Bearded dragons, modestly sized lizards first found in Australia, are becoming increasingly popular as pets. One reason is they are modestly sized, especially compared to the green iguana. Another reason is that not only do they have a unique look, but they tend to be pretty laid back & inquisitive creatures requiring minimal “training” to be very handleable. But like any animal, just because it looks cool doesn’t mean it’s the best pet for you. So read on to learn about the requirements of the bearded dragon.
Beardeds come from dry, typically sandy & rocky climates. They do tend to be climbers though they often burrow underground during the hottest parts of the day to stay cool. Otherwise, they can be found basking on rocks or branches. They’re omnivores meaning they eat both plant & animal matter (especially insects & small mammals, leaves, fruits & flowers). Determining the gender of young beardeds is difficult but in adults, males have pre-anal & femoral pores. In addition, the beards of adult males turn black during mating season.
Just like other reptiles, housing (especially the heat & lighting components) for the bearded dragon is critical to maintaining a healthy pet. In most instances, a good sized aquarium will do as the basic house so long as the top (and there needs to be a top as beardeds do climb) is covered with a screen. Ideally, the top will be partly solid & partly screened in order to provide ventilation while at the same time retaining heat. You need to provide a warmer area for basking (90-100 F) and a cooler area in the rest of the cage (76-86 F) during the day. In the evening, temperatures can drop into the low to mid 70s. To ensure you’re meeting the heating requirements, multiple thermometers are needed in the tank - one in the cool end, one in the warmer end, and one in the basking area. In order to properly metabolize calcium, the bearded needs UVB light daily which can be provided by direct sunlight, or a fluorescent tube that specifically says it produces UVB rays. Please note that “full spectrum” doesn’t necessarily mean UVB! So long as there’s at least one light source for UVB rays, other lights can be used to provide heat. Do not leave a white light on in the evening as this will stress your pet. Ensuring consistency through the use of timers is highly encouraged! Besides a hiding area (typically in the cooler end of the tank), you will also want a branch or rock in the tank for basking. The natural substrate is sand & so some will use play sand in the tank, though some have experienced impactions & elect something else like artificial carpet which is what we recommend, or even paper towels. Do not use kitty litter, cedar shavings, or corn/walnut cob. Because dragons have a high metabolic rate, they tend to produce lots of fecal material requiring their cage to be cleaned regularly - spot cleaning daily & more thorough cleaning including disinfecting the tank & replacing the substrate every few weeks.
As mentioned above, bearded dragons are omnivores, requiring both animal & plant based food. Typically, plants comprise about 20% of the diet. Acceptable plants include: collard greens, kale, parsley, mustard greens, green beans, carrots, squash, cantaloupe and raspberries. Acceptable animal based foods include: crickets, mealworms, wax worms, and pinkies. Prior to feeding your dragon the insects, it’s important to feed the insects - a procedure known as “gut loading”. In addition to gut loading, it’s important to dust the insects immediately before being offered to your dragon with both a calcium supplement & multivitamin a few times a week (also, using smaller insects is best as the exoskeleton tends to be proportionately smaller & softer to lessen the likelihood of impaction). Variety is key. Try to alternate what you feed your dragon to ensure it’s getting proper nutrition.
In the wild, beardeds will flatten themselves out, extend their throat & open their mouths when threatened. In captivity, they rarely display these signs. Be sure to pick up the dragon in the palm of your hand while loosely covering it with your other hand. This will offer support on its underside while protecting it from getting away & not constricting it. Because they’re inquisitive, they will want to explore their surroundings but before allowing them to do so be sure to pick up objects they might ingest & cover any escape routes.
In summary, bearded dragons do make good pets for those looking to own an exotic species. Please be sure though that you’re up to the task of providing the proper environment which will allow it to thrive.