Is My Bearded Dragon Fat?
A fat bearded dragon will have a thick tail base, distended abdomen and jowls, and the fat pads will be easily felt. In the photo the distended abdomen and jowls are quite noticeable. A thin bearded dragon will have protruding pelvic bones and spine, and the tail will be quite thin.
So many pet bearded dragons are fat that it is becoming the ‘norm’. Obese reptiles are open to serious health issues, allowing them to be fat is misplaced affection.
Problems with being overweight include dystocia, shortened lifespan and organ dysfunction.
Outside of simply overfeeding and not providing appropriate activity, lack of brumation has been proposed as an influence on obesity.2
3 simple steps to fixing getting your fat bearded dragon on a diet and enjoy it!
It it totally understandable if you feel bad putting your bearded dragon on a diet. We have an emotional attachment to our pets and we often relate the word ‘diet’ to meaning we will be depriving them of something. So let’s switch this around.
In the wild, bearded dragons are not fat. They don’t have a stash of food waiting in a single location where they can gobble down a whole days food within minutes, although that is questionable with juveniles who certainly can get an entire meal with just a single insect1. They also adjust their diet according to their age, gender and size. For example, a large male can be pretty much herbivorous1 and he will likely have a territory to patrol.
In captivity we provide them all they can eat in a single sitting, sometimes multiple times a day. They do not have to travel any distance, perhaps a few inches from one side of their habitat to the other. This is a human way of doing things and the more we try to force human ways on animals even with their best intentions at heart, the more we cause them discomfort and eventually end up seeing that manifest in vet bills.
Bearded dragons are often accused of being lazy, but they are simply doing what all animals are programed to do being conserve energy when it doesn’t need to be spent. This is where the changes needs to occur.
So the key to all that is providing a natural habitat and encouraging natural behaviours. Here is how we do that with diet.
Step 1 – Presentation of food to slow down eating
Putting food in a bowl helps us keep everything that will be consumed in a neat pile, easily accessible. But bowls modify eating behaviors which can go from one extreme to another. Don’t do this!
Preferably don’t use a bowl at all but if it is really necessary, then use a large plate (pot plant base will do). This will slow down the amount of food that can be consumed in any mouthful elongating the duration of feeding time. In addition, there is more movement going on. So the further you can spread it out (within reason) the better. A four foot tank for a two foot bearded dragon is not going to work with this, that is far too small. Rather than cutting everything up, consider presenting leafy vegetables tied up in a single bunch and fixed to something (i.e. wedged into something or tied to an immobile object) so it can crop as it naturally would in the wild.
This will not only help reduce obesity but also provide a more mentally and physically stimulating environment that restores a large part of their natural daily activity back into their lives.
Note that if you are feeding live insects in the bearded dragons house, don’t leave them in with it after feeding has completed. Some insects can become the predators (like crickets).
Step 2 – Reducing food now it takes longer to consume
Now that the feed is spread out and takes longer to consume, you can cut down the food a little. By the time it has finished eating it won’t be giving you that look that we interpret as ‘give me more’. If it does, then spread the feed out more so it takes even longer. This is not so much about how much it can access and more about how much effort it needs to put in to get it.
Age, sex and biological functions all have a role to play in what to eat and how much. Be flexible in the diet. Some days they will need very little, some days they will need more.
Step 3 – Change the diet
It is not simply a case of saying they need more of this or that as you will see when reviewing diet but it is a given that foods high in fat such as feeders referred to as worms (i.e. mealworms, black soldier fly larvae, etc [none of which are true worms, they are larvae) need to be either reduced or taken out of the diet until things are back on track.
If you take something out of the diet such as mealworms and find it is just not eating anything else, don’t assume that it actually needs to eat. It could well be eating the mealworms simply because it likes them, or from habit, not necessarily because it needs food.
- Wotherspoon Danny, Burgin Shelley (2016). Sex and ontogenetic dietary shift in Pogona barbata, the Australian eastern bearded dragon. Australian Journal of Zoology 64, 14-20. doi.org/10.1071/ZO15019
- Mans, Christoph & Braun, Jana. (2014). Update on Common Nutritional Disorders of Captive Reptiles. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice. 17. 369–395. 10.1016/j.cvex.2014.05.002.