Dragons not as scary as they seem

Lizards can make mellow, friendly pets

Posted: Sunday, June 05, 2005


  Barbed dragon

Barbed dragon

Although many may think dragons are the stuff of fairy tales and folklore, they are mistaken. Dragons are alive and well and quickly becoming one of the most popular reptiles in the pet trade.

Dragons, or bearded dragons to be specific, are a type of small lizard native to arid, rocky, semi-desert regions of the Land Down Under — Australia.

Their name comes from their ability to enlarge or inflate a flap of skin under their lower jaw when upset or disturbed. In addition, they may also darken the skin color of this area to almost black which creates an even more beard-like appearance.

They are mellow, social little creatures that generally seem to enjoy interacting with humans — one of the attributes that makes them such appealing pets. They relish being gently petted on the back or under the chin and, with minimal handling, most learn to sit calmly for moderate lengths of time with their owners.

Bearded dragons, although starting out only a few inches in length as hatchlings, typical undergo tremendous bursts of growth within the first year. They attain a maximum length of just under two feet when fully grown, although much of this is tail. Their life span is roughly 10 years in captivity.

Since they grow quickly, starting out with a large enclosure is preferred to initially purchasing a small one that will have to upgraded within a few months.

A 20-gallon aquarium is suitable for one dragon but 50-gallon tanks or larger are even better and are required if two or more lizards will be kept. A screen lid also is recommended.

Substrate may be something simple, such as paper towels or newspaper to line the bottom of the tank, or more naturalistic materials may be used, such as Playsand — sterile sand which is available from most home improvement stores.

Dragons require multiple branches within the enclosure for them to climb and bask on, since they need to bask to maintain their optimal body heat.

As with most reptiles, it is important to use lights to establish a temperature gradient within the enclosure so dragons can choose locations that are warmer or cooler. Don't guess at these temperatures, use a thermometer.

The "hot" end of the tank should have temperatures from 95-105 degrees Fahrenheit, while the "cool" end should have temperatures of 60-70 degrees. A shallow water dish as well as shaded hide spots should also be available in the cooler area.

Lights to produce heat should include white incandescent bulbs or any of numerous others in pet stores made specifically for reptile enclosure heating. However, a full spectrum (UVB) ball also is required as these bulbs play a critical role in a dragon's ability to synthesize vitamin D3 from calcium consumed in its daily diet.

Both lights should be on for 10 to 12 hours a day. Although they are turned off at night, an additional heat source — such as an under-the-tank heat pad or a hot rock in the tank — should be used to ensure that night temperatures within the tank do not drop below 60 degrees.

Dragons are omnivorous in the wild and in captivity their diet should consist of roughly 2/3 insects and 1/3 leafy greens and vegetable matter.

Crickets are the insect food of choice but mealworms and waxworms can be substituted from time to time to add variety. For veggies, leafy greens are the best, such as kale and collard, mustard or dandelion greens. Stay away from iceberg lettuce and spinach.

If dragons are kept on a sand substrate, food items should be offered in a shallow bowl or the lizards should be fed in an alternative location so they don't ingest and become impacted with sand.

Since dragons grow so rapidly, they typically require additional calcium and vitamin supplements sprinkled over their food. These powders are available at most pet stores where the lizards are sold.

The feeding schedule for dragons is varied depending on their age and size. Hatchlings up to a month old can be fed small insects two to three times a day, with a vitamin dusting necessary only once daily.

Dragons 1 to 4 months old should be feed slightly larger insects twice daily, dusted with vitamins once a day. They should have their salad offered every other day.

From 4 months old up to 12 months old dragons should be fed insects one to two times a day with a vitamin dusting every other day. They can have a salad every other day. They also can be offered an occasional "pinky" mouse.

From 12 months on dragons can be fed insects every one to two days with vitamin dusting once a week. They can have a salad every other day.

With any food items — whether insect or veggie — never feed more than the dragon will eat, as this can contribute to unsanitary enclosure conditions.

If large amounts of food are frequently left over, feed progressively less until the optimum amount is achieved.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at news@peninsulaclarion.com.

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