Bearded dragons are rightly one of the most popular pet reptiles of all, and certainly the most commonly-kept lizard species.
However keeping a bearded dragon is far more complex than many other pets. One of the most critical factors of all is their housing, which must be set up correctly if your beardie is to remain happy and healthy.
In this article we’re going to discuss the ins and outs of setting up a tank for your very first pet bearded dragon. By the end you’ll have a full understanding of what you’re going to need to consider before bringing your beardie home from the reptile shop…
A bearded dragon vivarium must meet a number of essential requirements:
Suitable Space – Bearded dragons are a mid-sized lizard and as a result adults in particular require a generously-sized cage. In doing so, they will be able to move about at will and display natural behaviour.
Security – As well as keeping your bearded dragon inside, your vivarium should also keep other pets out. Interestingly, many other domestic pets – in particular cats – seem to be fascinated by bearded dragons. In order to prevent your pet becoming dinner for the cat you’ll want to be certain there’s no way in without your permission.
Privacy – Bearded dragons can get stressed in captivity, especially as youngsters. Another important element of their vivarium should therefore to provide a degree of privacy so that they feel safe and secure in their tank.
Natural Behaviour – While bearded dragons rapidly tame down, with many seemingly enjoying the company of their owner, its important to bear in mind that these are “wild” animals. As such it is important to consider their natural behaviour, and to facilitate this in captivity.
Warmth – Bearded dragons hail from the hot, dry savannas of Australia. As cold-blooded creatures they therefore require artificial heating to keep them healthy. A vivarium should be set up to provide a suitable level of heat, in a safe manner.
Ultraviolet Light – Like most lizards awake during the day (“diurnal”) bearded dragons need access to UV light in order to metabolize vitamin D and calcium effectively. Without this artificial sunshine bearded dragons can suffer from a range of painful, and frequently fatal, health complications.
As you can see, there are many factors to consider when choosing and setting up a bearded dragon cage. Fortunately, we’re going to discuss each point in this article, so you’re fully armed with the right information.
Types of Bearded Dragon Vivariums
Let’s start by considering the different types of bearded dragon cages commonly available on the market. As you’ll see, each has their own unique strengths and weaknesses, but there is one type that is likely to be the best solution for the majority of keepers.
A common bearded dragon enclosure is a large glass aquarium, as sold for tropical fish. A glass tank is easy to clean, provides excellent visibility and can be bought quite cheaply. As a result they’re often the first thought of new reptile-keepers. Sadly, there are a number of issues you need to be aware of.
Firstly, glass aquariums require a tight-fitting reptile-lid to not only keep in your pet, but also to permit the right environmental conditions. While a number of reptile companies sell these lids (often known as “tank toppers”) they are very expensive, and tend to only come in a very limited range of sizes. Sourcing (or build) a suitable lid can therefore make glass aquariums a surprisingly pricey and impractical option for most.
The second consideration pertains to privacy. As relatively private creatures, used to keeping a constant eye out for predators heading in their direction, the all-glass construction of aquariums can cause unnecessary stress. Generally reptile keepers find that a cage with solid sides and back make beardies feel safer and more comfortable in their surroundings.
A final consideration is just how heavy and impractical to move an aquarium can be. A large all-glass tank is certainly a two-person job (or more!) to safely get home and pop in position.
So while glass aquariums certainly aren’t the worst bearded dragon cages on the market, they are far from ideal.
Plastic Moulded Vivariums
A small number of manufacturers produce plastic moulded vivariums. These typically have a glass or perspex door at the front, allowing access and excellent visibility. The rest of the cage, however, is made from sturdy moulded plastic.
The plastic construction has a number of benefits over glass aquariums. Firstly these cages are considerably lighter, and therefore easier to move. Secondly, the solid sides and backs help to provide additional security for your lizard. Finally, the plastic exterior tends to be a better insulator than an all-glass cage, meaning that they are easier to keep warm in winter.
There are only two weaknesses of plastic cages for bearded dragons. The first of these is that plastic cages are still quite unusual in the hobby, and so can be challenging to source. Even people who *want* a moulded plastic cage often give up and instead rely on one of the other possible solutions.
The other weakness pertains to the limited range of sizes and shapes on the market. Remember that an adult bearded dragon will require a good-sized cage, and sourcing such an item is therefore even more challenging. As a result, most bearded dragon keepers instead rely on the third – and arguably most appropriate – solution…
Wooden vivariums are, hands down, the most suitable cages for most bearded dragons.
Firstly they are available in a wide range of styles and shapes, easily permitting you to locate a suitable cage. They can be found for sale at almost any reptile shop, or can be easily bought online to save on having to carry them home. The wood comes in a range of finishes and colors, from white or black, through a range of natural wood effects like oak, teak or pine. My personal favourite is the beech effect.
The wood used to construct these vivariums isn’t solid wood typically, but rather melamine (conti) board. As a result, these vivariums aren’t overly heavy to carry and can cope with a little moisture now and again. This makes it easy to wipe around with a reptile-safe detergent when carrying out routine cleaning.
The timber construction is also very good at keeping heat in, making heating your tank much easier and more affordable in cold winter months. It is also easy to attach screws and nails, in order to fit the necessary heating and lighting equipment.
Like the plastic vivariums, the solid sides and back help to give your pet security, while the sliding glass doors make for excellent visibility for you, and ease of access for feeding, cleaning or watching.
Heck, for the more enthusiastic DIY-er, it is even possible to build your own wooden vivarium to your own unique design.
In short, wooden vivariums are the best type of cage for bearded dragons bar none – assuming you select a model of a suitable size and deck it out with the right equipment.
Note that there are a range of other cages available for reptiles, however these are rarely used for bearded dragons and tend not to be suitable. For example, mesh cages are available primarily for chameleons, while racks are available for housing large numbers of snakes.
It is best to avoid these alternatives and stick to a wooden vivarium, a solution which has proven successful time and again.
What Size Vivarium Does a Bearded Dragon Need?
While baby bearded dragons measure in at just a few inches in length, a well cared-for lizard will grow rapidly.
Adult size, which may be reached in less than 18 months, tends to be around 2 feet (60cm) including the tail. These are therefore not small lizards!
Understandably, these active and impressively-sized lizards therefore require a suitably generous cage. Expert opinions vary, but a good “rule of thumb” is to aim for a wooden vivarium some 4 feet (120cm) in length. This provides room for your pet to move around naturally and not to feel too cramped.
Of course, it’s not just length that we need to consider, but also depth and height. Most experts recommend that the vivarium should be at deep as your lizard is long. In this way he or she can turn around unhindered. For adults this will mean a vivarium that is 18″-24″ (45-60cm) deep.
While bearded dragons do not active climbers, they seem to appreciate some added height. Many a bearded dragon will be seen in pet shops perched on a rock or a branch, frequently lying motionless in seeming ecstasy beneath a toasty-warm heat lamp.
Consequently a height of around 18″ (45cm) or more is recommended, so that some climbing apparatus can be included. Also, be aware that heating and lighting equipment can also take up some vertical space.
Of course, all the bearded dragon tank dimensions provided so far are for an adult specimen. Housing youngsters is no more complex than adults, but you do need to consider how quickly your beautifu little baby is going to grow. After all, buying a new vivarium every few months isn’t really practical, nor is putting a tiny 4″ long lizard into a four foot long tank!
Possibly the best solution when buying a baby dragon is to invest in a half-sized wooden vivarium to start with. A small vivarium of around 60-75cm long, and 30-45cm in depth and height will keep your baby beardie happy for many months to come. Then, when he or she starts to outgrow the existing accommodation you can upgrade to an adult-sized vivarium.
Note that most wooden vivariums can be taken apart and stored flat. In this way they take up a surprisingly small amount of room, and can easily be slipped into a cupboard for future use.
Before you buy a baby bearded dragon, however, check out the costs of adult cages. Also appreciate that the heater you buy for a small vivarium probably won’t be enough for a larger tank, so also factor this into your maths. Make sure you have suitable funds put aside to invest in a good-sized vivarium when necessary; there are a disappointing number of beardies put up for sale/adoption each year after their owners failed to plan effectively. Please don’t add to the problem.
Where Should I Place My Bearded Dragon Cage?
Buying a suitable bearded dragon cage is just one part of the housing puzzle. Another important element is where to put your cage. Here’s what you need to consider…
Bearded dragons don’t fare well in cool or overly damp conditions. This means that placing your bearded dragon vivarium near a window, or an external door, is far from ideal. Every time someone walks into the room they’ll being a cold draught with them, which can be detrimental to your lizard. Also consider that radiators can turn on and off throughout the day, which can also make it harder to accurately heat your bearded dragon cage.
Bearded dragons, like most lizards, may enjoy basking in sunshine when in the wild, but it’s a factor that should be avoided in captivity. The reason is quite simple; sunlight shining through the glass doors of a vivarium can rapidly heat it up, getting dangerously hot in the process.
While in the wild an overly-hot bearded dragon would be able to slink off to rest in a cooler area to relax, this just isn’t possible in captivity. We therefore need to make sure that the internal temperature of the cage never gets too hot.
Also, it’s important to understand that most of the beneficial UV light in natural sunlight gets filtered out by glass. Therefore don’t think that placing your vivarium near a window will provide all the UV required; the window pane and the glass in the front of the vivarium will render this virtually useless.
The solution is simple; keep your vivarium out of direct sunlight at all times, and provide UV light through a reptile-safe alternative.
Peace & Quiet
No matter how docile and friendly your bearded dragon might be, we all appreciate a little peace and quiet sometimes. This is especially so for reptiles and amphibians.
Placing your beardies’ cage in a busy area can therefore lead to considerable stress. Examples of things to avoid include placing your beardie cage in a very busy room where people are squeezing past (such as your hall or landing) or near sources of loud noise (such as near TVs or stereo systems).
Possibly the best place for a bearded dragon cage is a quiet bedroom, where they won’t be disturbed most of the day.
Lastly, a number of keepers over the years have noticed that bearded dragons seem to feel safest when their cage is raised up off the ground. From this increased height they then have a better view of the world going past.
In light of this, try not to place your bearded dragon cage directly on the floor. Instead, positioning it more at waist-height tends to work best. It also affords you the best possible view too.
If yo don’t have a suitably sized piece of furniture, be aware that a number of suppliers offer special vivarium stands. These are typically made from the same range of wood as the vivariums, giving a really professional look to the cage. The storage cupboards underneath can also be tremendously useful for storing equipment out-of-sight so you can enjoy your beardie fully.