Caring for Bearded Dragons

The Inland, or Central Bearded Dragon derived its name from the way they tend to enlarge or ‘blow out’ a flap of skin under the lower jaw if upset or disturbed. Aside from blowing their beard out, they may also darken the colour there to almost black which creates a bearded display. The Bearded Dragon is native to many different habitats and regions of Australia.

They thrive in deserts, grasslands and woodlands, in both unpopulated and populated areas. It is said by many herpetologists who have come across Beardies in the wild, that one could walk right up to one and the little guy wouldn’t mind, and possibly even pick it up with little or no fuss being raised by the animal. Their temperament is extremely docile and trusting, therefore making it an excellent pet – even for children and beginners.

 

Size

hachlingThe adults sometimes reach up to almost 2ft in length, with the average being 18 – 20 inches. Hatchlings are approximately 3 to 4 inches in length (head to tail) and usually are be 5-6 inches at the end of the first month.

 
By the end of a dragons second month, they usually are at least 6-7 inches in length with considerable more body weight. With proper care and a little luck, dragons will reach 9 inches within 2 months, with the average being 8 inches. From 2 – 6 months, the average growth rate is approximately 1/2 inch a week, with some weeks being 1 inch or more to 1/4 inch or less.

 

Life Span

It’s life span can be from 3 to 10 years with proper care.

 

Selecting your Dragon

Selecting the bearded dragon to be your new pet is one of the most important steps toward success in maintaining bearded dragons. When purchasing a dragon online, it is basically done through an ‘honour system’.

 
The hatchling you receive should be robust appearing with ample fat stores at the base of its tail (generally, it is possible to determine the overall health of all lizards by examining the base of the tail for fat stores).

 
Beware of protruding bones at the base of the tail. Take notice to the dragons eyes in particular – are they noticeably recessed? If so, it is possible that the dragon is becoming dehydrated. A healthy dragon will appear alert with both eyes wide open and attentive to its environment.

 

Diet

bearded dragon eating a cricketDiet-wise, beardies require 30% mixed vegetables and fruits and 70% gut-loaded insects. They should also be given a multiple vitamin/mineral supplement once or twice a week and calcium daily. You should feed adult dragons 3 – 5 times a week and juveniles every day. They should have a tray of mealworms down constantly for them to pick at throughout the day. In general, juveniles will eat more live food and adults mostly vegetation.

 

Handling

The handling of lizards should be kept to a minimum – especially the smaller ones as they are not only the most agile and therefore often escape, but also the most fragile and prone to losing their tails. Larger lizards tend to have sharp claws so avoid picking them up bare-armed and without gloves.

 

Housing

dragon vivTheir housing will be dependant on the sizes and growth rates of your dragon as well as their individualized needs.

 
The size and shape of the accommodation and habitat will need to be appropriate to accommodate normal behaviours and exercise. The substrate you used should be calcium based, ie sand.

 
Please note that silica based sand may be ingested and can cause impaction. Repti-carpet or unbleached paper towels are also recommended substrates for bearded dragons.

 

Lighting and Temperature

Use a full spectrum fluorescent light for 10 to 12 hours a day to provide needed UVB rays at one end of the tank; the another end should be kept as a cooling area. The temperature gradient should be 100° F. for the warm end and 70° F. for the cool end.

 
A hide area of branches and potted non-toxic plants, or a hide box in the tank is also necessary.

 
a_pair_of_bearded_dragon_lizardsGive them a rock or log as well for basking purposes. The key to keeping bearded dragons happy is to have an incandescent basking spotlight that allows them to raise their body temperature to 95 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

 
When a bearded dragon reaches its thermal maximum, it will often sit with its mouth open. This behavior, called gaping, shows that the lizard is at its optimal temperature for basking. This gaping will allow a bearded dragon to dissipate extra body heat. Since lizards don’t sweat, this is an effective way for them to regulate their body temperature. It is important that your bearded dragon habitat have a thermal gradient, so that your lizards can move to a cooler location, if they so desire, once they have reached their optimum body temperatures.

 

Water

Provide your lizard with a constant supply of clean, fresh, filtered, chlorine-free water in a shallow bowl that cannot be tipped over.

 

Normal Behaviour and Interaction

They will spend part of the day in a hiding spot in their habitat. Male dragons are territorial and should be housed separately.

 
The most endearing aspect of owning a Bearded Dragon is its interactive nature. Some of the displays you will see are almost comical.

 
Threat Display of Coastal Bearded Dragon in Australia ca. 1997 AustraliaBeard display: This is often seen being done by male Beardies when determining a hierarchy or during breeding season. The Dragon will ‘blow out’ its beard by extending a bone-like structure covering flap of skin therefore giving the appearance of a beard. The colour of the skin there will also change colour to look almost black. This colour change extends down to cover the Dragons chest area. This is also used as a defensive gesture when a Dragon is threatened or startled. Beards aren’t limited to males; the females will show off their beards as well for various reasons.

 
Head Bobbing: This is a dominance display. The Dragon seems to be saying, “Who is the boss here?” It is performed quite frequently during the breeding season to gain the attention and/or submission of a female Dragon and always when your Dragons are given new territory to conquer.

 
Arm Waving: This is often seen being done by the females in the cage and the less ‘dominant’ males in response to a ‘beard display’ or ‘bobbing episode’. This is the submissive gesture in recognition and deference to the dominant male. Along with arm waving, some Dragons will bow down slowly to the Dominant one. This looks like a bobbing scene in slow motion.

Raised tail: This is most often seen during breeding season. It seems to signify a certain level of alertness and acceptance. Juvenile Dragons will also do this when stalking its prey.

 

Habitat Maintenance

bearded dragon on rockChange the water in the bowl daily and remove faeces daily. Thoroughly clean the tank at least once a week: set bearded dragon aside in a secure habitat while you do this. Scrub the tank and furnishings with a 3% bleach solution and rinse thoroughly with water to remove all smell of bleach. Add clean substrate.

 

Grooming and Hygiene

Give your dragon a light misting shower every other week to keep its skin humidified and easy to shed. The tank, however, should never be damp. Carefully clip its toenails when too long.

 
Because all bearded dragons are potential carriers of infectious diseases and salmonella, always wash your hands before and after handling your bearded dragon and/or the habitat contents to help prevent the potential of spread of diseases.

 
Pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems should contact their physician before purchasing and/or caring for a bearded dragon and should consider not having a bearded dragon as a pet.

 
For more information regarding bearded dragons and disease, contact the Centre for Disease Control at http://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/

 

Signs of a Healthy Animal

• Eats regularly
• Does not hide for a long time
• Active and alert
• Clear, alert eyes
• Full tail
• Droppings are firm, not runny

 

Common Health Issues

red miteMites: Although mostly uncommon in a private herp collection, mites are another possible complication. They will most likely be noticed first around the eyes or the corners of the mouth as little round, black/brown creepy creatures. They can be treated by many commercial products available at a local pet shop or by a veterinary strength solution available from your veterinarian. Be sure to follow the directions on the product. Treatment of mites usually takes close to a month of continuous care as eggs usually hatch daily and must be ‘taken care of’ ASAP as these little bugs have an extraordinary reproductive rate. If you have more than the 1 infested reptile, take extra precautions against transferring the mites from one to another.

 
Terminal Ingestion: Unfortunately, young dragons will swallow larger food items than are appropriate for the dragons size. They can die from the large food item lodging within the dragons digestive tract. If this were to occur they will extend their hind limbs straight back as though paralyzed or in excruciating pain. You can raise your basking temperature or soak the dragon in some warm water to possibly induce a bowel movement – but success is a long shot. (Note that lounging/basking dragons often extend their hind limbs. Do not confuse this posture with the indigestion-induced paralysis, in which the legs remain extended and are unable to move. If your dragon will walk or run, it is just being a lounge lizard.)

 
Thermal Burns: These are caused by direct contact with a heat source and scald the skin – most likely resulting in blisters. The blisters often break open and create the opportunity for secondary bacterial infections, which will complicate treatment, and also could possibly be fatal (depending on the severity). Dragons WILL walk through their faeces – so an impeccable cage is necessary during treatment. While daily treatment can be taken care of at home – your veterinarian will need to perform initial diagnosis and follow-ups.

 
calcium defCalcium Deficiency: Without adequate calcium and vitamin D3 in your Dragon’s diet, in addition to a slow growth rate, you will more than likely encounter Metabolic Bone Disease. The first symptom usually noticed is uncontrolled twitching of the dragon’s toes or legs. This will be a fatal disease if not treated promptly. If this problem occurs, we suggest raising the amount of calcium in the Dragons diet immediately and taking it outside in direct sunlight to bask for a period of time each day until the twitching stops. If there is no change in a few days, consider veterinary care as an option.

 
Respiratory Infections: The Bearded Dragon is very resistant to respiratory infections. However prolonged exposure to low temperatures, improper humidity and poor cage conditions could result in respiratory complications. Treatment for this problem is usually antibiotics and to raise the ambient temperature of your cage a bit. (The best thing is to avoid low cage temperatures and eliminate the problem before it arises.) The most obvious symptoms are gaping, forced exhalation of air, puffing of the throat, a puffed up appearance of the body and lack of appetite. In some cases, the mucus may accumulate in the mouth and/or emerge from the nostrils. If these symptoms are present and persistent the illness is usually well progressed – a veterinarian visit is in order immediately for treatment.

 
vit a toxVitamin A Toxicity: This is a common problem that occurs when dragons are over supplemented. Many multi-vitamins contain levels of Vitamin A and should be offered sparingly. Toxicity is characterized by a swelling of the throat and eyes, and proceeding to a bloating of the body and lethargy.

 
Internal Parasites: Symptoms of internal parasites include weight loss, worms in the stools, runny stools, gaping and listlessness. If you observe a combination of these symptoms, you should take your bearded dragon to a veterinarian to have a stool sample examined to determine if there are any parasites present and if so, what kind they are. Follow your veterinarians recommendation for treatment.

 
Egg-Binding (Dystocia): This condition is generally attributed to very few differing causes. It could possibly be caused by a biological malformation (that may cause an obstruction) which may not allow enough room for the eggs to pass through the animal. Alternatively, it could also be caused by very large or malformed eggs that simply wont fit through the oviduct. BUT when these possibilities are eliminated, the cause is usually sub-standard conditions for egg laying. Proper nesting sites and materials must be provided at acceptable temperatures. Malnutrition and dehydration are also attributing factors to egg binding. Your veterinarian should perform diagnosis and treatment. Treatment may vary from removal of the eggs and organs through surgery – to simple massage.

 
Gastro-intestinal Disease: Symptoms – Runny stools, caked or smeared stool around the vent area, and loss of appetite caused by bacterial or parasitic infection. Consult your exotic animal
veterinarian.

 

Red Flags

If you notice any of these signs, please contact your exotic animal veterinarian.

• Weight loss or decreased appetite
• Mucus in mouth or nose
• Swelling
• Lethargy
• Bumps, sores, or abrasions on skin
• Laboured breathing
• Paralysis of limbs or tail
• Abnormal faeces

 
 


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