Bearded Dragons - A Nutritional Overview
by Kathy Love / CornUtopia
Dragons walk among us, yet no one is trembling in fear. The only worrisome thing about this ‘invasion’ does involve eating, but it’s not about not being eaten by them. Feeding the dragons – Australian bearded dragons – in your care is the concern I’ll address here. Follow these simple guidelines to assuring your new pet bearded dragon gets a healthy diet.
Bearded dragons have become one of the most popular lizard pets in the U.S. because of their perfect size, friendly personality, and ease of care and breeding. Meeting a few basic requirements in their housing, heating, lighting, and feeding, and they will spend the next 7 – 10 years with you, maybe longer.
First off, my number one tip is to provide an environment with a range of temperatures so that your lizard can choose what’s best for it. Efficient digestion takes place in temperatures of 90F – 95F. This requires that an end of the dragon’s cage offers that (or higher) temps to bask or otherwise warm up in daily. Without available UV lighting from either direct sun exposure (being careful to provide shade to avoid overheating) or using a special UV light bulb, proper digestion can’t occur in captivity. I recommend an overhead light as the heat source because it most closely resembles the sun’s heat radiating down. Bearded dragons instinctively know how to utilize heat this way best.
Bearded dragons evolved in a semi-arid environment, but still need clean water to avoid dehydration and to aid digestion. Juveniles are especially prone to drying out, and may even need to be misted daily until they grow a bit. Be sure to avoid a wet environment, which could cause mold and bacterial build up in the cage.
Although omnivorous, hatchlings start out feeding mostly on a variety of insects in addition to some plant matter, maturing into primarily herbivorous adults that still enjoy about a quarter of their diet comprised of insects. Movement always attracts attention, and is a good way to increase appetite in reluctant feeders or debilitated lizards. In fact, babies will often attack the moving tails of cagemates – something to beware of if housing together.
Images provided by Bill Love - BlueChameleon.org
I will try to make things easy for the new owner by providing lists of foods to include and those to avoid. But a few basic nutrition facts will help to explain why some foods are better than others. The most important minerals that dragon keepers worry about are calcium and phosphorus, and their ratio to each other. It is very easy to give too much phosphorus, especially when feeding a lot of live insects. That can block calcium absorption. That’s why keepers are always dusting crickets with calcium, gut-loading them (heavily feeding crickets with greens and calcium powder just before offering as feeders), and feeding veggies with higher calcium to phosphorus ratios whenever possible. Calcium absorption can also be blocked by eating too many plants high in oxalic acid, which binds some calcium, making it unavailable for digestion. That is why you will find spinach and certain other veggies on the ‘occasional’ list instead of the ‘every day’ list of approved foods. Feeding mostly foods in the ‘every day’ list below, adding calcium as needed, and providing the correct UV light for vitamin D production should make sure your dragon meets its calcium and phosphorus needs.
Another concern is foods that suppress the thyroid – known as goitrogens. Prime examples are the nutritious cruciferous vegetables such as kale, broccoli, and cauliflower. Interestingly, lightly steaming them will remove most of that concern. Keep in mind that feeding frozen or cooked foods may leach out or destroy some of the water soluble vitamins such as C or some B – so those should be occasional foods.
Before we get on to the approved food lists, please note that bearded dragons can be prone to impactions, and possibly paralysis, if they eat objects that are unduly large, or with too much exoskeleton. So feed chopped veggies and small insects to avoid that problem.
Plants and veggies that are good for daily feeding and form the bulk of the non-living part of a dragon’s diet include chopped alfalfa grass, variety of greens, such as collards, endive, escarole, dandelion, mustard, turnip, all kinds of chopped or pureed squash, and cactus pads.
Use these as occasional veggies: canned beans, bell peppers, spinach, carrots, celery, cantaloupe, kale, hibiscus flower, nasturtium flowers, berries of all kinds. Avoid corn, avocado, eggplant, mushroom, rhubarb, processed foods such as spaghetti and bread.
Research plants not listed above before giving them to dragons. Make sure new plants are not goitrogenic, contain too much oxalic acid, or possibly other toxins.
Images provided by Bill Love - BlueChameleon.org
Insects: As mentioned earlier, live food will make up ¾ of the juvenile diet, and about ¼ of the adult diet. The largest percentage of insects should be comprised of worms and gut-loaded or vitamin / mineral-dusted crickets. Be sure they are not too large to avoid possible impaction complications! Give only the number of crickets that will be eaten within about 10 minutes. Otherwise the calcium dust is likely to rub off, the high nutrition cricket stomach contents (gut-loading) will be already digested, and the crickets may hide until night, when they will emerge to snack on the toes of your sleeping pet. Those are all good reasons to feed just a few at a time.
Other insects can be alternated, such as earthworms, phoenix worms, or similar soft-bodied invertebrates. The hard chitin in mealworms can cause impaction if fed often, so use them only as a rare treat, or as an emergency when other insects are not available. Avoid fire flies (lightening bugs) or bees – they can be fatal.
Packaged diets: Some breeders like them and some don’t. I have always liked to go with Mother Nature, and offer the variety of bugs and veggies outlined above. But it is nice to have a quality packaged diet available in the cabinet for days when the usual food has run out, or when there just isn’t time to prepare a natural feast.
Supplements: Pure calcium carbonate is good to dust on crickets or veggies. Don’t bother with Vitamin D – they may or may not be able to make use of it through the supplement. You must provide UV via sunlight or special UV lamps regardless of whether it is in a supplement.
If you decide to use one of the popular reptile vitamins, be sure the vitamin A is no more than 10 times the amount of the D, and no more than 100 times the amount of the E. Since there is no established recommended daily vitamin requirement for each species of reptile, I prefer to use such supplements sparingly and only occasionally. Then my animals will have time to excrete any possible overdose in between meals.
This short look into the proper feeding of beardies should be enough for a good start. But don’t let your research stop here! There are lots of books and online resources to help you delve into every aspect of keeping, breeding, housing, and receiving the most enjoyment possible from your pet during the next decade you will spend with it. Along with lots of new info, you may even gain some new friends on one of the dragon forums - click here for a popular forum to get you started!