Chinese water dragons look a lot like small iguanas and spend a lot of their time swimming. They are popular pet reptiles due to their smaller size, but their care requirements are more intense than most people anticipate.
What Is a Water Dragon?
A water dragon is a breed of lizard that is native to southern China and Southeast Asia, with some types native to Australia. These lizards can be raised as pets, and Chinese water dragons are known for their typically friendly disposition and habits like standing on their back feet, bobbing their heads, and skilled climbing.
Chinese water dragons range from a dark to light green. They have vertical, slanted stripes of green or turquoise on their bodies. Their bellies are white or pale yellow, and their throats are a blend of yellow, orange, and peach. The long tail is narrow and banded with green and brown. Adult males have larger heads than females, and they develop larger crests on the back of the head and neck.
- COMMON NAMES: Chinese water dragon, water dragon, green water dragon, Asian water dragon, and Thai water dragon (not to be confused with the Australian water dragon)
- SCIENTIFIC NAME: Physignathus cocincinus
- ADULT SIZE: Male adults reach about 3 feet, while females average 2 feet long; a large portion of the overall length is made up of the tail.
- LIFE EXPECTANCY: 14 to 16 years, though some have lived more than 20 years in captivity
- DIFFICULTY OF CARE: Advanced. These lizards have very specific care requirements.
Chinese Water Dragon Behavior and Temperament
These lizards are one of the most friendly types. Typically, they do enjoy being handled. Regular handling is essential to prevent them from becoming too aggressive.
If the Chinese water dragon is scared or feels threatened, it may bite or whip its tail. They are pretty active in their environment and like to climb on rocks, up trees, on branches, or in plants. They are also good swimmers and are happy when there is water in their enclosure as well. Chinese water dragons are social animals. They tend to thrive in captivity when in pairs or groups. This is recommended, especially since owning more than one Chinese water dragon doesn't require much more work (or expense).
Housing the Chinese Water Dragon
Water dragons need large enclosures, and the minimum size for an adult dragon is 5 or 6 feet long, 2 or 3 feet deep, and 5 or 6 feet tall. An enclosure of this size will likely need to be custom made and is going to be costly.
Unless you know your dragons are accurately sexed, you may be better off with just one, although it may be lonely. A male and female pair will likely get along, while two males and even two females may display aggression unless given lots of space in a very large enclosure. Large fish tanks are often used but are not ideal.
For substrate in the tank, choose something that won't cause impactions if ingested. Sterilized potting soil (no vermiculite or chemicals) with a cover of sphagnum moss (good for humidity) as well as a mixture of peat, soil, soil and cypress mulch, indoor/outdoor carpeting, or paper. Plenty of branches should be provided for climbing and basking (place some diagonally and some horizontally for basking). Live plants such as pothos, dracaena, hibiscus, ficus, and staghorn ferns make a good addition.
Within the environment, Chinese water dragons need a good pool of water. It should be large and deep enough that a dragon can submerge at least half its height. A kitty litter box works nicely, but if you can, you should designate half of the enclosure to water and the other half as a beach area (using the substrates to create a shore). You need to be able to remove and clean the water tub daily, especially if your dragon uses it for a toilet. Otherwise, you will need to have a quality water filter. The humidity should be kept at around 80 percent; it's smart to use a digital hydrometer to know the humidity of the enclosure. Mist the enclosure once or twice daily as needed. Potted live plants can help keep humidity up as well.
Heat and Lighting
Daytime temperatures should be in the range of 80 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit (26 to 31 degrees Celsius), with a basking spot of 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). At night, the temperature can safely drop to 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (24 to 27 degrees Celsius). There should be a temperature gradient, and be sure to measure temperatures on both the cool and warm sides.
A combination of a basking light, ceramic heat element, under tank heat pads, and heat tape can be used to achieve this gradient. The summertime light cycle for your water dragon should be 12-13 hours, while, in winter, it should be 11-12 hours a day. For your water dragon's bone health, it's important to maintain daily UBV exposure and make sure there nothing in its environment is blocking the light.
Food and Water
You can feed your Chinese water dragon crickets, mealworms, waxworms, earthworms, grasshoppers, butter worms, locusts, and possibly small feeder fish. Adults can also be fed pinkie mice on occasion, as well as fuzzies. All insect prey should be gut loaded and only fed every two to four weeks and not every day.
Wild-caught insects are best avoided due to the risk of them containing pesticides, and always avoid fireflies as they are potentially toxic.
A small amount (10 to 15 percent of the diet) of finely chopped vegetables and fruit can also be offered. Try collards, dandelion, and mustard greens, as well as sweet potato, parsnips, green beans, carrots, and yellow or orange squash. Fruits should be used in smaller quantities than vegetables; try strawberries, raspberries, mangoes, papaya, figs, and cantaloupe.
Hatchlings and juveniles should be fed every second day, while, as a general rule, adults can be fed two to three times per week. The best way to determine how much to feed is to look at body condition: skinny dragons need more to eat and chubby dragons need to be fed less. Offer a single whole-prey item every two to four weeks.
Use a calcium/vitamin D3 supplement on the food at every other feeding along with a complete vitamin/mineral supplement once a week. Do not give the calcium on the same day do feed the multivitamin.
Common Health Problems
There are a few common health problems seen in Chinese water dragons, including:
- Mouth Rot: This is the most common issue and the result of an improperly treated infection or injury. A water dragon often rubs or bangs its head, nose, or chin onto the enclosure walls. This behavior can rub sores that can lead to full mouth rot. Look for swelling around the mouth or open ulcers at the mouth or nose area. Lack of eating is also a possible sign of mouth rot.
- Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD): This often fatal condition is caused by a lack of calcium in the dragon’s diet or inadequate exposure to UVB light.
- Skin infections and parasites: Skin infections occur on the outside of the body and are usually a result of a dirty, poorly maintained cage. Parasites occur within the body. Both need to be diagnosed by a vet.
- Dystocia (or "egg binding"): Females lay eggs even if they haven't mated with a male. Occasionally the egg can get stuck within the body. Consult a vet immediately if you think your dragon has an egg stuck within her body.
Note that good husbandry—the care and keeping of your Chinese water dragon—is key to keeping it healthy.
Choosing Your Chinese Water Dragon
Buy your pet from a reputable breeder or pet store. Captive-bred Chinese water dragons will adapt better to captivity than wild-caught. Additionally, wild-caught water dragons are usually rife with internal and external parasites.
Different Species of Reptile
If you’re interested in Chinese water dragons, check out:
Otherwise, check out other reptiles and amphibians.
Toxicity of Fireflies to Lizards and Reptiles. Pet Poison Helpline, 24/7 Animal Poison Control Center.
Bacterial Diseases of Reptiles. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Marshall, Kemba. Advances and Updates in Internal Medicine, An Issue of Veterinary Clinics: Exotic Animal Practice. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2010.
Rataj, Aleksandra Vergles et al. Parasites in pet reptile. Acta veterinaria Scandinavica, vol. 53, no. 1, pp. 33, 2011. doi:10.1186/1751-0147-53-33
Graham, Jennifer E., Doss, Grayson A. Exotic Animal Emergency and Critical Care Medicine. John Wiley & Sons, 2021.
Captive Bred vs. Wild Caught. Texas A&M University Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.