The Best Food to Feed a Bearded Dragon

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.

How to Set Up a Bearded Dragon Vivarium

During a visit to a pet shop recently I was disturbed to see a sign on the front of a vivarium containing young beardies which read ‘ideal for beginners’. I think this gives the very wrong impression of this reptile. Whilst they are not difficult to look after, their needs and requirements have to be properly understood in order for them to have a happy, healthy life.

Reptiles are similar to fish in that they need to live in the correct environment for them. You wouldn’t put a marine fish in a tropical aquarium, for example, and expect it to live, and even different tropical fish like different types of water – acid, alkaline or brackish for example. Most pet shops are fairly clued up on fish keeping. But many shops selling bearded dragons have only a basic knowledge about their requirements, and are all too often guilty of letting a new owner buy equipment which is totally inappropriate. Or more worryingly, even encourage them to buy it. Worst of all are ‘bearded dragon complete set ups’ – most of which contain vivariums that are too small with heatmats and substrate which are actually harmful to beardies.

As with aquariums, you need to understand the natural habitat of a bearded dragon before setting up what will be its home for life in your house.

Bearded dragons come from the hot, dry deserts of Australia. The earth is baked dry so they are used to a hard surface to walk on. They are semi arboreal, and are known to climb fenceposts and tree stumps to bask. The hot sun bakes down on them from above. They spend most of their time basking and sleeping and sleeping in full sunlight, and when they are too hot, they move to a cooler place in the shade as, like many cold blooded animals, they thermoregulate. That is, they control their body temperature by moving from a hot place to a cooler one.

In the desert they very rarely, if ever, come across standing water. They have evolved to extract the moisture they need from the food they eat, and therefore it is not unusual never to see a bearded dragon drink. Their lungs can only cope with low humidity levels.

So what does this tell us? Firstly, that they need a good sized vivarium where a wide temperature range is possible. Secondly, they need something to climb on. They need to get their heat from above – not underneath them, and water features in a vivarium will harm their health. They also need exposure to UVB rays that they otherwise would get from the sun. That does not seem to stop shops selling too small vivariums, heatmats (which can actually burn the bearded dragon’s stomach as they cannot feel heat through their bellies), waterfalls, loose substrate that can be swallowed and impact in the gut, and sometimes they even neglect to tell the purchaser that they need a UVB tube. So be warned.

So, now we know what we don’t need, how should the bearded dragon’s vivarium be set up to ensure it lives a long and healthy life?

First of all, an adult bearded dragon will need a vivarium that’s 4ft x 2ft x 2ft (120cm x 60cm x 60cm). When you consider an adult beardie will be close to 2 ft (60 cm) in length you can see how anything less wide will be uncomfortable for it. Baby beardies are quite happy being put straight into a full size vivarium – in the desert no one partitions off a part for them to use! For babies the decoration should be kept simple so that they can catch their food easily. As juveniles grow so fast it is false economy to start off with a smaller sized vivarium.

There should be a heat source at one end of the vivarium – a 60 or 100 watt spotlight is ideal. You can buy these from supermarkets or DIY stores if you don’t want to buy the ones made specifically for reptiles.

It is important to control the temperature at the cool end of the vivarium – your bearded dragon will not survive if it cannot heat up and cool down when it needs to. In order to control the temperature you will need a thermostat. Many people assume this is to ensure the basking temperature is kept high – the opposite is the truth. The thermostat should be kept to make sure the cool end of the vivarium does not go higher than 85f (30c). Once this is right it should be easy to manage the temperature at the basking spot which should be 105f (41c) – the important word being ‘spot’. This does not mean the whole of the hot end of the vivarium should be at this temperature, just the spot where the beardie will bask. The ‘spot’ can be a log, branch or rock on which the beardie can bask to expose himself to the maximum heat. Raising or lowering the basking spot will alter the temperature until it gets to the right level.

It takes a little time to get the probe of the thermostat in the right place to maintain the temperatures accurately – you should start by placing it at the cool end, and then moving it up the vivarium if the temperatures are too low. A good digital thermometer with dual inputs and dual readouts will let you see the temperatures at both ends of the vivarium at once. As it’s a bit tricky for beginners to get it all right, it’s recommended to set up the vivarium and have it running for a week before introducing the bearded dragon.

Depending on your location and your house you may not need any night time heating at all – they need a good temperature drop at night in order to be able to get to sleep. The temperature can go down to 60f (16c) for adults, 65f (18c) for juveniles. If your house gets very hot during summer you may find you need a reptile fan to cool it down.

The other vital piece of equipment is the UVB tube. This should be the strongest that you can buy – currently tubes are selling at 12% UVB which are the best. 10% should be the minimum you choose. The output fades after six months, so tubes should be replaced on a regular basis. The tube should run the whole length of the vivarium, so for a 4ft vivarium you should select a 42″ tube. This will mean the bearded dragon is exposed to UVB for all the time the light is on. 12 hours under a UVB tube is only equilvalent to about 20 mins in the full heat of the sun in the desert, so do not use any hides or caves as your beardie need the most exposure to UVB as he can get.

The heat and light should be on for at least 12 hours a day – in summer you might want to raise this to 14 hours to mimic a change in season.

The final necessity is substrate. When young, bearded dragons are inaccurate feeders, and if they are on sand can take mouthfuls of this as they try to catch their food. Their smaller stomachs are also less able to cope with grains they might swallow, and loose substrate in their gut can lead to impaction which is generally fatal. Wood chippings or pellets should be avoided at any age. Another dangerous substrate is Calci Sand, which can be marketed especially for bearded dragons – this clumps together when wet and so is far worse than normal sand.

Until the age of six months plain kitchen towel is the safest substrate and carries no risk to their health. When they are six months old they can go on children’s play sand which is clean and very fine. Pets shops don’t usually give this advice as they don’t sell either product! The best substrate for an older beardie is a mixture of broken sandstone paving slabs with some playsand between the cracks. The hard surface is more natural for their feet, and helps keep their nails down. This substrate looks good too.

They do like to climb, so branches and rocks are welcomed. You can get these from the wild as long as they are sterilised before putting in the vivariums.

Other accessories are backgrounds – beardies do like climbing on the polyrock walls often sold in pet shops, but really the background is a matter of choice. As are any other decorations such as fake plants. Real plants cannot cope with the dry conditions, and are likely to be thrashed in any event. Food bowls and perhaps a shallow water bowl will complete your set up, and the result should be a happy healthy bearded dragon who will give you pleasure for many years to come.