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. This species is the one that will be mainly be discussed in this handout.
Owners often refer to them as 'beardies'. They are attractive, heavy-bodied lizards with flattened trunks and broad triangular heads. They have a spiny pouch (or beard) under their chin or jawbone that can be expanded when they are threatened or are aroused during mating. The pouch will also turn black when they are stressed or aroused. They have a characteristic series of spines projecting horizontally from the sides of the body, running from the head to the base of the tail. Full grown, healthy adults, can reach 18-22 inches (45-56 cm) from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail.
"They have a spiny pouch (or beard) under their chin or jawbone that can be expanded when they are threatened or are aroused during mating."
Sexing a baby bearded dragon is very challenging. In the adult, the male has larger femoral pores (used for scent marking) located on the underside of the thighs just in front of the vent. The males are slightly larger than the females, have larger heads and darker 'beards'. There are many color variations, both naturally and selectively bred, including light tan, dark brown, or slightly green, with highlights of black, red, orange or gold. The young are semi-arboreal (live in trees), and the adults are mostly terrestrial, climbing occasionally to bask or search for prey. Captive bearded dragons live about 7-12 years if properly cared for.
This lizard is omnivorous, eating both plant- and animal- based foods. Bearded dragons exhibit a unique behavior called arm waving, a term describing what the behavior actually looks like. They lift up one arm slowly and then slowly place it down again. A slow head bob often accompanies the wave. This purpose of this action is not entirely understood, but it is believed to be a form of communication, possibly indicating submission to a larger or more dominant animal.
"Bearded dragons can make great pets if cared for properly."
They are highly social, friendly, animated, curious, docile and gentle animals that are easy to tame and are very responsive to their owners. Bearded dragons are hardy, robust, eat well and have a varied diet. Bearded dragons can make great pets if cared for properly. Please do your homework and research as much as possible about this type of pet before bringing it into your life. They are suitable as pets for older children, if they are properly supervised.
How do bearded dragons differ from other pets?
- Bearded dragons do not have diaphragms separating their chests from their abdomens; they use muscles located between their ribs (intercostal muscles) to expand and contact their chests for breathing.
- Bearded dragons have a three-chambered heart; dogs, cats, and people have four chambers in their hearts.
- Bearded dragons have a renal portal blood system, which means that blood from the hind limbs is shunted to and filtered by the kidneys before reaching the general circulation. This means toxins from the rear limbs (as might be present from wounds on the legs), as well as drugs injected into the rear legs, generally circulate through the kidneys before entering the general circulation.
- Bearded dragons excrete uric acid (the white portion of their droppings) as the main waste product of protein metabolism (versus dogs, cats, and people who excrete liquid urea). This allows them to adapt to desert environments, where water supply might be restricted.
- Male bearded dragons have two internally located reproductive organs called hemipenes.
- More than one bearded dragon can be kept in a cage (as long as the cage is big enough and the animals get along with each other), but only one adult male should be present, as adult males may fight. Adult females housed together also may become aggressive and must be monitored.
- Bearded dragons have a cloaca, which is a chamber collecting secretions from the urinary, gastrointestinal, and reproductive systems; the cloaca empties externally through the vent, an opening located on the ventrum or undersurface of the lizard’s hind end, between the back legs.
- Bearded dragons’ skin is covered with scales and is usually shed in patches as bearded dragons grow, unlike in snakes, where the skin is usually shed in one piece.
- Bearded dragons explore their environments by flicking out their tongues, and licking or tongue-testing with a light touch of their tongues. This is like sniffing and is a sensory function.
How do I select a bearded dragon?
Most owners buy bearded dragons locally from breeders or pet stores. They breed well in captivity and are wildly available. Young, captive-raised animals make the best pets. Older imported animals are harder to tame, may harbor internal parasites, and often suffer from the stress of imposed captivity. Avoid sick-looking animals.
Start out right with a healthy pet. Avoid lizards that appear skinny, have loose skin or sunken eyes (indicating possible weight loss), and appear inactive or lethargic. A healthy bearded dragon is usually aware, active, and alert as evidenced by the front legs pushing the chest and head upright and high. The girth of the tail by the back legs should be round, plump and full (from storage of fat there), not sunken and bony. The vent opening to the cloaca should be clean and free of wetness or stool stuck to it. If you can GENTLY open the mouth (tapping lightly on the snout with a finger often works), there should be a small amount of clear saliva present and a bright pink tongue and oral cavity. Mucus that is cloudy or cottage cheese-like in appearance is a sign of infectious stomatitis (mouth rot), as is redness or pinpoint hemorrhages or bruising on the gums. These are all signs of mouth infection/inflammation. Always inquire from the seller about the guarantee in case the bearded dragon is found to be unhealthy.
My bearded dragon looks healthy. Does he/she need to see the veterinarian?
Within 48 hours of your purchase, your bearded dragon should be examined by a veterinarian familiar with reptiles. The physical examination includes determining the animal's weight, as well as checking for obvious physical abnormalities. The animal is examined for signs of dehydration and weight loss. A microscopic examination of the feces (stool) should be done to check for gastrointestinal parasites. Many bearded dragons (even those bred in captivity) have pinworms or other gastrointestinal parasites, so your bearded dragon may be routinely dewormed for these parasites (generally, these pinworms are not transmissible to people).
The eyes and nose are checked for discharge. The oral cavity is examined for signs of infectious stomatitis (mouth rot). Bearded dragons do not require vaccinations. Your veterinarian may recommend blood tests, bacterial cultures, or X-rays to check for other diseases. If all turns out well, your bearded dragon will be given a clean bill of health. Like other pets, bearded dragons should be examined by a reptile-savvy veterinarian annually and have their feces tested for parasites.