Bearded dragons are becoming very popular pets, and it’s not hard to see why. Babies are extremely cute, and the adults so calm and placid that even people who say they’d never have a reptile in the house are often swayed to change their mind once they’ve have an opportunity to get up close to them.
Many are bought as pets as an impulse buy – babies are being sold quite cheaply nowadays and are readily available, and although some people do read up and prepare for their new pet, there are still a large number who take one on with little or no advice at all. Unfortunately many staff in pet shops and reptile centres are ignorant as to the proper housing and feeding arrangements leading to bearded dragons that have a unhealthy and often short life.
If you are tempted to buy a baby bearded dragon here is some advice to help you to raise a bearded dragon properly.
1. Bearded Dragons grow Big and Fast
Although you may be looking at a baby which is only 5 to 6 inches in length, by the time it is twelve months old it will be between 18 and 22 inches long and will weigh up to 700 grams. Adults need a vivarium that’s 4ft x 2ft x 2ft in size, and will probably need this by the time they are eight to ten months old. It’s therefore a false economy to buy a smaller vivarium with the intention to upgrade as it grows bigger, and it’s best to buy the larger size first. Too many live in vivariums where they cannot turn round properly without banging their nose on the glass and tail on the background.
Despite the myth baby bearded dragons do not feel lost in a large vivarium – after all, in the desert no one gives them a pen for the first few weeks!
To grow at the rate they do means they have large appetites and need to be fed lots and often as babies. They are not cheap pets to keep – a bearded dragon can cost as much as a small dog or cat to feed each week.
2. Bearded Dragons need the Right Temperatures
Coming from the hot arid desert of Australia they need to have a temperature range in their vivarium that mimics their natural environment. Setting up a mini desert in your home is part of the fun of keeping them. Being cold blooded animals they thermoregulate – that is, when too hot they should be able to move to a cooler area, and when too cold should be able to move to get warm. The vivarium needs to have a basking spot under a heat lamp which reaches a temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and the other end ‘the cool end’ of the vivarium should be no more than 85 degrees. At night they should be able to experience a good temperature drop, so the heating should be turned off as long as the ambient temperature does not fall below 65 degrees for babies, and 60 degrees for adults. Temperatures should be maintained at the correct levels by using a thermostat.
Heat should be provided by way of a heat lamp – bearded dragons do not absorb heat from below, and indeed, cannot feel it. Heat rocks and heat mats can easily burn them so should not be used.
3. Bearded dragons need Exposure to UVB
In the desert they bask under the strong rays of the sun which provides UVB and helps them synthesize vitamin D3. This is vital as it means they can utilize calcium which is essential to aid their growth. The lack of UVB will lead to Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) which causes deformities of the limbs, and which can only be treated if caught early, and is often fatal. Their UVB requirements are the highest of all reptiles kept in captivity. A fluorescent tube running the length of the vivarium ensures they are exposed to UVB for the whole time the light in on. The best tubes to use are the Reptisun 10% or Arcadia 12%.
If they are exposed to UVB for 12 hours in the vivarium they get sufficient UVB, but even this is only equivalent to about 20 minutes under the full Australian sun. For that reason hides should not be provided for bearded dragons as hiding away will lessen their exposure to the beneficial UVB rays.
Babies are not accurate feeders and tend to pick up loose substrate with mouthfuls of food. Kitchen towel is the best substrate for babies as it carries no risk. Do not use sand until the baby is six months old, and NEVER use woodchip. This is to prevent impaction in the stomach which is usually fatal.
5. Set up the Vivarium Before buying a Bearded Dragon
When you have got your vivarium you will find the temperatures will fluctuate at first, and you will need time to play around with the position of the probe for the thermostat before you obtain the correct temperature range. Setting up the vivarium and letting it settle down for about a week before you bring your baby home is the best idea.
6. Bringing Home a Baby Bearded Dragon
Most babies will travel quite comfortably in a small dark box. There is no need for additional heating unless the weather is very cold. In this case you can use a hot water bottle to keep the box warm.
When you first bring your new baby home you may find it eats the first lot of crickets you eagerly put in the vivarium, and then refuses to eat. Many new owners worry about this, but it’s only a reaction to the stress of moving. It takes up to a fortnight for a baby to settle in to a normal eating pattern.
To help it settle in it is best to resist that urge to take it out and handle it. Give it two weeks to settle before you pick it up. You can start getting it used to you by putting your hand in the vivarium when feeding or cleaning it out.
When it is time to start handling, pick it up by sliding your hand underneath it and scooping it up. In the wild their main predators are birds, so anything coming at them above scares them.
From time to time your baby will get lines like tiger markings on its belly. These are stress lines, but don’t over worry about them. Many things cause momentary stress to a baby, and most are nothing to be concerned about. It could be a dark coloured coat they suddenly see out of the corner of their eye.
In the morning your beardie will be cold and still. It takes about an hour for them to warm up and start moving around which is just as it would be in the desert. Just make sure you allow them time to wake up properly before offering food.
7. Feeding your baby Bearded Dragon
Babies up to the age of 12 weeks need to be fed 3 times a day with small sized crickets (first or second instar). Each feed should be as many as they can eat in 10 minutes. One feed per day should be dusted with calcium to prevent MBD. Finely chopped vegetables or fruit should always be available. When adult your beardie will be 80% vegetarian, so he needs to get used to eating vegetables early.
The best livefood is crickets due to the amount they eat. You can feed locusts, but this will work out much more expensive, and once they have eaten locusts some do not take to eating crickets against as they are more bitter. Do not feed a staple diet of meal worms as their skins are high in chitin which bearded dragons cannot digest very well. Meal worms and wax worms can be offered as an occasional treat.
Most bearded dragons do not eat dried or frozen food, so you will need to get used to feeding livefood.
8. Join a Forum
Baby bearded dragons seem to enjoy perplexing and worrying their new owners. Join a bearded dragon or reptile forum so you can ask for advice from people who’ve had the same worries as you and will be able to give you advice and reassurance.
Raising a reptile which grows so rapidly is a great experience, and if you ensure their environment and feeding regime is right you’ll have a pet who will live a healthy live in excess of 10 years. The first few weeks and months are a critical period in raising a baby bearded dragon – they are not difficult to keep just as long as you take time to understand what they need to grow and develop properly.
MyBeardedDragons website contains information for the new owner on how to keep and feed a bearded dragon properly so that it is happy and healthy. An active forum dedicated to bearded dragons gives advice and support to new and experienced owners.