Basic Care: Water Dragon
Asian water dragons, also known as the green water dragon or Chinese water dragon, can make beautiful pets but they have specific care needs that must be met in order for them to thrive. Once they are used to your presence, they are generally tame and easily handled. While they occasionally fight among themselves or compete for superiority with cage mates, they are rarely aggressive toward human keepers. If frightened, they might give you an open-mouthed threat, which they rarely follow through on, or a light tail whip when picked up. If scared, they may turn dark or try to hide behind a plant or in their water, and they may still dash away.
Asian water dragons originate from the southeastern Asian mainland - Thailand, southern China, Vietnam and Cambodia. The majority of water dragons for sale are wild-caught lizards that were exported to the United States for pets. These wild-caught water dragons usually have heavy infections with intestinal parasites and may need repeated treatment with prescription anti-parasitic medications to recover and become healthy again. It is also not uncommon for wild-caught individuals to have open wounds, scabs or scars on their nose and lower jaw from rubbing their faces against the cages trying to escape or running into glass or screening when startled. Small numbers of captive-born babies are available from private reptile breeders and these are much less likely to have internal parasites or injuries. You can expect to pay a lot more for a captive-bred water dragon than a wild-caught imported one, but the piece of mind knowing your animal will be healthier ofsets this cost.
Asian water dragons can live 10 to 15 years.
Adult males grow to approximately 3 feet in length and adult females measure approximately 2 feet. Hatchlings start out about 1 inch snout to vent, and 5 to 6 inches in total length.
In juvenile water dragons the upper surfaces of their body are a brownish green, while a pale green to white covers their lower abdominal area. Light-colored stripes of white or beige run vertically on either side of the body, and a brown and green banded tail, very large eyes and short snout make up the rest of their features. After growing to approximately 10 inches, and after shedding their skin a few times, the upper body becomes a bright green, ranging from aqua to mint green.
Adult Asian water dragons are green, ranging from a dark kelly green to a light mint green. The lower body is generally white or a very light yellow, while the vertical stripes that run along the sides of the water dragon's body are a pale green, mint green, aqua or even turquoise in color. The throats of juvenile and adult water dragons can also be quite colorful, ranging from a very pale yellow, orange, peach, bright pink, fuchsia or even dark purple.
Knowing the sex of your water dragon is important if you want to keep more than one in the same enclosure. Two mature males will fight, and these fights can often result in serious injury or even death. Two female dragons usually get along but they, too, can become territorial and may do better housed alone. When housing multiple dragons in one large enclosure, the best mix is one male to two or three females. If one dragon is not eating or getting thin, it needs to be removed and taken to a veterinarian to make sure it is not suffering from an illness. It may simply be bullied by the others and will need to live by itself afterward.
If you have a female and do not plan on breeding, it is important to have it spayed at about 1 yr of age by an experienced reptile veterinarian to prevent serious problems that can arise later in life. The tail is laterally flattened, banded brown and green, ends in a fine point and makes up 70 to 75 percent of their length. Water dragons use their tails for balance and leverage when climbing, and they can use them to whip would-be attackers, predators or keepers.
Almost all green water dragons appear female until they attain 14 to 16 inches in length, at which time males begin to develop larger heads, jowls and a higher nuchal crest. The femoral pores of adult males are slightly larger than that of the females too. When dragons are mature and able to breed, they are generally about 2 years old and 2 feet long.
Asian water dragons are arboreal lizards, meaning they climb and like to be up high. An ideal enclosure for one or more adult dragons should measure 6 feet tall, 3 to 4 feet deep and 4 to 6 feet long. Keep in mind that water dragons don't seem to understand glass and often end up rubbing their snouts on glass walls, often permanently damaging their noses and lower jaws. A good alternative is to find a large screen enclosure instead. If the enclosure is large, damage from snout rubbing seems to be less of a problem. You can also try taping a visual barrier (such as paper or cardboard) around the outside bottom of the enclosure, so the water dragons can't see through. This reportedly can curb snout rubbing as well.
Cypress mulch works well for a cage substrate since it also increases cage humidity, allows them to dig, and breaks their fall if they jump off a perch in their cage. Sphagnum moss also works well but is much more expensive to use. Substrates that are composed of coconut husk may cause eye irritation that can lead to infection in water dragons. Make sure your dragon's food is offered in a bowl as an eager dragon can accidentally eat some mulch or moss trying to grab an insect or piece of salad. Most of the time, this material passes through the water dragon, but in some cases it can cause intestinal blockage that will need veterinary care.
Heating and Lighting
Incandescent basking lights can maintain proper cage temperatures, and their heat combined with misting can also help maintain humidity. Water dragons are diurnal lizards, meaning they are active during the day and sleep at night. The lights, therefore, need to go off at night. For this reason, a lightless heat source, such as a ceramic heat emitter for day and night heating might also prove beneficial. We recommend using a thermostat or rheostat control to safely maintain the needed temperature range. Daytime temperatures should range from 84 to 88°F, with a basking area of 95-100°F. Nighttime temperatures should range from 75 to 80°F. It's a good idea to have at least two digital thermometers in the cage, one in the cool side and one in the warm side of the enclosure. Improper temperature ranges can lead to a water dragon with a weakened immune system and inadequate digestion of nutrients due to slower metabolism.
Natural, unfiltered sunlight is the very best lighting for water dragons and most other herps. Unfortunately, many people who own water dragons cannot provide natural sunlight at all. If you can, by all means do so, especially if you can build an outdoor wire cage with plants and foliage for shelter, shade and security. Never put a glass tank that contains a dragon - whether it's indoors or outside - in direct sunlight, as this could cause severe overheating and death.
Provide ultraviolet-B light (UVB) in the form of fluorescent or mercury vapor lighting such as Zoomed's Reptisun 10.0 or Powersun Mercury Vapor bulbs. UVB is necessary for a dragon to absorb calcium and build strong healthy bones. Without proper UVB lighting, water dragons often develop nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism (also known as metabolic bone disease), which causes their bones to soften, bend and break easily. It can also lead to tremors, seizures, and death if action isn't taken to reverse the deficiency.
Your water dragon should have light during normal seasonal daylight hours. Use a timer to create a day/night cycle; it turns the lights on at 7 a.m. and turns them off near sunset, perhaps 7 p.m.
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Humidity and Water
Water dragons enjoy a humid environment, so maintain cage humidity at close to 80 percent. In Arizona, this takes quite a bit of extra effort. Enclosed cages, those built with glass or wood, with sliding doors and solid lids often easily maintain humidity at the proper levels. Open-topped glass tanks and screened cages pose more difficulty. However, it is important to make sure there is still plenty of ventilation so that the air does not stagnate, as this will lead to mold growing within the enclosure.
Moving water in the cage helps increase humidity. You may use something simple, such as an air-stone bubbler placed in the water, or create an impressive waterfall using an aquarium powerhead. Live plants and substrates that hold moisture also help increase cage humidity, as does misting the cage once or twice a day with a spray bottle.
Water dragons enjoy swimming and soaking in water. Provide a large pan that's deep enough to allow soaking (hatchlings do fine with a shallow pan). Change the water frequently to maintain cleanliness. If you choose to build an elaborate naturalistic vivarium complete with a pool for your water dragons, you'll need to use an aquarium filter in the water area. If you do not see your water dragon using the water area several times a week, take it out of its cage and give it a soak in shallow lukewarm water in a separate container, like a plastic shoebox.
Any water area must be kept clean. Unfiltered water areas need cleaning once a day, and filtered water areas should have a complete water change and cleaning no less than every three or four days.
As arboreal creatures, water dragons need some high basking areas in the cage to rest in. Climbing branches or shelves within the enclosure will allow them to reach the upper limits of the cage. Live or artificial plants and leafy green foliage throughout the enclosure provide shelter and will make your water dragon feel more secure in its environment. If you choose to use live plants you might try Dracaena, hibiscus and ficus bushes, Pothos, Philodendron, and spider plants. Epiphytes such as staghorn ferns can be used too, as well as some bromeliads.
Diet and Nutrition
Water dragons eat a variety of live food items ranging from crickets, mealworms, king mealworms, waxworms, earthworms, grasshoppers, butterworms, locusts, feeder fish, pinkies and fuzzies. These should be dusted with Zoo Med Rep Cal (calcium supplement) daily except for once a week when you should use Zoo Med Reptivite. Make sure you use a supplement such as Zoo Med Reptivite which contains true vitamin A and not just beta-carotene to prevent problems with the eyes, mouth, and breathing.
Whole prey items, such as pinkies, fuzzies and feeder fish, are an important component of a juvenile-to-adult water dragon's diet. These items are high in calcium and other nutrients, and if offered to the dragon two or three times a week will help maintain a good bone structure.
Water dragons eat some fruits and vegetables. Offer finely shredded green leafy vegetables (kale, romaine, mustard greens, squash) and small chunks of fruit that have been dusted with Zoo Med Repcal (without D3) three times a week.
Water dragons can become picky eaters and may refuse to eat when they become bored with their food. This happens most often when an owner only feeds perhaps two types of food items most of the time. One way to combat boredom is to vary the diet by offering crickets one day, mealworms the next, earthworms the day after that, and so on.