Bearded Dragon Care (Pogona vitticeps)
Bearded dragons are considered the all-time best pet lizard. It is known for being very hardy and tame, bearded dragon owners love watching their pets, whether it's during a feeding frenzy while chasing crickets or merely interacting with one another. Bearded dragons also exhibit interesting behaviors, too, such as “arm waving,” in which a female (and occasionally males) may lift a front leg in the air and “wave” it as a submissive gesture. The spiny “beard” from which the lizard gets its common name may also be puffed out to make its self look bigger to predators, though it’s uncommon for tame captives to do so; dragons typically do this when alarmed.
Bearded dragons are commonly available at stores, reptile expos and, breeders’ websites. Captive-bred specimens are recommended because they are usually healthier and more acclimated to captivity than wild-caught animals. Various color morphs are available, too (though they’re more costly than “normal-colored” animals).
Hatchlings measure about 4 inches; large adults can be 18" to 2 feet in length.
Average captive lifespan is between six and ten years, though there are reports of specimens living twice that long.
While a hatchling dragon could live in a 10 to 20-gallon terrarium for a short time, it will quickly need a larger enclosure. A 60 gallon-terrarium or equal-sized enclosure is OK for one or two adult dragons. Screening should be used for proper ventilation, whether as a top on an aquarium enclosure or in the construction of a custom enclosure. During warm weather, bearded dragons can be kept in outdoor cages. Be sure the outdoor enclosure provides both sunny basking areas and shady retreats, as well as shelter from the rain. Having access to the sun outdoors provides strong UV. Bearded dragons like to climb, so some sturdy branches are welcome in their enclosures.
Lighting and Temperature
Bearded dragons like it hot. A basking site of about 100 degrees Fahrenheit works well for them. The basking site can be provided by a spotlight (such as a mercury vapor bulb or spot heat bulb) positioned over a rock, branch, etc. at one end of the enclosure. Keeping the spotlight at one end of the cage will allow your dragon to thermoregulate (move between a cooler end of the enclosure and the hotter end with the basking area). The cooler end of the enclosure can be kept about 80 degrees. Always use ceramic base fixtures that can handle the high heat created by heat bulbs.
In addition to the basking spotlight, provide full-spectrum UVB (ultraviolet) lighting over the rest of the enclosure. This lighting is critically essential for dragons that are kept indoors, as it assists them in synthesizing vitamin D3, which aids in calcium absorption. There are many types of lights available; consult with store employees and read the packaging to determine the best for your setup.
Heat can also be provided using heat pads, ceramic heat emitters and other devices available. Keep a thermometer in the enclosure to track the cage temperature. At night, it can go down to about 65-75 degrees.
Sand is commonly used with bearded dragons, and can easily be cleaned using a proper scoop, though there is the concern, especially when keeping young lizards, that intestinal impaction could result if they accidentally eat some. It is NOT recommended to keep young bearded dragons on sand or loose substrate. Reptile bark or reptile carpet (though watch for loose threads or areas that can snag dragon toenails) would be better choices.
Adult bearded dragons can be kept on these same substrates. If you use sand, playground-sand is NOT acceptable and can cause small cuts in the intestine; You can purchase digestible “reptile sand," though opinions on the safety of these are varied. If you try some, be sure to follow manufacturer directions. Sand mixed with clean soil that has not been treated with any fertilizers, pesticides, etc., can also be used with adult bearded dragons to aid in egg laying.
If you keep your bearded dragons on sand, reduce the risk of impaction by offering food on a shallow dish rather than placing it directly on the substrate.
Bearded dragons are omnivorous, meaning they eat both animal and plant matter. They are not usually picky and eat with gusto. Insects, such as crickets, mealworms, waxworms, phoenix worms, butter worms, hornworms, and dubia roaches are available and should be dusted with a vitamin/mineral supplement and calcium. Dusting can be achieved by placing the insects in a plastic bag with some of the powder and shaking the bag to coat the insects before offering them to your lizards.
Also offer bearded dragons finely chopped veggies (such as romaine lettuce, zucchini, carrots, etc.), greens (collard, mustard, dandelion, etc.) and small amounts of fruit (kiwi, banana, mango, etc.). Use healthy, vitamin-rich items; sprinkle the appropriate amount of powdered supplements on these foods, too. Avoid iceberg lettuce because it is not nutritious.
Bearded dragons will also eat pinky mice, and a wide variety of manufactured diets are available, too. Again, if you keep your dragons on sand, offer food on a shallow dish rather than placing it directly on the substrate.
Mist bearded dragons using a water spray bottle; they’ll lick water droplets off cage walls, rocks, etc., as well as themselves. Don’t overdo it; you don’t want their enclosure to get too wet and become humid. Offer water in a dish that is large enough for them to soak. Be sure to keep this dish and the water in it clean. Baby dragons require misting to prevent dehydration. Use a reptile water conditioner to purify tap water.
Handling and Temperament
Bearded dragons are generally quite docile and will tolerate handling better than other lizard species. This is especially true of adults that have spent their entire lives in captivity (of course, there may be exceptions). It’s not unusual to visit a reptile expo and see fat and happy bearded dragons lounging amid merchandise at vendor tables, or perched on their owners’ shoulders.