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Bearded Dragons

Bearded dragons are mild tempered, attractive, social lizards that are available in a wide variety of color mutations. These reptiles are native to the hot, arid, rocky, desert like regions and open woodland regions of Australia. For this reason recreating their habitat in captivity takes some work. With the proper set-up these lizards can make a docile and hardy family pet. Weight is quite variable depending on the species and sex of your dragon, but average in the 250-600 grams range as an adult. Typical lifespans fall in the 5-8 year range.

Diet: Bearded dragons are omnivorous reptiles that eat a wide variety of both insects and vegetables. As juveniles half of their diet comes from insects, whereas adults should eat proportionately more plant matter. Bearded dragons should be fed every one to two days.

Vegetables ? finely chopped fresh greens/mixed veggies should compose 65-75% of an adult dragon’s diet. Dark leafy greens including mustard, dandelion and collard greens should make up the majority of the vegetable mix as they are an excellent source of calcium. Peas, green beans, corn, squash, carrots, sweet potato, cucumber, zucchini, green peppers, and parsley can also be added in. Adult dragon should have their salad mix coarsely chopped, while juveniles tend to prefer it finely chopped. Fruit such as cantaloupe, apple, blueberries, peaches, pears, grapes, plums, and raspberries can also be chopped and added to the mix as an occasional treat, and should make up no more than 5-10% of the overall diet. Fresh, high quality fruits and vegetables fit for human consumption should be used.

Invertebrate prey ? dragons will eat a variety of different types of prey items including crickets, mealworms, kingworms, and pinkies. Occasional waxworms are also a favorite but should not be a staple of the diet as they are high in fat and predispose to obesity. Crickets and mealworms are generally not high in nutrients directly from the pet shop and will need to be gutloaded before being fed to your dragon. Fluker’s cricket diet or high-protein baby cereal mixed with reptile vitamins work well. Crickets need to be of a size that your dragon can safely eat, approximately 1/3 the size of your lizard's head. Since smaller crickets are more nutritious than larger crickets (proportionately less exoskeleton) it is better to feed out more of the smaller ones than a few of the big ones (approximately 4-8 medium crickets every other day). Pinky mice should be fed no more than once weekly. Do not feed lightning bugs to your bearded dragon - they are toxic.

Commercial diets for bearded dragons are also available. These tend to come in the form of a pelleted ration and are formulated from both plant and animal proteins. While these can be used as an addition to the diet to they should not replace another portion as they contain minimal water content (averages in the 10-12% range whereas salad mix averages 85-92%, and invertebrate averages 60-70%).

Calcium supplementation - Sprinkle or dust prey with a calcium supplement just before feeding them to your lizard 2-3 times a week. Calcium supplements should have a minimum calcium: phosphorous ratio of 2:1. Try for calcium products using calcium oxalate or calcium succinate, avoid products containing Vitamin D as this can lead to toxicity. A separate vitamin supplement can also be used 1-2 times weekly, avoid using vitamins with calcium as your calcium supplement source ? the calcium is not as bioavailable.

Your dragon needs fresh water provided daily. It should be in a bowl or dish shallow enough for your lizard to see easily into and drink out of. Because dragon have a tendency to climb in and out of their dishes the water needs daily changing.

Handling and Restraint: Bearded dragons are one of the most easily tamed of the reptiles. Unlike most lizards they are not skittish and readily tolerate handling and behave in a most friendly manner if handled lightly. Approach them gently and scoop them up with your hand holding under their belly. Dragons tend to be very trusting and will not necessarily hold on as will other lizards, so always take care to support your dragon. They will be content to sit on a shoulder or lap for hours, but should not be kept out of their cage for long periods of time as they cannot thermoregulate themselves at room temperature.

Housing: In spite of the fact that they are small to moderate sized lizards (most average in length from 18-24 inches), bearded dragons require large enclosures. Minimum size for an adult dragon is a 55 gallon vivarium, though larger is better, especially if kept in pairs. Tanks must be well-ventilated, yet able to retain heat, and provide a top to prevent escape. The tops must be large enough to hold heating and lighting elements, and composed of a screen type mesh to prevent blocking their effectiveness. The large plastic-molded enclosures commonly used for snakes do well for bearded dragons as well. The sliding glass doors allow easy access for cleaning while still maintaining an attractive visual display. Caution must be taken when placing the spotlights and heating elements to avoid melting the plastic. Your dragon also enjoys a shower now and then: a light misting will also help keep the skin hydrated allowing for easier shedding. The tank, however, should never be damp.

Substrate - In their native environment, beardeds live in sandy desert areas. In captivity there is some debate over which substrates are best to use. Preferred substrates include newspaper, butcher block paper, and Astroturf like reptile carpeting. The papers are cheap, readily available, easily changeable substrate sources, while the Astroturf is more attractive. Sand has been shown to cause impaction in some dragons, however, it is still commonly used. Processed non-silica based sands are preferred as they are relatively dust free. If using sand as a substrate it is recommended to feed live prey in a separate habitat or on a platform to decrease chance of ingestion. Avoid any of the gravel containing sands as these also predispose to impaction. Avoid corn cobs, reptile bark, and alfalfa pellets as these are prone to hold moisture and promote bacterial growth and can lead to obstruction if ingested. Wood shavings can predispose to skin and respiratory infections, while cat litter is too dusty, so both of these should also be avoided.

Landscaping - Ideally, the tank should be big enough to have a hiding place at both ends of the temperature gradient, plus a basking area closer to the heat source. Large slabs of rounded cork bark make excellent hiding areas. Bearded dragons are agile climbers so branches and various levels of stacking rocks should also be provided. Large pieces of dried grape wood or fig wood are ideal. Rocks should be large and smooth edged to help keep nails in wear as well as allow for easy cleaning, limestone slabs and river rocks work nicely. If you are going to include plant life as part of your vivarium remember that a much larger enclosure is required. Most dragons will attempt to climb and eat any new plant life introduced so selection is important. Ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata) and snake plants (Sansevieria spp.) tend to do well with larger dragons. Both of these as well as jade plants (Crassula argentea) are suitable for smaller dragons.

Pairs - Bearded dragons are social creatures and can do well together, especially if introduced at a young age. Male/Female or Female/Female pairs are recommended as aggression between males can be problematic.

Cleaning - How regularly you have to clean your dragon’s cage is partially dependent on the way you set it up. Newspaper needs to be changed every couple of days. Sand should be scooped daily using a kitty litter scoop, with complete replacement monthly. Reptile carpeting needs washing every couple of days ? it is helpful to have two pieces to switch between as the carpeting needs to be completely dry before replacing. Water and food bowls need to be cleaned daily with a dilute nolvasan solution. The entire habitat including perches and rocks need to be completely scrubbed down every 2-3 months, and everything needs to be completely dry before replacing the dragon in the habitat. Smaller habitats require more frequent cleanings, as do those with multiple dragons.

Heat: Proper heating is a critical component in the care of your bearded dragon, allowing efficient metabolism, appropriate growth, and proper immune system function. These desert dwelling lizards thermoregulate themselves based on body needs and require a temperature gradient on both a horizontal and vertical plane. Temperatures ranging from 78 F on the cool side to 88 F on the warm side with a basking area in the range of 95-105 F should be provided. Night time temperatures can drop into the mid 70s range. Use a nocturnal reptile bulb or red light if nighttime temperatures drop too low so as not to disturb your dragon’s sleeping patterns. Combining an undertank heating pad (on the warm side) with a spotlight or white incandescent bulb in the basking area works well in achieving the correct temperature gradient. Make sure the fixture for your bulb matches the wattage output to avoid fire hazards. Thermometers should be placed on the cool side, the warm side and the basking area to monitor temperature. Place these in the areas in which your dragon hangs out for accurate results. Avoid using electric reptile “hot rocks” as these can cause serious burns since dragons have a tendency to interpret overall body temperature rather than localized skin temperature.

Lighting: Appropriate lighting is an essential part of the care of bearded dragons. Dragons need a source of UVB light to naturally produce vitamin D3, which aids in the absorption of calcium. Incandescent lights, while suitable for use as heat sources, do not provide the full spectrum required by reptiles, including little to no UVA and no UVB. Many aquarium and plant life type lights are “wide spectrum” lights rather than the full spectrum required by reptiles. Note that the UV waves cannot pass through glass, and 40% of the available waves are lost when the light passes through an aluminum screen; try to have the light shining directly on the animal. UVB light begins dropping off exponentially at about 6-8 months even when the bulb itself still works so regular bulb replacement is necessary. Full spectrum bulbs should be placed within 6-10 inches of the animal’s basking spot as they have a short penetration distance. Be very careful that there is no way for the light to fall into the habitat or for your dragon to come into direct contact with the bulb. In warmer weather your dragon can be taken outside and exposed to natural sunlight. Some companies are now producing bulbs that provide UVB and heat together. These Active UV Heat bulbs are a good way to meet some of your dragon’s needs without the clutter of numerous lights and cords. These bulbs have a much greater penetration distance and need to be set-up in the cage based on manufacturer instructions.