by Susan Donoghue, V.M.D., D.A.V.C.N., and Philippe de Vosjoli
We are often asked, “Honestly, how good a pet is a bearded dragon?” The answer: They might just be the overall best reptile pet! Unlike many other lizards, dragons almost never bite their handlers, scratch when held, or whip with their tails when approached. They offer a unique and charming personality and natural curiosity about the world around them, including their owners. As your dragon matures, you’ll find it making eye contact with you, approaching for food tidbits, and remaining quiet and friendly when held for short periods.
Dragons are ideal because they provide the pleasure and entertainment of a pet that enjoys, but doesn’t always require, interaction with humans. They won’t develop neuroses if they’re not handled or given attention daily, unlike other pets such as dogs and parrots. Bearded dragons are sizeable but not too large. They’re aesthetically complex and different enough to draw attention. They display a wide range of social behaviors when kept in groups. They’re also characters that sometimes demonstrate endearing signs of intelligence and responsiveness.
In terms of care, drawbacks may include their need for large enclosures, expensive lighting, and insects for food. They also require maintenance of about ten or fifteen minutes a day, minimum. Whether the drawbacks are worth the enjoyment is something that must be assessed by prospective owners.
Whether the attractive zigzag trait can be established has yet to be determined.
Hatchlings and baby bearded dragons are fragile and easily crushed, so they should not be handled (except for health checks) until they are at least 8 inches long. Care should be taken with all juveniles, for they can be seriously hurt from falling onto hard surfaces. Dragons also risk overheating when exposed to sunlight and chilling when exposed to cold. During the first eight weeks of a dragon’s life, the most responsiveness you should expect is food taken from your hands. If they incidentally climb on you, great, but keep your hand above or within the enclosure.
After a bearded dragon reaches a length of eight inches, you will be able to handle it more frequently but only for brief periods each time. In terms of handling, bearded dragons don’t enjoy long-term holding and petting. Their skin is rough to the touch and not that inviting to pet anyway. If physical contact with a pet is important to you, relatively few lizards fit the bill, with perhaps smooth-skinned blue-tongue skinks being among the best candidates.
You should never allow your bearded dragons to be loose outdoors even if perched on a shoulder. They can fall, or become frightened and dart off. If they escape, dragons are easy prey for dogs, cats, large birds, and cars. If you must carry an adult bearded dragon around with you, then invest in a lizard harness. Remember that many people are afraid of reptiles and you should take this into consideration whenever displaying your reptiles in public. We are opposed to displaying reptiles in public outside of a proper forum such as shows and educational displays.
Bearded dragons are not drawn to humans because of social propensity (like dogs who look to their owner as the alpha member of their social group) or because they enjoy physical contact or good conversation. They do however quickly learn to associate humans with one of their favorite activities—eating. Regularly offering food held by fingertips or within your hand (hand-feeding) is important for establishing a positive relationship between owner and dragon. Hand-feeding can be done early on when bearded dragons are just a few weeks old. In time, they will learn to come toward you as you approach the enclosure, for they begin to associate you with tasty goodies.
A question we’re often asked concerns training of dragons to perform tricks. Based on work using food as a positive reinforcement with other lizards, it appears that bearded dragons could also be trained to a much greater degree than commonly believed. We look forward to reports of learning and training in this species.
Dragon Hygiene and Grooming
No matter how large you make your dragon’s living quarters, an enclosure still isn’t the wide open space of the great outdoors. A pet dragon remains in relatively close contact to its excreted feces and urates, leftover food, fouled water, and old substrate. Such close contact makes for a soiled dragon at best, and risks disease at times. This is why cleanliness is so important. We’ve mentioned the need for regular cage cleaning. How about dragon cleaning?
Dragons that are soiled from feces or bedding can be bathed. Place your dragon in a plastic container (such as a plastic storage tub) containing an inch or two of slightly warm water. Soap is unnecessary. Using a soft toothbrush, nailbrush, or wash cloth, gently scrub the dirty areas. Rinse in clean, warm water. Once a brush or cloth is designated for dragon use, never use it again on humans.
Bearded dragons shed their skin in sheets, much like humans do after a sun-burn. Photo by David Travis
Dragons shed their skin in small patches. This occurs routinely throughout the year and is normal. You don’t need to assist the dragon by peeling off loose skin. Refrain from the temptation to use hand lotions and oils on dragon skin. The loose skin will shed in its own time, at the right time. Occasionally, however, shed skin may become stuck around tails and toes. Then your dragon needs assistance because the remaining bands of dead skin can constrict blood flow and lead to death of cells in the extremities. Soaking and gently peeling often removes the ring of skin. If the skin doesn’t come off, have your dragon seen by a qualified veterinarian. If the problem recurs frequently, review your husbandry, especially humidity levels and access to water.
Dragon nails stay short and strong if exposed to rocks and coarse pebbles. Dragons that live on soft surfaces may need their long nails clipped occasionally. The staff at your veterinarian’s office can perform this task for you, or you can clip the nails yourself. Use a small nail clipper made for cats, and always have coagulant powder handy. Remove just the tip, taking care to avoid the quick. If the nail bleeds, apply coagulant powder or styptic pencil, and try taking less off each remaining nail.
Bearded Dragons and Skin Shedding
FAQ:I’ve had an adult bearded dragon for more than a year and have yet to see it shed its skin. Do bearded dragons shed?
Like other reptiles, bearded dragons regularly shed their epithelial skin in a single sheet, much like we do after a sunburn. Most reptiles tend to shed frequently when young and less often as they get older. Injury or disease to the skin also results in increased shedding rate to repair the damage. One way to recognize when a bearded dragon is about to shed is that its coloration appears duller, as if covered with a clear white film. This is a sign of the old skin layer being pushed to the surface and separated from the underlying replacement skin. Bearded dragons shed in broken skin patches that they apparently eat. The various breeders we’ve talked to have said that they have seldom seen bearded dragons actually shedding or found shed skins in their enclosures. Very likely the skin is quickly consumed after shedding. A clue that this may be what actually happens can be observed in baby bearded dragons. When keeping babies in a group, it is not uncommon to see one pick the shedding skin off of another. Possibly the same happens with adults.
FAQ:I have a sick baby bearded dragon that is having trouble shedding. Is this common in bearded dragons?
In bearded dragons, various factors can sometimes cause problems in shedding, including disease, diet, and husbandry conditions. Sick reptiles may be too weak to perform the movements required to remove shed skin, so it is not unusual to see sick dragons with adhering shed skin. Injuries to the skin that result in scabs or scars can also cause localized adhesion of old skin. Substrates may play a role in helping free shed skin from digits, which is why more natural substrates are often recommended. Diet, including water and vitamin/mineral content of food, can also play a role in rates of shedding and facilitating shedding. Providing a varied diet that includes fresh greens and vegetables will help prevent shedding problems.
To remove adhering skin from a sick dragon, keep it on paper substrate and gently mist it with lukewarm water to help soften the adhering skin. Then try gently peeling loose skin using fingertips or tweezers. It is important that you only attempt to remove loose, white shed skin that is clearly in the process of coming off. Removing skin during the milky stage when new skin is still forming can cause serious skin injuries.
We know of kids who have painted their dragons’ nails. These “punk lizards” seem no worse for the experience as long as the nail polish is approved for use in people. Body paints and body piercing, however, are off limits.
Traveling with Your Bearded Dragon
Over the years that you’ll own a dragon, it’s likely that your pet may have to travel. There may be need for a visit to the veterinarian’s office, and your lizard may accompany you to school for a project, move to a new home with the family, or come along on vacation.
Bearded dragons travel well inside small plastic cat carriers. These are available wherever pet supplies are sold. It’s best to purchase the carrier ahead of time so that you can acclimate your dragon to the new smells and confined space. Place an old bath towel, paper toweling, or newspaper in the bottom of the carrier. Start with short sessions of just a minute or two, and place your dragon inside the carrier with one of its favorite snacks. Leave the door open and stay right with your pet. If your dragon panics, don’t force the issue. Let him come out of the carrier and give him time to calm down. Try again in an hour or so. As your dragon relaxes in the carrier, training sessions can last longer and you can practice with the door shut. As your dragon learns to associate the carrier with tasty food, he’ll look forward to climbing in and staying put.
Be sure to label your carrier with pertinent information. Each of our dragon carriers has a large, highly visible luggage tag secured to the carrying handle with our name, address, and phone number. In addition, we’ve printed in large letters using indelible marker on both sides of the carrier our phone number and the words HARMLESS REPTILES.
Most reptiles hate to be moved. New surroundings frighten them, and they typically hide, refusing to eat, drink, or explore. Pet bearded dragons, however, seem to be less stressed than other reptiles by travel and new scenery.
We’ll always remember one puny dragon recovering too slowly from a major injury. We decided to bring her along on an auto trip from the wintry north to warm, sunny Florida. Once in the Sunshine State, she basked, ate, and began her recovery because of the stimulation of bright sun and warm temperatures. So, while we recommend that other reptiles stay at home, we understand and appreciate families that won’t leave their dragon behind when taking a vacation trip.
Here are a few points to remember when traveling with dragons:
Dragons overheat and die if left in a closed car on a warm or sunny day.
Call ahead if you plan to travel by air. Many airlines won’t allow reptiles in the cabin at any time or reptiles in cargo during hot weather. If your dragon does travel in cargo, special packing and insulation are essential. Don’t try to sneak onto the plane with your dragon. While we can’t say that we’re innocent of such transgressions, we can say from experience that you should avoid the temptation.
Bring food and especially water from home. Strange smells can inhibit a dragon from consuming different foods and water. You may wish to bring along your dragon’s usual dishes for food and water.
Plan on changing the carrier’s bedding daily. Bring extra toweling.
Remember that some people are afraid of reptiles. Don’t frighten people with your dragon.
Don’t inadvertently frighten hotel housekeeping staff with your dragon. When traveling with our dragons, we request that our room not be serviced (and pick up fresh towels as needed from housekeeping) and leave a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door.
Hotel rooms, rugs, and bathtubs may have been treated with chemicals and insecticides. Be careful if you wish to let your dragon wander the room.
Lawns and foliage growing at rest stops, golf courses, city parks, and suburban yards are likely to have been treated with chemicals. Be extremely careful when exposing your reptile to new areas.
We must repeat once more: Your dragon will overheat and die if left in a closed car on a warm or sunny day. Be extra careful when traveling with your dragon.
Emergency Planning for Dragons
As much as we may try to avoid it, disaster can strike. The type of disaster varies widely, but we can almost guarantee that at some point you will confront an emergency that could potentially harm or kill yourself and your dragon. Depending on the part of the country you live in, you may be vulnerable to earthquakes, blizzards, hurricanes, ice storms, tornadoes, floods, or fire. When there’s a bearded dragon in the family, disaster preparedness includes planning for your dragon’s welfare.
To begin, plan how your dragon would survive for a week or so if you could not leave your home. We’re fortunate that dragons are omnivorous: they can survive on salads and snacks when live prey are unavailable. Owners have fed their dragons everything from granola to dry dog/cat food to thawed veggies and meats during times of emergency. Dragons can also survive several days of fasting, but they need water every day or so. Stock a few extra gallons of bottled water, so your dragon has a supply of fresh water for drinking and soaking.
Next, consider what to do if ordered to evacuate. Generally, there are two types of plans that should be made—how to evacuate with your dragon, and how to leave your dragon behind when you evacuate. Most emergency shelters accept only people, not pets. Always put the safety and survival of yourself and other humans ahead of your dragon. When there’s an emergency, never risk your safety, even if it means leaving your dragon behind.
We learned the value of planning ahead when our power was out for five days after an ice storm, and for another five days after a hurricane. The most powerful lesson came with the realization that stress levels run high during emergencies and disasters, and that one’s primary focus is the welfare of family and neighbors, and of saving one’s life and property. When an emergency hits, you won’t have time to begin thinking about your bearded dragon. Plan now.
Points to Consider in Planning
Keep a plastic cat carrier handy for transporting and housing (temporarily) your dragon.
Keep a list of simple instructions for feeding and watering your dragon, along with its needs for light and heat. Post a set by a door to the house (we keep ours on a wall in the back porch) and by the dragon’s enclosure. Keep these notes simple so they can be used by neighbors or disaster personnel if you can’t get home because of an emergency.
If you evacuate, post a note in indelible ink by the door most frequently used and in a location that will be seen by emergency personnel entering your house. Provide your name, where you can be found, and contact numbers for friends or family who are likely to know your whereabouts. If your dragon is in the house, state its location and emphasize that it is a harmless reptile.
Keep with you the phone numbers of your veterinarian, reptile-keeping friends, and the local herp society or zoo. Remember, though, that everyone else is also dealing with the disaster and may be unable to help you. Also take along phone numbers for your insurance agent, your attorney, and those of the police, fire, and the Red Cross.
If your dragon is likely to be chilled because of power outages or living in a motel or shelter, don’t feed it. Wait until you can warm the lizard.
Your dragon may need a veterinary checkup when the emergency ends, especially if it has been exposed to cold temperatures, smoke, fouled water, dehydration, or long periods of fasting. Dragons are hardy souls, but they’ll appreciate pampering after surviving a disaster.
There’s one more emergency that deserves special mention. A friend of ours who knew all of the inherent risks died in a house fire when he tried to save his pets. If your house catches on fire, get out! Don’t stop for your dragon. Don’t think you’ll have time or luck. Get out immediately.
Someday, you and your dragon may part ways. You may lose interest in the lizard or be dealing with circumstances that demand placement of your pet in another home. We’ve dealt with this issue as dragon breeders, and our experiences may help you during these tough times. Here is some advice if you can no longer care for your dragon:
Never turn your dragon loose. It will not survive for long, and the time spent until its death will be filled with terror and pain. Your dragon is no longer a wild animal and cannot fend for itself, whether in the city, suburbs, country, park, or wilderness area.
Phone the closest zoo and herp societies. They often know of those who place reptiles in good homes.
You may wish to advertise your dragon for sale in a local newspaper or bulletin board. Be sure to interview prospective buyers, and select the one you think will give your dragon a loving home and good care.
We like to give our extra dragons to others, especially adolescents who have a burgeoning interest in reptiles, along with ample instructions on caring for their new pets. It’s a way of giving back to herpetoculture, providing us with gratification and starting a new dragon owner on the right path. It might be right for you, too.
Sometimes even more difficult decisions must be made. Your dragon may be seriously ill, or very old. Helping a beloved pet to die humanely with minimal pain, stress, or fear is part of responsible ownership and the last gift that you can give your dragon. Here are some pointers:
Never try to induce death in your dragon by putting it in the freezer or by withholding food and water. These practices are inhumane and will cause your dragon much pain and suffering.
Consult with your veterinarian. Humane euthanasia is inexpensive and causes minimal suffering. Your veterinarian may offer advice as to the value of a necropsy (animal autopsy) and services such as cremation. If you wish, you can return home with your dragon’s body for burial, receive its ashes for later burial, or let the vet dispose of the body. Don’t throw the body out in the trash.
Owners of pets that die go through a grieving process similar to that which occurs when a human friend or family member is lost. There are pet grief counselors and hot lines that can help. In time, you’ll remember just the joy of owning a dragon, and we hope you’ll consider once again opening your heart and home to another baby bearded dragon.