Bearded dragons originate from Australia, and the name comes from the pouch under the neck, which inflates if they feel threatened. Adults can reach sizes of up to 45 to 60cm and can live for up to 10 years.
The colours vary from browns and greys to pastel green, gold, orange, and red. They are a rock-dwelling species of lizard and love to climb and bask in the sun.
Bearded dragons are not social animals and adult makes can be territorial, so they are best kept singularly.
Diarrhoea: This can be caused by many problems including incorrect feeding or internal parasites.
Mouth rot: Cheesy deposits appear in the mouth.
Respiratory problems: Signs include fluid or mucus from the nose.
Metabolic bone diseases: Signs include deformed, swollen or paralysed hind limbs. This is due to a lack of calcium, vitamin D3 and/or lack of exposure to UVB/UVA light. It can be reversed if caught in time and properly treated.
Nails: Overgrown nails can often indicate your pet isn’t getting enough exercise or is inactive for another reason. If nails become overgrown they will need to be trimmed with specialist equipment and your vet or pet shop will be able to advise.
If you are at all worried about the health of your bearded dragon you should consult your vet as soon as possible. It is recommended to seek a vet that has experience with reptiles.
Your pet should also be insured against unexpected veterinary costs.
Choosing your bearded dragon
A healthy bearded dragon will be bright, alert, and active with its body and leg muscles appearing well-formed and strong. It should also have no signs of injury to the body. Males will typically grow larger than females and are also more territorial.
A wide, escape-proof vivarium with good ventilation is the most suitable housing for a bearded dragon. The minimum cage size for an adult should be 90x45x45 cm, preferably larger if possible.
All reptiles are cold-blooded and need an external heat source to maintain their body temperature and each species of lizard requires different degrees of heating. One end of the vivarium should be heated to create a thermal gradient, allowing the pet to choose its preferred temperature. The ideal thermal gradient is 26-28°C at the cool end and 35-40°C at the hot end. Night temperature can be dropped to a minimum of 16-18°C, which will benefit your pet as this reflects his natural environment.
Background heat can be provided by using heat mats and more intense heat by spot lights or heat lamps. Your pet shop can advise on heating products that are suitable for your particular set-up.
Digital thermometers should be placed at each end to monitor the temperature range and the maximum temperature of the heat gradient should be controlled by a thermostat. You should fit wire mesh guards over exposed heat sources to prevent thermal burns.
Bearded dragons are diurnal lizards and require high-intensity UVB and UVA lighting to fully absorb and utilise the calcium in their diet. This light should be left on for 12-14 hours in the day. The bulbs will need replacing regularly as their UV output decreases with use.
Bearded dragons, being desert species, require low humidity and good ventilation.
The floor of the cage should be covered with a suitable substrate, which your pet shop can advise on. Sand can be used but it is recommended to feed from a height to prevent the animal ingesting too much sand whilst eating. Bearded dragons will only eat the sand if lacking in calcium so to prevent this ensure correct vivarium temperatures and supply an extra source of calcium.
Provide a combined UVA/UVB spotlight or a UVB heat lamp and UVA strip blub for basking and place climbing rocks or branches approximately 6-12 inches beneath – check the manufacturer’s instructions too. Provide a shelter, with a piece of cork bark for example, and additional bark or branches to create areas for climbing. It is essential to provide your pet with a place to hide and feel secure, and it also highly beneficial during skin-shedding.
Remove droppings and any uneaten fresh food daily. Water bowls should be washed, dried and refilled regularly. Vivariums should be completely cleaned out and disinfected with a pet safe disinfectant on a regular basis. Soiled substrate should be disposed of and replaced daily through a spot-cleaning regime.
Food and water
Bearded dragons are omnivores and become more vegetarian as they get older. They will eat a varied diet of live insects (as large as the width of their heads), fruit and vegetables. Fruit should only be fed in limited quantities due to the high energy content.
Young bearded dragons should be fed insects up to three times a day with a quarter of their diet made up of fruit and vegetables. Adults should be fed four or five times a week with at least half their diet made up of fruit and vegetables. Once their growth slows their appetite diminishes substantially.
Animal protein can be supplied as crickets, locusts and giant mealworms. Waxworms should be fed sparingly as they have a high fat content. When feeding crickets feed a few at a time, if they are eaten readily feed a couple more. Remove any uneaten live food after around 30 minutes as they annoy bearded dragons by nipping at them during the night.
It is important to feed the live food a nutritious diet and water to ensure your pet is also receiving a balanced diet. This is also known as ‘gut loading’ the live food.
Suitable fruit and vegetables to feed your pet include kale, dandelion, watercress, carrots, courgettes, parsley, apples, pears and berries (in limited quantities).
Fruit and vegetables should be washed and dried before feeding and offered in bite size pieces.
It is very important that food should be dusted with a vitamin and calcium supplement on a regular basis; once or twice a week for non-breeding adults and all food for juveniles and egg-laying females. Failure to undertake such dietary supplementation may result in metabolic bone diseases and other such problems.
Bearded dragons may not recognise still water as drinkable. They respond to refraction of light on moving water so shallow food and water bowls should be provided.
Bearded dragons are usually very docile and rarely bite. The spines along their sides are soft unless the body is inflated in defence when frightened. Your movements should be slow and gentle but confident. To pick up your bearded dragon place one hand above the shoulders and support the underside with your other hand. Many bearded dragons enjoy their owner’s company and seem content whilst being handled.
Reptiles can carry a form of Salmonella, which can be transferred to humans. Good hygiene and washing your hands after handling your bearded dragon should be sufficient to prevent any risk of infection.
This information is supported by Reptile & Exotic Pet Trade Association.