Setting up your vivarium correctly is the first, and most important task you have to complete before your bearded dragon arrives. As the health of your bearded dragon is your number one priority, it is worth getting the vivarium and environment set up perfectly to ensure the transition period for your dragon is as easy as it can be. Below is all of the information you need to set up your vivarium.
Your enclosure should be a minimum of 4 ft (48 inches) in length, some leaflets or pet stores may say a juvenile bearded dragon may feel lost in a 4 ft vivarium, this is completely incorrect, when they are born in the wild they are not restricted to only 4 ft of rocky outback.
As a rule of thumb, the more space you can give your bearded dragon the better, 4 ft is a minimum for an adult dragon. A vivarium of 4ft x 2ft x 2ft seems to be a good size as it is also more easy to set up the temperature gradient correctly which is key for your bearded dragons as they need to 'thermoregulate'; which is to control their body temperature throughout the day when temperatures may vary greatly. Providing natural thermoregulation is important for bearded dragons in the heating section below.
Don't bother with a 3 ft vivarium, go straight to 4 ft or more, by doing this you avoid having to re-drill all the light fixtures and fittings, and purchase larger UVB bulbs to span the tank. Most bearded dragon owners tend to buy a 48" x 24" x 24" vivarium, like the one pictured below.
So long as you have a minimum of 4 ft in length, some height is not a problem as bearded dragons are semi-arboreal, which means they like to climb, although they are not like other reptiles such as frilled dragons who spend most of their time climbing trees.
We are essentially are trying to echo their natural environment so the floor space is more important and allows them to run about and get more exercise.
I personally have my beardy in a vivarium that is 4 ft (length) x 3ft (height) x 2ft (depth) and he absolutely loves climbing up to the basking spot. There are certainly some other impressive large bearded dragon vivarium's on youtube which will make you want to give some height to your vivarium as well.
The highest point in my vivarium is 2 ft, and I have design the rock background so if he decides to fall or launch himself off he won't have such a large way to go (although I am pretty protective, he regularly tries to climb the net curtains but I don't let him get too far).
I moved my dragon from a 3 ft to a 4 ft vivarium and he definitely seemed more happy and noticeably more active - although there are other upgrades which took place that may have also helped this change in his activity (see the lighting section).
Remember: Increasing the height of your vivarium could introduce extra issues getting the heat gradient needed for natural thermoregulation correct.
Normally you only get two types of vivarium, one which is wooden with sliding glass doors and one which is like an aquarium made full from glass.
In the UK it is certainly cheaper to buy a wooden vivarium but not only this, it is also more easy to control the temperatures of the wooden vivarium come winter and summer.
As mentioned above heating a vivarium is vital for a bearded dragon to thermoregulate themselves naturally, having a hot end and a cool end allows your dragon to control their body temperature.
Bearded dragons need heat to digest their food properly, if your vivarium hot side isn't hot enough they will not have enough heat for them to digest their food properly allowing it to rot in their stomach.
Similarly, if the vivarium is too hot your bearded dragon can overheat; both of these instances can make your dragon extremely ill or even kill them.
So with your bearded dragons well-being in mind you want to create a gradient across the vivarium with the below temperatures:
Basking spot temperature - between 40.5 degrees Celsius (105F) and 43.5 degrees Celsius (110 F)
Cool end - between 23.5 degrees Celsius (75F) and 29.5 degrees Celsius (85 F)
To achieve these temperatures it is worth purchasing a thermostat. This allows the control of temperature at the cool end of the vivarium and then you can adjust the temperature at the basking spot accordingly to get the temperatures correct.
The thermostat is attached to the basking bulb (plug), and the sensor is placed in the cool end around the same area where expect your bearded dragon will move too to cool down.
You then set the thermostat to 25C, once this temperature is reached on the cool side of the vivarium the basking bulb will dim ever so slightly so to keep the cool end temperature consistent. For example, a 60W bulb would stop producing 60W, it may be reduced to 40W to keep the temperature at the cool end steady.
So how do you get the basking spot to be the correct temperature?
All you must do is either raise/lower the basking bulb so your thermometer is reading between 40.5 and 43.5 degrees Celsius, or even easier, you can change the height of the decor that your bearded dragon will be basking on (see the decorations section for information on your basking spot decoration).
Important information: Bearded dragons need around 10 - 12 hours of heat per day, this is with both heat and UVB lighting (see the lighting section). I suggest getting a couple of manual or digital plug timers so your lights come on automatically each morning and subsequently turn off in the evening - these can be had from the likes of Ebay for £2.50 each, or a pound shop for..... a pound.
Advice: Buy a digital thermometer as opposed to one you may attached to the inside of your vivarium as these are known to be fairly inaccurate which is not what you need when setting up or checking the vivarium temperatures. You can go online and buy a dual temperature digital thermometer which records a maximum and minimum temperature (useful for working out the temperature at night).
If the temperature in the vivarium drops below 15.5 degrees Celsius (60F) on a night you will need to provide an alternative heat source for your bearded dragon.
I have never needed to provide this as I leave the heating on through the night, although if this is the case I would suggest the following two things:
1. You can use a ceramic heat emitter, thermostat and a timer which will allow you to keep the temperature of the vivarium at a steady 16 - 18 degrees Celsius at night time.
2. You can cover the vivarium with some sort of insulation at night, whether this is a duvet or a blanket, just remember to check the temperature to make sure it is holding the heat well enough.
Some pet shops may also suggest a red bulb as reptiles apparently cannot see the red light - although in the case of bearded dragons this does not seem to be correct. I have read in many instances where the red light turns their bearded dragons into an insomniac, as they stay awake all night.
Warning: If a pet shop suggests that bearded dragon(s) need heat mats then they are totally misinformed, below is why heat mats should not be used with a bearded dragon set up.
Bearded dragons do not feel heat through their stomach, they feel heat through their head.
As this is the case using a heat mat is potentially very harmful for your bearded dragon as they could spend prolonged amounts of time on these and not realise they are burning their stomachs.
Please avoid heatmats - this is something else that could mean a trip to the vets and your bearded dragon will not appreciate it.
There are a variety of different bulbs and heat emitters available on the market, some of which are more preferable than others for using with bearded dragons. Below I will explain the pros and cons regarding each type of bulb.
Each of the below bulbs require a ceramic heat lamp/bulb holder to cope with the consistent high temperatures. In most cases the bulb holders are type E27 (1") screw bulb fitment which is the standard size accross the bulbs list below.
This is the most widely used bulb for bearded dragons, it produces a bright white light along with a lot of heat in a foccussed beam. A spotlight bulb has a silver coating around the edges of the bulb, and is clear glass at the top, this produces a strong foccused ray of heat and light, this allows you to produce a hot focussed basking spot and an have a the heat gradient across the vivarium.
Bearded dragons tend to be attracted to bright light when basking, so a bright white spotlight bulb is the preferred bulb of choice.
Tip: You can buy these spotlight bulbs in E27 screw fitment from your local supermarket, two for around £3 - as opposed to getting a reptile branded bulb for £5.99 each! These spotlight bulbs have a relatively short lifetime, so its worth having a couple back up just incase they blow - you dont want your dragon cold for too long.
Important Tip: Don't use a cage/protector around your basking bulb or heat emitter/ceramic bulb, they have a tendency to grab onto these and may also get stuck resulting in them burning their stomach as heat is regulated through their head. Avoid this trip to the Reptile Vet.
As mentioned in the care section bearded dragons need UVB light on top of the basking bulb heat and light, this allows them to produce vitamin D3 which gives them stronger bones and prevents other ailments such as Metabolic Bone Disease.
For bearded dragons you need atleast a 10% or 12% UVB florescent tube, as mentioned above I do not recommend the all in one bulbs.
There are two main types of flourescent tube, one of T5 fitment, and one T8 fitment.
The main difference visibly is in the size of the tube, the older arcadia T8 tube is: 1" (2.5cm) in diameter where as the equvalent T5 tube is: 5/8" (1.6cm) in diameter.
The output of each bulb are completely different, the T5 is twice as bright as the equivalent T8 D3+ lamp and the T5 also produces 95% more UVB which is certainly better for your bearded dragon.
Advice: If you have the funds upgrade or purchase a T5 12% D3+ bulb. When I upgraded the enclosure size and to this better bulb from a 10% T8 bulb my bearded dragon seemed noticeably more active, which I put down to the extra UVB and more space to run about.
Substrate within your bearded dragons vivarium is extremely important, certain substrates can be ingested although not will pass through, this is called impaction and can be fatal.
Juvenile dragons should be on either paper towels, newspaper or some kind of tile which are not fully smooth so they can actually grip and not just slide.
Adult dragons (over 1 year old and over 16" in length) can be kept on any of the above or you can use sifted, silicone free childs play sand.
Avoid using Calci-sand
Avoid using Repti-sand
Avoid using Gravels
Avoid using Walnut shell
All of the above must be avoided, if your bearded dragon ingests these whilst hunting it could cause impaction.
With regards to decor, you can can go wild or have a basic set up. So long as your bearded dragon has nice environment with different levels to climb and relax on they will enjoy their home.
You can use logs, bamboo shoots and rocks to create a natural environment which your dragon will enjoy.
If you want to undertake a bigger challenge you can also build yourself your own rock background.
Here is an example of the rock background I built for my bearded dragon, there will be a full write up with images very soon.