A quick guide to looking after Miss Smaug McBeardie
By Morgan Hannah, Life & Style Editor
Her previous owners were good enough to ensure she grew up healthy as she has all her toes, her whole tail, and she doesn’t walk funny or have a crunched-up spine.
I remember being asked once before what it took to own a bearded dragon and whether it was anything like owning a dog—and it’s not. Although my dragon may have dog-like tendencies, she isn’t anything like the hairy four-legged traditional pet; for one thing, she hasn’t any hair.
Bearded dragons, like any other kind of reptile or amphibian, require specific living conditions—all of which I learned on the ferry ride over to picking up my new pet. I don’t recommend that approach, but rather make sure you know everything there is to know about your pet before you buy one. And be prepared to commit to your exotic pet as bearded dragons live for around 10 to 15 years.
At four and a half years old, I skipped the critical years of my two-foot-long reptile’s growth. I managed to miss out on making sure she had enough calcium and UVA/UVB in her day-to-day to avoid Metabolic Bone Disease (basically Rickets for reptiles). Her previous owners were good enough to ensure she grew up healthy as she has all her toes, her whole tail, and she doesn’t walk funny or have a crunched-up spine. Having adopted my beardie rather than raising her from birth meant that I was also not in charge of what she ate for the first half of her lifespan.
Smaug McBeardie was on a strict vegetarian diet up until I bought her, which is fine, but beardies need live feeders such as crickets, horn worms, meal worms, and wax worms. Even though my beardie never tasted bugs before, she sure knew exactly what they were and that she was supposed to eat them as soon as I introduced her to them… almost as if she’s supposed to eat them.
When it comes to veggies and fruits, there are certain things to watch out for. Citrus fruits aren’t very good for dragons as they’re too acidic for their little tummies, and rhubarb and avocado are downright toxic. Kale is a calcium binder, so too much of that isn’t any good either. Lettuce is a no-go because it causes diarrhea in beardies and provides no nutritional value.
Smaug’s favourite non-bug foods are bananas, apples, and sugar snap peas; oh, how she loves sugar snap peas. It’s important to provide your reptile with a good variety of veggies; ensure that their diet is 70 percent veggies, 20 percent bugs, and 10 percent fruits. And if you’ve got a picky eater, don’t just let them get away with not eating their food. Reintroduce them to the same things until they learn to eat what’s given.
It’s also important to make sure your reptile is getting enough calcium, especially when they’re still babies. Dairy isn’t an acceptable form of calcium because it is too rich for reptiles. Instead, reptile calcium powder is available at most pet stores and will most likely be consumed if worn by live feeders. But too much calcium is also not good for your exotic. Generally, veterinarians recommend that you sprinkle your pet’s food with calcium two to three times per week.
Some reptiles will use their water dishes as toilets and poop in the water; this is normal behaviour. However, it is important to change their water immediately as it also serves as their drinking water. In general, water should be changed daily, sometimes more than once a day.
Heat/Lighting & Enclosure Care
I have a double dome light with a 100W ceramic heat coil on one side and a 65W UVA/UVB light on the other side. The heat coil must ALWAYS be on, as beardie enclosures need to be around 38 to 41° C (100 to 105° F). Basking spot should be kept at 31 to 38°C (88 to 100°F) and around two feet away from the heat coil. At night, exotics need complete darkness and a temperature of around 21 to 24°C (70 to 75°F). Some sources might claim that red lights or blue lights at night are acceptable, however this is just false. Have you ever experienced a naturally occurring red or blue light? Didn’t think so.
Just like people, reptiles need a natural cycle of day and night. Around 8 to 10 hours of sunlight (UVA/UVB bulb) in the fall and winter is ideal and 12 to 14 hours of sunlight in the summer. At most, reptiles can go 24 hours without heat if necessary, but it is important to ensure they have access to artificial hot spots or sunlight regularly.
This note isn’t so much to do with heat or lighting but does have to do with their habitat: it is very important to spot-clean poop as you see it to ensure that the spread of bacteria and parasites (something that is totally common and even normal in bearded dragons and other reptiles) is minimized. A total enclosure cleaning is necessary at least once a month, placing all enclosure accessories in a high temperature dishwasher. Never use soap when cleaning your dragon or their enclosure (unless it is reptile-safe soap) as soap is toxic to these sensitive pets. Simply use warm water. When bathing a reptile, fill up a sink or bathtub with warm water up to their knees, provide a rock or something solid for them to cling onto (beardies cannot see water unless it is moving), and let them soak under supervision for 10 to 15 minutes. Then gently dry them off with a clean lint-free towel.
If your reptile is scratching up against their tank (known as glass surfing) it’s a sign the tank is too small, or the animal is uncomfortable in their surroundings. It’s a good rule of thumb to take your pet out and play with them and let them explore for around an hour a day minimum. But first make sure all small and dark hiding places, like under the couch or behind washing machines, are blocked off as dragons and other reptiles love to find dark places to hide.
Bearded dragons don’t like to be picked up from above. Instead, gently reach under them, cupping their legs to ensure they grab hold. When holding your reptile, always have a hand on them as bearded dragons are semi-arboreal— meaning they love to climb and get themselves in trouble. But, even a one-foot drop is enough to cause fractured limbs or internal bleeding. Also, adult beardies tend to not grip surfaces as much as baby beardies do.
If you have other pets, keep them separated! There may be tons of videos on the internet of cats and exotic pets hanging out and being friendly, but they are definitely not friends and will likely end up fighting—and the beardie will lose. Same say however that with proper socialization, being introduced at a young age, constant supervision, and patience can mediate a relationship between beardies and other animals. Just watch for their body language and signs of aggression.
It is good practice to thoroughly wash your hands with warm water before and after contact with any pet or its habitat, especially reptiles and amphibians as they are known to have bacteria and parasites inside and outside of their bodies.
There’s so much to know when it comes to caring for your exotic pet; they’re very different from the traditional dog or cat, and they need so much love and care. But it is so worth it for the adorable little creature’s affection and wellbeing.