What do you need to know before adopting a bearded dragon?
You’ve decided you want to care for a bearded dragon.
What should you pay attention to?
What do you feed this unique lizard?
What should its home look like?
Bearded dragon husbandry may seem intimidating.
However, if you follow proper setup requirements and stick to them, you are well on your way to becoming a great bearded dragon keeper.
Table of Contents
What Are The Basics Of Bearded Dragon Husbandry?
There are many factors which go into complete bearded dragon care. You will want to consider housing, lighting, heating, substrate, and diet if you are starting. All of these care requirements go into bearded dragon husbandry.
Bearded Dragon Housing
When selecting an enclosure, you have multiple vital considerations: size, floor space, material, and the age of the bearded dragon you’re planning to buy or adopt.
You will also want to consider whether you want a custom-built or a pre-made habitat.
Size And Floor Space
Since they are terrestrial lizards, bearded dragons will need enough floor space to move, dig, and exercise.
A 40-gallon tank minimum is best for an adult, though bigger is always better once the dragon is fully grown.
While a young bearded dragon may get overwhelmed by a very large space, an adult will need space as it grows.
A good rule of thumb before buying an enclosure is to buy or build one at least three times the length of your bearded dragon.
There are two ways to go about buying an enclosure.
First, you could buy a full-size enclosure and provide a divider of wood, cardboard, or plastic.
The divider will ensure a baby in a big enclosure will not get overwhelmed and may be removed when the bearded dragon grows into adulthood and wants to move around in a larger space.
Second, you could buy a small enclosure for a baby and size up enclosures as it grows.
Bearded dragon terrariums are made from all kinds of materials, including wood, fiberglass, and glass.
Most beginning owners stick with a large glass tank.
Acrylic is one material not recommended for use with bearded dragons since it is easily scratched and needs to be fully replaced often for optimal visibility.
Avoid typical aquarium glass tops.
A screened top is best since it provides adequate ventilation and prevents a bearded dragon from escaping its enclosure.
It should also protect your beardie from the attention of other pets in your house, especially cats or dogs.
Custom Vs. Pre-Made
Pre-made terrariums are the option most reptile keepers use, and there are multiple options available to suit an owner’s needs.
If possible, you could also consult a custom maker of reptile enclosures, or, if you have the skills, make one yourself.
You could always start with a pre-made enclosure and upgrade to a custom enclosure as you learn more about your bearded dragon’s needs.
While many tanks are top-opening, some enclosures available for bearded dragons are front-opening.
Front-opening enclosures make it easier to feed your pet and clean the enclosure.
You may need to consider whether you want a bioactive terrarium since you may have difficulty fitting deep substrate layers in a front-opening enclosure.
Bearded Dragon Lighting
In your lighting setup, you will need to mimic your pet’s natural circadian rhythms and provide radiation the sun would provide in the wild.
You need a bulb which offers 5-7 percent UVA and UVB radiation.
In the wild, a bearded dragon would get this radiation from sunlight.
However, since keeping their enclosure in direct sunlight is a bad idea and could cook them alive, you will need to provide a separate supplemental source.
Make sure your pet gets several hours of UVB exposure every day.
It is necessary to stimulate appetite, facilitate normal vitamin D3 and calcium absorption, and boost metabolism.
Without proper UVB radiation, a bearded dragon will be susceptible to infection, calcium deficiency, and metabolic bone disease.
We recommend a tube which provides this radiation versus a coil or mercury vapor bulb.
A tube will spread exposure and heat across the enclosure, not just concentrate it in one place.
Make sure to replace bulbs every six months or so, as UVB bulbs tend to lose efficacy over time.
Pro Tip: Different seasons will have different UVB exposure requirements.
In summer, you should give your bearded dragon 14-16 hours of UVB light in the daytime and 8-10 hours of nighttime UVB exposure.
In fall and winter, make sure they get 10-12 hours of UVB exposure in the daytime and 12-14 hours of nighttime exposure.
Likewise, to mimic a bearded dragon’s natural circadian rhythms, you should put their day lights on a timer to replicate light changes during the day.
Beardies are diurnal and need darkness to sleep.
You will want a fluorescent lighting tube which extends over 80% of the tank’s length. Use ones specifically meant for use with pet reptiles, like this one.
Put any lightbulbs in a hood or ballast specifically meant for reptile enclosures.
The placement of lights will depend on what type you are using.
Never put any lights above glass since they will block necessary radiation.
Above a screened top is best.
For full effectiveness, put any lights no more than 12″ inches (30 cm) away from the floor of the enclosure.
If you are using a mercury vapor bulb, you should only place it at one end of the enclosure, like a heat lamp for a basking area.
A mercury vapor bulb should be no more than 20″ inches (51 cm) from the enclosure floor.
Make sure to follow manufacturer’s instructions for placement and installation.
Though some owners use CFL bulbs for their reptiles to save on energy, there is some controversy over their use.
Some have claimed they damage reptiles’ eyes and cause blindness.
We recommend against using CFL bulbs at this time.
Bearded Dragon Heating
When figuring out a heating setup, keep in mind juveniles, and hatchlings have higher temperature needs than adult bearded dragons.
We have included a table of basking and cool side temperatures based on the age of your pet.
Make sure you have a high-quality thermometer and hygrometer, more than once if possible, in the enclosure to monitor temperature and humidity levels.
However old your bearded dragon is, you want to mimic the desert temperatures of their native Australian deserts as closely as possible.
You don’t want to go over recommended temperatures, as these have a greater potential to cause burns and dehydration.
Ideally, you should have a range of ambient temperatures from the basking area to the cool side of the enclosure.
A range of temperatures will help your bearded dragon thermoregulate.
A heating lamp on the basking side of the enclosure should provide the necessary temperatures.
A nighttime drop in temperature to 75-82° degrees Fahrenheit (24-28° C) is normal and encouraged.
If your bearded dragon is ill, you should be keeping nighttime temperatures higher than this range until they recover.
Since beardies are diurnal, you should have a nighttime source of heating which does not produce light.
A ceramic heat emitter is great for this purpose.
We do not recommend using heat rocks for your tank’s heating purposes.
These easily burn the soft underbelly of a bearded dragon.
Under tank heating mats should not be used under plastic or wood enclosures due to fire risk.
You can learn more about using heat rocks for bearded dragons in this other post we’ve written if you’re interested in learning if they have any possible use for you.
Consult an expert reptile keeper or your veterinarian if you feel you need to make a temperature change in the enclosure.
|Cool Side Temperature
|95-110° degrees Fahrenheit (35-43° C)
|80-90° degrees Fahrenheit (27-32° C)
|5 months-18 months
|95-100° degrees Fahrenheit (35-38° C)
|80-90° degrees Fahrenheit (27-32° C)
|Over 18 months
|90-93° degrees Fahrenheit (32-34° C)
|80-90° degrees Fahrenheit (27-32° C)
Bearded Dragon Substrate And Terrarium Items
Once you have chosen your enclosure, heating setup, and lighting setup, the next important consideration is what you will use as a substrate.
The best substrate for your bearded dragon will depend on their age, cleanliness, and overall health.
There are multiple categories of options for bearded dragon substrate: loose or particle and non-particle.
Loose substrates have the advantage of promoting natural digging and burrowing behavior in your pet.
The disadvantage is they are harder to clean and replace and present more impaction concerns.
You should not use loose substrate if your bearded dragon is still a baby, as babies are messier eaters and may eat substrate accidentally.
Loose substrates are not recommended for ill or injured beardies, either.
Of the loose substrates, the most controversial is reptile sand.
Though bearded dragons live on the sand in the wild, sands in captivity are most often blamed for digestive impaction issues.
Experts recommend if you use sand, only to use silica-free, dye-free play sand.
Make sure to rinse it or bake it to disinfect it.
Some impaction concerns may be addressed by mixing sand with organic, untreated topsoil.
Suitable loose substrates include:
- Repti-chips (these are soft and small enough not to cause digestive issues)
- Organic, nontreated topsoil
- Excavator Clay
Do not use crushed walnut shells, as they have sharp edges and may cause injury to the eyes and mouths.
Do not use anything made from cedar or fir hardwoods since these are toxic to reptiles.
Large woodchips are not recommended as a bearded dragon substrate.
Non-particle substrates have the advantage of being easier to clean than loose substrates, and there is far less risk of impaction.
They also tend to be cheaper and have more widespread availability.
The main disadvantage of non-particle substrates is there is no chance for mental stimulation through digging.
However, you could include a separate digging area or box with a limited amount of loose substrate for this purpose.
Non-particle substrates include:
- Ceramic or slate tile
- Paper Towels
- Reptile Carpet
- Sand Mats
Once you have put down your substrate, add perches and hides.
A bearded dragon will want a large perch or rock for basking and hides for thermoregulation.
You could also add a hammock, which usually suction cups onto the sides of the terrarium.
A hammock provides a great source of mental stimulation for your beardie.
Bearded Dragon Diet
Bearded dragons are omnivores and in captivity will eat a mix of plant matter and live insects.
As they grow, babies and juveniles will phase out eating mostly insects to eat more plant matter in adulthood.
As an owner, you should add a calcium supplement and a multivitamin usually served in powder form.
Great insects for bearded dragons include:
- Dubia Roaches
- Mealworms (avoid feeding to hatchling dragons as their chitin is too hard)
Do not feed wild-caught insects, as they are more likely to contact pesticides and insecticides.
Buy feeder insects from trusted suppliers.
Great vegetables for bearded dragons include:
- Dandelion greens
- Bell pepper
- Acorn squash
Avoid avocado and rhubarb.
Great fruits (the smallest portion of a beardie’s diet) include:
- Prickly pear cactus
Bearded dragons should also have a clean, dechlorinated source of water.
A bowl big enough to soak in without tipping over is ideal.
Though bearded dragons are considered a beginner reptile pet, they definitely have their own unique care and husbandry requirements.
Setting up their enclosures properly with good heating, lighting, and an appropriate substrate is vital to their health and longevity.
A varied diet with complete nutrition will further set them up for wellness.