Native to Australia, bearded dragons were first introduced to the United States in the mid-1990s, and their popularity as pets has increased dramatically in the past two decades. Largely considered the most docile creatures among the lizard world, beardies (as they’re affectionately known to those who love them) are a lot like dogs, but with scales. As natural desert dwellers, bearded dragons require a specific environment and special care to thrive in other climates. Here’s what you need to know to keep your new beardie happy and healthy.
How to Set Up for Your Bearded Dragon
1. Decide on a habitat. Bearded dragons are commonly kept in glass tanks, while some owners set their pets up in a cage made from melamine, PVC, or ABS plastic. If you’re the DIY type you can make your own habitat, or you might find it simpler to buy a starter kit that comes with other basics. Another option is a vision tank, which is professionally made using a single, molded piece of plastic (although they’re pricey).
2. Choose the right size tank or cage. Baby beardies need a habitat at least 20 gallons in size. As your bearded dragon grows, however, you’ll need to upgrade his space based on his size:
- 10- to 16-inch dragons: 40+ gallons
- 16- to 20-inch dragons: 50-75 gallons
- 20+ inch dragons: 75-120 gallons (larger is better)
Purchasing a habitat big enough to accommodate an adult gives your beardie ample room to grow, plus you won’t need to spend money upgrading your tank later.
2. Equip the habitat with full-spectrum lighting. Beardies are native to the desert regions in Australia, so they require full-spectrum light (not your standard household light bulb) for 12 to 14 hours per day. There are several options, such as this Zoo Med bulb or this bulb from Evergreen Pet Supplies.
3. Get a basking bulb and a perch. Your beardie also needs a basking bulb, as well as a way to get close to the heat emitted from it (they’re usually placed on top of the tank), such as a reptile hammock or a basking ramp.
4. Get the right housing for your lights. Look for the right housing for these bulbs; a terrarium hood sized appropriately for the habitat and the bulb size works well for full-spectrum bulbs, while basking bulbs usually fit dome fixtures.
5. Get a thermometer that measures temperature and humidity. Temperature gauges like this one are designed for reptile tanks. One side of the tank (the basking side) should be warmer (90-93 degrees Fahrenheit for adults) and the other side cooler (80-90 degrees Fahrenheit). Baby beardies and juveniles require slightly different temperatures. At night, turn the lights off and allow the temperature to drop to 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Get two thermometers to monitor temperatures on both sides of the tank.
6. Add substrate. Loose-particle substrate like sand may seem logical, but it’s not a good choice for bearded dragons as it can lead to blockages and other health concerns. You can simply use shredded newspaper as substrate, or get a specially designed reptile carpet.
7. Add some decor. There are a few other accessories that will make your beardie’s habitat feel more like home:
- Tank backgrounds. Desert backgrounds look similar to a beardie’s natural environment.
- Rock dens or “hides.” These enclosures give your beardie some shade when he needs to get out of the direct light and a spot to hide when he needs some alone time. They can also double as a basking perch when strategically placed.
- Shallow food and water bowls. Water bowls that are too deep can increase the humidity level in the habitat, so a shallow bowl like this one is best. The same style dish can be used for food.
How to Feed Your Pet
1. Provide access to water. If you live in a dry climate, you can leave a shallow bowl of fresh, clean water in the tank all the time. If you live in a moist climate, give your beardie access to a water dish for a few hours each day or every other day.
2. Keep a spray bottle on hand. If your beardie doesn’t regularly drink from his water dish, gently mist him with water using a spray bottle. Most beardies will lick drops of water from their nose, just like their wild cousins do in the rain. Continue misting your beardie until he stops drinking.
3. Bearded dragons need a varied diet. They require a mix of insects and worms such as:
- Phoenix worms
- Horn worms
- Super worms
Greens and vegetables are essential, too. Staples include:
- Collard greens
- Turnip greens
- Mustard greens
- Butternut squash
- Yellow squash
- Sweet potato
Other greens and vegetables can be fed occasionally, and other foods should be avoided completely, such as:
- Wild-caught insects
- Citrus fruits
An adult bearded dragon’s diet should consist of about 25 to 30% insects and other prey and 70 to 75% plant matter. Chop all fruits and vegetables finely. Feeder insects should be no larger than the space between your beardie’s eyes; most pet stores offer feeder insects in various sizes.
4. Provide supplements. Multivitamins ensure beardie is getting all the essential nutrients he needs. They need additional Vitamin D3 supplements and calcium, both of which come in a powder supplement.
5. Dust insects and sprinkle salads with calcium powder. Coat insects in calcium powder immediately before each feeding. Simply place some powder in an enclosed container, add crickets, and shake it up. Sprinkle salads with the same powder.
5. Gut-load all insects prior to feeding your beardie. This is easily done by layering some fish food or cricket feed in the bottom of your cricket-keeper. Add some small chunks of raw vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, or orange slices) or use water pillows. Let feeder insects feast for 24-48 hours prior to your beardie’s meal.
6. Use commercial bearded dragon food as a supplement. Commercial bearded dragon food is best used as a treat or supplement rather than a main dietary source. Use it to give a little variety to your beardie’s salad greens.
How to Pick Up Your Bearded Dragon
1. Wash your hands before touching your beardie. Your beardie can pick up germs and illnesses from your hands if they aren’t clean.
2. Approach slowly. No one likes to be ambushed, beardies included. Be calm and confident. Do not interrupt your bearded dragon in the middle of a meal or a nap.
3. Don’t reach from above. And don’t wiggle your finger at him. He’ll probably think it’s a worm, and that ends well for no one. If you back him into a corner, he’ll probably feel threatened, with a similar outcome as the finger-wiggling exercise.
5. Gently pet your beardie. Gently touch him so he gets used to the feeling of your hand.
6. Read your bearded dragon’s cues. If he closes his eyes or blinks, he’s comfortable enough for you to pick him up. A black beard means he’s stressed out or mad – a clear signal that it’s time for you to back down for now.
7. Scoop him up with the palm of your hand. Slide your hand under his belly and gently lift him while supporting his body with your hand. Always support all of his legs. After removing him from his habitat, let him rest on your arm, chest, or leg – wherever you (and your beardie) are most comfortable. Pet him along (not against) the direction of his scales.
8. If your dragon’s belly starts to feel cool, it’s time to return him to his habitat. During the cooler months, you may need to limit your beardie’s adventures to several shorter sessions each day.
9. Have fun with your beardie. Some people get reptile harnesses to take their pets on outdoor adventures when it’s warm enough. Get a reptile carrier for vet trips or car rides. Or, let him go for a swim in a plastic container filled with shallow water (but treat it with water conditioner first).
10. Return him to his habitat. Support his body in the same way you did when picking him up to place him back into his habitat.
11. Wash your hands (again). Wash your hands after handling your beardie with anti-bacterial soap to avoid salmonella and other nasty germs and bacteria.
How to Give Your Bearded Dragon a Bath
1. Choose a container. Use a plastic storage tote like this, a children’s swimming pool or mini-tub, the bathtub, or anything in between. Make sure the sides are high enough that your beardie can’t easily escape.
2. Fill with shallow water. The water should be no higher than the joints where your dragon’s legs meet his body.
3. Make sure the water is the appropriate temperature. The ideal temperature is between 85 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Your beardie can soak for 10 to 30 minutes. If the water gets too cool, add some warm water and remove some cool water, keeping the water at the right level.
4. Condition the water. Water conditioners for reptiles are readily available in pet stores and online. Zoo Med’s Repti Safe is a popular option, and it takes only a few drops of water to make ordinary tap water safe.
5. Don’t use soap. Most bearded dragons will drink water when going for a swim. Plus, cleaning agents can be damaging to their skin.
6. Use a cup to pour water over your beardie’s back. You don’t need to scrub your bearded dragon. Gently pour cups of bath water down his back and tail.
7. Remove old skin. If your beardie has shedding skin, you can help him shed by wiping those areas gently with a washcloth or soft-bristled toothbrush. Don’t do this if your beardie is still actively shedding or if the skin does not come off easily without resistance.
8. Dry him off and warm him up. When bath time is over, place him on a soft towel and gently pat him dry. Put him back in his habitat so he can bask and warm up.
How to Clean Your Bearded Dragon’s Tank
1. Remove any feces or uneaten food daily. You won’t need to perform a full habitat cleaning (described below) every day, but taking care of any feces or uneaten food daily will keep the environment cleaner and your dragon healthier. If you use shredded newspaper or other loose substrate, remove any soiled substrate.
2. Clean hard surfaces weekly. A solution containing one part white vinegar and four parts water works well for cleaning glass surfaces, or you can use a chlorhexidine solution. If any accessories in your beardie’s habitat are soiled, remove them and soak them in a solution of bleach, water, and soap.
3. Do a full-habitat deep cleaning at least once each month. This involves cleaning the entire habitat, all accessories (soiled or not), and replacing the full substrate. If you use reptile carpet, keep a few on hand and alternate them through cleaning cycles.
2. Put your beardie in a temporary enclosure. The same container you use for his baths works well, but don’t put water in it. You can also use a reptile carrier. Locate your dragon away from his habitat while you’re working so he’s not exposed to fumes.
3. Remove all accessories. Soak them in a bleach-water solution for at least 20 minutes. Scrub them thoroughly using a solution such as dish soap and a scrub brush or sponge. Rinse completely until no bleach or soap odor remains, then allow them to dry.
4. Vacuum the enclosure. This removes any remaining substrate particles, uneaten bits of food, and other morsels from the tank.
5. Scrub the entire enclosure. That means the bottom, corners, and sides – inside and out. Use a bleach-water solution that contains at least 5% bleach and some dish soap. Be generous with the solution so that it accumulates in the bottom of the enclosure, and then let the solution sit for at least 20 minutes.
6. Rinse thoroughly. You’ll likely need to rinse the enclosure several times to eliminate all bleach and soap fumes.
7. Clean the sides with a vinegar-water solution. A microfiber cloth works well to leave a streak-free shine on the glass.
8. Replace all accessories. Put clean substrate in the tank. Put all the clean accessories back in the enclosure and add fresh, conditioned water to the water dish. When the habitat and all accessories are completely dry and the tank is warm, move your dragon back into the tank.
How to Tell if Your Bearded Dragon is Happy and Healthy
1. Bearded dragons go through brumation periods. A type of hibernation that often happens in the fall or winter months, it’s not identical in all beardies. It can last for as little as a week or as long as a few months, and your dragon may sleep more often in on/off cycles or not wake up at all throughout the entire cycle. It’s also normal for your beardie to eat less (or not at all) during brumation. Offer food and keep an eye on whether your beardie eats, but don’t purposely wake him for bathing or feeding.
2. Your beardie will shed. Your baby beardie will shed as he grows. Adults shed as well, but not as often. When a bearded dragon is getting ready to shed, his eyes may appear puffy and his skin duller than usual. Warm baths can help with the shedding process.
3. Healthy beardies are alert, active, and free from swelling or puss. Most beardies in good health hold their heads up when awake and are very alert when someone is approaching their habitat. Healthy beardies should not have a swollen mouth or joints, and they don’t have any unusual puss or fluid accumulating around their eyes or mouth.
4. Watch for signs of illness. Some common issues include:
- Impaction. Your beardie should be defacating (pooping) regularly. If he’s eating consistently but hasn’t defacated in several days, give him a warm bath and a gentle tummy massage. If that doesn’t do the trick within 24 hours, it’s time to call the vet.
- Paralysis. Food that is too large can put pressure on your beardie’s spinal cord during digestion, which can lead to permanent paralysis or even death.
- Metabolic bone disease. This is caused by a lack of vitamin D, calcium, or phosphorous, leading to weakened bones. Signs include jerky movements or spasms, a swollen jaw, and bumps that you can feel on the legs, back, or tail.
- Mouth rot. A yellowish or whitish substance appearing around the mouth is a clear sign of mouth rot. Decreased appetite and a swollen mouth may also be indicators. If your beardie lacks an appetite but doesn’t otherwise seem sick, try an appetite stimulant.
- Respiratory infection. A gaping mouth, visible breathing difficulty, and mucus around the nostrils or mouth can indicate a respiratory infection. Your beardie may also puff up his body or “beard” area.
- Diarrhea. Temporary runny poop following a dietary change is normal, but regular or recurring diarrhea can indicate worms or parasites.
- Dehydration. Sunken eyes, perking up significantly after drinking, and wrinkled skin are signs of dehydration, as well as non-brumating beardies that are less active and energetic. Lightly pinch an area of loose skin. If it holds its shape more than a few seconds after you let go, he’s probably dehydrated. Encourage drinking by misting with water or using diluted Pedialyte. Use an eye dropper or liquid syringe if needed.
While there are a few tricks you can try to alleviate some of the symptoms of these health issues, you should always contact your veterinarian if you suspect your beardie is ill.
When cared for properly, your beardie will give you many years of happy companionship. They frequently live from 8 to 12 years, but can reach 14 years or more with the right dedication to proper care.
Featured Image Credit: smilepoker, Shutterstock