First of all, it is important to note there is a relatively significant difference between housing a bearded dragon as a pet owner versus as a breeder. The differences pertain to sanitation and overall appeal. For instance, a pet owner would most likely want the animal’s enclosure to be decorated. However, breeders often prefer to keep minimalist enclosures to lower the risk of illnesses. This section will delve into the intricacies of properly housing a bearded dragon.
It is important to keep anthropomorphism, the inherent attribution of human traits or emotions to non-human entities, in mind when setting up a bearded dragon enclosure. Essentially, this is when we put ourselves in the animals' shoes. We humans desire to have the best of the best: luxurious homes, unparalleled vehicles, and the newest iPhones. Animals, on the other hand, generally fail to note the square footage in their enclosure. For example, a dog that lives in a 500 sq. ft. apartment will be just as happy as a dog living in a 15,000 sq. ft. mansion as long as the owner takes good care of them (i.e. allowing them to run around in the dog park) and treats them well.
Far too often we find ourselves wanting the animal to feel “comfortable” when, in reality, the animal is indifferent. Therefore, it could be counterproductive to try to make a bearded dragon feel this way. The more decorations that are in an enclosure, the more surface area there is for disease to develop. Additionally, it can be more difficult to diagnose and foresee sickness in an overloaded enclosure. The more walking space, the better.
At Cliffhanger Reptiles, we house our bearded dragons in PVC enclosures that are custom made for us. The enclosures are very simple: a ceramic tile and a wire-mesh hide on the right as a basking spot. Most enclosures do not include an opaque hide. If a breeding animal goes under a hide for too long, it can lead to severe illness. By removing the opaque hide, we reduce the chances of unsuspected illness, as it is difficult to keep track of an animal “hiding” when you have a significant number of bearded dragons.
The ideal enclosure for a single bearded dragon (juvenile to adult) is a terrarium, which is an enclosure that opens on the front side that may have swinging or sliding doors. An owner's enclosure choice typically varies by how much they are willing to spend. Most breeders don’t recommend a standard aquarium due to the lack of front-facing doors (let's face it, a large human arm reaching into one's home isn't exactly welcoming).
Cliffhanger Reptiles has a custom line of enclosures for bearded dragons and other species of reptiles. We’ve created an enclosure that is perfect for a bearded dragon. You can find these in our catalog or at the bottom of this page.
There are two main types of terrariums: transparent (glass) and three-sided opaque (our enclosure shown above). Since bearded dragons stress easily, glass reflections are typically an issue. Thus, the amount of glass in an enclosure should be minimal. We often recommend an enclosure made from a material such as PVC.
If you are using a glass enclosure, apply a non-reflective paper backdrop (purchased at pet stores) to three sides of the enclosure. Additionally, make sure the backdrop is on the inside of the glass, or the bearded dragon will still see its reflection.
As mentioned, most breeders recommend a custom-built enclosure, which we provide here at Cliffhanger Reptiles. It is even possible to build one at home! Whether purchasing or building, you should be aware of a few things.
- Melamine Enclosures: In the past, many breeders used melamine enclosures for bearded dragons. This is no longer recommended. According to the Cliffhanger Research Labs' Advisory Board, founded to research reptile health, Melamine (C3H6N6) contains Formaldehyde (CH2O). These chemicals make up the classic melamine sheets used to construct enclosures. It is a seemingly plastic-coated material. However, this plastic is thermosetting. When in a butylated form, it dissolves in a mixture of n-butanol and xylene. At everyday room temperature, there seems to be no issue other than BPA concerns. However, when used in a bearded dragon enclosure, owners are required to heat the melamine resin to maintain healthy temperatures for the animal. When heated to temperatures of over 90° Fahrenheit, the material leaks chemical gasses that are known to be toxic for reptiles. In more simple terms, enclosures made from melamine cause reason for concern due to toxicity.
- Wooden Enclosures: Many individuals see the issues with melamine and jump to a wooden enclosure. However, wood can have its issues as well. First, it is important to note that plywood is not a good option for bearded dragons. If not sealed well, it has an increased chance of breaking apart. Loose wood particles are not good for a bearded dragon’s enclosure. Also, if a prepared wood is being used, the varnish or coating needs to be examined. Many coatings produce toxins when heated. Furthermore, wood needs to be sealed. Bearded dragons can often have runny defecations that can seep into the wood if not sealed. With careful building practices, a good wood enclosure can be made, but Cliffhanger Reptiles does not recommend it unless the builder is certain that all aspects of the enclosure are 100% animal friendly at bearded dragon temperatures.
- PVC Enclosures: Cliffhanger Reptiles uses PVC (polyvinyl chloride) enclosures, and Cliffhanger Research Labs rates PVC as the best material for making a reptile enclosure. The Cliffhanger Reptiles PVC lineup is made of a high-quality, durable PVC. While PVC is the best option, the builder may want to examine what type of PVC is best. Cliffhanger Reptiles uses a shiny PVC that tends to be soft on the inside with a tough shell on the outside. A higher-end PVC, such as the type we use, will not stain and will not absorb liquids.
Glass or Acrylic? When building or purchasing an enclosure, there are two options for doors: glass or acrylic. Cliffhanger Reptiles recommends glass nearly all the time. Not only does acrylic tend to scratch, but this is also especially true considering bearded dragons' nails. Even though acrylic is very difficult to break, this does not outweigh glass’s scratch-resistant benefit.
Which color? If building a PVC enclosure, there are many color options available. Some opt to go with white, which is a solid option. White does stain easily, but various products can remove these stains. Cliffhanger Reptiles decided to go with all black enclosures. They tend to hold heat well and do not stain.
Transition Enclosures: Some feel that it is needed to purchase a smaller enclosure for a baby bearded dragon and then switch them to a larger enclosure once they get bigger. This is a good idea as babies can struggle to find their food. However, bearded dragons grow very quickly, so transition enclosures may ultimately be a waste of money. Additionally, it may be difficult to regulate temperatures in a smaller enclosure. We recommend starting in an adult enclosure. However, hatchlings shouldn’t be in an enclosure larger than 40 gallons (or 3x2 if building), which will last for years.
We will skip right to the point for this: you can read more below. Yes, bearded dragons can be housed on a loose substrate. However, there is a high risk involved in doing so. Dragons under one year old have a very high chance of becoming impacted when housed on a loose substrate. Cliffhanger Reptiles does not guarantee animals' safety when housed on a loose substrate.
A substrate is the flooring that a bearded dragon lives on. There are two types of substrates: loose substrate and solid substrate. Loose substrate, like sand or wood chips, must be examined before use. On the other hand, there are solid substrates, such as paper or ceramic tile.
Which type of substrate is best? Solid substrates are generally the best option. It should be noted that if your enclosure permits, no substrate is often the best substrate. Glass enclosures (i.e. aquariums) must have a substrate. Those who use a custom-built PVC enclosure often opt not to use substrate or, instead, to grout in ceramic tile. Ceramic tile or laminate allows for easy cleaning with minimal health risk.
Loose Substrates: It's no lie that many bearded dragons thrive on loose substrates. However, several factors must be considered. First and foremost, Cliffhanger Reptiles does not endorse the use of any loose substrate. It is simply too risky. Also, please remember that bearded dragons don’t naturally live in a sandy area. However, if a loose substrate is going to be used, a few things should be kept in mind:
- NO BEARDED DRAGONS UNDER ONE YEAR OLD SHOULD BE KEPT ON A LOOSE SUBSTRATE. Keeping a bearded dragon on a loose substrate puts your pet at risk of impaction, the blockage of the digestive system, from ingesting the substrate. When a bearded dragon under one year old is placed on a loose substrate, they are at a greater risk of bowel blockage due to their curiosity and size.
- Bearded dragons that are housed in an enclosure with a loose substrate must be fed outside of the enclosure. Bearded dragons should not confuse a substrate with food. Additionally, feeding a bearded dragon on a loose substrate increases their chances of getting a mouth full of sand with every bite of food. Vegetables can be kept in the enclosure if a proper dish is used.
- Clean every day. Replace the substrate every two to three months or as needed (unless the enclosure is bioactive).
- Pick your substrate wisely! Just because there is a bearded dragon on the packaging does not mean that the substrate is safe. Coconut based substrates are generally the safest loose substrate.
- If sand is used, large rocks must be sifted out.
Solid Substrates: Most herpetoculturists and veterinarians would agree that a solid substrate is the best option. Some would argue there is still a risk with a substrate like paper or a made-for-reptile carpet. However, the risk of impaction from a solid substrate is so small that there is essentially no issue with regards to safety. Most pet owners want to keep an enclosure looking "cool," which is still possible with a solid substrate. Some manufactures make substrates that resemble the color of rocks, and some mats have rocks glued onto them (see picture).
The picture shows a seemingly harmless solid substrate. However, substrates that are rocky often flake. This means that the bearded dragon may ingest bits and pieces of the substrate. Mats like these are better to be used with adults. A bearded dragon should not be fed on a mat like this. While this option is better than a completely loose substrate, it is still not ideal. These mats are also very difficult to get clean due to various grooves.
The best choice for a solid substrate is craft paper, paper towels, or reptile carpets (without flaking rocks). Please be cognizant of the aforementioned recommendations when picking a substrate.
The best substrate is no substrate. If the enclosure permits you to do so, it is always safest to use no substrate. It may not look as cool, but the limited risk of no substrate makes it worthwhile. If your enclosure does not allow for no substrate (i.e. glass bottom), it is easy to grout ceramic tile to the floor. This will allow for a reliable substrate that is technically not a substrate.
It is always fun to decorate an enclosure. There aren’t many stipulations with this. However, it is important to keep two things in mind: (1) Don’t overcrowd an enclosure; bearded dragons should have plenty of room to walk around. (2) Ensure that all decorations are safe for the animal. For example, wood from outside must be properly sterilized and dried. Keep it simple for the first six months. Additionally, never use decoration leaves since, to the bearded dragons, they can look like food.
If you want to add an extra layer of reality, reptile backdrops can be made to fit your enclosure. Universal Rocks is a trusted company that makes these molds.
Temperature and Humidity
Temperature is one of the most important aspects of bearded dragon care aside from diet and supplementation. It is critical to have accurate temperatures! 75% of illnesses in bearded dragons are related to temperature.
Bearded dragons are native to Australia, where it is rather hot. It is best for the dragon's enclosure to have a warm side and a cool side. To regulate temperatures, you will need various thermometers. While a probe thermometer will work for ambient temperatures, an infrared thermometer is needed to pinpoint basking temperatures. An infrared thermometer is a must for keeping temperatures accurate. They generally sell between $15-$25 for a basic device, so they won’t break the bank.
A basking bulb will be needed to produce heat for your bearded dragon. The basking bulb will heat the ambient temperature and the floor, which, in turn, will heat the dragon’s stomach and assist with food digestion. There are hundreds of options. Typical spotlights (40-60 watts) generally do the trick. Cliffhanger Reptiles uses the Exo Terra® Intense Basking Spot™. We have found this is a reliable, cost-effective option. It pinpoints a spot for heat rather than heating the entire enclosure, making hot and cool sides easy.
A timer should be used to keep the lights on for 11-13 hours per day. Bearded dragons prefer to have a routine. They like the lights to come on at the same time every day and to be fed at the same time every day.
A ceramic “night light” may be used if your temperatures drop below 68-70⁰ Fahrenheit. Please ensure that nighttime temperatures always drop below 74⁰ Fahrenheit for proper digestion and sleep cycles.
A good bearded dragon enclosure will have a suitable basking spot, which can be anything from a log to a piece of ceramic tile. This should be placed under the basking bulb. Never put any basking spot too close (within six inches) to the light. The temperatures of this basking spot should be between 100-105⁰ Fahrenheit (105-110⁰ F for hatchlings). One can check this temperature with their infrared thermometer.
THE WARM & COOL SIDES
The warm side of the enclosure should be between 90-100⁰ F, and the basking spot should be between 100-105⁰ F. If the basking spot temperature is accurate, the warm side's temperature can be less precise. The cool side of the enclosure should be between 80-85⁰ F. If your bearded dragon is always on the cool side of the enclosure, double-check your temps or contact Cliffhanger Reptiles.
If your bearded dragon is sitting with their mouth open (while relaxed), they are not angry or mean. They are simply regulating their body temperature. If they do this frequently, they are likely too hot.
Owners of snakes and leopard geckos often use devices to regulate temperatures within their animals' enclosures. This same technology can be applied in bearded dragon enclosures. Devices like Vivarium Electronics and Herpstats work with basking spots. Just make sure that the device and bulb can be dimmed.
Additionally, when using a temperature regulation device with bearded dragons, ensure the temperature setting is set to the accurate basking temperature instead of what the probe reads the ambient temperature to be. For example, setting the device to 93⁰ F may achieve the desired 103⁰ F. In short, calibration is needed.
IF YOUR ENCLOSURE IS TOO COLD AT NIGHT: Cliffhanger Reptiles advises against heat rocks. However, an under-tank heater may assist at night if you are using a glass tank. Another option is a ceramic heat emitter.
Bearded dragons require a rather dry enclosure. The recommended humidity is between 35% and 45%. Humidity should not go above 55%. Allowing the humidity to reach higher levels may cause illnesses, such as an upper reportorial infection (U.R.I.). For this reason, Cliffhanger Reptiles does not recommend keeping a water bowl in an enclosure. The only time this would be appropriate is with a screen-topped enclosure. Even then, water in the enclosure is not recommended. See the F.A.Q. section for more information.
Ultra-Violet Blue Lights (UVB)
This is a very important section for bearded dragon care. Bearded dragons require Ultra-Violet Blue, or UVB, lighting to provide them with the nutrients they need from the sun. A UVB light is not optional for bearded dragons. Failure to provide adequate UVB lighting can lead to Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD).
Cliffhanger Reptiles recommends T6 or T5 instead of the standard fixture UVB bulbs. We find that T6 or T5 bulbs provide a better spectrum of nutrients to the animal.
Place the UVB 10-14 inches away from the animal for the best results. The light should be turned on for the same amount of time as the heat light. You can also take your bearded dragon outside in 15-30 minute segments for more UVB nutrients. However, a UVB in the enclosure is still needed.
In some cases, bearded dragons can successfully be housed together. However, this is generally not recommended. Keeping bearded dragons together can result in nips and unwanted stress. For the experienced keeper, cohousing females may not be an issue. Typically, however, Cliffhanger Reptiles does not recommend this for new owners.
Never cohouse males together or males with females. Even experienced breeders will often keep males and females separate.
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