Shawn Finch, DVM and Angela Bucher, LVT
This is the second in my exotic pet care series, after “Taking Care of Your Exotic Pet, For Example, Your Guinea Pig, Which is Not Really All That Exotic.” Angela Bucher read that and said, “You sure do take a long time to get to your point!” As the first improvement, notice how short the title of this one is. More importantly, Angela is a Licenced Veterinary Technician and experienced Bearded Dragon owner. She provided all the information for this article. She is as obsessed with preventative care as I am, and very knowledgeable on reptile (and normal pet) care. So we teamed up to bring you this information on Bearded Dragons.
TRAITS OF AN IDEAL BEARDED DRAGON OWNER
- Someone who is obsessed with learning about Bearded Dragons and their care
- Someone willing to dedicate the next decade or longer to having a Bearded Dragon in their family
- Someone able to protect their people (especially kids and immunocompromised friends and family) from potential salmonella exposure
- Someone who is dedicated to a new pet veterinary visit and regular veterinary visits for the sole purpose of preventative care, though their Bearded Dragon will not have vaccines that force a visit. Even though their Bearded Dragon will never have severe end-stage metabolic bone disease* because of their excellent care at home, they will still visit faithfully for wellness exams
*the reason many lizard owners bring their pet in to the vet for the first visit, but not you!
Still here? Good! You are going to do awesome, future Bearded Dragon owner.
In our opinion, the best cages for reptiles are made by Cages By Design. They come with water bowls, lighting and branches. Make sure that you have a habitat that is at least forty gallons. Your full-grown Bearded Dragon is going to be about two feet long, and will need some leg-stretching room. If you can afford a larger habitat, bigger is generally better.
LIGHT AND HEAT
The best reptile lights, in our opinion, are made by Exo-terra. You will need lights for heat, ultraviolet lights (UVA and UVB) and an infrared light for nighttime. In a forty gallon tank, an ideal temperature gradient will be created with a 150 watt basking light at one end, a 100 watt general heat light at the other, and a 75 watt infrared light for night. In a larger tank (and to assure consistantly proper temperatures in a forty gallon tank), place thermometers at either end of the tank.
Lights need to be changed every three months. They will not have burned out by then, but their ultraviolet capacity wanes after about three months, and will no longer provide the UV rays in high enough amounts to metabolize their Vitamin D and calcium, which is a big deal for reptiles.
Bearded Dragons need a moderately humid habitat for optimum health and shedding. An aquarium with a screened top will hold moisture in well while providing some air circulation. Mist the habitat (and your Bearded Dragon if he or she likes it) every few days.
No heat rocks! But you knew that right? They are so 1980’s. And they cause the worst burns I have ever seen. Lizards are cold-blooded. They are not good judges of when they are getting too hot, and will unwittingly sit on heated rocks until they are very badly burned. I am so glad I became a veterinarian after these evil things were no longer popular. But they are still out there, in older, hand-me-down habitats. So if you see them, throw them out. Yes, even if they are not yours! Your friend will thank you after you explain why you just did what you did.
The ideal bedding substrate is comfortable and easy to keep clean. Calcisand is ideal. If a Bearded Dragon happened to eat it, it could be passed without obstruction. However, excessive ingestion can cause obstruction. Do not use regular sand, even if it is from a pet store. Use a litter scoop to clean the habitat daily and clean it completely once a week.
Infant Bearded Dragons should have a couple of very small crickets (smaller than their head) daily. Bigger juvenilles should also have crickets. Suppliment with calcium powder every other day. A Bearded Dragon’s diet may be supplimented with commercial pellets, but pellets should not be the main diet. At least half of a Bearded Dragon’s diet should be plant-based.
- leafy greens, such as romaine and chard (no spinach)
- bell peppers
- dandilion leaves
- baby food
Bring your Bearded Dragon in for a veterinary visit and examination when you first adopt him or her and then every six months. Do not have your first veterinary visit be when they are sick if you can help it. At every visit, we will do a thorough examination and weigh your pet. We will discuss husbandry, normal baselines, preventing problems and answer all of your questions.
COMMON AILMENTS OF BEARDED DRAGONS
The most common disease by far from which Bearded Dragons suffer is metabolic bone disease. If Bearded Dragons (and other lizards) do not obtain enough calcium from their diets, or cannot process the calcium they do get because of inadequate ultraviolet light, their bodies take the needed calcium from that stored in their bones. This weakens their bones, causing swelling and pathologic fractures. Almost one hundred percent of fractures in Bearded Dragons are due at least in part to metabolic bone disease.
Next most common is gastrointestinal obstruction, often from eating sand or other habitat substrate. Medications to treat obstruction are available, and have been used with moderate success. Because of the small size of Bearded Dragons, surgery for gastrointestinal obstruction is rarely an option, and the condition may be fatal.
Bearded Dragons are vulnerable to injury and many other illnesses. They hide symptoms of illness well, so if you suspect anything is wrong, bring them in for a veterinary examination as soon as possible. Better a false alarm than a serious condition not caught.
Most reptiles and amphibians carry salmonella (a bacteria that can make humans and some animals ill) in their gastrointestinal tract as normal flora and shed it in their feces intermittantly. It is transmitted by a fecal-oral pathway, meaning that one would have to ingest feces to become infected with salmonella. As gross as that is, it is not as difficult to become infected as it may seem. It may take as little as petting your Bearded Dragon then eating a sandwich. Or letting the area around the habitat become messy, having a child crawl through it then putting his hand in his mouth.
If you are going to have a pet reptile or amphibian of any type, including a Bearded Dragon, make sure you take the precautions necessary to keep everyone safe. Keep immunocompromised people away from your pet. This includes anyone on chemotherapy medications, people with HIV/AIDS or other immune-compromising conditions, very young children and elderly people. Everyone, even those with healthy immune systems, should wash their hands after handling the Bearded Dragon or the habitat, and before eating.
BREEDING BEARDED DRAGONS
After you have been a Bearded Dragon owner for several years, and if you would like to learn about breeding them, we will help you learn and find resources to prepare you for success. Most owners are not equipped for all of the work and intense care that goes with breeding Bearded Dragons. It is difficult to meet the nutritional, and especially the calcium needs of a breeding female Bearded Dragon. Dystocia is a significant risk, either mechanical dystocia, if the female’s hips are not properly conformed to lay eggs, or medical dystocia (uterine inertia). Either form can lead to egg binding, which can become a medical emergency.
HOW MANY BEARDED DRAGONS
Bearded Dragons do well as solitary pets. They should not be housed with pets of other species, even other lizards. The sex of a Bearded Dragon can be determined by probing, which should only be done by an experienced veterinarian, and is usually not necessary unless you wish to house two Bearded Dragons together. Two females usually will do well in the same habitat. A male-female pair can do well together if you intend to breed them. Again, make sure you are ready for all that is entailed in breeding, if you choose to house a male and female together. Two males will not usually do well together in the same habitat. A glass partition can be placed between Bearded Dragons if you wish to house two in the same habitat but seperate from each other.
Bearded Dragons are gentle and intelligent. They are excellent pets and companions for adults and children. May you have many wonderful years with your beautiful lizard, and call or e-mail us if you have any questions!
Tell Angela Happy Birthday by donating to the
“Angela Wants A Bull Python” fund,
which doesn’t actually exist. But you could start it!
(Happy Birthday Angela! Thank you for everything!)