer than females.

The top of the terrarium should be a screen top for proper ventilation. The sides can be glass or mesh, although full mesh is difficult to maintain proper temperatures. Acceptable substrates include tile, newspaper, indoor/outdoor carpeting, or reptile carpet. Avoid sand, fine gravel, wood chips, crushed walnut shells, or other substrates that could be ingested by a bearded dragon.

Some “bio-active” substrates can be used, but your dragon MUST have perfect husbandry (e.g., lighting, heat, diet, and humidity) or serious health issues could result. Very few beardie parents can properly maintain a bio-active substrate—it is much easier and healthier for your bearded dragon to use an easily sanitized surface, such as tile, to keep on the bottom of the terrarium.

Temperature

As reptiles, bearded dragons rely on their environment to regulate their internal body temperature. Therefore, in captivity, bearded dragon housing must create a temperature gradient providing a warm side, a basking area, and a cool side. At least two thermometers should be placed in the terrarium to ensure the maintenance of proper temperatures.

The cool end of the enclosure should have the thermometer an inch above the bottom. The thermometer on the warmer end of the enclosure should be at the level of the basking site. Daytime temperatures should be around 80-88 degrees Fahrenheit with a basking spot of 95-105 degrees. At night, the temperatures can drop as low as 70 degrees.

Ultraviolet Lighting

Ultraviolet light, specifically UVB, is essential to maintaining healthy bearded dragons. Without it, they cannot process calcium and vitamin D appropriately, leading to fatal conditions like metabolic bone disease. The best source of UVB is the sun, but special bulbs like Reptisun are typically used instead. Juveniles and ill or debilitated beardies may need a stronger source of UVB than adults. These fluorescent bulbs must be placed no less than 12 inches from the basking site to prevent burns. When using a UV bulb, a second bulb must also be used to provide proper heat gradients.

Another all-in-one option is an overhead self-ballasted mercury vapor lamp (Powersun, Zoo Med) which provides heat, UVB, and UVA in one bulb. Hot rocks or direct contact with heating elements or light sources should be avoided, as they can cause severe thermal burns.

Bearded dragons should be exposed to 12-hour photoperiods, which can be easily accomplished with timers. This means the lights should be on for 12 hours and off for 12 hours. Bearded dragons are active during the day, so this is when food, handling, and enrichment should be provided.

All bulbs that emit UVB/UVA must be replaced every 6 months—even if they still appear to work. Even though the bulb may emit visible light, the UVB fades in time. Alternately, you could also purchase a UV meter to monitor UVB output.

Humidity

A hygrometer is very useful to measure humidity. The humidity within the terrarium should be approximately 40-60%. While beardies live naturally in the desert, always keep fresh water in the enclosure to avoid dehydration. Provide a shallow water bowl for drinking; however, many bearded dragons get sufficient water from their diet and do not drink from bowls—don’t worry if you never see your beardie drink!

They may also soak and defecate in the drinking water, creating an unhealthy environment. Therefore, it is essential to clean the bowl frequently.

Some bearded dragons suffer from dehydration—not getting enough water in their diet or enclosure. Ways to successfully keep bearded dragons from becoming dehydrated include:

  • Giving showers or baths 2-3 times a week

  • Providing a shallow pan for soaking 1-2 times a week

  • Ensuring increased humidity in a shelter/hiding area

  • Rinsing dietary greens with water prior to feeding

Enrichment

Burrows, or hiding areas, should be available on both sides of the terrarium. This way, your beardie can choose if he is warm or cold and if he wants direct light or not. Bearded dragons are most active during the day and are adept climbers. In addition to providing the basking site and shelter/hiding area, the housing environment should include thick branches or rocks for climbing.

Bearded dragons are typically solitary creatures. Males should not be housed with other males, as fighting results in serious wounds. Males should only be housed with females if there is an intention of breeding.

Small treat balls with holes can be provided for stimulation and enrichment—greens and insects can be placed inside for the dragon to play with and eat. Their enclosures, hides, and climbs should be regularly rotated, as well.

Bearded dragons should not be allowed unsupervised free roam of the house, in order to prevent chilling, trauma, escape, ingestion of foreign materials (such as potentially toxic live plants), and the risk of spreading salmonella.

Foods for Bearded Dragons

Bearded dragons are omnivores—they eat a mixture of vegetables and animal protein. Juveniles are more insectivorous, with bugs accounting for a larger percentage of their diet. As they mature, their intake of greens increases, as does the size of their prey. Generally, insects should always be alive (not freeze-dried) and no larger than the size between the dragon’s eyes.

Fundamentals of your bearded dragon’s diet include the following:

Water should always be available in a shallow container and refreshed daily.

Insects should make up approximately 25% of the adult’s diet. It is important to offer a wide variety of insects, including crickets, dubia roaches, hornworms, phoenix worms, super worms, silkworms, mealworms, waxworms, butter worms, and grasshoppers. Make sure to rotate insects, so you’re providing different nutrients all the time. Freeze-dried insects do not have sufficient nutrients and are not recommended.

Insect gut-loading can improve your beardie’s overall health. Commercial feeder insects are frequently devoid of nutritious value. Therefore, feeder bugs should be given a nutritious over-the-counter diet at least 24-48 hours before feeding to the beardie. This is known as gut-loading and will provide essential vitamins and nutrients for your bearded dragon.

Vegetables for adults should compromise about 50-55% of the diet. Young bearded dragons may take time to acclimate to veggies, but it is vital to continue offering multiple varieties. Offer 2-3 varieties every day of dark, leafy greens including romaine, dandelion greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, beet greens, collard greens, bok choy, Swiss chard, escarole, as well as red leaf, green leaf, and Boston lettuces. Other vegetables can comprise around 20% of the diet including carrots, squash, zucchini, peas, broccoli, and butternut squash. Do not feed iceberg lettuce, due to the limited nutritional value.

Flowers such as hibiscus and squash blossoms are good treats in limited quantities.

Fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, melon, banana, and papaya can be fed sparingly as treats and no more than 5% of the diet.

Frequency in Feeding

Hatchlings may eat 2-3 times a day, while juveniles eat insects and vegetables daily. Adults may eat every 24-48 hours, depending on their body condition, which can be determined by your veterinarian. Most adults are overweight and likely need to be fed every 2-3 days, but work with your vet to determine an optimal feeding schedule.

Lightning bugs are toxic to bearded dragons and should never be offered. If your bearded dragon eats a wild insect, call your veterinarian to determine potential harm. Never feed your bearded dragon dog or cat food, and only use products made for bearded dragons or recommended by your veterinarian.

Insect Calcium & Multivitamin Dusting

Bearded dragons require additional supplementation of calcium, vitamins, minerals, and trace elements. This is crucial to maintain a healthy beardie, and inadequate supplementation will results in serious, even fatal, health conditions. Insects and vegetables can be dusted with a supplement containing calcium carbonate or calcium gluconate a few times a week (more if breeding). A general multivitamin should be offered weekly, as well. Repashy Plus provides both a multivitamin and calcium supplement in one product.

Insects or vegetables can be placed in a plastic bag, tin can, or “cricket shaker” and shaken gently with the vitamin or supplement. Juveniles may require daily supplementation, while adults may require less. Discuss frequency of calcium supplementation with your veterinarian, who will likely recommend annual bloodwork to check calcium levels and adjust calcium supplementation accordingly.

Bearded Dragon Medical Needs

Bearded dragons require minimal veterinary care when appropriately managed with the correct lighting, temperature, supplements, and diet. Beardies may need their nails trimmed every few weeks, which can be done at home with practice. At a minimum, bearded dragons should have an examination by a veterinarian every year to look at their teeth, evaluate body condition, and assess for metabolic bone disease. A fecal analysis should be checked for any intestinal parasites, and adult animals should have bloodwork performed to look at internal organ function and calcium levels.

Healthy bearded dragons have:

  • Alert attitude

  • Willingness to eat and bask

  • Upright posture

  • Clean vent

  • Well filled-out belly

  • Absence of swellings in toes or tail

Bearded dragons should have showers or soaks 2-3 times a week with warm water, for approximately 10-15 minutes each time. Many bearded dragons grow to enjoy this time, and it helps increase hydration and clean off any debris, shedding, or dirt from their body.

Like all animals, beardies are susceptible to infections and other illnesses. Common diseases seen in bearded dragons include:

  • Adenovirus 1

  • Coccidiosis

  • Follicular stasis

  • Nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism (metabolic bone disease)

  • Periodontal disease

  • Renal disease

Pet parents should monitor their beardies for depression, sunken eyes, weight loss, weakness, and loss of appetite. Call your veterinarian with any concerns.

Bearded Dragon Cleaning Needs

The terrarium should be spot-cleaned daily, including removal of old food, any bowel movements, and refreshment of the water dish.

Terrariums should undergo a more thorough deep-clean every week when the bearded dragon is not inside the enclosure. If using harsh chemicals, make sure to thoroughly dry the area before returning your beardie to his terrarium. Noxious chemicals may be irritating to a bearded dragon’s respiratory system, so ensure proper ventilation after cleaning.

Substrates should be changed based on the type. Tiles may last 6 months to a year, while reptile carpet may harbor bacteria, smells, and debris and may need to be changed every few weeks. Newspaper and paper towels should be changed as needed.

Bearded Dragon Handling

If there are other reptiles in the household, make sure to quarantine your bearded dragon at first, so you don’t introduce diseases. Your veterinarian can help determine the length of quarantine, but quarantine typically lasts 3-6 months.

To pick up a bearded dragon, scoop one hand under the chest near the front legs and support the tail with the other. Bearded dragons typically feel safer when held securely and close to the body. They may even want to sit on your shoulders to get a good view of their surroundings. New and young bearded dragons are fast and wily, so use extra caution when handling. Bearded dragons should spend at least 30 minutes outside of their terrarium a day. The more often they are out (without getting cold or away from their UVB bulbs too often) the more docile they can become.

Bearded dragons, and most reptiles, naturally carry salmonella, which is a zoonotic disease, or spreadable to people. Make sure to wash your hands before and after handling a beardie to prevent illness. Talk to your human medical provider if you are concerned about potential infection from your bearded dragon.

References

  1. Johnson DVM, Jay D. Veterinary Information Network, Inc. Bearded Dragon (Pogona vitticeps) Pet Care. January 2011.

  2. Pollock DVM, DABVP, Christal. LafeberVet. Basic Information Sheet: Inland Bearded Dragon. October 2018.

  3. ‌‌Mede CVT, Erica. Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital. Bearded Dragon Care.

  4. ‌Guinness World Records. Oldest bearded dragon in captivity ever. 2022.

Featured Image: iStock.com/lindsay_imagery


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