Considered one of the best pet lizards, the bearded dragon, or Pogona vitticeps, is known for being handy and tame. The bearded dragon exhibits interesting behaviors, particularly when chasing crickets during feeding or with “arm waving,” where a female – and sometimes males – may lift a front leg in the air and “wave” it as a submissive gesture. The spiny “beard” from which the lizard gets its name may be extended, though it’s uncommon for tame bearded dragons to do so; dragons typically do this when alarmed.
Bearded dragons can be found at stores, reptile expos and breeders’ websites. The captive-bred specimens are highly recommended because they are usually healthier and more acclimated to captivity than wild-caught animals. The average captive lifespan is between six and 10 years, though some reports claim they lived twice that long. Various color morphs are available, though they are more costly than “normal-colored” dragons.
Hatchlings measure about four inches, and large adults can range from 18 inches to two feet in length.
Hatchling bearded dragons can live in a 10 to 20-gallon terrarium for the first six to 12 months before needing a larger enclosure. A 60-gallon or larger terrarium is suitable for one to two adult bearded dragons. Use a screening top for proper ventilation.
During warmer weather, bearded dragons can be kept in outdoor cages, but make sure to provide sunny basking areas and shady retreats, as well as shelter from the rain. Having access to the sun’s UV is beneficial to the dragons. They love to climb, so have branches that are secure enough to hold their weight.
Lighting and Temperature
Bearded dragons enjoy heat. A basking site of about 95 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit is preferred. The basking site can be provided by a spotlight, such as a mercury vapor bulb, or a ceramic heat emitter positioned over a rock or branch at the end of the enclosure, about six to eight inches away from the basking bulb. Keep the heat source to one side of the cage so the dragon can thermoregulate (move between a cooler side of the enclosure and the hotter side to control its body temperature). The cooler side can be in the low 70’s.
Also provide full-spectrum ultraviolet (UVB) lighting over the rest of the enclosure. This UVB lighting is critical for bearded dragons that are kept indoors, as it helps them synthesize vitamin D3, which aids in calcium absorption. Many types of UVB lighting is available; consult with a store employee and read the packaging to find the best one for your setup.
Heat can also be provided using heat pads, heat emitters and other devices. Keep a thermometer in the enclosure to track the cage temperature. At night, it can go down to about 65 to 75 degrees.
Bearded Dragon Substrate
Though sand is most commonly used with bearded dragons, it is not recommended for young dragons or any kind of loose substrate, as there is concern over the dragons eating the sand. If you use sand, playground sand is not acceptable and can cause small cuts in the intestines. Reduce the risk of the bearded dragon eating the sand by offering the food on a shallow dish rather than placing it directly on the sand.
You can purchase digestible “reptile sand,” though opinions on the safety of the material are varied. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions. Sand mixed with clean soil that has not been treated with any fertilizers or pesticides can also be used with adult bearded dragons in egg-laying.
Reptile bark or reptile carpet are better choices, though you should watch for loose threads or areas that can snag the dragon’s toenails.
Bearded Dragon Food
Bearded dragons are omnivores, meaning they eat both animals and plants. They are not usually picky and can eat with gusto. Insects, such as crickets and mealworms, should be dusted with a vitamin or mineral supplement and calcium before being offered to the dragon. Place the insects in a plastic bag with some powder and shake the bag to coat the insects. Bearded dragons will also eat pinky mice.
Finely chopped veggies, such as romaine lettuce, zucchini and carrots, and greens, including collard, mustard and dandelion, are also good choices, as well as small amounts of fruit, such as kiwi, banana and mango. Avoid iceberg lettuce as it is not nutritious. Sprinkle the powder on these foods, too.
A variety of nutritionally balanced manufactured diets are also available.
Water for the Bearded Dragon
Mist the bearded dragon with a water spray bottle. The dragon will lick the water droplets off the cage’s walls and rocks and themselves. Don’t overdo it, as you don’t want the enclosure to get too wet and become humid. Also, offer water in a dish that is large enough for the bearded dragon to soak. Be sure to keep the dish and water clean.
Bearded Dragon Handling and Temperament
Bearded dragons are generally docile and will tolerate handling better than other lizard species. This is especially true of adult bearded dragons that have spent their whole lives in captivity. It is not unusual to visit a reptile expo and see dragons lounging around merchandise or perched on the owner’s shoulder.