Water Dragon Care Sheet

Maria Zayas, DVM
By Maria Zayas, DVM on Oct. 27, 2023
Water dragon in foliage

In This Article

Species Overview

Water Dragon Species Overview

Water dragons (Physignathus cocincinus, also known as Chinese or Asian water dragons) are bright green lizards native to the tropical rainforests of China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. 

Water dragons are diurnal (more active during the day) and arboreal (“tree-dwelling”) reptiles that enjoy spending their days exploring trees. When humidity and temperatures change, water dragons can change color from green to brown. 

Male and female water dragons are similar in appearance until they are about 15 inches in length. In adulthood, males are larger than females. It’s not advised to house male water dragons together as they will fight.

Females may occasionally fight, but it is OK to house one male with two to three females. If you don’t want your water dragons to breed, do not keep males and females together.  

Water Dragon Characteristics 

Difficulty of Care 


Average Lifespan 

Up to 15 years with proper care 

Average Adult Size 

2–3 feet from nose to tip of tail; males are larger than females 



Minimum Habitat Size 

40-gallon breeder tank for juveniles; 540-gallon tank for a single adult 

Water Dragon Handling

If handled frequently as juveniles, water dragons can become quite personable and will remain social as long as the pet parent continues to interact with them daily.  

Water dragons have long tails that account for almost 75% of their body length. Aside from helping the lizard balance itself while climbing, water dragons can whip their tail to fight off predators. They can also break off their tails when a predator grabs them. Pet parents should NEVER grab or pick up their water dragon by the tail. 

All water dragons have a tiny, shiny scale on the top of their head, which is known as their “parietal eye.” This very important scale helps water dragons regulate their body temperature and detect differences in light. 

Water dragons are easily frightened. To avoid startling them, avoid loud noises and quick movements. Never approach or try to pick up a water dragon from behind. 

All reptiles are potential carriers of infectious diseases, including Salmonella bacteria, which is zoonotic (transmittable to humans). Pet parents should always wash their hands before and after handling their water dragon or their habitat’s contents. 

Water Dragon Supply Checklist

To keep a water dragon happy and healthy, pet parents should have these basic supplies on hand: 

Water Dragon Habitat

Choosing the Right Enclosure 

Water dragons need a tall, vertically oriented habitat so they can climb and exercise comfortably. All habitats should be secured with a fitted screen lid to allow for proper ventilation and prevent escape. Glass habitats are recommended over open-air/screen/mesh habitats. It can be difficult to maintain proper humidity levels with fully screened habitats. 

With proper care, water dragons reach their adult size in one to two years. You should gradually increase the size of your water dragon’s habitat as your lizard grows. 

Juvenile water dragons can begin life in a 40-gallon breeder tank or larger. A single adult water dragon’s enclosure should be at least 540 gallons. These active reptiles can grow up to three feet in length and love climbing, so pet parents must be prepared to provide their water dragon with plenty of space! 

Recommended Products: 

  • Habitats for Juvenile Water Dragons 

Important Note: Water dragons are known to rub their noses against the walls of their habitat, which can lead to snout injury. To discourage this behavior, you can use paper, cardboard, or solid-colored tape to create a two-to-three-inch barrier around the outside bottom of your lizard’s habitat. 

Habitat Mates 

Adult male water dragons should be housed separately, because they are territorial and will fight. If water dragons must be housed together, keep one male with a small group of two to three females.    

Opposite-sex water dragons should not be kept in the same habitat unless you are prepared for them to breed. Never keep different species of reptiles or other animals in the same habitat. 


Water dragons need a temperature gradient so they can warm up and cool down as needed. The ideal basking temperature for a water dragon’s habitat is 95–100 F during the day, with cool zone temperatures set to 80–85 F. At nighttime, temperatures should not fall below 75 F. Reptiles that aren’t kept within their optimal temperature range are more likely to become immunosuppressed and ill. 

Check the temperatures of your water dragon’s habitat daily. Two thermometers—one in the warm area and one in the cool area—should be placed in the enclosure so that both zones can be checked at once. A digital point-and-shoot thermometer can also be used to read habitat temperatures instantly.  

Recommended Products: 

Light and Heat Sources 

Providing proper heat sources in a water dragon’s habitat will allow the lizard to maintain their body temperature and stay healthy. An incandescent light or ceramic heater should be added to one end of a water dragon’s tank to create a basking area for the lizard to use during the day.

The wattage needed for the bulb depends on the size of the enclosure, the distance of the bulb from the reptile, and the ambient temperature of the room in which the enclosure is kept. Adjust the wattage of the bulb to maintain the recommended temperature gradient within the tank.

Note: Some light bulbs provide not only light to the tank, but also heat and/or ultraviolet (UV) light. Pet parents should check the light sources they are considering to understand their function in the tank. 

  • If more than one water dragon is housed in the same enclosure, make sure each lizard has their own basking site. 

  • Heat sources should be attached to a thermostat to keep temperatures within a safe and comfortable range. 

  • Hot rocks should never be used because they can get too warm and cause injury.  

  • If an under-tank heating pad is used, it must be connected to a thermostat to prevent the lizard from getting burned.   

Recommended Products: 

  • Light Fixtures & Hoods 

  • Heat Support 

  • Thermostats 

White lights should not be left continuously, as they will disrupt the lizard’s natural sleep cycle. At night, turn off lights in the habitat, or switch to a nocturnal or infrared light. Pet parents can use a night timer to keep day/night cycles consistent. 

Recommended Products: 

UV Light 

Pet parents should shine a full-spectrum UV light on their water dragon’s habitat for 10–12 hours each day. Lizards need daily exposure to UVB rays so they can produce vitamin D in their skin, which allows them to absorb dietary calcium. Without adequate UVB exposure, lizards are at a greater risk of developing a range of life-threatening illnesses, including metabolic bone disease. 

  • Since UV lights differ in intensity, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on bulb placement relative to your pet. In general, UV lights should be placed about 10–12 inches above the basking area.  

  • Do not block the UV light source with glass or plastic, as this will block and filter out UV rays. 

  • Lights should be replaced every six months (even if the bulb still emits light), as their potency wanes over time. 

Recommended Products: 


As a tropical species, water dragons need moderately high humidity in their environment to stay hydrated, support their respiratory systems, and encourage healthy shed cycles. Maintain humidity levels between 70–80% in the enclosure by misting the habitat’s walls, plants, and décor daily with warm water. Humidity levels should be monitored with a hygrometer (humidity gauge). If humidity levels get too low, it will lead to problems shedding.  

You should keep a wide, shallow bowl of water at the bottom of your water dragon’s habitat. Since reptiles absorb water through their skin, be sure the bowl is large enough for the lizard to soak in. If humidity levels get too high, increase ventilation in the tank to make sure humid air can escape. 

Recommended Products:  


Water dragons need a substrate, such as sphagnum moss, coconut fiber, or orchid bark, that can hold moisture well. Reptile carpet can also be used if it’s spot-cleaned and replaced often so that it doesn’t accumulate bacteria on it. 

  • Gravel, wood chips, and walnut shells should be avoided. These materials are indigestible and can lead to fatal gastrointestinal obstruction if eaten.  

  • Coconut husk should not be used in a water dragon’s habitat since it can cause eye irritation. 

  • Water dragons should be fed in a food dish or a separate enclosure without any bedding. This will lessen the chance of their accidentally eating bedding particles that are indigestible and can cause gastrointestinal obstruction.  

Recommended Products: 

Décor and Accessories 

Visual barrier: Water dragons are known to rub their noses against the walls of their habitat, which can lead to snout injury. To discourage this behavior, pet parents can use paper, cardboard, or solid-colored tape to create a two- to three-inch barrier around the outside bottom of their lizard’s habitat. 

Food dishes: Rather than being placed on the habitat floor, food should be offered in a shallow dish or separate feeding tank to lessen the chance of a lizard’s accidentally eating their tank’s substrate.  

  • Worm dishes are designed to keep wiggling live prey in one area. 

  • Food and water dishes should be cleaned and disinfected daily. 

Recommended Products: 

Water dishes: As their name suggests, water dragons love to swim and soak in water! Pet parents should provide their water dragons with a bowl of fresh water that’s large enough for the lizard to soak and also large enough for them to swim in. 

  • Water dishes should be cleaned and replenished daily to prevent bacterial growth. 

  • If you want a more decorative water feature, a waterfall or air bubbler can be placed inside of a water dragon’s water bowl. These water features help maintain high humidity levels in the habitat, but they typically need to be paired with an aquarium filter to stay clean. 

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Hiding area: Water dragons need at least two hiding areas—one on the cool end of their enclosure, and one on the warm end of their enclosure. Aside from offering privacy and security, hideouts allow lizards to have a space away from their enclosure’s direct basking area.  

  • Pet parents should monitor their lizard to ensure that they are not spending all their time hiding and not getting the benefits of UV light. 

  • If more than one water dragon is housed in the same habitat, be sure to provide each lizard with their own hiding areas. 

Recommended Products: 

Climbing branches/shelves and basking rocks: Pet parents should add a basking rock and sturdy branches to their water dragon’s habitat so they can climb and bask as needed. 

  • Water dragons usually prefer high basking areas over low ones. 

  • Basking branches must be large and sturdy enough to support the lizard’s body. Otherwise, the branch could topple over and potentially cause injury. 

Recommended Products: 

Live and/or artificial plants: Live plants can help boost humidity and add beauty to a water dragon’s terrarium. Artificial plants can be used to create extra hiding spots in the enclosure. 

  • A few safe live plants to use are hibiscus, dracaena, pothos, ficus, philodendron, and spider plants 

Recommended Products: 

Water Dragon Cleaning and Maintenance

You should spot-clean your water dragon’s habitat daily, removing any soiled material and discarded food. Water and food bowls must be washed daily.  

A water dragon’s habitat must be disinfected and cleaned thoroughly at least once a week (or more often if more than one water dragon lives in the same habitat). Pet parents should always wash their hands before and after handling their water dragon or the habitat’s contents.  

Recommended Products:  

To clean a water dragon’s habitat, take these steps:  

  1. Move the water dragon to a secure environment. Remove any old substrate, décor, and accessories from the habitat.  

  1. Scrub the empty tank and any furnishings with a reptile habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution. The bleach solution should stay on the habitat for at least 10 minutes to ensure that the surfaces are properly disinfected. If using a commercial habitat cleaner, follow the manufacturer's instructions.  

  1. Rinse the habitat and accessories thoroughly with water, making sure to remove any trace amounts or residual smells left by the cleaning agent or bleach solution.   

  1. Allow the habitat and its contents to dry completely before placing new substrate and clean accessories into the habitat.  

  1. Return the water dragon to the clean habitat.  

Water Dragon Diet and Nutrition

Water dragons are omnivorous reptiles. But, as predators, they tend to prefer meaty foods over fruits and vegetables. Be sure to feed your dragon on a schedule and serve them a variety of foods. Like people, water dragons will become bored with the same meal.   

A nutritious and well-balanced diet for a water dragon consists of a variety of gut-loaded worms and insects, including:

  • Crickets

  • Wax worms

  • Butter worms

  • Earthworms

  • Silkworms

  • Mealworms

  • Grasshoppers

  • Hornworms

  • Superworms

Insects should make up 85–90% of a water dragon’s diet. 

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Fruits and vegetables, which should make up no more than 10–15% of a water dragon’s diet. Fruits and vegetables should be finely chopped into bite-sized pieces before being offered. Excellent plant-based foods for water dragons include:

  • Mustard/dandelion/collard greens

  • Kale

  • Romaine

  • Green beans

  • Sweet potato

  • Carrots

  • Blueberries

  • Raspberries

  • Cantaloupe

  • Papaya

  • Mango

  • Figs  

Frozen/thawed newborn mice (“pinkies”), juvenile mice (“fuzzies”) and small common goldfish can be offered as an occasional, tasty treat to larger water dragons. These foods should be offered to a water dragon no more than twice per week.

Be sure that the water dragon is old enough and large enough to handle whole prey.

Live prey should not be fed directly to a water dragon. If a rodent is still alive when given to a water dragon, the rodent can become aggressive and leave severe wounds on the water dragon that may lead to life-threatening infections. 

How to Thaw Frozen Prey 

To thaw frozen prey, take these steps: 

  1. Remove the needed number of food items from the bag. 

  1. Put the frozen food in a sealed plastic bag and place it in a thawing container filled with cold water. The thawing container should only be used for preparing your reptile’s frozen meals. 

  1. Keep the food in the water until it thaws. Discard the cold water. 

  1. Refill the thawing container with warm water. 

  1. Place the thawed prey, still in the sealed plastic bag, in the warm water. Allow it to soak for 10–15 minutes before discarding the water. 

  1. Just before feeding, run nearly hot water over the thawed food to warm it above room temperature. 

  1. Remove the thawed food from the container and plastic bag.  

  1. Using feeding tongs, offer the food to the pet right away. 

Never use a microwave to thaw or warm frozen rodents, and never offer food that's still frozen to a pet. Frozen food that is not consumed should never be re-frozen for future use, as this encourages bacteria to form in the food.  

Avoid preparing frozen rodents in the same area that used to prepare food for personal consumption. If this is unavoidable, be sure to disinfect the area thoroughly after use. 

When giving vitamin supplements to water dragon, make sure to dust a water dragon’s insects with a powdered vitamin supplement. Water dragons need three vitamin supplements in their diet: a calcium supplement with vitamin D, a calcium supplement without vitamin D, and a multivitamin powder designed for reptiles. 

Calcium supplements should be offered at least two to three times a week. Be sure to alternate the type of calcium supplement that’s given to your water dragon: use a powdered calcium supplement with vitamin D for one feeding session, and then use a calcium supplement without vitamin D the next.  

A multivitamin powder should be used once a week. 

To dust insects quickly and efficiently, place insects in a bag or disposable plastic container along with a powdered supplement. Then, shake the bag lightly until the insects are coated evenly in powder. 

Recommended Products: 

  • Calcium Supplements with Vitamin D 

  • Calcium Supplements without Vitamin D 

  • Reptile Multivitamins 

Fresh, clean water should always be available and replaced daily. Water dishes should be placed on the cool end of the habitat and must be large and shallow enough for the lizard to soak in if needed. 

Feeding Guidelines and Tips 

  • Juvenile lizards should be fed daily, while adults should be fed every two to three days. 

  • Never use a microwave to thaw frozen rodents. Do not prepare your lizards’ food in the same area you prepare your own food. If this cannot be avoided, be sure to disinfect the area after preparation. 

  • Uneaten fruits and vegetables should be discarded after 10 hours, as they may spoil and cause infection if eaten. 

Gut-Loading Insects 

Before being fed to a water dragon, live insects must be “gut-loaded” with a nutrient-dense insect supplement to improve their nutritional value. Gut-loading diets are fortified with vitamins and minerals to help provide optimal nutrition to the reptiles that feed on them.  

To gut-load prey, place insects in a container with a gut-loading diet that they can gorge on. Insects should be gut loaded for at least 24–72 hours before being dusted with a vitamin supplement and fed to a water dragon. 

Recommended Products: 

  • Gut-loading Supplements 

  • Insect Housing 

  • Insect Diets 

Important Note: Pet parents should always purchase insects, worms, and mice from a pet supply store or raise them by themselves. Never feed a water dragon insects, worms, or mice found in the wild, as they may carry parasites or other infectious organisms that can make a water dragon fatally ill. Fruits and vegetables must be washed thoroughly to remove pesticides, infectious organisms, and other harmful chemicals. 

Water Dragon Grooming and Care

Shedding: Most water dragons will shed their skin in patches every four to six weeks.  Growing juveniles will shed more frequently than adults. 

To aid in shedding, water dragons should have access to a humid hide filled with moistened sphagnum moss or substrate. Be sure to mist the habitat more frequently to increase humidity. 

If left in a habitat that’s too dry, water dragons are at an increased risk of retaining shed skin around their eyes and toes. Eventually, the retained shed may cut off blood circulation to the dragon’s toes or cover their eyes, preventing them from seeing the insects they are trying to catch and eat.  

Handling time should be minimized while the lizard is shedding.  

If water dragons are not soaking or swimming in water voluntarily, at least twice a week, pet parents should soak their dragon in a large, shallow container of warm water to help them shed their skin more easily. The water container should be wide enough to allow the lizard to submerge their entire body while keeping their head above water.  

Water Dragon Veterinary Care

Annual Care

Water dragons should be seen by a veterinarian once annually. They can be transported in a pillowcase, snake bag, or other appropriately sized travel container. It is recommended to take pictures of their enclosure, diet, heaters, and lights (including exact specifications from the packaging), so your veterinarian can assess their care as part of the exam.

Signs of a Healthy Water Dragon

  • Clean, clear eyes

  • Clean, clear ears

  • Intact skin

  • Bright, alert personality

  • Clean vent

  • No swellings or bumps

  • Good appetite

  • Appropriate basking behavior

  • Able to climb as desired

  • Good body condition score/weight

When to Call a Vet

  • Eyes are swollen, sunken, stuck shut, or have discharge

  • Skin ulcerations

  • Lumps or bumps

  • Cannot walk, posture, or climb appropriately

  • Refusing food

  • Failing to bask

  • Lethargy

  • Discharge around vent

  • Stuck shed

  • Weight loss

Common Illnesses in Water Dragons

Water Dragon FAQs

Are water dragons aggressive?

Water dragons are usually quite friendly reptile pets, but they do need regular handling as stress with handling can lead to aggressive behaviors toward pet parents.

What is special about a water dragon?

Unlike most reptiles, especially the species most commonly kept as pets, water dragons are both good climbers and swimmers.

Are water dragons rare?

Water dragons are relatively common choices as pets, but their wild populations are dwindling due to habitat loss.

Do water dragons like being held?

Water dragons like being held more than most other reptiles and this is one of many reasons they make great pets for reptile keepers.

How long do pet water dragons live?

The average pet water dragon lives for 10–15 years, though in some cases they can live as long as 20 years!

Why is my water dragon waving?

Waving is one of many ways water dragons communicate with other water dragons. It usually happens if they’re upset, defending territory, or interested in mating.

Featured Image: Sami Sert/Royalty-free via Getty Images

Maria Zayas, DVM


Maria Zayas, DVM


Dr. Zayas has practiced small animal and exotic medicine all over the United States and currently lives in Colorado with her 3 dogs, 1 cat,...

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