Bearded dragons are popular, well-known lizards currently considered one of the best pet lizards. There are eight species of bearded dragons, but the most popular one is the inland or central bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps) from the arid to semi-arid southeastern parts of Australia, which will be discussed in this handout.
What type of enclosure does my bearded dragon require?
The minimum enclosure size for a juvenile lizard is a 20-gallon aquarium, depending on the size of the bearded dragon. As the animal grows, you should provide a 60 to 100-gallon tank or larger. The length of the enclosure should be at least three times the lizard’s total body length and its width should be at least 16" so it can turn around with ease. The enclosure should be well ventilated with a secure protective top to keep your bearded dragon in and other animals out.
Bigger is better but is also more to manage. More than one bearded dragon can be kept in an enclosure (if it is big enough and the animals get along) but only one adult male should be present, as adult males housed together often have territorial fights. Adult females housed together also may become aggressive. Any newly introduced dragons should be monitored carefully to ensure they are getting along with the existing pets. Newly introduced bearded dragons should be roughly the same size to prevent the larger dragon from overpowering or harming the smaller dragon.
Does my bearded dragon need bedding in his enclosure?
Substrate, or bedding material, should be easy to clean and non-toxic to lizards in case they accidentally eat it. Newspaper, butcher paper, or other recycled paper products (such as compressed recycled paper pellets) are preferred because they are easy to replace and are non-toxic. Paper-based bedding may be removed in small amounts daily as the enclosure is spot-cleaned and should be removed completely at least once per week.
"Newspaper, butcher paper, or other recycled paper products are preferred because they are easy to replace and are non-toxic."
Artificial grass/turf made specifically for reptiles (often called reptile carpet) may also be used. When using this material, buy two pieces and cut them to fit the bottom of the enclosure. With two pieces, one is placed inside the enclosure, and one is kept as a spare outside of it; when the turf inside becomes soiled, you will always have a clean, dry piece available. The soiled section of turf or reptile carpet can be washed with a dishwashing detergent and dried before placing it back in the enclosure. It should be thoroughly washed every week (more frequently if multiple lizards are housed together).
DO NOT use sand, gravel, wood shavings, corn cob material, walnut shells, and cat litter, as these are not only difficult to clean, but also are a potential source of intestinal impaction if consumed, either on purpose or accidentally. Even so-called digestible 'calci-sand' may cause impactions when ingested and should therefore be avoided. It is never advised to feed any reptile on a particulate bedding material as they may swallow the bedding while catching their prey or eating their greens. Cedarwood shavings are also toxic to reptiles and should never be used.
What else should be in the enclosure?
Large rocks that are easy enough to climb on and around allow for basking and provide a more interesting, natural environment. Bearded dragons may enjoy low, horizontal, natural branches to climb on as well. Make sure all branches are secure and will not fall onto the lizard and injure it.
"All reptiles appreciate a hiding place."
All reptiles appreciate a hiding place. Artificial plants or live non-toxic plants can be arranged to provide a hiding place. You can create a secure hiding area for your bearded dragon with a clay pot, a cardboard box, a large piece of commercially purchased bark or a half-domed hollow log, a commercial pet cave, or an inverted plastic food storage container.
Fresh water should always be available in a crock that will not easily tip over. Food should be provided in a similar shallow, clean dish that is not easily moved.
What temperature should the enclosure be kept at?
Reptiles are cold-blooded (their body temperatures depend on environmental temperatures) and need a range of temperatures within the enclosure to regulate their internal body temperature. Environmental temperature determines the bearded dragon’s activity level, metabolism, and digestion rate. All of their body systems slow down in cooler temperatures, and they may become immunosuppressed and predisposed to infection if they are too cold.
A heat source is necessary for all reptiles to help them stay healthy. The enclosure should be set up so that a heat gradient is established, with one area of the tank warmer than the other end. This way, the bearded dragon can move around its environment to warm or cool itself as desired. One thermometer should be placed at the cooler end of the enclosure and another at the warmer end, near the heat source. The cooler end of the enclosure should be approximately 75-80ºF (24-27ºC), while the warmer end should be 90-100ºF (32-38ºC). An electronic temperature gun also may be aimed at either end of the enclosure to get a digital reading of temperature at any moment.
Several types of appropriate heat sources are available. One type of heat source is a 100-watt incandescent bulb in a reflector hood and other types of radiant heat bulbs or ceramic heating elements are available at specialty pet stores. Some heat bulbs also provide UV radiation in addition to heat. Heat sources should always be placed OUTSIDE the enclosure and above one end of it (the basking end) so there is no possibility of direct contact between the heating element and your bearded dragon, which might result in your pet burning itself on the bulb. At night, when the lizard is sleeping, extra heat and light may not be necessary so long as the cooler end of the tank remains at 65-80ºF (18-26ºC).
"Heat sources should always be placed OUTSIDE the enclosure and above one end of it..."
Another way to provide heat is with a heating pad designed for a reptile tank and meant to be placed under one end of the enclosure for warmth. Ideally, these heating pads should be plugged into special thermostats that automatically turn on and off when reaching pre-set temperatures. Thermostats ensure that the heating pad does not get too hot and burn the lizard or damage the tank.
'Hot rocks' or 'sizzle rocks' are dangerous, ineffective, and should be avoided, as they get very hot and are notorious for burning reptiles that sit on them too long.
You must provide your bearded dragon with a nighttime environment in which the temperature drops when the light goes off. In the wild, the nighttime temperatures usually fall gradually.
Do I need to provide special lighting?
A wild reptile may spend many hours a day basking in the sun, absorbing ultraviolet (UV) light. This wavelength of light is necessary for the body to manufacture vitamin D3, which is needed for proper calcium absorption from the intestines. Vitamin D3 is manufactured in the skin. Failure to provide UV light can predispose your pet to metabolic bone disease (nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism), a common condition of pet reptiles. This condition is an imbalance of the body’s calcium and phosphorus that is fatal if not recognized and treated early.
The UV bulb should emit light in the UV-B range (290-320 nanometers). UV-A light (320-400 nanometers), although important in terms of behavior, does not aid in the manufacture of vitamin D3. Most bulbs sold for use with reptiles provide both UV-A and UV-B. For UV light to work, it must reach the pet in an unfiltered form, so there must be no glass or plastic between the pet and the light. The light must be within 6-18 inches from your pet to provide any benefit. The UV output of these lights decreases with age, so they should be replaced every six months or as directed by the manufacturer. Although these bulbs are expensive, they are essential, as they mean the difference between a healthy reptile and a sick or dying one.
Regular exposure to natural DIRECT sunlight outside (unfiltered through glass) in warm weather is encouraged and recommended whenever possible. If you take your bearded dragon outdoors, make sure you provide it with a shaded area to escape the sun if it chooses. Always supervise your pet while it is basking outdoors, to prevent escape or attack from other animals roaming in the neighborhood.
Consult a veterinarian familiar with reptiles if you have any other questions or concerns regarding the proper lighting or housing for your bearded dragon.
ALWAYS WASH YOUR HANDS THOROUGHLY after feeding, cleaning, and handling a bearded dragon, as they can carry parasites and bacteria that may not be harmful to them but that could affect humans.