One of the most popular pet lizards in the UK, ‘beardies’ are popular pets thanks to their friendly personalities, calmer temperament and overall behaviour.
But as wild pets in captivity, it is vital that their home environment mimics what they would have and experience in the wild. Their biology is still the same even if they are captive bred, so everything needs to be right in order for them to have a long, fulfilling and happy life.
It is therefore not a pet which should be taken on by anyone who isn’t willing to put in the care and attention.
- Lifespan: 10-15+ Years
- Average Size: 45-54cm
- Average Weight: 280-510g
- Popular Breeds: Inland, Standard Morph, Hypomelanistic, German Giant
- Diet: Live invertebrates (insects), Vegetables
- Origin: Dry scrublands and woodlands in Australia
- Speciality Requirements: Hotter (38 to 42°C) bright end, cooler (22 to 26°C) shaded end, a Basking spot, 10-12% UV tube, Low humidity
IMPORTANT THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
- Bearded dragons need a very precise set up for their vivarium, including temperature and humidity
- They eat live insects, which will need to be gut-loaded and looked after separately
- You will need to register them with a specialist reptile or exotic pet vet (herpetologist)
- They won’t need regular vaccinations, but your vet may recommend checks for bacteria and overall health
- They are a territorial reptile, so are best kept on their own to stop fighting. You may be able to keep a male and a female, but males can get violent in the breeding season
- As a diurnal animal, they will be most active during the day, which makes them a bit easier to look after
- Most are quite mellow and can enjoy human company, and they love to explore so a large vivarium is ideal
- They can go into brumation over the winter months, similar to hibernation
WHERE TO BUY A BEARDED DRAGON
All bearded dragons available in the UK should be captive-bred.
If buying from somebody else, you must make the correct suitable checks to ensure that they have indeed been born and raised in captivity, and not part of illegal wild trade
There are reputable breeders up and down the country who you can buy from, as well as specialist reptile pet shops. The latter is a good idea for any beginners, as you will be able to receive guidance on how to take care of your new pet all in one place. Be careful if buying from a generalised pet shop, as they can often give out poor advice.
There are occasionally bearded dragons available for rehoming through charities such as the RSPCA, too. People do take on reptiles and realise they can’t look after them, or circumstances change. You may wish to check here if you would like to rehome, and are happy with perhaps not knowing much about your pet’s background if they were abandoned
CHOOSING YOUR BEARDED DRAGON
A healthy bearded dragon should be bright, alert and reactive to their surroundings. They commonly follow any movement, even if it is just a human walking by. Beardies should always be willing to eat as well, whether this is live prey or greens.
Bearded dragons are alert animals so they should always seem active
Around their eyes, nose and mouth, their skin should have no lesions or rough patches and there should be no excretions such as fluid or crust. Beardies often have an upright posture and filled out belly. There should also be no swollen toes or feet – nipped toes and tails can be a sign of tank overcrowding in young age.
Check for a clean vent, too. This is the opening for defecating and expel eggs, and it should be clean and dry. Any swelling or dirt is a sign of injury or diarrhoea.
It is a good idea to take your dragon to the vet within the first few days of ownership to check them over and confirm everything is okay
Bearded dragons can live for over ten years, so even adults can still give you a fair few years of companionship. They grow about an inch per week when young, so are usually easy to age, and simply measuring them gives a good idea of how old they are. They should reach full size at around 18 months old.
They can take a while to settle into new environments and the minimum age you should take on a beardy is 6 weeks. But they can take a while to develop and grow strong, and for any health issues to show, so we would recommend a minimum age of 6 months. Because of the risks of buying a young dragon, we would say the older, the better
As mentioned above, a male and female may be able to live together if in a large enough tank, but it is not recommended to own more than one ideally.
There isn’t really any difference in behaviour patterns between the sexes, except males can occasionally be more dominant. Females may occasionally lay eggs, even if they haven’t mated, which you will need to prepare for.
When you buy a bearded dragon, there is no 100% guarantee of their gender
It can be quite hard to sex a bearded dragon, though, as many males only express their sexual characteristics when an adult. But because there is no real difference in behaviour between the sexes, either will be appropriate for owners
Bearded dragons can be handled, although you shouldn’t be disturbing them frequently. It is best to limit this to when you’re checking them over for health reasons.
Never surprise your dragon – always make them aware that you are near and reaching in, by approaching slowly. Gently scoop them up so their legs are supported, and they should be out of the tank for a maximum of 10-15 minutes to ensure their core body temperature doesn’t drop.
Be careful if you have any children as bearded dragons can be difficult to handle at times
Some bearded dragons have been shown to quite like being held and are comfortable with close contact with humans. But there is a risk of salmonella when a human makes contact with any reptile, so always touch them with clean hands and clean them afterwards again
The home of your bearded dragon must be representative of their environment in the wild. This means that temperatures, makeup and size must all be considered.
Most beardies will be housed in a vivarium which is mostly glass. White plastic sides can be good too, as it will reflect light. It should be 120cm long, 60cm high and 60cm deep at the very least, with good ventilation to prevent respiratory disease. It should also be well secured to prevent escape and injury.
You should get a tank with a sliding front door opening, as they will be able to see you approaching and won’t be startled.
In the wild, attacks happen from above so you don’t want this recreated
You should set up your vivarium a week before bringing them home to ensure everything works well and the correct settings are met. Leave them to explore for a week before handling.
Dirty environments soon present a health risk. Spot-clean any waste as soon as it appears, and then clean out the entire vivarium monthly with reptile-safe disinfectant. Rinse this well, and ensure you clean your hands after handling anything which your dragon uses
A vivarium for your bearded dragon should have two temperature zones (or be thermogradient). They are ectothermic, so use their environment to regulate their body temperature as opposed to being able to regulate it naturally.
The hot end should be around 38-42°C and the cool end between 22 and 26°C. They love to grab a few minutes of intense heat as well, so this basking zone should be provided with a 60-100W bulb positioned 25-30cm from their back, and they need to access the heat from a stone or similar spot.
Getting the temperature of a reptile tank wrong could cause serious illness or even death if for a prolonged period
They don’t necessarily need heat overnight, as the cooler temperatures will ensure they have time to thermoregulate and slow down, and will be more willing to bask the next morning. Of course, don’t allow the temperature to dip too much.
Bearded dragons need light to be able to detect heat. The UVA (visible light) should be provided by a lamp, in the hotter zone so the cool area is slightly darker. A 10 to 12% UVB fluorescent tube should give them enough UVB to produce sufficient vitamin D3. The UVI should be 3.0-5.0 in the basking zone, and zero in the shade. Lights should be turned off at night, so 12 hours on and then 12 off.
This gives the dragon something to grip on to. They love to dig, and it also keeps any toilet mess in one place more or less. A sand substrate or a sand/soil mixture can be used with healthy adults, and it should be reptile-safe so there is no sharpness.
Anything large, such as bark or pebbles, can be dangerous as it will cause impaction if eaten. The risk of impaction from the sand is low with adults but watch out for young dragons. You may want to instead use some newspaper, lino, ceramic tiles or reptile carpet until they are older, but give them somewhere to dig.
Other Products Needed
As mentioned, they love to bask, so they should have a large stone or similar on which they can sit. This will get hotter, and they will be able to detect the heat and stop when they’ve had enough.
They should have stones and branches suitable for climbing on, and possibly a digging area in the cool end within a plastic tub if you want to limit the amount of sand throughout the tank.
A bearded dragon is omnivorous, so will eat live insects as well as greens. Safe greens include watercress, chicory and rocket, and they should be given a variety. Research everything they can and can’t eat before feeding – spinach is a big no, for example.
You will need to care for the live food as well as your beardy!
Crickets, locusts and worms can be given as live feed, if gut-loaded and dusted with vitamin and mineral powder. Remove any greens which are uneaten after a day, and remove uneaten insects too as these can bite your dragon. Live foods can cost around £6 – £15 per week.
Issues With Diet
Beardies need their correct range of greens so they aren’t prevented from producing what they need. Vitamins can be oversubscribed, so always carefully check guidelines and vet recommendations. For example, with sufficient lighting, you won’t need to give them extra Vitamin D3.
They need their diet to be balanced, or they can quickly start lacking the nutrients not found in certain foods
Foods To Avoid
Spinach can stop their absorption of calcium. Too much cabbage or kale can affect hormone production. Lettuce can cause digestive issues and provides no nutritional value, and avocados contain oxalic acid which is fatal in high doses. Rhubarb is always toxic, even in small doses. Tomatoes are very acidic and difficult for them to digest.
Tips For Feeding
Adults need feeding once per day. Feed in the morning so they have time to digest their food under their basking lamp throughout the day. Adults need around 40% live food and 60% greens, whereas infants need a balance of 65% live food (for extra protein) and 35% greens, twice daily.
You may wish to use tongs to lower the food into the tank, or to use to feed them ‘by hand’.
You should check over your pets as much as possible for health issues. As you shouldn’t handle your dragon too much, every week when you go to clean the tank out should be enough. Look out for a change in posture, change of eating habits or if they aren’t as reactive to food or your movement in-between times.
Clear, bright eyes are one of the signs of a healthy bearded dragon. They should have a thick base to the tail and the hips will not be protruding if they are eating enough. Healthy dragons become brighter in colour after basking, too.
Most health issues with bearded dragons will be able to be spotted without holding them
Their waste should be long and firm. They are made up of faecal waste (the dark part) and urates (the white part). If you see signs of diarrhoea, or they are losing weight, have the vet check for internal parasites.
You should sign up with a knowledgeable reptile vet, even if this is quite far from you. They should know everything about bearded dragons, too – don’t take it for granted that just because they are a reptile vet, they know everything about every animal.
You can find a vet through the RCVS Find A Vet Service, with the option to refine the search
An annual checkup is a good idea, or you may wish to move this to every few months if you aren’t sure what to look out for at all times.
They shed their skin, often in large pieces. There are no guidelines to how often this happens, but younger dragons will do it more frequently as they grow. They may look dull in colour as they prepare to shed when the skin becomes dry. You may need to bathe them if any patches remain after a shedding period, but never pull at it yourself. Keep them hydrated, which will make this easier.
They will also go through brumation, which is similar to hibernation. This is when they conserve energy, triggered by the reduction in room temperatures and natural daylight hours. They will reduce how much they eat and will sleep longer, but check that they don’t lose weight.
A lack of UVB could cause Metabolic Bone Disease, which is a lack of vitamin D3. They can’t absorb calcium from food, so their bones become brittle and they could eventually have deformed tails or limbs. This is why it is vital to give them the correct diet.
Females can lay eggs, even if they have never been with a male. They will need an egg box to lay these in or they can become egg bound. Remove them and freeze before disposal if they may be fertile. If this is a frequent issue, they could be using their calcium and energy reserves so you will need to carefully adjust their supplement intake.