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How Long Do Bearded Dragons Live?
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As is true with many wild animals kept as pets, bearded dragons live longer in captivity when given proper care. The key term here is proper care. Otherwise, they can live short, miserable, captive lives and would be better off taking their chances against their natural predators.
Wild bearded dragons tend to live 7 years, give or take a year. Pampered dragons, tended by loving and skilled keepers, can live to 15 years. The key factors for ensuring a captive bearded dragon's longevity are:
- Good genetics
- nutrition - acceptable vegetables and insects
- prompt professional medical attention when needed.
This post will concern health care, both illness prevention and how to know when professional intervention is needed.
Common Bearded Dragon Health Problems
Metabolic Bone Disease
One of the most common illnesses for bearded dragons, or indeed any reptile that is fed only vegetation and insects, is Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD). It is also the easiest to prevent. This is a disease of deficiency, rather than contagion or ingestion of toxins or parasites.
It may be seen in any beardie at any age but juveniles are the most commonly affected. Two factors which predispose beardies to metabolic bone disease are improper calcium to phosphorus ratios in the diet and lack of Vitamin D3 due to inadequate UVB exposure.
In the wild these animals would be able to manufacture their own D3 through exposure to full spectrum sunlight, just as humans do. But an animal in an artificial habitat with improper lighting must be supplemented with ingestible Vitamin D3. Sounds easy enough, especially since cheap and palatable powdered supplements are readily available. But wait, there’s a catch to this approach. Before delving into that, let’s look at how MBD manifests.
Symptoms of MBD can be mild and hard to detect at first. They may begin with mild weakness, poor digestion, and slow growth, and graduate to more severe neurological signs such as tetany, tremors, and even convulsions. Vertebrae and long bones may fracture, resulting in full or partial paralysis, and skeletal deformities such as bowed or swollen legs and jaws, are all possible.
As this wasn’t enough, the mandible and maxilla will become rubbery and deformed and will bend if gentle pressure is applied from both sides and teeth will be loose. The beardie may not even be able to move or stand due to the inability to support its own body weight. It can be fatal, but it can also be cured, although recovery can take many months.
All of these symptoms are a direct result of decalcification of the bones. And it is not enough to supply calcium supplements to the food items provided and assume that this will do the trick. Because without the added component of D3, the animal’s body cannot metabolize the calcium and it passes right through its digestive track. In a similar fashion, foods with too much phosphorus can inhibit proper metabolic absorption of calcium. As if this wasn’t enough to grapple with, D3 in large amounts can be toxic! It’s a complicated system, and one that many new keepers get wrong.
A proper calcium:phosphorus ratio should be approximately 1.2:1. If pet owners feed only one type of plant material and the composition of that material is such that phosphorus far outweighs calcium in the diet, MBD could eventually result. For example, although green peppers are generally considered good for beardies, they are also high in phosphorus, and are one of those foods that should not be fed exclusively, but rotated with other foods.
The simplest solution to prevent metabolic bone disease is proper lighting. For instance, if you have a 10% or better (12% or even 14%) T5HO UVB tube in a reflector hood mounted the correct distance above a basking spot, then artificial D3is not needed. By dusting a young beardie’s food twice per week with a calcium supplement free of D3 and phosphorus and providing correct lighting and rotating food items, you can keep your beardie strong and vigorous with the solid bones needed to take him or her to a ripe old age.
A second serious illness of bearded dragons in captivity is infectious stomatitis or mouth rot. This is a catch all term for a condition directly related to stress, often caused by an unsatisfactory enclosure. A terrarium or vivarium that is too hot, too cold, or too small can cause stress (think about the three bears, where the porridge must be ‘just right’). Also, a filthy environment with high levels of ammonia that the animal has to constantly breathe in, as well as a buildup of harmful bacteria, can also contribute to mouth rot.
How can you tell if your pet may be starting to experience this disease? Careful daily observation of your beardie is extremely helpful in establishing a baseline for normal behavior and appearance. Since infectious stomatitis starts off with increased amounts of mucus in the oral cavity and excessive salivation, this may be the first thing you see that rings alarm bells (and should).
You may see little pinpoint hemorrhages inside the mouth on the oral tissues called “petechiae.” Left unnoticed and untreated, these red dots may merge, and the normally pink tissue may change to red or purple. Following this, the tissue in the area swells, gum tissue may become cracked and bleeding, and oral tissues may die and begin to cause damage to deeper tissues, and even the jaw bones.
This condition is serious and painful, and it requires aggressive treatment. In severe cases involving the jaw bones, animals may have loose or missing teeth. Secondary infections of pneumonia may result as the sick beardie inhales pathogenic organisms into its lungs. As soon as any signs of mouth rot are detected, your pet needs to see a vet immediately.
Veterinarians will usually first diagnose infectious stomatitis by taking a thorough history. They will want to know the temperature ranges in the animal’s habitat, the humidity levels, the beardie’s actual diet and its behavior in the enclosure. Bacterial and fungal cultures will be needed to identify the pathogens involved and X-rays of the head may well be ordered. Blood tests and biopsies may also be required for complete diagnosis. Cheee-ching!
A round of antibiotics or anti-fungal (or sometimes both) will be required as well as daily oral care. And this illness is quite as preventable as MBD, with just a little extra effort. In the wild the animals can move from location to location, leaving feces far behind them. In captivity, that is the keepers job. Daily spot cleaning is best, every other day usually sufficient. But if you're performing weekly removal of feces, you are not providing the care your bearded dragon requires. A clean enclosure and carefully monitored behavior and appearance are the way to go in preventing this disease or at least catching it early.
Not last and certainly not least is Yellow Fungus, Chrysosporium anamorph of Nannizziopsis vriesii (CANV). This is a contagious and often lethal ailment for which palliative care is often the only option, and dragons with this disease often die within 18 months. Although it can be occasionally be seen in wild BDs, it seems to be a condition of stress caused by poor sanitation and overcrowding in captivity.
This disease begins with internal mycotic bodies that eventually invade the skin surface, causing the distinctive yellow patches that give this disease its name. Untreated, these patches generally grow in size slowly, indicating further degradation of internal organs. Because these outward signs only show up when the organism has a firm grip on your pet’s insides, do not wait, but get him/her to a reptile vet immediately.
Although there are many anti-mycotics (as the drugs are called) on the market, an experienced reptile vet will know which ones are most recommended. For instance, one popular drug has been used long enough and with such limited success that a resistance to it has built up in the organism of concern, and therefore it should no longer be used. There is a newer one, Voriconazole, that has been proven by Belgian researchers to be relatively effective in 80% of cases, so proper chemo-therapy very much matters.
The bad news is that although there is a strong correlation between stress and the manifestation of this disease, there are also instances where animals kept in ideal conditions still develop this disease anyway. It’s not fair to anyone, but unfortunately it can happen. Nevertheless, the very strong correlation with the appearance of this disease and conditions of over-crowding, poor sanitation, and insufficient light and heat in the enclosure make providing the very best of husbandry conditions well worth it for prevention.
In summary, Bearded Dragons can live twice as long in captivity when provided with excellent care 9.9 times out of 10. The first line of defense for these animal’s welfare is reducing stress through proper feeding, lighting, heating, sanitation of the enclosure, and not housing too many together, even young ones. And although they tolerate handling well, remembering to allow them plenty of time to recover from interacting with a keeper can also be helpful. Nobody likes being on stage 24 hours a day, so every so often hang a Do Not Disturb sign on your beardie’s enclosure and you will add even more years to your pet’s life.