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Bearded Dragons

General Info

Bearded dragons are native to Australia. However, Australia has very strict export laws, so bearded dragons now found in the U.S. are all descendants of the original exported reptiles. Many beautiful “color morphs” are now available in dazzling shades of orange, yellow, red, rust, pastel, and even white, for the dedicated enthusiast.

Despite their fierce appearance, bearded dragons are among the most gentle, amenable reptiles on earth. They make excellent first-time pets for novices, and are prized by experienced handlers for their sweet temperament.

Bearded dragons are omnivores, avidly hunting insects and small vertebrates. They also forage for soft greens, fruits, and flowers. Wild bearded dragons live in rocky semi-desert regions and in dry open woodlands. They like to bask on rocks and branches in the morning and evening, but spend the hottest part of the day in underground burrows.

Bearded dragons are very social animals, which makes them a favorite among reptile-lovers. Unlike many lizards which require considerable time and effort to hand-tame, bearded dragons adapt quickly to human interaction, and appear to become genuinely fond of their human keepers.

Selecting Your Bearded Dragon

There are many "puppy mill" dragon breeders in the United States, and so unknowing pet stores often buy hatchlings the day after they’re born. Most of these babies will die within days, because they are too tiny and fragile to withstand the stress of being shipped cross-country in huge numbers with improper heating and no food. No reputable breeder will sell a dragon that is less than 6" from nose to tail-tip, and well-developed.

Before you buy a beardie, make sure it’s alert, large enough to survive the stress of relocation, and responsive to your touch. A beardie that lays limply in its tank or your hand should be avoided. It may be suffering from internal parasites, starvation through improper care and poor diet, dehydration, or a number of other life-threatening problems.

Housing

Bearded dragons only grow to about 20"- 24" in length, but they need large enclosures. Each adult beardie should be housed in a well-ventilated 90-gallon or larger enclosure. Never forget to use a lid...bearded dragons are curious, and like to explore every nook and cranny of their environment.

Wild bearded dragons are solitary, and defend their territories by hissing and biting. Dragons in captivity should never be placed together in the same cage. The larger beardie will almost always kill the smaller one, either through fighting, or simply by dominating it so that it stops eating and withers away. In addition, all adult beardies will eat smaller lizards...so hatchlings should never be housed with juveniles or adults. Hatchlings will usually tolerate the presence of other hatchlings, but past 3 months of age, should always be separated into their own tanks.

When choosing a substrate for your beardie’s tank, avoid sand and wood fibers such as pine or cedar. Dragons will sometimes ingest their bedding when snatching at a cricket. Sand (especially calcium sand) will impact in their stomachs, forming a hard rock that must be surgically removed. Pine and cedar resins are so strong and aromatic that the beardie literally cannot smell its food, and it will starve to death even if its food is plainly visible.

Coconut mulch, newspaper, linoleum, ceramic tile, utility carpeting, and slab rock all make good substrates. Be sure to add some non-prickly cacti, a decorative cave or two, artificial vines, and plenty of branches for your dragon to bask on. Since it requires both basking and hiding areas, your beardie will appreciate these attractive, easy-to-maintain additions to its tank.

Heat and Light

Contrary to popular belief, bearded dragons do not live in the desert. They actually live in the semi-arid scrublands bordering the Australian desert. Like all sensible creatures, they prefer to nap their days away in cool caves or burrows. Ambient tank temperatures should range from 85º - 90º F during the daytime, with a basking area that ranges between 100º - 110º F. At night, temperatures should drop no lower than the mid-70s. The ideal solution is to use a basking lamp at one end of the tank, to provide the proper range of temperatures. Avoid heat rocks at all costs; they are very cheaply made, have no adjustable thermostats, and can be fatal to your dragon when they malfunction.

Sunlight is vitally important to bearded dragons. If you can't expose it to direct sunlight on a daily basis (NOT by placing your tank in front of a window, because glass and plastic both block UVA/UVB rays), make sure that your basking lamp uses a UVA/UVB-producing florescent bulb. Incandescent lights do not provide the full spectrum required by reptiles for calcium metabolism. Beardies deprived of heat and UVA/UVB cannot digest their food properly, and will get sick and die. (Remember to change out your UVA/UVB bulb every 6 months or so, as it will lose its potency over time.) ZooMed's PowerSun bulbs are particularly good for bearded dragons, as they offer the best combination of heat, UVA, and UVB in one bulb, eliminating the need for multiple expensive fixtures.

Water

Bearded dragons enjoy an occasional shower or light misting with water; this helps keep their skin moist, so they can shed more easily. Many adults actively enjoy swimming in the sink or bathtub. Hatchlings may drown if they can't scramble out of their bowl, and so should be misted 2-3 times every day. For a juvenile or adult, always provide fresh drinking water in a shallow bowl. You may want to consider draping a branch of decorative ivy into the water; this allows young beardies to drink safely, and also allows any crickets that land in the water bowl to climb out again without drowning.

Food

Baby bearded dragons must be fed very small prey! Babies are voracious, eating both a variety of freshly-chopped greens and 50-100 crickets PER DAY, and will often try to consume crickets that are too large for their mouths and stomachs. Serious physical injury and even death can result. Crickets should never be larger than the space between your beardie’s eyes. You may find it cost-effective to bulk-order crickets from an insect breeder such as Armstrong Crickets (www.armstrongcricket.com). Baby beardies usually eat 2-week old crickets, while adults will eat larger crickets, superworms, phoenix worms, silkworms, and hornworms for variety.

Bearded dragons are omnivorous, and need vegetables and fruits along with a wide variety of insects. Favorite plant foods may include chopped vegetables such as mustard greens, dandelion greens, turnip greens, collard greens, green beans, squash, carrots, parsley, raspberries, mango, butternut squash, and cantaloupe. Avoid spinach, apples, avocados, and lettuce of any kind. Also remember that each beardie has its own individual tastes--so what one dragon adores, another may ignore entirely.

Baby beardies may not eat much "salad," but it should always be offered to them. Spraying it with water will encourage babies to drink (and eat). Dropping crickets on their salad will also encourage them to eat. Older beardies require more salad, and as they age, this should become their primary diet, with insects becoming the supplement rather than the main course.

Always make sure to "gut load" your crickets and other insects by feeding them a high-calcium insect food. A 50/50 combination of powdered milk and yellow corn meal makes an excellent edible bedding, with some fresh potato wedges thrown in for moisture. If you don't provide them with high-calcium foods before feeding them to your dragon, you should dust your crickets with a high-calcium supplement such as RepCal Calcium at least 4 times a week before feeding them to your beardies. Alternate this with a multi-vitamin such as RepCal Herptivite, to ensure that your dragon receives a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals. Another excellent calcium supplement is Calstron.

Handling

Bearded dragons tend to be very placid and trusting. While this makes them excellent pets, they may not hold onto your hand as well as other reptiles. Scoop up your dragon gently, with your hand under its belly. Always support its entire body, but don't hold it tightly. Rather, let it rest in your palm, and curl your fingers gently over its back. Beardies often enjoy riding on a shoulder, and with a little practice, will accept a wide-bodied leather leash. This will allow you to take it along on your daily travels.

Reproduction

Bearded dragons reach sexual maturity between one and two years of age. During this time, they may go through a brief temperamental "terrible twos" phase where they don’t want to be handled. Don’t be put off by this behavior; it will pass. In a few months, your dragon will revert to its sweet, placid behavior again.

Males and females should never be placed together, because breeding bearded dragons is an incredibly expensive endeavor. It is also extremely stressful on the female, because the male can literally breed her to death. In addition, female dragons store sperm, and can lay between 5-9 clutches of eggs per season from just one mating. Each clutch can have between 30-60 eggs...and each baby bearded dragon will eat between 50-100 crickets PER BEARDIE, PER DAY! If you have more than one dragon, and they do mate--or if you adopt a female which subsequently lays eggs--the safest thing to do is freeze the eggs, so that they never hatch.

Brumation

Bearded dragons, like bears, hibernate during the colder months. This seasonal behavior is called brumation. First-time owners always panic when their beardie starts brumating, because it changes from a bright, perky reptile to a sleepy, sluggish, ‘don’t-bother-me’ lump. If your beardie is at least 1½ years old, and is otherwise healthy, this behavior is perfectly normal.

Don’t bother trying to wake your beardie to feed it; food is the last thing it wants. Simply provide it with a bowl of fresh water, and maybe a snuggly blanket in its favorite cave, and let it sleep. It may awaken periodically, stumble around drunkenly for a while, drink its fill, then go back to sleep for another few days or weeks. Or it may sleep for the entire cold season, and awaken ravenous in the spring. Respect its needs; no one likes being woken from a deep sleep unless the house is on fire. ;-)

With proper care and attention, your bearded dragon will be the easiest, most affectionate reptile you could ever hope to own.

Resources

An excellent online learning resource for new and experienced beardie owners is http://pets.groups.yahoo.com/group/pogona/. The world’s top breeders and beardie enthusiasts gather here to exchange tips and tricks about successfully keeping beardies healthy and happy. We highly recommend checking out this friendly, informative chat group.

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