Steven D. Garner, DVM, DABVP Diplomate
American Board of Veterinary Practitioners
Chief of Staff, Safari Veterinary Care Centers
Water Dragon Care
Green Water Dragon, Physignathus Cocincinus, and Australian Water Dragon, Physignathus lesueurii
are semi-aquatic, diurnal lizards found in Australia and Southeast Asia. They live in sandy burrows and spend a large amount of time in trees. Hatchlings are approx. 1” from nose to vent, and 5-6” in overall length. The young dragons are brown on the back and pale green to white on the abdomen, with white or beige vertical stripes on the sides and brown and green banded tails. Adults are dark forest green to a light mint green on the back and white to light yellow on the abdomen, with vertical stripes on the sides. The skin of the neck ranges from yellow, to peach to pink. Adult males are approx. three feet overall and adult females are approx. two feet in overall length. The majority of the length is the tail. Dragons use their tails when swimming, for balance and leverage when climbing and as a whip in self defense. The life span ranges from 10 to 20 years.
As the males mature, they develop larger heads, large jowls and a larger crest behind the neck, than the female dragons. In addition, the femoral pores (circular scales or pores on the inner surface of the thighs) of adult males are slightly larger than that of the females. When dragons are mature and able to breed, they are generally about 2 years old and 2 feet in length. Male dragons have a hemipenes (sex organ) located in a pouch or invagination, below the vent in the tail.
Dragons, at different stages of maturity, get fed differently. A hatchling, or juvenile, should be fed every day; where as, an adult should be fed daily to every 2 to 3 days, depending on its overall health and body condition. The major portion of the iguana diet
should consist of insects, i.e. crickets, mealworms (normal size, jumbo and super), waxworms, earthworms, butterworms, locusts, small feeder fish like goldfish, and 10-15% of the diet should be finely shredded veggies and fruit. Please refer to Iguana Care, by Steven D. Garner, DVM, DABVP Diplomate
, for vegetable selection. Adult dragons should be offered all of the above, plus King mealworms, pinkies (newborn hairless mice) and fuzzies (baby mice just starting to get hair). If you have a large adult dragon, you may even feed it freshly killed adult mice or even new born rat pups. Regardless of the age of the dragon, the size of the food item should be no longer than the length of the head, and no wider than half the width of the head, and preferably about one third the width of the head. Food items should be dusted with a supplement that contains calcium, with or with out vitamin D3. Do not use a supplement that also contains phosphorus. Do not feed your dragon dog food, cat food or monkey chow. Feeding these items can lead to over supplementation with calcium and vitamin D and may cause early kidney disease and soft tissue calcification which can be fatal.
Day time temperature from 84-88°F and night time temperature from 75-80°F. A thermometer should be placed in the cage near the area where the dragon spends the most time to insure that temperatures are not too high or too low. Temperatures outside of the lizard’s comfort zone add undue stress and can lead to decreased appetite, poor digestion, inactivity and suppression of the immune system. Heat can be supplied by ceramic heaters, red colored heat lamps, under the cage heat strips, or temperature control of the room in which the cage is placed. Ceramic heaters are a great way to provide heat at night since they don’t produce light. Be sure that the dragon can not contact the heat source or severe burns may occur. DO NOT use hot rocks; they do not supply adequate heat and are common causes of burns in reptiles. You will also need one or two basking lamps to provide focal areas of increased heat. These can be either a specialized basking lamp or a regular bulb. Different wattage provide different amounts of heat. These lights get hot so make sure that your dragon can’t contact them!
Natural, unfiltered sunlight is the best form of lighting for reptiles. If you are able to provide natural unfiltered sunlight for your water dragons, by all means do so, but please supervise your dragon while it is sunning itself in order to prevent escapes or overheating. A glass aquarium can turn into an oven in just a few minutes when placed in the direct sun. In addition, sunlight that passes through glass, plastic or Plexiglas looses much of the beneficial UVB light waves and is therefore not desirable. You will need to provide UVB florescent lighting. Incandescent bulbs do not produce UVB rays. The dragon needs UVB to produce vitamin D3 in order to use the calcium in the diet. Without this lighting, the dragon can not utilize the calcium from the food and supplements that you are giving it and will very likely develop metabolic bone disease (MBD). Please refer to Metabolic Bone Disease, by Steven D. Garner, DVM, DABVP Diplomate
, for more detailed information. The light should be set up so that the dragon is not more than 12 to 18 inches away from the light source when basking, otherwise the effects of the UVB light will decrease the further away the dragon is from it. Reptiles need to sleep. Constant exposure to light can also cause stress; therefore, the lights should be on a timer in order to provide a proper photo period i.e. daylight/night time cycle. Time lights to allow approximately 12 hours of daylight per 24 hour period.
Water dragons enjoy the water, therefore, you should provide a bathing or soaking area by either using a large plastic container (kitty litter pan) or other shallow container. Use a container that is large enough for the dragon to enter and exit easily, filled with enough water that he can immerse up to 50% of his body height. You should be able to remove the water container easily for cleaning and disinfecting, as well as changing the water daily. You will probably find that your dragon will defecate/urinate in the water.
Humidity should be about 80%. This can be difficult to maintain; however, misting the enclosure twice a day can help. Covering a portion of the top of the enclosure with piece of Plexiglas or plastic wrap can help retain moisture/humidity. Do not cover the entire top of the enclosure as this restricts air circulation.
Astroturf with bound or melted edges, butcher paper, paper towels and alfalfa pellets are good choices for cage substrate. Many substrates can cause problems if ingested, such as: bark, shavings, moss, gravel and sand. Do not use cedar or pine. These woods contain aromatic oils that can cause irritation to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract.
Rostrum (nose) Damage
Dragons my damage their rostrum (nose) by repeatedly bumping or rubbing it against the cage wall. The dragon may be trying to escape or may be fighting with his reflection. This trauma to the nose can result in open sores, stomatitis (mouth rot), abscess and, in severe cases, deformity of the jaw. Moving the dragon to a larger enclosure or providing a visual barrier between the dragon and the wall of the cage may reduce this behavior. Dragons need a cage at least two times their total length; therefore, for an adult male, you will need an enclosure that is a minimum of 6 feet long, 2-3 feet deep and 4-6 feet high. Cages should provide ample room for climbing. Provide branches, plants, basking areas, hiding areas and, if possible, make at least 1/3 of the ground area water. Using live plants in the enclosure provides places to hide and humidity will be easier to maintain by watering and misting the plants. Pothos, Dracaena, Hibiscus, Spider plants and Epiphytes, such as Staghorn ferns, are safe for use with water dragons. Not all plants are safe for use with reptiles.