So you’re getting a new bearded dragon? Congratulations! One of the most exciting things you can do before he arrives is put together his new home. But it can also be a really overwhelming task, because there is no shortage of opinions on how to create the perfect bearded dragon tank setup. What kind of material should you use? How hot should the tank be? Is sand really that bad? What kind of lights do you need?
Don’t be overwhelmed! We’re sharing the basics you need to create your ideal bearded dragon tank setup and get an overview of what is safe and what is not when it comes to preparing your dragon’s new home.
Bearded Dragon Tank Setup: Supplies
Before you bring your dragon home, you’ll need to have the following supplies:
- UVB light
- Heating element, thermometer, and hygrometer
- Basking rock or log
- Some shallow dishes for water and food
- Live feeder insects and tweezers
- Adequate space in your home
Bearded Dragon Tank Setup: The Enclosure
First things first! What kind of enclosure do you want your bearded dragon to be living in? This is an important decision. Your dragon will spend quite a lot of time here, and it’s important to make him as happy as possible.
There are a number of factors to consider when choosing the best enclosure for your bearded dragon tank setup: size, material, and where you will keep the enclosure in your home.
Size. What size tank does a bearded dragon need? The size of your bearded dragon will help you determine the size of the enclosure. The standard size for bearded dragons is 40 gallons, although many adults are too big for this size and may become stressed. Here is a good rule of thumb for choosing a tank size based on your dragon’s length:
- Babies (under 10 inches long): 20 gallons
- Juveniles (10 to 16 inches long): 40 gallons
- Adults (over 16 inches long): 50 to 75 gallons
- Adults (over 20 inches long): 75 to 125 gallons
If you plan on getting a baby bearded dragon, it may be tempting to buy a 20-gallon tank. If you decide to do this, just remember dragons tend to grow fast so you will soon need a 40-gallon tank. Many Dragon Keepers end up getting a 40-gallon tank even for a baby to avoid buying another one so soon afterwards, but it’s up to you.
You may decide to get a 20-gallon for now because you have a small space and you’ll be moving soon. Or maybe you are keeping a baby and then giving him to a friend. It all depends on your circumstances and preferences.
Choosing the proper size tank for your bearded dragon helps her to feel comfortable and less stressed, especially in those first few weeks when you bring her home and she is adjusting to a whole new environment. A good size tank prevents glass surfing as well, which is often caused by dragons feeling too caged in.
Now let’s discuss what is the best material to use for your tank. There are definitely plenty to choose from, and if you start looking up options online you may feel overwhelmed. If you aren’t going to build your own tank DIY style, chances are you’ll buy one online or at a pet store. Here are some of the basic tanks that you can choose from:
- Glass. A popular option, glass terrariums are sturdy, widely available, and usually come with a screen lid that improves airflow and helps regulate the low humidity dragons need. You can also get a front-opening glass terrarium that makes it easy to access your pet and clean the tank. On the downside, glass is a poor heat insulator, so you’ll have to check the temperature regularly to make sure it’s not too cold. This isn’t too difficult to commit to especially if you have a thermometer gun.
- Wood and Glass. Many Dragon Keepers opt to get a terrarium made of wood and glass instead of just glass with a screen top. Oftentimes this means there is one side that is glass and the rest is wood. Wood is an excellent heat insulator, so this may be a better option for you than a full glass terrarium if you live in a colder area or like to keep your home temperature low. It also may offer you more peace of mind so you don’t have to worry about your dragon’s heat as much.
- PVC Plastic is another option. It’s quite lightweight, and there are generally a lot of colors you can choose from. PVC enclosures are often designed for stacking, which is ideal if you plan on adopting more than one dragon. One common issue with PVC terrariums is poor airflow, so you have to be a little more vigilant with the humidity levels than with other cages. This shouldn’t be too difficult if you get into the habit of checking the humidity on a regular basis.
- Screen. In your search for a terrarium you may see some that have walls made from wire screens. These are extremely dangerous for bearded dragons. In addition to the obvious heating issue, screen cages can injure bearded dragons. Of course, glass terrariums with a screen lid are a different story, because the bearded dragon will likely not be able to reach the screen lid. We cannot recommend using a screen-walled terrarium.
Location in Your Home
Some first-time Dragon Keepers might not realize how important it is to determine where you will put your bearded dragon ahead of time. It will save you a lot of stress if you clear a place and get everything set up before you bring your new reptile friend home. Here are some guidelines in deciding where to keep your dragon’s new home:
- Do not place your dragon in direct sunlight. This can actually kill your bearded dragon. Although sunlight is good for them in the wild, in a domestic environment it quickly becomes deadly. The heat from the sun easily becomes trapped in the terrarium—especially if it’s glass—and the temperature will become life-threatening to your dragon. A good quality UVB lamp is the best way to provide the heat and light they need.
- Know ahead of time how much room you need. If you’ve never owned a reptile before, you may not realize how big the tank really is, and the amount of space it takes up may surprise you. The standard size 40-gallon tank is 36 inches long by 18 inches wide by 18 inches deep. You will need a sturdy surface to set it on, so make sure you measure in advance.
- If you have other pets or small children, make sure the bearded dragon’s tank is out of their reach. Cats and dogs can kill your dragon. If you can’t keep your dragon in a separate room from your cat or dog, make absolutely certain that the enclosure will not topple and that the lid is secure. If you have small children, never let them near the tank unsupervised, and be sure the terrarium is out of their reach. Children can be seriously hurt if they manage to topple the tank, not to mention your dragon could be hurt or killed.
- At the same time, make sure you can access the tank easily. You will need to clean the tank, take your dragon out for playtime and baths, and give your dragon lots of love, so it’s best to make sure you can easily get to the tank.
- Keep the enclosure away from loud noises. Loud noises tend to really upset bearded dragons. For example, if you have a big screen TV that you watch frequently, or if you play electric guitar, or if there is a side of your house where you can hear constant traffic, try to keep your dragon out of earshot.
- Keep the tank in a place that is light during the day and dark at night. While you will be providing UVB light 12 hours a day for your dragon, they have trouble sleeping if lights are left on at night, so it’s best to place them in an area that is quiet and dark at night. This is especially important during brumation if your bearded dragon ends up going through that process.
Do Not Plan for Cohabitation
If you are planning to adopt multiple bearded dragons or if you already have one and are adding to your reptile family, please do not house them together. It is rarely a good idea.
- Bearded dragons are territorial and could kill each other, especially if you house two males together.
- If you house two females together, the less dominant of the two could become seriously ill because the more dominant one will take over the food bowl and the basking spot.
- If you house a male and female together, they will begin to reproduce and you must be prepared to take care of multiple baby dragons.
Bearded Dragon Tank Setup: Flooring
Another key component in giving your beardie a comfortable home is choosing the best flooring. There are quite a lot of options available, and unfortunately not all of them are safe. When you think about what flooring you want to use, the most important factor to consider is what is best for your dragon? What will help your dragon feel happy and comfortable in their new home? What will keep them clean and safe? What flooring is safe for them and easy for you to take care of? Let’s get to the “bottom” of it.
Some of the very popular options are not safe for your bearded dragon, and some are. It’s best to do your research and be fully informed before you make a decision. You can even give your local vet or reptile shelter a call and weigh their opinion as well.
Best and Worst Flooring Options
Substrate is a hotly debated topic among Dragon Keepers. Many substrates are truly unsafe for bearded dragons for the following reasons:
Pro Tip: If you decide to use substrate, you must really do your research and make absolutely sure that you are choosing the safest option for your dragon.
Sand is one of the most common substrates that people use for their dragons. But it is very dangerous for your dragon. While sand is part of dragons’ natural habitat in the desert, the sand that you see for sale at pet stores and online is not Australian desert sand. It can cause gut impaction and can easily be inhaled, causing respiratory issues; not to mention it can also get stuck in your beardie’s eyes, causing irritation.
Pebbles and rocks are a big no as well. These can cause impaction and break your dragon’s teeth.
Walnut shells, for similar reasons, pose an extreme threat to your dragon’s health.
Other substrates are available for bearded dragons as well. These are often made up of some kind of wood chips, calcium powder, coconut fiber, or some kind of edible material. We highly recommend consulting with your vet if you are interested in using this kind of substrate. While the ones made of edible or calcium-infused materials are dangerous, some of the wood options may work well for you depending on your situation.
Issues with Safer Substrates for Your Bearded Dragon Tank Setup
Impaction & Cleaning. Some substrates including wooden chips are quite absorbent and easy to clean, but there is still some risk of impaction and you must be vigilant about cleaning them when your dragon goes to the bathroom.
Moisture retention. The other issue you may run into with these softer, dense substrates is they retain moisture, which can raise the humidity levels in your dragon’s tank. If you go this route, just use your hygrometer to monitor the humidity.
Potential feeding issues. One other thing you need to keep in mind with loose substrate is live insect feedings. Live insects such as crickets, Dubia roaches, and worms will try to escape your bearded dragon during mealtime. This chase can be fun to watch and is part of the natural order of things, but it’s dangerous in a loose substrate setting.
The insects can easily bury themselves in the substrate and hide until long after feeding time. They will either bite your dragon (crickets are notorious for this, and their biting hurts!) or they will eventually die and begin to rot in the tank, causing a smell and posing a threat to your dragon’s health. If you have loose substrate, use a special designated area away from the substrate for live insect feeding. A large plastic container works quite well for this.
More Flooring Options for Your Setup
Sand mats are not a great option either. They can harm your bearded dragon by scratching them or causing impaction or internal injury when your beardie ingests dislodged pieces.
Reptile carpet is a decent option for your dragon. It doesn’t cost much, it’s easy to clean, and most options you will find are designed to prevent odors. You do have to remove it to clean it, so it’s best to have at least one extra carpet on hand. If you have a baby dragon, you may want to keep more than two carpets since babies go to the bathroom more often than adults.
Pro Tip: Some experts advise against using reptile carpet because some types of carpet have a rough surface that can catch on your dragon's nails. If you use carpet, make sure the surface is not too rough or scratchy (and it never hurts to get your vet's opinion on the best substrate to use).
Tile is a very popular choice among Dragon Keepers. Dark-colored ceramic and slate tile are ideal choices. Both materials provide your dragon with traction to move around comfortably, and dark colors will prevent the tile from getting cold.
Make sure you don’t use vinyl or linoleum, which are too slippery for your bearded dragon’s claws to gain any traction. The other issue with those materials is they retain a lot of heat and there is nowhere for it to escape in your dragon’s tank, so it can burn your dragon.
Be very careful when putting the tile in your bearded dragon’s tank. It can scrape or break the terrarium floor, especially if it’s glass. Using a thin towel or newspaper between the floor and the tile can help protect the tank’s floor.
Clay is a really fun option for your bearded dragon if you have time and are willing to put in a little extra effort to set it up. You can get really creative with it and sculpt an exciting desert-like terrain with burrows, hills, and hideaways.
Once you purchase the reptile excavator clay at your local pet store or online, mix it with water and let it dry in the tank. Your dragon can burrow in the clay but it will not break off and cause impaction. The only issue you may run into with clay is every few months you have to remove and replace it, which can be a hassle if you don’t have a lot of extra time to take care of that.
Newspaper is easily the cheapest option for your bearded dragon. It's a great choice for babies since they go to the bathroom a lot and newspaper is incredibly easy to replace.
Bearded Dragon Tank Setup: Proper Lights, Heating, and Humidity
Dragons are cold-blooded creatures native to the Australian desert. They don’t generate their own body heat, so they need proper heating and lighting mimicking their natural habitat in order to survive. Poor lighting or heat can cause metabolic bone disease, a very serious condition that warps your dragon’s skeletal system and inhibits digestion and absorption of nutrients. Metabolic bone disease can paralyze and kill your dragon if left untreated.
Here are some things you’ll need to maintain the proper heat, lighting, and humidity that your dragon needs to stay comfortable and healthy:
- UVB lamp. Many vets recommend a self ballasted mercury vapor UVB lamp because they emit heat along with UVB rays. It’s best to replace the UVB bulb every six months to ensure the best quality rays and heat for your dragon.
- Heat lamp and UVB bulb. If you will not be using a UVB lamp that emits heat as well as UVB rays, then you will need a heat lamp as well as a UVB bulb.
- Ceramic heat emitter. You will need this if you are unable to maintain a temperature above 65 degrees in your home at night.
- Thermometer. To ensure your dragon is getting the proper temperatures at any given time of the day or night, you’ll want to have a good thermometer on hand. You could place a couple digital thermometers at either end of your bearded dragon’s tank, or you could use a temperature gun to quickly scan different areas of the tank.
- Hygrometer. It’s helpful to have a hygrometer to measure the humidity in your dragon’s tank.
Once you have the necessary supplies, keep these lighting, heating, and humidity guidelines in mind for your bearded dragon tank setup:
- UVB exposure. Whether you get a self ballasted UVB lamp or another kind, ensure your dragon gets 12 hours of UVB ray exposure a day.
- Humidity. The ideal humidity for bearded dragons is 35 to 40% because that mimics the humidity levels in their natural habitat. This is often easy to achieve just by providing adequate ventilation (for example, your glass tank screen lid), placing the water dish away from the basking spot, and not misting your dragon’s tank too often.
- Red lights. You may notice in your research that some bearded dragon tanks have a red light on at night. Although many Dragon Keepers choose to do this, it’s not necessary and can be stressful for your bearded dragon. In the wild, bearded dragons would go to sleep in total darkness, or perhaps under soft moonlight and starlight. Red lights or other night lights you can get for your dragon just aren’t the same. Dragons have trouble sleeping when there is too much light, especially from a bulb or screen. So it’s best to avoid adding a red light or night light to your dragon’s tank.
- Daytime temperatures. Every dragon needs a basking spot, and this spot should be between 95 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. Other parts of the tank should be cooler so your dragon can regulate body temperature as needed.
- Nighttime temperatures. At night, the entire tank should range from 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, you don't have to keep a basking spot at night.
Bearded Dragon Tank Setup: Decor
Perhaps the most fun part of setting up your dragon’s new home is selecting the decor! When it comes to creativity, the sky’s the limit. Some Dragon Keepers opt for a laid back, simple environment, while others choose an elaborate theme such as exotic desert or tropical rainforest. If you are a first time Dragon Keeper, you may want to keep it simple to start out, but it’s entirely up to you.
Regardless of your style or theme, here are some items to include in your bearded dragon tank setup:
- Basking log or rock. Your bearded dragon will need a large surface to bask on beneath the heating lamp. A log or rock is perfect for this.
- Hideaway. For bedtime, brumation, and following the natural instincts of burrowing, your dragon needs a hide. There are plenty of options available so you can find one that matches your tank’s style.
- Things to climb on. Whether it’s branches, rocks, logs, or some other fixture that matches your decor theme, bearded dragons love to climb on things. Of course, just make sure there is still room on the ground for your dragon as well.
- Hammock. Bearded dragons love hanging out and lounging in hammocks. Place one in the corner of your tank opposite the heating lamp, and your bearded dragon will thank you.
- Plants. Many Dragon Keepers enjoy decorating the terrarium with plants, live or fake.
Live plants can affect the humidity levels in your dragon’s tank, so be sure to use your hygrometer often. Keep in mind that your dragon may eat some of the live plants, so it’s important to only keep live plants and herbs that are safe for your bearded dragon to ingest.
Safe plants include:
- Aloe vera (If your dragon eats too much of this, she may get diarrhea, so just keep an eye on things)
- Herbs such as rosemary, basil, oregano, and parsley (they may wilt in the humidity so replace them when they begin to go bad)
- Turtle vine
- Succulents such as echeveria and haworthia
- Prickly pear cacti (with spines removed)
Another thing to keep in mind if you are interested in using live plants is that you will have to water and care for them as well as caring for your dragon. If you’ve never taken care of plants before, you may want to start with a plant outside the terrarium and go from there.
Pro Tip: Usually it's safest just to use plastic plants. Make sure they are high quality to minimize the risk of your dragon biting off a piece and choking or becoming impacted.
Bearded Dragon Tank Setup: Feeding Essentials
- Shallow dishes. For greens, fruits, insects, supplements, and water, you’ll want at least three or four shallow dishes on hand.
- Insect tweezers. For live insect feeding, it’s helpful to have one or two pairs of tweezers on hand. Not only can it be fun to feed your dragon with the tweezers, but it can protect you from insects that can pinch or bite, and it’s also a good option for those who would rather not touch live bugs with their hands.
- Container for feeding. If you are using loose substrate or you want to get more up-close and personal when feeding your dragon, or if you simply don’t want to unleash live insects into the terrarium and prefer a more contained environment, you’ll want to have a large, shallow plastic container on hand.
- Live feeder insects. Whether you are getting a baby, juvenile, or adult bearded dragon, you will need to include live insects in their diet. Crickets and Dubia roaches are the most popular staple insects, and there are plenty to choose from as treats and supplements. Decide ahead of time what insects you will start with and see how your dragon likes them. And make sure you understand how to keep and care for the insects you choose, too.
Healthy bearded dragons can live upwards of ten years with proper care. The terrarium plays a huge role in giving your bearded dragon a healthy, happy life. Now that you know the basics of creating the best bearded dragon tank setup, you can provide your reptile with a home where she can thrive.
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