Suave. Debonair. Refined. These are not adjectives often tossed about when discussing a reptile, and they probably don’t necessarily apply to the Bearded dragon either; however, compared to other reptiles, the Bearded Dragon is indeed unlike most others in that it has a demonstrable personality.
Most reptiles are kept because of their beauty and unique behavior, certainly not their charm as a pet. They just live in a different world than mammals, and therefore appeal to a type of “alternative” pet owner that doesn’t list cuddling with their animal as a top priority. There won’t be much cuddling to be had with a “Beardie” either, but they are by no means the shy animal hidden under a rock or buried in the sand. They do need a good in-tank hiding place or shelter (who doesn’t like a roof over their head?), but they also seem to pride themselves on keeping tabs on their owners so they won’t remain hidden for long.
The Bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps) comes from Australia. There are three species in the genus Pogona, but only the inland species has been successfully bred in captivity. The pet trade was begun with only a select few animals because Australia is very covetous of its native wildlife. Finding new breeding stock outside the continent is not easy to do. Some criticize Australian wildlife officials for their export policies that often do not even allow captive bred animals out of the country, but their stance is understandable. Any cracks in the policy could contribute to a black market trade that would be nearly impossible to regulate. In the face of accelerating population growth, Australia just wants to protect the country’s natural heritage.
The Bearded dragon begins life in an oviparous egg (hatches outside the female). Birds, most reptiles and fish, and frogs are oviparous. An example of a live bearing reptile is the Garter snake. This method of reproduction is called ovoviviparous. In contrast to oviparous, ovoviviparous means that the egg hatches inside the female, then the young wiggle out liveborn and into the outside world. Many sharks are also ovoviviparous.
In the wild, Beardies lay eggs in a sand and soil mixture of proper moisture content to hatch in 55 to 75 days. When the young hatch they are about 3-1/2” long and born with healthy appetites. They eat a combination of vegetable matter and insects three to five times a day and grow at a rate of 2 to 2-1/2” a month, never decelerating until reaching sexual maturity. Adults reach full size (16” long) in three or four years. They remain fertile for roughly five years. While most Beardies continue their rather laid-back ways some become vigorous and aggressive and may bite the hand that feeds it (which we all know is not wise). These displays are some of the ways in which the dragon communicates, and some Beardies showcase a marked intelligence. As with all animals, no two are behaviorally identical.
THE DRAGON’S LAIR
Keeping a Bearded dragon in captivity is rather easy. They hail from a dry habitat and consequently love to climb on rocks, limbs, and stumps. Too often people buy a young dragon and a small aquarium thinking they have time to buy a bigger enclosure. As you understand, having now read about their rapid growth rate, a small starter aquarium is not a wise financial purchase. Keeping a pair of Beardies in a 4’ to 6’ enclosure is ideal. Pairing these animals generally results in a peaceful coexistence, but be conservative and observant when putting a smaller dragon in with a bigger one because Bearded dragon body parts don’t grow back.
The substrate used in the enclosure is important. Some owners use bare-bottomed plastic tubs for starting off young dragons because keeping track of their stool is a good health indicator. Bearded dragons are very susceptible of coccidia, a protozoan parasite that results in runny stool when infected with substantial numbers of these one celled pests. A severe case of coccidia will kill a reptile, especially when they are young. The use of probiotics may help combat the coccidian. This is still unproven, but it can’t hurt. They can also harbor Pin worms but this is a malady easily cured with Panacur (febendazole).
Other reptile keepers prefer newspaper for tank bottoms because it is inexpensive and easy to clean. The newspaper should be used until the Beardie is about 8” when you can switch to a sand/soil mixture. If the young are living on sand too early, they may eat it and become impacted. The keeper can use a cat-litter sifter to remove stool between changes of substrate.
It is particularly important to keep their enclose-bottom clean. Since they eat a lot of fibrous food, feces accumulates rapidly, and needs to be cleaned regularly to reduce the chance of disease. As a precaution when cleaning any reptile tank, it is beneficial to wipe the enclosure with a non-toxic disinfectant like ZooMed’s Wipe Out 1, a quaternary ammonium salt. The Quats are a group of chemicals that act as a disinfectant and a surfactant and, in tandem with a water rinse, will keep your dragon’s lair clean and disease-free.
Another recent innovation is a product from ZooMed called Excavator. This is a clay that can be wetted and formed by the keeper to create the dragon’s entire habitat. Excavator is also good for other reptiles like Uromastix, Agamas, Swifts, Leopard geckos as well as Tarantulas, and Scorpions.
Since Dragons are desert animals, they require a substantial amount of heat. People often try to use a single heat source, like a heat rock, to provide warmth. This is not heat in the way a reptile needs it. Despite manufacturer indications otherwise, reptiles need heat from above. The Bearded dragon requires a basking area hovering around 95 degrees to digest their fibrous foods before bacteria do it for them. Unfortunately, guttural bacteria do not lend nutrients to a reptile’s diet, often they can kill. At night the temperature should drop to 65 or 70 degrees. These animals are diurnal reptiles (meaning they bask during the day) and need plenty UV light to produce their own Vitamin D. A simple light bulb will not work. There are no hard and fast rules about how much UV is needed for reptiles. Supplements should be used to help combat vitamin deficiency, but UV light is not just for producing Vitamin D3. A lack of quality light also creates stress. Humans suffer the same condition – we call it winter depression. The positive affect of UV on reptiles cannot be overemphasized and there are many ways to provide this essential need. T-Rex offers a screw-in UV incandescent. Power compacts and regular fluorescence are also good UV light sources. ZooMed and CoraLife produce fluorescent lighting for reptile enclosures that emit quality UV A and B spectrums.
On one end of the enclosure, we like to place a rock or driftwood beneath a T-Rex or ZooMed UV incandescent UV bulb hanging over the enclosure with a hood and stand to separate it. Since the lamp emits a steady temperature, the temperature of the enclosure will fluctuate with the ambient temperature of the room. This is not always desirable. We prefer to use a rheostat and a thermostat working together to control the temperature of the heat lamp. The rheostat and thermostat are two pieces of equipment that, in cooperation, offer a good measure of protection against the enclosure becoming too hot or cold. The rheostat allows the keeper to adjust the amount of power going to the bulb so it doesn’t go on and off frequently. Rapid 2- to 3-degree temperature fluctuations decrease the life of the bulb and stress your reptile.
The cost of the UV heat bulb is rather expensive at $70 to $80, but it lasts for many months if not mishandled. By placing the bulb in a hood, the heat is directed downward toward the basking area and not dissipated into the air. The stand that holds the hood and bulbs helps prevent jarring and fracture from unnecessary handling which can break the filaments. Handling may also result in a nasty burn for the keeper. These lights are rated at 160 watts and throw a fair amount of heat. A red or black light can be used at night, if that is a possibility, to prevent the enclosure temperature from dipping too low.
If you don’t use incandescent UV lights, you need to have a heat lamp, preferably a ceramic heat emitter (ZooMed produces a good one). They last for years, and if you put them on a timer, the unit will cool during the night to give your Bearded dragon a more natural circadian heat cycle (predictable daily fluctuation). You will still, however, need to add the florescent UV light source to prevent stress. The UV incandescent heat lamp just makes life simpler and, in the long run, is really no more expensive compared to the cost of the ceramic heat emitter, florescent light fixture, and UV florescent light bulbs. And with any setup, a timer is necessary. See the illustration for a sample setup.
Once the enclosure is properly setup, the dragon keeper won’t need to buy anything except food for years. Focusing on creating a proper enclosure right from the start allows you to enjoy your new hobby without tending to the major problems that often arise from poor equipment.
Variety! Dragons eat a lot of vegetables. When they are small, the veggies should be finely chopped. As they grow, the keeper can use larger pieces. They can be fed dusted insects three or four times per week. Crickets can be fed in a bowl like a ramekin that prevents them from climbing out. This protects small dragons from being bitten by their food. Do the same for mealworms. If the larvae are given time to metamorphose, you might find some beetles in your home. In the bowl, put a 1/2 tsp of a quality powdered calcium/phosphorous mixture. You may also sprinkle this on their daily vegetables. Remove any vegetables not eaten at the end of the day. A mix of high- and low-calcium fruits and vegetables is a beneficial regimen. High calcium plants include dandelions, mustard greens, collards, and romaine. Lower-calcium fruits and vegetables would be apple, mango, papaya, melon, and peas. Do not feed a lot of citrus. Romaine and collards are probably the best overall greens to feed, but it is still important to provide variety. Avoid a lot of spinach because the high oxalic acid content could affect kidney function.
Thus our summary of the Bearded dragon in captivity has come to a conclusion. Now for our requisite statement that this has not been meant as a complete guide for this complex animal. For a more comprehensive guide on the Bearded dragon see Philippe de Vosjoli’s book, The Bearded Dragon Manual by Bowtie Press.