Bearded Dragons

Bearded dragon
Bearded dragon on sand with a rock and green background behind. Lianne McLeod

Popular as pets, bearded dragons or "beardies" are moderately sized lizards native to Australia. While they are generally considered good pets, even for beginner reptile owners, they do have fairly complex nutritional and environmental requirements. Therefore, special equipment and a fair amount of time is needed to care for bearded dragons properly. However, they are social, easy to tame and handle, and they show a range of fascinating behaviors that make them interesting to watch.

Names: Bearded dragon, Pogona vitticeps, Central bearded dragon, Inland bearded dragon

Size: 16 to 24 inches long

Lifespan: 6-10 years is common but up to 20 years is documented

About Bearded Dragons

Although several other species are becoming available to the pet trade, the most commonly available variety is the central or inland bearded dragon, Pogona vitticeps. This species is native to arid, rocky areas of Australia, and is typically tan/brown in coloration (but several color morphs are also available). Their bearded name is derived from the spines that line their throats. These spines usually lie flat but if the dragon feels threatened, the throat is expanded causing the spines to stand up and making the dragon look like they have a beard and more intimidating (especially combined with their tendency to flatten their bodies to appear wider). However, bearded dragons are generally docile and their aggressive displays are rarely seen in captivity which makes them very popular pet reptiles.

Virtually all bearded dragons available in America are captive bred, as Australia has strict laws against exportation of it's wildlife. Thankfully, bearded dragons are easily found at pet stores and reptile shows due to how easy they are to breed.

Housing Bearded Dragons

For a single adult bearded dragon, a 55 or 75 gallon tank along with a secure screen top cover is ideal.

Smaller tanks can be used for juveniles but they will quickly outgrow them since the tank size a bearded dragon lives in does not determine how large they will grow (despite popular belief).

Substrate (bedding) is a hotly debated area of bearded dragon care. For juveniles, any loose substrate including sand should be avoided, as there is too great a risk of ingestion (either accidentally while eating or out of curiosity) and subsequent intestinal impaction. Paper towels, papers, or indoor/outdoor carpeting can all be used (make sure there are no loose threads on the carpeting) instead of sand. For adults, washed play sand (available at hardware stores, not fine silica sand) can be used if desired, although paper or indoor/outdoor carpet works fine too for the majority of the enclosure. Do not use wood shavings, corn cob, walnut shell, or other substrates that could cause problems if swallowed. If sand is used, feces can be scooped out with a cat litter scoop and the cage can be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected several times a year. Sand also doubles as an enrichment tool allowing your bearded dragon to dig and burrow, something you should allow your bearded dragon to do, even if it is in a reptile dirt in just part of the enclosure instead of sand.

Bearded dragons are also semi-arboreal and like to perch a little bit off the ground. A selection of sturdy rocks, half logs, and branches can give them something to climb on, especially in the part of the tank used as a basking area. There should also be a hide (or two, one at each end of the temperature gradient) for your bearded dragon to escape into.

Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT

Heat and Lighting for Bearded Dragons

Exposure to UVA and UVB radiation by use of a special light designed for reptiles is extremely important to pet bearded dragons. Special fluorescent bulbs can be found at pet stores that provide these invisible rays. Your bearded dragon should be able to get within 12 inches of these lights to benefit from the UV emitted, depending on the type and brand of bulb (read the manufacturers recommendations).

The amount of UV produced by these bulbs decreases over time so they also need to be replaced as recommended by the manufacturer. Mercury vapor bulbs provide both UVA/UVB and heat and can be used for both UV production and as a basking lamp. It is important that UV producing lights be directed through a screen top rather than glass so that the UV rays can reach the lizards (glass filters out UV rays) but still protect them from getting too close to the bulbs.

Exposure to sunlight (not through a window) can also be beneficial. If time is provided outdoors, shade and shelter must be available so that your bearded dragon can thermoregulate. Never place your pet outside in a glass sided tank as overheating will quickly occur in the sunlight.

Proper temperatures in the tank while indoors are also extremely important. As with other reptiles, a temperature gradient should be provided for your bearded dragon, as well as a basking spot.

The gradient should go from 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit (26-30 degrees Celsius) on the cool side, up to a basking temperature of about 95-105 degrees Fahrenheit (35 -40 degrees Celsius). Night time temperatures can fall to approximately 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit (18-21 degrees Celsius). Bearded dragons like it hot!

Heat can be provided via an incandescent light or ceramic heater (make sure a ceramic socket in the light fixture is used), or a mercury vapor bulb (again, use a ceramic socket) in a dome reflector hood. You may need to experiment with wattage and distance from the cage to provide appropriate temperatures. Use thermometers in the cage to monitor the temperatures at the basking spot, as well as either end of the thermal gradient (never rely on estimates). If necessary, an undertank heater can be used to supplement the heat, especially at night if the room temperature is very low. A consistent light and dark cycle (12 - 14 hours light) must be provided (placing the white lights on a timer is the best way to ensure a consistent cycle).

Water for Bearded Dragons

Water should be provided in a shallow dish to your bearded dragon. You can also mist your bearded dragon but do not do it enough to make the environment wet or humid as bearded dragons are from a more arid environment. If your bearded dragon enjoys soaking in water you can intermittently offer a larger dish for them to climb into. 

Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT

Feeding Bearded Dragons

In the wild, bearded dragons are omnivores, eating a mixture of invertebrate and vertebrate prey (such as insects and smaller animals) as well as plant material. Therefore, in captivity they should be fed a combination of insects (mostly crickets, with a variety of other cultured insect prey) and vegetables.

Bearded dragons are prone to impaction of their digestive system and the chitinous exoskeletons of insect prey can cause some of these problems.

This is especially true with crunchy bugs like mealworms so it is best to feed these in limited quantities, especially to juvenile bearded dragons. Feeding insects right after a molt will help reduce the chance of an impaction as the exoskeletons are not as tough. Crickets that are fed to a bearded dragon should also not be too large, especially for baby bearded dragons (never feed any items bigger than the distance between the bearded dragons' eyes). Once bearded dragons become adults, you can offer a wider range of insects such as waxworms, silkworms, butterworms, red worms, earthworms, newly molted mealworms, and superworms in addition to the vegetables. However, these should be considered "treats" with crickets and veggies still making up the bulk of the diet. Pinkie mice can also be offered to adults occasionally.

Juveniles should be fed insects more often than adults. Feed juveniles at least twice a day, offering as many appropriately-sized insects as they will eat in 10 minutes or so.

Don't feed until the tank is heated up in the morning or just before the tank cools down at night, as the heat is necessary for digestion. Adults can be fed insects once a day (for both juveniles and adults vegetables can be available all the time). Insects should be gut loaded (fed nutritious food that is then passed on to the lizard) prior to feeding, and lightly dusted with a calcium and Vitamin D (no phosphorus) supplement to prevent metabolic bone disease at each feeding.

Dust with a complete multivitamin no more than once a week. It is risky to feed wild caught insects due to the risk of pesticide contamination and you should not feed fireflies (lightning bugs) or boxelder bugs as these are believed to be toxic to bearded dragons, regardless of where you get them from.

In addition to insects, bearded dragons should be fed a mixture of green leafy vegetables (dandelion greens, collard greens, chickory greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, escarole, parsley), other vegetables (e.g. squash, carrots, green beans, peas, bell peppers), and some fruits (e.g. berries, apples, grapes, cantaloupe, papaya, mango, blueberries, bananas). The plant portion of the diet should be about 20-30% of the diet. These items can be chopped up and mixed together to make a salad, which can be fed in a shallow bowl. Leafy greens can also be clipped to the side of the cage where they can be allowed to hang and provide some enrichment for your bearded dragon.

Commercial diets for bearded dragons are becoming more available, but so far the long term success of these diets is not well known. It is always best to feed as varied a diet as possible, so if these prepared diets are used they should be a supplement to the diet, not the sole source of nutrition.

Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT