Bearded Dragons, also affectionately referred to as "beardies," are a type of desert reptile native to Australia that also happen to make awesome pets. As with any pet, there are things that you need to do in order to ensure they can live life to the fullest.
When preparing for any new pet, the internet is the first place many people will go to find more education about their new companion. While the internet is a phenomenal resource, it can provide a lot of conflicting information about proper pet care. My goal here is to clear up some of that conflicting information regarding bearded dragon set up and care. (See links at the end for recommended products.)
Before you bring your new dragon home there are a few things you will want to have ready: a tank or vivarium, lighting, a heat source, temperature and humidity gauges, flooring, enclosure accessories, and food. Whatever you do, DO NOT BUY A KIT! Ready-made reptile kits often come with products that are sub-par and/or straight up bad for your dragon, and you will end up spending more money in the long run replacing bad items than you would have just buying the right equipment separately the first time.
Let's start with the enclosure... regardless of the age of your beardie when you bring him or her home, you do not want to start off with a tiny tank. Bearded dragons grow quickly, and the smaller the enclosure you start with, the sooner you will have to upgrade. It is recommended to go ahead start your bearded dragon in a 40 gallon breeder tank (36" x 18" x 18") minimum. This will allow your dragon plenty of room to roam and grow, while also allowing you to provide them with the proper temperature gradient to ensure better digestion and overall well-being. If you MUST, you can start baby bearded dragons in a 20 gallon tank, just know that in a few months they will need more room.
On to flooring! One of the things reptile kits usually include is loose substrate, such as sand. THIS IS BAD. Loose substrate can accidentally be ingested causing impaction, and can clog femoral pores. If you are going to go with the pet store option, you can go with a reptile carpet, just watch that they do not get their nails caught in the fabric. Other flooring you can use would me non-adhesive shelf liner (adhesive liner will release toxic fumes under the heat of your dragon's lights), paper towels, newspaper, or a natural stone tile like slate. Personally, I believe slate is the best option, as it is not only easy to clean, but it helps keep your dragon's nails filed as well.
One more thing as far as overall tank set up goes... if you go with a glass tank, I would highly recommend finding some sort of decorative background to cover up 3 sides of the enclosure. Sometimes when bearded dragons see their reflection in the glass it leads them to believe there is another dragon nearby; as beardies are not social creatures, this can cause them a lot of stress leading to glass surfing, black bearding, and stress marks.
Next up is heat, lighting, and other tools. One of the most critical things to get right in your dragons tank is lighting. Without the correct UVA and UVB lighting, your bearded dragon will not be able to properly synthesize the calcium in their diet, which can lead to Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD), characterized by deformed and brittle bones caused by a lack of calcium. You need two different kinds of lights for your beardie's enclosure.
The first light is a tube UVB, which needs to cover at least 2/3 of your enclosure. There are a few options with these UVB lights; first, you want to make sure you get one that says at least 10% of the output is UVB (the lower option is 5% and this will not give your dragon enough UVB). The second thing you will want to look at is whether the bulb is a t5 or a t8; the t5 is a high output bulb and can therefore be places on top of a mesh screen (such as the lid on a glass tank), a t8 is a lower output bulb and must be placed INSIDE the tank as the UVB rays are not able to penetrate the mesh.
The second fixture you will need is a basking bulb. For this you can either purchase a reptile specific basking bulb with NO COLOR (the red colored bulbs that often come with kits disrupt the dragon's day/night cycle and are bad for their eyes), or a cheap halogen flood light. If you go the flood light route, make sure you get one with a dimmer as they can put out too much heat for your dragon and their tank.
An optional third heat source is a Ceramic Heat Emitter (CHE), however, this would only be necessary at night if your temperatures drop below 65 degrees. If your tank is not hitting the proper temperatures without the extra heat source, double check that you have the correct lighting for your enclosure. "How do I check my temperatures?" you may ask... let me tell you.
As with just about everything that comes in a reptile kit, the stick and go temperature and humidity gauges will not do the trick. These cheap plastic gauges can often be off by 20-30 degrees which could lead to an unhealthy dragon. Ideally you are going to want two things; the first is a digital thermometer/hygrometer which can more accurately measure overall temperature and humidity in your tank. These digital thermometers usually come with a probe attached to a long cord so that you can get readings from either side of your tank without having to move the entire gauge. The second thing you may want is a temperature gun to more accurately measure the heat of your dragon's basking spot. Without adequate basking temperatures, beardies cannot digest their food properly, possibly leading to impaction. For baby bearded dragons, basking temps should be 105-115 degrees, with the cool side sitting around 80-90 degrees; adults should be 95-105 degrees. However, keep in mind if your basking spot is at 95, that will put your cooler side closer to 70 which will put your ambient temperature too low.
Let's talk accessories, shall we? Your dragon is going to want a few things to spruce up their tank. The staples are usually some sort of basking platform (rock, branch, etc.) so they can get up closer to their basking light (the highest point of their basking platform should be at least 8" away from the light, a bit further if mounted inside with a chance the dragon can reach it), a hide (or two, one for the cool and warm ends), a food dish, and a water dish.
There are a few things to keep in mind when purchasing these items. The water dish should (preferably) be large enough for your dragon to submerge themselves in (up to about their elbows), and does not have to stay in the tank at all times. Keep an eye on your humidity levels when you have a water dish in your tank, humidity should stay around 30%-40% max. As far as basking platforms go, this is really your choice. Rocks and other platforms may hold heat a bit better but a branch that lets them get up in the heat will also do the trick. When it comes to hides, keep in mind your baby will grow, you may as well start with a hide big enough for the eventual adult you will have on your hands.
Other than the incredibly important staples described above, the rest of the tank is up to you! People create themes for their tanks (like Jurassic Park, or Mayan Temple), people add plants (if you go this route I would HIGHLY suggest plastic as they can be cleaned and sanitized and there's no risk of the plant being toxic to your dragon), people put in beds and couches and hammocks... there really is no limit to how you can deck out your beardie's new home! Go nuts!
Please send this article to your friends who may be interested in getting a bearded dragon, or already have one but want more knowledge. Be sure to watch for my next article on bearded dragon care!