The correct bearded dragon diet is essential if your lizard is stay fit and healthy in captivity.
In the absence of proper nutrition bearded dragons can suffer from a range of problems, including obesity and metabolic bone disease (MBD) whereby they are unable to absorb suitable calcium from their diet.
This can lead to weaker bones, swollen joints or, in extreme cases, malformed skeletons or paralysis.
Fortunately we know more than ever before about bearded dragon diets so its now possible to provide exactly what your beardie needs by following a few simple rules.
Introduction to Bearded Dragon Diets
Bearded dragons are omnivores; this means they eat both meat and plants.
In captivity this generally means a combination of live insects and an assortment of vegetables. Leafy vegetables offer arguably the best source of plant-based nutrition, though this can be supplemented in moderation with fruits, herbs and a number of wild and garden plants.
What is perhaps most interesting in terms of a bearded dragon’s diet is that it changes over the lifetime of the lizard.
That is to say that while the main constituents of the diet remain stable, the ratio of insects to plant matter changes as a bearded dragon matures.
It is crucial to understand this change if you are to provide a suitable diet to your pet.
Feeding Baby Bearded Dragons
Bearded dragons can grow surprisingly quickly under optimum conditions, and in order to do this they require plenty of protein.
This comes in the form of live insects (“livefood”) such as crickets and locusts. It is recommended that roughly 80% of a baby bearded dragon’s diet consists of these live insects.
The remaining 20% should be made up of nutritious plant matter (see below for a full list).
Feeding Adult Bearded Dragons
As bearded dragons mature these ratios reverse; the proportion of insects in the diet drops while the amount of plant matter increases. Adult bearded dragons should be fed a diet comprising 80% plant matter with just 20% live insects.
It is advisable that no matter what the age of your bearded dragon a bowl of water and another of vegetables should be present at all times, and both should be changed at least once a day to keep them fresh, especially in the hot surroundings of a bearded dragon vivarium.
What Do Bearded Dragons Eat In The Wild?
Very few studies exist as to what bearded dragons actually eat in the wild.
One study involved catching wild beardies and flushing out their stomachs in order to assess what they had been eating.
The scientists found that in the lizards studied, 61% of the diet was made up of insects, mainly in the form of termites. The remainder was made up from plant matter.
The biologists themselves surmised that bearded dragons are likely opportunistic feeders; taking insects when you could be easily found but relying on plant material for the basis of their diet.
Based on these findings the scientists recommend “a diet consisting of several insect species, supplemented with leafy vegetables“.
Feeding Bearded Dragons – The Importance of Variety
Experts recommend that bearded dragons – like all exotic pets – should be fed a highly varied diet consisting of a range of foodstuffs. Rather than purely feeding crickets to your beardie, for example, it is wise to offer an assortment of other options over time.
Additionally, you should aim to avoid always providing the same types of plant matter, and should instead vary the diet, offering a wide assortment of foods.
In this way you can feel confident that the range of foods offered will enable your bearded dragon to absorb all the necessary vitamins and minerals. Remember: variety is key.
Like most animals, bearded dragons have foods which they prefer to others. These preferences can differ between lizards but mean that some foods will be eaten far more readily than others.
When feeding your bearded dragon, therefore, it can be a smart idea to chop up the plant material into small pieces and then “mix it up” to provide a “salad”.
In doing so you will make it more difficult for your lizard to pick out only the choice items, while leaving others behind. This process further helps to ensure that your pet receives a balanced nutritional diet.
Understanding Calcium and Vitamin D3
A common problem in captive lizards is that of Metabolic Bone Disease. MBD is characterised by lizards being unable to absorb suitable calcium from their diet, which can lead to skeletal problems.
There are two factors of consideration here when avoiding this unpleasant condition.
Your bearded dragon must be fed on a diet which is rich in calcium, so that it can be absorbed from the food. Plant foods which are high in calcium include:
- Kale – 205mg per 100g
- Collard Greens – 232mg per 100g
- Watercress – 120mg per 100g
- Mustard Greens – 118mg per 100g
- Beet Greens – 117mg per 100g
- Pak Choi – 105mg per 100g
As a result the above plants should be considered staple parts of your bearded dragon’s diet and should be fed regularly.
Bearded dragons can also absorb calcium from their livefood. A range of supplements may be fed to live insects (outlined below) which help to raise the overall mineral content of the food.
These supplements should therefore be considered a critical part of feeding live insects to your pet.
In order to absorb calcium from the diet and utilize it to make healthy bones and teeth, bearded dragons also require vitamin D3.
No matter how much calcium you provide, in the absence of this vitamin your beardie will struggle to absorb as much as it needs.
There are a number of ways to ensure that your bearded dragon gets enough vitamin D3. The first of these is through oral supplementation, while the second is through the provision of ultraviolet (UV) light.
Studies suggest that providing UV lights is much more effective than oral supplementation, so is the recommended course of action.
A range of UV lights are available for captive reptiles. These normally come in the form of fluorescent tubes though other options are available.
For best results the bulbs should be placed inside the cage and within 12-18″ of your bearded dragon. Furthermore a reflector should be used in order to ensure as much of the usable light as possible.
Many experts now recommend installing a “photogradient” where some areas of the cage receive more UV light than others. In this way your lizard can move about to the area most appropriate for them.
This largely removes the worry of how much UV light your lizard requires. Simply provide a photoperiod of around 12 hours of daylight per day, with basking spots of varying heights so your beardie can control the amount of UV light they receive.
Therefore it is wise to use securely-fixed logs, branches and rocks to create higher parts of the cage, so that your bearded dragon can get as close to the light as they want (within reason).
It should also be noted that some studies suggest that bearded dragons will sometimes prioritize basking under a heat lamp as opposed to a UV light, so ensuring that UV light is available near to the basking spot will ensure they receive the necessary dose of vitamin D3.
Lastly please ve aware that the ultraviolet output of these tubes declines considerably over time. As a result, even when the light appears bright, UV bulbs should be changed every six months.
What Do Bearded Dragons Eat?
Now that we understand the basic concepts of feeding bearded dragons we can move on to a more detailed study of the types of plants and insects which can make up your bearded dragon’s diet.
Before we discuss the various acceptable food items however it pays to mention that great thought should be given to environmental toxins, such as pesticides and insecticides. These toxins can lead to problems in captive lizards.
As a result, you should aim to feed only insects bred specially for the pet trade (no wild caught insects) and you should take care to thoroughly wash all plant material before feeding.
Types of Livefood
Most commercially-available feeder insects are appropriate for bearded dragons.
While most beardie owners tend to focus the livefood portion of their diet around crickets, other options include hopper locusts, mealworms and waxworms.
These second two types of livefood have a nasty habit of burrowing so they should be placed in a bowl to prevent this, while crickets and locusts can simply be released into the cage for your bearded dragon to hunt and catch.
Pros and Cons of Different Livefood
- Freely available from most pet stores.
- Cheap and easy to care for.
- Very active insects, which encourages interest from bearded dragons.
- Only smaller locusts are suitable for bearded dragons. Experts recommend feeding prey no larger than your bearded dragon’s head.
- Easier to handle than crickets, so less chance of escape.
- Can be rather more expensive than crickets.
- Less nutritious than many other livefood species due to their thick exoskeleton. Mealworms should therefore only be fed as a treat in moderation.
- Very easy to care for and breed.
- Can be kept in the fridge, slowing down the lifeycle and extending their lifespan.
- Use a bowl to prevent them burrowing into substrate.
- Highly nutritious and soft-bodied – a real treat for pet lizards.
- Very short lifespan. Many waxworms mopph into the adult moths rapidly.
- Can be a little fiddly to handle as they are so soft.
- Use a bowl to prevent escapees.
Storing Live Insects
One problem you may experience if you only own a single bearded dragon is how best to store live food. After all, all species have a nasty habit of dying, leaving you with an expensive container of dead insects and a hungry bearded dragon.
Fortunately there are a number of ways in which you can extend the lifespan of feeder insects.
Crickets ideally should not remain in the little tub you bought them in. Instead, they should be released into a separate tank.
There are a number of reasons for this.
Firstly, crickets can be cannibalistic, so they have a nasty habit of eating one another.
Placing your crickets into a generously-sized tank, and then filling it with scrunched-up newspaper means the crickets have far more places to hide and avoid becoming dinner themselves.
The second reason to keep crickets in a tank is that the tubs typically contains minimal food, and no water. The dry bran they are given is certainly better than nothing, but is not a well-balanced diet for your crickets. Indeed, dehydration is one of the largest killers of crickets in captivity.
Once in the cage you can provide a range of nutritious foods such as carrot, apple and fresh grass, together with a range of cereal-based staples.
Water can be provided in the form of a shallow waterbowl (a jam-jar lid works well) which is filled with cotton wool. The cotton wool prevents the crickets from drowning, and allows them to drink the water droplets safely.
As with crickets, locusts tend to do well in a larger tank with appropriate diet.
Equally, locusts tend to be far less cannibalistic, yet ideally require suitable perches to moult on. Replacing the newspaper with an assortment of twigs therefore tends to work best for locusts.
Note that arguably the biggest killer among locusts is a cold environment. Locusts in the wild tend to live in temperatures of 30’C or more, so your cold spare bedroom won’t do them any favors.
Instead aim to provide supplementary heating to locusts to prolong their lifespan.
There are two ways to extend the lifespan of mealworms you have purchased.
Firstly, the whole tub may simply be placed into the fridge. As cold-blooded creatures, this slows down their lifeycle, reducing the time it takes for them to turn into adult beetles. That said, this method realistically only works for a few weeks before the insects themselves may start to perish.
A better solution, therefore, is to release them into a plastic tupperware box with small holes drilled in the lid for ventilation.
Here you can provide a thick substrate of cereal (bran tends to work well) while adding fresh vegetables to the surface each day. This will keep your mealworms hydrated and so prolong their life, as well as increasing their nutritional value.
Be certain to check the box regularly, so as to remove any uneaten plant matter before it goes mouldy.
In reality, waxworms normally begin pupating a matter of weeks after purchase, and there is little that can be done to prevent this. Instead, I would recommend buying waxworms as an occasional treat, and aiming to feed the entire pot to your bearded dragon within a week or two of purchase.
Gut Loading Feeder Insects
A handy strategy used by many bearded dragon owners is “gut loading”.
This essentially involves feeding a specially formulated diet to your livefood, which is rich in vitamins and minerals.
When your bearded dragon eats the insect, they will of course also consume the contents of the insect’s gut, thus boosting the nutrition they receive from live food.
Typically these feeding supplements are available in powder form and can either be served dry (with supplementary water) or mixed with water into a paste-like consistency.
Experts recommend gut loading feeder insects for at least 24 hours before they are given to your dragon to ensure the maximum benefits.
Dusting Feeder Insects
An alternative method to gut loading insects is to “dust” them with a dietary supplement.
To do this, simply place the feeder insects in a plastic bag with a little of the dusting powder and shake the bag gently to coat the insects. These can then be fed to your bearded dragon.
It is important to note that for obvious reasons livefood doesn’t like to be coated in this way, so they will rapidly start cleaning themselves of the offending substance.
As a result when using this technique you’ll want to ensure that your bearded dragon eats as many crickets and locusts as possible in a short period of time.
Those eaten some hours later may have thoroughly cleaned themselves and so may not have the same nutritional content.
Commercial Bearded Dragon Diets
There is an increasing range of commercial bearded dragon diets coming onto the market. These re generally in a dried, pelleted form, comprising all the vitamins and minerals you pet needs.
These complete diets can therefore make feeding your dragon a whole lot easier. Simply ensure that a bowl of this is available at all times, and supplement with livefood as required.
Vegetables for Bearded Dragons
Vegetables are a critical part of your bearded dragon diet plan.
These should be fed daily, and replaced as necessary to keep them fresh and full of goodness. Fortunately there are a vast number of different types of vegetables which can be fed to beardies so pick and choose to create an interesting and varied diet for your lizard.
The following vegetables are all tried and tested by bearded dragon owners and can be considered safe for your pet to eat:
- Bell peppers
- Beet leaves
- Brussel sprouts
- Butternut squash
- Green beans
- Kohol rabi
- Mustard greens
- Pok choi
- Sweet potato
- Swiss chard
A handy tip for increasing the nutritional value of plant matter is to “dust” it with dietary supplements, much like one can with insects.
Take note that not all bearded dragons take well to this as it can change the overall taste of the food.
Try experimenting with a number of different powders, and the volume provided, until you can find a compromise that your bearded dragon is willing to accept.
Many bearded dragon articles talk about a combination of “fruits and vegetables”, however a number of vets have pointed to the higher sugar content in fruit, and how many bearded dragons in captivity end up suffering from obesity.
As a result it is now felt that fruits, while important, should only represent a small portion of your bearded dragon’s diet, and that lower-calorie vegetables should make up the majority of the plant matter in their diet.
The following are fruits which are safe to feed to your bearded dragon:
While the above plants are likely to make up the vast majority of your bearded dragon’s diet, a number of wild and garden plants can also be used to supplement the diet.
However, you should be certain that no weedkillers have been used on them and they are washed thoroughly before use.
Additionally, collecting plants from roadside verges is generally a bad idea due to the fumes and chemicals they have been exposed to.
Examples of plants which are safe for bearded dragons to eat include:
- Dandelion leaves
What Can’t I Feed My Bearded Dragon?
While the above foods are all proven to be safe and nutritious aspects of your bearded dragon’s diet there will always be those keepers who are keen to experiment with different foods.
It therefore pays to discuss some items which should never be fed to your lizard.
Firstly, pay attention to the mixture of livefoods/plant matter. This means that items which don’t fit into these categories should generally be avoided. For example try to avoid:
- Chunks of meat
- Scraps of your dinner table
- Non-water beverages
Even in terms of plants and insects there are a number of foods which should be avoided at all costs:
As you can see, while creating a suitable bearded dragon diet takes time and effort it is far from complicated. The correct ratio of live insects and vegetables should make up the bulk of your bearded dragons diet, suitably dusted or gut-loaded with mineral powder.
On top of this, small amounts of fruit can be fed as a treat, while a bowl of fresh water should be available at all times.
Do you still have questions about what bearded dragons eat? If so, please leave them in the comments section below and I will try to get back to you with an answer as soon as possible…
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