Bearded Dragon Care Guide
Bearded Dragon Care Tips: Everything You Need To Know
The average bearded dragon lives to the age of 8 or 10, but with proper care they can live longer. In fact, a healthy diet and the right living conditions can have a significant impact on the lifespan of your pet bearded dragon.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT WHERE TO BUY YOUR BEARDED DRAGON PET
If you’re considering buying a pet beardie, make sure you go to a reputable bearded dragon breeder or adopt from someone who took good care of their pet. As a bearded dragon vet, we often treat lizards who have parasites or other illnesses as a result of poor living conditions.
The Natural History of Bearded Dragons
Bearded dragons originated in Australia and New Guinea. In nature, they live in savannahs, sub-tropical or arid woodlands, deserts and shrublands. There are 8 known bearded dragon species, but the ones most commonly found in homes are in the Pogona genus. All beardies are in the Agamid lizard family. You can recognize an Agamid lizard because they have what’s known as acrodont teeth. This means that their teeth lay on the top of the jaw bone superficially, making them easy to fracture and replace. The front teeth of a bearded dragon are regularly replaced, unlike the back teeth. (It’s important to monitor the oral health of your bearded dragon. If you have any concerns, contact us and we can help.)
Beardies as House Pets
The domestication of bearded dragons is a relatively new phenomenon that gained popularity in the 1990s. Part of their rise may be attributed to their cameos in many movies including Harry Potter: Chamber of Secrets, Holes and Nim’s Island, to name a few.
Common Breeds of Bearded Dragons
The most popular species of beardie is the P. vitticeps, also known as the Central or Inland bearded dragon. Calm in nature and relatively small (~ 24 inches with the tail), they make a great house pet. You can recognize these beardies by their softer, triangular face.
Another common breed of bearded dragon is the P. barbata, AKA the common or Eastern bearded dragon. Smaller than the Central beardies, they are growing in popularity. This species has sharper features than the P. vitticeps, although they will also grow to ~24 inches with the tail.
The P. henrylawsoni, also called the Rankin’s dragon or the Pygmy bearded dragon, is another common type of bearded dragon. At just 12 inches long, people love their practicality. Some pet owners are attracted to these lizards because they come in a variety of colors. Many breeders take pride in the different color “morphs” that they can breed.
How to Care for Your Pet Bearded Dragon
Bearded Dragon Cages and Housing
An ideal bearded dragon cage will keep in humidity and heat, and also be easy to clean. We recommend glass tanks because they’re easy to maintain and most comfortable for your beardie friend. Cages made of wire mesh can be hard on a bearded dragon’s toe nails, while plastic containers lock in too much humidity.
Bearded dragons need plenty of space in their cage. The size needed depends on the size and age of your beardie.
For a baby, use a 10 gallon glass tank
For a juvenile, use a 20 gallon glass tank
For an adult - 40 gallon glass tank (or larger)
Logs, Rocks and Plants:
Bearded dragons love to climb and they’ll enjoy crawling around obstacles placed inside their cage, or basking on a log beneath their heat lamp. You can put rocks, plants and logs into their cage, as long as they’re purchased from a reputable site or store. Because of the risk of bugs, diseases, and parasites, you should never place items that you find outdoors into your beardie’s tank.
To keep your bearded dragon safe, check to make sure that any rocks or logs are a safe distance from heat lamps.
Bearded Dragon Substrate:
Do not use sand, Vita-sand or gravel in your beardie’s cage. These may seem like a natural choice, but they can create impactions, a type of blockage in the gastrointestinal tract, because beardies love to lick things including the bottom of their cage! They will also accidently ingest sand when trying to eat if fed on these substances. Bearded dragons constantly use their tongues to get an idea of where they are. If they ingest too much sand, they will likely develop an impaction and require veterinary care.
Many people glue together slate or tile to create a basking ledge and floor for the tank. This is a great option because it’s easy to clean. Paper towels also make for an easy, healthy substrate for your beardie’s cage. Feces will be easy to spot on the white towels and you can quickly replace them with a fresh stock. Repticarpet can also be used to line the tank.
Providing the Right Climate for Your Bearded Dragon
Your bearded dragon’s cage should be equipped with proper lighting and heat. This is fundamental to the health of your pet, since bearded dragons need exposure to both UVA and UVB rays. Bearded dragons need UVB to synthesize vitamin D3 in their skin, allowing them to use the calcium they get in their diet. Without vitamin D3, they cannot use calcium, and this can be very dangerous for their health.
Bearded dragons are known as mid-day full sun baskers, which means that they need high UVB exposure with a UV index between 2.6 and 3.5. Always be sure follow the directions of the bulb you are purchasing and don’t place the bulb in the center of the enclosure lid; place it towards either end of the enclosure. The bearded dragon should be able to escape the heat or UV exposure if they desire.
Keep your bearded dragon on a regular light cycle, turning on and off the bulbs at the same time each day. Beardies should be exposed to 12-13 hours of daylight. For references on our UVB lighting recommendations refer to our Lighting Guide here.
How Hot Should Your Bearded Dragon Tank Be?
You need to outfit your tank with a thermometer. Ideally, you should have two. Place one thermometer on either side of the tank (cool and hot sides) in order to get a complete picture of the environment in the tank. The thermometers should be placed at the middle of the tank’s height. Note that if the thermometer is placed too close to the heat, it will give an incorrect reading.
The hot spot in the tank should be between 90-100°F for adults. It can be up to 110°F for bearded dragons under 6 months old and up to 105°F for beardies under a year. The cool side of the tank should be between 80-90°F. At night, the tank can cool down between 72-80°F. Ceramic heat emitters can be used at night if the tank falls below the recommended night temperature. Be sure to keep the bulbs off at night, since light can disturb the sleep cycle of a bearded dragon. Change your UVB bulb every 4-6 months, since their efficacy dwindles quickly over time, even if the bulb still produces light.
We do not recommend using under tank heaters for bearded dragons, as they emit heat without light. Beardies utilize the light to determine when they should move away from the heat they feel. Without this stimulus, they often do not move away from the heat that is created by the under the tank heater. This puts your bearded dragon at risk of overheating and burns.
Bearded Dragons and Shedding
Bearded dragons shed their skin as they grow. When they’re young, they may shed once a month or more, but as adults their shedding slows to about once or twice a year. While your beardie is shedding, make sure to keep the humidity in their cage to 50-60%. (We recommend purchasing a hygrometer to measure humidity.)
When a bearded dragon is about to start shedding, you can raise the humidity level to help ease the process since elevated humidity can assist with proper shedding. Unlike snakes, beardies shed in pieces. Sometimes their faces will go into shed, followed by their hind legs. Problem areas can include toes, hind legs, tail and cloaca. During the shedding period, observe your bearded dragon closely to make sure they are getting all of the sheds off.
You can soak your pet in a warm water bath to help them shed properly. Test the water carefully to make sure it’s not too cold or too hot. The recommended temperature is 80-85°F. Soaks can be anywhere from 15-45 minutes depending on if the beardie enjoys the bath and as long as the water temperature and supervision can be maintained. After bathing, let your beardie dry under their heat lamps.
Bearded Dragon Diet and Nutrition
What Do Bearded Dragons Eat and Drink?
Your beardie should have constant access to water. Use a water bowl that’s large enough to allow the bearded dragon to submerge most of their body for soaking and drinking purposes. Many bearded dragons enjoy defecating in their water bowls, so changing the water daily is critical. Clean the bowl daily with soap and water.
Bearded Dragon Food
Bearded dragons are omnivores. Baby beardies eat mostly insects, but should be introduced to greens early on. If they are not introduced to veggies and fruits early, owners will find it hard to transition them to a mainly herbivorous diet later in life. For adult bearded dragons, leafy greens should make up the majority of their diet.
Clean your beardie’s salad bowl daily, with warm water and soap. Be sure to remove any food remainders before they become moldy or dry. Keep fresh food out of the direct light to prevent drying.
Live insects should make up 20-30% of an adult bearded dragon’s diet. Recommended insects include crickets, dubia roaches, mealworms, phoenix worms and hornworms. The insects should be no larger than ½ the width of your beardie’s face. Never feed a bearded dragon too many insects in a single sitting because the exoskeleton of most insects contains chitin, which can be difficult to digest.
An adult bearded dragon should be offered insects about 3-4 times a week, with no more than 4-5 insects offered at a sitting. (Beardies reach full size at around 8-12 months.) Baby and juvenile bearded dragons should receive insects 2-3 times a day, with 2-3 small insects served at each meal.
Feeder insects need two things to be considered proper and healthy.
1. They Need to Be Gut Loaded.
Gut loading means that feeder insect has recently consumed a nutritionally dense meal. Before serving an insect to your pet, feed them a commercial gut loading diet or some of the same vegetables that your bearded dragon eats. If you do not give feeder insects a solid meal 24-48 hours before feeding them to a bearded dragon, the insect will not be nutritionally useful to your bearded dragon.
2. They Need to Be Dusted With a Multivitamin or Calcium.
Dust each insect with a multivitamin or calcium, which you can purchase at most pet stores.
Which Insects Should You Feed Your Bearded Dragon?
Phoenix Worms have a great calcium to phosphorus ratio, which makes them one of the best feeder insects. They can be difficult to acquire, but they last anywhere from 2-4 weeks as long as they are not in a moist area and are fed consistently.
Dubia Roaches are another great option. You can put them in their own tank and they are easy to care for. Plus— they don’t smell!
Crickets can be a good choice for your bearded dragon, but they can be a bit more difficult to keep at home. They give off an odor and make a lot of noise when they’re kept indoors for long periods of time. If you do want to use crickets, we recommend purchasing them close to feeding time and keeping them in a plastic tank (with food!) for 24-48 hours before feeding time.
Crickets and Mealworms are considered inferior due to their high fat content and hard exoskeleton, which can make them very difficult to digest. In moderation, however, they can also make great food for your bearded dragon. Just make sure to gut load and properly dust them.
Vegetables and Fruit
70-80% of your bearded dragon’s diet should be leafy greens, with minimal fruit thrown in as treats. A full grown bearded dragon should be receiving a salad twice a day, made up of dark leafy greens, peppers, carrots, broccoli and other appropriate vegetables. Each meal should include about ¼ cup of salad. You can refer to our healthy shopping guide for your reptile to help you choose vegetables and fruits for your pet bearded dragon.
Feeding Tips For Your Bearded Dragon
When giving your bearded dragon live insects, we recommend feeding them outside of their tank. If you leave a live insect inside of the beardie’s tank, it may begin to bite your pet.
Dried insects or fruits are treats! Do not give them to your bearded dragon on a daily basis.
Juvenile bearded dragons need the most food because they are growing quickly! Feed your bearded teens at least 3 times a day. Each meal should include a large salad and around 3-4 insects.
Bearded Dragon Behavior
Bearded dragons can make amazing pets, but it’s important to learn about and understand their behavior. Beardies are solitary animals and can be territorial, regardless of how much space they are given in captivity. Do not ever keep several beardies together in the same tank. This will prevent fights among males or mating between a male and female.
How Can You Tell When Your Bearded Dragon Is Upset?
When agitated, bearded dragons puff up their spikes and their beard will turn dark grey or black. Males interested in mating will also do similar behaviors. When feeling submissive or threatened, you may see your bearded dragon will wave its hand. While this behavior can look cute, it is actually a sign that the bearded dragon doesn’t feel safe.
When Do Bearded Dragons Change Colors?
Beardies change their color when they are thermoregulating. When cool, they will turn a darker shade in order to absorb as much heat as possible. In turn, they will become lighter when they are warm. A warm bearded dragon will also lift its toes to keep cool when basking. Skin color can also look faded and a shade or two darker when a bearded dragon is going into shed.
Note: When basking, beardies often open their mouths. However, this behavior can be a sign of breathing difficulties if it occurs when your pet is on the cool side of the tank.
What Do Bearded Dragons Like to Play?
Make sure to give your beardie plenty of time outside of his cage each day. Many bearded dragons enjoy sitting on couches and watching TV with their owners, while others love going for walks. Some beardie owners place their pets in a harness and take them for walks. If you want to let your beardie roam free outdoors, be sure to place them on grass that has not been treated with pesticides in an enclosed area.
Some beardies like to be in the water, either relaxing in a bath or running through a trickle of water from a hose or faucet. Warm baths are particularly beneficial for a dragon who is about to shed.
Some bearded dragons enjoy digging as well. You may want to give your beardie a dig box for them to play in. You can use either Eco Earth, Coco Husk, or Repti Bark as a substrate for digging. Do not use any potting soil with fertilizers. Dig boxes should be used under supervision and they should not be left in your beardie’s cage for extended periods of time.
Medical Care for Your Pet Bearded Dragon
When Should You Bring Your Pet Bearded Dragon in for a Checkup?
When you bring home a new bearded dragon, be sure to schedule an appointment with an exotic pet vet. During the initial exam, the veterinarian will check for possible infections or parasites. You should also bring your beardie in for an annual exam, including fecal and blood work. This will help ensure that your pet lives a long and healthy life.
Common Bearded Dragon Health Concerns
Here are some common bearded dragon health concerns. Observe your pet carefully and make sure to bring them to a vet if you notice any unusual behavior or symptoms. This helps prevent illness and increases the chances that your bearded dragon vet can diagnose any problems as early as possible:
Metabolic bone disease or MBD
Sand or dirt impactions
Wasting disease or Atadenovirus
Protozoa or parasites
Egg binding or dystocia
Mouth rot or stomatitis
How to Tell When Your Bearded Dragon Is Sick?
These behaviors or symptoms may indicate that your beardie is sick. If you observe them, schedule an appointment with a bearded dragon vet nearby.
Abnormal skin discoloration
Decreased fecal production
Loose or runny stool
Excessive open mouth breathing
Decreased use of limbs
Open mouth - If your beardie is lethargic and lying with its mouth open while on the cool side of the tank, it could be experiencing breathing trouble.
Bearded Dragon Emergencies:
The following is a list of bearded dragon emergencies or signs that your beardie might need critical care. If you witness any of these, seek medical care right away:
Overheating or burns
Falls from high surfaces
Broken bones (including the tail)
Excessive head bobbing
Seizures or head tilt
Even if you aren’t sure if your bearded dragon needs critical care, your safest bet is to contact your local exotics specialty vet for advice. At Long Island Bird & Exotics, we are on-call 24/hours a day. Contact us about your bearded dragon emergencies if you live in the NY area!
Boarding for Bearded Dragons
At Long Island Birds and Exotic Pets, we offer bearded dragon boarding services. We have proper tanks and the supplies necessary to safely board any bearded dragon. We are happy to offer your beardie whatever he would like to eat. Our meal options include a range of hearty greens and delicious insects.
We promise to provide your pet beardie with lots of TLC, so you can travel stress-free.