Bearded Dragons are a lizard that is a great alternative to the traditional cat or dog.  They are terrestrial, semi-arboreal, diurnal reptiles that rely on an external heat source to keep warm, and by following a few simple guidelines for their care, these fascinating lizards will provide you with years of joy.  They will grow to about 55 cm in length and live to about 10 years old.  These lizards can reach near full size in as little as a year.

Licenses

Bearded Dragons are a protected animal.  In order to keep them, you must obtain a reptile recreational wildlife license from Queensland Department of Environmental and Heritage Protection before you purchase your lizard.  A license is needed for as long as you have your lizard.

Handling your Lizard

Generally speaking, bearded dragons are very amenable to handling but handling them too much can stress them. They can also bite if they feel threatened, or think your hand is food.

When handling your lizard ensure that all limbs are supported.  This means using both hands for adults.  Do not grasp the lizard around the midriff, as it will struggle and squirm, scratching you in the process.  Likewise, do not hold an adult only by the front end – always support the back legs.  Most importantly, make sure that you do not let your lizard run away from you (especially if you are outside), so keep a firm but gentle hold.

Equipment needed

Indoor Enclosures

Juvenile Bearded Dragons will need to be housed indoors.   A suitable enclosure to house juveniles would be about 60cm x 30cm x 30cm.  Due to their fast growth rate, you will likely need to upgrade to a larger enclosure within 6-12 months.  To house 1 or 2 adults, a 120cm long enclosure would be ideal.  Remember, it is impossible to provide too large an enclosure, but if you provide one that is too small, you risk stressing your lizard.

It is very important that your enclosure has adequate ventilation and is easily cleanable.

Enclosure Furnishing

Too many furnishings can provide problems with cleaning.  However, remember that Bearded Dragons are semi-arboreal, so providing some climbing branches would be ideal.  Make sure they are securely placed so they do not fall on top of your lizard.

You will also need a hide area.  This can be a purpose bought hiding den, a hollowed log or a PVC pipe.  You may want to also put a flat rock or log in for the lizard under the basking light.

Bearded Dragons will need a water bowl that is not too deep and away from the basking site.  Some Bearded Dragons will bath in the water bowl, so make sure it is big enough for the size of your lizard.  This is especially important when shedding.

Substrate

There are many different materials that can be used for a substrate.  The easiest is butchers paper or newspaper.  This can be easily changed when needed.  If you would like a more aesthetically pleasing substrate you could use aquarium gravel, red sand, lizard litter or bark chips.

Outdoor Enclosure

Once your Bearded Dragon has gone through it’s first winter indoors, you can move it to an outdoor enclosure (this is ideal if you live in an area where Inland Bearded Dragons occur naturally).  Note that Inland Bearded Dragons, unlike Coastal Bearded Dragons, do not like humid conditions, so if you live along the coast, it may be best to house your lizard inside.  Humid conditions can lead to respiratory infections.

One of the big advantages of housing your lizard outdoors is that there is ample UV light from the sun which is beneficial.  With this in mind, placement of an outdoor enclosure should be where full sun is available for most of the day.  Provide shady areas, such as hollow logs, so that your lizard can retreat when it gets too hot.  A water dish large enough to bath in is also needed. Make sure it is not too deep though, as Bearded Dragons can drown if they cannot get out. Placing a stone or stick in the water bowl will assist with this.

The walls of the enclosure should be smooth as Bearded Dragons are excellent climbers. Do not use chicken wire as the lizards may injure themselves by rubbing against it.  Sheets of metal are perfect.  Walls should be sunk into the ground about 20 cm, and extend upwards to a height of at least 60 cm.  If cats, dogs or birds are a problem, you may have to cover the top with wire or netting.

In outdoor enclosures you can provide many different plants to provide a more natural environment for your lizard.  Generally speaking, any of the native plants are suitable for lizards, but if you are unsure as to which plants are safe, a good place to enquire is at your local plant nursery.

Lighting  and Heating

Bearded Dragons need plenty of UV light.  UV rays result in the production of Vitamin D3, which in turn promotes the proper utilization of calcium for your lizard.  A lack of Vitamin D3 will result in Metabolic Bone Disease and other calcium deficient diseases.

In an outdoor enclosure Bearded Dragons are able to bask in the sun and receive high levels of UV light.  However when they are housed inside, you will need to provide that light for them.  A reflector, with a reptile fluorescent tube, will provide enough UV light for your lizards health.  Make sure that the tube you purchase is at least 5% UVB.  Note that UV rays will not pass through glass, so do not use a glass lid directly underneath the reflector.  Ideally have the light on for about 12 hours in summer shortening to 6 hours in winter.

Lizards will also like to bask.  Ideally the temperature under the basking light should be about 35oC.  This should be placed at one end of the enclosure, allowing a temperature gradient to the other end where the lizard can cool off.  There are many different types of basking globes available.

In addition to the basking light, heating of part of the enclosure may be necessary for your lizard.  This can be provided by placing a heat mat, heat rock or heat cord under the part of the enclosure closest to the basking light.  This allows for the lizard to move to a cooler area as needed.  Ideally the daytime temperature should be about 28oC to 30oC. During the night, the heating can be turned off along with the basking light so that your lizard can receive a more natural heating regime.  Ensure that the difference in temperature does not exceed 20oC.  Juvenile lizards should be heated at all times during their first year.

Humidity

Bearded Dragons do not like humid conditions.  It can lead to respiratory infections and other health problems.  If you live near the coast, or in other humid areas, there are steps you can take to ensure that the enclosure doesn’t become too humid.

Do not put any large leafed plants in the enclosure, as the moisture from the plants will increase humidity.  Likewise, only put a dish of water large enough for the lizard to drink from in the enclosure and clean up any damp or soiled substrate.

Feeding Bearded Dragons

Bearded Dragons are omnivorous, meaning that they eat both plant and animal products.  Providing them with a balanced diet is essential for the well being of your lizard.  Bearded Dragons should be fed every day (or even twice a day if they are babies), or every second or third day depending on their activity levels.  Lizards will often let you know when they are ready to be fed as they may become unusually active.

The time of day that you feed your lizard is also very important.  Ensure that you feed late-morning to midday.  This means that all food will pass through the digestive tract before the lizard cools down at night (note that this is more important in areas that experience a larger temperature gradient from day to night than is common on the Sunshine Coast).  If you feed your lizard in the evening, food may putrefy in the gut causing health problems.

If you are keeping more than one lizard in an enclosure, closely monitor feeding.  Bearded Dragons can become aggressive during feed times.

Food

Bearded Dragons eat a variety of plant and animal material.  As babies this ratio is roughly 50/50.  As they get older, they will eat more plant material (about 65%).

Animal material includes live crickets, mini mealworms, woodies, pinkie mice, earthworms, canned dog and cat food (non-fish variety) and raw meat (especially organ mean such as liver and heart).  Do not feed mealworms or insects that are too large to your baby lizard, as this can cause problems.  (The length of the live food should not be longer than the width of the lizards head.)

Plant material that you can provide includes pumpkin, sweet potato, corn, celery leaves, spinach, tomato, zucchini and fruits such as apple, melon and peaches. Frozen mixed vegetables is also good for Bearded Dragons (thaw out before feeding).

Also available is a commercially prepared Bearded Dragon Pellet Food.  This is a complete diet for Dragons, although they will still benefit and prefer supplementing with fresh and live food.

Supplementing the diet with a calcium supplement is essential.  This should be done with each feed for juveniles, and every second feed with adults.  There are various different calcium supplements available.

Brumation

Brumation is similar to mammalian hibernation, and is the time that lizards will enter a period of inactivity during the cooler months.  As the temperature drops to 15oC to 20oC, feeding should be reduced, and cease when the temperature drops below 12oC.  At this time most Bearded Dragons will enter brumation.  During this period, the photoperiod and temperature should also be altered.  Indications of impending brumation include reduced activity, loss of appetite and little or no basking.  Bearded Dragons will hide themselves under logs or leaf litter or in a hiding den during this time.

Although it is important for some reptiles, brumation is not necessary to maintain the health of Bearded Dragons, and should not occur in their first winter.  It is however needed to induce breeding.

Sloughing

Lizards shed their skin – a process known as sloughing.  Young Bearded Dragons will shed up to 10 times in their first year.  In the lead up to shedding, your lizard may refuse to eat, but may drink more water.  The skin may go a dull or slightly milky colour.  Lizards usually do not need help shedding provided that there is a rough surface in the enclosure that they can rub against.  However, closely monitor the shedding process as it is very important to make sure that the old skin peels off properly from around the toes.  If old skin remains, it can constrict the blood flow to the limb resulting in deformities.  If it looks like your lizard is having difficulty in shedding, place it in a shallow container of water to aid in the shedding process.  Bearded Dragons will then usually eat their skin shed, leaving no trace of it for you to see.

Routine Maintenance

Lizards are messy animals.  Cleaning out feces and uneaten food should be a daily process.  Depending on the substrate you are using, you may need to change this daily as well.  The entire enclosure should be cleaned weekly with a reputable reptile cage cleaner.  This will ensure that all harmful bacteria are killed.

Health

Bearded Dragons are remarkably hardy lizards, and provided that you look after them properly, you should not have too many health problems. This includes making sure that they have a well balanced diet, as Metabolic Bone Disease due to lack of calcium is common. Twitching and seizures are another symptom of lack of calcium.

Another common problem is scale rot and blister disease. This usually occurs due to the enclosure being too damp or humid, or too cold. This can also cause respiratory infections.

If you suspect your lizard is ill, strict hygiene should be observed to reduce the spread of infection, and a trip to the vet is often needed to identify the problem.

This information guide provides basic care for Bearded Dragons.  For more information, The Bearded Dragon Manual by Phillippe de Vosjoli is an excellent book on all aspects of keeping Bearded Dragons.  Keeping Bearded Dragons  published by Reptile Keepers is another good book.  If you have any concerns about the health of your lizard, please phone us for a consultation on 5493 2655.