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Bearded Dragon Care

By: Dr. A. Martin

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Bearded dragons are agamid lizards belonging to the genus Pogona (formerly Amphibolurus). The most common species kept in the United States is Pogona vitticeps or the bearded dragon. The term bearded comes from the fact that this lizard has the ability to extend and blacken the skin on the underside of its throat, creating a beard-like appearance.

P. vitticeps, also called the yellow-headed or inland bearded dragon, is native to central Australia. They are presently categorized as diurnal, omnivorous and semi-arboreal (tree-dwelling) and their average life span is between 7 and 10 years. They grow up to 24 inches in length and are relatively easy to keep in captivity. Since being introduced to this country, they are now available in red, yellow, gold, pastel and sandfire colors.

Many herpetologists consider bearded dragons to be one of the better lizards to keep in captivity because of their temperament, size, attractiveness and typically docile nature.

Housing and Environment

For the majority of reptile owners an indoor vivarium is the only option. Buy or make the largest enclosure that you can afford. At a minimum, the bearded dragon house needs to measure at least 72 inches by 16 inches by 17 inches. It needs to have a secure, tight-fitting lid and, ideally, it should be made using Plexiglas, acrylic or glass. The enclosure needs to have objects onto which to climb. These can include branches, driftwood or large rocks. The enclosure should have thermometers placed in various zones so that accurate temperature readings can be taken. Food, water bowls and water baths should be placed in accessible areas and cleaned frequently. Lastly, a hide area needs to be furnished so that the lizard does not always have to be on display. This can be in the form of a cardboard box, or clay or plastic shelters that are commercially available.

Since bearded dragons naturally live in arid, rocky, semi-desert regions they need to have daytime temperatures ranging from 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, a basking area where the temperature reaches 88 to 95 F, and the nighttime temperature that can fall as low as 70 F. Again, it is vital to monitor these temperature gradients accurately with a thermometer. Some methods of heating the enclosure are with a basking light, which should only be used during the day, a ceramic infrared-element bulb by Pearlco, Active UV Heat (Active Heat, Santa Barbara, Ca), heating pads, heat strips. Hot rocks are a poor alternative heat source, but if used, should be covered with fabric to prevent contact burns.

If natural light is unavailable, bearded dragons need full-spectrum lighting that provides UV-B. This is essential for both behavioral and psychological benefits and the activation of vitamin D-3. Vitamin D-3 is needed for the absorption of calcium from the gastrointestinal tract. Some commercially available fluorescent bulbs, which provide the UVB spectrum, are Dura-Test's Vita-Lite, Vita-Lite Plus, ZooMed's Iguana light, and Active UVHeat. These bulbs should be within 12 inches of the dragon and no glass or Plexiglas should separate them. It is also important to replace the bulbs every 6 to 12 months even though the bulbs are still producing light because the UVB production diminishes with time.

Nutrition

Bearded dragons can be raised on crickets, mealworms, king mealworms, and pinky and fuzzy mice. Remember they are what they eat, so it is important to feed the insects properly a couple of days prior to offering them to the dragons. Make sure, too, that the mice have been recently removed from their mothers. Recommendations are to feed the insects a quality pulverized rodent chow, cricket diet manufactured by Ziegler Brothers. Sliced oranges are a good source of water for crickets, and mealworms should be offered carrots.

There have been field studies that have shown that adult dragons are primarily herbivores and that they consume 90 percent vegetable matter. Juveniles were found to be more omnivorous and ate 50 percent plant material and 50 percent animal matter. Therefore, dragons should also be offered daily dark green leafy vegetables. These should include romaine, red, green and Boston leaf lettuces. Also collard greens, kale, endive, spinach, parsley, bok choy and broccoli leaves and florets are suitable. On a limited basis, carrots, peas, squash and beans can be offered. Lastly, a quality mineral supplement like RepCal, Reptocal or Nekton should be sprinkled on the insects prior to feeding them to the dragons a couple of times a week. Also remember that depending on the age of the dragon, their nutritional needs vary.

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