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Often I’m asked what reptiles are popular as pets, and, without a doubt, the answer is bearded dragons. I think I treat more bearded dragons each week than I do all other reptile species combined.
Bearded dragons are native to Australia, but most kept as pets in the United States today are bred from captive stock. These cute, friendly lizards make excellent first pets for many families wanting reptiles. If you are thinking about getting a bearded dragon, here are some “beardie” basics you should know.
Beardies recognize and respond to their owners’ voices and touch and are usually even-tempered. They can be great pets for someone who wants a reptile who likes to be held and taken out of his cage. They are generally easy to handle if you support their wide, flat bodies from underneath and allow them to walk from hand to hand as they move. Dragons can even be handled by children as long as the children are supervised by adults. And anyone who handles a dragon must wash up afterward, as all reptiles carry salmonella bacteria.
Their name comes from the pouchlike skin folds (guttural pouch) under their necks that is covered in spiny projections and looks similar to a man’s beard. When they feel threatened, they flatten their bodies, puff out their beards, and open their mouths to make themselves look bigger. Males normally have a darker beard than females, especially during mating season and courtship, but the beards of both genders turn jet black when the animals are stressed — making it easy to know when they’re upset.
Supplying adequate ultraviolet (UV) light during the day will help ensure that beardies can make vitamin D in their skin, which allows them to absorb both calcium and phosphorus from their food. This is essential for proper bone formation, muscle contraction and many of the body’s normal metabolic processes.
Without adequate UV light, dragons will draw calcium out of their bones, which then become soft and fracture easily. They can also have muscle tremors from poor muscle contraction, their organs will fail and, ultimately, they will die. The temperature in their tanks needs to range from 90°on one end, where they can bask in the UV light, to 70°on the other end, where they can cool off if they choose. Having the appropriate temperature gradient in the tank is essential to their health. Reptiles’ body temperatures adjust to that of their environments, and the function of their immune systems, digestion and metabolism all are temperature dependent.
Beardies also need adequate humidity to stay hydrated and shed skin properly. Misting or soaking them daily, as well as providing an open water bowl for them to climb into, will generally suffice. Without enough humidity, they often retain shed skin, especially over their toes and around their eyes. Retained skin can interfere with their ability to see and can constrict the ends of their digits. The best way to ensure that a tank set up for a bearded dragon is ideal is to have the pet and its environment checked out by a reptile-savvy veterinarian.
Unlike lizards who are active at night, bearded dragons are awake during the day. They often like to climb branches and sit on logs to bask in the sun. As a result, they make great pets for people who want to interact with their pets during waking hours.
The average life span of a bearded dragon is between five and eight years, although there are reports of dragons living 12 to 13 years when properly cared for. So be ready to have a beardie for several years if you get one as a pet.
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