Bearded Dragon

Pogona Vitticeps

Courtesy of Cooper O'Deorain (Paradigm)

Intro

Central bearded dragons are semi-arboreal lizards that are native to Central Australia. They are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day, and will be seen basking periodically during the daylight in captivity. They have been one of, if not the, most popular lizards in the reptile keeping hobby ever since their introduction into the United States in the 1990s. Despite their abundance in the hobby, they are frequently subjected to poor care due to poor recommendations. However, they still make amazing pets and properly caring for them is as satisfactory as simply owning one.

Enclosure Design & Info

As adults, bearded dragons can reach nearly two feet, or 60cm, long. Combining this with their
high activity levels, bearded dragons need larger enclosures than the frequently recommended
40 gallon minimum. As a bare minimum, a 4x2x2 foot (120x60x60 cm) enclosure is a good choice. However, we would recommend no smaller than a 5x3x3 foot (150x90x90 cm), enclosure for a healthy adult bearded dragon. Although bigger is always better, particularly concerning bearded dragons, this size of an enclosure is a great opportunity not only for your bearded dragon to fully explore and exhibit natural behaviors, but for you to furnish their enclosure appropriately. 

In their natural habitat, bearded dragons are classified as semi-arboreal as they are frequently
observed sitting on top of fence posts as well as in bushes and even in trees. To allow them to
exhibit these natural behaviors, it is heavily advised to give them ample climbing opportunities
in their enclosure. This can range from large pieces of cork bark to intertwining branches you
have collected from outside and appropriately sanitized, typically through baking or boiling
water treatments.

As well as enjoying spending time above the ground, beardies have been observed burrowing for various reasons. This can easily be replicated in captivity, simply by providing a deep enough layer of substrate, which will be discussed in a later section.

At least one primary basking spot should be offered. This is a spot in the enclosure that maintains the highest temperature overall and allows them to achieve an appropriate body temperature for themselves. This is also where they will absorb the most D3 through UVB, which will be discussed in a later section. Many keepers use stone as the surface for a basking spot as this material holds onto heat extremely well. Some keepers will offer more than one basking spot, but offering only one is completely fine.

Substrates and Plants

One of the most prevalent myths to this very day when it comes to beardies is that loose substrate is the biggest killer of bearded dragons. This is simply untrue. The true issues when it comes to loose substrate are too low of temperatures and a lack of proper hydration. Other frequently recommended options, such as reptile carpet or calcium sand, however, do have legitimate issues. Reptile carpet is known for harboring bacteria even after being cleaned, and calcium sand actively encourages consumption while being prone to clumping while wet, which can be dangerous if ingested in large amounts. As a quarantine substrate, paper towels are one of the safest options you can offer as they are relatively cost effective and easy to use. Once you have determined your beardie is healthy and eating well, it is safe to move them over to a loose substrate mix. There is no need to wait until your bearded dragon is an adult to offer loose substrate. 

There are many different options commercially, but one of the best is one you can mix at home. A 60% topsoil free of pesticide and fertilizer, 20% play sand, and 20% excavator clay mix (or clay powder) works extremely well for beardies as it actively encourages burrowing behaviors and makes for a very easy and affordable form of enrichment. These ratios may not be perfect for what you desire, so it is always best to start with an approximate mix and change it as you see fit for your own animal. Commercial options such as the Bio Dude’s Terra Sahara might be a good choice for you, but they are extremely expensive. 

As beardies are omnivorous, any plants you should decide to place inside of the enclosure should be safe to consume by them. Many herbs, such as mint, parsley, or basil are all very good options that are edible and easy to maintain. If properly pruned, a prickly pear cactus can be a great option as they make for a great treat. Aloe can also be used as an addition to an enclosure, as it is safe for them to consume in small amounts. However, many people find it easiest to provide fake plants, which are equally as good of an option at the end of the day.

Lighting and Humidity

Ensuring bearded dragons have an appropriate day/night light cycle is very important. Many keepers will keep their dragons at a constant 12 hour day/12 hour night schedule, but others will change it based on the time of the year. This is something you should decide on your own. When discussing the temperature requirements of bearded dragons, there are two different types of temperatures to consider; ambient temperatures and basking spot temperatures. An ambient temperature is the temperature of the air, and the basking spot temperature is the temperature of the surface of the material that is being used as a basking spot. The ability to thermoregulate, or control their own body temperature, is very important with bearded dragons, thus it is recommended to create a thermal gradient in their enclosure. This can easily be achieved by having one side of their enclosure be considered the “warm” side, and the other side the “cool” side. The basking spot temperature of a bearded dragon should be, approximately, 115°F, or 46°C. This allows the bearded dragon to achieve the optimum core body temperature of 97.3°F, or 36.3°C. Some keepers even maintain a basking spot as high as 130°F, or 55°C, as some bearded dragons have been observed basking on surfaces this hot in the wild. The ambient air temperature of the warm side can safely range from 85 to 95°F, or 29 to 35°C. The ambient air temperature of the cool side can fall to 75 to 78°F, or 24 to 26°C. The temperature should be allowed to drop at night as this is natural and beneficial. As long as the temperature does not drop to below 65°F or 18°C, there is no reason to be concerned. 

Halogens are currently the most well recommended type of lighting to offer as a primary heat source. Compared to other options, such as incandescent bulbs, halogens produce a closer ratio of IR-A and IR-B compared to the sun as other options. IR-A and IR-B are considered “deep heat” radiation, which penetrates into the muscle of an animal deeper than other types of radiation, such as IR-C, which is produced by CHEs, or ceramic heat emitters, and heat mats. If additional night time heating is necessary, a CHE may be used to bring the temperature of the enclosure up to an appropriate range. More in-depth information about heating and heating elements can be found in our article, [here].

Despite their frequent recommendation, colored incandescent bulbs should not be used, particularly for night time heating; bearded dragons are capable of seeing this light just as we can, and they will be unable to have an appropriate day/night light cycle with them (otherwise known as a Circadian Rhythm). It’s important to ensure that every heat source you are using is connected to an appropriate thermostat. These allow you to maintain a steady temperature and keep not only your beardie safe, but you as well if the worst case scenario occurs and your heating source overheats. 

Offering proper UVB lighting is absolutely essential for bearded dragons. UVB lighting ensures your bearded dragon is capable of producing natural D3, which aids in the absorption of calcium, preventing medical concerns such as MBD, or metabolic bone disease which occurs when beardies do not have a sufficient amount of calcium in their diet. Bearded dragons are Ferguson level 3 to 4 basking animals, meaning they require strong levels of UVB. An appropriate UVI range to shoot for is UVI 3-6, with a gradient falling to 0 in a shaded area of the enclosure. Currently, two of the most well recommended brands on the market are ReptiSuns, sold by Zoo Med, and the Arcadia line of UVB. Linear UVB is particularly recommended, as coil UVB bulbs are known for emitting UVB inefficiently and irregularly which can be dangerous for your beardie. The Interactive UV Index Lighting Guide by Arcadia is a great resource to decide on what is best to offer your beardie based on your enclosure. You can read more about UVB and your reptiles in our article here

Humidity is relatively easy to maintain with bearded dragons. A humidity range of 30 to 40% works very well and is the most similar to the average humidity of central Australia outside of occasional highs or lows that occur naturally. Most keepers find that they do not have to change anything about their husbandry to maintain a proper humidity range. To ensure that the humidity is staying within a safe margin, a digital hygrometer is highly recommended. 

Feeding

Bearded dragons are omnivorous insectivores, which means their diet is composed of invertebrates and vegetables. Although fruits can be offered as a treat, this should be a rare occurrence, no more than twice a month. Some keepers will also offer pinkie mice as a treat for a bearded dragon’s birthday or gotcha day, but this is a personal decision you will have to make for yourself. 

Bearded dragons thrive with a heavy variety in their diet. Concerning invertebrates, healthy staples for a varied diet include but are not limited to dubia roaches, crickets, black soldier fly larvae, and silkworms. Invertebrates such as superworms or waxworms should only be offered as an occasional treat due to their low nutritional value. Feeders should be properly gutloaded prior to being fed to your beardie for approximately 24 hours. Fresh vegetables that are safe to be fed to a beardie are a great choice. Avoid anything high in citric acid. 

As they are also omnivorous, bearded dragons eat a wide variety of greens. Staple greens include but are not limited to dandelion greens, collard greens, mustard greens, bok choy, and turnip greens. Other vegetables such as squash, carrots, and bell pepper can be offered as additions to salads. 

The amount of food a bearded dragon should eat is entirely dependent on age. A good rule of thumb is that young beardies should eat more invertebrates while still having access to fresh greens on a daily basis, and older dragons should eat more greens while still being offered invertebrates at a lesser rate than younger beardies. At any age, beardies should be allowed to eat as many invertebrates as they can during a five minute period. Bearded dragons in captivity are, unfortunately, very commonly overweight, so it is important to maintain a healthy diet and to consider their weight when addressing dietary concerns. 

Supplements are another extremely important aspect of a bearded dragons diet. In captivity, bearded dragons do not have as varied a diet as they would in their native habitat, so we have to supply them with anything that their diet may be missing. Calcium is one of the most important supplements you can offer, next to a quality multivitamin powder. It is not necessary to provide calcium with D3 as long as you are providing an appropriate UVB source. You can provide additional D3 if you decide to, but it is important to remember that too much D3 can cause an overdose. 

The frequency of which you should offer these supplements is dependent on the age of the beardie. Relatively speaking, younger beardies should receive more supplementation while older dragons should receive less.

Common Health Issues

Bearded dragons are extremely hardy animals, and are capable of surviving much more than some people will give them credit for. However, as any reptile, they are extremely adept at hiding illnesses which is why it is important to frequently schedule wellness checks with your vet. We recommend seeing them at least once a year, but many keepers will also go in for wellness checks every six months. 

MBD, or metabolic bone disease, is possibly one the most well known health issues that impacts bearded dragons. Metabolic bone disease is caused by a lack of calcium and/or Vitamin D3. If untreated, it will be fatal and it is not a pretty death. The reason it is so damaging to a bearded dragon’s health is because the lack of calcium and/or Vitamin D3 causes their body to begin pulling calcium from their bones, leaving them weak and prone to injury. This is extremely avoidable simply by ensuring they have access to proper UVB and are receiving an appropriate amount of calcium in their diet. There is no cure, but, if caught early enough, the worst of its effects can be avoided. 

Parasite overloads are another frequent concern that comes up with bearded dragon owners. Bearded dragons naturally have parasites in their gastrointestinal tracts but a parasite overload occurs when there are too many for their bodies to handle. This can be avoided simply by removing feces from an enclosure, washing your hands when handling another beardie after handling a second one, and disinfecting any tools that frequently swap between dragons, such as feeding tongs. Common symptoms include but are not limited to lethargy and a lack of appetite. Only a vet can properly diagnose a parasite overload and treatment will need to be given.

Conclusion

Although they might not be as easy as they are frequently touted to be, bearded dragons make amazing pets due to their docile nature and huge personalities. They can be a great introductory species into owning reptiles with the appropriate level of research. Once you get one, you’ll almost certainly want another!

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