Environments that provide enrichment and encourage natural behaviours have been linked to more activity, leaner body condition and longer lives (Rossi, 2006).
- Creating Stimulating environments
- Best Bearded Dragon Accessories
- A wild bearded dragons Life
Creating Stimulating environments
Captivity creates stress (Denardo 2006). Stress can be caused by many factors such as being confined and being dominated by a cage mate (Denardo 2006). The factor stressing the animal does not have to be real, it only has to be perceived to be real.
Frequent changes, high levels of disturbance (handling and passing by) and unstimulating environments can result in stress responses in reptiles which may decrease the effectiveness of the immune system and as such, increase disease (Wilkinson 2015). Reptiles kept in small housing are more likely to have greater loads of parasites (Wilkinson 2015).
There are three main goals for enrichment:
1. To promote species-appropriate behaviorsFleming and Skurski, 2014
2. To provide behavioral opportunities
3. To provide animals with control over their environment
Well thought out environments that more closely resemble natural habitat and provide natural stimulation are an important element of good care. Natural behavioral opportunities for bearded dragon’s include:
- Resting at night in the dark
Environmental enrichment doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, natural accessories are about the cheapest accessories you can provide. They are as simple as branches, vines and rocks. When well placed these natural accessories can provide an extraordinary amount of enrichment.
The effects of keeping animals in environments lacking suitable stimulation in mammals is well known resulting in responses such as:
- Repetitive behaviour,
- Destructive behaviours,
- Loss of appetite, and
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)
For pet bearded dragons we often see stress responses such as glass surfing, banging noses on cages and deliberately eating substrates.
The goals of a well designed 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.
Best Bearded Dragon Accessories
What are the best bearded dragon accessories? The best bearded dragon accessories are cheap and natural accessories such as rocks and branches. Placed in a well thought out design can make all manner of basking, climbing and hiding spots. This saves money buying unnecessary gimmicky furnishings such as hammocks while making the world of difference to your bearded dragon’s psychological and physiological well-being.
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.
Basic accessories will 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 for basking and privacy
Branches are one of the best accessories for bearded dragons, particularly since they are semi arboreal. Branches are a must to enrich the environment and make it as natural as possible, the taller the better.
Placed upright towards the heating and lighting will allow your bearded dragon to move itself closer or further away from the heating and lighting locating itself at an optimal basking height. It is far more capable at determining where it should bask than us humans, and its needs can vary from one day to the next.
More than one branch, or a wide branch, will also allow your bearded dragon to position itself around the branch. It may choose to get into the sun and heat (UVB and heat setup) or to get out of it, as if getting into the shade which it can do by positioning itself on top of the branch or at the side dependent on the setup.
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 or untreated garden stakes from the hardware store might do the trick. Deepen gouges on the wood using a saw, claw edge of a hammer or a axe/hatchet to create a surface that claws can easily grip on. Probably won’t be as aesthetically pleasing as branches, but it would suffice until you can locate something more suitable.
Beach wood can be purchased from pet shops. It is attractive but not easy to get in large sizes. Branches are available in some pets stores, but rather expensive.
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 unnecessary risks.
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. However it is 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.
Adding to climbing accessories with Vines
Vines for bearded dragons provides more surfaces and textures. Artificial vines are easy to bend and entwine. They easily 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. Three or so small vines intertwined will be sufficient to create a single climbing surface or a large bearded dragon.
Vines are easily incorporated in any area and can easily be attached to rings and other fittings. Vines can be made longer by tying multiple lengths together.
The coating on vines will split if the bend it must achieve is too great for the material. This can be avoided by loosely bending it overself, do not make it tight.
Avoid pulling the outer coating of the vine tightly when wrapping it around objects. The coating will separate from the rope underneath.
Rocks make a big Difference
Can you put rocks in a bearded dragon house? Yes rocks are great for bearded dragons house. They serve as a:
- Basking accessory;
- Abrasive surface useful for rubbing femoral pores on and scratching itches especially when shedding; and
- Great hiding spot or burrow when stacked together.
Which natural rocks to use? If you can’t source natural rocks from your backyard, then they can easily be bought at hardware or landscaping stores. Most natural rocks are fine to use.
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 at different heights to provide more choices. Additional rocks will also make it easier to switch out for easier cleaning.
Rocks with sharp edges can be smoothed slightly by chipping off pieces with a hammer, using a metal file or even a grinder. As long as you cannot cut your finger on the rock edges then they should be fine.
Make a burrow from rocks by stacking them securely. 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.
Heated rocks should not be used. Heat rocks are often associated with burns (Wilkinson 2016).
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. Keep multiple plants even if they are the same species, that can be rotated to give the plants a rest and recovery period. You could even do this with vegetables such as broccoli plants which can grow solid stalks.
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.
Burrows and Hiding Spots
Burrows and hiding spots 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.
Hay is really cheap, easy to get hold of and great for piling up for a hiding spot.
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.
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 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.
The post on brumation show its usefulness during brumation. It allows you to gently and quietly lift up the covers (hay) on your 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.
Another simple burrow can be made from rocks and branches stacked. The configuration is as unlimited as one’s imagination.
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 a good solution and could well result in further stress. Seek veterinary assistance if you believe your bearded dragon is sick or just allow it to rest if it is well. It is capable of regulating its own UVB if it is healthy.
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
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.
A wild bearded dragons Life
Bearded dragon’s in the wild can travel long distances for their size. Thompson and Thompson (2003) found that 19 Pogona minor that they tracked, travelled around 115 meters a day. Some days there was little movement and others they could travel more than 225 meters. They were tracked climbing into and over bushes just under 0.5 meter to 1.5 meters. It was estimated that for every 28 meters traversed, a bush or pile of logs was used, perhaps for foraging or cover.
Thompson and Thompson (2003) found the Western Bearded Dragon would either forage or bask in saltbush and bluebush. The Western bearded dragon would be found asleep in the early mornings on top of the bushes, under the bushes in leaf litter or at the top of large bush branches.
In the warmer parts of the day, Thompson and Thompson (2003) located the Western Bearded Dragons out in the open and they seemed to have a love of eating bull ants. Some were found to either frequent lots of different bull ant mounds or found with a mouth full of bullants.
Thompson and Thompson (2003) concluding discussion in their study noted that the Pogona minor has a wide foraging range and travel large distances compared with most other lizards.
In the post on the wild bearded dragon’s habitat we explore the natural environment.
- 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.
- 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.
- Denardo, D. 2006. Stress in captive reptiles. In: Mader DR, editor. Reptile medicine and surgery. St Louis Saunders; p. 119–23.
- Fleming, G. J., and Skurski, M. L. Conditioning and behavioral training in reptiles. In: Mader DR, Divers SJ, editors. Current therapy in reptile medicine and surgery. St Louis. Elsevier Saunders; 2014. p. 128–32.
- Jones, K. (2003, Summer). Animal Acts. The Shocker
- Rossi, J. V. 2006. General husbandry and management. In: Mader DR, editor. Reptile medicine and surgery. St Louis: Saunders. p. 25–41.
- Smithsonian Zoogoer. (2012, Sept-Oct). Retrieved 2014, from http://nationalzoo.si.edu/JoinFonz/Join/Zoogoer/Zoogoer_September_October_2012.pdf
- Thompson, S., and Thompson, G. G. 2003. The western bearded dragon, Pogona minor (Squamata: Agamidae): An early lizard coloniser of rehabilitated areas. Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia ECU Publications. 86 (1)
- Wilkinson, S. L. (May, 2015) Reptile Wellness Management. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice Vol 18(2): 281-304