Bearded Dragons are very docile reptiles and relatively easy to keep in captivity, although, as with all exotic pets, things will go wrong if you don’t do your homework and pay attention to detail!
Australian Bearded Dragons (Pogona vitticeps) are in the Agama family, which is composed of around 325 species in 40 genera. Other members of this family include Frilled Dragons (Chlamydosaurus kingii), Tree Dragons (Diporihora superba), Asian water dragons (Hydrosaurus amboinensis), and the Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus).
Bearded Dragons got their names due to the flap of skin under their jaw. When disturbed this is extended to form something that resembles a “beard”.
In the wild, they will eat small lizards, rodents, and a wide variety of insects but will also eat some vegetation. As juveniles, they will usually eat almost no vegetable matter until they are about 6 weeks old, and will eat only insects.
They are semi-arboreal, and spend some time in small trees, bushes, and, reportedly, fence posts.
Their colouring is an adaptation to their feeding method. In the wild, Bearded Dragons are "watch and wait" predators. They will remain motionless until something edible wanders within easy reach, and then lunge forward to catch it. As a result, Bearded Dragons spend a great deal of their time doing very little.
Bearded Dragons usually grow to about 2 feet (counting the tail) long, and the males are generally bigger than the females.Males tend to extend their beards more than females, and more during the breeding season. Also, males tend to have a much darker (almost black) beard than females.
Another distinguishing characteristic is that males usually have much larger heads then females. They are naturally colored tan, with darker brown patterns on the back and head. There are also a few variant colors developed by breeding.
Bearded Dragons will usually begin to breed at around 18 months. They are oviparous (lay eggs). Clutch size is usually around 20 or so eggs that hatch in 55-75 days.
Hatchlings are about 3-4 inches long. Care should be taken to make sure the hatchlings are well fed. Nipping off tail tips and toes is not uncommon. They should be fed three small meals daily. When you are buying one, you should take care to get one that is at least 6 weeks old.
Bearded Dragons are omnivores and will accept a wide variety of foods. Variety is essential.
If you are squeamish about feeding live prey such as crickets, Bearded Dragons are not for you! Live prey can consist of crickets, earthworms and grasshoppers. An occasional dead pinky (baby mouse) is also useful. You can feed chopped & cooked chicken & beef, cooked rice, spaghetti (no sauce!), and, as occasional treats, bananas, halved grapes, slices of melon, shredded carrots, and live wax worms.
As far as vegetables go, you should mainly stick with leafy greens, such as spring greens, broccoli, kale, chicory etc. Avoid lettuce as this can cause diarrhoea.
Adults need to eat about 3 times a week, while infant & juveniles should be fed daily.
Bearded Dragons, like all captive lizards, should be fed a vitamin supplement.
Lizards require calcium for bones and proper body function but, in order to absorb this from the diet, they need a source of UV light (see Lighting). In order to ensure that they receive sufficient calcium in the diet a supplement is necessary in captivity. Nutrobal and ACE-High are suitable supplements. A small dusting on the veggies will suffice. The best way to do this is to put the insects to be fed into the bag they came in, sprinkle in a little Nutrobal, and shake until they are thoroughly coated, then feed. Alternatively, you can lightly mist the insects with water first to help the powder to stick. Another alternative is to “gut load” the insects prior to feeding. This means that you apply the supplement to greens that you then feed to the insects for a few hours before feeding them to the lizard.
When feeding live insects, do not feed more than will be eaten in about 5 minutes. All insects should be eaten. The reason is that if you feed too much, the uneaten insects will lose the vitamin coating. If the lizard eats them later, and then ignores the fresh insects the next time you feed the lizard doesn’t get his vitamins, and also has the added stress of insects climbing on him.
Heating & Lighting
Bearded Dragons inhabit the semi-arid to arid areas of Australia, so care must be taken to make a reasonable attempt at reproducing their natural habitat. Either too hot or too cold can easily be deadly to these animals. The proper temperature for bearded dragons is in the 81 to 88 degree Fahrenheit zone, and there should be a basking area available with a zone of 88-92 degrees. A good way to maintain the heat in the basking spot would be a thermostat.
There should be a "thermal gradient" within the vivarium i.e. a range of temperatures.
The basking area should consist of a dome light with a ceramic heating element in one corner, with a branch about 6 inches below it. After eating, the lizards will usually climb to a high branch to bask in the sun. In populated areas of Australia, they often bask on fence posts.
Since bearded dragons process most of their heat on their top side, a "hot rock" is of little use to them.
Ideally also, heat pads should be avoided since most lizards have no concept of a burning sensation, and in cold weather, have been known to stay on hot rocks to the point that their undersides suffer serious burns.
You should also have a place for the lizard to hide. You can construct these yourself from rocks slate or wood. The cave should not be placed under the heat lamp.
Most bearded dragons will readily drink from a water bowl, however, if you have one that refuses, you can spray some water on the cave on the morning, and the animal can lap it off the rocks.
As far as lighting goes, you MUST use proper full spectrum reptile lighting. It is NOT acceptable to use a standard fluorescent light bulb. If you do, you will almost certainly kill your Bearded Dragon.
Full spectrum UV light is required by reptiles to convert vitamin D3 to the activated form which then allows calcium to be absorbed from the gut. If UV light in the correct spectrum is not provided, vitamin D3 is not converted, calcium cannot be absorbed from the gut and no matter how much you supplement your Bearded Dragon’s diet with calcium, it will still die of calcium deficiency.
There are a variety of good reptile lights around now, but Reptiglow or Reptisun are still two of the best.
All fluorescent lights should be replaced every 6 months, since although they will still produce light, they will no longer be emitting sufficient of the correct spectrum for your pet’s continued health.
Positioning is also critical and the light should not be further away than 45cm from the basking area otherwise the UV light will not reach the lizard in sufficient amounts.
The lights should be set up on a timer with around 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness.
When you are attempting to breed them, you should set the heat a bit lower, and set the lights for 10 hours of light, and 14 of darkness, and "winter" them. This may entice them to breed the following summer.