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The Bearded Dragon Files II: Care & Husbandry

Published on June 27, 2016

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Care and Husbandry are the Keys to a Healthy Bearded Dragon 

Bearded Dragons are seen more and more frequently as pets through the United States. Like every reptile species, they require very specific housing conditions in order to survive in captivity. Let’s discuss the specific care requirements these little guys need to thrive in your home.

Housing

Bearded Dragons should be housed in enclosures that are at least twice as long, one time as wide, and one time as tall as the length of your dragon. For adult bearded dragons, an appropriate enclosure should measure 4-6 ft. long, 2 ft. wide and 2 ft. high. Most dragons are comfortable in glass tanks with a screen top, although glass is a poor insulator and may lead to dramatic temperature fluctuations. Ventilation may also be compromised in a glass tank due to a lack of air circulation along the sides and back wall. Other enclosure options include wood, plastic or fiberglass. Custom enclosures are popular because they are more versatile, permitting the addition of extra ventilation panels, front access doors and greater security for the inhabitants.  An enclosure should be large enough to provide a wide temperature gradient both horizontally and vertically.

The best bedding, also known as substrate, for your Bearded Dragon is under great debate. Decomposed granite or large grained sand is often used, but here at Pender we advise not to use sand substrate due to reports of intestinal blockage occurring with these materials. Appropriate substrates include newspaper, paper towels, recycled paper animal bedding and reptile carpet. For a naturalistic option, one can use orchid bark from fir, but the bark can irritate your Beardie’s feet if too large or cause intestinal impaction if too small. Gravel and pebbles are not recommended as they are difficult to clean and are often ingested. Do not use corn or walnut cob, alfalfa pellets, kitty litter, or wood shavings. Bearded Dragons have a very active metabolic rate when at the appropriate temperatures, so plan on frequent cleaning.

Bearded Dragons need both basking and hiding areas. Ideally, the tank should be big enough to have a hiding place at both ends of the temperature gradient, plus a basking area closer to the heat source. A shallow water dish should be present in the enclosure at all times. In general, bearded dragons are reluctant to drink from bowls. Spraying rocks in their enclosure is also a good idea as it allows them to lap up water beads from the surface.

Temperature

Bearded Dragons are ectothermic or “cold blooded”, thus requiring supplemental heat in captivity. There should be both a warmer and cooler side to their enclosure. The warm side of the cage should be 85-95°F. The cool side of the cage should be no colder that 70°F. Your beardie will need a basking site of 95-105°F. We strongly advise against using hot rocks. Hot rocks require direct contact to provide heat and frequently cause dehydration and thermal burns in reptile species. Heating pads under the tank are a much safer option to provide supplemental heat to your beardie. Improper temperature control is the leading cause of illness in captive reptiles. When kept at too cool temperatures, your beardie’s metabolism, digestion, kidneys, and immune system all function at a reduced capacity.

Lighting

Bearded dragons need 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness during the winter months, and 14 hours of daylight, and 10 hours of darkness during the summer. Full spectrum lighting containing ultraviolet A (UVA; 320-400nm) and ultraviolet B (UVB; 290–320nm) radiation is essential. UVA produces beneficial behavioral and psychologic effects while UVB light allows for the production of vitamin D3, which plays an essential role in calcium metabolism. The only lights that can safely provide these critical wavelengths to your reptiles are the UVB/A producing fluorescents made for the reptile pet trade. “Full spectrum” lights which look like incandescent light bulbs are incandescent light bulbs and are only made for producing heat. They do not produce any UVB. The use of the term “full spectrum” can be grossly misleading, so be sure to check which type of light you are choosing. The UV output of fluorescent lights decreases over time, so be sure to change the bulb every six months or use a UV meter to ensure the UV output is not diminished.

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By plugging the light fixture into an appliance timer, such as those made for table lamps, you can set the light to go on and off automatically. When you use a timer, your lizard won’t be left in the dark all day or in the light all night if you work late or have to go out of town for a day.

By far the best source of quality full-spectrum lighting is unfiltered sunlight. When outside temperatures allow, take your bearded dragon outside for some good old fashioned sunlight.

Humidity

Humidity is often an overlooked aspect of the captive environment with even the most enthusiastic pet reptile keeper. Bearded dragons require 20-30% humidity inside of their enclosure. One way to increase humidity inside of the enclosure is to place the water dish under the heat lamp. One can also spray the side of the tank with tap water every 24-48 hours. To keep your pet in the best health, provide a humidity hide to allow your dragon to regulate their personal hydration within the cage. If you are having difficulty providing adequate humidity, you can always give your beardie a 20 minute soak in warm tap water. This may also stimulate defecation.

High humidity and temperature can lead to rapid growth of bacteria and mold in the cage, but this can be prevented with adequate ventilation. Too high humidity can also lead to respiratory infections in your beardie. Finding the right balance and regular cleaning of the enclosure is key.

Veterinary Care

With the correct housing, nutritional diet, and veterinary care your bearded dragon can live a long, prosperous life. Many beardies live into their early teens with the right care. At Pender we recommend annual exams with a fecal parasite check for our bearded dragons. Additionally, we require a one-time Adenovirus PCR swab before boarding with us. Our veterinary staff can help you with any issues that may arise and try to minimize future problems. Feel free to give us a call at 703-654-3100 with any questions or concerns you might have about this stunning species.

 

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