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BRINGING UP BEARDIE: TIPS FOR RAISING BABY BEARDED DRAGONS IN CAPTIVITY - By Jonathan Rheins
There is no denying or avoiding the fact that Australian bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) have made their mark on American herpeteculture, and that they are here to stay. Combine a calm demeanor, dragon-like appearance, a handful of fancy color variants, and a reproductive strategy that would make most rabbits jealous, and you get the bearded dragon, perhaps the perfect lizard pet.
As the popularity of this species has grown, so has the demand for captive bred babies. As a naturally prolific species, there has been no trouble on the part of breeders to provide the public with plenty of healthy, happy baby beardeds. In fact, many budding reptile keepers choose these lizards as their first captive charges.
While bearded dragons are, as a whole, quite easy to care for, young babies may present specific challenges to the neophyte reptile owner. These obstacles are easily overcome with proper preparation, attention to detail, and good husbandry. Below, the reader will find a handful of tips and helpful hints that may prove invaluable to first time bearded dragon owners.
Choosing a healthy, well started animal to begin with is perhaps the simplest yet most vital aspect of successful bearded dragon rearing. While it is unlikely that any dealer would intentionally offer unsuitable .babies for sale, it is still a good idea to know how to spot a healthy specimen.
The animal should be alert and responsive to physical stimuli. Most baby bearded dragons will sit placidly in the palm of ones hand, and this is fine. However, you should be able to detect a certain amount of resistance and muscle tone in the lizard as you pick it up.
The eyes should be wide open, of equal size, and show no signs of infection (mucous, crusts, etc.). The mouth and nares should be similarly examined. Well fed bearded dragons should have a rounded out appearance. They should be plump with no visible hip or back bones.
Finally, if selecting from a large group of animals, look first at those that are the biggest and most active. These are typically the "alpha" animals, and are a great choice. Once these animals are culled from the group, the smaller, less assertive ones will quickly put on size and catch up with their more dominant counterparts.
Check to see that the animal you are interested in has all of it's fingers, toes, and tail tip. It is quite common for baby beardeds housed communally to accidentally nip a toe or tail of a cage mate. These injuries are usually minor and heal very well with no lasting effects. Nonetheless, it may be advisable to avoid animals with fresh wounds that have yet to begin healing.
It is far beyond the scope of this article to outline bearded dragon care in detail. For that the reader should consult one of many excellent books on the subject, or check the care library at www.LLLReptile.com for a thorough care sheet and other helpful resources.
It should however be noted that attention to detail is key for raising young bearded dragons. While adult bearded dragons may be more than capable of surviving temporary bouts of sub-standard care, younger animals can prove more sensitive.
HEAT AND LIGHT
Temperatures within the enclosure should be closely monitored. Baby beardeds can overheat and dehydrate rapidly in small enclosures with too much heat. Be sure that your animals always have access to a warm basking area but also to cooler areas within the enclosure.
Adult bearded dragons can safely and comfortably bask in temperatures as high as 130 degrees. However, they do this only for short periods of time and their large mass allows them to warm up slowly. Baby beardeds should have basking spots that get no hotter than 95 to 100 degrees.
Never guess on temperatures. Always use a high quality thermometer designed specifically for reptile use. Many keepers find that using two thermometers (one at each end of the enclosure) simplifies monitoring highs and lows by eliminating the need to constantly relocate a single device.
Full spectrum lighting is required for the long-term maintenance of most desert lizards. Bearded dragons are no exception, and should be provided with 10 to 12 hours of full spectrum light. You will need a bulb designed specifically for this purpose, and traditionally they are fluorescent tubes marketed for this purpose.
Despite hailing from the dry deserts of Australia, bearded dragons are capable of becoming dehydrated. Babies, with there small mass, will lose moisture quickly in a hot, dry environment. In addition to a shallow water dish, they should be misted daily with room temperature water.
The enclosure contents can be lightly misted as well, but try to direct the stream to the animal itself. While they may at first seemed perturbed, they will soon realize what is taking place and will begin lapping up the water eagerly.
These steps are especially important for newly acquired animals and those under 4 weeks of age. After that point, they should still be offered water in this manner a few times a week, but it becomes much less of a necessity. As the animals grow and begin eating more vegetable matter, they will require less help from the keeper to stay properly hydrated.
Bearded dragons are fast growing creatures with equally speedy metabolisms. To ensure proper growth, and to reduce the risk of digit and tail nipping among cage mates, baby bearded dragons should be fed frequently.
Appetites will vary from specimen to specimen, but the average growing bearded dragon will eagerly eat 3 times a day, with each feeding consisting of however many crickets the animal consumes in a 15 minute period. This is an optimal feeding regimen, one often used by breeders and advanced hobbyists to get their animals up to size as quickly as possible.
In some cases, offering crickets 3 times daily is not practical for the keeper. Fortunately, animals will still thrive on a less intensive feeding schedule, the only side-effect being a slightly slower growth rate. More often than not, baby bearded dragons can be offered live prey once or twice a day (along with fresh greens) with no problems.
Food items should be no longer than the distance between the lizards eyes. Feeding too large of prey is a frequent problem, and can lead to serious health problems. When in doubt, always offer a larger quantity of small prey items instead of a small number of larger ones. Furthermore, do not feed mealworms to bearded dragons less than 4 months of age. Smaller animals sometimes, though not always, have trouble digesting the tough, chitinous shell of the worms.
All foods, both live and otherwise, should be lightly dusted with a high quality calcium and vitamin supplement. The calcium supplement chosen should be one complete with vitamin D3. This vitamin, in conjunction with proper heat and light, will aid greatly is preventing metabolic disorders. This calcium/D3 supplement should be used at every feeding until the animal has reached maturity, at which time it's use may be safely reduced.
A reptile multivitamin should be used as well, although is only necessary once or twice a week. The wide variety of vitamins and minerals found in the fresh vegetables being eaten will provide for much of the animals needs. The use of an additional supplement is simply a fail safe, should the selection of produce be deficient in one or more essential nutrients.
One final pitfall that many first time reptile keepers encounter is stressed animals as a result of over handling. As with any reptile, each individual will have varying tolerances for human contact.
Fortunately bearded dragons as a whole are rather content to be picked up and interacted with on a regular basis. Nonetheless, one should begin slowly, allowing a new baby bearded ample time to acclimate both to its new surroundings and to human contact.
Keep in mind that baby bearded dragons are just that, babies. They are experiencing many things for the first time and can easily become overwhelmed or frightened. It is for these reasons that handling should be kept to a minimum until the animal has had ample time to settle in.
Once the lizard has begun feeding regularly and appears to be exhibiting normal behavioral patterns, regular handling may commence. It is best to start slowly, gently lifting the animal into the palm and allowing it to sit, unrestrained, for a few moments. Over time young beardeds will begin to understand that humans mean them no harm, and most will, by one year of age, be completely comfortable sitting on ones shoulder or being hand fed.
Raising bearded dragons is by no means a difficult endeavor, especially when compared to the work involved with keeping more advanced species. Their care is straightforward and their needs are easily met. Even so, it is important to not cut corners or skimp on proper supplies when initially setting them up.
By doing a small amount of homework, familiarizing oneself with the basic husbandry needs of these animals, and by taking note of the tips above, anyone can be successful keeping baby bearded dragons. The small amount of extra work and attention to detail involved pales in comparison to the satisfaction achieved by owning one of the most intriguing pet lizards around.