Chinese Water Dragon - Physignathus Cocincinus

By PetMD Editorial on Mar. 28, 2016

Popular Varieties

There are no other recognized subspecies of Chinese Water Dragon, but there are other similar lizard species, the closest genetic relative being the Australian Water Dragon (Physignathus lesueurii).

The Chinese Water Dragon is also known by the names Asian, Green, and Thai Water Dragon.

Chinese Water Dragon Size

Chinese water dragons typically grow to an average length of 3 feet (1m) from nose to tail, with females averaging a little smaller than males at 2 feet (.6m) in length. The water dragon’s tail comprises about 70 percent of the animal’s total length.

Chinese Water Dragon Lifespan

Typical captive-bred Chinese water dragons have an average lifespan between 10 and 15 years. With proper care, some can even reach the ripe old age of 20 years.

Chinese Water Dragon Appearance

Chinese water dragons are popular exotic pets in part because of their unique look. Their heads are triangular in shape, and their coloring ranges between light and dark green. Their tails are long, making up 2/3 of their total length, with dark green or dark brown banding. Their bellies are typically lighter and can be seen in white, pale green, or pale yellow. But the most attractive feature of Chinese water dragons is their brightly colored throat, usually seen in oranges or yellows.

One highly debated topic is whether or not there are such things as Chinese water dragon morphs. A morph is a type of animal that’s bred to achieve appearances and markings that aren’t found in the wild. While some Chinese water dragons may display variations in color, like aqua, bright green, and even blue colors, there are no official morphs at this time.

Chinese Water Dragon Care Level

Chinese water dragons make good pets for those with some reptile experience as well as for more advanced herpetoculturists. They are quite friendly, as far as reptiles are concerned, but Chinese water dragons require a great deal of commitment in terms of time and resources, so make sure you’ve given the matter enough consideration before deciding to buy one as a pet.

Chinese Water Dragon Diet

Chinese water dragons are omnivores by nature, but they are natural predators and prefer meat over fruits and vegetables whenever possible. They are voracious eaters and enjoy eating different meals each day, which may require you to come up with a feeding schedule to ensure enough variety. If your water dragon becomes bored with a bland diet it may end up refusing to eat entirely, and you don’t want that.

As a rule of thumb, your Chinese water dragon’s diet should be composed of 85-90 percent insects, with fruits and vegetables making up the remaining 10- 15 percent of the diet. This breaks down to each meal consisting of about 50 percent live insects, 20 percent worms, and no more than 15 percent vegetable.

Whole prey, like juvenile or baby mice, can be a great source of protein and should be fed to your pet dragon no more than twice per week, and only if your dragon is large enough to handle them.

While Chinese water dragons enjoy eating just about anything, not all foods are safe for them to eat. Listed here are some foods that are safe for Chinese water dragons to eat:

  • Insects — crickets, wax worms, butter worms, earthworms, silk worms, mealworms, grasshoppers and locusts
  • Produce — blueberries, raspberries, cantaloupe, figs, collard greens, sweet potato, carrots, and green beans
  • Other tasty treats — small feeder fish, newborn mice (pinkie mice), and fuzzie mice (juvenile mice)

Building a Feeding Schedule and Other Feeding Tips

When it comes to feeding your Chinese water dragon, the amount of food you offer it will vary depending on its size. A good rule is to feed it only as much as it will eat. Each water dragon will have a different appetite, so keeping a feeding record of what and when it eats will help you get to know how much your animal eats.

The feeding frequency largely depends on the animal’s age. Juvenile Chinese water dragons need to be fed more frequently than adults to promote healthy growth, while adults require fewer feedings. Juveniles usually require daily feedings, while adults may only need to be fed every two to three days. You can feed your adult dragon daily if you like, just be sure to keep the portion sizes small to prevent the dragon from becoming overweight. And don’t forget to always provide your water dragon with plenty of clean drinking water in addition to a well-balanced diet.


A well-balanced diet should be enough to provide your dragon with adequate nutrition, but you may still want to occasionally offer supplements. The most common supplement for Chinese water dragons is calcium. Calcium is extremely important because if your dragon doesn’t get enough calcium in its diet, it can develop a metabolic bone disease. Prevent this from happening by dusting a bit of calcium powder over your dragon’s food at least two to three times a week.

Lastly, always make sure your Chinese water dragon’s food source is healthy. Purchasing feeder insects and mice from a pet store or pet supply, or raising them yourself, is the best way to keep your dragon from contracting internal parasite infections. Be sure to thoroughly wash all vegetables and fruits before feeding them to your dragon (or buy organic) to avoid the ingestion of pesticides and other chemicals.

Chinese Water Dragon Health

Common Health Issues in Chinese Water Dragons

Owning a healthy pet Chinese water dragon begins with the selection. We always recommend buying pets from reputable breeders or pet shops. Always opt for captive-bred over wild-caught because imported, wild-caught dragons may not adapt well to captivity. Plus, they usually come crawling with internal and external parasites. Once you’ve brought your new pet home, maintaining a clean habitat is paramount to its health. Just like any pet, there are several health concerns to be on the lookout for in your pet dragon.

The following is a short summary of Chinese water dragon diseases and disorders.

Mouth Rot

Mouth rot is one of the most common health problems and is typically the result of a secondary infection that isn’t treated properly, or an injury that goes untreated. Water dragons often rub or bang their head/nose/chin into the walls of the enclosure. This behavior commonly causes rub sores that can lead to full mouth rot. Signs that your Chinese water dragon may have mouth rot are swelling around the mouth, open ulcers at the mouth or nose, and white curd-like secretions around the mouth. As soon as you notice any of these symptoms you should see your reptile vet immediately. Also, try to give your dragon the largest anclosure possible so they are less inclined to rub against the walls.

Nutritional and Metabolic Disorders

Metabolic Bone Disease, also known as MBD, is an extremely serious and often fatal disease for these animals. It is caused either by a lack of calcium in the dragon’s diet or inadequate exposure to UVB light. Signs that your dragon may have contracted MBD include twitching, lethargy, fractured bones, muscle spasms, and swelling of the legs or back. The best solution for MBD is prevention; usually all it takes is to dust every other meal with calcium powder and to always provide exposure to sunlight and/or UVB light. If you see symptoms of Metabolic Bone Disease in your Chinese water dragon, see your veterinarian immediately.

Infectious Diseases and Parasites

When Chinese Water Dragons become stressed it’s easy for parasites to multiply beyond the capability of the dragon’s body to handle. The only way to tell what kind of parasites your dragon has is to see your vet for a fecal exam. Signs that your dragon may be suffering from a parasite infestation include lethargy, loose stools, decreased appetite, dull eyes, failure to gain weight, and, rarely, finding worms in the stool.

Skin Infections

Bacterial and fungal infections are usually a result of a dirty, poorly maintained cage. They appear as dark-colored patches on the skin that can be raised and/or filled with fluid. It’s crucial that as soon as you notice signs of a skin infection that you take your dragon to the vet. Only your veterinarian can prescribe the proper medication.

Do not try to treat a skin infection without your veterinarian’s advice. If the infection isn’t treated in time it will spread to the dragon’s bloodstream and become fatal. Always maintain proper hygiene in your Chinese water dragon’s habitat and allow the cage to fully dry out between mistings to prevent the growth and spread of fungus and bacteria.

Dystocia in Female Chinese Water Dragons

Female dragons lay eggs even if they haven’t mated with males. Occasionally, a condition called dystocia or “egg binding,” may occur. Dystocia is a life-threatening condition in which the dragon is unable to pass her eggs. If you see signs of dystocia in your female dragon(s) seek veterinary assistance immediately. It is crucial that you set up an adequate egg laying box in the dragon’s enclosure, and that you do so early enough to prevent egg binding.

Signs that your dragon may have dystocia include lethargy, weakness, and frenzied digging, as if looking for a place to lay eggs.

Chinese Water Dragon Behavior

The Friendly Chinese Water Dragon

Chinese water dragons are among one of the friendliest lizards out there—friendlier even than iguanas. They enjoy being handled and actually require regular handling to prevent them from becoming aggressive. If a Chinese water dragon feels threatened or is scared, it may lash out by biting and whipping its tail. They are arboreal lizards, meaning they like to climb in plants, on rocks, and in trees. They are also adept swimmers and are at their happiest when they have a source of water to dip into.

Another point to consider is that Chinese water dragons are communal animals and tend to do better when kept in pairs or in groups. Owning multiple dragons doesn’t require much more work or money than owning a single one.

Supplies for the Chinese Water Dragon’s Environment

Aquarium Tank or Terrarium Setup

First and foremost, Chinese water dragons require pretty large habitats, with both aquatic and terrestrial features.

The minimum size tank for a single dragon is 75 gallons (285 liters), though larger is recommended. If you will be keeping multiple dragons, your cage should be at least 4 feet (1.22 m) in length and 5-6 feet (1.5 – 1.8 m) tall. It’s always better to start with a larger cage than to upgrade as your pet grows, so don’t cut any corners or you may end up spending much more money in the long run.

Choosing the best location for your Chinese water dragon’s enclosure depends on visibility, lighting, accessibility, and safety. These animals are admirably beautiful, so make sure the cage is in a spot where you and your guests can observe your dragons in action. More importantly, of course, is to always ensure the cage is easily accessible for cleaning, feeding, and maintenance, and that proper lighting and humidity levels are maintained. And most importantly, make sure the cage is in a safe place where children or other pets cannot get to it or accidentally run into it.

Now to decorate your new water dragon’s cage with all the furnishings and supplies it needs to live a healthy, happy life.

Substrate, also called bedding, is what makes up the flooring of your dragon’s habitat. The material you choose is important for creating a natural environment as well as to aid in maintaining proper humidity levels.

When it comes to choosing a substrate, keep in mind that you’ll need to regularly clean and replace it, so choose accordingly. There are a variety of appropriate materials, including mulch, wood chippings/shavings, and newspaper. Moistened coconut fiber also makes an excellent substrate for water dragons as it helps to maintain the habitat’s humidity.

If in doubt about which substrate to pick, consult your pet shop or herpetology vet.

Branches and Shelters

As for furnishings, Chinese water dragons are arboreal and love climbing and hiding in trees and plants. You can mimic this with logs and tree branches, living or artificial plants for climbing, and rock caves for hiding. Choose “caves” that are big enough for the dragon to fit its body within. Just be sure to periodically clean and sanitize all of the furnishings in your dragon’s tank to prevent the growth and spread of fungus and bacteria.

Heat and Humidity (Air Moisture)

Water dragons are semi-aquatic, cold-blooded creatures. The native habitat of Chinese water dragons is warm and humid. In the wild, they find ways to regulate their own body temperatures, but in captivity they need a little help.

Maintaining the correct temperature and humidity in your dragon’s cage is paramount to its health. In order to replicate the Chinese water dragon’s native environment, you’ll need to maintain a day-time cage temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit, with between 70-80 percent humidity, and a night-time temperature no colder than 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

You can take care of your dragon’s humidity requirements by periodically misting its cage, or by keeping a bowl of fresh, clean water underneath one of the lighting setups, which we’ll cover below.


Aside from the right temperature gradients, Chinese water dragons need proper lighting for maintaining body heat. UVB lights provide dragons with necessary basking areas and valuable Vitamin D3.

To set up a basking area, install a UVB light about 10-12 inches above a basking surface made of rock or wood, with no glass or plastic obstructing the heat. The basking site or sites should be kept at a constant 90 degrees Fahrenheit. If you own multiple dragons, make sure you have one basking site for each of them.

There are many reptile-safe lighting options to choose from at your local pet shop, just be sure you’re buying the right kind for your specific lizard species.

An important point to keep in mind is that UV lights lose their UVB potency over time, so even though the bulb is still making light, it is not making the UVB light that your dragon needs. UV lights should be changed every 9-12 months. Making a note in your calendar will help you to remember.


As mentioned above, Chinese water dragons love to swim. Providing a small pool (or large water bowl) inside your dragon’s enclosure will ensure that it is able to take care of its physical and mental needs. Check the water throughout the day to make sure it is clean, and change or refresh the water as needed.

Chinese Water Dragon Habitat and History

Chinese water dragons are native to the lowland and highland forests in East and Southeast Asia, specifically China and India. They love semi-aquatic, freshwater environments and can be found along the banks of freshwater lakes and streams in the wild.

Chinese water dragons are diurnal reptiles, which means they’re most active during the day. They like to spend their days relaxing in plants and trees located close to bodies of water, where they sunbathe and eat insects. If they feel threatened or become startled, they will drop down from the tree into the water below where they can either swim to safety or remain submerged for up to 25 (!) minutes. Creating an environment with fake plants or plants that are safe for your lizard is good for both camouflage and for the mental enrichment of your lizard.

This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Adam Denish, VMD. 

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