Frilled Dragon Care Guide
Table of Contents
What are Frilled Dragons?
Frilled dragons are native to the forests of New Guinea and Northern Australia. Although frillies do come in a variety of colors, there is only one documented species.
The body of the lizard is darker than the frill, which is often a yellow or orange color, but those colors can vary, depending on which region or country they are from. These are unique, beautiful reptiles, made popular by the film Jurassic Park. They were even pictured on the Australian two-cent coin until 1991!
Australian adult males grow to approximately 3 feet in length, while adult females are slightly smaller.
Where they Come From
In all likelihood the variety available in a big box pet store will be the smaller Indonesian variety. It will probably be wild caught, severely and chronically stressed, and full of parasites. The odds of a young wild caught dragon shipped from overseas living beyond the first few days after purchase are about 50/50. It is much better for the animal and your pocketbook to purchase from a reputable breeder within driving distance, if at all possible. Which is the same way you should be buying bearded dragons.
These diurnal (active during the day) reptiles, enjoy spending their days relaxing in shrubs and trees, hunting in the branches and lapping up water droplets from the frequent daily showers typical of their native environment.
Frilled dragons can live up to 15 years. Sexually mature males will definitely fight among themselves or compete for superiority with cage mates, so should not be housed together past the age of 20 months old. However, with proper handling they are rarely aggressive toward human keepers.
If keeping a male and female together, it is wise to keep in mind that reproduction takes a toll on the gal, shortening her life span by several years. At less than 2 years old, she may begin egg laying in clutches of up to 20 eggs at a time. If you are a breeder, then this may be what you desire, but if an amateur pet keeper, it is best to keep males and females apart most of the time.
Frilled Dragon Habitat Design
As both an arboreal species, the design of their habitat will need very careful consideration.
Small Tank for Young Frilled Dragon
Although young frilled dragons can be kept in something like an Exoterra 36" x 18" x 24" tank for the first 6-8 months of life, adults will need a much larger living area. A tank or enclosure of this size will be sufficient until your dragon is about 1.5 feet long from snout to tail tip.
When to Build your own Tank
Then you will need to purchase or build an enclosure of no less than 4 feet wide, 2 feet deep and 6' high. If you have an adult male, then 6 feet high and 6 feet wide is recommended. There are many good YouTube videos available by proud craftsmen on how to construct the perfect habitat. Smaller Indonesian subspecies may not need such spacious quarters, but Australian originated animals will.
Frilled Displays - Avoid Stressing Them Out
An interesting wrinkle for dragon habitat design planning is that they are easily startled into performing their famous threat display. Although entertaining for people, a dragon that displays more than once per day is undergoing serious stress.
Frilled lizards exposed to too many sights and sounds will display in reaction to those events. In the wild they would eventually run away in their unique bipedal manner. But in a cage they can’t do that. They just have to threat display over and over and hope it will be enough. This can cause their stress hormones to elevate to nearly 250% within 30 minutes. Think of it as being exposed to daily torture.
To prevent this, until your pet has been around you and your household for several months, the enclosure should be opaque on three sides. This is similar to putting blinkers on a cart horse to keep it from seeing more than it needs to and keeping it calm. Eventually, a solid wall can be altered and the owner can monitor the stress response to see if that wall visual barrier can stay down, or should go back up.
For substrate, you want something that holds humidity well, like Zilla Jungle Mix or Zoo Med Eco Earth. Or, a more cost effective plan might be to concoct your own bioactive ‘orchid bark’ mix. No, this is not material made of orchids (and that would certainly not be cost effective) but rather the formula for growing Phaleonopsis and other species of orchids indoors. Here is a popular recipe:
- Begin with ground coastal redwood bark
- Add an equal portion of ground Douglas fir bark
- Add 1/3 as much Osmunda tree fern fiber. Soak this in water for about 12 hours first before you mix. All these materials are coarse, and they allow air to circulate naturally throughout the substrate until smashed down by the dragon over time. The tree fern fiber is great at retaining moisture.
Aromatic woods such as pine and cedar should be avoided as they can cause lung and eye irritation. A 2-3 inches covering of bark substrate provides a sanitary, attractive, and moisture laden bedding. One note on choice of substrate…some keepers living in environments with high ambient humidity such as Florida recommend against a fibrous substrate as holding too much moisture and providing a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi.
When using a reptile mister, monitor the output for at least one month to make sure the substrate is not soaking, but rather has the texture of a well squeezed sponge.
Given the humidity requirements of this species, and some of the challenges that may be involved, considering a bioactive set-up should be an obvious choice, and well worth the added time and expense.
Provide your dragon with a basking spot with a temperature of 95 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and an ambient temperature of 80 to 85 degrees. In fact, nowhere in the habitat should the ambient temperature be less than 80 degrees. This is a very tropical species, at home in the steaming jungle, so don’t assume it’s warm enough. Keep it warm but not blistering (of course).
It is also important to give your dragon a choice, so most keepers provide heat on one side only so the dragon can either bask or chill, as the mood strikes. A basking lamp must be carefully placed so that it can never exceed 95 degrees F at the closest possible point to the dragon. Most experienced keepers recommend an undertank heating mat, especially for nighttime usage, in addition to the basking lamp.
It’s important to take readings at the surface of the bottom of the warm side, the cooler side, and any basking areas. For temperature measurement, a digital laser thermometer is a worthwhile investment. For less than $20, a new keeper can take readings from all over the habitat with the push of a button. Keepers need to remember that the ambient temperature of the room can affect the temperature of the habitat, so frequent readings are strongly recommended.
This species is used to some steamy conditions in the wild and can’t seem to get enough humidity.
An average humidity of 80% is needed. It can be challenging to keep the humidity up in a habitat with a screen top. There are ways to accomplish this. Some are more labor intensive than others, but it is up to the individual keeper’s preferences and lifestyle. Having a mostly solid top on your dragon’s habitat is the best way to ensure a steady, muggy atmosphere that your dragon will love.
In an enclosed and humid environment, the potential for harmful fungi and bacteria to build up quickly goes without saying. If you live in an extremely arid environment, you may want to have a closable solid top for daytime use but will definitely need to open it at night to let the enclosure breath. At these times, a screen top is essential for security.
Although the humidity level throughout even large habitats will be more consistent than temperature gradients, an hygrometer attached to the side of the enclosure will nevertheless take the guess work out of managing humidity. A successful keeper never assumes that once temperature and humidity provisions seem optimal, they will always stay that way. That is seldom true, and good monitoring of the conditions with changing seasons will prevent problems. Because this species will not drink water out of a dish, but only from droplets forming on leaves within their enclosure, they can become dehydrated quickly if humidity is neglected. This is one aspect of care that makes this species higher maintenance than certain other species such as bearded dragons.
For the sake of the lizard, and your sanity, just invest in a good mister, such as the Exo Terra Ultrasonic fogger or Zoo Med’s Reptifogger. Misters will cost about $50.
Note: because of the high temperature needs of this species, it is better to spend a little more on a unit that does not blast a cold spray into the enclosure at various intervals. Do a bit of research before purchase to make sure that the model you purchase is compatible with the size and configuration of the lizard’s habitat.
Many lizards do not need regular exposure to UVB light. The frilled dragon is not one of those. Direct sunlight is actually the best option, but many apartment dwellers cannot provide a separate outdoor sunning cage for their dragon. If your dragon does not have access to bright sunlight, a special light will be required to provide the UVB wavelength. Referred to as ‘black lights’ they are readily available through many pet supply outlets. This is NOT the same kind of black light used for psychedelic experiences (Oh wow man, bummer). It is a source of light in the 290-320 nanometer range. Zoo Med's reptile lights, and Durotest's Vita-Lite are two good products. These UVB light sources should be replaced every six months.
When installing the light, remember that UVB light cannot penetrate glass, so the top of the enclosure directly beneath the light must be a wire mesh that is not too fine. This is the one portion of the top of the habitat that should not be solid. A fluorescent UVB light source should be suspended less than 18 inches from where the water dragon spends most of its time, so a convenient shelf or basking branch right below the light is recommended. Mercury halide lights are another popular UVB source and can be effective up to 3 feet away.
If you have decided on a solid lid for your lizard’s habitat, this can present some challenges. A compromise may be needed. Your pet will need access to unfiltered UVB light for several hours per day. If you cannot provide unfiltered UVB for 12 hours per day, then supplementation with a calcium compound with D3 is a must. There is no harm in having the heat permeate glass sides, and may even be safer for the lizard, if he or she decides to exhibit a threat display, and accidentally brings the delicate membranes of the ‘fringe’ too close to an unshielded heat source. Again, depending on the dimensions and configuration of your set-up, common sense and good monitoring will be critical and adjustments made as needed.
Frilled Lizard Feeding Schedule
Frillies are voracious eaters. They will about 1/3 more than an average bearded dragon of the same size. Adults will need to be fed 3 times per week, juveniles will need daily feeding.
Foods that are recommended for Frilled dragons are:
- Insects — crickets, wax worms, butter worms, earthworms, silkworms, mealworms, dubia roaches
- Dark Leafy greens (should be offered weekly, some frillies will eat greens, some won’t)
- Live prey - pinkies and fuzzies
- Pinky: A pinky is a newborn mouse. Ranging from one to three grams in weight, depending on where you purchase them. They have no fur and are high in protein.
- Fuzzy: A fuzzy is a slightly older baby mouse, with the beginnings of fur. They are slightly bigger in size and weigh around 3-5g.
- Hopper: The next age stage. These are around 5-9g in weight and are fully formed, but not fully grown. These may prove too large for all but the largest of adult Australian males.
The size of the live prey you choose will depend on whether or not the dragon can both swallow and digest it. When in doubt, consider the width of the diner. That is, prey should be no wider than the widest part of the lizard’s head. Many keepers suggest no wider than 2/3 the dragon’s head width. This is the metric that I would use. It is safer to feed more and smaller prey than to run a risk of choking.
The amount of food you offer your dragon will vary depend up on its size and age. A good rule is to feed it only as much as it will eat and still stay fit. For instance, juvenile frilled dragons need to be fed daily to promote healthy growth. This may prove to be too often for an adult, but careful observation and record keeping will help the keeper to determine changes in feeding regime.
As with most reptiles that depend upon a diet primarily composed of insects, supplementation will be necessary. Calcium is probably the most important element in order to avoid the occurrence of metabolic bone disease. Calcium supplementation should be added to the food weekly and a multivitamin supplement every 2 weeks, weekly for juveniles. Regular dusting of prey items with a supplement such a ReptiCal is most important for young dragons - older animals that are closer to adult size need supplements less frequently. Whichever supplement you select, be sure that it includes a little iodine, another important nutrient for dragon health.
In addition to dusting, many keepers also gut load the feed items. “Gut loading” means placing the feeder insects on an enriched diet for at least 24 hours prior to being offered to your dragon. This enhances the nutritional value of the insects substantially. A purchased supplement such as those offered by reptile hobby stores is easily available and affordable. The convenience of a dry gut load diet, purchased from a pet supply house, is undeniable. However, many experienced breeders and keepers have found these products inadequate, so for the really persnickety keeper (and you know you should be) the following formula for gut loading your feeder crickets is suggested.
- 24 pbw whole wheat flour (not self rising)
- 8 pbw calcium carbonate with vitamin D3
- 4 pbw brewer's yeast (Not baker's yeast).
- 3 pbw soy powder
- 1 pbw paprika (this is to provide beta carotene)
The ‘pbw’ stands for parts by weight, whatever that weight may be. Think of this formula as a table of ratios. For instance, if you begin with 24 tablespoons of whole wheat, you would add 8 tablespoons of calcium carbonate and so forth. So, for every unit of whole wheat flour, you would add 1/3 as much of the same unit of calcium powder and so forth. Place your feeder insects onto this feed for 24 hours at least and then release the needed amount into your dragon’s habitat. Gut loading is a superior means of assuring your lizards nutrition, but it should not be used instead of a complete supplement, but rather in addition.
Lastly, always make sure your pet’s food source is healthy. Purchasing feeder insects from a reputable pet supply, and not using wild-caught items, is the best way to keep your dragon from contracting internal parasite infections.
Frilled Lizard Cleaning Schedule
Frequent cleaning of the tank is necessary because of the prodigious amount of poo that dragons will produce. Branches and vines will receive their fair share and should be included in monthly cleaning routine. Spot cleaning of the substrate may be an every-other day task. Below is a proposed schedule for dragon habitat maintenance that is not bioactive:
- Every other day: Spot remove any feces that you see.
- Weekly: Remove and dispose of the top 1 inch of bedding and replace with fresh.
- Bi-monthly: Place dishwasher safe furniture in the dishwasher every two weeks. Run on the pot-scrubber cycle.
- Monthly: Completely remove the lighter material that sits on top of a heavier base, if there is one (such as aquarium gravel or large pea gravel). The fibrous substrate will need to be disposed of and then replaced with fresh
Any gravel bedding beneath the fibrous top layer can be soaked in bleach, dried, and re-used. All plants should be removed and the entire habitat dry side sprayed with 10% bleach and allowed to dry for 2 hours. Do not use scented bleach. Plainly, during this time your dragon needs to be elsewhere.
If the habitat has a glass side (which the front probably does), spray with vinegar after the bleach has been applied and removed. Wipe down again for better visibility. After wiping down, wait another ½ hour, install sanitized gravel and fresh substrate and reposition any sanitized furniture and plants. Then close it all up as usual and allow another hour at least for the humidity to reestablish and temperatures to come up to the required level before reinstalling your dragon. This will reduce the amount of stress on your lizard during cleaning sessions and is more important than many people think.
If a bioactive set-up is in place, cleaning may only be needed twice per year.
General Husbandry Considerations
Poor environmental conditions can cause a number of illnesses, as can poor nutrition. Douglas Mader, DVM states that “If a reptile is not housed at its POTZ (preferred optimal temperature zone) it can become stressed. Over time, this will depress the animal’s immune system, predisposing it to disease.” This is quite true for frillies and can be tricky due to their heat and humidity requirements. Enclosures with proper heat that are poorly ventilated can result in respiratory infections.
If you can hear the dragon click as it breaths, it may be a sign that a respiratory infection is beginning. Another sign, and one that is probably easier for many keepers to detect, is mouth breathing. Healthy frillies breathe only through the nose, which should be clean and dry with no bubbling. If these signs are detected, a trip to the vet is recommended and a reconstruction of the heat/light/humidity/ventilation components of the enclosure.
Diligent attention to the frillie’s environment and diet will prevent all of the most common ailments, when internal parasites are excluded.