Bearded dragons

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Natural History

Bearded dragons are naturally found in the deserts and semi-arid scrub lands of southeastern Australia. They didn't commonly appear in the US pet trade until the early 1990s, but since then their popularity has grown exponentially. They are generally easy to maintain, have gentle dispositions, grow to a manageable size, are extremely hardy, and can live over 10 years. Many hobbyists are attracted to these reptiles because of their dinosaur-like appearance. They look like they are covered with tiny, spiky scales, but they are still quite pleasant to the touch and enjoy being handled.

One behavioral trait that makes bearded dragons so appealing is their arm waving. Hatchling and baby beardies will sometimes sit and raise one of their forelimbs above their head, and then slowly lower it back down. While the real reason for this waving is related to introducing themselves as non-threatening to other dragons, it can appear as if they are waving "Hello" to you. Other appealing behavioral traits include head bobbing and stacking (one dragon perching atop another).

Feeding

Feeding time is something that many bearded dragon owners look forward to. Dragons tend to be very enthusiastic when it comes time to feed, and they can turn an ordinary meal into a sort of comedy routine. Juvenile dragons will circle their prey, craning their necks and wiggling their bodies, trying to get just the right angle before lunging. Adult dragons usually go for the mauling approach, charging ahead and bulldozing through any live food in sight. In addition to providing entertainment, feeding can be a great way to interact with your pet, especially if you hand feed.

When deciding what foods to give your bearded dragon, try to take your cue from the foods that wild dragons generally consume. In their natural habitat, bearded dragons will eat leaves, berries, fruits, seeds, invertebrates, mice small birds, lizards, and snakes, if all of these things are available to them. It would be nearly impossible to completely replicate that diet in captivity, but you can come close by feeding as many live animal and vegetable materials as you can. For vegetable matter, try green and red cabbage, kale, collard greens, carrots, arugula, parsley, okra, alfalfa sprouts, peeled grapes, green beans, romaine lettuce, green peas, and hibiscus and dandelion leaves and flowers. For prey, captive dragons are often fed crickets, mealworms, wax worms, fruit flies, roaches, pinkie mice, adult mice, and small lizards. In addition, packaged herp foods can be fed, but be sure to not feed them exclusively, as they usually do not include all of the nutrients your bearded dragon requires.

Gut-loading, a process in which live feeder items are pre-fed to build up their nutritional value, is recommended for bearded dragons. To gut-load, take crickets or mealworms that you intend to feed to your pet in about 2 days and place them in a separate container filled with tropical fish food, dried puppy kibble, instant baby cereal, and/or vegetables. When your dragon consumes these items, they will be loaded with extra nutritional content that will be passed along to your pet.

You should always closely monitor your bearded dragon and his eating habits. By learning how much your dragon eats and when, you will be able to figure out what nutrients he might be lacking and keep him from becoming obese. Keep in mind that bearded dragons at different life stages (hatchling, juvenile, adult, etc.) will have different feeding needs.

Housing

A good size for a bearded dragon terrarium is a 125-gallon tank. While this size tank will be way more than a baby bearded dragon needs, it will allow you to purchase only one tank that you can use throughout your pet's entire life. You can purchase a smaller, 20-gallon long tank for a baby bearded dragon, but purchasing a large tank at the beginning will keep you from having to uproot your pet later on in life to move him to a different tank.

So what kind of terrarium will be best suited to your bearded dragon? Glass aquariums make excellent terrariums and are a very popular choice among hobbyists today. They are easy to clean, provide optimal viewing pleasure, and they will generally last a very long time. Plastic or acrylic terrariums are also quite popular. These enclosures are also easy to clean, and they retain heat very well. However, they are easily scratched, which can disrupt your ability to see your bearded dragon as well as his ability to see out of the enclosure. Also, they may not allow for enough ventilation for your pet. As great as these kinds of terrariums are for some other herps, the amount of moisture and humidity that they hold could be detrimental to your dragon's health.

Bearded dragons are native to the desert, so a low degree of relative humidity is necessary for their survival. If you're going to place a cover on your pet's terrarium, it should be made of mesh wire or rubberized screen. These kind of covers will keep your dragon secured in his tank and protected from any curious members of your household (such as the family cat), but they will also provide enough ventilation.

No matter what sort of enclosure you decide on, the bottom of it should be covered with a substrate. This can be made out of a variety of different materials, including smooth sand, bark chips, garden mulch, recycled newspaper, or commercially-sold cage liners and reptile cage carpet. Whichever type you choose, maintaining it is a very important part of keeping your dragon's cage clean, so be sure to change it as often as necessary.

Your bearded dragon's cage should also contain at least one wide, tall climbing branch. Dragons love to climb, perch, and bask, so you should make this as easy as possible. You can also include a rock (preferably in addition to a branch), because dragons also enjoy basking on a large, smooth rock. You can use either a real rock (sandstones are a good choice) or an artificial rock, available at pet shops and in the garden section of hardware stores.

A bearded dragon's cage should also include a hide box. In the wild, dragons have many natural enemies that they escape from by hiding. This instinct does not disappear once they are in captivity. In fact, in order to stay healthy and happy, they require a hiding place for seclusion, darkness, and security. A hide can be fashioned out of just about anything (including a broken clay pot or wooden planks) or purchased ready-made from a pet store. As long as the hide allows your dragon to completely disappear from view, he will not care what it is made of.

Heating and lighting are the final important components of a bearded dragon tank. Always keep in mind that the Australian Outback, the bearded dragon's natural habitat, is a hot, sunny, dry place. The temperature in his terrarium should remain between 80° and 84°F and include a basking spot where the temperature reaches 95° to 100°F. To maintain these temperatures, you can use incandescent light bulbs, heat emitters, or undertank heating pads. The best way to give your bearded dragon exactly the heating and lighting he requires is to combine methods, using different sources in different parts of the tank, different sources for different times of the day, etc.

Health Care

Some people consider lizards to be "disposable" pets: when one dies, you buy a new one. While it's certainly fine to buy a new pet if your bearded dragon dies, there are many things you can do to give your lizard a long and healthy life. In fact, a healthy bearded dragon can live over 10 years. Take time to learn about your dragon and potential health issues, and you and your lizard can enjoy many years together.

While many health issues can be taken care of at home, it is a good idea to find a veterinarian that specialized in reptiles, in case of emergency. In fact, it is best to find a vet as soon as possible (preferably before you even bring your dragon home for the first time) so you won't have to waste any precious time when an emergency arises. Locating a vet that specializes in reptiles can be challenging. If you're having trouble, check with local pet stores, animal shelters, or herpetological societies, and they may be able to help. You can also visit www.arav.org, the site for the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians.

Burns

Injuries are common for reptiles, probably more so than disease. Burns from a heating lamp or ceramic heater are one of the most common injuries. While some burns are minor and cause only discoloration or blistering of the skin and scales, and other burns can produce open, bleeding wounds, all burns should be seen by a vet. They must be treated for both external and internal (muscular damage) wounds and infections. Most reptile burn victims will require antibiotic injections and topical salves for a complete recovery. The best way to avoid burns is to make sure your dragon does not have direct access to a heating source.

Parasites

Bearded dragons can also be affected by parasites, both internal and external. Symptoms of internal parasites include loss of appetite, bloating, vomiting, sudden weight loss, sluggish movements, and constipation. Internal parasites should be treated by a veterinarian, who will generally prescribe a regimen of oral or injected medication.

Mites are external parasites that often afflict bearded dragons. They are tiny (a few millimeters in diameter) and difficult to spot. Mites will attach themselves to your dragon, bore through his skin, and suck his blood. If many mites are present, they can work together and quickly drain a significant amount of blood, causing a lack of appetite in your pet and a weakening of his immune system. Because of the severity of the consequences of mites, if you think your pet is infected you will need to act quickly.

There are three ways to rid your dragon of mites. First, try thoroughly bathing him, paying particular attention to the eyes, nostrils, vents, and skin folds, and housing him in a separate terrarium while you clean his home. When cleaning the terrarium, dispose of the substrate, any live plants, and other furnishings that are able to be thrown away. Any items that are kept should be wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in the oven at 275°F for two to three hours. Next, soak the terrarium in a bleach solution, letting it soak for 18 to 24 hours. Then, thoroughly rinse it and air it out.

Another method bearded dragon owners use to rid their pet of mites is to dip him in cooking oil (vegetable, olive, etc.). Dip him quickly, making sure his whole body is covered. Soak up any oil that remain on him, using a towel. Then, place him in a separate terrarium and clean the tank as detailed above.

One final option is to take your pet to the veterinarian. She will prescribe a mite killer that will usually need to be sprayed on both the bearded dragon and his terrarium. This treatment should soon eradicate all mites from your dragon and his home.

Mouth Rot

Mouth rot is a bacterial infection that can affect both the mouth and guns of a bearded dragon. Symptoms include bleeding gums, loss of appetite, blackening of the teeth, swollen mouth, and a cheesy, yellowish buildup between the teeth. This disease almost never occurs in dragons that are well taken care of, as it is generally brought on by dirty living conditions and low temperatures. It is extremely painful for the reptile and can prove fatal if not treated by a veterinarian as quickly as possible. To prevent mouth rot, maintain a clean terrarium and be sure your pet is getting an appropriate level of heat.

Metabolic Bone Disease

Metabolic bone disease is caused by inadequate exposure to ultraviolet light. This ailment is painful and eventually debilitating for the lizard. Symptoms include soft jaws that are bent outward, difficulty walking, limbs that are crooked or bent, swollen thighs that are hard to the touch, and trembling or convulsing. This disease is easily prevented by allowing your bearded dragon to soak up enough ultraviolet rays so he can efficiently metabolize calcium and synthesize vitamin D3, which will keep his bones and teeth strong and healthy.

Handling

Unlike many other lizards, the bearded dragon seems to really enjoy being handled. They are often willing to spend hours sitting in your open hand while you stroke their back. This willingness to be handled is one of their most appealing traits and a big part of what makes them such popular pets. Yes, handling your bearded dragon will probably be fun and easy, but there are still certain things you should keep in mind when getting ready to spend some quality time with your pet.

Bearded dragons can harbor a variety of bacteria, particularly in the skin around their claws and in the gaps between their scales. You should always thoroughly wash your hands before and after picking up your pet. Also, you should never let your dragon crawl on your face, and do not rub your eyes or mouth while handling him. These are easy ways to spread the bacteria. Keeping a very clean terrarium can help to avoid much of the potential bacteria problems associated with keeping reptiles.

While adult bearded dragons are quite hardy, babies and hatchlings should be handled with great care. Ideally, bearded dragons should not be handled at all until they are at least four weeks old. If you must handle a very young bearded dragon, the key is to move slowly. Lower your hand into the terrarium, palm up, and allow it to rest on the substrate. Use your other hand to gently encourage the baby dragon to walk into your open palm. Softly close your fingers around him, and raise your hand out of the terrarium.

Once your bearded dragon is about four months old, he will be hardier and able to withstand normal handling. Keep in mind, however, that a dragon should never be forced to go into or out of his cage before he is ready. If your pet is desperately gripping something in his tank, assume that he is not ready to get out and don't force him. In addition to causing him some anxiety, a move like this could physically harm your dragon.

Keep in mind that your bearded dragon's tail can easily break off. This is a bloody, painful experience for your pet that can occur when the tail is grasped or dealt a bit of rough handling. It will eventually grow back, but it will be darker and look different than the original. To avoid this, never attempt to pick up your bearded dragon by his tail, and be careful whenever handling him in any way.

Getting Started

If you have a pet bearded dragon, you should also have a variety of supplies to assist you in housing him, feeding him, and keeping him healthy and happy. The following list contains some suggested items:

Cage (usually a glass aquarium)
Heat Source (basking light)
Lighting (UVB source)
Substrate
Hide Box
Water Bowl
Food (insects, leafy greens, vegetables, small rodents)

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