Chinese water dragons (Physignathus cocincinus) are 3’ long, diurnal, arboreal lizards native to southeast Asia. They prefer a tropical rainforest habitat near freshwater lakes and streams.
Chinese water dragons look different depending on sex. Males have a large, crested head, a row of spines down the back, and prominent jowls. Females are more plain-looking, but both sexes have vibrant green coloration with accents of brown, white, yellow, and/or aqua blue. They are often mistaken for iguanas, but once you become familiar with them, the differences become obvious.
Chinese water dragons are not easy animals to keep as pets, despite their availability in the pet trade. They’re fairly large, require a spacious enclosure with specialized equipment, and don’t tolerate poor husbandry well. However, properly housed, they can make a wonderful display species. With good care, a Chinese water dragon can live up to 15 years.
Minimum enclosure size for Chinese water dragons:
The absolute minimum enclosure size for a single Chinese water dragon is 6’L x 3’W x 6’H. This may seem huge, but keep in mind that these are large, active lizards that need opportunities for both climbing and swimming within their enclosure. Of course, if you can manage it, larger is always better!
Housing multiple Chinese water dragons in the same enclosure is not recommended.
Do Chinese water dragons need UVB?
Yes! Chinese water dragons require UVB lighting for their survival. UVB lighting helps provide a clear day/night cycle, provides all of the vitamin D that your pet needs, strengthens the immune system, facilitates better digestion, and other benefits.
Here are the best UVB bulbs for Chinese water dragons housed in a 6’L x 3’W x 6’H enclosure:
- Arcadia Desert 12%, 34”
- Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO 10.0, 34”
For best results, house the UVB bulbs in a reflective fixture. Position the lamp on the same side of the terrarium as the heat lamp. If the UVB is mounted over mesh, place the basking branch 11-12” below the lamp. If the UVB is mounted inside the enclosure, place the basking branch 18-20” below the lamp.
They are also likely to benefit from plant grow lights as part of their environment as well. Add a ~6500K LED or T5 HO fluorescent grow lamp to provide extra illumination, as well as help any live plants in the enclosure to thrive.
Lights should be on for 11 hours/day during winter and 13 hours/day during summer to simulate seasonal changes in day length. All lamps should be turned off at night.
Best temperature for Chinese water dragons:
Chinese water dragons need a basking area temperature between 90-95°F, and between 75-80°F on the cool side, as measured by digital probe thermometers.
Provide heat for your dragon with a cluster of halogen heat bulbs placed above the basking branch. You will need enough lamps to evenly heat an area at least the size of the lizard’s body. Halogen bulbs are the best way to imitate the warmth of sunlight indoors, and considered to be a superior form of reptile heating by experts. Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective. Radiant heat panels, however, can be helpful as a secondary heat source for maintaining warm air temperatures.
Best humidity levels for Chinese water dragons:
Chinese water dragons are a tropical species, so the humidity inside their enclosure should be fairly high: 60-80%. Humidity should be measured via digital probe hygrometer, with the probe placed in the middle of the terrarium.
Increase humidity by misting your dragon’s enclosure 1-2x/day with a large pressure sprayer or automatic misting system. Mist first thing in the morning and then again at night if needed. If you need more help maintaining humidity, install a cool mist humidifier connected to a humidistat.
Chinese water dragons are very comfortable in the water, to the point of being arguably semi-aquatic. In the wild, they are known to dive into water to escape predators. They are excellent swimmers, can hold their breath for up to 25 minutes, and are known to even sleep in the water. For this reason, your pet will require a pool of water that is deep and large enough for them to dive into and swim around in. This means that it should be at least 6” deep, and occupy 1/2 to 1/3 of the enclosure’s floor space.
Your dragon’s pool water will need to be changed once weekly or whenever it gets spoiled. Give the pool a good scrub with disinfectant before refilling. Using a siphon (or better yet, a powerful mechanical water pump) and a hose will make maintaining your lizard’s pool faster and easier.
Best substrate for Chinese water dragons:
Although Chinese water dragons spend most of their time either in the trees or in their pool, they do occasionally spend time at ground level. Providing a layer of naturalistic substrate (“bedding”) in the enclosure will help maintain correct humidity, cushion your lizard against falls, provide a digging medium, and also help make your enclosure more attractive!
We recommend the following substrates for Chinese water dragons:
Layering clean, chemical-free leaf litter on top of the substrate can help with humidity as well as add enrichment value.
Substrate should be at least 4” deep and completely replaced every 3-4 months. Remove poop and urates daily, along with any contaminated substrate.
How to decorate a Chinese water dragon enclosure:
An empty enclosure makes for a bored Chinese water dragon, reducing its quality of life. Keep your pet entertained and engaged with its environment with the strategic use of décor items that encourage it to exercise natural behaviors!
Since Chinese water dragons prefer to spend their time either in the trees or in the water, at bare minimum you will need a large, sturdy branch for them to bask on and a sufficiently large pool for swimming. However, it’s best to include other items, such as:
- more branches
- live or artificial foliage
All climbing branches should be securely anchored into the walls/floor of the enclosure to prevent collapse.
Training and designing enrichment activities are also good ways to help keep your Chinese water dragon engaged, as well as provide a nice opportunity for bonding!
What to feed to a Chinese water dragon:
Chinese water dragons are insectivores early in life, but they become more omnivorous as they age. This means that they need to eat lots of insects when they’re young, but should eat more vegetation as adults. Here’s a basic feeding schedule:
- Hatchlings (<3 months old) — Insects daily
- Juveniles (<16” long) — Insects and salad every other day
- Subadults and adults (>16” long) — Insects every 3-5 days, salad daily
Offer as many insects as the lizard will eat via feeding tweezers in about 5 minutes.
Feeder insects for Chinese water dragons: crickets, discoid roaches, dubia roaches, earthworms, grasshoppers, hornworms, silkworms, mealworms, superworms, snails (captive-bred only)
Vegetables for Chinese water dragons: collard greens, cactus pads, spring mix, arugula, kale, alfalfa, bok choy, carrot greens, spinach, dandelion greens/flowers, hibiscus greens/flowers
Pinkies, fuzzies, live-bearing fish, and chopped fruit can be offered as occasional treats.
You will also need calcium and vitamin supplements to help keep your dragon healthy. We recommend Repashy Calcium Plus LoD, lightly dusted on all insects. It’s okay to occasionally skip a dusting.
How to handle your Chinese water dragon:
Reptiles generally don’t appreciate petting and handling in the same way that dogs and cats do. Regarding Chinese water dragons specifically, they generally prefer to be left alone, although some learn to tolerate human interaction well.
If you want to build a trusting relationship with your pet, you will need to develop a foundation of positive interactions. Offering food from feeding tweezers works well as an initial bribe, and it’s best to get the lizard to come to you rather than simply grabbing it.
Here are some more tips for success:
- Don’t grab the lizard from above. Instead, scoop from below.
- Support as much of its body as possible.
- Start with short handling sessions at first, then gradually make them longer.
- Put the lizard back in its enclosure only when it’s calm.
*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please further your research with high-quality sources. The more you know, the better you will be able to care for your pet!