The Bearded Dragon is one of the most popular reptile species kept as pets in the UK. Many of the health problems encountered in this species are related to failure to meet their husbandry requirements including feeding, housing and environmental conditions. This can directly result in some illnesses and contributes to progression of many others. Meeting the basic care requirements for the species is the most important step towards maintaining a healthy Bearded Dragon.
The diet of the Bearded Dragon requires adjustment with stage of maturity. The juvenile requires around 65% insect prey with the remainder consisting of vegetable matter. These proportions gradually alter towards maturity resulting in an adult ration of approximately 25% insect prey, 50% dark leafy greens, 20% other vegetables and 5% fruit.
It is important to supplement the diet with a vitamin and mineral mix including calcium, vitamin D3 and vitamins A, C and E. This can be provided as a dusting powder and by gut-loading insects with a vitamin and mineral-rich food. Uneaten insects should be removed after feeding as some may bite and injure the reptile. Feeding a soft diet requiring minimal chewing can predispose to dental disease. So crunchy, fibrous foods such as crickets, hoppers and leafy vegetation should be chosen over softer bugs or fruits.
The substrate covering the floor of the vivarium should allow natural behaviours such as digging and should be safe and hygienic. Appropriate choices include reptile-safe sand or soil. Substrates with large, indigestible particles such as bark chips should be avoided as these can cause impactions if ingested. The substrate should be kept clean to prevent bacterial and fungal infections.
Temperature control is vital for all reptile species as they are ectothermic. This means they rely on warmth from their environment to maintain body temperature. Providing a temperature gradient within the vivarium, with a warmer end and a cooler end, allows the reptile to move between these areas to regulate their body temperature. Bearded dragons prefer a temperature range of 38-40oC in the basking area to around 26oC at the cooler end during the day, maintaining an overall temperature above 22oC overnight.
It is important to provide heat from safe sources such as basking lamps and heat mats. This avoids thermal burns and sources which come into direct contact with the reptile, such as heated rocks, should be avoided. Dehydration or heat stroke can occur with excessively high environmental temperatures and chronically low temperatures can result in gut impactions, slow metabolism, egg binding and poor immunity.
These problems can be avoided by placing a thermometer at either end of the tank to monitor the warm and cool areas and by using a thermostat, as well as preventing direct contact with the heat source.
As a desert-dwelling species, the Bearded Dragon requires a low environmental humidity of 30-40%. This can be monitored using a hygrometer placed in the cool end of the vivarium. A shallow bowl of drinking water should be provided which the lizard may choose to bathe in. Improving ventilation can help to reduce the humidity if it becomes too high.
Bearded dragons spend large amounts of time in the wild basking in the sunlight. It is important to mimic this environment in captivity by providing daylight-equivalent light and sufficient UVB in the basking area of the vivarium throughout the daytime. The UV bulb should be replaced regularly. Usually every 6 months, as the UV output dwindles over time despite the bulb continuing to produce visible light.
Brumation is a normal physiological process similar to hibernation. It involves a period of much-reduced body temperature and inactivity without food or water over the winter months. It is important to check body weight weekly throughout brumation as this should remain stable. If weight loss occurs, the temperatures and lighting should be brought back up and the lizard should have a veterinary examination to assess for illness.
Bearded dragons are prone to a range of medical problems. Of particular concern are:
Metabolic bone disease
Insufficient UVB light in combination with inadequate dietary calcium and vitamin D3 can lead to metabolic bone disease, resulting in weakness, limb deformities and bone fractures. Mild cases can be treated by correcting husbandry, however fractures or severe deformities may warrant euthanasia.
Yellow skin disease
This is an infectious fungal disease which produces yellow lesions on the skin. Also known as CANV, the infection can extend into the underlying tissues and can shorten the lifespan of the infected individual. Overcrowding, poor hygiene and poor immunity related to nutritional and husbandry problems predispose to this condition.
Gut impaction (severe constipation)
This occurs when indigestible substrates such as bark chips or calcium sand are ingested, causing a blockage within the gut. Signs include lethargy, inappetence, bloating and failure to produce faeces. Impaction can be prevented by offering food from a bowl or slate and by avoiding substrates with large particles.
Female Bearded Dragons can lay eggs with or without a male, however they may have difficulty laying their eggs without an appropriate nesting substrate such as deep sand to lay them in. Inadequate temperatures and nutritional deficiencies can also contribute. An egg-bound female appears bloated with a reduced appetite and may be straining or lethargic in later stages. These females can become unwell rapidly and should be presented to a vet if they do not respond to temperature correction and provision of a laying area.
Shedding problems (dysecdysis)
Retained shed can lead to bands of skin wrapping around the toes or tail resulting in loss of digits or the tail tip. This can be avoided by maintaining appropriate environmental conditions especially temperature and humidity, providing a shallow water dish which the lizard may choose to bathe in and providing rocks or branches for them to rub against. It is important to check the toes and tail regularly during shedding and seek veterinary attention if shed is being retained in these areas. Mites can also contribute to shedding problems.
Prolapse of the gastrointestinal or reproductive tract from the cloaca is often associated with excessive straining. This can be caused by problems such as egg-binding, gut impaction or gastrointestinal parasites such as pinworms, and must be treated as soon as possible to prevent the prolapsed tissue from becoming damaged.
Coccidiosis is a gut infection caused by a single-celled parasite known as a protozoa. This condition is most common in young Bearded Dragons, especially in association with poor nutrition, overcrowding and poor hygiene. Signs include lethargy, diarrhoea, poor appetite and weight loss.
Excessive humidity and vitamin A deficiency can predispose to bacterial or fungal respiratory infections. Signs include increased breathing rate and effort, nasal discharge, lethargy and inappetence. In mild cases, improving the humidity and diet including vitamin A supplementation can help, however more severe cases will require veterinary attention and medication.
RSPCA Bearded Dragon Care Sheet. RSPCA Website. Available at https://www.rspca.org.uk/documents/1494939/0/Bearded+Dragon+Care+Sheet+%28PDF+350KB%29.pdf/151bb6df-1c35-a484-6de8-bffed4985abf?t=1556100899951
Basic information sheet: Inland bearded dragon. LafeberVet Web site. Available at https://lafeber.com/vet/basic-information-for-the-inland-bearded-dragon/