Steven D. Garner, DVM, DABVP Diplomate
American Board of Veterinary Practitioners
Chief of Staff, Safari Veterinary Care Centers
Bearded Dragon Care
Bearded Dragons, Pogona vittaceps, originate in the deserts of Australia. It has a spiney beard, which gives it its name and unique appearance. These lizards are hardy and have a docile nature. They are a diurnal (daytime active) lizard. Adults range in size from 18-22 inches.
Juveniles are largely insectivorous (maybe 95%) and that as they age, they consume more and more vegetable matter, until as adults at about 18 to 24 months. As adults they will be predominantly herbivorous, and they are opportunistic omnivores in the wild. A reasonable average for an adult bearded dragon is 70% of the diet should be plant material. Most insects that are cultivated for feeding to reptiles (roaches and crickets) have poor calcium/phosphorus ratios and need to be supplemented with calcium to be suitable. Insects should be gut loaded before feeding so they provide optimal nutrition to your reptile. You can use sweet potato slices covered in Cream of Wheat or Malt O Meal or buy special blends of vitamins and nutrient gel to feed your insects during storage.
A diet comprising about 70% vegetable matter (Kaplan’s iguana salad SEE BELOW is a great starting point) week. Blueberry and raspberry or strawberry once a day is good to offer. Mixed greens 3-4 x week. Some people recommend occasional pinkie mice and super worms; but this may not be recommended in captivity. In the wild, bearded dragons eat a variety of small vertebrates. But pinkies are fattening and in the case of super worms they have inappropriate calcium/phosphorus and they are not a necessary part of the diet.
KAPLAN’S IGUANA SALAD 1 orange squash (Winter squash as in pepper, butter, pumpkin …) quartered, heated slightly in the microwave to soften the skin. Then the skin is peeled off, and the squash is shredded into fine pieces in a food processor. It should look like shredded cheese when done. Sweet potato may be substituted here on occasion 2 large parsnip (looks like a white carrot!) – shredded as above. Perhaps one large carrot now and then mixed in to added beta carotene – (and some color to the diet!) shredded as above. Carrots are high in oxalates and should not be used on a regular basis. 3 cups of green beans. Finely chopped in the food processor or steel knifed. 1 cup of alfalfa pellets mix in with already chopped or shredded veggies 10 – 12 fresh or reconstituted dried figs Scoop some of the seeds out as they can impact an iguana. Figs are very high in calcium! Chop figs finely and mix into salad ingredients. 1 large cantaloupe halved or quartered with the seeds scooped out. chop finely … try to get as much of the cantaloupe juice into the salad as possible as well as this will add vital moisture to the mix. Raspberries, papaya, honeydew melon, and or strawberries may be substituted for the cantaloupe on occasion. Cantaloupe and raspberries have quite good calcium to phosphorus ratios for fruit. Mix all the above ingredients together. The salad should be moist, not too dry. Use several plastic sandwich bags and put daily portions of salad in each baggy then place all these baggies into large freezer bags and freeze.
A basic 10-50 gallon aquarium can be used as a terrarium depending on the size of the dragon. Astroturf and coarse sand makes good substrate for the cage floor. A 60-75 watt bulb should be positioned to shine on to an area of sand creating a focal basking area with a temperature of 90-100°F. The remainder of the tank should range from 80-85°F. Provide light for 12 hours daily. A heater placed under the tank to keep cage temperature warm at night. Feces, urine and wet sand should be removed as quickly as possible. If more than one dragon are kept together, watch closely for signs of aggression, i.e. bite wounds/scratches and lack of growth in one while the other continues to grow larger. One dragon may intimidate the other to the point of starvation.
Dragons need a full-spectrum fluorescent light to thrive in captivity. Without it, they cannot effectively process calcium and specifically vitamin D3. This can lead to metabolic bone disease (MBD). These special lights mimic sunlight, and are sold by a variety of manufacturers under different names (such as Duro-Lite and Vita-Lite). Artificial lights are effective, but nothing beats exposure to pure sunlight. When outdoor temperatures are above 80°F allow your dragon to bask outside in a wire enclosure, or in a secure pen where he can enjoy the natural sunlight. Do not put the dragon in direct sun in a glass enclosure. The glass magnifies the heat, causing cage temperatures to rapidly reach fatal levels. In addition, the glass filters out beneficial rays in the wavelengths lizards need.
The photoperiod is simply the length of time your dragon is exposed to light. The recommended photoperiod is 12-14 hours daylight followed by equal period of darkness. During the time that the lights are off, heat will be supplied from the under cage heat source.
When a symptom becomes visible to you, your lizard has probably been sick for a long time and hiding its illness from you. Contact your veterinarian. Many diseases can be completely reversed if caught in time and if a proper course of action is taken.
can be a cause of loss of appetite, weight loss, diarrhea and poor growth. If untreated parasites may kill the dragon. A stool sample should be evaluated by a veterinarian to determine if parasites are present and if so, to prescribe the proper treatment. Generally, by five months of age, the dragon should be ten inches long.
Mites are blood sucking parasites and are common causes of skin irritation, black spots on skin, ulceration and in severe cases anemia in infected lizards. These mites can be black or red. Your pet’s enclosure should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. You may use a bleach solution (one part bleach to ten parts water) for disinfection. You must rinse those areas thoroughly after cleaning. All branches, rocks, substrates, bowls and dishes must be soaked well in dilute bleach solution. Soaking your lizard in warm water will drown many of the mites the remainder can be manually removed. These mites feed on blood and heavy infestations can lead to fatal blood loss. In addition, these mites can spread bacterial infections. See handout on mites/ticks. Please refer to Reptile Skin Mites, by Steven D. Garner, DVM, DABVP Diplomate, for more detailed information.
Bearded dragon mouth rot is the common name for stomatitis i.e. inflammation of the mouth. Mouthrot is most often caused by a bacterial infection, however, parasites, fungal disease and cancer can cause similar changes in the mouth. If left untreated, the infection can invade the bones of the jaw or enter the bloodstream and spread to the lungs, liver or spleen.
Intestinal impaction and constipation
can occur in dragons allowed to over eat, especially mealworms. Eating a prey item that is too large can also prove fatal. The food item should be no bigger than the dragon’s head is wide. Most dragons defecate every day or every other day. Others do so twice daily, and still others regularly skip two days. If it seems as though your dragon is not defecating as often as it should, then soak it for 20-30 minutes in lukewarm water. This action will sometimes stimulate them to defecate. If this fails, you should contact your veterinarian. Other conditions such as parasites, intestinal torsion (twisted intestines), bloat, bladder stones and egg binding can be mistaken for constipation. If left untreated, these conditions can be fatal.
Your dragon will shed its skin throughout its entire lifetime. The skin is shed in many small pieces. Warm water soaks aid removal of shed skin. Retained portions of skin are usually due to a lack of humidity. Retained skin around the toes, tail and spines shrinks as it dries and may cut off the blood supply resulting in loss of the affected body part. Retained skin must be removed by soaking and gentle peeling. Increasing the humidity in the environment may help prevent these problems.
Sneezing: Your bearded dragon may sneeze. Often this is a normal behavior. Lizards do not sweat as humans do, so they do not excrete salt through their skin. Instead, they do it by sneezing. If your dragon is in a glass enclosure, you may find white spots on the glass. Sneezing may also be a sign of respiratory infection and may be associated with bubbles or liquid outside the nose and mouth. If these signs are observed, contact your veterinarian.
Thermal burns caused by hot rocks are common. Lizards can also burn themselves on lights that are used for heating. Lights should not be placed inside the cage; rather, they should be positioned outside the cage so they can shine into the cage. A temperature strip (thermometer) should be placed on the inner surface of the glass to make sure temperatures do not exceed 105 degrees on the glass.
Nose wounds are common in many lizards that are housed in cages that have wire or screen on the sides. The lizard may spend much of its time rubbing its nose against the sides, trying to escape. This behavior may be indicative of a cage that is too small.
The most common cause of a lump/bump is an abscess under the skin. Abscesses are swollen, pus filled areas of infection caused by bacteria. These lumps should be surgically opened and the hard, purulent material removed. Topical and injectable antibiotics are often needed. This is a job for your veterinarian. A lump on the tail may be abscess or cyst. Microscopic evaluation of the material in the lump is necessary to determine the difference.
There are many reasons why your pet may refuse to eat. It could be a psychological problem, physiological problem, or both. Environmental causes include: low temperature, low humidity, excessive handling of shy species, overcrowding (may occur with only two dragons in a cage), aggression from cagemates, lack of hide box for visual security, lack of UV light and lack of proper diet. Raising the temperature of the enclosure to 85-90 degrees will help stimulate appetite and increase the function of digestive enzymes. Gravid (pregnant) females eat less than normal as the eggs develop filling the abdominal cavity. Force-feeding is often necessary in these situations. Stress of movement to a new cage, placement of cage in a high traffic area or improper photoperiod may contribute to stress and hence decreased appetite. Internal parasites, external parasites, any kind of bacterial or fungal infection, as well as most other illnesses may cause your pet to go off food. Dragons with metabolic bone disease are often unable to eat due to their inability to grasp/chew food with their soft jaws. Anorexia (food refusal) is not a disease; it is a symptom of some other problem. You should consult your veterinarian to determine the problem and appropriate treatment.
Similar to anorexia, lethargy (decreased activity) is a symptom of a larger problem. It usually accompanies disease. Make appropriate adjustments in temperature, lighting and diet. If your pet’s activity level does not improve, further evaluation by a veterinarian is recommended.
Paresis/Paralysis/Hind Leg Weakness
The most common cause is damage to the spinal cord secondary to collapse of one or more vertebrae secondary to metabolic bone disease. The onset is usually sudden and there may or may not be a history of trauma. Another cause of weakness in the rear legs without paralysis is deficiency of calcium and/or B vitamins. Frequently, these dragons will have difficulty with urination and defecation.
Scoliosis is curvature of the spine from side to side, often into a C or S shape. Kyphosis is curvature of the spine resulting in a hump along the back. Injury, calcium deficiency, malnutrition or birth defect can cause these deformities. Most of these defects are not reversible; however, in many cases the pet can live a relatively normal life.
Metabolic Bone Disease
MBD in bearded dragons is a reversible disease, especially when caught early and treated aggressively. If allowed to go untreated, symptoms progress to severe muscle weakness, muscle tremors, comma and eventually, death. Please refer to Metabolic Bone Disease, by Steven D. Garner, DVM, DABVP Diplomate, for more detailed information.
Breathing Difficulty/Oral Discharge
Increased respiratory rate and/or open mouth breathing may be a sign of over heating in otherwise healthy lizards, especially those left unattended in the sun or a hot car. Other causes include blocked nostrils, pneumonia and foreign body blockage of the larynx. Dragons excrete excess salts from glands located in the nostrils. This results in a clear discharge that dries to a fine white powder, which may be seen around the nares or on the sides of the cage. Infections of the sinus results in material, from clear with bubbles to thick and mucoid. Foamy or thick discharge from the mouth is a sign of more severe disease and debilitation.
Salmonella is a bacteria that is present in the gut of about 90% of reptiles and may cause no clinical evidence of disease, however, in people especially in the young and the elderly, it can be extremely dangerous, even deadly. It is important that you practice good hygiene when there are reptiles present in your household. After handling your lizard or items from your pet’s cage, you should always wash your hands in a good antibacterial soap. Do not soak the lizard or wash cage/cage accessories in the tub or sink, do not place the lizard near your face or mouth and avoid handling the lizard if you have open sores on your hands. Young people; people on immunosuppressive drugs; persons with AIDS, cancer, or diabetes; and the elderly are particularly prone to becoming sick from the bacteria, and it can be fatal. Testing of the lizard for Salmonella is possible but often gives unreliable results and can be expensive. It is better to assume the infection is present and handle the iguana accordingly. Please refer to Salmonella, by Steven D. Garner, DVM, DABVP Diplomate, for more detailed information.