If you’ve just purchased, or are considering purchasing, a bearded dragon, you’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of differing opinions on the proper means of care for these popular, docile lizards. For example, estimates of the proper temperature at which to keep your beardie may range from 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit all the way up to 105-115 degrees. So how is a new owner to know what to do? Well, as a beardie owner who once went through the exact same experience, including many days and nights of worry over whether or not my beardies were doing well or showing signs of inevitable demise, I’ve decided to create a care sheet based on my experiences beardies, organized in order of what I consider the most important to least important factors in keeping your beardie healthy. This is by no means a complete care guide or authoritative source, but rather the things I’ve tried that have worked with my beardies.
This is the most important part of owning a healthy beardie. First off, don’t be fooled by a beardie who ‘survives’ with just a small incandescent bulb. Your beardie may live for a few months, but will soon succumb to metabolic bone disease, or simply be too weak from the lack of proper heating to fight off infection. You’ll need a serious light bulb, with high UVB output. I would recommend the ESU Super-B 160 Watt bulb, for several reasons.
First, it’s an incandescent, mercury-vapor, self-ballasted bulb, which means it provides heat as well as UVB, unlike its fluorescent counterparts, which produce far less heat. Be prepared to pay up to $60 for this bulb (although reptilesupply.com has it for $30), and change it out every six months, even if it seems to be working fine. The UVB rays are no longer produced after six months, leaving the light useless for the primary reason you bought it.
NB: several well-known voices in the bearded dragon and reptile community have pointed out the harmful effects of UVB from mercury-vapor bulbs, and have cautioned against using them. Most of the arguments center around the harmful effects of the UVB radiation on human skin, which then implies that it must damage the lizard. I do not claim that mercury-vapor bulbs are safe to shine on people all day, but I would also point out that, while a human being living in the same conditions as a beardie (100 degree direct sun) would probably develop some sort of skin cancer, the beardie is naturally accustomed to absorbing (and processing) higher levels of UVB than humans. If your tank is in a location where the light will shine on people as well, however, a fluorescent bulb and alternative heat source may be the best option.
Your lighting cycle should basically reflect sunset and sunrise in your area, assuming they are not too extreme. This means a day of about 14-16 hours during the ‘summer’ and 8-10 hours during the ‘winter.’ Obviously, a timer is an excellent resource here, and many pet supply houses sell timers that alternate between a ‘day’ and a ‘night’ setting, perfect for switching between a light and a pure heat source in colder climates.
Don’t use any sort of heat rock, or any other heating source that directly contacts your beardie. I adopted a beardie once that had burns all over his neck, because he had been against a heat rock and had not felt the rock burning him (cold-blooded animals often have difficulty sensing temperature). If the temperature in your tank drops below 70 at night, get a ceramic heat lamp and alternate its use with that of the UVB light. Having a heat lamp also allows you to superheat the tank, in case you need to get the air inside the tank considerably hotter than that of the surrounding room (i.e. when your heat breaks in the winter).
As to the ideal temperature, you can find recommendations as low as 85, and as high as 120. From experience, I can say the following: unless you’re in a very warm area, it’s hard to get a tank in a 70 degree room to be consistently 120 degrees at one end, so err on the side of too much heat. If your beardie is seriously hot, he or she will open their mouth and ‘gape,’ allowing moisture to evaporate and cool the lizard. If you see this behavior for more than a few minutes at a time, consider lowering the temperature. Of course, you want a thermal gradient in your tank, with one end hot (110 or so) and the other cooler. This is usually a natural product of having the lamp at one end of the tank. An additional note: nothing perks up a sick beardie like a nice, warm tank, so if your beardie is sluggish or appears to have trouble breathing (respiratory infection), crank up the temperature (within reason).
Beardies, for the most part, enjoy eating. The main staple of their diet can consist of leaf (not iceberg) lettuce and pre-mixed salads (go for variety). Just don’t get anything with onions or other exotic veggies in it. Also, you should feed your beardie crickets at least once a week. Dust the crickets before feeding in a calcium powder such as ReptiCal, which will aid the beardie in processing UVB from the lighting source. Ideally, you should use a powder that also contains phosphorous, which most do. Keep in mind that lettuce doesn’t have a lot of nutrition in it, and that your beardie gains more in terms of liquid from its leaves than anything else, so don’t go too long between cricket feedings.
Mealworms and other pet store foods provide far less nutrition than crickets, and healthy crickets (big, active, not sluggish) provide a lot more nutrition than malnourished crickets. If you get consistently skimpy-looking crickets, consider putting them in a container with a slice of potato and a soda cap of water for a couple of days–that will fatten up, or ‘gutload’ the crickets. You can also get special cricket food that promises to load your crickets with calcium, but I find they’re really expensive and mostly unnecessary.
Beardies start out small, but get big fast. A single full-size beardie should have at least a 40 gallon tank. If possible, go for critter cages, which tend to be wider and longer than their aquarium counterparts, since they can be less tall (for ground-dwelling lizards). Also, they come with a self-locking lid that slides in and out, ideal for reptiles with the urge for freedom. You can try keeping multiple beardies in one tank, but be prepared to have a really big tank (80+ gallons) and keep an eye out for the development of any fighting between the animals. If you see any, separate the beardies immediately.
The substrate should not be reptile bark or any other cedar chip based product, as this will allow crickets to hide. One option for adult beardies that’s really cheap sand is children’s playsand, from places like Walmart, which charge as little as $2.99 for a 40-pound bag. If you have a juvenile beardie, make sure to strain the sand to remove any potential small stones. Young beardies are remarkably stupid eaters, and may die from eating a stone which is too large for them to pass, or even from just tasting the sand, so make sure you start out young beardies on something they can’t eat. If you like, you can use reptile carpet or another store-bought product, just be aware that beardies poop. A lot. In a pinch, newspaper will do and won’t harm your beardies–but it will let the crickets hide.
Beardies need a good place to hide and climb on. This can be a fake rock bought at a pet store, or a rock and some driftwood branches. If you do take a rock from outside, however, you should thoroughly clean and disinfect it before putting it in with your beardie. Rinsing with bleach, then thoroughly cleaning off every last trace of bleach, then letting the rock dry in the sun, is a pretty foolproof method of preparing decor. You can also do this with driftwood to create a basking area, which should be 6 inches or so from the light source. Beardies are not fragile; they will not fall apart because a rock from the Northern Hemisphere is placed in their tank, but do remember that they are not from North America, so parasites and other nasties growing in branches and on rocks can and will hurt them. If you are bringing up very young beardies, it is probably a good idea to use manufactured hiding and basking decor, washed with simple soap and water. Remember, the bigger the beardie, the hardier it is, so be very careful with the little ones.
In any case, you will need a basking spot, a hiding area, a water dish, and a food dish. If your beardie enjoys a good soak, you can give him or her a water area large enough for that purpose, but keep an eye out to make sure your beardie is not soaking excessively (several hours a day). Constant exposure to water is not good for beardies, as they are normally semi-arid terrain dwelling lizards. You should, however, spray your beardie with a misting bottle at least once a day, and especially if they open their mouths. Most beardies love a good spray when they’re basking.
Beardies are relatively tough animals, and succumb to relatively few diseases. Most of the dangers are to young or juvenile dragons, especially diseases related to parasites and overeating. This page has a listing of the most common diseases. The best route to avoiding a sick beardie is to keep the tank toasty and clean, and not to feed the beardie anything larger than the width of its head. This will help avoid bowel impaction, a painful end for your lizard. As your beardie gets older, it will be less likely to eat something too large for it.
As with any reptile, be alert for signs of illness, but don’t panic too quickly. Beardies go through periods of the year during which they are much less active than usual, and they tend to eat less during these periods as well. As long as your beardie comes out from his hiding place to hunt crickets (or lettuce), don’t be too alarmed by a reduction in energy level, unless it is accompanied by definite signs of illness (labored breathing, etc.). As always, a fecal sample at your local vet can tell you worlds about parasites and other problems with our beardie, especially if it is a new acquisition. It also doesn’t hurt to have yearly checkups done. Find a vet that knows exotics, as many cat and dog vets are as clueless about treating reptiles as your physician would be about treating a cat.
The most important advice I can give is to be carefully attentive to your beardie, but not to panic about any little thing he or she may do. Once you are comfortable with your beardie, you’ll discover that they have definite personalities and quirks (Squirrel, for instance, knows when it’s feeding time because the cats meow, and scratches his walls if I don’t feed him immediately), and that they’re a wonderful inroad into the world of reptiles. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to respond to this article below.