Bearded Dragon Care: The expert guide
Bearded dragons are hardy and easy to care for. That is just one of the many reasons that they are the most popular lizard. With proper care they have a typical life expectancy of about 12 years, and health problems that require veterinary intervention are infrequent.
This guide covers everything you need to know to keep your dragons healthy and happy, so that you can prevent health issues from ever developing. Health issues in reptiles are notoriously difficult to diagnose. Often they are difficult to even detect until they become severe.
Bearded dragons are no exception. But with the right care from the start you can prevent most issues from ever developing, right?...
Right! But there is a problem you need to overcome first. In between you and your successful reptile paradise is a mess of bad information, harmful or useless products, and uninformed breeders that are all telling you the wrong things!
Don't trust your animals to the advice of amateurs. This expert guide is here to dispel the myths and set you on the right course.
When designing your bearded dragon’s habitat you first need to decide what kind of enclosure you are going to use. For an adult bearded dragon, the minimum cage size is a 40 gallon breeder tank, which has floor dimensions of 36 inches by 18 inches. More space is always appreciated, but this is the minimum. When buying a glass tank it is important that you buy a ‘breeder tank’ which prioritizes floor space over height.
You aren't limited to simple glass tanks. Front opening cages, and many styles of custom cages are available that also make good choices as long as they provide at least the minimum required floor dimensions.
The cages shown below have plenty of space. The lights are hung from the ceiling of each cage so that nothing blocks the UBV light.
It is a myth that reptiles grow to the size of their environment. Your dragon will not stay small, or healthy, if you put it in too small of a cage. If your dragon isn't growing to a healthy adult size then something is wrong that needs to be addressed, or in some cases the dragon’s genes may prevent further growth.
Temperature and Lighting
Now that you have picked out a cage, it is time to set up your lights. The lights you use and the temperature you maintain with them is very important. This is an area that can be confusing to new reptile keepers, so we keep it as simple as possible.
Your lights need to provide two things. They need to provide UVB, which is the part of the light spectrum that animals absorb in their skin and use to process calcium. The second is heat.
You can use one bulb that provides both heat and UVB. You can also use a two bulb system with one providing heat, and the other providing UVB. We will go over both options.
Do not try to provide heat using heating pads or hot rocks. They can get too hot and burn your dragon. Your dragon needs a heated environment, not just a heated surface.
No matter what kind of lights you buy you need two essential accessories. The first is a timer that will turn the lights on and off at the same time every day. All the lights need to turn off at night so that your dragon can get restful sleep in a dark environment. Set your timer so that your dragon has 12-14 hours of daylight each day.
The second item you need is a heat gun to measure the temperature with. A heat gun is the best kind of digital thermometer because they are reliable and quick to give you the temperature of any surface. Do not rely on an analog thermometer.
During the day time you want a basking spot on one side of the habitat that is 105-110 degrees F. The most common mistake people make with a new setup is not getting their basking spot hot enough.
The cool side of the habitat should be in the 80s. Do not guess the temperatures. Verify them using a heat gun.
At night the temperature can drop into the 70s for younger dragons and into the 60s for adult and sub-adult dragons. Night time heat is usually not required because most homes don't go below 60 degrees at night.
If you have a dragon that is less than 12 inches long and your home gets less than 70 degrees F at night then use a ceramic heat bulb at night. Ceramic bulbs emit heat but no light and will not disturb your dragon’s sleep.
To get the basking spot the right temperature you are going to give your dragon a branch to climb on and get closer to the heat bulb. More on this later. Most people achieve the correct basking temperature with a 100 watt bulb, but there is some variation based on the distance the basking spot is from the bulb, and how well ventilated the cage is.
If you are using one bulb that provides both heat and UVB, such as a mercury vapor bulb, then all you need to do is follow the guidelines in this section regarding distance and temperature. With both of the essentials provided for (heat and UVB) you don’t need any additional lights.
If you are using one bulb for heat and a separate bulb for UVB, then you will want your UVB bulb to be a strip/tube type bulb that runs most of the length of the cage. You can also use a circular bulb placed over the basking spot, next to your heat bulb.
UVB bulbs are not as straightforward as you may think at first. Just because the light is on, does not mean it is being effective. In order for them to be effective there are a few guidelines you need to follow. If you don't follow these guidelines then the UVB will be wasted without reaching your dragon.
UVB is very bad at passing through barriers. Glass, plexiglass, and metal screens allow light to pass through them, but will block a lot of the UVB. Most people use cages with screen tops and place the lights on the screen. In the photo above, the UVB lights are hung inside the cage so that nothing obstructs the light.
It is helpful to use a high output bulb to effectively penetrate past a screen. The reptisun 10.0 HO bulb is an example. High output bulbs need to be used in a high output fixture.
Always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for how far away the bulb should be from your animal. High output bulbs are powerful and need to be a minimum safe distance from your dragon or they can cause a sunburn. Any UVB bulb that is too far away will be ineffective. If the appropriate distance is not provided on the box then you can usually find it on the manufacturer’s website.
Most UVB bulbs need to be replaced every 6-12 months, even though the bulb still appears to be working. This is because the active agents within the bulbs that are responsible for creating the UVB light are exhausted through use. Once they are used up the light will continue to turn on until the filament eventually breaks, but it will no longer produce the invisible UVB that your dragon needs. Refer to the manufacturer of the bulbs you are using for their useful lifespan.
Now that your habitat has proper lights we can move on to making your habitat look nice. Next we will choose a substrate. Substrate is what you will line the bottom of the habitat with.
There are a wide range of substrates available but some of them have serious drawbacks. It is best to stay away from loose substrates like sand, bark, gravel, and wood chips. Loose substrate can cause fatal digestive impactions if the dragon eats it.
While plenty of people keep their dragons on sand without suffering impaction, it can and does happen. Choosing a safe substrate is a simple way to eliminate risk.
Impaction is not the only downside to loose substrates. They also impact the air quality. Small particles of the substrate escape into the air. If you have a reptile room with a lot of cages then maintaining air quality is very important.
Loose substrate can also get into your dragons eyes and cause irritation or infection.
Lastly, the substrate collects germs over time. Let's say you fully replace the substrate every 3 months... Three months is a long time for bacteria and parasites to build up in the sand, not to mention that it is a pain to clean and replace each time.
If you are going to use some kind of soil or sand in making your habitat, use one that can be compacted to make a firm earthy floor.
What you want is a floor that is super easy to clean and looks nice. The easiest thing to clean is newspaper, but that doesn't look nice. Fortunately there are options that are both attractive and safe.
Reptile carpet has a good reputation for being easy to clean. It is durable enough to be able to withstand a good scrub when needed. Tile is another easy to clean floor, and has plenty of color options. Flat pieces of slate or flagstone can also be arranged to make a natural looking environment.
To make your habitat comfortable for your dragon there are some furnishings you should include. Each item you add to the habitat takes up floor space for your dragon to move around in, and also provides crevices for feeder insects to hide in. Unless you have a very large habitat, it is best to stick to the essentials and maximize available floor space.
In addition to dishes for food and water, your dragon needs two essential items. The first is a hide on the cool side of the habitat. Your dragon will enjoy having a cool, dark space to sleep in.
Under temperature and lighting we talked about the need for your dragon to climb up towards the heat bulb. By letting your dragon get closer to the basking lamp, you can more easily achieve the basking temperature you need.
It is very difficult to maintain a basking temperature of 105-110 degrees from a distance of 17 inches away. A sturdy branch placed under the heat lamp will help create the necessary basking spot, as well as give your dragon something to climb on.
Another good addition is a hammock. A hammock can provide another climbing spot without taking up floor space.
When it comes to adding plants, be cautious as many house plants can be toxic. Fake plants can cause impaction if eaten but typically dragons just ignore them.
The conventional wisdom on humidity is that high humidity can contribute to respiratory infections. While I have not been able to find any evidence to back this claim up, I also have not yet done a study to disprove it either.
Until HereBDragons is able to perform a study to prove whether or not there is a connection between humidity and respiratory infections, my recommendation is to try to keep the humidity at 30-50%.
With good ventilation most areas won't have a problem with humidity. Provide water in a dish, not in a circulating waterfall. Any kind of moving water feature will increase the humidity.
You can also temporarily reduce the humidity using a sock filled with dry rice. The rice will absorb moisture from the air.
Water should be provided at all times in a shallow dish. Dragons that are less than 8 weeks old benefit from being spritzed daily, but this becomes unnecessary as they grow older. Our hatchlings are spritzed several times per day, and are not given a dish of water because they are too small to safely use it.
Once a dragon is large enough to drink from a dish, spritzing is no longer necessary. Most dragons enjoy a bath from time to time in water that is warm but not hot.
They especially appreciate a bath when shed skin is beginning to detach. A bath helps to relieve the itchiness of shedding skin and loosens the dry shed skin around toes and tail. The water should be deep enough to submerge the dragon only about half way.
Bearded dragons need to be offered live insects and vegetables daily.
Some care sheets like to say that hatchling dragons should have 80% of their diet be insects and 20% be vegetables, and gradually transition to an adult diet of 80% vegetables and only 20% insects. Don’t trouble yourself with this unhelpful, and unnecessarily confusing diet plan!
Dragons of all ages should have all the vegetables they want every day. Some dragons will eat more vegetables than others. Most will eat vegetables consistently.
In the wild dragons don't have access to this much good vegetable matter because their environment is so dry. That shouldn't stop you from offering plenty of vegetables to yours. Access to plenty of vegetables helps to make for a healthy dragon.
Just like people, the preferences of your dragon will change. They may eat lots of vegetables one week, and ignore them the next. If your dragon eats all of her vegetables today, then give her a little more tomorrow. If she doesn’t eat all of her vegetables today, then give her a little less tomorrow.
The vegetables you provide should be about 75% dark leafy greens, and 25% other vegetables. Focus on vegetables that are orange or yellow in color. Try to avoid any greens with the word lettuce in the name. They tend to be low nutritionally.
As a general rule, aside from lettuce, any dark leafy green at the grocery store is fair game. HereBDragons uses kale exclusively, and we provide variety through our other vegetables. Other great options include chard, parsley, mustard greens, dandelion, and turnip greens to name a few.
Mixing in some of the other vegetables that you happen to have available can be opportunities for variety. HereBDragons uses sweet potato, carrot, acorn squash, and butternut squash. Since these vegetables are all very hard, shred them using a carrot peeler or cheese grater. There is no need to cook them.
Orange colored vegetables are a good source of natural vitamin A. It is important for reptiles to consume natural sources of vitamin A, so we always include these vegetables as a part of their salad.
Dragons also need to be offered insects each day. Always feed your dragons healthy insects that are raised in captivity to be used as feeders. Never feed them wild insects, which may be carrying parasites, other harmful microbes, and pesticides.
The best feeder insects available include dubia roaches, hornworms, silkworms, superworms, and black soldier fly larvae (which are sold under several names including Phoenix worms, nutrigrubs, and calci worms). It is always a good idea to provide some variety.
Never feed your dragons mealworms! Mealworms are the only mass produced feeder insect that are not healthy for reptiles. While they look similar to superworms, nutritionally they are very different. Not only are mealworms poor nutritionally, but they also have a much larger ratio of exoskeleton to meat. The large amount of indigestible exoskeleton can cause digestive impactions. Regular use of mealworms will result in an unhealthy dragon.
Crickets are acceptable of use, but avoid them if you can. They are a pain to deal with and not as healthy as the insects recommended above.
For at least 24 hours prior to feeding the insects to your dragons, give the insects the same vegetables you feed to your dragons, and take all other sources of food and water away from them. This is called gut loading, and it makes a big difference to the nutritional content of the insects. When your dragons eat them, you want the insect’s digestive systems to be filled with nutritious vegetables.
Hatchlings need to be offered insects at least 3 times per day until they are 3 months old. Ideally, they should have insects available to them all day. The first feeding should be about 1 hour after lights on and the last feeding should be about 2 hours before lights off.
Crickets and superworms may bite at a sleeping dragon and actually do damage. With the other feeder insects we mentioned above, you don't need to worry about that.
After 3 months of age, and until your dragon is at least 16 inches long, you should provide insects twice per day. Once in the morning, and again in the evening. At each feeding give your dragons all the insects they want to eat. At this age they are still growing and need plenty of food. Most dragons will grow longer than 16 inches, but at that point one feeding of insects per day is enough.
Finally, once your dragon reaches its approximate full size, offer insects once per day, and in an amount that maintains a healthy weight. Dragons have a large appetite, and adults will become obese if allowed to eat all the insects that they want. It is better to offer a small volume of insects every day, then a larger volume only every 2-3 days.
The typical full size of an adult dragon is 16-20 inches long. They can reach their full length as early as 9 months of age, but 12 months is average.
Dragons should be provided with powdered supplements that are made specifically for reptiles. Provide calcium supplement that contains vitamin D and a general mineral supplement. You can give the supplements to your dragon by either mixing it into the vegetables, or dusting the insects, whichever you prefer.
Provide the calcium during one feeding per day, and the general mineral supplement once every 2-3 days. Supplementing too much is just as bad as a diet deficient in vitamins and minerals, so don't include them in every meal.
The vitamin D that is mixed into the calcium will help to make up for any shortcomings of your UVB light. If you are using a high output UVB light, and are replacing the bulbs at the recommended times, then you should use calcium that does not contain vitamin D. All makers of supplements provide both varieties.
Housing two or more dragons together in the same cage can be done if you follow a few simple rules. I do not recommend it for beginners.
When it comes to adult and sub-adult dragons, only females can be housed together. Males cannot be housed with other dragons of either sex. Even in our breeding facility our females are only placed with a male for short periods of time.
Females of similar size can usually be housed together without issue, but you should always have the ability to separate them if it becomes necessary. When adult females do become aggressive towards one another they typically nip at the skin on the back of the head to assert dominance.
While adult females rarely inflict any significant injuries, this nipping and other acts of aggression are bad for their health. If allowed to continue it can eventually result in a scab. Dragons displaying this behavior towards their cage mates need to be split up in order to reduce stress.
When housing two or more dragons together you also need to make sure that there is sufficient space, enough basking space, and that the dragons are all approximately the same size. Juvenile dragons grow at different rates and a dragon that falls behind her cage mates in growth will continue to fall further behind until she is separated from the larger dragons.
Nips can occur among juvenile dragons where one dragon loses a toe or the tip of her tail, and in extreme cases even larger body parts. If the size difference is great enough the larger dragon may even try to eat the smaller one. Housing juvenile dragons together carries greater risks than housing adult females together and should only be done by experienced professionals.
All newly acquired reptiles should be quarantined from other animals for at least 30 days. This is a standard safety measure that should always be practiced regardless of the source you buy your new animal from.
Quarantining is for the protection of your new animal and your existing collection. If you don’t quarantine your new dragon and a potential health issue develops, you have no way to knowing if the dragon contracted an illness from one of your other animals during the stress of the relocation, or if something entirely different is going on.
And relocation is stressful. Your new dragon may seem calm and collected, but his whole world just changed. He is in a new environment with new people. Expect his stress to be elevated for the first two weeks.
When a health issue develops, the more unknowns you can cross off the list, the better off you will be. If you keep your cages clean, with an easy to clean floor, then you KNOW your dragon isn't suffering from a dirty environment or sand impaction. If you follow quarantine procedures, then you KNOW your dragon didn't pick up a bug from another dragon.
During quarantine, your new animal's habitat should be separated from the habitats of your other animals. Food, dishes, and other objects that come into contact with your animals should be disinfected before and after coming into contact with an animal in quarantine. Always wash your hands before and after handling an animal in quarantine.
Safe Handling and Human Health
Like all animals, bearded dragons have the potential to carry pathogens that may be transmitted to humans, such as salmonella. Common sense practices are all that is needed to prevent possible germ transmission.
Always wash your hands after handling animals as well as the items they come in contact with. When possible, do not use the kitchen sink to wash your hands or clean reptile equipment such as their food and water dishes. Use a bathroom sink, or another location that is not used to prepare food. Disinfect the area after use.
If you have children, talk to them about the need to wash their hands after handling small animals, and why they should not kiss their animals, or touch their mouth or food while handling animals. Supervise young children as necessary.
Congratulations! You are now ready to start enjoying bearded dragons. We are always here to help if you run into any issues.