Bearded Dragon Caresheet (Pogona vitticeps)by Rachel Hitch & Richard Brooks
Bearded Dragon Taxonomy
Bearded dragons are agamid lizards (meaning, literally, "true lizard") that inhabit dry woodland or arid, semi-desert regions where they can normally be seen basking on rocks or climbing nimbly through the branches of trees or shrubs. They belong to the Pogona genus, along with several other species, including P. henrylawsoni (The Rankins Dragon) and P. barbata (the Common Bearded Dragon), both of which are becoming increasingly popular as pets.
Bearded Dragons are native to Australia and New Guinea, but due to Australia's stringent animal export laws (which some claim has lead to an increase in the numbers of animals smuggled out of the country illegally) most of the pets found in Europe and the US are thought to be descended from a small number of wild caught breeding pairs exported from the subcontinent some years ago.
Many of the agamas bear striking similarities, and the Bearded Dragon is typical of this, particularly in terms of the shape of its head. Scales along the sides of the neck and head have evolved into spikes that, although soft to touch, do play an important part in the animal's defensive and courtship displays. The spiny beard (hence the creature's name) is made all the more impressive when the animals flatten themselves out, making them seem larger in the eyes of a potential threat or mate.
It is unusual, however, for Bearded Dragons to put on this display in captivity. Indeed, part of the reason that they make such good pets is because they quickly become comfortable in their enclosures (providing that they are properly cared for) and will rarely feel threatened. Only during mating season and in the presence of the opposite sex are you likely to see them trying to impress their cage mates.
While Bearded Dragons are not large lizards, the adults can still reach sizes of up to 20inches, and so they do require vivariums of a decent size, both in terms of height and width. The recommended minimum enclosure size for one adult bearded dragon is 3ft x 2ft, and you should increase the floor space by 2 square feet for every additional dragon. Height is dependant on where the heat source is allocated, but a minimum 2ft of height would allow you the inclusion of climbing branches.
Hatchlings should not be housed with juveniles or adults, due to risk of cannibalism, and males should be housed separately due to territorial
behavior. Overcrowding can also lead to aggression and stress.
Provision of a temperature gradient inside the tank is essential because bearded dragons, like other reptiles, are unable to physiologically maintain their body temperature. An ambient temperature of 90-95 Fahrenheit should be provided, with a basking spot of 100-110 Fahrenheit, and a daytime low of 75-85 Fahrenheit at a cooler end of the enclosure. Dragons can have a night time temperature of no lower than 70 Fahrenheit. Heat sources can include under-tank heating pads, basking lights and ceramic-heating elements, all of which should be attached to a thermostat to ensure accurate temperature control. Hot rocks, however, should never be used as a heat source, as they can overheat and cause serious burns, or even electrical shocks, to the animals. Lighting used as heat sources and ceramic-heating elements should be away from reach of the dragon's touch to avoid burns.
Bearded dragons require daily access to a UVB source, which can be provided by using a full spectrum bulb or tube that emits high levels of UVA and UVB. UVB is essential in the metabolism of vitamin D3, which in turn is essential for calcium metabolism, so a tube that emits 8% UVB is optimal. UVB producing fluorescent tubes or lights require replacement every six months to ensure that UV output is strong. The tube or light should be situated so that the dragon can get within 12 inches of it, though closer is better, as the further away the light is, the less effective the UV output. During summer, when outside temperatures are high, it may be beneficial for the dragon to receive some exposure to the natural sunlight. This can be achieved by providing an outdoor enclosure for the dragon to spend time in, though care must be taken to ensure that overheating does not occur, therefore supervision is essential. UV cannot penetrate glass, so if you allow your dragon to soak up some natural rays, an outdoor enclosure made of wood and mesh would be suitable.
Substrates that can be used in captivity without the risk of impaction are paper towels, newspaper, and reptile carpet. Though these substrates may not be as visually appealing as some others, a more natural look requires caution. Adult dragons can be kept on fine sand, or children's play sand, which is relatively dust free, easy to maintain, and pest free, though there have been reports of intestinal impaction. Another substrate, which has a low risk of impaction and is pest free, is wheat bran. Substrates posing higher risks, which should be avoided, include bark and wood chippings or shavings, crushed walnut, corncob and any other large particle substrate.
Cage furniture should include a water bowl and a branch or rocks on which the dragon can climb. A hide or hides can be provided, however most dragons will bask and sleep in the open, most of the time. If rocks are used, attention must be paid to the arrangement as safety is an issue. They mustn't be allowed to fall onto your animals, and going as far as fixing them into position with silica gel is advisable. Remember Bearded Dragons have been known to dig, so in order to prevent them undermining and
destabilizing rock piles, make sure the rocks sit on the vivarium floor, and not on the substrate.
Additional decorative furniture can also be added, such as imitation plants and commercial accessories. If real plants are to be used in the enclosure, care must be taken to ensure that the plants are not poisonous to the dragon if ingested.
Bearded dragons are omnivores, doing well on a varied diet of fruit and vegetables and insects. As a staple, gut-loaded crickets, locusts and silkworms are readily taken, with mealworms, earthworms, and wax worms as treats (wax worms have a very high fat content so should be fed infrequently). The occasional pinkie (newborn) mouse can also be fed, as a good way to increase the weight of a recently gravid female or emaciated dragon. Dry formula and pellets are also available for use as a staple food for bearded dragons, though fresh vegetables and live food are better for a complete and balanced diet, and many dragons refuse to eat the dry formulas.
To provide a well-balanced diet the ratio of calcium to phosphorus (Ca:P) must be taken into account, as high levels of phosphorus can prevent the animals converting ingested calcium into a useable substance internally. Most live foods are high in phosphorus, so feeding fruits and vegetables with high Ca:P ratios and supplementing food with a calcium and multi-vitamin product will help to create a healthy balance.
Vegetables and fruit that can be fed daily, or as part of a staple diet, include alfalfa plant, cactus pad/leaf, collard greens, dandelion greens, endive, escarole, figs, mango, mustard greens, papaya, raspberries, squash and turnip greens. Some fruits and vegetables that can be fed occasionally include apple, blackberries, cabbage, carrots, cucumber, grapes, kale, strawberries and watercress. Avocado, lettuce, rhubarb and spinach should all be avoided, as they contain oxalic acid, are toxic to bearded dragons, and are of poor nutritional value, causing problems such as
diarrhea. If feeding plants or insects collected from the wild, care must be taken to ensure that no pesticides have been used in the area.
There are many calcium and multi-vitamin products available, including powder and spray supplements. For dragons under a year of age it is recommended that you supplement food 4-5 times per week, while dragons over a year in age need their food supplementing less, at 2-4 times per week. Pre-breeding or gravid females can benefit from a larger calcium intake.
Many calcium supplements and multi-vitamins contain vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), which is essential to calcium metabolism, and is made in the dragon's skin by contact with sufficient UVB wavelengths. Care should be taken, however, not to over-supplement food with multi-vitamin products, as it is possible to overdose on certain vitamins, such as vitamins A and D3.
Live food should be offered to the dragon daily, although healthy, fully grown dragons may eat less. Fresh fruits and vegetables should also be provided daily, for the benefits of nutritional value and as a good source of moisture, as many bearded dragons will not drink from a water bowl. To simulate a drinking response you can mist the dragon and cage furniture to allow the drinking of droplets of water, which is more natural for
bearded dragons, although some dragons will learn to drink from a water bowl. Humidity should be low, so ventilation is important when misting frequently. You may also want to bath your dragon occasionally, as this may help with hydration, skin-shedding, and constipation, and can be an enjoyable experience for some animals.
Health - Disease - Illness
Some of the more common health problems experienced by bearded dragons are:
Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD): This is the weakening of the bone caused by an imbalance in vitamin D3, calcium and phosphorus. Foods that are high in oxalates and phosphorus, too much or too little vitamin D3, and too little access to UVB light are all causes of this disease. Signs include hard lumps in the long bones of the legs, bumps along the vertebral column of the back and tail, and softening or hard swelling of the lower jaw.
A more detailed explanation of Metabolic Bone Disease and its symptoms and treatments can be found here: Metabolic Bone Disease
Mouth Rot (Stomatitis): This is a systematic infection that often shows up as a whitish or yellow-grey cheesy substance in the soft tissues of the mouth. In advanced cases, the head may be quite swollen, teeth may be loose, and bleeding from the gums may occur. Dragons suffering from Stomatitis often cease or greatly reduce voluntary intake of food and water.
A more detailed explanation of Ulcerative Stomatitis and its symptoms and treatments can be found here: Ulcerative Stomatitis
Respiratory Infections: prolonged exposure to low temperatures, improper humidity and poor cage conditions can result in respiratory infections. Symptoms include gaping, forced exhalation of air, puffing of the throat, a puffed up appearance of the body, and lack of appetite. In some cases, mucus may accumulate in the mouth and/or emerge from the nostrils.
A more detailed explanation of Respiratory Disease and its symptoms and treatments can be found here: Respiratory Disease
Mites: like ticks, mites are members of the arachnid family, and survive by sucking the blood of their hosts. They carry and transmit diseases from one reptile to another, and can severely weaken the immune system of their hosts, which can eventually be fatal to the reptile. There are several commercial and veterinary treatments designed for eradicating mites, which can easily be imported into your collection via other reptiles, lack of proper quarantine and certain substrates.
Parasites: Bearded dragons bodies, as with humans, are teeming with microscopic organisms, particularly within the digestive track, which are kept in check by a healthy immune system and beneficial gut flora (good bacteria). A bearded dragon subjected to stress, improper temperatures, starvation, or prolonged dehydration may be at risk of a weakened immune system, and non-beneficial organisms (bad bacteria) will have the chance to flourish and cause problems. The most common signs of gut bacteria problems are changes in the
color and consistency of feces.
Other health problems and diseases are inclusive, but are not exclusive, of hypervitaminosis A (too much vitamin A), hypothiaminosis (lack of vitamin B), constipation or
diarrhea, dystocia (egg-binding), dehydration, paralysis, and the more recently discovered adenovirus and yellow fungus : a disease still being researched, believed to be linked to a yeast infection in the digestive system that bearded dragons have developed after treatment from antibiotics.
If you experience any unusual symptoms exhibited by your bearded dragon, you must seek expert veterinary advice immediately.