I know all of us have walked into a pet store (usually a large chain store) and have seen a bearded dragon or other reptile in poor condition, overcrowded, being fed questionable foods and just plain sad to see. The thoughts start rolling through your head and you think I can make room… can’t I? Of course I can! I can help this baby! This baby needs to be saved!
Every time one of us “saves” a baby from a pet store the managers see that as a successful sale. The buyers in turn look at the numbers sold the year before and generally order 5-10% more the next time. What that means is that the cycle not only continues but grows. If you see a baby in severe condition the best thing to do is call the store manager. They will usually say that they are going to take them to the back and have a veterinarian look at them. The best thing to do is stand firm that you will continue to check on the animal and that if need be write reviews on Yelp and send letters to the corporate office if you are not happy with the condition of the animals in the store. One store at a time with an advocate monitoring each store things can change. Our collective voices can be heard but it starts by resisting the temptation to buy that baby.
There’s so many questions new owners have about food. What can they eat? What do they like? What is the best food for them? I decided that it was time for me to go ahead and compile my own chart of foods and nutritional data since I hadn’t found one that I liked 100%. I organized the items by frequency because I think its easier to shop when you can see your top ten at a glance. You can print this file out and use it when you shop for foods.
I wanted to also talk about some of the confusing and somewhat controversial subjects as well. I remember when I started with reptiles being told that Spinach was toxic!! I thought well thats strange what on earth is in spinach that would cause it to be toxic to reptiles? I began researching and found that it’s high oxalate content was responsible for the rumor that it was toxic. What the heck are oxalates and why are they bad? Well they aren’t exactly bad. Oxalic acid is a naturally occurring compound found in humans, animals and plants. It easily binds with calcium and other minerals so it has gotten a bad reputation for being used in captive reptiles. The fact is there is no evidence to suggest that oxalates are an issue with reptiles that eat vegetables. While I would never recommend anyone use Spinach as a daily staple on its own the fact is that many dark leafy greens have moderate to high levels of oxalates. Kale often said to have high levels is actually on the lower scale at .02g/100g. Parsley is the highest at a whopping 1.7g/100g. The USDA has published studies on the absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc and copper when in foods with varying levels of oxalates. The presence of oxalates in one food doesn’t interfere with the absorption of calcium in other foods eaten at the same time. What that means is that if you purchase a bag of “Spring Greens” and it has some spinach in it you don’t need to pick it all out. Your reptile will still benefit from all the other nutrients particularly the natural Vitamin A and C in spinach. However, if your animal has known kidney issues limiting oxalates from the diet would be advised. Your vet can advise you further on this.
What about overdosing on Vitamins? Many articles out there will cause people to be concerned about over supplementation. In general terms any threat of Vitamin A toxicity has been eliminated by companies using natural forms of Vitamin A such as beta-carotene or green algae. Check the label on your calcium and vitamin supplements and choose natural products with no fillers or preservatives. While Hyper-Calcemia can occur the fact is that it’s very rare in bearded dragons and moderately dusting insects with Calcium and Vitamins has proven to be an effective method of supplementing our reptiles. The best thing you can do calcium wise is choose a product like Superior Nutrition calcium complex. It is made from 5 natural sources of calcium instead if just calcium carbonate like most reptile calcium supplements on the market. It adheres to insects well so you won’t be wasting it. If calcium absorption is an issue adding Ionic liquid calcium which is 100% bio available and will aid in repairing bone and cartilage density.
What about mice? Isn’t this what they would eat in the wild? Yes but while reptiles and other animals will often eat any size rodent or even other lizards in the wild, we want to provide a long healthy life for them while they are in our care. It is important to be empowered with the facts so that you can make educated choices. So here is the facts on mice. The difference between a 1 day old pinky and a fuzzy mouse is night and day. 6% fat vs. 20-30% fat respectively on average. The fat content is less than Waxworms for both. It is true that high levels of animal proteins and fats can lead to long term health problems just like when humans consume too many McDonald’s cheeseburgers! The concern that people have and that fueled rumors that Pinkies are bad are the high levels of fat on a regular basis causing fatty liver disease and shortening lifespan. Another concern is feeding fuzzy mice to bearded dragons that are too big to digest with hard bones which can be fatal. Rule of thumb applies the same – smaller than the space between the eyes. I do not like to take unnecessary risks with my animals so I only use day old flash frozen pinkies. I’d rather give them 2 of those, they are much lower in fat, their bones have not hardened and a bonus is that many labs purposely freeze them when they are full of mothers milk. My females get them once a week during breeding season. While there are many sources of protein just as high as a pinky, mice do contain Omega 3 fatty acids and lipids that promote healthy heart and brain function.
All of this being said anytime you can feed foods high in plant based proteins you are prolonging the life of your animals. Choosing high quality gut loads that use bases like Alfalfa and Algae are very beneficial for protein and minerals. Variety is key. No food has everything that living beings need to thrive. I hope this list will help keep a healthy variety in all your critters lives.
Nutrient Composition of Whole Vertebrate Prey (excluding fish)
Prepared By: Ellen S. Dierenfeld, PhD, Heather L. Alcorn, BS, and Krista L. Jacobsen, MS – 2002.
There’s a lot of confusion about feeding and digestion in bearded dragons. What is safe and what do they need to digest their food? Well to begin Agamids are all sun-baskers. They rely primarily on heat to digest their food. Thats why the basking temps are so important. Low surface temperatures are the main culprit when a dragon is regurgitating, impacted or simply finding undigested insects in the feces. I have measured the surface tempretures outside on rocks that my own dragons choose to bask on. These can often read up to 120˚. In the habitat having a cool side is just as important as having a proper surface temp for basking. Using an Infrared Heat Gun is the most accurate way to read a basking zone. This should be aimed within 4″ from the center of the beam of light that is hitting the basking surface. A probe placed right in the center of the beam can also give a very accurate reading but should be left for 5 minutes to read and then removed. If using a probe to read ambient temps the probe can be left inside.
Contrary to popular belief bearded dragons do not have strong enzymes in their stomachs to aid in digestion. They lack Chitinaise which the enzyme that breaks down chitin that makes up the shell of hard bodied worms. Nocturnal animals on the other hand posses many enzymes and digest their food without the use of heat. The second line of defense for proper digestion is hydration. If a bearded dragons body is even slightly dehydrated and is fed a hard body worm (mealworm, super worm) it can lead to impaction. So how do I know when and what size supers to feed? When introducing the smallest size supers to your dragon my personal experience has shown me that a dragon 10” and up can readily digest a hard body worm. Using the rule of “smaller than the space between the eyes” measure the worm length x width to get the total area and imagine that square in the space. Start by introducing them slowly and early in the day. If you give your dragon 25 supers the first time he will probably eat them all and then throw them all up. This is the bodies way of protecting itself from impaction and is a big warning sign to double check husbandry. Making sure that the worms and the dragon are hydrated can help this issue. You can feed the supers some nice dark leafy greens prior to feeding them to your dragon. Also offering them early in the day rather than last will give them all day to bask and digest the worms. I like to feed my dragons their greens and veggies later in the day. The younger ones even seem to eat their veggies more readily around 5-6 rather than early. Of course your feeding schedule will be largely dependent on your schedule. Making sure your dragon has at least 4 hours of basking heat after its last meal will help to eliminate issues. I soak babies daily and adults 3 times a week. I spray my greens with water as well. I have personally necropsied many dragons that were fed supers and mealworms and died from impaction. Based on the moisture content in the stomach it is evident that the hydration played a big role but time of day and basking temps could be the nail in the coffin so to speak. I hope this little write up helps to shed some light on dragons and their digestion.
Since this is my first real post I figured I should take it back to the root. Where it all started for me… the first real save the day moment with our dear “Crocko”, who was only a few months old at that time and a few weeks new to us. As I mentioned before he was sold to us by our local pet store with something called “utah sand” and he ate it all the time! I thought it was the cutest thing! Don’t get me wrong I had done my research before we purchased but I had the “PetSo” version of a care guide and they did mention important things like the UV should be 10.0 and the feeders should be live and smaller than the space between the eyes etc.. etc… but the substrate was left at “buy one of these products we sell and good luck!” Well needless to say when I called up my trusted pet store and said I want to surprise my son with a bearded dragon for his birthday please put it together for me they chose the sand! Whats wrong with sand? The bags all have a picture of a bearded dragon on the front right? Most of the Reptile Sand products on the market will say they are safe for bearded dragons and even entice you with the advantage that they will get extra calcium if they ingest it. But they are also specifically formulated to clump when wet so they do exactly that inside the dragons intestines when eaten, they clump! I remember the day that I saw Crocko laying with his head down and not basking and his color was horrible. I knew something was wrong. I googled lethargic dark bearded dragon or something along those lines. A plethora of HELP! posts of similar stories about Bearded Dragon impaction popped up. I knew that’s what it was because I had seen him eating the sand. I immediately began with the warm water soaks and a few drops of olive oil to get things going. Massaging his belly and feeling like a total idiot for not realizing this could happen, I sat and waited and waited… rewarming the water continuously. It took several hours and several baths but sure enough he finally passed a solid red log of Utah sand and nothing else. He immediately perked up and looked like his old self again. Crisis averted. Over the next few months we were told to use vitamin Sand and kids play sand etc… I put him on paper until he got bigger than I tried some of the sand products. The first thing you notice is that your bearded dragon will turn the color of the sand. I guess some people thought this was cool because it made their beige dragon turn orange! I didn’t like it and it did not wash off, they have to shed it off. I also noticed that the grain size was small and very dusty and when I would scoop I could smell the feces. That can’t be good. Next childrens play sand from home improvement stores. Well a lot cheaper thats for sure but lugging 50lb bags around to change the sand out is still pretty daunting. As I got into breeding I still tried to use sand mainly for my adults because it seemed to keep them and the enclosures fairly clean. Below is a picture of my male Zeke on sand probably the last time I used it. Shortly after this day I almost lost one of my favorite females Shasta Pop to URI upper respiratory infection. I had always kept the humidity in check and it did not get cold at night so I could not really figure out how she had gotten sick. Then a good friend told me that it was from the sand. When bearded dragon feces dries it becomes brittle and breaks into tiny pieces and goes right through the sifter. Of course! That’s why I would always smell feces when I would sift the sand. So if I could smell it than it would definitely be irritating to the dragons lungs. I threw all the sand out and never looked back. Not only can it cause URI but also gets in the eyes and can cause infections there. I have since used many types of solid liners in my breeding program and I find that they all have their advantages and flaws. But my needs are more extreme than most pet owners. Regardless of whether you have one beardie or one hundred, keeping things as sterile and poop free as possible will give your bearded dragon a long, happy, problem-free life. I have most liked a simple reptile carpet for my adults. I bought a large roll of brown astroturf. I like the brown because it looks more desert like. I cut it down into pieces to fit my enclosures and used my sewing machine to bind the edges with binding tape. I made enough to have two sets so I wash one and then switch them out. I wash them on the hottest water setting and this will kill any pathogens living on the carpets. I find the feces is easy to spot clean and the texture helps keep the dragons from sliming around in it. Substrate is always a big topic of debate amongst bearded dragon keepers. Bottom line is you have to find what works best for you. I feel like substrate is often chosen for it’s “ease of use” properties rather than for the dragons well being. It’s easy to find a solution that looks nice and is easy to clean and keeping it clean will keep your dragon healthy.
7 years ago this November my son received his birthday Beardie. Little did I know that little dragon and my sons early childhood fascination with reptiles would change my life forever. I had always loved animals and as a kid had just about every usual pet store suspect in my care, but at that point in my life I was completing a Fashion Marketing degree and was primed for fast paced apparel industry life. There was just something about saving that little guys life the time he became impacted from eating sand that brought it all back to me. (Utah clumping sand in picture behind my sons head sold to us by our local pet store.) There was so much information out there and no one seemed to agree on anything but didn’t know why either. Just that their vet said it was fine or their best friend uses it. I dove into the online reptile world of confusion meticulously picking through the fact and fiction and tracing each piece of information back to the source. I wanted to raise a healthy bearded dragon and help teach my son the proper science and husbandry along the way. My mission and passion has always been to get the right information into the hands of the new guardians of these precious creatures. I decided to start a blog that will link to my Facebook & websites so that my posts and conversations don’t get lost into infinite Facebook history. My hope is this blog can serve as an archive point for important discussions and information. In this world of every changing science and developing research I will do my best to keep on top of what’s going on with not only bearded dragon health but also with cats and particularly Bengals. Hope you enjoy 😉