How To Take Care Of A Bearded Dragon

Bearded dragons are fast becoming one of the most popular pets to have, and it’s easy to see why. With their exotic good looks, docile nature, and interesting antics, this reptile makes for an exciting companion at home.

What’s more, is that bearded dragons make great beginner pets! Whether you want to dip your feet into the world of reptile ownership or want to teach a child how to care for an animal, this friendly lizard is a great option. This hardy creature has been known to live for 10-15 years (or more!) with relatively low maintenance. With proper socialization and handling techniques, bearded dragons become quite comfortable with being petted and snuggled.

Once you’ve set up the right environment and established a regular routine, it’s pretty easy to keep your bearded dragon happy and healthy.

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Environment

Australian Bearded Dragon

Setting up the right environment is absolutely crucial in bearded dragon care. This native of Australia thrives best in a terrarium that mimics its natural habitat. Fair warning: there is a whole lot of information to take in to create the right environment for your beardie, but note that every set-up is different. A good rule of thumb: the closer your set-up is to a desert in Australia, the healthier your beardie will be.

Space

Bearded dragons start out pretty small but can grow up to 2 feet long. It is important to give your beardie sufficient space to get exercise at all life stages.

Young bearded dragons that measure 10 inches or less would do best in a 20-40 gallon enclosure. If you choose the larger option but your beardie is still very small, it may be difficult for her to hunt her moving prey. Watch her closely, and if she has trouble catching it in such a large area, hand-feed her until she gets big enough to be able to do it on her own.

As your beardie grows to 11-20 inches, you will need a 55-75 gallon enclosure to give her the exercise she needs. This is the average size of an adult bearded dragon, but if you have one that grows more than 20 inches, you will need a 120-gallon enclosure to keep her happy.

Temperature And Lighting

Central Bearded Dragon

The world of reptiles revolves around the sun. It’s not just the planet they live on, but their activities and health condition as well. The sun provides three very important things: heat, UVA, and UVB rays. Heat is required for thermoregulation, UVA is needed to signal daily and seasonal activities, and UVB is a key ingredient for reptiles to synthesize Vitamin D3 that helps them absorb calcium.

This tells you a lot about how to set up your bearded dragon’s enclosure at home. During the day (specifically 12-14 hours every day), she should have a place to bask her entire body under a light that provides heat, UVA, and UVB rays. It’s also important to have a corner to chill out in the darkness if she needs to. During the night, the lights should be turned off and the temperature in the cage should be lowered.

It helps to think about the enclosure as divided into three zones: the basking zone (think of a desert rock directly under the sun), the intermediate zone (think under the shade of a tree), and the cool zone (think the nooks and crannies of a tree’s roots).

The Basking Zone

This zone is where the temperature is the highest. The ideal temperature at this site will depend on the age of your bearded dragon. For this area, you will need to provide a heat, UVA and UVB rays. The go-tos for most beardie owners are the lighting options that provide all three. These include specially-designed reptile basking lamps, mercury vapor lamps and metal halide lamps. However, there are many options on the market that you can mix and match to provide all three.

Regardless of what you use, it is necessary to install a high-quality thermometer in this area to make sure the temperature is within the age-appropriate basking range for your beardie. Play around with the distance of your basking lamp to get it just right.

The Cool Zone

bearded dragon on root

This is the end opposite the basking zone. The temperature here should be 80-90 degrees F. Usually, the heat emanating from the basking zone should have faded to the right temperature by the time it reaches this corner, so there is no need to provide additional heating. But to make sure, you will need a second high-quality thermometer to be placed on this side. Add heating if the temperature is still too low. You may provide an LED bulb on this side so your beardie still gets visible light, especially if the room she is in is dark.

The Intermediate Zone

The intermediate zone is the space between the two zones. Your source of UVB light should extend from the basking zone into the intermediate zone. Ideally, the UVB rays should reach 60% of your beardie’s enclosure. There are some basking lamps that emit UVB while providing UVA and heat, but to ensure that UVB rays reach into the other zones, many beardie owners prefer a separate source of this light on a longitudinal bulb. Note that light bulbs emitting UVB rays need to be placed inside the cage as they permeate through most solid objects.

At Night

bearded dragon catching cricket

At night, things become much simpler. You need to turn of all the lights and make sure the temperature on all the thermometers inside the enclosure read 70-75 degrees F. Most beardie owners use a ceramic heat emitter.

As if the length of this part of the article isn’t enough to emphasize the point, we’ll mention it separately: Temperature and lighting are extremely important to your beardie’s health. Making sure your temperature readings are accurate and making sure the light is turned on and off at the right times is crucial. Automating the process using thermostats and timers can help make things easier for you as an owner.

Humidity

Keep your bearded dragon’s home as arid as the Australian deserts by installing a hygometer and keeping it at a humidity level of 35-40%. If it goes a little below that, lightly mist the enclosure to get it back up to the right level.

Substrate

bearded dragon

There are a number of things to consider when thinking of what your dragon will be stepping on in its enclosure. While you would want it to mimic the natural soil of the Australian desert, one also has to consider the ease of maintenance, its impact on your beardie’s health, and the aesthetics of the enclosure.

Each type of substrate has its own pros and cons that are hotly debated among beardie owners. What may work for one person won’t necessarily work for you. There are a lot of options, but we’ve chosen to highlight the top three most used.

  • Sand. Sand makes up 95% of the bearded dragon’s natural substrate from the land down under, so they are built to live on it. Sand allows beardies to engage in their natural habit of burrowing, keeping them happy and stimulated (and stifles that poop smell!). They are built to safely pass out small amounts of ingested sand (Note: If your beardie eats enough sand to cause impaction, she could be suffering from mineral deficiency). Just be sure to choose a product that is most similar to the sand of their natural habitat, as any other type will likely cause problems: Sand that is too fine can cause respiratory problems. Sand that includes calcium or minerals could encourage eating and impaction. Sand that has dye or other chemicals could discolor your reptile and be poisonous if ingested. A note of caution: Some beardie owners are against using sand as a substrate because it’s difficult to clean, harbors hiding places for bacteria, fungi, and parasites, and sticks easily to food particles. If you want to be completely legit, you can purchase actual imported Australian sand in specialty pet stores. More common options are mixes that are specially designed to mimic the beardie’s natural substrate.
  • Slate tiles. This substrate option has been growing in popularity for its super easy maintenance, it’s zero-risk of causing impaction, its ability to retain a safe amount of heat, and its aesthetic appeal. On the downside, you get poor odor control and your beardie gets zero chance of burrowing. When choosing slate tiles, pick those that have a rough surface for better traction, get dark colors to retain more heat, and have it cut to fit the dimensions of your enclosure so there are no nooks and crannies in between tiles.
  • Excavator clay. This is one innovative product that many beardie owners swear by. This loose powder needs to be mixed with water then allowed to dry and harden. What’s great is that you can customize the enclosure’s terrain! It’s easy to mold tunnels, mounds, and shallow holes to make your beardie’s landscape exciting. While it hardens considerably, your beardie can still dig. The texture even acts as a natural nail file for her claws. It’s quite solid, so the risk of ingestion (and consequently, the risk of impaction) is low. It’s also not the best place for bacteria and parasites to hide and grow. However, it offers little odor control for beardie poop and requires quite a bit of work to put in.

Tank Decor

Central Bearded Dragon Pogona vitticeps

Tank decor is an important part of your dragon’s home because it allows for stimulation and activity. Plus, it makes her enclosure beautiful to look at! Give her a place to climb, a place to hide, different textures to feel, and lots of things to interact with.

Just make sure that you properly clean any ornament you choose, whether it’s a rock you found outside or a plastic plant you bought from the store. If you cleaned using chemicals, make sure they’ve completely dried off before placing it inside the tank. Keep your ornaments sturdy enough to hold your dragon’s weight. Stay away from things that lock in moisture and humidity or feel cold to the touch, as that may affect the enclosure’s environment. Sharp edges and objects small enough to ingest are no-nos.

Placing wood, rocks, and beardie-friendly plants are popular choices, but lots of beardie owners go above and beyond with creative set-ups. Let your imagination run free and enjoy making your beardie a safe, fun, and beautiful home.

Food

There are many options for bearded dragon food, from insects to greens to fruits. It’s pretty easy to feed them because most of their food is easy to find.

One thing to remember with beardies is that what they should be eating depends on how old they are. If your dragon is less than 18 months, she will need more protein than plants. That’s understandable because she needs those nutrients to grow. Once she reaches adulthood, her diet should be more green (otherwise you risk obesity). Start off your baby dragon with 80% protein and 20% plant diet and gradually work your way up to 20% protein and 80% plants by the time she hits 18 months.

Protein

Baby Bearded Dragon

You’ll be spoiled for choice with the wide variety of protein sources you can feed your bearded dragon, from the ever-popular crickets, to the protein-packed dubia roaches, to the sinful-but-delicious waxworms. Whichever you pick, here are some important tips to keep in mind about your beardie’s protein requirement.

  • Always buy your insects from a reputable source. Insects out in the wild may be harboring parasites or may have been in contact with pesticides that could wreak havoc on your beardie’s health. Aside from that, they are likely not as nutritious as the insects are grown specifically for reptile consumption. Reputable sources make sure to gut-load their insects with proteins and vitamins, so you get more bang for your buck. When you buy from a reputable source (or grow them yourself), you can be sure that your dragon has clean and nutritious food.
  • Consider your beardie’s size and hunting ability. If your beardie is young, don’t give her more than she can chew (literally and figuratively). To avoid impaction, make sure that the insect you are feeding her is smaller than the space between her eyes. It’s a good way to judge the size of her meal. Another consideration is her hunting ability. Young beardies are just learning how to hunt, so avoid giving her insects that escapes too quickly. As she gets better, you can feed her more challenging prey.
  • Organize a feeding schedule. How much you feed your beardie will depend on what you’re feeding her. Crickets are the most popular food for dragons, so we’ll base our schedule on that (adjust accordingly if you are giving a different source of protein). In general, immature bearded dragons should be given several 5-10 minute eat-all-you-can cricket buffets daily. You might want to start with 5 buffet sessions per day when they’re 0-2 months and gradually work down to 2 per day by the time they reach 9 months. Adults will have a greener diet, so you can get away with giving them 10 crickets a day.

Fruits And Vegetables

German Bearded Dragon about to eat lettuce

Just like human kids, it might be a bit difficult to get your bearded dragon to eats her greens. But regardless of age, she must always have fruits and veggies in her diet. Finely chopping it to bite-sized pieces and mixing in her protein can encourage her to eat. Fresh is also best, but you may want to boil some of the harder fruits and veggies to make it easier to digest. Just make sure it isn’t too hot when you leave it in her enclosure!

There are so many options to combine for your beardie’s salad, but the most popular veggies include collard greens, acorn squash, and parsnips. For their fruit fix, dragons are typically fed papayas, mangos, and cactus leaves called prickly pear.

The absolute no-nos for bearded dragons are rhubarb, citrus fruits, and avocados. Save those for your own pantry!

Vitamins And Minerals

Bearded dragon eating a dandelion flower

Though needed in small amounts, vitamins and minerals are absolutely essential to the health of your bearded dragon. But if you’re imagining a beardie-sized pillbox that you have to fill up with different products, (thankfully) you’d be wrong.

First, reptile supplements usually come in powder form for easy dusting on their food. Second, a number of micronutrients that your beardie needs should already be included in the food she eats. That’s why it’s so important to make sure her insect feeders are gut-loaded and that she always has a fresh supply of fruits and veggies.

The most important vitamin you need to purchase as a separate product is calcium. The amount needed varies with age, but all beardies need this as a dietary supplement because the calcium in food just isn’t enough. Use a reptile-specific calcium powder as others may contain phosphorus that binds to calcium and keeps it from getting absorbed the body.

But even if your beardie has enough calcium, she cannot process it without the help of Vitamin D3. Remember the UVB light discussed earlier? Basking in its rays is how your dragon gets this important micronutrient.

Many beardie owners also buy reptile-specific multivitamins to make absolutely sure their dragon’s nutritional requirements are met. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to know how often and how much to give.

Water

In the wild, bearded dragons are used to water scarcity. They keep hydrated by licking the moisture condensed on the leaves of desert plants or from droplets from the occasional rain. Drinking from a bowl of water just doesn’t come naturally to them.

To get your beardie to learn how to use the water bowl, make sure to keep the water fresh. She may drop food, substrate, or waste in it, so you’ll need to clean it out at least once a day.

You may want to squeeze in a little papaya juice or infuse it with a tiny amount of finely chopped strawberries to entice them to drink. Over time, she will learn to drink from the bowl and may even bathe in it. Keep your bowl shallow and wide to avoid drowning.

Make it a habit to lightly mist the veggies and fruits you leave in as an additional source of water. You may also mist your dragon every so often to mimic the rainfall.

You can use tap water, as long as you treat it with a water conditioner for reptiles. This removes chlorine and other chemicals that your dragon does not need.

Social Interaction

Feeding a bearded dragon with garlic mustard

Beardies make popular pets because they’re pretty friendly and enjoy being handled. But to get to that point, it is important to create a strong bond between you and your dragon. Like any animal, bearded dragons need proper socialization and training to minimize aggressive behavior.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when interacting with your beardie:

  • Start slow. Your bearded dragon needs time to get used to her new surroundings. Attempting to handle her right off the bat will cause further stress. Start by hanging out by her enclosure as you do paperwork, or scroll through your phone. When you give her food, keep your hand movement slow and steady. You’ll know she’s getting used to you when she doesn’t scurry or act threatened as your hands enter the enclosure. From here, you can progress to giving her treats to help her associate you with safety and food rather than danger and harm. She will allow your hand to come closer and closer to the point that you’ll be able to stroke her back. Keep interactions short but do it frequently, and in time, you’ll be able to progress to picking her up and handling her.
  • Make your hand as non-threatening as possible. Washing your hands with scent-free soap before putting your hand in the enclosure is important as strong odors could cause them to panic. Approach them horizontally rather than from above as their natural predators include birds-of-prey that swoop in from the sky. Make sure to have lizard treats like waxworms or butterworms at hand so you can toss her some when she starts to act scared or aggressive. Your beardie may act surprised, but she’ll gladly take the treat and learn that your hand’s not so bad after all.
  • Handle with care. After a couple of weeks of petting inside the enclosure, you can progress to picking up your dragon and handling her. Make sure to support her legs at all times as she may panic when she cannot feel the ground underneath her. If she squirms, pin her down gently but firmly. Only put her down when she is calm so she knows that squirming won’t get her what she wants. Keep it short at first then gradually build up the time you spend holding her. Beardies enjoy being petted on the head and stroked in the back.
  • Expand the repertoire of activities. Once you’ve progressed to a couple of months of handling her, then you may want to introduce new activities. There are a lot of fun things you can do with your beardie to build up your relationship even more.

Conclusion

Bearded Dragon on hand

Bearded dragons require special environmental conditions and patience to train, but once you got those things down pat, you will have a unique and fun pet to keep you company for 10-15 years.

Regina Ranada

Regina graduated with a degree in Psychology and worked in Human Resources for four years before she decided to pursue her dream of becoming a veterinarian. She is interested in companion animals and wildlife medicine. She sidelines as the social media manager of her pitbull, Pablo.

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