A bearded dragon is the common name associated with reptiles of the Pogona genus in the Agamidae family. The species that is most commonly kept as a pet is the inland bearded dragon, Pogona vitticeps. Two other Pogona species are occasionally seen in the pet trade as well: Lawson's dragon, P. henrylawsoni; and the eastern bearded dragon, P. barbata. The eastern bearded dragon is perhaps the rarest of the three in the pet trade since is attains a very large size.
—Growing Up Beardie—
During its life, the bearded dragon goes through several different life stages as it matures. It is helpful as an owner or enthusiast for these reptiles to understand these stages so you will be able to provide better care for them.
- EMBRYONIC: UP TO SEVENTY DAYS OLD: This developmental stage occurs within the egg. Generally this stage of life is controlled by the dragon's breeder and it is important to make sure that the dragon's parents (particularly the mother) were fed a nutritious diet, and that there was no inbreeding. These factors can play in important role in the dragon's whole life.
- JUVENILE: UP TO 7 INCHES IN LENGTH: While the beardie is in his early months of life, he will feed constantly, needing many frequent meals to continue growing.
- SUBADULT: UP TO 12 INCHES IN LENGTH: Generally, it will take between 4 and 5 months for the dragon to reach 12 inches in size and complete this life stage, but this will vary according to husbandry on the part of the owner. Generally during this stage, dragons will eat a little bit less and will tend to favor vegetables more than it did as a young hatchling.
- YOUNG ADULT: 12 TO 16 INCHES IN LENGTH: When the beardie reaches this stage, he will be sexually mature and this period will last until he is approximately 3-4 years old. During this time, male and female behaviors become more pronounced; males become very territorial and more aggressive and females will actually do "push-ups" and wave their arms as a signal to males.
- ADULT: 4 TO 7 YEARS OLD: Generally during this time, the dragon will stop growing or grow very little.
- OLDER ADULT: 7 TO 8 YEARS: It is smart to begin to remove any high-calorie foods from the beardie's diet at this age, such as fruits and worms. Maintain feeding vegetables and insects. Generally at this point, the dragon will slowly begin eating less and less and eventually this will lead to his death.
—Creating a Habitat—
I am placing this section before the next one on selecting the pet itself because first and foremost; it is vital to set up your dragon's enclosure at least 24 hours prior to bringing your new pet home. This is because the set-up work will take some time and it is important to allow time for the temperatures in the tank to stabilize for the beardie.
Do not allow your bearded dragon to roam around your house or apartment. Dragons need a consistent thermal gradient (stable and set temperature) and will potentially hurt or kill themselves on household objects. Supervised time outside of the enclosure is acceptable of course, but constantly roaming around a drafty, 75 degree house is a slow death for this reptile.
Assuming that you will be purchasing a 4-8 inch baby or juvenile beardie, the best initial tank to purchase is a 20 gallon-long aquarium. This tank will be 30 inches in length and is ideal for a dragon. It is easy to keep a stable temperature in this tank and is simple to clean and maintain. As your beardie grows (their maximum length, usually, is around 14-16 inches), you will need to upgrade the tank size. However, try to resist the temptation to buy the large tank while your pet is still little. It is very hard on the beardie to try and catch crickets in a large tank and might not be able to find their water source either.
The large tank that you will have to purchase has to be a minimum of the standard 55 gallon aquarium, which is 48 inches long. Preferably, it would be a 100 or 150 gallon tank that was 48 x 24 x 24 inches or a bit smaller, as this would give the beardie much more room the move around in the enclosure as an adult. Plan on at least the 55 gallon, though.
The substrate for the bottom of the tank should be cage carpet or newsprint for dragons under 8 inches in length, and play sand or calcium-based sand for sub-adults and adults. I recommend avoiding sand for young beardies because it is common to see intestinal impactions because of sand getting lodged in their digestive tracts after they pounce on a cricket and get a mouthful of sand instead. If you are using paper, change it every other day or clean off the cage carpet as often. Sand should be fully replaced once a month and sifting the sand daily to remove accumulating fecal material. In the enclosure itself, a variety of branches and perches are necessary to give the beardie climbing surfaces. Sand-blasted grapevine, driftwood, and limestone ledges and perches are popular choices. Try to keep several in the tank, while maintaining an open area on the ground.
To give adequate lighting and heating in the tank, you will need a basking lamp and bulb to keep one side of the tank significantly warmer than the rest of the tank. The "basking area" should be located on one end or the other of the tank and should be kept between 90 and 100 degrees Farenheit. The rest of the enclosure should be at about 80 to 85 degrees Farenheit and when the lights are shut off at night, the nighttime temperature should be around 75 degrees. The other light source you will need is a UVA/UVB output lamp, which generally comes in a long strip fixture, like a shop light. Buy a bulb that is marked for UVA/UVB output; don't simply buy a plain flourescent bulb. The importance of this light cannot be overlooked; UVB is essential for the creation of vitamin D3 in reptiles, which in responsible for the absorbtion of calcium. Provide a shallow water dish for your beardie; however, be aware that some beardies don't know where their water is or won't drink from a dish. Be sure to play it safe and lightly mist your dragon every other day or give him a soak in a shallow pan of tepid water. He will usually lick the water off his face after a spraying; they usually enjoy their "showers" very much.
—Choosing a Pet Bearded Dragon—
When choosing a bearded dragon for a pet, there are various things to consider. Usually if you're going to a pet store to purchase a beardie, you may find that they house several together in one display tank. This is generally isn't a problem but young bearded dragons, from 4-8 inches in length, can be very competitive for food and usually there will be one or two individuals in a group that are hoarding food and prospering over the others. It would be smart to evaluate all of the dragons in the tank for health and appearance before selecting one.
A healthy bearded dragon will usually be on a climbing perch in the tank, standing upright, with his eyes alertly scanning his surroundings. He will tilt his head from side to side and watch you as you move around to observe him. In constrast, a sickly or weak beardie will often be found on the bottom of the enclosure, slumped over or not standing upright. His eyes will probably be closed or sagging halfway shut. Signs of emaciation are also something to avoid; you would see bones in the hips and back sticking up and a skinny tail. If you should notice that most of the dragons in a tank look like this (as I said above, there might be one or two that aren't as dominant as the rest), do not buy a beardie at that location. It is also important to evaluate the overall cleanliness and upkeep of the reptile habitats at a pet store or breeder. Even if the beardies look healthy to you, check to be sure there isn't feces all over the bottoms of the tanks or soiled water with algae growing in the dishes. These are signs of a staff that isn't properly monitoring their reptiles' health.
—The Bearded Dragon's Diet—
Basically, bearded dragons are omnivorous, which means that they consume both plant and animal matter. In this case, the animal matter is primarily insects. Baby and juvenile beardies will tend to eat more crickets than they do when they are older; keep the ratio of crickets to vegetables as close to 1:1 as you can. Older dragons will eat about two-thirds of their diet as plant matter. Vegetables to include in the diet are: Kale, collards, mustard, clover, dandelion, romaine, carrots, peas, green beans, and occasionally flowers like roses and hibiscus. Do not feed iceberg lettuce. It has almost no nutritional value and is almost entirely water. Insects like crickets are best, but you can also try mealworms and waxworms in moderation. Also, when the dragon is older, you can feed them pinky mice as they can provide trace minerals to your pet, although it is not essential that you do this. Dust crickets with a calcium carbonate supplement that contains trace minerals as well.
—Sexing Bearded Dragons—
As with many reptiles, sexing juvenile and hatchling beardies can be very difficult; generally it is kind of a guess when they're very little. The best way to do this with the greatest likelihood of accuracy is by looking at how the tail of the beardie tapers at the end. Females tend to have a tail that tapers a bit more sharply at the end, while males usually have a tail that is somewhat thicker throughout. This method can be hard, particularly if you aren't used to looking at lots of beardies and have little to compare yours to.
Adults and subadults, on the other hand, are very easy to sex. Males, upon maturity, will develop a very pronounced line of large pre-anal and femoral pores that run horizontally from one of the rear limbs to the other. They will look like raised, circular bumps running across the area just above the beardie's tail. Also, it is important to mention that males will develop an overall larger head with a darker throat area, particularly in breeding season.
Other techniques exist to determine the sex of a beardie, but these are best attempted by a veterinarian or experienced reptile owner since there is a risk of injuring the dragon and as such I will omit them here.
As long as this writeup has gotten, this is still barely scratching the surface of what it means to own a bearded dragon for a pet. They are one of the best reptiles to own as a pet since they are one of the easiest to tame and very often possess a docile, quiet personality even as large adults. They don't, however, requre constant attention like other pets do; they are content to amuse themselves in their tanks if you're too busy to play with them. Their setups are expensive, and this is perhaps their only big drawback. By following the basic guidelines above, you will be able to enjoy this wonderful reptile species as a pet for many years to come.
The Bearded Dragon Manual. Philippe de Visjoli, Robert Mailloux, Susan Donoghue, V.M.D, Roger Klingenberg, D.V.M., Jerry Cole. Copyright © 2001 Advanced Vivarium Systems, Inc. - I heartily recommend this book for an in-depth look at these reptiles. I used some of their basics but if you're truly curious I suggest you take a look. Sourced also for this writeup is my own personal experience.