Bearded Dragons - Housing

By Rick Axelson, DVM; Updated by Laurie Hess, DVM

What type of cage does my bearded dragon require?bearded_dragon

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, and which will be discussed in this handout.

The minimum cage size for a juvenile lizard is a 20-gallon aquarium, depending on the size of the bearded dragon. As the animal grows, you will want to provide a 60-100 gallon (or bigger) tank. A minimum guideline suggests the length of the cage should be at least 2 times their total length (tip of nose to tip of tail), one times their width, and one times their height. The aquarium should be at least 16" wide, so they can turn around without problems. The cage should be well ventilated with a secure protective top to keep the animal in and other animals out.

"Bigger is better, but is also more to manage."

Bigger is better but is also more to manage. More than one bearded dragon can be kept in a cage (as long as it is big enough and the animals get along), but only one adult male should be present, as adult males housed together may fight. 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 cage dwellers.

Does my bearded dragon need bedding in his cage?

Substrate, or bedding material, should be easy to clean out and non-toxic to lizards if 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 non-toxic if ingested. Paper-based bedding may be removed in small amounts daily, as the cage is spot-cleaned, and should be removed completely once a week.

Astroturf-like bedding (or artificial grass, often called reptile carpet) may also be used but must be replaced weekly, as it gets soiled with food and feces and is impossible to completely disinfect. When using Astroturf, buy two pieces and cut them to fit the bottom of the cage. With two pieces, one is placed in the cage and one is kept as a spare outside the cage. That way, when the Astroturf inside the cage becomes soiled, you will always have a clean, dry piece available.

"Cedar wood shavings are also toxic to reptiles and should never be used."

AVOID using 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 eaten, either on purpose or accidentally. Even so-called digestible 'Calci-sand' may cause impactions when ingested and therefore should be avoided. Cedar wood shavings are also toxic to reptiles and should never be used.

What else do I need in the cage?

Large rocks, easy enough to climb on or around, in the cage also 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 won't fall onto the lizard and injure it. All reptiles appreciate a hiding place. Artificial plants or live non-toxic plants can be arranged to provide a hiding place, as well as clay pots, cardboard boxes, large pieces of commercially purchased bark or half-domed hollow logs, commercial pet caves, inverted plastic Tupperware containers, and other containers that provide a secure area.

Fresh water in a crock that will not easily tip over should be available at all times. Food should be provided in a similar shallow, clean dish that is not easily upset.

Reptiles are cold-blooded (their body temperatures depend on environmental temperatures) and need a range of temperatures within the cage 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.

"The cooler end of the cage should be approximately 75 - 80 o F (24 - 27o C), while the warmer end should be 90 - 100 o F (32 - 38 o C)."

To keep them healthy, a heat source is necessary for all reptiles. Ideally, the cage should be set up so that a heat gradient is established, with one area of the tank warmer than the other end. In this way, the bearded dragon can move around its environment, warming or cooling itself, as necessary. One thermometer should be placed at the cooler end of the cage and another at the warmer end, near the heat source. The cooler end of the cage should be approximately 75 - 80 o F (24 - 27o C), while the warmer end should be 90 - 100 o F (32 - 38 o C). An electronic temperature gun also may be aimed at either end of the cage to get a digital reading of temperature at any moment.

Several types of appropriate heat sources are available. One type of heat source is a100-watt incandescent bulb in a reflector hood; other types of radiant heat bulbs or ceramic heating elements are also available at specialty pet stores catering to reptiles. Some heat bulbs also provide UV radiation, in addition to heat. Heat sources should always be placed OUTSIDE and above one end of the cage (the basking end) such that there is no possibility of direct contact between the heating element and your bearded dragon that might result in the animal burning itself on the bulb. At night, when the lizard is sleeping, extra heat and light may not be necessary as long as the cooler end of the tank remains at 65 - 80 o F (18 - 26 o C).

"Hot rocks or sizzle rocks are dangerous, ineffective, and should be avoided, as they get very hot and notoriously burn reptiles that sit on them too long."

You must provide your bearded dragon with a nighttime in which the temperature drops and the light goes off. In the wild, the nighttime temperatures usually fall gradually. 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 cage 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. Speak with your veterinarian about the best heat and light set up for your bearded dragon. 'Hot rocks' or 'sizzle rocks' are dangerous, ineffective, and should be avoided, as they get very hot and notoriously burn reptiles that sit on them too long.


What about UV light?

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 the vitamin D3 it needs 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.

The UV bulb used should emit light in the UV-B range (290-320 nanometers). UV-A light (320 - 400nm), 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. Examples of commercially available UV-B emitting lights are the ReptisunTM, Iguana LightTM, Power SunTM (by Zoo Med) and Repti GloTM (by Exo-Terra). The UV output of these lights decreases with age, so they should be replaced every six months or as directed by the manufacturer. 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 the animal in order for the pet to receive any benefit.

"The UV output of these lights decreases with age so they should be replaced every six months."

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 proper lighting or housing of your bearded dragon.

Remember - 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 may affect us.

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