Probably nothing is more important for successful keeping of bearded dragons than the initial selection of your animal. You must pay attention and select, to the best of your abilities, an apparently healthy animal to start with. You should also evaluate what you expect from owning a bearded dragon, whether the lizard is meant to be a pet that should interact with you, or a display animal noted for its beauty, or a dragon that will be bred.
Gender and Number of Dragons
Both sexes of bearded dragons make good pets but males grow larger and are considered by some to exhibit more character, personality, and responsiveness. Of course, if you’re going to own one bearded dragon, it doesn’t take much more work (and can be much more entertaining) to keep a pair of these social creatures.
Complexity of scale structure and color are two of the appealing features of bearded dragons. This is a “normal phase” bearded dragon.
Male eastern bearded dragons develop larger heads than females do.
How many bearded dragons should you get? To answer that question, you need to evaluate your objectives. If you a want a single pet, an individual bearded dragon will fare well enough, although males in particular may display signs of social deprivation by displacing their social behaviors. They may, for example, head bob at you. Because bearded dragons are social creatures, a pair of a male and female, matched so they are close in size, is an ideal combination.
Breeders maintain larger groups, using a ratio of one male to two females. In large walk-in enclosures, you can keep up to two males and four females together. Although adult males will get into territorial and competitive engagements during the breeding season, they are usually not so aggressive as to cause serious harm to each other. Close observation is nonetheless always necessary to evaluate the compatibility of dragons kept in a group.
Baby bearded dragons raised in groups are very competitive and early on will form hierarchies in which the tougher and usually larger animals will intimidate smaller ones, eat most of the food, and grow faster, making them even more intimidating and dominating. If small specimens are not segregated from larger specimens, the small ones will often hide, fare poorly, or eventually become food for their bigger brothers and sisters. Close observation to evaluate the growth, health, and welfare of individual dragons is imperative.
Bearded dragons vary in personality. Some are more personable and responsive than others are. Some show more signs of intelligence. A very few are spunky from the time they are young, full of attitude, and readily displaying an open mouth in readiness to bite. A few of these spunky lizards can grow into nasty adult dragons, threatening to bite whenever you get near them. In their own way, these aggressive dragons can be an endearing contrast to the typical pet dragon that is tame and placid.
As a general rule, young dragons that are relatively large have less risk of dying than tiny hatchlings. For a first-time owner, a 6–8 inch juvenile that appears in good shape is a better long-term survival prospect than a 4-inch baby and is well worth the extra cost. If good color is important to you, selecting larger individuals well on their way to developing bright colors is the surest way of knowing what you may end up with. Because breeders aim to keep groups consisting of one male to two or three females, excess larger males are commonly available and are ideal choices for those wanting a single pet. Occasionally breeders offer older females at reasonable prices. These dragons are past their reproductive prime but have several good years left as pets and family members.
What to Avoid
Do not pick a dragon that remains on the ground with its eyes closed. After brief periods of activity, sick and weak dragons often close their eyes and resume a sluggish posture. If most dragons in a tank appear unhealthy, do not buy a dragon from that enclosure for there is a good chance that the sick dragons will have infected the few that still appear healthy.
Do not pick a thin dragon with a skinny tail and visible outline of the hipbones. Avoid a dragon with depressions in the back of the head.
Do not select a dragon with fecal smearing around the vent and base of the tail. There is a good chance it has internal parasites.
Do not pick a runt or baby whose head appears bulbous in the back. It may eventually grow to be normal, but you would be starting off with an undersized or premature pet.
Avoid a baby that shows repetitive opening and closing of the mouth, and makes light popping sounds. These are signs of a respiratory infection. Do not confuse this, however, with normal gaping performed when a dragon is starting to overheat under a basking light.
Finally, do not get the silly notion that you are going to save a poor dragon that is ill or runty. Most sick-looking baby bearded dragons die. If they don’t, there is a good chance their owners end up spending quite a bit of money on veterinary bills to take care of their health problems. Nature doesn’t select for the weakest and neither should you. If you already have healthy dragons, bringing a sick one home can put them all at risk of contracting a disease.
Signs of a Potentially Healthy Bearded Dragon
Healthy hatchlings may open their mouths and threaten to bite when a large hand approaches them. This is normal behavior for a healthy hatchling.
Look for an animal with rounded body contours and without skeletal outlines visible, particularly along the hipbones and spine. Examine digits and tail to make sure all parts are present.
Select an animal that is bright-eyed and either active or resting comfortably under a spotlight with head and upper body raised. Make sure it is bilaterally symmetrical: both eyes should be the same size, and it should be without a kink or bend in its back.
Once a salesperson removes the bearded dragon from its enclosure, ask to have its belly presented toward you so that you can examine the vent. The anal area should be flush with the body. There should be no brown fecal smears or caking around the vent.
Bearded Dragon Feces as Health Indicators
FAQ:My bearded dragon has dark stools with a bright white edge. Is this normal?
Yes. Bearded dragons, like most reptiles, excrete nitrogen in the form of semisolid urates (mostly uric acid), rather than as water-dissolved urea. This allows them to excrete nitrogenous waste while conserving water. Healthy bearded dragons produce dark, formed to semiformed feces with a white urate component.
Runny, pasty, and unusually pale and smelly feces are signs of possible illness, as are unusually large amounts of soft urates. Unpleasant as it may sound, monitoring the state of feces is one way of assessing the health status of your bearded dragon.
Quarantine is unnecessary if you have only the one newly purchased bearded dragon. However, anyone purchasing one or more dragons and wanting to add them to an enclosure with other bearded dragons or to a breeding colony should first quarantine the new lizard(s) individually in a separate enclosure with newspaper substrate for a period of at least sixty days. During that time, carefully monitor the lizard(s), and have a veterinarian perform fecal exam for parasites. Keep a weekly record of a lizard’s weight during this period to assess its growth and health. Diseases of special concern are coccidiosis and pinworm infection, both of which can quickly spread in an established collection. You will save yourself a lot of trouble by establishing quarantine procedures before mixing animals.
An outstanding red/gold bearded dragon. Photo by David Travis