Bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) are a commonly kept reptile species that have a reputation for being highly personable and fairly straight forward to care for. Their vibrant personalities and vast availability have resulted in the bearded dragon becoming one of the most popular pet reptiles to keep.
Frequently, pet reptiles, including bearded dragons, are prone to experiencing stress, which can negatively impact their overall health and well-being. Understanding the causes of stress in bearded dragons is crucial to provide them with the best possible care.
Symptoms of a Stressed Bearded Dragon
A stressed bearded dragon may show any (or all) of the following symptoms:
- Darkened or black beard (beard may be puffed out)
- Head bobbing/hand waving
- Glass surfing (pacing back and forth along a wall of the enclosure)
- Change in frequency and/or consistency of feces
- Lethargy/sluggishness (may have reduced interest in basking)
- Mouth gaping
- Reduced appetite
- Weight loss
Reasons for Stress in Bearded Dragons
Understanding the reasons behind bearded dragon stress is crucial for providing the proper care for your pet. In this section, we will explore the various reasons for stress in bearded dragons in detail.
One of the most common causes of stress in bearded dragons is an inadequate habitat.
Bearded dragons require a minimum habitat size of 4’ x 2’ x 2’, or 120 gallons. Unfortunately, many pet shops do not stock habitats that are large enough to accommodate a bearded dragon into adulthood. This is because many pet stores prioritize products which won’t take up much shelf or warehouse space.
Habitats that are too small can make it difficult for the animal to move around comfortably and makes it impossible for them to exhibit natural behaviors, causing them to feel cramped and stressed. Additionally, habitats that are too small are not able to provide the proper thermal gradient needed for proper body functions, like digesting food.
Another cause of stress relating to habitats is all-glass enclosures. Enclosures made entirely of glass can cause territorial aggression due to the bearded dragon seeing its own reflection, which can trigger a territorial and aggressive response. Bearded dragons may bob their heads up and down, wave their hands, and darken/puff up their beard as a response to the perceived intruder. As you can imagine, a stranger with an angry face who is constantly peeking through your window would be stressful!
Top-opening enclosures are also a culprit of stress in bearded dragons. While the enclosure is being cleaned, during feeding time, or when taking out your bearded dragon, they may think they are being swooped up by a predator when being grabbed from above. This is because bearded dragons have a third eye, known as the ‘parietal eye’. To the human eye, it looks like a semi-translucent scale on top of the dragons’ head, but in reality, it helps these lizards to regulate their photocycles, and detect the shadows cast by predators hiding overhead in the rays of the sun.
When purchasing a habitat for your bearded dragon, look for an enclosure that is at least 120 gallons (4x2x2) with a front opening door. We recommend the 4x2x2 Zen Habitats enclosure.
Another cause of stress in bearded dragons is an improper diet. Bearded dragons require a varied omnivorous diet that includes a variety of leafy greens, insects, and vegetables/fruits. Using proper calcium and multi-vitamin supplements to dust insects and salads are essential to proper digestion, as well as bone and organ health. Feeding them a diet that is lacking in essential nutrients can lead to stress, as well as serious health complications.
Proper heating and lighting are also important factors in maintaining the health and well-being of bearded dragons. These animals require specific temperatures and lighting conditions to thrive. UVB light must be provided for the bearded dragon to metabolize calcium, and a proper basking temperature is required for digestion of food.
UVB lights should be the recommended strength, and hung at proper distance without any glass or plastic underneath. UV waves cannot adequately penetrate through glass and plastic, rendering even the highest output lights completely useless to your dragon. Basking spots should be measured to optimal proper basking temperature, and controlled by a thermostat to ensure heat sources are not reaching too high of temperatures and posing a safety risk to your pet.
It is a common myth that bearded dragons cannot see the light given off from red heat bulbs, leading owners to choose red heat lamps for a 24/7 heat source. It is important to note that bearded dragons CAN see red light, and leaving a red heat lamp, or other light source on 24/7 can lead to stress due to an improper lighting cycle.
If heat is needed overnight, it is recommended to use a heat source such as a deep heat projector, ceramic heat emitter, or radiant heat panel to maintain ideal temperatures without giving off visible light that can disrupt your reptile. Failure to provide a bearded dragon with adequate heating and UVB within their environment can lead to stress and serious health complications.
Illness is another common cause of stress in bearded dragons. Just as any other pet, bearded dragons are susceptible to a variety of health problems. Reptiles can be particularly clever about hiding illness until it has become very serious; stress can be one of the first indicators that your bearded dragon is not feeling well. Regular vet check-ups with an exotic Veterinarian can help detect and treat any health issues, which can reduce stress and promote overall health.
How to Help a Stressed Bearded Dragon
There are several steps that pet owners can take to help reduce stress in their bearded dragon, including:
Providing a suitable habitat
A bearded dragon’s habitat should be spacious, sturdy, and should allow for proper ventilation. It should also include appropriate temperatures and lighting.
We recommend the 5 star rated Zen Habitats 4x2x2 enclosure for a stress-free, spacious enclosure.
Zen Habitats enclosures feature 3 opaque walls to reduce reflection related stress, with a front opening sliding door design so you never have to reach overhead to tend to your bearded dragon or their enclosure. 120 gallons of space provides ample room for your bearded dragon to exhibit natural basking and climbing behaviors. These enclosures can also be expanded with the use of extension kits, allowing for an enclosure that is truly customizable for your pet.
Zen Habitats also include sturdy mounting bars inside of the cage, to allow for optional inside mounting heat and UVB lights to achieve the optimal distance for correct basking levels for your dragon.
Hiding spots and other forms of enrichment can help keep bearded dragons mentally stimulated and reduce stress. Providing hiding spots such as caves, boxes or even PVC pipes can give them a sense of security and privacy. Additionally, providing climbing structures, branches, and other forms of enrichment can help keep bearded dragons active and engaged.
A healthy diet is essential for the overall health of bearded dragons. A diet that includes a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as a quality protein source, can help reduce stress. Additionally, regular vet check-ups can help ensure the overall health of bearded dragons and detect any underlying health issues that may be causing stress.
Avoiding overcrowding or over-handling
Bearded dragons need personal space and can become stressed if they are overcrowded. Additionally, over-handling can cause stress in bearded dragons, so it’s important to limit the amount of handling they receive.
Gradually acclimate the dragon to new environments or routines
Bearded dragons can become stressed when introduced to new environments or routines. To reduce stress, it’s important to gradually acclimate them to new environments or routines. This can include slowly introducing new foods, slowly increasing the amount of handling, and slowly adjusting the temperature and lighting in their habitat.
According to a study gradual acclimation can reduce stress in bearded dragons and help them adapt more quickly to new environments. The study found that a gradual acclimation process, which includes providing familiar items and slowly increasing the time spent in the new environment, can help reduce stress in bearded dragons.
Read more on how to destress a bearded dragon.
To summarize, stress in bearded dragons can be caused by a variety of factors, including inadequate habitats, improper diet, heating, lighting, and illness. By understanding these causes and taking steps to address them, you can provide your pet with a stress-free, healthy life. Regular monitoring of your bearded dragon’s behavior and consulting with a trusted veterinarian can help identify and address any potential stressors.