If you’re planning on getting a pet bearded dragon, then the first thing you need to do is set up an appropriate terrarium for it to live in. Bearded dragons aren’t like other types of pets that you may be more familiar with, such as dogs or cats. They can’t simply live free-range with you in your home; instead, they need a terrarium that has the right equipment in the right arrangement to create a usable environment that replicates the conditions of their native habitat.
If you haven’t read our Bearded Dragon Care Sheet yet, read that first! Once you have a basic understanding of what your new pet needs from its habitat, you’re ready to start setting up a bearded dragon terrarium.
It may seem expensive to buy all of these supplies for an animal that can cost as little as $50, but they are essential to your pet’s survival. Without an appropriate terrarium to live in, your new pet is likely to get sick and die. Here’s our step-by-step guide to successfully setting up a bearded dragon terrarium so you and your beloved pet can enjoy many years together!
Step 1: Choose the Right Terrarium
Bearded dragons are terrestrial and generally grow up to 24” long, and need a terrarium that is appropriate for that size of lizard. 4’L x 2’W x 2’H is the minimum acceptable size for housing this species, although larger is better.
This terrarium can be made from wood, PVC, or even glass, but it should be front-opening and have plenty of ventilation for healthy airflow, whether in the form of a mesh top or side vents. We prefer enclosures with a mesh top design, as they make it much easier to safely install heat, UVB, and 6500K lamps.
If your terrarium doesn’t have opaque sides, you will need to cover them with something to help your bearded dragon be comfortable in its environment. This can be as simple as construction paper or as elaborate as a 3D textured background.
Products we recommend:
Step 2: Arrange Your Lighting and Heating Equipment
To heat and light your bearded dragon’s terrarium appropriately, you will need the following equipment:
- Heat lamps (at least 2)
- UVB lamp
- 6500K grow lamp
Both heat lamps should be placed on the right or left side of the terrarium, close together. The UVB lamp should be placed on the same side so it fully overlaps with the beams from the heat lamps. The 6500K lamp should be placed on the same side as the others, extending along most of the length of the terrarium.
Products we recommend:
- Fluker's Mini Sun Dome Lamp, 5.5"
- Zoo Med Repti Tuff Splashproof Halogen Lamp, 90w
- Arcadia T5 HO Desert 12% UVB bulb, 22”
- Arcadia ProT5 Lamp Fixture, 24”
- Arcadia Jungle Dawn LED Bar, 34”
Step 3: Start Minimalist
With any new pet reptile, it is best practice to quarantine them for 3-6 months after bringing them home, especially if you have other pet reptiles. When you first set up your bearded dragon terrarium, it’s best to start simple so you can quarantine them efficiently.
Here’s what you need at minimum:
- paper towels for substrate
- Basking branch/platform
- hide box or cave
- food and water dishes
- digital thermometer/hygrometer device (x2)
Choose a climbing branch sturdy enough to support the dragon’s body, but it shouldn’t be so tall that it brings them dangerously close to the UVB lamp — UVB wavelength intensity increases the closer the lizard gets to the lamp. If at all possible, buy or borrow a Solarmeter 6.5 to check that the maximum UVI is between 4.0-6.0. Generally speaking, this means that the dragon should not be able to get closer than 9-12” under the bulb if the lamp is mounted over mesh.
Place the thermometer probes so one is on the basking surface and one is on the cool side of the terrarium. Your temperature gradient should look like this:
- Basking temperature— 108-113°F
- Cool zone temperature — 77-85°F
- Nighttime — 55-75°F
If temperatures are too high, use a plug-in lamp dimmer, thermostat, or a lower bulb wattage. If the temperatures are too low, you will need higher-wattage bulbs.
Products we recommend:
- Zoo Med Repti Rock Food and Water Dishes, Medium
- Exo Terra Reptile Cave, Large
- Galapagos Staghorn Wood Manzanita Root Brown 13 In - 18 in
- Exo Terra Digital Combometer
- Zoo Med ReptiTemp Rheostat
Step 4: Quarantine for at Least 3 Months
The purpose of using a minimalist setup for quarantine is to make it easy to keep clean. During this time, monitor your bearded dragon for signs of illness. Get it tested by an experienced reptile veterinarian for intestinal parasites, and administer treatment if needed.
The paper towels should be changed out daily, and the enclosure and all accessories should be disinfected at least 1x/month. Use a bleach solution (¾ cup bleach per gallon of water) or veterinary-grade disinfectants like F10SC and Clean Break.
Step 5: Add Substrate
Once quarantine is over, you can work on giving your bearded dragon terrarium a fully-enriched, long-term layout. It won’t need to be cleaned quite as often — only once every 3-6 months, depending on how good you are about spot-cleaning.
The first step of setting up a long-term terrarium design is adding a naturalistic substrate. For a bearded dragon, it’s best to use fine sand or sandy soil. You will need at least 4” of substrate to provide a burrowing medium, so for a 4’x2’ terrarium, count on at least 80 quarts or 2.7 cubic feet of substrate.
If your terrarium has different dimensions, you can estimate the amount of substrate you’ll need by multiplying the length x width to get the number of cubic inches of substrate it will take for 1” deep of substrate. Then multiply that number by the desired depth of substrate, then convert the resulting number to quarts or cubic feet.
Products we recommend (choose one):
- Zoo Med ReptiSand
- Exo Terra Desert Sand
Step 6: Add Environmental Enrichment
Environmental enrichment is the process of strategically adding items to your bearded dragon’s terrarium that make it more functional for the occupant. Now it’s time to get creative! The best way to get inspiration for your terrarium’s appearance is by looking at pictures of bearded dragon habitat on sites like iNaturalist and Flickr.
Place the water bowl, hide, and main climbing branch/basking platform first, and build around those. Make sure the water bowl is accessible and easy to remove, and leave enough open space for the bearded dragon to easily get around.
Stacked flagstone can make an attractive and very basking platform. However, make sure to glue them together with cement or silicone so they can’t collapse on top of your dragon.
Magnetic ledges increase the available surface area in your enclosure, look great, and encourage climbing. Hammocks also offer a similar function. However, keep in mind that because they don’t absorb heat, hammocks should not be used as basking platforms.
You don’t have to worry too much about mold in the semi-arid environment of a bearded dragon terrarium, so you can use essentially any wood you want. Mopani wood, cork bark, grape vine, cholla wood, and manzanita wood can all work. Whichever you choose, make sure the branches are large enough to support your dragon’s size and weight.
Whether real or fake, plants are a great way to make a reptile terrarium more attractive. However, keep in mind that because bearded dragons are omnivorous, they may try to eat any plants or plant-like objects you put in the enclosure.
Live plants should be kept in pots to help keep the water close to the roots, unless the enclosure is bioactive (which this article is not covering). Use drought-tolerant plants tolerant of higher ambient temperatures and moderate to high amounts of light. Some suitable options include:
- Air plant (Tillandsia)
- Carex grass
- Elephant bush
- Festuca grass
- Hens and chicks (Echeveria)
- Ice Plant
- Jade plant (Crassula ovata)
- Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia danicolor) (spineless)
For more safe plant ideas, visit The Tortoise Table.
Even after you’ve set up your bearded dragon’s long-term terrarium arrangement, it’s okay to rearrange it every so often as you come to understand bearded dragon husbandry better. It also helps keep your pet’s environment “fresh” and stimulates them to explore and exercise!
"Photo 171127518" by roxylaz is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0