Bearded dragons grow to be rather large lizards in comparison to some of the other popular reptiles people keep for pets. An adult dragon can grow to be 16″ – 22″ in length, in some cases even longer and their housing needs to be appropriately sized as so. Dragons can be fairly active and need space to move around. The enclosure also needs to be large enough to provide at the very least a cool side and hot side to allow your dragon the ability to regulate their cold blooded bodies with ease.
An adult bearded dragon needs an ample amount of space to move around and stay active. For those looking to use glass aquariums we recommend you use the wider 55 gallon aquarium with a breathable top. This provides a comfortable amount of space in a clean and visually appealing arrangement for your dragon.
If you are looking to build or purchase a custom enclosure for your dragon, dimensions of roughly 4′ wide by 2′ tall by 18″ deep should provide comfortable space for your dragon to thrive. They key is to make sure you can provide some elevation with a rock stack or tree branch for them to perch on, as well as provide enough width that your heat lamp only heats up the warmer side of the enclosure while leaving the other side cooler. Finally you need enough depth that your dragon can turn around in the enclosure with ease.
When custom or homemade enclosures are constructed, the builders typically use lumber and glass. Lumber or simply wood makes a great medium for enclosures as it provides ample strength, ease of use and when properly treated, it lasts a long time. Typical construction will consist of wooden framing, the back and sides of plywood, a solid plywood bottom and a glass front.
Some keys to keep in mind when building your enclosure:
- If you want to build a top, be sure to install screened vents either on the back or sides to provide ample air flow.
- Some people will tile or seal the bottom and lower edges of the enclosure to prevent water damages and moderate leaks.
- Glass comes in many different size cuts and if you plan ahead of time you can build your enclosure without ever having to cut glass yourself.
- If you can not find the pre-cut glass size you need at a local supplies store, you can try contacting a glass supplier to commission the cut, for a typically fair price.
- Regular glass is plate glass and shears when broken, tempered glass is also available which is heat treated, shatters into small pieces and is much stronger.
- Another option available through some glass suppliers is called safety glass and just like a windshield in a car, this glass has a laminate layer to prevent shearing.
- Plexiglass is always an option, as well as other scratch resistant plastics, but dragons have exceptionally sharp claws and the environment includes direct heat from nearby lamps, so scratches and hazing is always possible.
Lighting & Heat
Fluorescent UV Lighting
Bearded Dragons require two types of light sources. Your first light is going to be fluorescent lighting which provides a source of ultra violet rays for your dragon which help maintain health, strong bones and provide light derived vitamins just like the sun. For an even more enriched light source you can buy specialty bulbs at your local pet store that have concentrated rays providing more UV or specifically UV-B per watt. Many people will use off the shelf bought fluorescent light housings with either regular or upgraded reptile bulbs. These housings and bulbs are available in a number of sizes, and you will want to buy one that will appropriately light the majority of your dragon’s enclosure.
The second type of bulb you will need is a heat lamp. Heat lamps are similar to conventional light bulbs being phased out by the new fluorescent bulbs gaining popularity. Available in a number of wattage sizes, many keepers use 120 watt bulb though you may want to lower your wattage in smaller enclosures or in situations where your dragon can get closer then 8 inches or so of the bulb. Most keepers will use the 120 watt bulb in the silver bowl construction light housings available at pet shops and hardware stores everywhere. Be sure to position this light near a spot your dragon can bask in it on one side or the other of the enclosure. Many people want to center their arrangements with the light in the middle but your dragon needs variation in temperate to help regulate body temperature.
A third type of lamp frequently used is a night lamp which is typically a bit lower in wattage, of a strong red or blue color and are simply provided as a night time source of heat for your dragon. This lamp is not necessary, but if you do not use one, an under-tank heating pad is recommended for glass enclosures or an in-enclosure heat rock is recommended as an overnight heat source. While you may be able to find similar bulbs at hardware stores, it is recommended you buy the red or blue night lamps at your local pet store.
Heat is provided to your dragon in a number of ways. First, all dragons will need a heat lamp as discussed in the lighting section above. This will provide the majority of the direct and ambient heat your dragon will need to survive. You will want to subsidize this heat source with something like an under tank heat pad or a heat rock which houses small heater coils in a replicated rock and goes right in the enclosure.
For over night heat you may choose to also use a night lamp specifically designed for lizards. Typically in a heavily tinted red or blue color, these lights are dimmed but provide an excellent source of heat for your dragons over night. These are recommended especially for those who keep dragons in colder areas, or may have drafty houses and windows.
Ideally you will want to provide an array of temperatures for your dragon as they adjust their body temps by going from one area to another accordingly. On the cooler side of the tank, you will ideally want a day time temperature of 80-85 degrees. On the ground level of the warmer side of the tank you will want a contact temperature of around 100 degrees, and above that nearest the basking perch in the direct line of the heat lamp temperatures can exceed 110 degrees. This is the ideal temperature range, and the more varied areas of temperatures you can provide, the better equipped your dragon is to regulate its temp.
At night, it is expected you will lose some temperature but you will still want to maintain about no more then a 10 degree drop across the board. Just because dragons can survive in the wild in the cold desert nights doesn’t mean that’s ideal for their health. You can use night lamps which were previously described in the lighting section above and available at your local pet shops.
If you find your dragon is always bunched up in the absolute warmest corner of the enclosure you may want to consider upping the temperature as your dragon may not be getting enough heat.
Humidity levels are important to maintain to prevent any ill conditions that could cause disease in your bearded dragon. Maintain the humidity somewhere in the range of 40-60%. You can monitor humidity levels using a hygrometer, readily available at your local pet shop for under US$20.
Too high of a humidity level can cause fungal and respiratory infections as the high humidity levels are ideal to harboring infection. Too low can also cause health complications.
To control the humidity, you can add a water source such as a water dish, preferably something large enough your dragon can soak in it. This will provide a constant source of evaporating water which can increase the humidity levels in your enclosure. You may also spray your dragon daily with a mister, as this will also introduce humidity elevating vapors in to the enclosure.
Substrate is the term for the media you use as a bedding or liner of your enclosure. Some prefer to keep things as close to realistic as possible using substrates like sand, soil mixes, bark based substrates and other natural sources while others prefer simplicity like paper towels, shredded newspaper and store bought cage liners. While all are suitable, you still must take care in using anything and everything appropriately and with caution.
Many Dragon keepers choose sand as it very much something you would see in the dragon’s natural environment. Sand is perfectly fine substrate to use when you properly take care of your dragon. Ideally you do not want your dragon to ingest sand, and while you would assume your dragon wouldn’t just eat sand, you may be surprised at how quickly it can accumulate in small amounts here and there. If your dragon is eating crickets in an environment with lots of sand, the potential for the ingestion is huge over the hunt for 36+ crickets.
If ingested, sand can lead to impaction or essentially the inability of your dragon to pass solid waste. This can be fatal, but is completely preventable. If you opt to use sand, you can simply feed your dragon in a separate smaller enclosure, something many keepers already do. If you still don’t have confidence in using sand, simply choose another media for your enclosure. Remember, sand is completely natural in the wild, but 3 dozen crickets falling out of the sky and being consumed all at once probably isn’t.
Soil like sand can make for a nice substrate option, but serves many of the same potential hazards. Keep in mind many soils are pretreated with fertilizers when bought from the store, and soil just brought in from the yard may contain bugs, bacteria or parasites you do not want your dragon to come into contact with.
If you choose to use soil, we recommend using products produced specifically for reptiles. If you can not find such a product locally, or do not want to spend the extra money on a specialty product, top soil may also be used in most cases but again may also be treated, and in some localities, it is merely high quality local top soil. Research your source before using just anything.
Again, just like with sand, soil can offer the potential for impaction. To prevent this, feed your dragon their greens in bowls and consider live prey feeding in a separate smaller enclosure for ease.
Store Bought Substrates
Store bought substrates such as the prepared barks, shredded barks and others are typically okay for your dragon. Many will even say right on the packaging they are suitable for bearded dragons. The most important concept to keep in mind is that if some were to be accidentally digested, you want it to be something that is capable of passing.
Avoid using the shredded pine and other rodent styled substrates as many of those are actually toxic to bearded dragons.
If you don’t mind the less then aesthetically appealing look of newspaper then it can make for a suitable substrate. Some people choose to shred it for more a bedding style, and others simply use it as a liner. Keep in mind, while in most cases your dragon should be fine, there is always a chance a particular ink or paper treatment could potentially harm your dragon. Try and use the simple black and white pages vs the large color ad pages as they will contain less ink by default.
Paper towels make for an ideal simple substrate. You can shred them to create a bedding like material or simply use them as liners. Paper towels, while not the most appealing in looks, provide a quick, simple and effective means to cleaning your enclosure.
Gravels such as pea stone, aquarium gravels and other similarly small gravel or rocks are NOT a good option when it comes to appropriate substrates for your bearded dragon. Dragons tend to pick up extra bits of the gravel while eating or hunting prey and even one pebble could wreak havoc on your bearded dragons body. We recommend avoiding gravels and small stones as substrates for your enclosure.
Large rocks make great heat lamp basking perches for your bearded dragon. Consider placing one extra large rock nearly directly under the heat lamp as this can create an excellent source of radiant and direct heat for your dragon and at night will retain some heat to continue heating your enclosure even when the lights are off.
Smaller rocks can be used to decorate your enclosure, just be sure to not use rocks so small they could be accidentally digested by your bearded dragon.
Fake plants can help you recreate that natural wildlife look in your enclosure, just be sure the fake leaves do not fall off easily as they could be potentially digested and cause health problems. Also when first introducing new fake plants, watch your dragon’s reaction as some attempt to eat fake plants until they discover they are not real. Fake plants bought from pet shops specifically for reptiles are typically your best bet when it comes to safe fake plants to decorate your enclosure.
Live plants pose a constant danger as most are not going to be ideally edible for your dragon. Many may even be toxic. Because there are so many different types of plants out there it is hard to categorize what is safe and what is not. While we recommend against using live plants at all, as aesthetically pleasing as they may be, there are still plenty who choose to carefully use live plants instead.
Many plants contain toxins that your bearded dragon may not be able to combat. Even if you place a plant in the enclosure and your dragon does not seem to be interested, does not mean that at some point down the road it may attempt to take a chomp out of the plant.
Again, the best way to avoid health related issues involving plant digestion is to simply avoid the use of live plants all together.
Logs & Branches
Logs, branches and grape vines all make for excellent perches for your bearded dragon. The most important concept to keep in mind with logs and branches is that you want to make sure they are safe for your dragon. Besides avoiding the obvious, such as thorny branches, and sharp points, logs and branches may be home to literally thousands of insects if collected from out doors.
If you would like to treat a log or a branch to be used in your enclosure we recommend using a heavily diluted bleach soak. Take about a 10-1 water/bleach mix and soak your branch or log in a large container. Allow the branch or log to sit for at least 6 hours. Remove the bleach water mix and wash the container. Refill with clean water and let the log or branch soak again for a few hours. Repeat this process one more time to be sure you have removed the bleach and thoroughly killed any remaining insects or insect eggs.
Placing just any log or branch obtained from outdoors in to your enclosure could expose your dragon to any number of potential parasites or bacteria all of which can be very harmful to your dragon.
Caves, dens and hide boxes make ideal locations for your dragon to comfortable get away from a stressful situation or simply cool down after basking in the heat lamps. Some people choose to make a cave, just be careful when using real rocks as you do not want anything that could potentially collapse and harm your dragon. You can also buy small “caves” at your local pet shop, just be sure they have enough space for your dragon to enter and turn around. You may also consider making a simple wooden box with a doorway to enter and exit. The dragon can use this as both a cave and a perch to sit on.
If you have any other questions on housing related as well as lighting, temperature and humidity related topics, feel free to ask them here or in our forums.