Bearded dragons are one of the most popular reptile pets. They are curious and interactive, making them good family pets. With the right care, they can live over 10 years. In this episode, Dr. Nicole Johnson, veterinarian and past president of the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians, talks about how to keep your bearded dragon healthy, what they like to eat, and the importance of a good relationship with a veterinarian with knowledge of exotic animals and reptiles.
Welcome, Dr. Nicole Johnson!
[00:01:04] Dr. Lancellotti: Welcome, everyone, to today’s episode of Your Vet Wants You To Know. I am joined by Dr. Nicole Johnson, who is here to give us a ton of information on bearded dragons. This is really cool! We have a really special guest, so I am very excited to welcome you. Thank you, Dr. Nicole Johnson for joining us.
[00:01:24] Dr. Johnson: Yeah, absolutely.
[00:01:25] Dr. Lancellotti: You are very much a reptile person. Tell me about your fascination with reptiles and where this all started.
[00:01:33] Dr. Johnson: When I was about 16 years old, I finally convinced my parents to let me get an iguana. I started my love for reptiles with my first iguana, who was appropriately named Reggie “the veggie eater,” and it pretty much just blossomed from there. As I went through undergrad and vet school, I’ve had a myriad of different reptiles that have come and gone, but currently, I actually have 10 tortoises of varying different species. The most prevalent of my group are my red-footed tortoises. I have one yellow foot tortoise. I also have a hinge back tortoise. And then I have the nice big African spurred tortoise, also known as a sulcada. She’s actually the one that has been with me the longest. She is the only animal, that I currently own, who has been with me since veterinary school. She is over 20 years old. I got her my last year of vet school and she was about a year old, so she was somebody else’s pet that they realized they were not going to be able to take care of, because she was going to get so big. And we’ve been together for over 20 years.
[00:02:36] Dr. Lancellotti: And that’s not all of the animals that you have at home. What else do you have?
[00:02:40] Dr. Johnson: Correct. I also have three prehensile tailed skinks. They’re also known to many people as monkey tailed skins. I have one blue tongue skink. I have a leopard gecko, which is actually my son’s, but who takes care of it? That’s me! I just recently got my first new Caledonian giant gecko, also known as a Leachie, and he’s a tiny baby, but he will basically get to be about the length of my forearm as an adult, so they’re pretty neat. We also have dart frogs and about three toads. I don’t just have reptiles though. I do also have two dogs, which are my breed of choice- Akitas. Finally, we have four cats.
Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians
[00:03:16] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s amazing. You come to us with a wealth of knowledge, as well. You have been working with reptiles for a really long time, and you are the past president of the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians. Can you tell us a little bit about this organization?
[00:03:32] Dr. Johnson: This organization actually started in the mid 1990s and has really grown from there. It’s an international organization. It has over about 900 members worldwide. We have an annual conference that we do every year called Exotics Con, so it’s grown significantly. And it’s pretty amazing to be able to have all of those international veterinarians come in and share their experience. It’s just a wonderful organization with loads of knowledge and information at our fingertips.
Bearded Dragons Make Good Family Pets
[00:04:00] Dr. Lancellotti: Tell me a little bit about the species that we’re going to be talking about, today. What is it about bearded dragons that you like?
[00:04:10] Dr. Johnson: Honestly, the biggest reason is that they’ve become one of the most popular companion reptile species. It’s probably the number one reptile we see, in our practice, at this point in time. Honestly, for many years, we’ve all been pushing for pretty routine veterinary care for these guys. Unfortunately, it’s too often that we don’t get to see them until it’s too late. My goal with this discussion here is to really get it out there that, when these animals are first brought home, we would really like to see them. We want to have the opportunity to educate, develop a relationship with the pet owner, and ultimately provide them with enough information for a better long term care for these guys. Hopefully, we can keep our scaly friends living as long as our furry friends, in some cases.
[00:04:52] Dr. Lancellotti: Absolutely. Husbandry is so important for these species, and you’ve got so much information here about how to care for these animals, so that they have long, happy, healthy lives with their families.
A Rescued Bearded Dragon
Dr. Lancellotti: Is there any particular bearded dragon that comes to mind, when you think about some of your favorite patients that you’ve treated over the years?
[00:05:12] Dr. Johnson: Yes. There is actually one, in particular. Now that we know that these are some of the most common pets here that we see in the reptile groups, we’ve also had to develop the need for reptile rescues. Rescues exist, simply, because a lot of pet owners are really unaware of the lifespan and the long term care that a lot of these species need, when they bring them home. Because bearded dragons are one of our # 1 companion reptiles, they’re also one of the # 1 reptiles that we are seeing in the rescues. A few years ago, our local animal control (that I worked with quite a bit) received a call about a bearded dragon that was left by the trash ,after the family had moved out of their rental. Sure enough, it was the middle of November. And I’m here in Central Illinois, so it was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside.
[00:06:01] Dr. Lancellotti: Oh my gosh.
[00:06:02] Dr. Johnson: They go to the location and there’s a little young hatchling bearded dragon sitting in his 10 gallon aquarium, right next to the trashcans. Thankfully, he wasn’t out there for very long. He did not get that cold. We brought him back to the facility and immediately got him warmed up and got some food for him. He actually did very well. He went directly to a foster home, which coincidentally ended up being me. I already had everything that they needed, so they were really set up. They didn’t have all the necessary equipment, the lighting, the heat, etc. And obviously, with all the creatures I had in my house, I already had the right types of food to be feeding him.
[00:06:47] Dr. Lancellotti: Let me ask you this, because this is definitely something that a lot of veterinary families deal with. “Alright, I’ve got the equipment. I have the means to take care of this animal.” How does your family feel about you fostering these animals?
[00:06:59] Dr. Johnson: I’ll say that there are a lot of foster failures. And a lot of times, that’s just simply because we’ve brought an animal in that other people don’t necessarily know how to take care of. Finding the appropriate at home afterwards isn’t always what happens. But I’m not going to lie. There are a couple other human members in my household that are very guilty of not being able to let go. So, I think it’s a little easier for me with the reptiles. Because I have so many, I can see how much happier they could be in a home, where maybe they’re going to be the only reptile. And they’re extremely social and interactive with their owners. So of course, we decided to call this little guy ‘Garbage,’ because that’s where he was found. Little Garbage actually did extremely well. He was adopted by a really loving family, just weeks into his foster care with me. Once we showed that he had a really great appetite, he passed his vet check, and everything went really well. It did not take long for him. He had such a personality and was super outgoing. And these guys are daytime animals and I’m home in the evenings. A daytime pet is a little harder, so by the time I’m coming home, a lot of times these guys are winding down for the night. So we went ahead and decided we were not going to keep him and I’m happy to say that he’s doing wonderfully.
[00:08:15] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s great! What a lucky piece of garbage he was.
[00:08:17] Dr. Johnson: Yes, exactly!
Caring for Bearded Dragons
[00:08:21] Dr. Lancellotti: Let’s talk about owning a bearded dragon. For those people who might be considering getting one of these animals as a pet, what kind of things should they expect, as far as the lifespan? What type of pet is it? What types of personalities do they have? And what sort of equipment do they need?
[00:08:37] Dr. Johnson: This is probably going to be one of the longest portions of our talk because I don’t think people quite realize the extent of what they are getting into, when they see these little guys. But as I mentioned, they’re really one of the most popular reptile pets- and for good reason. They are extremely interactive with their owners. They get to a pretty decent handleable size, even for children. The more you handle them, the more docile they are, and they’re not very inclined to bite, unlike some of our larger lizard species. Their enclosures don’t take up nearly as much space as some of our larger lizard species, like either iguanas or monitors. These guys need quite a bit of space. The bearded dragons can get away with a lot less, especially if they’re easy enough to handle enough, to where they’re able to be out and about, and not spend all of their time and their enclosure, actually interacting with their parents.
[00:09:22] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s easier for them to do, because they’re less likely to bite your finger off than some of the other species.
[00:09:28] Dr. Johnson: Exactly. But there’s definitely a lot of things to really consider when you’re looking at adding a bearded dragon to your family. We need to plan on longevity. These guys are not going to be like a hamster, where your child maybe loses interest in a few months, and it’s only going to be around for a couple years. Bearded dragons have an average lifespan of 10 years. If you buy a bearded dragon for your teenager, where is he going? Is he going with him when he goes to college? Or is he staying with you? These are things to think about. What is going to happen to him over the course of the next 10 years?
[00:10:01] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. It’s something to take some responsibility for, with some long term planning.
[00:10:05] Dr. Johnson: Yes, exactly. As for the size of these guys- many people are heading to the pet store and they’re seeing these cute little hatchlings that are the size of your finger. It is going to grow to be a good 18 to 24 inches long, including the tails (the length of your forearm). They’re going to be a good enough size to pick up and carry around, so what are you going to do? You brought him home in that little 10 gallon pretty fab setup, but he’s not going to be able to live in that for the remainder of his life. So you have to think a little bit farther out than just these next few months.
Tanks for Bearded Dragons
[00:10:39] Dr. Lancellotti: Dr. Johnson, how big of a tank do you think these animals need? What’s the ideal space for them to have?
[00:10:46] Dr. Johnson: Honestly, the largest enclosures that you can find in most pet stores are often referred to as a 40 gallon breeder tank. They’re typically about three feet long, by about a foot and a half wide, and a foot and a half high. Most of our adult bearded dragons could ideally use a bit more space than that. What we’re seeing is that there are more companies that are specializing in some larger custom built enclosures that are designed to give these guys more floor space. Believe it or not, you can actually find a lot of these on Amazon, and I do have some links to some of these different enclosures, which are 4 feet, by 2 feet, by 2 feet high. Bearded dragons will climb. So, I wouldn’t consider what you can find in the pet stores sufficient for the rest of an adult bearded dragon’s life.
Temperature and Humidity for Bearded Dragons
[00:11:35] Dr. Lancellotti: What about their ideal temperature? What do bearded dragons like?
[00:11:40] Dr. Johnson: Bearded dragons, here in the United States, are usually inland bearded dragons. Their scientific name is Pogona Vitticeps, and these guys are native to Australia, so we already have to start thinking “hot, hot, hot!” These guys need special lighting. They need special heat sources to provide them as close to their natural temperatures as possible. We need UVB lights that are essential to providing optimal digestion and absorption of our vitamin D3 and calcium. And these lights, over time, will actually diminish in their UVB output. Ideally, we should be replacing those UVB lights at about every 6 months. You might be able to go a little bit longer, but if you are going to try to push it, then I’m going to recommend that you actually get a UVB reader, so you can actually read the output that is coming from your light. Those run a couple hundred dollars a piece, so if you don’t necessarily want to invest in that, then just plan on replacing those about every 6 months. Also, I recommend investing in a good thermometer and a hygrometer for the enclosures. Most of us know what a thermometer is. A hygrometer is actually going to be measuring your humidity. When you take your pet to the vet, that is going to be on a standard list of questions. “What’s your temperature range? What’s your humidity range?” And most owners can’t actually answer that because they don’t have a hygrometer, but they’ll have a thermometer where they can at least give me temperatures. So as far as temperature, it should really range from the high 70s to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but they need an actual basking site of about 100 Fahrenheit, during the day. At night, a lot of those things can turn off. It really shouldn’t drop any lower than 70. Humidity should be between 40 and 60% because these guys are from the Australian Outback. However, when they get into their boroughs, those boroughs are actually very humid, so if we don’t provide some humidity for their enclosure, they’re going to actually have problems with shedding. Ideally, our lights should also have appropriate cycles- about 12 hours on and 12 hours off. We definitely want to make sure that they’re actually having some time where there are no lights on.
What Do Bearded Dragons Eat?
[00:13:40] Dr. Lancellotti: How about food? What are these guys interested in eating? What are some of their favorite foods? And what are some staples that they really need to stay healthy?
[00:13:49] Dr. Johnson: Bearded dragons are omnivores, so they’re going to eat a pretty big variety of insects, greens, fruits, vegetables, etc. This actually does change from when they are hatchlings to when they’re adults. Hatchlings routinely eat more insects in the diet and a lot less of our reptile salads. As they grow, they do transition to more salads and vegetables and a lot less live prey. Salads and veggies should be fed daily to an adult, and should be a good 70-80% dark leafy greens, 20-30% vegetables, and only 2-3% fruits. Fruits are really high in sugar and they also don’t have quite as much calcium that they really need for proper digestion and bone growth. We definitely don’t want to give them too many fruits. And the adults should probably have some live prey 3-4 times a week. On the days that they have their live prey, it should really only be about 25% of the diet being fed that day. My biggest key to a diet for a bearded dragon is variation. So many people will get stuck on, “He only wants to eat the kale” and “he only wants to eat meal worms.” If we really think about that, it’s like saying, “I’m only going to eat chicken and a baked potato, and maybe have a piece of pie for dessert.” How healthy do you think that individual’s actually going to be? We want to really give a good variety, but honestly, that’s really hard to do, so I will venture to the internet. I definitely recommend companies that provide a variety of insects that you can feed. One of my favorites is a company called Josh’s Frogs. I routinely have insects being delivered to my office. It’s always interesting because my staff is always like, “What did you get this time?” This particular company, along with another one called Dubia Roaches, both actually grow, and breed their own insects- crickets, roaches, meal worms, waxworms and earthworms. They have so much variety. They make things easy. For the dart frogs, they’ll have a dart frog insect bundle that you can order. For lack of a better way to say it, they’ve really tried to dumbify it for us. But that way, we can give a much bigger variety to our species. I do utilize the internet quite a bit, to make sure that I’m getting enough variety for my scaly and amphibious friends here- even in my house.
[00:16:28] Dr. Lancellotti: I like the variety pack idea. It seems like you’re getting a holiday gift, with lots of different variety of insects that you can try. It sounds really nice.
Clean Water Dishes for Bearded Dragons
Dr. Lancellotti: Are bearded dragons getting enough water from the leafy greens and the foods that they’re eating, or do they need to have separate water dishes as well?
[00:16:49] Dr. Johnson: Yes. They should absolutely have water available at all times. You need to clean it pretty frequently, because bearded dragons are very well known for drinking, turning around, and then defecating in their water. And that’s a very common thing that these guys do in the wild, so we want to make sure that we’re obviously cleaning out our bowls and getting different water, especially if they are doing their normal behaviors in their water. That can get pretty gross pretty quickly.
[00:17:14] Dr. Lancellotti: That is very gross, but it’s pretty interesting. I wonder if there’s like some sort of evolutionary reason behind that particular behavior.
[00:17:23] Dr. Johnson: Yeah. Some of it is a really great way to hydrate, so it’s definitely an evolutionary thing that these guys have done. And it’s not uncommon for other species to do that, as well. So it is actually something that we see in quite a few reptile species.
Leafy Greens for Bearded Dragons
[00:17:37] Dr. Lancellotti: How about some veggies? You’ve got dark leafy greens, but what are some other vegetables that we can give them?
[00:17:43] Dr. Johnson: As far as vegetables, you definitely want to give them some squash, zucchini, sweet potatoes, broccoli, peas, beans, okra, and grated carrots. You will want to really peel your carrots and maybe give them some of those small pieces. On occasion, we have had bearded dragons that have actually eaten the little chunks of carrots that people have popped up. And if they are some of these smaller bearded dragons (hatchlings and juveniles), we have actually had those carrots become an obstruction. If you do the shavings, you’re going to be a lot less likely to cause that. They’re just dense or starchy, so they take a while to actually break down, and they can cause obstruction.
[00:18:29] Dr. Lancellotti: Interesting. That’s a good tip. How about those special treats? The 1-2% of their total dietary intake?
[00:18:36] Dr. Johnson: Berries are actually going to have more calcium in them. Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries are all great. They also really like things like papaya, bananas, and melons. They’ve got some good water in them, they’re sweet, and they really seem to take to bright colors (reds, oranges, and yellows).
[00:18:59] Dr. Lancellotti: You talked a lot about their mineral and vitamin needs. Do they need any sort of vitamin supplements?
[00:19:06] Dr. Johnson: Absolutely. If you think about what they’re eating in the wild, versus what we’re able to provide them in captivity, we’re not actually feeding them the items from their native country. Honestly, we cannot completely mimic that, so we have to take that into account. Supplements are our definitely the way to go. There are vitamin supplements, and a lot of times, people talk about calcium supplements for these guys. So, you can easily dust it on the live prey. If you want to make sure there’s some good calcium in that, you can. You want to be careful not to add phosphorus with that calcium, because then that defeats the purpose. We’re trying to boost the calcium and decrease the phosphorus, so if there’s a bunch of phosphorus in their vitamin mix, then you’re not really completely helping the situation. We definitely want to make sure we’ve got a good vitamin supplement, just 1-2 times per week, but when we start talking about our calcium supplements, that’s where we want to make sure that it’s just a calcium supplement. We can dust our prey with it. We can actually even sprinkle it directly onto the salads themselves. Every time I feed my prey, I’m using a calcium supplement, and I’m usually using the vitamin mix a little bit more on salad greens.
[00:20:21] Dr. Lancellotti: How about any sort of pellet diets or dried food?
[00:20:26] Dr. Johnson: There are a lot of commercial diets out there, specifically, for bearded dragons. The pelleted diets and the freeze dried or dehydrated food products can absolutely be used. They shouldn’t necessarily be the sole diet, as we can’t completely mimic it. And it can certainly lead to some nutritional imbalances, if that’s all you’re feeding. I definitely encourage owners to have some on hand to periodically feed to them. What happens when you’re out of your vegetables, fresh leafy greens, and you can’t get to the pet store to get the insects to feed them? It’s nice to have those things on hand, and have animals that are occasionally used to having to eat that, for when we can’t actually get out and get to the store to get the produce, or we’re having supply issues. If we have some of those items on hand to use temporarily, then at least we’re able to provide something for our bearded dragons and have something to feed them. So pellet diets are nice, in the short term, on an ‘as needed’ basis.
[00:21:24] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. It sounds like it’s an emergency tool to have. Here in California, we’ve got earthquakes and wildfires, so we’ve got a “go” bag that’s packed up. So it sounds like that would be something in our go bag, if we had a bearded dragon.
[00:21:38] Dr. Johnson: Yeah. And you have to remember- these guys can get picky. If you’ve never fed it to them before, and all of a sudden, you’re like, “Oh my gosh. I’m out of my greens. I’m going to feed this to them,” they may just be like, “Well, I’m not eating that.” You have to put it in the rotation so that they’re used to eating it, because they have personalities and they can absolutely snub something.
[00:21:58] Dr. Lancellotti: Like the toddlers in the household.
[00:22:00] Dr. Johnson: Yes!
Hiding Spots for Bearded Dragons
[00:22:02] Dr. Lancellotti: You had mentioned before about the animals really liking to climb. Are there certain things that they would really enjoy in their enclosures?
[00:22:10] Dr. Johnson: Yeah. We definitely want to provide them a good hiding spot. Remember that these guys burrow, so we definitely want to provide them some place where they can go, get away, and feel safe. These are also ideal locations where you can give them a little bit of moistened sphagnum moss to maybe give them a little bit of humidity inside of their little cave, just like they would’ve had in the wild- when they go down into their burrow, if it’s a little bit higher humidity in there, it does help benefit some of the skin issues and shedding. Get them lots of things that they can climb on- different types of branches and some rocks that they can get up on. It does help to promote nice bone and muscle health. If all that they’re doing is just laying on the bottom of the cage and not moving around a whole lot, and we don’t provide them a lot of behavioral enrichment with different things to climb and move around on, then we can have some pretty unhealthy animals that don’t have a lot of good muscle and bone structure to them.
[00:23:05] Dr. Lancellotti: What about the setup? What other things do they need within the enclosure?
[00:23:10] Dr. Johnson: There are these nice little starter kits at the pet store. And that’s exactly what they are- a starter kit. They’re pretty bare bones. They’re designed to just get you to bring the animal home and have some place to put it, so this is not usually what I would consider to be an ideal enclosure for the life of the pet. I will make the push for the front opening enclosures. I try to remind people, “You’re buying this for your child.” How are you going to get inside and access this animal, if you’ve bought one of the starter kits that doesn’t actually open in the front? What I find is that the animals are less likely to get out and get interaction because you have to do a lot of work to get into the cage, itself. I definitely recommend the front-opening enclosures, and we are starting to see those much more commonly included with these starter kits. So I think it’s pretty common for people to think that what they see at the pet store is the “end-all, be-all” and there are a lot of other options to explore. There are even other areas to purchase your bearded dragon, so don’t be resigned to only using what’s available at the pet store. Amazon is one of the places where you can buy some of these larger enclosures. Some others are Zen Habitats or Custom Carolina Cages. Those are all people that are building some larger, nicer enclosures that are a little lighter in weight than your typical glass enclosures that you can find at the pet stores.
[00:24:34] Dr. Lancellotti: It sounds like that would be a lot easier, not only for taking the animal out to interact with, but also for putting food and fresh water in there, cleaning the enclosure, and just basic, better, more easily accessible husbandry.
[00:24:47] Dr. Johnson: Yes, exactly.
Where to Buy a Bearded Dragon
[00:24:48] Dr. Lancellotti: So where would you recommend that people acquire a bearded dragon from?
[00:24:54] Dr. Johnson: I actually recommend purchasing from a breeder or adopting from a rescue. I’ll go into exactly why in a minute, but I also want to mention that I usually recommend getting a bearded dragon that’s a little bit older, instead of a cute, tiny little hatchling that you see at pet store. These guys that are a little bit older are proven eaters, and they’re already off to a really good start. We know they’re eating and growing. Unfortunately, the pet stores are often overcrowded with animals from a source that mass breeds these guys. Because of their overcrowding in the pet stores, we see a lot of them that have heavy parasite loads or other infectious diseases. They’re shipped in containers together, they’re put in cages together, with anywhere from 4 or 5 to even 10, in some of these 10-20 gallon aquariums at the pet store. They’re exposed to each other and all of their droppings, so they just keep spreading things back and forth to each other. Reptile shows can be really great sources for finding a nice, healthy bearded dragon. You’re often face to face with the actual breeder, you’re going to have a little bit more history on the pet itself, it’s really nice to look and select a healthy individual, and the breeders can actually help you select a personality that is good for your household. If you’re going to a dog breeder, a good breeder is going to say, “Okay. How often are you home? Who’s the dog going to be interacting with?” The same thing can go for bearded dragons. They can say, “I think this animal is very interactive and is really well handled by children. Same thing with the rescues. Often, the rescues have these bearded dragons that are already checked over by a veterinarian, so they’ve already been properly vetted. If they had anything wrong with them, they’ve already had the necessary medical care. And again, that rescue is going to have spent time with them, in foster care, and know their personalities a little bit better.
[00:26:49] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. And the rescue would be able to tell you if they’ve got a reptile veterinarian who’s fostering an animal that needs a good home.
[00:26:56] Dr. Johnson: Or has it had any prior medical problems that you need to even be aware of?
Bearded Dragons have Salmonella
[00:27:00] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. We always worry about bringing an animal into our home, and making sure that our people in the home stay healthy with this new animal. Is there something that we need to be careful of, when we’re dealing with these particular animals?
[00:27:11] Dr. Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. You need to make sure that after handling an animal, and handling the items in their cage, that we’re actually washing our hands. This is also the part where I remind you that kissing your bearded dragon could give you salmonella. Everybody wants to kiss and love on their animals, and here’s where I just have to put that caveat out there. If you’re going to kiss your bearded dragon, you very well could get salmonella.
[00:27:41] Dr. Lancellotti: No matter how much you love your bearded dragon, just cuddle, don’t kiss.
[00:27:45] Dr. Johnson: Right.
Medical Care for Bearded Dragons
[00:27:47] Dr. Lancellotti: You talked a little bit about some of the problems that these animals might come with, as far as health issues. What are some of the most common concerns that bearded dragon owners have when they come to the vet’s office?
[00:27:58] Dr. Johnson: First of all, where are you going to take your bearded dragon? A really great resource for you is to go to the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians website. They actually have a button it’s called “Find a Vet” to click on, to put your location in, see how many mile radius you’re looking for, and it can give you the location of one of those members. We have access one to each other, so that’s very helpful. We can each contact our reptile and amphibian board certified counterparts. We just have a wealth of knowledge within the organization itself, and access to each other. So that’s the first thing. Go look for your ARA veterinarian in your area.
[00:28:41] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, that’s a great person to have a relationship with because you’re going to have so much information, and be able to contact other people who may be able to help them, if they can’t figure something out. How about some of the medical problems that they might have? What are the reasons that they’re going to come in?
[00:28:57] Dr. Johnson: One of the biggest reasons that we see a lot of our bearded dragons come in is because they haven’t defecated in anywhere from 3-4 days to a couple weeks, or a decreased appetite to no appetite. There can be intestinal parasites. It can be females that are in a condition called folicular stasis, where our ovary has started to be reproductively active, and they start producing these follicles. Those follicles, can literally just stop developing and then just sit there, taking up space. These bearded dragons feel full, they don’t eat, and they are still pulling that calcium out of their bones to potentially make the shells for the eggs. Their body is just in this really disruptive process. These girls can get pretty sick pretty quickly. Unfortunately, the biggest outcome is that we have to go to surgery, so it’s definitely a life threatening condition, at that point. If they actually produce eggs, you can get a dystocia, where those eggs get stuck. Again, there would be surgical procedure. Because there’s such a large range of what could be causing your simple constipation and decrease to no appetite, it’s definitely important for them to come in and be seen.
[00:30:16] Dr. Lancellotti: What about some gastrointestinal causes of that constipation and decreased appetite?
[00:30:21] Dr. Johnson: Sometimes, we will see cloacal prolapses. The cloaca is the area where all of our output is all coming together. We can have cloacal tissue that prolapses out, but you can also have each individual area that empties into the cloaca. You’re reproductive tract and your GI tract can all prolapse too. Those can all happen from constipation, dehydration, parasites, etc. All of that is not supposed to come out, but when they’re straining and straining, you’ll get some of that tissue that prolapses outside of the body. Males can also be overstimulated and they can actually prolapse their hemipene, which is their reproductive organ. They can get sexually excited, so these guys are potentially surgical emergencies as well.
[00:31:12] Dr. Lancellotti: So it’s an emergency for these animals to just calm down, get that back in there.
[00:31:16] Dr. Johnson: Yep.
Bearded Dragons Prefer to Be Alone
[00:31:18] Dr. Lancellotti: We talked about some physical problems. What about some emotional needs? Do these animals need to be around other bearded dragons to have socialization?
[00:31:27] Dr. Johnson: Yeah. That’s a common question we get asked. “Is my bearded dragon and lonely and should I get it a friend? We have to take a step back and think about what their behaviors are in the wild. These guys are not getting their little social groups together and hanging out, singing and dancing, and having a grand time. These guys are wandering around by themselves, so they really only come together for mating purposes. Otherwise, they are solitary animals. Often, we will get pet owners that go ahead and purchase a second animal. They’ll even put a male and female together, which is okay if they’re wanting to reproduce. But we will start to see occasional fighting, so we are often having to surgically repair a wound, or potentially they’ve bitten off a tail. We actually see trauma from these fights, and it’s usually because they’ve decided that it’s their territory and they don’t want that other animal in there. So in general, I do not recommend keeping bearded dragons together, but rather keeping them in their solitary cages.
[00:32:31] Dr. Lancellotti: And this should come as a relief for the parents out there, whose kids really want a bearded dragon. It’s better for you to just get one.
[00:32:39] Dr. Johnson: Just have one. Yeah.
Fireflies are Toxic to Bearded Dragons
[00:32:41] Dr. Lancellotti: I’ve seen a lot of animals come into the emergency room because the pet owner thought that they were doing the right thing for the animal, but they’re actually doing something that may be toxic. Is there anything that bearded dragon owners should avoid that might be not such a great idea?
[00:32:58] Dr. Johnson: Yes. The biggest thing that we know about bearded dragons is that there are wonderful, fun, little fireflies or lightning bugs (whatever your area likes to call them) which are extremely toxic to bearded dragons. If they ingest one, they will die, so do not feed lightning bugs to your bearded dragon. There has been one case, out of thousands, where the bearded dragon survived, and that was simply because it regurgitated the firefly as soon as it ate it. Otherwise, even 15 minutes later, unfortunately, they just do not make it.
Regular Checkups for Bearded Dragons
[00:33:33] Dr. Lancellotti: You had talked about some of the reasons that pet owners bring their bearded dragon in when they’re not doing well. What about for wellness visits? What would you recommend for this?
[00:33:42] Dr. Johnson: We actually recommend (at least) an annual wellness visit, prior to that (what would be referred to as a) post purchase exam. So whether you purchased them from the breeder or the pet store, we recommend a post purchase exam. Bring it to your veterinarian. Let us look at your bearded dragon. Bring us a fecal sample. Let’s get you guys off to a good start. We will go over your proper husbandry and make sure that we’re getting the right foods and insect items. Let us increase that lifespan for as long as possible. And that’s going to start from the minute you bring your pet home. You should even start thinking about annual blood work. That’s something that we can actually do on our bearded dragons. How are those liver and kidney enzymes? Are they starting to creep up? Let us send out a blood panel once a year, and make sure that we’re not missing something that we could catch early and potentially do something about.
[00:34:34] Dr. Lancellotti: Absolutely. I can’t agree more. Having a reptile veterinarian who is knowledgeable about bearded dragons, having them on your team to provide wellness care, and to make sure that you’re catching things early on, when it’s easier to address, is going to be so important for the animal’s long term health and happiness.
[00:34:53] Dr. Johnson: Yep. You take your dog cat to the vet once a year. There’s no reason you shouldn’t take your bearded dragon once a year, as well.
[00:35:00] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s absolutely right. Tell me some of the big takeaway points that you want pet owners to remember when they’re caring for their bearded dragon. We talked about so much.
[00:35:09] Dr. Johnson: My big takeaways are that, first and foremost, your reptile veterinarian is your absolute best source of information. Pet stores should not be the only place you visit after bringing your bearded dragon home. The bearded dragons can have expensive health conditions. You know? Let’s have a plan for your pet. And again, that’s something we can talk about, when you guys bring them in for that first visit. “Here are some of the things that we’ve been seeing. Here are some of the typical costs.” How do you want to go about being able to afford this long term? Let us help you make that plan. We absolutely can. My last big one is to, remember that “variety is the spice of life,” even for your bearded dragon. Feed them a varied diet. Don’t get stuck in a rut and only feed one leafy green, one type of insect, one type of vegetable, etc. because you’re not going to have a healthy pet.
Scratching the Itch
[00:35:57] Dr. Lancellotti: Dr. Johnson, we like to end each episode with a segment called Scratching The Itch. It’s a short segment that will highlight something- either a human interest story, a product, a website- something that just provides relief or makes you feel good. Hence, scratching the itch. Do you have something to feature on the ‘scratching the itch’ segment?
[00:36:51] Dr. Johnson: Sure! There’s actually a link to www.stjude.org. I’m a runner, and for the last 10 years, I have participated in the St. Jude Memphis to Peoria Run. This is a fundraising event for the children of St. Jude. It’s a bunch of runners who are running relay style, over the course of about 3-3.5 days, and we take turns running 24-7 from Memphis, Tennessee to their sister hospital in Peoria, Illinois. It is a 465 mile journey.
[00:37:21] Dr. Lancellotti: Oh my God!
[00:37:23] Dr. Johnson: Yeah. It’s a pretty crazy thing. There are literally about 8-10 of us per RV. Prior to COVID, we would have a good 20 RVs full of people that were basically all taking turns at running this race. But it’s not a race. That’s what our people always remind us. We’re running 465 miles, and we always have runners out on the road, unless there’s lightning. We’re running from about 11:00 AM on the Wednesday morning that we take off until about 4:00 PM, the following Saturday. Everybody takes a turn. On average, out of those 465 miles, I get to run about 30 of them. Most people would probably be like, “Oh, but you’re running it over a course of 3.5 days.” What you don’t know is that we don’t really sleep in those days. We get little cat naps. You get maybe 2-4 hours, at the most, in between your run segments, so I probably average about 12 hours of sleep during that time. That’s the hard part. You’re still trying to run those 30 miles on little to no sleep. Then, I come home and crash for several days. I included that link because we do fundraise. There’s a minimum amount that we have to raise, every year, in order to be able to participate. Usually, we raise over a million dollars, by ourselves, from the Memphis to Peoria Run. It takes about 1.3 million per day to run St. Jude, so our 3.5 days of running and raising money gives them close to a day’s worth of operation costs.
[00:38:56] Dr. Lancellotti: That sounds like an incredible organization, and we’ll definitely have the link for people to look into that, if they want to donate to their fundraising event. What a cool thing! You’re a little nuts for doing that, but God bless you for working for such a great organization.
[00:39:11] Dr. Johnson: Again, that “variety is the spice of life” saying doesn’t just apply to our bearded dragon’s diet, it applies to your mental health too. You’ve just got to have a lot of outlets for what help to get you back into a reset mindset and just learn to let things go. It makes a difference for me.
[00:39:29] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, absolutely. I really like that. Dr. Johnson, thank you so much for coming on. This has been a really great episode and I’m hopeful that it allows some bearded dragon owners to establish a relationship with a good veterinarian and use this as a jumping off point.
[00:39:43] Dr. Johnson: I do, too, so I thank you for letting me come on here and give my spiel!
[00:39:49] Dr. Lancellotti: And for anyone out there who’s listening, I look forward to your next visit with Your Vet Wants You To Know.