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.
Special equipment and a fair amount of time are 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.
Scientific Name: Pogona vitticeps
Common Names: Bearded dragon, Central bearded dragon, Inland bearded dragon
Adult Size: 16 to 24 inches long
Life Expectancy: 6-10 years is common but up to 20 years is documented
Behavior and Temperament of Bearded Dragons
The bearded dragon is native to arid, rocky areas of Australia and is typically tan or brown, but several color morphs are also available. Its name is derived from the spines that line its throat.
These spines usually lie flat but if the dragon feels threatened, its throat expands and the spines stand up, making the dragon look like it has a beard. In captivity, however, bearded dragons are generally docile and their aggressive displays are rarely seen by owners.
Virtually all bearded dragons available in America are captive bred, as Australia has strict laws against the exportation of its wildlife. Bearded dragons are easily found at pet stores and reptile shows partly because they are easy 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).
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. This can lead to intestinal impaction.
Paper towels, papers, or indoor/outdoor carpeting can all be used instead of sand, just make sure there are no loose threads on the carpeting.
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 allows bearded dragons to dig and burrow, which they enjoy.
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.
Heat and Lighting
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 the bulb (read the manufacturer's recommendations).
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 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit on the cool side, up to a basking temperature of about 95 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Night time temperatures can fall to approximately 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Heat can be provided via an incandescent light or ceramic heater or a mercury vapor bulb 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 under tank 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 to 14 hours of light) must be provided. Placing the white lights on a timer is the best way to ensure a consistent cycle.
Food and Water
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. In captivity, they should be fed a combination of insects, mostly crickets, with a variety of other cultured insect prey, and vegetables.
Water should be provided to your bearded dragon in a shallow dish. You can also mist your bearded dragon but do not do it enough to make the environment wet or humid; bearded dragons are from an arid environment. If your bearded dragon enjoys soaking in the water you can offer a larger dish for them to climb into occasionally.
Bearded dragons are prone to impaction of the digestive system and the chitinous exoskeletons of insect prey can cause this problem. 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 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. Pinkie mice can also be offered to adults occasionally.
Insects should be gut loaded 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. Avoid insects caught in the wild, especially fireflies.
In addition to insects, bearded dragons should be fed a mixture of leafy greens, fruits, and vegetables. 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.
Common Health Problems
One of the most serious ailments affecting bearded dragons is metabolic bone disease. This is the result of out-of-balance calcium to phosphorus ratio. It can lead to a softening of the bones, making them more prone to fractures.
Like other reptiles, bearded dragons are susceptible to respiratory infections, which show symptoms such as wheezing or excess mucus around the nostrils and mouth.
Choosing Your Bearded Dragon
As with most exotic pets, it's always a good idea to seek a captive-born animal from a reputable breeder. When lizards are caught in the wild there's no way to know what diseases they may harbor. This won't necessarily mean danger to a human owner, but a sick pet is a costly expense, and it's not humane to bring a sick wild animal into captivity.
Species Similar to the Bearded Dragon
If you're looking for other good reptile pet options for newbies, check out these lizards similar to the bearded dragon: