Bearded dragons are quiet, gentle and interactive reptiles that are easy to care for.
It's no surprise they have become so popular today as pets, says Sydney exotic animal veterinarian Dr Robert Johnson, who is also President of the Unusual Pet and Avian Vets Group of the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) and advisor to the Pet Industry Association of Australia (PIAA) on reptile matters.
Dr Johnson has been treating bearded dragons as pets and as free living wild animals for nearly 30 years and is still intrigued by their social and interactive behaviour.
"They have a simple reptilian brain, but very useful. They survived in that form for millions of years," he says. "They have basic comforts like any animal does. In the wild, they hunt for their food, bask in the sun, seek shelter, and we need to be able to provide all these alternatives in captivity."
Australia is home to three types of bearded dragons which are commonly kept as pets by enthusiasts: the Eastern Bearded Dragon (Pogona barbata), the Pygmy Bearded Dragon (P. henrylawsoni) and the Central Bearded Dragon (P. vitticeps). The preferred dragon for pet purposes is the Central Bearded Dragon, which normally comes from the drier parts of the country.
"Central Bearded Dragons are wonderful animals. They are very social - you can keep several in one enclosure as long as you have plenty of room - and they are quite interactive. They bob their heads, wave their arms, dig and climb," says Dr Johnson, who is also author of A Guide to Health and Diseases in Reptiles and Amphibians (to be released at a later date).
Bearded Dragons live 10 to 12 years and are suitable for all ages.
"I don't recommend Bearded Dragons to kids younger than five years of age as they don't realise how fragile Bearded Dragons can be and can cause them distress if they over handle them," he says.
You also need a licence to own a Bearded Dragon. For information on how and where to get a licence, you need to check with your state/territory authority as the requirements are different in each area.
How Can I Buy A Bearded Dragon?
You can buy a Bearded Dragon from pet stores, breeders and reptile events/shows. You can get a list of pet stores from the PIAA (www.piaa.net.au) and a list of breeders from your local herpetological society.
Bearded Dragons cost about $100 each and require a terrarium or vivarium, which can cost up to $500 including all the necessary accessories, such as thermostat, thermometer, water bowls, cage furniture and ultraviolet light. You can also keep more than one Bearded Dragon in an enclosure, which needs to be large enough to house them all comfortably, says Dr Johnson.
You'll also need to buy a supply of food every week to feed your dragon, including cockroaches and crickets.
"You need to feed your Bearded Dragon every one or two days. Be careful about feeding insects that you find in or around your house, though, because they could have ingested chemicals/poison or be harbouring parasites," he says. "Also, if you go on holidays, make sure you have someone to clean up the poo every day, feed them every second day and do a big clean once a week."
During the warmer months, you can take your Bearded Dragon outdoors to sunbathe in the natural light. Keep your lizard in an area sheltered by predators, like dogs, cats or birds, such as an enclosure or outdoor aviary.
As adults, Bearded Dragons can be handled daily but it's important not to take them out of their warm habitat for too long.
"I find this to be a common cause of sickness in Bearded Dragons, being handled too often," he says. "They can get metabolic bone disease due to not having enough calcium in their diet and not getting enough ultraviolet light. We need to provide these in captivity and keep them warm, which is essential in preventing metabolic diseases."
Bearded Dragons can also get impaction of the gut due to being overfed with crickets and become constipated, which can be quite painful and distressing. If your dragon is not defaecating, its body is swelling up and is quieter than usual, see your reptile vet immediately, says Dr Johnson. Bearded Dragon males also tend to fight and bite each other, causing injury or even losing a toe or two.
For more information on reptile keeping, consult your local herpetological society, local PIAA member pet store or check out the reptile publications available at www.birdkeeper.com.au/reptile-snake-books