We strongly urge you to keep your bearded dragon within a suitable enclosure. Allowing a dragon to free-roam a room or house may appear at first to be a good thing, but what may be perceived as freedom for the lizard can become a death trap. Dragons that are loose in households fail to keep themselves adequately warm and hydrated. They can become immune-suppressed, falling ill from infections. Moreover, loose dragons may be stepped on by humans and preyed upon by household dogs and cats. They may receive serious or fatal electrical shocks from wires or equally serious trauma from toppling books, lamps, and the like. Loose dragons risk setting households on fire by bringing combustibles such as curtains into contact with hot items such as lightbulbs. Responsible bearded dragon owners who are dedicated to providing the best for their pets keep their dragons in appropriate enclosures and let them out only when they can be supervised closely.
Bearded dragons are moderate-sized lizards that, as they grow, require large enclosures. When deciding on enclosures, it is important to consider the bearded dragon as a two-stage lizard even if you want to invest right away in the larger enclosure it will need when fully grown. You can start a baby for the first four to six months in a 30-inch-long enclosure. Keeping a baby dragon in a larger enclosure can be problematic, because the dragon may fail to find its food, water, basking sites, and shelters. As the baby grows, however, you will need to provide a larger enclosure.
Large, molded plastic snake cages with sliding glass fronts can be modified to accommodate bearded dragons. This cage, produced by Bush Herpetological, was made to house desert iguanas, a species with requirements similar to those of bearded dragons. With plastic enclosures, take care in placing the spotlights to avoid melting the plastic. Photo by Val Brinkerhoff, courtesy of Dan McCarron
This 30-inch vivarium with front sliding-glass doors is set up for temporary display of baby bearded dragons. Snake plants and a pony-tailed palm decorate the display.
The smallest enclosure for one or two adult bearded dragons is either a 4-foot x 2-foot vivarium or a 6-foot x 18-inch vivarium. At the very limits, a standard 55-gallon (48-inch x 13-inch) vivarium houses a single adult specimen. Anything smaller will restrict activity in a way that is not optimal for the animal’s welfare. Enclosure size requirements need to be considered before you decide to purchase one of these lizards.
The most widely sold enclosures in the reptile trade are all-glass tanks with sliding screen tops. These are fine for bearded dragons except for two problems: many stores do not carry the larger sizes; and transportation and weight of these enclosures may become an issue. There are large, lightweight plastic molded enclosures with sliding glass fronts sold in the reptile trade (e.g., Bush Herpetological and Vision Herpetological) that can be designed for housing bearded dragons. These enclosures can be mail-ordered if your local reptile store does not stock them.
In this outdoor breeding setup, wooden pallets are joined to create sites for perching and basking as well as shade.
In a few warm areas of the United States, such as southern California, bearded dragons can be kept in outdoor screened or covered pens year-round as long as they are provided with shelters from rain and have areas of soil or piles of hay to burrow into. Breeders have built effective pens inside greenhouses. Greenhouses should have controls for monitoring and maintaining desired temperatures including whitewash, opening panels, fans, and heaters.
In most other areas of the U.S., bearded dragons can be kept outdoors in simple pens during warm months. Make sure you build secure enclosures with screen or mesh tops to prevent escape and to keep out potential predators such as foxes, raccoons, cats, and birds of prey. Inexpensive alternatives to pens are large plastic screen enclosures now sold in the reptile trade. They are ideal for allowing lizards to bask outdoors in sunlight . It is important not to place these all-screen enclosures on concrete or asphalt. Because both of these surfaces absorb heat when exposed to sun, dragons may overheat and die if housed in a screen cage without shade, water, and climbing areas.
Because of the potential risks of sand impaction, many people choose to initially raise baby bearded dragons on newspaper. For animals over 8 inches, we use silica-based, dust-free play sand (used in children’s sandboxes) as a substrate and have never had problems with impaction. Our evaluations of various substrates are as follows:
No Substrate: Many breeders raise their babies on bare floors within plastic tubs or glass tanks. Advantages of bare floors include easy monitoring of stools, lack of hiding places for crickets, minimal risk of impaction, and less-intensive maintenance. Bare floor enclosures are easy to empty of landscape structures and can be moved outside for washing with a garden hose. A disadvantage is that the floors require regular wiping. As the dragon grows larger and messier, bare tanks become unattractive and tedious to clean. With larger animals, the hard, smooth floor surface can also lead to overgrown nails and bent toes.
Newspaper: This is the substrate most recommended for quarantine and treatment of sick animals. Newspaper is cheap, readily available, easy to replace, and well suited for examining feces. Many specialists recommend newspaper for initially raising babies because it allows monitoring of stools and eliminates any risks of impaction. Downsides are that newspaper is visually unattractive, and regular or daily replacement can be labor intensive. If used with adult dragons on a long-term basis, there is a risk of overgrown nails and bent toes.
Sand: Sand is our favorite substrate. We have never had problems using a variety of sands with bearded dragons of all ages (yes, we use sand with babies), but there are reports of sand impaction in babies. For this reason, we recommend paper towels, newspaper, or brown butcher paper for hatchlings up to a length of 8 inches. After that size, sand is the most natural-looking and easy-to-maintain substrate for bearded dragons. We use play sand because it is relatively dust-free. There are other types of sand, including limestone sand, sold in the reptile trade that are attractive and may work with bearded dragons. However, we’re concerned about reports of baby dragons becoming seriously ill from intestinal impactions following the ingestion of sands containing calcium. Until more information becomes available, they are probably best used only with larger bearded dragons. Avoid unscreened/unwashed sands, particularly unprocessed silica sands because of health risks from inhaling dust lifted by the dragons’ digging. To clean fecal material, remove fouled sections of sand daily using a scoop. Change sand every four weeks or as needed.
Sandy Soil: Mixes of sand and soil work well with bearded dragons. A problem with soil is that it can make dragon colors appear more brown and less colorful over time. Dust is also a problem. As with substrates of just sand, spot cleaning is easy. Sandy soil must be replaced on a regular basis. In outdoor setups, natural soils make up the floor of most screenhouses and greenhouses and generally work well with bearded dragons.
Alfalfa Pellets and Rabbit Pellets: Alfalfa pellets are absorbent but have drawbacks. Some people develop serious allergies to alfalfa. Moreover, the pellets exude a strong odor when wet and can crumble, turning into a pervasive dust that escapes enclosures. There is also a risk of flour beetle infestation. These beetles are harmless but can spread and infest any grain-based food in your kitchen. (In time, you could have hundreds of tiny beetles scattered throughout your house). Alfalfa is too soft a substrate for adequate nail wear. Some veterinarians believe that there is a higher incidence of respiratory disease in lizards housed on alfalfa pellets and rabbit pellets. These pellets are quick to mold when they become wet, so lizards may inhale mold spores, predisposing them to respiratory disease. Clearly, these pellets are not our favorite substrate.
This 36-inch vivarium has been designed for housing baby bearded dragons. It includes perching areas, live plants, a basking light, a UV-B fluorescent bulb, and a hot rock as a secondary heat source.
Many new owners make the understandable error of landscaping their bearded dragon vivaria without any climbing areas. Not only does this limit the space available for your dragon’s activity but also makes for a dull display. Remember, inland bearded dragons are semi-arboreal and like to climb on rocks and dried wood. In Australia, they are often seen on the top of fence posts and rails. These perching sites can be reproduced in captivity by adding large sections of dried grape wood, fig wood, cork bark rounds, or rocks. Ledges along the back and sides of a tank can also be created. These raised areas make ideal basking sites and most hobbyists design them so that they are located under spotlights. At least one raised site should be provided per enclosure. In addition to a raised area, you should also have plenty of open ground, maintaining at least two-thirds of the floor surface as open space. Bearded dragons also enjoy shelters for sleeping at night or for brumation (shutting down) during the winter rest or period. Our favorite shelters for bearded dragons are big slabs of rounded cork bark. They’re attractive, light, and easy to clean.
In this custom indoor display, stacked rocks serve as basking site and shelter. The plant is a Dracaena marginata, a species readily available in stores that sell houseplants. Photo by Val Brinkerhoff.
In captivity, if lizards are kept on solid surfaces or on soft substrates they can end up with overgrown nails and digits that bend to the side. To prevent this, consider scattering rough pebbles on the substrate surface or adding flat sections of rough rock such as limestone to the landscape design. Lizards wear down nails by running or climbing on rock surfaces.
Plants for Bearded Dragon Setups
We have received many letters requesting lists of plants that are well suited for bearded dragon setups. We know that popular vivarium plants such as pothos or Chinese ever-green are quickly crushed, nipped, trashed, and dried up in a bearded dragon setup. Only a few species of plants are tough enough to hold up to bearded dragon abuse indoors. Our top choices include ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata) and snake plants (Sansevieria spp.), particularly the tougher ones with thick or cylindrical leaves that are more adapted to arid conditions. With smaller dragons, jade plants (Crassula argentea) fare reasonably well but do not usually grow thick and strong enough indoors to withstand the weight of larger dragons. The only cactus we recommend is the spineless tree opuntia (Consolea falcata). In taller enclosures with strong light, some of the dracaenas fare well. Outdoors, we have successfully used large jade plants, elephant bush (Portulacaria afra), tree yuccas, and dracaenas. Interestingly, we have found that in outdoor setups jade plants are particularly favored by these lizards for resting areas.
These bearded dragons in an outdoor enclosure particularly like to perch on large jade plants.
If you want to add foliage to your bearded dragon vivarium, remember that plants take up space. A large enclosure that is at least 6 feet long is required for combining adult bearded dragons and plants. When placing plants in indoor setups, it is better to introduce them in pots buried in the substrate rather than planting them directly into the substrate. This makes watering possible without wetting the entire setup and helps reduce water loss to the surrounding substrate. It also allows easy removal and replacement of plants as needed.
In terms of design, larger plants are best placed toward the back of the vivarium and smaller ones at midlevel to provide a sense of balance. Generally, placing plants at the base of landscape structures such as rocks or wood will have an attractive, natural effect. Once plants are introduced, the dragons should be monitored closely. Damaging activities such as climbing (it can break branches and topples plants) and attempting to eat plants (which injures or destroys them), tend to occur early on as the dragons explore the new items in their space. Observation should provide you with guidelines for adjustments in plant placement and selection.
Bearded dragon enclosures should be provided with adequate shelter. Photo by David Travis.
It is important to monitor your bearded dragon daily to evaluate its attitude, condition, and health and to make sure the vivarium is functioning properly. Bearded dragons are active lizards that eat large amounts of food and consequently defecate correspondingly large amounts. In short, they tend to be messy. For this reason, regular maintenance of a vivarium is a must. With adult dragons, this means regularly using a cat litter scoop to clear fecal material from the substrate. In addition, if water is kept in the enclosure, it should be replaced at least every other day and whenever the container is fouled, especially since dragons may soil the water. The water container should be washed, disinfected (using a 10 percent bleach solution) and thoroughly rinsed on a regular basis to remove accumulating bacterial slime and fecal traces. Assuming the dragons are not kept in crowded conditions, the substrate should be replaced completely about once a month. If paper is used as a substrate, it should be replaced every two to three days, or even daily if necessary. Dirty landscape materials should be removed and disinfected by soaking for a couple of hours in a container with a 10 percent bleach solution, then rinsed and allowed to soak in water to clear traces of bleach.