Most care sheets for desert species such as bearded dragons and leopard geckos — even the low-quality ones — recommend providing a consistent source of clean drinking water and even routine misting. So why are there so many dehydrated desert reptiles in the hobby?
Symptoms of Reptile Dehydration
- Wrinkled and/or saggy skin
- Dented/cracked scales
- Trouble shedding
- Loss of skin elasticity
- Sunken eyes
- Yellow/orange urate
- Loss of appetite
- Dull color
- Unusually aggressive behavior
- General “stress”
Conditions Caused by Reptile Dehydration
- Weight loss
- Shedding problems
- Egg binding
- Organ failure
Humidity isn’t Evil, and Water Won’t Kill Your Reptile
If you paid attention to the list of symptoms and conditions associated with dehydration, you may have noticed that many of these problems and diagnoses are frequently reported by people who own desert-type reptiles. This is because this is the advice commonly given to new bearded dragon and even leopard gecko owners in Facebook groups and online forums:
- “Never use live plants in the enclosure, as they will make humidity levels dangerously high.”
- “Bioactive enclosures are too humid to be appropriate for use with bearded dragons, leopard geckos, etc.”
- “Keeping a water bowl in the enclosure will make humidity too high and give the dragon a respiratory infection.”
- “Misting the enclosure will give the animal a respiratory infection.”
Are you seeing the pattern here? New owners of bearded dragons, leopard geckos, and other desert-type reptiles are being told to keep their pets away from water and as dry as possible. This is justified by spreading fear about respiratory infections, which are more likely to be caused by low temperatures, consistent dampness, unhygienic conditions, and inadequate ventilation than it is likely to be caused by the presence of a water bowl, occasional spikes in humidity, and/or the use of drought-tolerant live plants.
Not only are these practices unhealthy — they’re downright DANGEROUS! If you’re giving this kind of advice or practicing it yourself, you are promoting practices that actively cause hypohydration and dehydration in reptiles.
There is a LOT more humidity in desert reptiles’ environment than we think there is. According to Australian reptile veterinarian Dr. Jonathon Howard (otherwise known as “BeardieVet”), these are the humidity levels regularly encountered by wild bearded dragons:
- 55-65% at dawn and dusk
- 20-30% around midday
- 75-80% at night
- 80% at the base of bushes and inside burrows
To use another example, check out this climate data from Islamabad, Pakistan, where leopard geckos occur naturally:
- January - 68%
- February - 66%
- March - 60%
- April - 50%
- May - 41%
- June - 45%
- July - 67%
- August - 74%
- September - 68%
- October - 61%
- November - 64%
- December - 68%
Granted, these numbers are averages, so they’re you can expect humidity levels to be higher at night and lower during the day, as well as lower during months with little to no rainfall, and higher during months with more rainfall. But this should give you an idea of what these geckos easily tolerate under the conditions that they evolved to handle.
How to Prevent Your Reptile from Getting Dehydrated
Just because arid and semi-arid species tolerate dehydration better than most, it’s not an excuse to dry them out to a crisp. The fact that they evolved in an arid to semi-arid environment only means that it takes longer for symptoms of dehydration to develop, and they may be more difficult to spot. Here are some best practices for preventing dehydration in bearded dragons, leopard geckos, and other desert-type reptiles:
Know the range of humidity naturally present in the animal’s habitat, not just what random strangers on the internet are parroting at you. You can do this by looking up observations of your reptile in the wild on iNaturalist and then glancing at climate records on sites like TimeandDate.com.
Provide a small, shallow dish of water at all times for drinking. It should be small enough to prevent drowning, but large enough to hold enough water for the animal to recognize. If your reptile doesn’t seem to recognize still water as drinkable, you can add an air stone to bubble the water, which helps catch their attention and stimulates them to drink more often.
Keep the water dish clean. Ask yourself: would you drink from it? If the answer is no, then you need to replace the water. Scrub and disinfect the dish at least once a week to manage bacteria and algae.
Use well-hydrated foods. If your pet eats insects, make sure to hydrate them well beforehand with pieces of fresh fruits/vegetables or water crystals like Dubia Dew. If your pet eats leafy greens, make sure they’re as fresh as possible. You can even mist the greens lightly with water or pre-soak them to crisp them up. Avoid feeding dried foods to your pet.
Provide a humid hide/burrow. This should have higher humidity levels than present in the rest of the enclosure for the reptile to use as needed. Place a digital hygrometer probe in this burrow to keep track of humidity levels and add more moisture as needed.
Simulate morning dew by lightly misting the enclosure every morning. You can also imitate rainstorms by misting more heavily, but don’t do this more often than 1x/week. This will not negatively affect the animal’s health unless the basking temps are too cool or the enclosure is not well ventilated enough to dry out fairly quickly.
Due to harmful myths that are being circulated by misinformed (but well-meaning) pet owners, dehydration is alarmingly common among desert-type pet reptiles. This leads to severe, entirely preventable conditions like impaction and gout. Of course, this doesn’t mean we’re saying you should treat your desert reptile like a tropical species. They still need high heat and daily opportunities to dry out. But water is the foundation of life on Earth, and if you remove water from your pet’s environment, its health will suffer.
Climate & Weather Averages in Islamabad, Pakistan. (n.d.). Timeanddate.Com. Retrieved December 20, 2021, from https://www.timeanddate.com/weather/pakistan/islamabad/climate
Healey, M. (2021, February 27). Dehydration in reptiles - How to prevent it and keep them hydrated. The Bio Dude. https://www.thebiodude.com/blogs/helpful-husbandry-faqs/dehydration-in-reptiles-how-to-prevent-it-and-keep-them-hydrated-appropriately
Sinclair, L. (2020, June 26). Does Loose Substrate Cause Impaction? ReptiFiles. https://reptifiles.com/does-loose-substrate-cause-impaction/