Bearded dragons make wonderful pets. They are active during the day, and when adult are large enough to be allowed to roam around the house for limited periods (that is, until they start getting cold) without any fears of them disappearing in small hiding places – obviously they need to be supervised at all times. They also have the advantage of almost being born tame and are happy to sit on their owner and will put up with a cuddle.
They are attractive and have great personalities, and make excellent pets for people who are allergic to fur and cannot have any of the more common warm blooded pets. In captivity with the correct husbandry they should live for up to 10 years or even more. The oldest I’m currently aware of is 12. To reach their potential live span they need to be fed the correct foods.
I am often contacted by people who would like to own a bearded dragon, and who want to know if there is any alternative to feeding them live food. The answer is a very definite NO. Although many pet shops stock dried food which is supposed to be for bearded dragons, I have never heard of one that actually will eat this. I’ve tried to feed it to mine but I think they would rather starve!
The amount and type of live food they need changes as they grow from hatchling to adult. When first hatched they are almost totally carnivorous. When adult they are 80% vegetarian. At all stages of their lives they should have the correct balance of vegetables/fruit and live food.
When a juvenile is purchased and brought home from the breeder or pet shop it is important to always offer finely chopped vegetables/fruit. The rule of thumb when feeding bearded dragons is to make sure no food offered is larger than the gap between their eyes. This goes for the size of live food offered, as well as the green stuff. If a juvenile has been properly fed from hatching it will be used to always have a bowl of veg in its enclosure, which it will peck at if there’s nothing better on offer. Juvenile bearded dragons are often similar to human toddlers – seemingly allergic to anything green! But if they’ve been used to it they’ll often continue to munch on salad and vegetables throughout their growing period. Some beardies refuse to touch vegetables – some (including mine!) have been known never to eat it when their owners are watching as if by pretending they are starving they’ll be offered something more tasty. But eventually they all succumb and eat it and, when adult, it will be their staple diet.
If you have a juvenile who won’t touch the stuff, don’t worry. He’ll get there in time, and though it’s disappointing to spend your time chopping food that’s not eaten, you must persevere. It’s best to try and variety of different vegetables and fruit – some beardies like some things, others don’t. Cabbage, mixed salad leaves, curly kale, peppers, sweet potato, grapes, apples, carrots are all foods which might appeal to a beardie. Experiment with items that you eat and see what yours likes.
Bearded dragons should never be fed avocado, and avoid items with a high moisture content such as iceburg lettuce, cucumber or tomatoes which will cause diarrhoea.
These reptiles have an astonishing rate of growth – they grow 4000 times in size from hatching to adult, and should reach full size between 12 and 18 months. To support this tremendous growth rate they have to have copious amounts of protein which can only be supplied by a main diet of live food. When deciding whether this is the pet for you, you need to factor in the cost of their food. During their first year of live they cost as much as a cat and some dogs to feed. There is also the problem of obtaining live food – but if you don’t live near a suitably stocked pet shop mail order is very efficient, and you can set up a regular order with most online suppliers.
The basic live food diet is crickets. These come in two types – brown, and black. Black are supposedly silent, but you’ll still get the odd one that will chirp all night. Both are nutritious. Crickets, as other insects, come in various sizes called instars. As a cricket grows it sheds its skin. First instar crickets are the smallest, and then they increase in size through various sheds until they reach adult size. Don’t feed crickets which are too big for your bearded dragon (remember the gap between the eyes rule), but conversely, if you try and offer crickets that are too small he might not be interested in them.
All live food should be gut fed – this simply means feeding them the same vegetables that you are offering your beardie. Hence even if he isn’t keen on vegetables, he’ll be getting the goodness by eating the crickets.
When growing rapidly they should be fed live food 3 times a day up until the age of about 4 months – as many as they can eat in a 10 minute session each time. This can be reduced to 2 feeds, and then to 1 when the beardie is a good size – around 6 to 8 months. It is difficult to give any definite ages as all bearded dragons grow at different rates. As they are such voracious eaters crickets are recommended as they are the cheapest to buy.
Bearded dragons need calcium supplement – daily until they are adult, and then about weekly thereafter. Calcium powder is sprinkled on their food. Without extra calcium they are likely to develop Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) which causes deformities in their bone growth, and is often fatal. Prevention is far better than trying to cure it.
It is perfectly possible to feed crickets and dust them with calcium powder without having to touch them by using a Cricket Keeper. You empty the crickets from the tub they arrive in into the keeper, and put vegetables and water into it. Pots of water are not recommended as the crickets are likely to drown in it, instead you can buy Bug Gel, or simply put in cotton wool balls soaked in water. Cricket Keepers have four black tubes. The crickets go up the tubes as they like being in the dark. When it’s feeding time you simply lift out one of the tubes, spinkle some calcium supplement down the tube, put something over the top and shake vigorously. This coats the crickets evenly with calcium powder, and also slightly stuns them which makes them slower and easier for the beardie to catch. You can also slow down crickets by putting them in the fridge for a few minutes before feeding. Most beardies can catch them anyway, but some have difficulty at first, so slower moving crickets can be beneficial.
As beardies grow they can move on to locusts or roaches. A roach colony can be kept at home, and so you can breed your own live food and make feeding much cheaper though not everyone wants to do this. Locusts are much more tasty to a bearded dragon, and also more expensive to buy. If you start feeding these too early you may find he won’t go back to eating crickets, and hence it will be far more expensive. For that reason I recommend staying with crickets as long as possible. As adults they will only need livefood two or three times a week. Once they are fully grown too much protein will overload their internal organs so if you overfeed you will be killing them with kindness.
Meal worms should not be given to bearded dragons. They do like them, but their skins are high in chitin which is hard to digest, and they are not as nutritious as crickets or locusts. Morio worms are a good substitute, but I’d still stick with crickets as a staple diet. Silk worms can also be fed daily, but again are more expensive. Wax worms are only to be given as a treat as they are very rich. They do love them in the way we like chocolate!
Remember, feeding your bearded dragon the correct food for each stage of its life is important, but equally so is having your vivarium set up correctly. The basking temperature should be right as it helps them digest their food properly, and a strong UVB light is necessary so they get sufficient vitamins.