The Definitive Guide to Bearded Dragon Care
Bearded Dragons make a wonderful first pet lizard. In my opinion, they are one of the most docile reptiles and are extremely personable and quite goofy at times. They’re easily handled and will beg to be taken out of the cage so they make perfect pets for households with children. The bearded dragon is right up there with a leopard gecko when it comes to a popular beginner reptile that you can handle.
Bearded Dragons in the Wild
The bearded dragon is actually the common name for the genus Pogona, which contains eight lizard species. Although some of these species are kept as pets, none are as popular as the central/inland bearded dragon, known as Pogona vitticeps.
These diurnal lizards can be found basking on rocks and branches throughout Australia in a wide range of environments such as arid woodlands, grasslands and deserts. They are also known to burrow to lay eggs, brumate or find that perfect basking area balance. Being an omnivore, bearded dragons eat a mix of fruits, veggies and insects (also smaller lizards).
Bearded dragon adults vary in size and length and can get up to 24in in length from head to tail and up to 20oz in weight.
Known for their beards, the bearded dragon puff their beard out to intimidate potential predators. The puffing up makes them look overall more larger in order to scare the predator away. Most communications between these reptiles are through posturing and body movements like bobbing and arm waiving.
Is a Bearded Dragon Right for You?
These amazing lizards have the ability to live up to 20 years, with most commonly living up to 10-15 years and ranging in size from 12-24 inches (head to tip of tail) as an adult. With that said, that’s a possible 10-15 years of care you will need to provide and bearded dragons require daily care. If you’re willing to put forth the commitment you will be greatly rewarded as beardies are fun pets that provide a ton of enjoyment.
They do require a specific habitat setup with lighting and controlled temps and will need a minimum of a 36x18x18 in. (40g breeder) enclosure as an adult. They will also eat a ton of insects that you will need to keep in your home and handle so you can feed your dragon.
Lastly, the initial cost is something to consider. Tank, lights and dome, decorations, substrate/carpet, vitamins and other supplies (tongs, temp gun, etc) will all need to be accounted for in the budget and can add up. Some items also need to be replaced or replenished periodically like the lights and vitamins. Buying insects will also cost a bit (unless you breed your feeders) especially in the first year where the beardie will have a voracious appetite for crickets, dubias and superworms.
But you don’t have to replace the tank if you started with a large enough one. The vitamins take a LONG time to run out for a single bearded dragon. The bulbs only need to be changed every 6 months. And once they’re an adult, they mainly eat a bevy of veggies. You may even wish to partake in the delicious salads you whip up for them (preferably before the vitamin dusting) 🙂
Not too bad, right?
Choosing Your Bearded Dragon
Picking out your first bearded dragon is an exciting time! Here are a couple of tips when it comes to choosing a bearded dragon:
- Alert and Active – When searching for your beardie, choose one that is alert and active. If you move your finger in front of the tank they should follow with their eyes and head. An alert dragon is a happy dragon.
- Eating and Defecation Habits – Most pet store shops may not know this, but if you’re buying from a breeder they should be able to give you some insight. They should be consistently eating and feces should be firm and not runny (possible indication of parasites). Ask what size insects they are currently feeding on so you know what to start them out with.
- Full Limbage – The dragon should have all their limbs and toes. Tails should be intact with no nips. There should be no body deformities as well. All pieces should be there!
- Age Considerations – You cannot deny, the babies are insanely adorable. If you are planning on getting a hatchling, they should be 6-8 weeks old and about 6 inches long tip to tip. Unfortunately, you can often find them much younger in large chain pet stores which is not an optimal situation for both you and the bearded dragon. You can also consider a juvenile (5-18 months old) or adopting a full grown adult (18+ months old) dragon.
- On Foot or Online – In a perfect world, you can see the bearded dragon in person and interact with it before purchase. If you have a Petco or Petsmart nearby, they will usually carry the standard bearded dragon. If you are into any of the morphs, you will have to look elsewhere. Reptile Expos and online reptile shops are a great place to find a wide variety of bearded dragon morphs (dunners, leatherbacks, hypo, transluscent, etc). Searching for breeders or connecting with reptile clubs in your area is another great way to find the perfect beardie for you.
The Bearded Dragon Diet
The bearded dragon diet is rather simple and is dependent on the age of the lizard. For insects, you want to feed them ones that are no larger than the space between their eyes, especially for babies as they are voracious eaters and can possibly choke. Be sure to offer fresh vegetables from the get go so your dragon can get used to them and not obtain an “insect addiction”.
Baby Bearded Dragon Diet – Babies and young bearded dragons prefer more insects over vegetables. Rule of thumb ratio would be 75/25 ratio of insects to fresh veggies and non citrus fruits (although you should always offer fresh veggies like squash and leafy greens at all times). At this age, they should be offered as many insects as they can eat in a 10-15 minute time period, three times a day. Feed should be dusted with calcium 5 times weekly and a multivitamin provided 2 times weekly.
Juvenile Bearded Dragon Diet – As these lizards get older they will begin shifting to more vegetables and less insects. At this stage (7-18 months old) you can put the ratio at 50/50. They will need a calcium supplement 4-5 times a week and multivitamin provided 1-2 times a week.
Adult Bearded Dragon Diet – At 18+ months old, the majority of the diet will consist of greens and veggies. The ratio will now be 75/25 veggies to insects (and can be even higher on the veggie side depending on the dragon). Calcium dusting can be done 2-3 times per week and multivitamin once a week.
Leafy greens such as mustard, dandelion and collards as well as squash are great staple veggies for a bearded dragon diet. Insects that work well are crickets, dubia roaches and superworms.
Water – Always keep a dish of dechlorinated water full and fresh. Check daily as bearded dragons like to defecate in their water bowls. I know, classy right?
Bearded Dragon Habitats
Setting up a bearded dragon habitat is where you can get creative with the layout. You should try your best to have the cage completely setup before shopping for your bearded dragon. This will allow you to set it up without rushing and get your basking zones, hides, humidity, temperature and other accessories dialed in.
As bearded dragons are largely terrestrial, you want to go with a cage size that has a larger footprint. Opt for more width and depth vs height.
Baby Bearded Dragon Enclosure Size – Baby beardies can live comfortably in a 20 gallon aquarium, either a tall or long.
Adult Bearded Dragon Enclosure Size – A common size for adult beardies is a 40 gallon breeder which has the dimensions of 36x18x17in although a cage size of 4ftx2ftx18in is highly preferred.
Types of Enclosures
Here are a couple of bearded dragon cages that you can setup:
- Glass Aquariums – The most popular type of enclosure for a bearded dragon. They can be found at nearly any pet store and online via used (Craigstlist, FB Markettplace, etc) and new (Amazon, eBay, etc) sites. Keep in mind that glass isn’t the best at holding in heat.
- Acrylic Aquariums – Much lighter than glass aquariums, but can scratch easily.
- Melamine/PVC/Custom Cages – There are many options out on the market that create custom bearded dragon cages to allow your pet to be a display piece.
Bearded dragons require 12-14 hours full spectrum lighting and you can accomplish this with two different types of lights, a fluorescent UVA/UVB tube light and a basking bulb.
We recommend a fluorescent tube as it will have the greatest coverage throughout the tank, while the basking light will be concentrated to one area of the enclosure.
Average lifespan of all of these lights are 6 months.
UVA/UVB Light – Required to keep your dragon healthy and to prevent metabolic bone diseases. The most popular UVA/UVB light among bearded dragon owners is the Reptisun 10.0. You will need a light fixture to be able to use the bulb and it should be mounted inside the tank if there is room (so the UVA/UVB doesn’t get too much filtering from the screen top). They come in T8 and T5 sizes. Try to keep within 6-8″ of the basking spot.
Basking Light – This is the light that will allow your bearded dragon to heat themselves up when needed. NEVER use a heat rock to keep your bearded dragon warm (under tank heaters are fine). You can buy a reptile branded one or use a halogen bulb from any hardware store (you will have to choose the wattage depending on how close the basking area is to the bulb). For the halogen, you want to make sure it’s a bright white light. A 75 watt one is a good one to start out with for a 20 gallon. Go 100+ watt for a 40 gallon or above. Reptile branded ones will have instructions for distance. For hardware store halogens, use a temperature gun on the basking spot to figure out which heights provides the correct temperature.
Mercury Vapor Bulb – You can also use a mercury vapor bulb that will provide you with heat and UVA/UVB. Using this type of bulb makes it a one bulb setup, but they do cost a bit more and they get HOT! These must be kept at least 12″ away from the basking spot.
Humidity and Temperature
Bearded dragons prefer a relative humidity of 30-40% although they can live in higher humidity (a ton are bred out in Florida). Humidity can be measured with a hygrometer.
For temperatures, you need to create a temperature gradient from hot to cool to allow the dragon to thermoregulate. You can measure the ambient temperatures with digital thermometers (some come in a combo of thermometer/hydrometer), but you should always measure the basking platform with a temperature gun for accuracy. As bearded dragons do not possess sweat glands, they will hold their mouth open to cool down. Witnessing this occasionally is fine, but if your beardie is doing this often it may be a sign that the enclosure is too warm.
Please, stay vigilant with your temperatures!
Cool Side – Ambient temperature of 80-85 degrees F.
Hot Side – Ambient temperature of 90-100 degrees F
Basking platform (where the dragon lays their belly) – Babies should be around 110 degree F and adults can have it a bit cooler at 95 degree F
It is highly recommended that you avoid sand and loose substrate to avoid the chance of impaction. The best alternative (for both safety and looks) is reptile carpet. Very cheap and you clean and reuse. You can also use paper towels or newspaper although that will require replacing quite often.
- Backgrounds – There are tons of fun backgrounds you can tape onto the back of your enclosure or you can use cork bark flats within the enclosure.
- Hides – Bearded dragons need a place to hide from everything (the light and the humans). They are also needed for a bearded dragon to comfortably brumate. A good idea is to have a hide on both the hot and cold side.
- Platforms – You will need a type of platform to allow as a basking spot. This can be the top of a hide, some manzanita branches, manzanita branches or a commercial basking platform. I also like to use brick or tile slabs as a basking area. They work well and are very inexpensive at a local hardware store.
- Hammocks – Would you believe!? Bearded dragons love hammocks. It’s funny, but if you set one up most likely you will find your beardie sprawled out on it within the day. On a taller tank, I like to setup hammock levels so they can climb from one to another.
Bearded Dragon Healthcare
A healthy bearded dragon will look healthy and also be active and alert with some energy (I say some because I’m not gonna lie, I’ve met some healthy ones that are downright lazy). Bearded dragons with health issues will exhibit abnormal behavior issues. If you notice any of these below, you should double check your husbandry and consult your vet:
- Lack of energy
- Change in modd
- Twitchy or jerky
- Not eating
- Not defecating or consistently having diarrhea
- Sunken eyes/wrinkled skin (could be a symptom of dehydration)
One of the most common diseases that owners unfortunately run into is MBD – Metabolic Bone Disease. MBD is the when the bones develop into a weakened state due to an imbalance in required vitamins – Calcium, Phosphorus and D3. The main treatment option that has worked time and time again is to provide proper bearded dragon care. So, correct temperatures, healthy diet with supplements and the proper lighting at all times. If you suspect your dragon has MBD you should take it to a vet, but you should first check the habitat. Bearded dragons are hardy and if provided the proper habitat they can bounce right back.
Handling a Bearded Dragon
Bearded dragons are a joy to handle and will get used to you very quickly. I’ve found the young ones to be a bit skittish at first, but once you pick them up they are sweethearts. When handling, make your presence be known and lift from the side rather than from above (where their prey would attack from). Fully support the dragon as you lift them out of their enclosure and you can either hold them in your palm or put them somewhere on your body (they will hang on).
In the beginning, they may just stand their frozen, but they will eventually perk up and start running all over the place. The younger ones are very quick and for some reason like to jump from daring heights so always keep an eye on them. Also, they can and will poop on you so keep that in mind. Otherwise, they are very easy to handle due to their docile temperament.
Bearded Dragon Care Items
Shedding – Bearded dragons shed much more when younger than they do as adults (as the growth rate slows down). Your beardie will have a duller appearance when they’re getting ready to shed. Do not attempt to pick at the skin to pull it off. It should just fall off (or the beardie will rub against something to knock it off). During a shed, give your bearded dragon a bath and mist them to allow the shed to come off easier. The bearded dragon shedding process, on average, completes in 3-5 days.
Brumation – This is a hibernation cycle that a bearded dragon may go through. It’s best to let it naturally happen and not force your bearded dragon to not go into brumation. During this time they will not be as active and won’t eat much so just make sure to watch their weight because they shouldn’t be losing any. Brumation can last from a couple of week to months.
Misting – Some bearded dragons rarely drink from their bowls (a lot just defecate in them), so giving them an occasional mist is beneficial to their well-being. I like to give mine a little mist here and there to make sure they are hydrated.
Bathing – Bathing is good for sheds, constipation and staying clean. The bath should be around 92-95 degree F and should be no deeper than half of the bearded dragon’s height (the beardie should not be forced to swim). Some beardies will sit still, poop and sit still some more while others will become water monkeys and jump around in it. A 5-15 minute bath is optimal. If your dragon is nervous when going in the bath for the first time, start at 1 minute and work your way up from there.