Meet the Chinese Water Dragon

Chinese water dragon (Physignathus cocincinus cuvier), close-up
Frans Lemmens/The Image Bank/Getty Images

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. 

Names for Chinese Water Dragons

Names include Physignathus cocincinus, Chinese water dragon, water dragon, green water dragon, Asian water dragon, and Thai water dragon (not to be confused with the Australian water dragon).

Life Span of Chinese Water Dragons

Average lifespan is 10 to 15 years.

Size of Chinese Water Dragons

Males reach an adult length (including the tail) of about three feet, while females are smaller, averaging around two feet long. A large portion of the overall length is made up of the tail.

Appearance of Chinese Water Dragons

Chinese Water Dragons range from a dark to a quite light green. They have vertical, slanted stripes of green or turquoise on their bodies. Their bellies are white or pale yellow, and their throats can be quite colorful, sporting yellow, orange, and peach. The long tail is narrow and banded with green and brown. Watch out because it is also a powerful weapon! Adult males have larger heads than females, and they develop larger crests on the back of the head and neck.

Housing Chinese Water Dragons

Water dragons need large enclosures, a minimum size for an adult dragon is six feet long, two or three feet deep, and five or six 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. A male and female pair will likely get along, 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, and sand, 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.

Water and Humidity for Chinese Water Dragons

Chinese water dragons need a good pool of water. It should be large and deep enough so that a dragon can submerge at least half its height. A kitty litter box works nicely, but if you can, you should have one-half of the enclosure be water and the other half be a beach area (using the aforementioned substrates). 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. Mist the enclosure once or twice daily as needed. Potted live plants can help keep humidity up as well.

Heat and Lighting for Chinese Water Dragons

Daytime temperatures should be in the range of 84 to 88 F (29 to 31 C), with a basking spot of up to 90 F (32 C). At night, the temperature can safely drop to 75 to 80 F (24 to 27 C). There should be a temperature gradient (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. A UVA/UVB light bulb should be used as well (12 hours on, 12 hours off for a day/night cycle).

Feeding Chinese Water Dragons

You can feed crickets, mealworms, waxworms, earthworms, grasshoppers, butter worms, locusts, and possibly small feeder fish. Adults can also be fed pinkie mice on occasion and kingworms. All insect prey should be gut loaded.

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, 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 daily, while, as a general rule, adults can be fed every two or three days. 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.

Don't Forget the Supplements

Use a calcium/vitamin D3 supplement on the food at every other feeding along with a complete vitamin/mineral supplement once a week.