Caring for a Bearded Dragon as a beginner can be daunting. Bearded Dragon Care For Beginners will help you overcome the challenges of becoming a reptile keeper. And make sure that you get off to a great start with your new pet.
In this comprehensive article, you will find a bearded dragon care instructions that you can follow step by step. We’ll help you prepare your bearded dragon setup properly to welcome your new pet! And you’ll learn what veterinarians and reptile experts recommend for bearded dragon care.
A bit about the bearded dragon
Learning how to care for a bearded dragon truly begins with understanding how these small, smart lizards have evolved to live in the wild.
The bearded dragon, or Pogona spp., hails from the land down under – Australia. In their native homeland, there are seven different bearded dragon species. Outside of Australia, Pogona vitticeps, the inland species, is the dragon most commonly kept as a pet.
The bearded dragon’s native habitat is typically dry throughout most of the year and can get quite hot! Dragons, like all reptiles, are cold-blooded animals and cannot self-regulate their own body temperature.
To warm up, a wild bearded dragon will bask in the sunlight. To cool off, the dragon will retreat under a shady rock or burrow into the earth. Obviously your dragon won’t have these options so you’ll need to make sure that the temperature and humidity in your tank remains at the right level at all times
Bearded dragons take their common name from the spiny pouch on the underside of the neck.
Both males and females have this pouch, or beard. They use it to communicate with other lizards and other animals. The beard can be inflated and change color.
Pet bearded dragons are often called “beardies.”
Size and Lifespan
Bearded dragon hatchlings are really tiny! They only weigh about 2 grams each – a little less than the weight of a single paper clip.
But young beardies grow up fast and will be ready to have hatchlings of their own before they are two years old.
A fully grown bearded dragon may reach 18 to 22 inches (45 cm to 56 cm) from the nose to the tail tip. Typical adult weight ranges from 0.62 to 1.1 pounds. (0.28 kg to 0.49 kg). Adult male beardies tend to be larger and heavier than adult females.
In the wild, bearded dragons can have a shorter lifespan due to food shortage, predation and other factors.
Pet bearded dragons, in contrast, can live from 7 to 12 years or longer with proper husbandry, a healthy diet, and regular access to preventative veterinary care.
Finding A Reptile Vet
As with any new skill, learning how to look after a bearded dragon comes with a learning curve.
Don’t worry – bearded dragon care is not difficult. But it is exacting, in that beardies have very specific care requirements to thrive in captivity!
As a beginner who is learning how to care for a bearded dragon, the very first step you should take before you even bring your new pet home is to locate a veterinarian that is trained to treat exotic pets like reptiles.
If this is your first-ever reptile pet, you may not realize that not all vets can treat exotic animals.
Most vets are what is called “general practice,” and they have been trained to treat dogs, cats, and sometimes livestock.
But bearded dragons have different care requirements. You’ll need to know where to take your beardie in case she becomes ill or you have an emergency.
Locate the nearest exotic veterinarian and call to make an appointment to take your new beardie in for an initial “well pet” checkup.
This will establish a baseline set of health data that will help your veterinarian later should your bearded dragon become ill or injured.
Now you are ready for step two: getting ready to welcome your new pet!
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Bearded dragon tank
The ideal habitat setup for your bearded dragon will be an enclosure that is secure, holds heat well and is easy to clean and sanitize.
Adult beardies typically need to be housed alone to avoid territorial aggression. This is true for two females as well as for two males housed together.
A bearded dragon kept in a too-small habitat will adjust his growth based on the available space. This can result in stunted growth and in behavioral or health issues.
Captive bearded dragons need a surprising amount of space for their small size even as babies – a hatchling beardie needs a full 20-gallon tank!
An adult bearded dragon of average size (up to 15 inches long) needs a 40-gallon tank.
Dragons longer than 15 inches will need an additional 10 gallons of space for each two inches of length.
Don’t forget to close your beardie’s new tank with a breathable, securely fitting lid! Ideally, you want a mesh lid that encourages ventilation and allows humidity escape.
Bearded dragon lighting
Getting your new pet’s lighting just right is probably going to be the biggest challenge you face in bearded dragon care.
Bearded dragons, like people, are diurnal. Which means they are awake during the daylight hours and rest during the night.
You will need to provide proper lighting on a 12-hour cycle for day and night.
Day: UVA/UVB light
Bearded dragons need light to stimulate their appetite and maintain a healthy mood and behavior.
Most importantly, they need daily 12-hour access to UVA/UVB light to grow strong bones.
The lighting you choose should provide:
- Ultraviolet A (UVA): 320-400nm.
- Ultraviolet B (UVB) 290–320nm.
Change the bulb every six months to keep the UV output strong.
Place the bulb as the manufacturer directs or approximately 18 inches away from the spot where your dragon spends the most time basking to ensure full light delivery.
The type of UVA/UVB bulb you choose should fit the size and shape of your tank. Here are some options for bulbs and fixtures for different tank setups.
Exo Terra Solar-Glo High Intensity Lamp
This vapor bulb* is great if you are using a single light fixture for your tank.
It comes in 125w and 160w versions. Use the former if you live in a warmer climate.
The latter may be necessary if you live in a cold climate or experience extreme winter weather.
Fluker’s Sun Dome Lamp Fixture
This is an appropriate, safe holder for housing the Exo Terra Solar-Glo bulb* or one similar to it.
This bulb* is a great choice for hooded aquarium-style tanks.
It comes in different lengths to suit your needs.
ReptiSun Fluorescent Hood
This is an example of the hood you would use* with the Zoo Med ReptiSun UVB.
Be sure to get the right size hood for your bulb and tank length!
Night: Nocturnal heat lamp
For night time, the tank should stay between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you live in a colder climate or experience extreme winter weather, you may need to add a nocturnal reptile heat lamp with appropriate dome to help stabilize nighttime temperatures.
Here are two options to add nighttime heat.
Zoo Med Nocturnal Infrared Incandescent Heat Lamp 75 Watts*: This bulb comes in 75w, 100w and 125w.
Reptile Heat Lamp Bulb – 60W*: This bulb comes in several different wattages.
After lighting, the next biggest challenge to tackle on your new pet owner list is temperature.
Your bearded dragon will need a temperature range that mirrors what she would experience in a wild environment – no easy feat in some climates!
Warm side/cool side: Bearded dragons need a daytime warm area that stays consistently between 85 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit (29.44 to 35 degrees Celsius) and a daytime cool area that stays consistently around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21.11 degrees Celsius).
Basking spot: Your beardie will also need a basking spot that stays consistently between 95 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit (35 and 40.55 degrees Celsius).
This Exo Terra Intense Basking Spot Lamp* comes in a variety of wattages – be sure to test the temperature at the basking spot to avoid overheating your dragon!
One of the most important facets of bearded dragon care is humidity.
Wild dragons live in desert-like conditions that should be replicated inside your pet dragon’s enclosure.
Aim for a humidity level that stays between 35 and 40 percent consistently.
You will want to invest in a thermometer and humidity gauge (hygrometer) to monitor humidity levels inside the enclosure.
This Zoo Med Labs Digital Thermometer Humidity Gauge* is highly rated and can help you monitor the environment inside your beardie’s tank continuously.
The bedding, or substrate, you choose for your bearded dragon can literally make the difference between life and death from impaction. (See the health section for more on this.)
Experienced beardie owners recommend solid substrates such as ceramic tile, paper, reptile carpet or paper towels, especially if you are caring for a hatchling or juvenile dragon.
Bearded dragon diet
Like people, beardies are omnivores, which means they have evolved to eat both animal protein such as insects and their larvae, and plant matter.
Young bearded dragons are growing fast and they need protein to fuel that growth, so your baby beardie will be more carnivorous than an adult. Mealworms and crickets are popular sources of protein for bearded dragons and can be purchased from pet stores and even ordered from online retailers such as Amazon.
Feed your baby dragon morning and evening. Once they are adult once a day is fine
As your beardie becomes mature, they will become more herbivorous and their need for protein is not so great. You’ll still need to provide some insects or mealworms but you’ll also need to increase the vegetable part of their diet.
When it comes to the herbivorous side of your dragon’s diet, the key is to ensure that this is at least 80% leaves or vegetables and that fruit is only an occasional treat and no more than 10% of their diet
Some safe foods for bearded dragons
This is not an exhaustive list, but you should be able to get some of these from either the mall, or your back yard!
- Bok choy
- Swiss chard
Go easy on the swiss chard and kale and offer a range of different plants rather than feeding the same ones over and over. This helps you avoid nutrient deficiencies or a build up of minerals that are abundant in some plants.
Be sure to take guidance from your exotic veterinarian on the best diet for each stage of your bearded dragon’s life cycle. A good reptile specialist store will also have experts that you can talk to about your beardie’s diet
Bearded dragon shedding
Bearded dragons need to shed their skin as they grow.
This process is called “ecdysis” and it’s an important and healthy part of your dragon’s life.
Bearded dragons do not shed whole like snakes do – they shed in sections and may look quite patchy for a week or few!
Shedding will happen more frequently during the first year or two of life while your dragon is growing rapidly.
You can help by providing a nice sandstone for your beardie to rub up against and a warm shallow bath to soak in.
Don’t try to “help” the skin by pulling at it – this will just hurt your dragon!
Often, just before and during shedding, your beardie’s skin will look duller and you may notice more lethargy, less appetite and eye bulging.
This is normal, but always ask your exotic veterinarian if you are concerned!
Bearded dragon personality and temperament
Bearded dragons haven’t become so popular through being standoffish!
Pet beardies are very gentle, calm and friendly.
They can easily learn to recognize you and seem to enjoy being touched and handled.
Your beardie also won’t hesitate to beg for treats and to stare at you if you don’t immediately get the message!
Bearded dragon handling
It is important to learn right away how to pick up your beardie and handle her properly.
Always use a flat palm and slide it under your dragon’s body.
Scoop up your pet in your flat palm, supporting the full body as you do so. Cup your hand so she can’t wriggle out and fall.
Once your dragon is secure on your palm, you can then open up your palm and offer the other hand so your dragon can walk from hand to hand safely.
It is easy to learn how to pet a bearded dragon.
Use two fingers to gently stroke your beardie’s head and neck on top and around the sides.
Bearded dragon health
Bearded dragons can suffer from a variety of health conditions.
Like all animals, your beardie is going to do his best to appear healthy and strong even when he feels terrible!
This is an innate survival instinct no amount of safe captive living can ever breed out of these reptiles.
This means you should learn to spot the early warning signs of disease, infection or illness and get your pet to your exotic vet pronto!
Let’s take a look at some of the most common health issues bearded dragons can have.
Metabolic bone disease (MBD)
If your beardie needs daily 12-hour access to full-spectrum UVA/UVB light, sufficient heat to stimulate metabolism, and a healthy balanced diet.
Otherwise, she can’t absorb calcium and manufacture Vitamin D3 to make strong, healthy bones.
This can lead to a very serious and urgent medical condition called metabolic bone disease, or secondary hypothyroidism.
Warning signs include frequent bone breakage, jaw swelling, bumps or swelling along the back and the legs, sudden spasms/twitches/tremors, difficulty walking and lethargy.
Respiratory infection typically occurs when habitat husbandry (light, heat and humidity) is lacking.
If the tank is too cold, hot, humid, or a combination of these, often the first signs of this will be respiratory.
Warning signs include mucus bubbling up around the nose and mouth, struggles to breathe, swelling around the throat and body, and mouth gaping.
Mouth rot (infectious stomatitis) is a bacterial infection that can cause jaw swelling, excess mucus and loose teeth.
Warning signs include yellow mouth, swollen gums with dots of red, jaw swelling, and excess mouth mucus.
Parasites can happen at any time, although not all parasites are harmful.
Mites and ticks are worrisome and these can often be spotted on your dragon’s skin.
Warning signs of parasites can include weight loss, appetite loss, lethargy, and diarrhea.
Wild bearded dragons will sometimes eat dirt. This is called geophagy.
While research on this behavior is sparse, it is thought wild beardies may do this to help digest insect exoskeletons.
In captivity, however, using the wrong substrate or improper feeding techniques can cause much more dirt or sand ingestion and lead to gastrointestinal impaction.
This is life-threatening and requires immediate vet care!
When all other potential causes are ruled out, the most common trigger for lethargic behavior and loss of appetite is an enclosure that is too cold or too hot.
At both temperature extremes, your dragon may enter a state similar to hibernation.
Bearded dragon care
We hope this in depth article about bearded dragon care has given you the information you need to begin your journey. Before you go, don’t miss some of our other beardie resources:
- Do Bearded Dragons Have Teeth?
- Leatherback Bearded Dragon
- Albino Bearded Dragon
- MBD Bearded Dragon
- Can Bearded Dragons Eat Bananas?
- Can Bearded Dragons Eat Grapes?
- Bearded Dragon Names – Awesome Ideas For Naming Your Dragon
Are you taking care of a bearded dragon? Let us know how it’s going in the comments!
Affiliate link disclosure: Links in this article marked with an * are affiliate links, and we may receive a small commission if you purchase these products. However, we selected them for inclusion independently, and all of the views expressed in this article are our own.
Axelson, R., “Bearded Dragons – Owning,” VCA Animal Hospital, 2016.
Lightfoot, T., “Bearded Dragon Husbandry and Care,” BluePearl Vet, 2018.
Mitchell, M., “Biology and medicine of bearded dragons (proceedings),” Veterinary Medicine 360, 2008.
Fox, S., “How Do Lizards Cool Off?,” Live Science, 2010.
Carney, R. et al, “The Bearded Dragon Files II: Care & Husbandry,” PenderVet, 2016.