Bearded Dragon Care Guide
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January 1, 2019 at 10:02 am #186
Bearded Dragon Care Guide
On behalf of all the bearded dragons – we wish to thank you for learning proper bearded dragon care and husbandry. Our bearded dragon care guide will cover the following topics:
- Habitat Design and set up
- Feeding Schedule and appropriate feeders
- black soldier fly larvae
- Cleaning Schedule (for both the bearded dragon and habitat)
- spot cleaning
- weekly cleaning
- monthly cleaning
Brief Introduction to the Bearded Dragons
Bearded dragons are native to Australia and the family Pogona is comprised of seven different species. The inland dragon (Pogona vitticeps), is most common in the pet reptile trade. This species thrives in captivity, with over 250,000 animals being produced in captivity per year. They get their name from the ‘gular’ (throat) beard used for both offensive and defensive displays.
In Australia, dragons may be found in both temperate and tropical climates. The humidity in these environments can vary dramatically, and the dragons may be found in very arid to very humid environments. They are extremely adaptable, omnivorous, and may be found in woodland, scrubland, and grasslands.
Bearded dragons are a diurnal, sun-loving species who prefer to bask in the morning and late afternoon hours in temperatures that approach and exceed 100 F. They can grow to a length of 22 inches from snout to tail tip and live up to 14 years, with proper care.
Where should I get a Bearded Dragon From?
Although some keepers have had very good luck with big box pet stores that sell beardies, there are also many horror stories of poor husbandry and neglect. Instead, look for independent bearded dragon breeders who have a track record of excellent breeding discipline. Start by researching breeders who have an online presence. Read all reviews about them first, and then call them and talk with them if you can’t drive to the location. If the breeder is friendly, knowledgeable and fairly easy to get ahold of (and returns email or voice mails promptly) then you are off to a good start. This may be the most important step in the whole procedure and is more likely to increase your odds of getting a fine animal than sticking only with the breeders closest to you. Use your intuition. If something seems off about your interactions, then move on.
Buying Bearded Dragons Online
It may seem uncanny, but many breeders successfully ship bearded dragons across the country. When deciding on a breeder who will ship, be sure to establish a relationship with them well in advance. Breeders of excellent stock will have a passion for what they are doing.
First, look up what people are saying about them. A lot of bad experiences could be avoided with a quick Google search. Almost all breeders have a Facebook page, so checkout the reviews on them. Do they originate from an independent source like Facebook or Google? Or are they just text on the breeder’s website that you can’t verify?
Next, you want to look at the breeder’s animals. Not just the animal you are thinking about buying. Step back and look at all the breeder’s animals. This is particularly useful at reptile expos where there is an entire display in front of you, but you can do this when buying online as well. Do the animals look healthy? Are they skinny or too young to sell? Are they in overcrowded conditions? Are a disturbing number of them labeled “nips” because they lost a toe or the end of their tail to a cage mate? If the animals don’t look well cared for then find a different breeder, even if the animal you want looks healthy. You want your pet to come from a professional who takes care of all his animals.
Finally, spend a few minutes talking to the breeder. If you are buying online then get them on the phone. It only takes a few minutes to make sure that they are knowledgeable and willing to answer your questions. Some breeders are more available than others. Some even have a reputation for rudeness. Buying a new pet should be a joyous experience. If you don’t feel good about a particular breeder, don’t let it ruin your day. Just move on to the breeder that is right for you. At the end of your conversation, you should feel confident that the breeder will be available to help you after you bring your new pet home.”
Building Your Bearded Dragon Habitat
Although young bearded dragons don’t require a huge enclosure, if you want your pet to reach its full length, then begin with nothing smaller than a 55 gallon tank and go to a 75 gallong tank when your pet reaches 18 inches in length. These are primarily terrestrial animals that enjoy climbing a little. But don’t confuse them for arboreal species like crested geckos. Therefore a horizontal tank is highly recommended for their comfort and maximum growth.
Designing an enclosure for your bearded dragon can be challenging and fun. It helps to think like a dragon as you get started. What would be fun to climb on? To bask on? Then proceed to plan the branches, plants, and ledges or hammocks your dragon will enjoy.
Aromatic woods such as pine and cedar should be avoided as they can cause lung and eye irritation. A 1-2 inches covering of bark or pebbles substrate provides a sanitary, attractive, and relatively dry bedding. Keepers living in environments with high ambient humidity such as Florida may not want a fibrous substrate, as it will tend to hold too much moisture and provide a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi. Large gravel (not sand) or reptile carpet is a better choice for naturally humid regions.
Provide your dragon with a basking spot with a temperature of 95 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and an ambient temperature of 78 to 80 degrees. In fact, nowhere in the habitat should the ambient temperature be less than 75 degrees. Keep it warm but not blistering (of course). It is also important to give your dragon a choice, so most keepers provide heat on one side only. A basking lamp must be carefully placed so that it can never exceed 100 degrees F at the closest possible point to the dragon. Many experienced keepers recommend an under-tank heating mat, especially for night time usage, in addition to the basking lamp.
An average humidity of 40% is needed. This is much lower than many reptiles require. The bearded dragon that is most popular in the pet trade is not a tropical species, but more of a desert dweller. Excess humidity on a regular basis can lead to disease. Humidity can be elevated to 55% when the beardie is molting, but should then be lowered again after shedding is complete, including the tail, toes and head. So even though many reptiles require humidifiers, bearded dragons are not one of those species.
The bearded dragon is one of those lizards that needs regular exposure to UVB light. Direct sunlight is actually the best option, but many apartment dwellers cannot provide a separate outdoor sunning cage for their dragon. If your dragon does not have access to bright sunlight, a special light will be required to provide the UVB wavelength. Referred to as ‘black lights’ they are readily available through many pet supply outlets. This is NOT the same kind of black light used for psychedelic experiences (Oh wow man, bummer). It is a source of light in the 290-320 nanometer range. Zoo Med’s reptile lights, and Durotest’s Vita-Lite are two good products. These UVB light sources should be replaced every six months.
Feeding your Bearded Dragon
Not everything considered a super food for people is good for your beardie. While not necessarily poisonous in the strictest sense, they contain very high amounts of oxalic acid, which binds calcium, making it unavailable for metabolic use. For instance, Swiss chard contains 645 mg of oxalates per 100 grams of leaf matter, mustard greens contain 7.7 mg of oxalates per 100 grams of leaf matter. The clear winner here is….mustard greens.
- On the do not feed at all list (in my book) are: Swiss Chard, Spinach, Beet Tops, Parsley, and Collard Greens.
- On the feed occasionally list are: Kale, Mustard Greens, Watercress, Dandelion greens, and Escarole, Cilantro, and Bok Choy.
- On the feed daily list are: endive, radicchio, chicory, turnip greens.
Beardies love blue berries, but only provided those that are fresh and thoroughly washed. Some keepers have had very bad experiences with frozen blueberries that they assumed were well-washed, but in reality were soaking in pesticides (something for the human consumer to be aware of as well). My policy is to only feed fresh berries that I have washed myself and to cut them up into small pieces (even the blueberries get cut in half). Do not feed chilled fruit under any circumstances, room temperature only.
Beardies are usually pretty good eaters and feeding them invertebrates is kind of fun. However, they have an extremely short digestive tract, and for that reason some food items suitable for some reptiles will not work for beardies. Do not feed mealworms, for this very reason. They are not particularly high in protein, are fatty, and are comprised mainly of hard exoskeleton segments callled chitin. These indigestible bits rob your beardie of nutrients and may even lead to impaction of the gut. Black soldier fly larvae are an ideal feeder, as are dubia roaches and the crickets. Feed these items on a rotating basis twice per day for an adult, and 4 times per day for a juvenile.
In my book, nothing beats the convenience of food items from the cucurbit family. Summer squash, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, acorn squash, and cucumbers are just of few of the selections in that family that your pet will love. Add the occasional serving of finely chopped carrots and green bell peppers and your dragon will thrive. These foods can be provided daily and left in the enclosure all day with no problem, although I always remove the uneaten bits the next day for sure.
Supplements and Pelleted Food
There are some dandy pelleted foods for BD consumption, most of which contain 20% protein or higher. They also come with vitamins and minerals built in. For instance, Zoo Med Bearded Dragon Food is reasonably priced, 24% protein, well balanced with calcium and other nutrients, and is generally highly palatable to most beardies. I prefer providing fresh foods on a daily basis when home, but when traveling I will certainly put some of these out so a pet sitter doesn’t have to fool with a complicated feeding regimen. Just be aware that if you do feed these on a regular basis, do not add supplements to your beardie’s other foods. Some additives that are critical for proper nutrition in small amounts can be toxic with overdone. It is wise to get to know which supplements are harmless to overdo, such as Vitamin C, and which, like Vitamin A and D3,can become toxic quite quickly.
Frequent rotation of foods and knowledge of the basics of adequate nutrition and safety considerations are among the top 3 ways for keeping your dragon happy and healthy (along with proper environmental conditions and sanitation).
Your bearded dragon’s diet should be composed of approximately 85% insects, with fruits and vegetables making up the remaining 15%. So each meal should be comprised of about 50% live insects, 20% worms, and no more than 15% vegetable matter.
The size of the live prey you choose will depend on whether or not the dragon can both swallow and digest it. When in doubt, consider the width of the diner. That is, prey should be no wider than the widest part of the lizard’s head.
As with most reptiles that depend upon a diet primarily composed of insects, supplementation will be necessary. Calcium is probably the most important element in order to avoid the occurrence of metabolic bone disease. Calcium supplementation should be added to the food weekly and a multivitamin supplement every 2 weeks, weekly for juveniles. Regular dusting of prey items with a supplement such a ReptiCal is most important for young dragons – older animals that are closer to adult size need supplements less frequently.
In addition to dusting, many keeper also gut load the feed items. “Gut loading” means placing the feeder insects on an enriched diet for at least 24 hours prior to being offered to your dragon. This enhances the nutritional value of the insects substantially. A purchased supplement such as those offered by reptile hobby stores is easily available and affordable. The convenience of a dry gut load diet, purchased from a pet supply house, is undeniable. However, many experienced breeders and keepers have found these products inadequate, so for the really persnickety keeper (and you know you should be) the following formula for gut loading your feeder crickets is suggested.
- 24 pbw whole wheat flour (not self rising)
- 8 pbw calcium carbonate powder with vitamin D3 (unless UVB lighting is provided)
- 4 pbw brewer’s yeast (Not baker’s yeast).
- 3 pbw soy powder
- 1 pbw paprika (this is to provide beta carotene)
The ‘pbw’ stands for parts by weight, whatever that weight may be. Think of this formula as a table of ratios. For instance, if you begin with 24 tablespoons of whole wheat, you would add 8 tablespoons of calcium carbonate and so forth. So for every unit of whole wheat flour, you would add 1/3 as much of the same unit of calcium powder and so forth. Place your feeder insects onto this feed for 24 hours at least and then release the needed amount into your dragon’s habitat. Gut loading is a superior means of assuring your lizards nutrition, but it should not be used instead of a complete supplement, but rather in addition.
Lastly, always make sure your pet’s food source is healthy. Purchasing feeder insects from a reputable pet supply, and not using wild-caught items, is the best way to keep your dragon from contracting internal parasite infections. Also be sure to thoroughly wash all vegetables and fruits before feeding them to your dragon (or buy organic) to avoid the ingestion of pesticides.
Frequent cleaning of the tank is necessary because of the prodigious amount of poo that dragons will put into the Bearded. Spot cleaning of the substrate may be an every other day task. Below is a proposed schedule for dragon maintenance:
- Every other day: Spot remove any feces that you see.
- Weekly: Remove and dispose of the top 1 inch of bedding and replace with fresh. If using reptile carpet, remove and cleanse with soap and hot water weekly.
- Monthly: Remove all furniture, plants, and any gravel bedding or other substrate completely. The entire habitat should be sprayed with 10% bleach and allowed to dry for 2 hours. Do not use scented bleach. Plainly, during this time your dragon needs to be elsewhere.
If the habitat has a glass side (which the front probably does), spray with vinegar after the bleach has been applied and removed. Wipe down again for better visibility. After wiping down, wait another ½ hour, install sanitized gravel and fresh substrate or sterilized carpet and reposition any sanitized furniture and plants. These measures will help to guarantee a pathogen free environment for your pet.
General Husbandry Considerations
MBD – Two factors which predispose beardies to metabolic bone disease are improper calcium to phosphorus ratios in the diet and lack of Vitamin D3 due to inadequate UVB exposure. In the wild these animals would be able to manufacture their own D3 through exposure to full spectrum sunlight, just as humans do. But an animal in an artificial habitat with improper lighting must be supplemented with ingestible Vitamin D3. Sounds easy enough, especially since cheap and palatable powdered supplements are readily available. But wait, there’s a catch to this approach. Before delving into that, let’s look at how MBD manifests.
Symptoms of MBD can be mild and hard to detect at first. They may begin with mild weakness, poor digestion, and slow growth, and graduate to more severe neurological signs such as tetany, tremors, and even convulsions. Vertebrae and long bones may fracture, resulting in full or partial paralysis, and skeletal deformities such as bowed or swollen legs and jaws, are all possible. As this wasn’t enough, the mandible and maxilla will become rubbery and deformed and will bend if gentle pressure is applied from both sides and teeth will be loose. The beardie may not even be able to move or stand due to the inability to support its own body weight. It can be fatal, but it can also be cured, although recovery can take many months. All of these symptoms are a direct result of decalcification of the bones.
It is not enough to merely supply plenty of calcium supplements to the food item and assume that this will do the trick, for without the added component of D3, that animal cannot metabolize the calcium and it passes out of the body, unused. In a similar fashion, foods with too much phosphorus can inhibit proper metabolic absorption of calcium. As if this wasn’t enough to grapple with, D3 in large amounts can be toxic! It’s a complicated system, and one that many new keepers get wrong. Researching this topic thoroughly and relying on the experience and successful formulations of long-time keepers can keep your beardie balanced.
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- Habitat Design and set up
August 9, 2019 at 7:39 pm #1319
I am no expert but i do have a question. A few months back my daughter adopted two bearded dragons from the neighbors. She has fallen in love and she is a great beardy mom. One of the dragons (Iggy) loves oranges so she makes her a special frozen orange juice treat on hot days. So my daughter was wondering if they can have real ice cream, do you know the answer to this question? Thank you
August 10, 2019 at 2:52 pm #1339
Hi, that’s great your daughter adopted those dragons. And we’re glad your researching proper bearded dragon care.
That’s a great question, and hope you haven’t offered any ice cream to them. Reptiles, and even dogs and cats (to a lesser extent) should never be fed ice cream. For reptiles, the answer is never, ever, absolutely never. Bearded dragons did not evolve with access to ice cream (i.e. milk products) in their diet or environment, therefore they lack the ability to digest it. Instead, this sugary substance will stay in their digestive systems, rotting, and forming the perfect medium for all sorts of bad bacteria that will cause the animal to fill with gas and bloat. This serious condition is excruciating for the animal and often lethal. Dogs, cats, and people can do a little better, because we are mammals and milk is part of our nutritive cycle in infancy. So for the sake of those beautiful beardies, please let your daughter know that they should not be fed ice cream, or dairy in general.
August 10, 2019 at 3:47 pm #1341
No i have not let her offer them ice cream. I figured they couldn’t have dairy but i wasn’t sure, thank you very much for answering my questions. My daughter is always looking for new treats to give them. They are spoiled lol but not overfed as well. If you can think of any unique treats that they can have feel free to post it. This is Iggy enjoying her pick of veggies.
April 14, 2020 at 12:59 pm #6541
I have been doing collard greens as recommended for awhile now. He loves them! You are saying those are not a good choice? Thank you!