Bearded dragon is the common name applied to lizards of the genus Pogona in the family Agamidae, several of which display a beardlike extension of the throat when threatened. The bearded dragon most readily available in the pet trade is the inland bearded dragon (P. vitticeps).
Two bearded dragons are commercially bred in small numbers: Lawson’s dragon (P. henrylawsoni) and the eastern bearded dragon (P. barbata). Lawson’s dragon is a smaller and naturally tame species. Unfortunately, it is not as easy to reproduce consistently as the inland bearded dragon is and is not readily available. The large eastern bearded dragon is rarely offered for sale because it also has proven difficult to breed consistently and presents certain problems in long-term husbandry that still need to be resolved. Hybrids between inland bearded dragons and Lawson’s dragons are also occasionally offered for sale under the name of Vittikin dragons. Because the inland bearded dragon is by far the most popular, the information presented in this book relates to that species unless mentioned otherwise.
* Hybrids of the eastern bearded dragon and Lawson’s dragon are called Vittikin dragons
Inland bearded dragons now come in a variety of morphs including normal brown and tan dragons, German giants, vivid orange-red Sandfire lines, and pale hypomelanistic pastels and Snow/Ghost dragons. Other morphs can be expected to appear in the future as breeders constantly strive to introduce variety into the hobby. Prices of inland bearded dragons vary considerably depending on the age, type, color, and reproductive rate of the morph. You will have to evaluate which of the various kinds of bearded dragons is best suited for your purpose, whether as a pet, a living work of art, or as a source of revenue from breeding.
This is a very large female bearded dragon. Lizards this size require tanks at least three times their body length.
Is a Bearded Dragon the Right Pet for You?
Most experts correctly rank the bearded dragon as one of the very best reptile pets. These lizards are attractive, active, entertaining, moderately sized, easy to handle, naturally tame (with few exceptions), and relatively easy to keep. Compared to smaller reptiles, they are robust and hardy. Compared to larger reptiles, they are relatively safe for children, although basic hygiene habits such as hand-washing must be practiced.
The only drawback to bearded dragons we’ve found is their enclosure requirements. As adults, these space-loving lizards require an enclosure of at least 48 inches long, although 72 inches is preferable. If space is a limitation, a bearded dragon may not be the best pet reptile for you. Because dragons require substantial amounts of food, including live insects, they defecate frequently, so enclosures and substrates have to be cleaned daily. If daily cage cleaning is a drawback for you, consider some of the smaller insect-eating lizards such as leopard geckos. If live insects are a problem, consider some of the skinks (such as blue-tongue skinks) that fare well on foods obtainable at your supermarket, or certain geckos (such as crested geckos) that can be raised primarily on supplemented fruit purees or processed baby foods. However, if you have the space for bearded dragons, you will find that few lizards are more appealing, personable, and entertaining.
Although bearded dragons seem to present less risk of disease transmission than some other reptiles, simple hygiene must be practiced if your home is to be shared with a bearded dragon. Reptiles often carry the Salmonella bacterium, which can be shed in their feces and may pose a disease threat to humans, especially infants, toddlers, and those who are immune suppressed. Reptiles should never be allowed on food-handling surfaces such as kitchen counters and dining room tables. Hands should be washed immediately after handling a reptile. Food and water bowls should be washed separately from household dishes. Sound judgment and common sense will keep your dragon a low-risk, valued member of the household.
All bearded dragons originated in Australia. Although dragons currently found in the pet trade are many generations removed from their Australian roots, details about their habitat in the wild provide clues to proper husbandry in captivity.
Most bearded dragons live in relatively hot, arid regions of Australia, and thus in captivity require a warm, dry enclosure. However, sources of water (offered in shallow bowls or as fresh greens) and gradients of temperature should always be made available to pet dragons.
Adult bearded dragons are easy to sex. In addition to larger heads, males have enlarged pre-anal and femoral pores, which are clearly visible in this photo-graph.
Wild bearded dragons in Australia enjoy climbing and basking on rock piles and on the rails and posts of fences. When designing a home for your dragon, include secure rocks and thick branches for its climbing enjoyment. Provide a spotlight so it can bask. In subsequent pages, we’ll give you all the information needed for making your dragon feel right at home.
Characteristics of Bearded Dragons
Baby inland bearded dragons are just under 4 inches in length when born. They weigh about 1/10 of an ounce (2 1/2–3 grams). The length of adult dragons is typically 19–23 inches and they weigh at least 3/4 of a pound (250 grams). The German giant morph can reach 26 inches in length.
Although there are a few reports of pet inland bearded dragons exceeding ten years of age, most live between five and eight years if initially healthy and raised under good conditions. We have an unauthenticated report of a twelve-year-old specimen.
Although baby bearded dragons can be difficult to sex accurately, adults show secondary sexual characteristics that allow for relatively easy sexual identification.
Accurate determination of the sex of baby bearded dragons is difficult; at best it is an educated guess. Some people make an educated guess on sexual identity by examining and comparing differences in tail taper. The tails of females taper more sharply from the base compared to those of males, which appear just slightly thicker. The differences in tail taper often become more pronounced as bearded dragons grow older. In our experience, this method is most successful when applied to the small percentage of individuals that show greater extremes of tail taper.
A recent technique has improved the probability of sexing small bearded dragons, but it must be performed with extreme care and is best done by an expert dragon handler. This method consists of holding a dragon with one hand and with the other gently bending the tail above the body plane. We can’t emphasize enough that this is a process that must be performed gently. Careful bending of the tail above the body plane will cause the skin on the ventral (underneath) side of the tail base to be stretched back and show the outlines of hemipenal bulges in males. These bulges run directly caudal (toward the tail) from the vent (cloacal opening). A defined, central post-anal groove is a good indicator of a male. In females slight post-anal bulges may be visible, but they tend to run laterally from the vent midline like the arms of an inverted V. Absolute gentleness and good judgment are required with this procedure so as to prevent injury to the dragon. This method works best with experience and is usually complemented by other concurring observations, such as a wider cloacal openings and thicker tails in males.
One way to sex subadult and adult bearded dragons is to compare the width of cloacal openings. A female (left) has a smaller cloacal opening than a male (right) has. The photo on the right demonstrates the tail-bending method of sexing.
When sexing subadult and adult bearded dragons you can apply the method of bending the tail as described for sexing babies. As with babies, extreme gentleness is a must when employing this technique.
Subadult and adult animals can also be accurately sexed by pulling back the vent flap and exposing the cloacal opening. In males the cloacal opening is significantly wider and larger than in females. (In baby bearded dragons, this method is ineffective because males need to be older before the greater cloacal width becomes clearly noticeable.)
Many adults are also easy to sex from secondary sexual characteristics. These include thicker tails with less taper in males than in females, and enlarged pre-anal and femoral pores in males. Also, males develop larger and broader heads as well as a dark throat (beard), especially during the breeding season. In adult males, the hemipenes can also be everted by applying pressure with a thumb to the side of the tail base, rolling up toward the vent so as to cause a hemipenis to protrude. This process requires experience to perform properly and is usually not necessary to determine the sex of adults. It is sometimes applied to determine the sex of small bearded dragons but is not recommended because of the risk of injury from crushing trauma if not performed with the proper level of experience and sensitivity.
This handler is manually everting the hemipenes of a male bearded dragon.
Bearded dragons undergo six life stages. Understanding these life stages is important to successfully raising and maintaining bearded dragons for a long, happy life. The six life stages are delineated here with guides on age and size:
1) Embryonic/Prebirth (fifty-five to seventy-five days): In captivity this period of development, which occurs within the confines of the egg, is usually spent in an incubator. However, genetics, diet, health of the mother, and incubation conditions can all play roles in health at this stage. These factors are of concern to breeders and deserve further study by scientists.
2) Hatchling/Juvenile (birth to about 8 inches in length): Stage 2 is characterized by ravenous appetite, frequent feeding, rapid growth, and a tendency to mutilate other young dragons, nipping off tail tips, toes, or other low extremities when food is insufficient. We’ve seen a hungry 6-inch bearded dragon try to eat its lifelong cage mate, which was only 4 inches long. It couldn’t swallow the smaller dragon, but it did crush the victim’s skull, killing it. Eating and growing are the primary concerns of this stage.
A pair of Lawson’s dragons. A female is on the left and a male is on the right. Photo by Patrick Murphy.
In this stage, dragons frequently perform arm-waving behavior, a type of appeasement and intraspecies identity display. A social hierarchy based on feeding vigor/assertion and growth develops into two levels—the tough, big, and aggressive feeders and the shy, small, “feed after the others” individuals.
3) Subadult (8 inches to adult): The primary differences between stages 2 and 3 are size and behavior. Stage 3 begins when the young dragons reach a length of 7 to 8 inches. Mutilation tendencies toward animals in the same size range are reduced. The frequency of arm waving is diminished, especially in males. Growth rate is rapid and a greater percentage of plant matter is eaten. A pattern develops that the bigger a dragon grows, the more it eats, so the more it grows, and so on. Social behaviors are still limited and, if enough food is provided, mostly passive.
4) Sexual Onset/Young Adult (12 to 16 inches): Stage 4 lasts through the first three years of breeding. This socially interactive stage is characterized by a greater range of social behaviors triggered by sexual maturity. The onset of sexual social behaviors results in well-defined hierarchies with an alpha male becoming ruler of the roost. Males will perform courtship, territorial, aggressive, and breeding behaviors. Females perform push-ups to reveal identity. Females also display submissive arm-waving behaviors during breeding. Growth rates at this stage decline because of hormonal changes and the diversion of energy and nutrients away from growth and toward breeding. Adult size is achieved during this stage. After this stage’s onset, bearded dragons will normally go through a winter shutdown period annually.
5) Mature Adult (fourth year of breeding until six or seven years old): A gradual decrease in reproductive rate and little if any significant growth is associated with this stage of a bearded dragon’s life. It lasts two to three years.
6) Old Age (usually by six to seven years): This stage is characterized by little or no breeding, at least in females. There is no measurable growth. Eventually, old bearded dragons enter a terminal stage of decreased feeding and increased lethargy that, over weeks or months, lead to death. It is wise to cut back on calories (but not all nutrients) with old dragons and pay special attention to providing adequate levels of water as well as comfortable surroundings and stress-free days.
How Fast Do Bearded Dragons Grow?
In one experiment we raised a group of baby bearded dragons indoors using basking lights (basking sites of 90–95°F) and twist Vita-Lite fluorescent full-spectrum bulbs within 6 inches of the dragons. We offered insects to the dragons three times a day and had a variety of plant matter available all day. Lights were on sixteen hours daily. Hatchlings averaged just under 4 inches in length when the experiment started. After fourteen weeks the largest specimen had reached a total length just over 14 inches. The smallest was 11 inches. As a general guide, under this kind of intensive rearing regimen, growth will average 2 to 2 1/2 inches a month for the first six months, and sexual maturity can be reached as early as five to six months of age. Growth rate begins to taper after about six months.
Our studies show that baby bearded dragons kept under conservative husbandry conditions can increase in size a mind-boggling 4,000 percent within six months of hatching. Under more intensive conditions, a 5,000 percent increase in weight may occur. A baby inland bearded dragon will weigh about 0.08 ounces (2 1/2 grams) at birth. By six months of age and a length of 12 inches it will weigh about 4 ounces (between 100 and 115 grams—just imagine a human baby growing from 7 pounds to 280 pounds in six months).
What’s the lesson to be learned from this? Bearded dragons grow fast, requiring more food than you may have realized and larger enclosures at an earlier age than you may have planned.
The Most Common Health Problems of Bearded Dragons
As with many fast-growing lizards, the most common problem encountered with immature bearded dragons is calcium deficiency associated with soft bones (metabolic bone disease) or twitches and seizures (low blood calcium or hypocalcemia). Calcium deficiency is due to several factors that may occur singly or together: improper vitamin/mineral supplementation, inadequate heat, an inappropriate diet or feeding schedule, and insufficient exposure to an ultraviolet-B (UV-B) light source. Prevention is simple: follow the instructions in this book.
Two other diseases common in bearded dragons of all ages are caused by parasites. One is heavy pinworm infestation, which remains a significant cause of the failure of these lizards to gain or maintain weight. Another more problematical disease is coccidiosis, caused by a type of protozoan parasite. The latter requires diagnosis by a veterinarian and its treatment can be labor intensive and lengthy.
Older pet dragons may suffer from gout, liver disease, or kidney failure. At the current level of knowledge about these disorders, we suggest that these diseases are more likely to be prevented by assuring proper hydration, adequate thermal gradients, and an appropriate balanced diet.