Accessories and Environmental Enrichment
The wonderful thing about using natural accessories is that it saves you money while making a wonderful difference to your bearded dragon‘s psychological and physiological well-being. Environmental enrichment is extremely important and starts with just rocks and branches. You can collect rocks and branches from anywhere they are available. If there are no areas close by to collect natural materials from then they may be sourced from landscaping yards or even firewood and clay bricks may serve some purpose. Make this a cheap exercise, there are plenty of places to spend money on with pets, but this doesn’t need to be one of them, or at least not a lot. Other accessories that can add to the basics are artificial vines and plants. Live plants may be used in situations where it is practical.
The basic enrichment accessories will be used to encourage and support natural behaviours such as climbing, digging, hiding, drinking, eating, basking and resting. Not only will the right accessories support their health and wellbeing indirectly, but also directly by keeping femoral pores and nails in check, and support shedding.
Keep in mind that accessories should not be able to trap or injure your pet. Some accessories may require securing in the habitat to provide stability.
All materials should be cleaned and prepared prior to use to ensure parasites (i.e. mites), dangerous chemicals (i.e. pesticides and herbicides) and other harmful bodies are removed if present. This is also the case for any housing or accessories being transferred from another animal whether that is within your own collection or purchasing second hand.
Branches Adding Decor for your Bearded Dragon
As bearded dragons are semi arboreal creatures, branches are really a must to enrich the environment and make it as natural as possible. Branches placed upright towards the heating and lighting allow the animal to choose where it should position itself for optimal basking height. It is far more qualified to determine where it should bask than us humans and may vary from one day to the next. The rough nature of the wood is a great surface to rub on when shedding and keep claws a little more trim. Femoral pores will also be rubbed on the wood making it easier for the animal to keep them clean.
If you cannot get tree branches then something like rough sawn jarrah from the hardware store might do the trick and probably be cheaper than the tiny beach wood that can be bought at pet shops. If you can’t get rough sawn timber that is suitable then you could use a saw to make 1 mm depth cuts along it diagonally multiple times to create a surface that claws can easily grip on. Probably won’t be as aesthetically pleasing as natural wood but it would suffice until you can locate something more suitable.
Select branches that have some roughness to them that will help little claws to grip, but not enough that it is easy to cause injury. Of course out in the wild they will come across all types of surfaces, but in captivity we can remove a lot of the risk that comes with that.
Artificial vines are easy to bend and retain the form created. Thick ones are useful for climbing on as they are and the thinner ones can be used to bring branches and different elements together by entwining them together.
Vines are flexible but will retain the shape they are set to. This means they are easily incorporated in any area and can easily be attached to rings and other fittings. The coating on vines will split if the bend it must achieve is too great for the material. That is fine if it is out of the way where it is attached to the wall because it will still last a long time and won’t be in the way. But otherwise don’t force it into a severe double back on itself, be gentle with the curves.
The vines on the Amazon are great at bringing elements together and securing them by intertwining. They can also be intertwined on themselves to create a wider surface.
These vines are thicker and a few intertwined (2 or 3) will be enough to create a single climbing surface. One will do it for smaller species or the young but it will be a little difficult for the larger bearded dragons to be secure. When purchasing vines measure your habitat, add on how much length will be used fixing it to the housing and then add on any area it must reach. Remember you can make them longer by attaching multiple lengths together. You can’t be too long because it can always be bent somewhere to fit into any situation. Plus being longer allows for future changes.
Some tree branches cannot be used in enclosures and choices should be researched prior to providing. Keep in mind that it doesn’t really have to be limited to tree branches, some bushes can have branches that will be thick enough. Some of the well-known woods to avoid are cedar and perhaps even pine trees may present issues. Susan M Barnard (zookeeper) published a list of plants that are toxic to reptiles in her book Reptile Keeper’s Handbook which is a valuable resource. Susan’s list is not focused on trees, just plants in general that may be dangerous. There is also a great list online (The Wood Database) specifically created to highlight woods that may cause allergies or be toxic to woodworkers. Of course this is for humans, not directly related to reptiles. But it is likely reasonable to assume that if it is toxic to a human, it is not suitable for any habitat going in your house anyway. Australians are able to research trees and other vegetation naturally occupied by their species of bearded dragon.
Handicapped bearded dragons, such as those missing claws, toes or legs may need considerable adjustments to climbing accessories. Providing extra wide branches or wood planks with sloped ramps made of the same should allow them to continue some natural activity. Vines are unlikely to be suitable for the handicapped.
Rocks make a big difference
Rocks for your bearded dragon are another must. They are so valuable as a good abrasive surface useful for rubbing femoral pores on, scratching itches especially when parts of the body are shedding, basking on, resting on or whatever else rocks for your bearded dragon. Rocks are so easy to get. Even if there really aren’t any rocks in the area you live in, they can easily be bought at hardware or landscaping stores. If necessary, it is also possible to make some artificial rocks. But preferably try to use at least some natural elements.
Clay bricks can also be useful and like rocks, may be stacked to create a burrow which increases the uses of these easy to source accessories.
The surface of the rocks need to be at least slightly rough, a smooth rock won’t provide quite the same rubbing opportunities. Have multiple rocks available so they can be switched out for easier cleaning.
Plants for the habitat
Real plants can make a wonderful addition. A few considerations need to be addressed for the comfort and safety of the bearded dragon and ease of care. Plants can increase humidity. If the humidity is already at its upper tolerance level consistently then real plants are best avoided. Avoid broad leaf plants if humidity levels are high as they will increase the humidity more.
Expect that any plant placed in the enclosure will be climbed on and potentially eaten. That is fine! Don’t provide a plant and then get disappointed if it is cropped at or parts broken, it is a given that this is going to happen. So have multiple plants even if they are the same species, that can be interchanged to give the plants a rest and recovery period. You do not need to use a perennial type plant for this, even annuals will do. Broccoli plants will even be sufficient if grown in a pot. Broccoli will last for more than one year.
Avoid chemical fertilisers and certainly herbicides on any plants used.
A list of safe plants can be found at Anapsid has published a list of safe plants. As mentioned previously, a list of poisonous plants can be found in the Susan Barnard’s book Reptile Keeper’s Handbook.
One alternative to real plants is artificial plants. It does not matter where the plants are purchased from as long as they cannot be pulled apart easily and can be cleaned. The only purpose artificial plants will really serve is to create covered secluded areas for when they want to hide or rest so multiple plants will be best. Some of the pots the plants come in may not be suitable or might not keep it stable. They might provide hiding places for crickets or be difficult to clean. If the plant is worth getting and the pot is not suitable then cut the plant out and secure it to whatever is suitable.
Artificial plants should not have lots of small joints which can be easily broken off and digested. If you notice your bearded dragon nipping at the plants, remove them from the habitat. Licking is fine and expected.
The artificial plants should not be anywhere that they can heat up and cause burns or catch fire.
Hay is better and cheaper than artificial plants
Better and far cheaper than using artificial plants,is hay. When I say its better, I am referring to how easy it is to pile it up, flatten it out, pop it in a box or in anyway set it up that suits the situation it is going in. It is fabulous for brumation because it is easily gently and quietly lifted up to check on the sleeping beauty beneath it. Or it can be a quick and easy way of temporarily covering up a floor surface for feeding on if a loose substrate is being used. At cleaning time to just pick it up and take it out to your favourite tree in the garden. It’s a natural product unlike artificial plants and it costs just a few dollars for a bag at a pet shop. Prepare the hay by placing it in a container with water, swish it around and then spread it out to dry in the sun. This will just remove the dust that could potentially be a problem in a confined area.
The cheapest Burrows or beds you can get right now
In the wild bearded dragons are known to rest in trees, bushes, leaf litter, etc. During winter studies on some of the bearded dragon species by Wotherspoon have indicated they actually spend a lot of time in the trees, moving from one side of the tree to another to catch a little sun. They will also move up or down the tree adjusting their height seeking out the warmer levels. Of course Australia is massive and the vegetation is vastly different from one area to another. So for some, there will not be tall trees, they will be lucky if they can find a bush. But the ground will present opportunities to hide. Clearly you aren’t going to provide a habitat with tall trees, but understanding the sort of environment your bearded dragon is evolved for will help create an environment that supports it. If your bearded dragon likes to rest vertically, then branches will be important. If it likes to rest on the ground then some form of burrow might be better. Providing both gives it the opportunity to change its mind as needed.
Burrows can start off as cheaply as a cardboard box. Stuffed with a little hay and it is a fabulous hiding place. Cardboard box hides are fabulous during for any new bearded dragons which will be in quarantine to start with as the boxes can be switched out for new during cleaning and the old one popped in the bin. Going a little further and something more natural could be a combination of rocks and branches brought together perhaps with a little plant coverage.
Burrows can also be simply a collection of branches or artificial vegetation clumped together to provide solitude. Rather than use artificial vegetation, natural dried out vegetation (hay even) can make a great hideaway.
Another simple burrow can be made from rocks and branches stacked. The configuration is as unlimited as one’s imagination.
If you are not convinced to make your own from natural accessories then purchase a half log hut from Amazon.
Burrows should be placed on the cool end of the habitat. If the bearded dragon remains in the burrow and does not seek time under UVB light then it could be going into brumation, it could simply want some time resting, it could be quite stressed and in need of a better environment or it could be ill. Removing the burrow when it is being used is not conducive to its emotional well being. Seek veterinary assistance if you believe it could be ill (including with parasites) or just allow it to rest if it is well. It is capable of regulating its own UVB if it is healthy. If it is not behaving normally, then review what you are doing.
Dishes for food and water
Another place to save money is the water and food dishes. The water dish can simply be the base of a pot plant. It does not need to stay in the habitat, simply offer water during the hottest parts of the day and remove the water later. Or if the habitat is suitable and care is taken then water can stay in the habitat.
Food dishes are easy, you don’t need one. Using one can create problems by reducing activity, it is a risk of getting fat or perhaps just chips away at the need to move at all until it does little but stay in one spot for most of the day. Spread the food out, let it move around to eat, don’t lose a huge opportunity for environmental stimulation.
Can you put Water in your Bearded Dragons house
Absolutely you can put water in your bearded dragons house, if suitable housing has been provided. It doesn’t need to stay in there all day but if you want to keep it in there all day then buy the right sized housing and keep it clean. Far too often people buy tiny glass tanks and issues occur. In small housing the habitat becomes too humid, the water isn’t kept clean, or it is kept closer to heat than it should be and increases the rate pathogens and parasites multiply. When it comes to habitats, go big and keep it clean.
Environmental Stimulation-changing life in captivity for the better
The addition of well thought out environmental stimulation for any captive animal is an important element of good care. The effects of keeping animals in environments lacking suitable stimulation in mammals is well known with responses including repetitive behaviour, lethargy, aggression, fear, destructive behaviours, loss of appetite and self-mutilation. Studies with reptiles are limited, but the evidence so far is clear that their behaviour and well-being is affected by their environment.
A Nile soft-shelled turtle that was intent on self-mutilation was provided with multiple objects including balls, sticks and hose made into a hoop to distract it from harming itself. This was successfully achieved as the turtle focused significant attention to interacting with the objects and spent more time being active (Burghardt, Ward, & Rosscoe, 1996). Snakes provided an enriched environment were found to explore and habituate new environments quickly, and to have greater problem solving abilities (Almli & Burghardt, 2006). At the National Zoological Park in Washington Komodo dragons have displayed playful activity where they participate in play with zoo keepers including tug-of-war with objects, playful interaction with objects such as boxes, and removing notepads from the keepers pockets. (Smithsonian Zoogoer, 2012)
Dr Emily Weiss (Animal Behaviourist) and zoo curators worked on enriching the environment of lizards at the Sedgwick County Zoo removing them from standard box type enclosures and introducing ‘habitrails’ consisting of tubes and shoots. To add to stimulation the tubes and shoots are dismantled and reassembled in new configurations varying the environment. This resulted in increased activity with at least one lizard active at all times. (Jones, 2003)
The goals of the environment include increasing behavioural diversity whilst reducing abnormal behaviour, improving the ability to cope with changes and increase the environments utilisation. These goals can be met by providing a large enclosure, accessories that encourage natural interaction and making changes that add diversity over time.
- Burghardt, G. M., Ward, B., & Rosscoe, R. (1996). Problem of reptile play: Environmental enrichment and play behavior in a captive Nile soft-shelled turtle, Trionyx triunguis. Zoo Biology, 15 (3), 223-238.
- Almli, L. M., & Burghardt, G. M. (2006). Environmental Enrichment Alters the Behavioral Profile of Ratsnakes (Elaphe). Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 9(2), 85-109.
- Smithsonian Zoogoer. (2012, Sept-Oct). Retrieved 2014, from http://nationalzoo.si.edu/JoinFonz/Join/Zoogoer/Zoogoer_September_October_2012.pdf
- Jones, K. (2003, Summer). Animal Acts. The Shocker