20 Oct Bearded Dragons
Bearded dragons, also affectionately known as “beardies”, are a type of lizard named for the folds of prickly skin around the neck which expand when they feel stressed or threatened. They originate from Australia where they can be found in a range of different habitats.
Beardies fall into the category of “exotic” pet species and as such they have especially complex welfare needs. In addition, they can live for 15 years or more in captivity! Therefore, the decision to adopt or buy one of these unique lizards should be well thought through and before getting a bearded dragon you should be absolutely certain that you will be able to provide the correct care and meet the welfare standards.
The environment of a captive lizard should imitate that of wild lizards as far as possible. Beardies are most active during the day and they obtain their body heat from the sun. They live mainly on the ground but can also climb up onto rocks and branches to find a good spot for sunbathing. A beardy’s vivarium should be safe and secure. An average bearded dragon is 45cm in length and so its enclosure should be at least 120cm long, 60cm high and 60cm deep.
Bearded dragons, like all reptiles, use the environment around them to heat up and cool down. To allow for this special kind of thermoregulation, one end of the vivarium should be heated to a temperature of 38-42ºC with a light source. The other end, the cool end, should be between 22-26ºC. It is important that the temperature is monitored on a daily basis. It is also essential that the humidity in the vivarium is quite low – about 30 to 40% to prevent skin and respiratory problems.
Light is important for wild and captive reptiles alike. Light serves a number of different functions for beardies. It allows them to set a pattern of active and sleeping hours. It is needed for their colour vision. It also allows them to make the essential vitamin D3 in their skin which is important for calcium metabolism. The hotter end of the enclosure should be the end with the most light while the cool end should be more shaded. A UVb fluorescent tube for your dragon’s enclosure can be purchased from most pet stores.
It is important to clean the enclosure once a month with a disinfectant that is safe for reptiles. Animal waste should be removed from the vivarium as soon as it appears. Reptiles can carry some infections which can be spread to humans so remember to wash your hands after cleaning the enclosure and handling your pet.
A shallow dish of clean, fresh water should be placed in the cool end of the enclosure and it should be replaced on a daily basis.
Bearded dragons are omnivorous. About 60% of the diet of an adult beardy should consist of plants and vegetables. Greens that are safe to feed include rocket, watercress, chicory and butternut squash. Any uneaten food should be removed and replaced on a daily basis. Greens that should be avoided include spinach, cabbage and kale as these can prevent the absorption of some nutrients and can affect hormone production.
A variety of live prey should make up the remaining 40% of an adult bearded dragon’s diet. This can include crickets, locusts and mealworms and should be no bigger than the dragon’s mouth. The livefood can be kept in a large, well-ventilated container and can be fed the same vegetables as you feed your bearded dragon.
Baby dragons should be fed twice a day and require the opposite ratio of livefood to greens – 60% livefood and 40% greens. Adults can be fed once a day in the mornings so that they can digest their food during the day. Supplements are required for dragons kept in captivity and these can be applied to the food according to the manufacturer’s instructions before feeding.
It is important to provide your exotic pet with the opportunity to carry out natural habits and behaviour. It should have access to stones and branches for climbing, an area where it can dig and a place where it can hide if it feels insecure.
Beardies are territorial animals and the males are solitary dwellers in the wild. Females that are kept in groups in captivity may fight to try and maintain a hierarchy. Barded dragons can cause quite a lot of damage to a housemate during a fight and it is recommended to rather house them separately.
If you would like to handle your bearded dragon it is important to do so gently and calmly. Do not startle it and cause unnecessary stress. It should be held with both hands and so that all 4 legs are supported. Also remember that the reptile should not be removed from its enclosure for too long as this can cause the body temperature to drop. On a warm, sunny day you may want to move your dragon outside for some natural sunlight and a change of scenery. Make sure it has access to shade and water and is closely supervised.
Healthy bearded dragons should have clear, bright eyes. The base of the tail should be thick and the hip bones should not be protruding. Healthy beardies become brighter in colour after sunbathing.
Like other reptiles, bearded dragons shed their skin. The skin becomes dry and dull and will then shed easily in large pieces over a day or so. Old skin should never be pulled off as this can cause the delicate new skin beneath it to tear. Poor or difficult shedding can be due to poor hydration of the animal or incorrect humidity in the enclosure. Adjustments may need to be made to correct these shedding problems.
Reptiles can suffer from parasite burdens just like other animals. Their droppings should be long and firm, with a dark part and a white part. It is important to look for any signs of abnormal droppings. A lizard suffering from constipation or diarrhoea along with weight loss may have internal parasites which need to be taken care of by a vet.
A common health problem seen in many reptiles kept in captivity is metabolic bone disease. This is a condition which is due to nutritional deficiencies, most commonly vitamin D3 deficiency due to a lack of adequate lighting. Without vitamin D3 bearded dragons cannot absorb calcium from their food and this leads to softening of the bones and weakening of the muscles.
Female beardies, even those that have never lived with a male, can develop eggs and become egg bound if she is not given a place in which to lay her eggs. This is a serious condition which must be attended to by a veterinarian immediately.
Caring for a bearded dragon, or any exotic pet, is not something to be taken lightly. Any would-be keeper needs to do a great amount of research on the subject. While they may not be for everyone – as they are far from the easiest of pets to keep – for a knowledgeable owner who is prepared to put in all the necessary work, this exotic pet can provide years of special, spikey companionship.