Bearded Dragon Setup – A Step By Step Guide
So you’ve decided you want to buy a bearded dragon setup and home a new reptile, and you’ve decided it’s time to do some research and figure out exactly what’s needed to help these wonderful reptiles thrive.
Firstly, I would like to congratulate you as many people never bother with research and often take on pets when they really don’t have the time or motivation to provide the correct and adequate care.
The fact that you are here reading this suggests you are not in that camp and you’re looking for accurate information on the basics of getting started with a bearded dragon setup correctly.
So let’s take a look step by step as to what you should expect and what you will need to home a bearded dragon.
In terms of the equipment you will need to create a sufficient and safe enclosure, I have listed the required items below and I will go into more detail of each of these areas further into this article.
- An Enclosure to Home your Bearded Dragon (Duh!)
- Heating and Lighting
- Substrate and Decor
- Temperature Monitoring Equipment
- Storage for Live Food and Gut Loading Products
- Other Extras
Laying the requirements out in a list like this does make it look a little more involved and overwhelming than it actually is, however it is really simple, and I would always advise getting your vivarium setup and running for at least a week before you bring home your bearded dragon for the first time.
Choosing an Appropriate Vivarium Enclosure
Choosing the correct vivarium for your bearded dragon really is quite straight-forward, the requirements are pretty simple as bearded dragons are land-dwelling creatures, which means we don’t need to provide much in the way of water beside a water bowl.
Keeping frogs, for example, would require a much more mixed approach where some of the bases of the vivarium are made up of water as well as the land substrate.
Since bearded dragons are land-dwelling, they also don’t do much climbing, this means that the vivarium should be long and not that high in terms of vertical space (a bit like a big fish tank)
Crested Geckos, by comparison, are almost always climbing, so they need less horizontal space since they rarely move around the floor much and more vertical room to climb up and down.
In terms of the basic requirements of a vivarium, it’s all about providing a decent amount of living space for your bearded dragon, the minimum recommended size for an adult bearded dragon is around 4ft x 2ft x 2ft, bigger is better.
In general, there are two approaches when it comes to picking the correct vivarium, most owners decide to buy the correct sized vivarium for an adult bearded dragon from the outset, meaning they never have to go through the trouble of upgrading in the future as their juvenile or baby bearded dragons grow.
Some owners will opt to buy a much smaller vivarium when they house a baby bearded dragon or a juvenile, however, they are then forced to upgrade once the bearded dragon is a fully grown adult at around 18 months.
Zoo Med sells a great “Starter Kit” which is also available on Amazon.
The great thing about this kit is that it provides pretty much everything you need to get started, however, it is worth noting that at 91cm (Almost 3ft) it is a little on the smaller side so this may need replacing in the future when your bearded dragon grows to adult size.
Setting Up the Correct Heating and Lighting
Bearded Dragons need varying degrees of heat throughout their enclosures, one side of the vivarium is designated as the hot side which will also provide a “basking spot” which is the hottest area of the enclosure.
I wrote a full guide on heating here if you wish to know more, but depending on age, the basking spot should be around 100F to 110F, with a nice rock or branch which your bearded dragon can use to bask on.
The cooler end is around 85F and will provide an escape from the UV and more intense heat.
The basking spot is generated in one spot with the use of a basking bulb, this usually either sits on top or is attached inside the vivarium to provide this heat.
Read more about heating a bearded dragon vivarium here in much more detail.
As for lighting, a bearded dragon requires a UV light which is a fluorescent tube that extends across almost all of the vivarium length, this will extend from the basking spot all the way down to the cool end.
The UV lighting for a bearded dragon is essential so they can synthesise vitamin D3, without UV lighting a bearded dragon runs the serious risk of metabolic bone disease since he will be unable to metabolise any vitamin D3 calcium.
It’s also important to make sure that you purchase the correct UV rated fluorescent tube for the size of your enclosure, read more about lighting selection in my detailed guide here.
Adding Substrate, Decor, and Hiding Spots
Bearded Dragon enclosures need the correct substrate to be used at the bottom of the enclosure they live in, I wrote an article about this particular topic here so feel free to check this out for more detail.
Basically, if you have a young bearded dragon then it’s best to not use a loose substrate, this is because younger bearded dragons tend to eat the substrate which can create blockages in their intestinal tract, this is more commonly known as “Impaction”, this can lead to nasty complications, operations, vet bills and even death.
That being said, some owners who house adult bearded dragons never have any issues with sand or dirt substrate, it mostly depends on your bearded dragon, however, one thing I will say is that for younger bearded dragons just avoid loose substrate altogether.
One great alternative is to use ceramic tiles across the entire base of the enclosure, these can then be lifted out and cleaned really easily. You can then use an excavator clay kit from Zoo Med to create caverns and hides.
It’s also worth adding a few extra rocks and maybe some driftwood for your bearded dragon to bask on under the basking lamp, but be aware that raising the basking spot with decor will increase the temperature under the basking spot since your bearded dragon will be positioned higher and closer to the lamp.
Another great addition is some fake plants, these can be positioned around the enclosure in specific places and are mostly for decor and visual effect as well as maybe some light cover and hiding areas.
The practical effects for your bearded dragon when it comes to decor is to provide a few places to hide, a place to bask and a few things to climb over that are quite low to the ground.
Using Electronic Equipment to Monitor Temperatures
Since we are using heat lamps for our bearded dragons to create a basking spot, as well as providing a range of temperatures, we will need a few electronic thermometers in the vivarium to make sure that the temperatures are correct.
Basically you need to monitor the heat directly under the basking spot as well as the cooler end, it’s also worthwhile having a thermometer in the middle of the enclosure to read the general ambient temperature.
Another good idea is to buy a heat gun, with these devices you can just point them to specific areas of the enclosure (like the basking spot for example) and read what the exact temperature is at that particular point, very useful!
Live Food Basics, Storage and Gut Loading Equipment
So once you have your bearded dragon enclosure setup, and you have the necessary lighting, heating, decor, substrate and monitoring equipment, it’s now time to look at what we need to be able to feed our bearded dragon.
In general you will need to regularly buy fresh leafy greens, I wrote a more detailed article about feeding baby bearded dragons as well as overeating here, but in general, you will need to prepare greens for your bearded dragon in the form of Collard Greens, Dandelion and a whole host of healthy greens.
It’s also very important that young bearded dragons are fed a healthy dose of live insect matter around 3 times each day, this is usually in the form of gut-loaded crickets, so you will need to buy a small enclosure to store your crickets in.
In terms of gut loading your crickets, this is usually just a case of buying some bug gel which is just water in the form of gel, this stops the crickets from drowning themselves, as well as some insect feed, this is usually just a powder which can be placed inside the cricket pen which they will then feed off.
Make sure that you gut load the live food for at least 24 hours before giving them to your bearded dragon, and also be sure to look after your live insects well, remembering that whatever you feed your crickets and insects will ultimately end up in your bearded dragon.
I wrote a more detailed article here about keeping crickets.
One tip when it comes to keeping insects, I keep my insects (Crickets and Worms usually) in cricket pens, but I also place those inside those big plastic stacking boxes you can get from Ikea, that way if any escape, they will then have to escape again before they are running through my house.
Oh and be sure to drill some holes (very small ones) in the top of the Ikea box otherwise they will suffocate.
You will also need to buy bottled water, depending on where you live the tap water may be terrible or it may be OK, personally I don’t risk it and I just buy a few bottles which I then use to refill his water bowl inside his enclosure which will provide him with a means of hydration.
I also use this same bottled water when it comes to misting an enclosure if I need to.
There are a tonne of other products you can purchase for your bearded dragons on Amazon and other retailers, such as hammocks, rocks, fake plants, driftwood etc, but I would add these over time.
In general, it’s better to just get set up with the essentials first, and once you have mastered that you can then add additional more decorative items afterwards.
Setup Complete – When Should I Introduce My Bearded Dragon?
Usually, I would say around one week is about the right amount of time to introduce a bearded dragon to a new vivarium, during that initial week I will also monitor temperatures during the day and night to make sure they are correct, as well as inspecting the temperatures in the basking spots.
How Often Should I Clean a Bearded Dragon Enclosure?
I will spot clean at least once per day if I see any poop for example then I will get rid of that as soon as I see it, but it really depends on how dirty your vivarium is.
Basic common sense here folks, just don’t leave your pet to live in his own shit, it’s just not nice.
I will also remove things like dead crickets, shed skin every day as I see them and wipe the enclosure down a little in these areas if needed.
Every week or two I will also remove some of the decors such as the hiding covers, rocks and any driftwood, and give them a good once over as well.
How Often Should I Expect to Switch a Bearded Dragon Enclosure?
As little as possible, this is why it’s better to get an adult-sized vivarium from the outset even if you have a baby or juvenile bearded dragon.
Where is the Best Place to Position a Bearded Dragon Enclosure?
I tend to keep my bearded dragon in a room with some natural sunlight, but not directly in that sunlight itself, the basking spot provides enough heat and the lights provide enough UV so it’s really not necessary to place his vivarium that way.