Bearded dragon portrait

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.

1. They Are Friendly

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.

2. They Are Called “Bearded” for a Reason

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.

3. They Need UV Light, Heat and Moisture

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.

4. They Won’t Keep You Up at Night

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.

5. They Can Live a Long Time

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.

6. They Do the Wave

The only sounds bearded dragons make are subtle hissing noises when they are upset. In addition to communicating through color changes, beard puffing and body flattening, they also gesture through leg waving and head bobbing. Bearded dragons are generally solitary in the wild, but when they encounter other dragons, dominant animals often demonstrate their superiority by bobbing their heads and inflating their beards. Other dragons may indicate submission by waving one of their forelegs slowly in a circle. If another dragon wants to challenge a dominant one, it will head-bob rapidly in response, potentially inflate its beard and possibly fight. Females may bob their heads slowly to act submissively to males. Males may bob their heads violently just before mating, while both males and females bob violently when they are stressed. All of these bobs and waves add up to a complicated and interesting system of communication that pet dragons display in captivity when they see other dragons — or their own reflections.

7. They Come in a Variety of Colors and Patterns

Beardies come in many colors, or “morphs," as they are commonly called, including tan, brown, gray, red, reddish-brown, yellow, white, orange and tiger. As they regulate their body temperatures in response to environmental conditions, they can undergo moderate changes in the depth of their colors. They also come in many color patterns, including combinations of colors of varied intensity. Different morphs may have varying patterns of spikes, or no spikes, as well.

8. They Come in Different Sizes

Generally, adult bearded dragons grow to be approximately 2 feet long, including their tails, which are about half their body length. Many pet bearded dragons, however, remain smaller because they are not housed in ideal conditions or fed an optimal diet.

9. Their Menu Will Keep You Busy

Bearded dragons are omnivores. They eat both plants and insects, with plant matter making up about 20 percent of their diet when they are young. Wild bearded dragons consume a variety of insects, such as crickets or meal worms, and rodents, such as small mice. Insects fed to dragons must be “gut loaded” — that is, fed vitamin- and mineral-enriched food (typically a commercially available cricket chow or a high-protein baby cereal mixed with reptile vitamins, tropical fish flakes or rodent pellet) — and dusted with calcium powder before they are offered to the lizard.

Beardies should be fed daily and offered insects at least three times per week. A multivitamin meant for reptiles should also be given to the lizard two to three times a week. For beardies who are growing or pregnant, consult your veterinarian for specific feeding advice. Dragons also need to be fed plant matter, including a variety of vegetables and fruits such as leafy greens, shredded carrots, squash, sweet potato and berries. Typically, young and growing bearded dragons consume more insects than plant matter, but they eventually eat about equal portions of each once they reach adulthood.

Feeding bearded dragons can be labor intensive, so if you’re considering a dragon as a pet, be sure you have time to chop produce and purchase insects.

10. They Require Regular Veterinary Care

Finally, perhaps more than any other type of pet, reptiles require very specific tank setups, including proper light and heat, as well as species-specific diets, to grow and thrive. A veterinarian knowledgeable about these details should examine a newly purchased or adopted bearded dragons to ensure he is in good health. A veterinarian should also review the very unique health care needs with a new owner. The veterinarian should check the animal’s stool for gastrointestinal parasites, some of which are potentially transmittable to people, and administer appropriate deworming medications. Once the dragon’s environment is set up properly and the pet looks healthy, it should require only an annual checkup.

Though bearded dragons are fairly fun and easy to care for as far as reptiles go, they do have some specific requirements. These fascinating pets have become increasingly popular, but if you’re thinking of adding one of the spiny creatures to your home, make sure you are educated and prepared before you commit.

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