Beardies Set-Up & Care
Bearded Dragons are one of the most rewarding reptiles that you could ever want to own. To ensure that your beardie is happy and healthy for many years to come, there are some things that you need to be aware of when setting up it’s enclosure as well as the daily care requirements. The internet is chalked full of caresheets and step by step set-up instructions, however err on the side of caution. Some of the information that can be found online is fact based while some of it is not. The information that you’ll find below is based on our own personal experience and is put to the test every day.
Enclosure: There are several different options here. Ultimately it comes down to how much you want to spend and how easy you want the daily maintenance to be. One of the main things to keep in mind when deciding on an enclosure is the frequency in which you will need to get inside of it. Whether it’s for routine, daily maintenance or to just get your dragon out for some one-on-one bonding, you are going to be getting in there a lot!! Cage cleanliness is one of the most important aspects contributing to a healthy dragon and cannot be skimped on! Dragons will defecate at least once a day (typically) and it is important to remove the feces asap before your beardie has the chance to track through it or before any uneaten feeder insects come into contact with it. Taking all of that into consideration, here are some popular options…
• Plastic Storage Totes: These are without a doubt the most affordable of the group and can be used with much success if you plan accordingly. You’ll want to purchase a large, clear tote in the 96 quart range. They can be found at just about any retail location and are usually priced under $12. We use totes to house our baby and sub-adult dragons. They are easy to keep clean and since the totes are so large, a top is not required. We mount a ceramic socket inside and position the tote in one of our custom racks that have UVB fixtures mounted in the cabinet above. This set-up allows us to slide the totes in and out numerous times a day for regular cleaning. We offer no floor covering, just a large basking rock underneath the heat lamp. We check the temps and position the rock accordingly. In a 96 quart tote, we use a 50 watt spot lamp. This gives us a 94-96 degree fahrenheit hot spot and a cool side reading of 83-85 degrees. Our babies (which require a warmer basking temp) are provided with a larger rock, allowing them to get closer to the heat lamp. If you take the time to do it right and dial in all of the correct temps, then totes are a great way to house numerous dragons in one area and are a popular method used by many of todays breeders.
• Glass Aquarium: Probably the most popular choice amongst modest dragon keepers. Babies and sub-adults can be housed in as small as a 20L gallon, however as they reach maturity, you will want to move them into a larger tank such as a 40 gallon “Breeder” or a 55 gallon. We have found that since 55 gallon tanks are mass produced, you can pick them up much cheaper then you can a 40 gallon “Breeder”. Dialing in the basking temps can be a little trickier when using a 55 gallon because of it’s additional height. To remedy this, you can either provide a large branch that allows your dragon to get closer to the basking light or you can opt for a higher wattage heat lamp which will penetrate deeper inside the enclosure. Since you will need to utilize a basking lamp as well as a light strip for the UVB bulb, a screen top is a must. There is a lot of debate in regards to screen tops adverse affects on the UVB bulb. Many people have argued that when placed directly on top of a screen top, the UVB rays are filtered out and ineffective. It is still up in the air as to whether or not that is the case but is worth mentioning. That said, one of the biggest downfalls we see is how difficult it is to get inside the enclosure and perform daily cleaning. You will have to dismantle the cage top (remove light fixtures and screen top) every time you need to get inside. This may not seem like a deal breaker for the person that owns one or two dragons but if you are like us and are caring for over 60 dragons daily, then this can be a deal breaker.
*Extra Tip* We opt to paint 3 of the 4 aquarium walls white, leaving only the front glass exposed. This, aside from being aesthetically pleasing, also brings a sense of comfort to the dragon housed inside. If using paint, make sure that the aquarium surface has been cleaned extensively prior to housing your dragon and that no fumes are present. Aquarium backgrounds are another alternative however the finished product is not as neat and polished looking.
• Custom Built Cages: This is the most popular choice amongst breeders and experienced dragon keepers. Custom caging benefits you in just about every way imaginable. Many dragon keepers are handy with tools and possess enough carpentry skills to design and construct their own cages. This not only costs less but is 100% customizable and can be tweaked any way that you want. If you don’t possess the time or the skills that it takes to build your own cage then there are many manufacturers out there to choose from. Although you won’t have all of the options of a “do-it-yourselfer”, you will be able to choose from many different options such as materials, color and lighting. We chose to go with a company that manufactures custom ABS cages. The plastic/resin polymer is lightweight and retains a large portion of the heat. This means lower wattage bulbs and lower monthly energy bills (this comes in handy when you have as many cages as we do). It is also less of a drop in night time temps which is beneficial to your dragon. Our cages feature a one-piece, flip down, plexiglass front which makes daily feeding/cleaning/handling a cinch. We also chose to have an interior heat lamp and UVB fixture mounted inside of each cage. These type of cages offer the most stable environment for your dragons and is how we house our entire colony of adults.
Floor Covering: There are a couple of different options when it comes to covering the floor of your dragons enclosure. Newspaper, sand, paper towels, reptile carpet and ceramic or slate tiles are the most commonly used.
• Sand: A popular, yet poor choice often suggested by pet store employees. Sand, although it looks natural, can pose an impaction risk to your dragon. Over the last several years many manufacturers have began making calcium based sand products. Although the calcium based sand is safer then natural sand, the impaction risk is still present. Another downfall of sand is that it fouls too soon. Although you may spot clean the sand daily, you won’t be able to rid it of all of the bacteria left behind and this will soon become odorous and unpleasant.
• Reptile Carpet: Another popular/poor choice pushed by pet stores. Although impaction is not a concern with reptile carpet, the odor problem is. Like sand, even after removing the waste, the bacteria will still be present in the carpet fibers and it won’t take long before the enclosure begins to stink. Another downfall of the reptile carpet is the risk of your dragons claws getting stuck in the fibers. This is uncomfortable for your dragon and can cause injury.
• Newspaper & Paper Towels: Both are popular options amongst breeders. They are inexpensive and can be removed and replaced as needed with little time spent doing so.
• Ceramic or Slate Tiles: Our favorite covering and the option we feel is the most beneficial to both you and your dragon. They can be purchased at any of the major home and garden stores and can be cut to size to line the inside of the enclosure. Aside from looking very clean and natural, they provide belly warmth for your dragon as the tiles heat up throughout the day. Even after the lights go out the heat will continue to radiate from the tiles. The added benefit of the slate tiles is that the dragons nails will be filed down as they pace back and forth in their cage. This may not be as much of an issue when your dragon is small but as he grows, his claws can become quite painful when handling him. Another benefit of ceramic and slate tiles is that waste can be easily wiped off and then spot cleaned to remove all of the bacteria from the surface. We use a mild bleach/water mixture that can be sprayed on the affected area. This cuts down on all odor and provides a bacteria free haven for your dragon. An additional benefit of tile is that when cut to size, it can be arranged seamlessly in the enclosure, thus preventing feeder insects from being able to hide or burrow. This is most beneficial with babies whom have not yet honed their hunting skills.
Water Bowl: We do not offer a water bowl inside of our dragon enclosures. In our experience, we have found that the dragons just track through the water and dirty it up. Some will even use it as a toilet. These guys are a desert species and will store the water that they consume. That said, routine hydration is still vital to their health. To accomplish this, we exercise a weekly soaking of all adult dragons, a twice weekly soaking of sub-adults and an every-other-day soaking of babies. For our adults, we will run a warm bath (just a couple inches of water) and let the dragon sit in it for 15-20 minutes. The dragon will either bury its head in the water and begin drinking or absorb it through their skin. The sub-adults and babies are placed in large, plastic containers and allowed to soak for the same amount of time. The time of day that you soak your dragons is also important. You don’t want to soak your dragon right after the lights have come on or right before they go off. If you do it after they come on, then your dragon will not have reached it’s peak basking temp and will become cold and stressed in the water. If you do it right before the lights go off, then your dragon will not be able to dry off completely and warm back up before the lights go off. This could contribute to a respiratory infection that can be tricky and costly to treat. Your dragon will go through several sheds as it approaches adulthood. During times of shed it is also beneficial to increase the frequency of soakings to allow more hydration which aids in the shedding process.
Heat Source: Being a desert species, higher then normal temps are vital to your dragons survival. This is where our information becomes vague as there is no “set” way to tell you how to attain the proper temps for your enclosure. With so many enclosure options out there, YOU the owner will have to experiment with this yourself. Take the time to purchase a reliable heat gun so that you can check the temps in numerous areas inside your enclosure. The whole process of “dialing in” the ideal temps is simply trial and error. We found ourselves purchasing several different wattages of bulbs, changing the location of the heat lamps numerous times and experimenting with different enclosure types before we finally got our temps dialed in. You too will have to do the same. For adult bearded dragons, you will want to attain a basking spot of 95 degrees fahrenheit and a cool side of 85. For babies and sub-adults, you will want the temps to be higher in the hot spot to help aid in digestion. The target basking temps for babies and sub-adults are 105-115 degrees fahrenheit with a cool side reading of 85. We position the basking rock under the heat lamp so that the rock can heat up throughout the day and provide belly heat for the dragons. Your cage type is going to factor into the wattage of bulb that is needed to attain the ideal basking temps in your dragons enclosure. If using an ABS cage, you will need a lower wattage bulb as the materials that the cage are constructed with will hold the heat more efficiently. If using a storage tote, you will need a higher wattage bulb as the majority of the heat will escape through the open top. For both adult, sub-adult and babies, it is important to establish a temperature gradient inside the enclosure. This is so when your dragon becomes too hot, he can escape to the other side of the enclosure and cool down. You may notice your dragon at times resting under his heat lamp, with his mouth open, almost panting. This is normal and is a good sign. This means that you have attained a warm enough basking temp for your dragon and that he is thermoregulating. Thermoregulating is the process in which your dragon cools himself off, much like us sweating. When dialing in your temps, watch for signs of stress in the area of your dragons belly. These are commonly referred to as stress marks and are identified as grayish lines or patterns on the belly of the dragon. A happy dragon will exhibit an all white belly. If you find that your dragon has these markings present, try to locate the cause of stress. We mention stress marks in this section because they are usually a result of temps being too high in the enclosure. We utilize a 12 hour day/night cycle in the spring/summer months and a 10 hour day/night cycle in the fall/winter. Typically a night time heat source is not needed, however if temps drop below the upper 60′s at night, then we suggest adding an additional heat source so that your dragon can gravitate towards the warmth if desired. A heat mat or a night time heat bulb can remedy this problem.
UVB Lighting: Exposure to UVB rays is another thing that your dragon must have for survival. Lets now take the time to discuss UVB bulbs and your options. UVB is important in the bodies production of vitamin D3, a necessity for proper calcium metabolism. It is something that in the wild your dragon would receive from direct sunlight, however being in captivity, this can only be offered two ways, UVB bulbs or D3 supplementation. Although a lot of people put all of their faith into UVB bulbs alone, we have found that frequent supplementation is the most beneficial as you can ensure that your dragon is exposed to it daily. Many of the nations top breeders only use D3 supplementation and shy away from UVB bulbs altogether. UVB bulbs are very common in the pet trade with almost every major manufacturer now producing them. We suggest using Zoo-Med bulbs as they have been a staple amongst reptile breeders for many years now. Studies have shown that the UVB coating on Zoo-Med’s bulbs generate a higher powered UVB ray and they are effective longer then many of the other manufacturers bulbs. Zoo-Med recommends changing your bulbs every year to ensure that they are functioning properly and giving off the desired amount of UVB. UVB bulbs can be found in the following forms…
• Mercury Vapor Bulbs (MVB): Popular amongst many chameleon breeders and owners, these should only be utilized in extremely large beardie enclosures where the heat and UVB rays can penetrate several inches down into the enclosure. These bulbs are beneficial as they provide a basking and UVB bulb all in one, however in a typical dragon enclosure, they are just too powerful and put off too much heat. This type of bulb works great in adult chameleon enclosures as most screen cages are four feet tall. The screen allows the excess heat to escape and the extra depth allows the chameleon to escape the UVB rays when it wants to. In a typical dragon enclosure the heat would stay trapped and the dragon would have a tough time escaping the UVB rays as they would penetrate well into the floor area of the enclosure.
• Fluorescent Bulbs: The most commonly used UVB bulb on the market. They have been used for many years now with no adverse effects on the animals being kept under them. They can be purchased in 5.0 or 10.0 strengths, depending on the enclosure size and how far you need the UVB rays to penetrate. They also produce little to no additional heat.
• Coil Bulbs: The newest type of UVB bulb on the market. This bulb falls short of the fluorescent bulb in regards to the amount of surface area that it can cover. Since it is housed in a standard bulb assembly, it’s rays can only be dispersed about 6 inches in length as opposed to the fluorescent bulbs rays running the entire length of the bulb.
*Extra Tip* When it comes to lighting, it is best to invest in an automatic light timer! They are affordable (about $5), readily available and will be one less thing that you have to worry about on a daily basis. Your dragon will also benefit from the day/night cycle being consistent.
Rocks, Limbs & Decor: We have already touched on the need for a basking rock in the Heat Source section, but you might want to consider some additional items to place inside your dragons enclosure. These items will not only make your enclosure more cosmetically appeasing but it will also give your dragon some additional items to climb on and break the monotony of his daily life up some.
• Additional Rocks: Rocks of different shapes and sizes can give your dragon options on where he wants to lay at any given time. The rocks different textures can also aid in removing dead skin when shedding. We have witnessed our dragons rub up against the rocks in their enclosures several times when shedding.
• Limbs: Limbs will allow your dragon the ability to climb and get exercise. If positioned under the heat lamp, it will also give him more options in regards to temps.
• Decor: This can consist of hides, fake plants, etc. In our experience your dragon isn’t going to care too much for the fake plants but we know as owners, we sometimes like to “pimp out” our enclosures and add some accents. We have found that some dragons like to seek shelter inside a hide at night time so this is always a nice addition to consider.
All of this information may seem like a lot to take in but we assure you, if done right, you will have a happy and thriving pet dragon for many years to come!!!
A lot of the care requirements have already been covered in the Set-Up portion. The information below pertains more so to the dragon that you will be receiving from us and it’s aftercare upon arrival.
Aftercare: All dragons sold by Jela’s BadAss Beardies are feeding well and are free of any signs of disease prior to shipping. It is quite normal for your dragon to refuse food the first several days after shipping. Shipping stress plays a large role in this and we are confident, based on our own personal experience, that your new dragon will be feeding regularly within a couple of days.
Feeding: The key to any healthy dragon is a varied, nutritious diet. Research the insects that are readily available to you and choose the ones that are the most beneficial to your dragon. It is key to have at least 2 staple foods to offer your dragon. A staple food is a food that is going to be offered routinely and is healthy for your animal. Some popular staple foods are crickets, superworms and our favorite, feeder roaches. All insects should be gutloaded with fresh fruits and vegetables prior to offering them to your dragon. When properly gutloaded, these nutrients are passed directly to your animal. Some of the most popular and beneficial gutload items for your dragons are carrots, apples, oranges and greens. Research the insects that you are feeding and be sure that they are properly gutloaded prior to feeding. Another reason why we favor the feeder roaches is that they retain their nutrients for up to 72 hours after feeding as opposed to 18-24 hours by crickets.
For all baby dragons, we offer food items 3 times a day. You will want the items to be no larger then the distance between their eyes. As the dragon grows, you will increase the size of the food items, again staying with the “distance between the eyes” principle. We have had much success with this approach to baby and sub-adult dragon feeding. As the dragon grows into adulthood, this rule can be relaxed some as the dragons teeth are now much more adapt at crunching through the larger food items. Our adult dragons are offered food items twice daily.
Greens are an important part of your dragons staple diet. Babies and sub-adults should be offered greens as early as possible so that they can acquire a taste for them. A lot of owners have skimped on this and as the dragon matures, it will refuse greens altogether. As a baby and sub-adult, greens should only make up about 20% of the dragons diet with the other 80% being high protein insect offerings. Adults should have a diet that is heavier on the greens side with the ratio being about 60% greens to 40% insects. There are many great greens out there that you can offer your dragon as a staple, however some are preferred more then others. The one green that is a great staple and is readily accepted by most dragons is fresh mustard greens.
Supplementation: Proper supplementation is important to a growing dragon. We offer Rep-Cal calcium w/D3 on a daily basis and Herptivite (multi-vitamin) and probiotics every third day. The D3, in conjunction with a UVB bulb, ensures that each dragon is receiving an ample amount of exposure daily. The multi-vitamin every third day is a way to make sure that your dragon is receiving all of the proper vitamins and minerals that he may or may not be receiving from his food items alone. The probiotics every third day helps to keep your dragons digestive tract in balance and helps curb parasitic outbreaks. Probiotics should always be administered after purchasing a new dragon, especially during the acclimation period. At times of stress, parasites that are present in every dragon can quickly take over the body. This happens more so when shipped in extreme temps as the dragon becomes either too hot or too cold during shipping, then must acclimate to a new surrounding, etc.