The Chinese water dragon (Physignathus cocincinus) has a cousin, the Australian water dragon. They are very much the same, but are both a little different. They differences can be small, but if taken into account, much stress may be relieved. The Chinese water dragon is a fairly large, docile lizard that is slowly replacing the popular and troublesome iguana. They are great first pets, but they require a lot of space and attention.
Chinese water dragons are green with darker stripes of green or brown running down their sides. They have a long tail, which is used as a defense mechanism. This tail makes up almost half to the length of a water dragon.
They will reach anywhere from 2-3 feet. Males are generally larger than females. Males will also have brighter colors and larger crests. These crests will be found on both genders, and continue all the way down the tail. This is what makes their tail so painful.
With the right care and housing, a water dragon should not be overweight or too skinny. They should be fit and full, not stuffed or starved. A healthy water dragon should easily live over 15 years. This is a long commitment, but they are worth it.
Water dragons can become very docile and friendly. Many owners let them roam their room or house for periods of exercise. To have a tame dragon, you must first train it. Training a hatchling is much easier than an adult, and it will grow into your touch and smell better.
When first handling a water dragon, never grab or pull it. They will not forgive you. Water dragons will learn who to trust, or not to trust from positive and negative experiences. Be gentle, and let the dragon learn your scent.
Hatchling water dragons are voracious eaters because they have a lot of growing to do. They should be fed at least daily an insect diet. As they get older vegetables and fruits will be taken. A baby water dragon can be fed anything that fits into its mouth. This include appropriately sized crickets, meal worms, super worms, earthworms, and even goldfish or small mice. Feed as much as they will eat in 20 minutes and remove any leftover prey items.
As baby water dragons grow into adults the size of their food should increase. At a year of age they will be almost done growing and can be fed 3 times a week. Now that they are bigger, larger prey items like mice, fish, and roaches can be fed more often. Adults will still take super worms and crickets, but meal worms will be much too small for them.
Adults will also take vegetables with every feeding. They prefer carrots, sweet potatoes, and yellow squash. When served, this salad should be chopped into cubes that are small enough for a water dragon to eat. Most water dragons will love you forever if you provide them with the occasional strawberry or blueberry. Raspberries and bananas work too.
Hatchling water dragons grow quick so many cages will be needed until it finally becomes an adult. Babies can start in a 10 gallon tank. You have to be the judge of when the cage is too small. There should be plenty of room to move around in and explore. Once it gets cramped upgrade to a 20 or 40 gallon.
Adults need an enclosure that is at least 3x3x4. Adults and hatchlings will spend much of their time off of the ground so height is an important factor. There is not really a maximum size enclosure for adults. The more room, the better.
The substrate’s main purpose is to hold and release humidity. Simple substrates like newspaper and paper towel are easy to clean and replace. Some keepers will want a nicer looking substrate like non-fertilized potting soil or sphagnum moss. You must realize that it is a lot of work cleaning and replacing these substrates every few months. Do not use wood shavings because they are toxic to reptiles.
Plenty of foliage and thick, sturdy branches off the ground will satisfy your dragon. Hides on the ground tend to be big and take up a lot of room. Make sure they feel like they are in a tree canopy high off the forest floor. However, they will climb down to eat and swim in their water.
Reptiles are ectotherms, or cold blooded. They require heat to survive unlike us. Water dragons like it fairly warm. An overhead bulb should be used to heat the tank to 84-88F. These temperatures can drop 15F at night.
Depending on how large the enclosure is, two or three bulbs may be needed. There should be a cooler side or spot in the tank in case the water dragon feels it needs to cool off. The bulbs you use should also contain UVA and UVB. UV rays are an essential part of a water dragon’s cage.
Under tank heaters should be avoided because they do not heat the air, only the tank and substrate. Avoid hot rocks because they will overheat and cause burns.
Because water dragons live in forests and canopies, water and humidity is plentiful. This should be duplicated in captivity. 60-80% humidity can be maintained by misting the enclosure once in the morning and once at night. Be sure the tank gets a chance to dry out or else mold and fungus may develop.
Hence the name, water dragons love their water. A large, deep water bowl on the bottom of the enclosure is a must. Rocks and other objects can be placed in this bowl for something to lay on and come partially out of the water. Water dragons may spend a lot of their time in it so the water will need to be filtered or changed daily, or every other day. This water bowl will help with the humidity. If you have humidity problems try having live non-toxic plants scattered around the enclosure.
Replace the water every day. Paper substrates need to be replaced when soiled, and loose substrates every 2-4 months. Spot clean daily, and clean out the entire cage with 5% bleach solution once a month or when needed. Be sure to remove any leftover prey items.
Before breeding, there are some things you should know. Be sure you are comfortable with the dragon(s) you have now. Everything should be running smoothly. Baby water dragons will also be a big expense.
Males housed together will fight to the death. A male and female fully mature can mate from April to June. If you want to get them “in the mood”, mist the enclosure more often from January to March. The photoperiod should decrease to 10 hours of light and 14 hours of dark. The temperatures can also be lowered by 10F during this time. When this happens, they will only need to eat once a week.
Some breeders do not do the hibernation process, or simply reduce the photoperiod. Once the hibernation is over the male and the female can be introduced. The male will chase the female, and bob his head. Once you are sure they have mated, they should be separated.
Females will need a lay box big enough for her to dig in. This can be filled with vermiculite or sphagnum moss 7-10 inches deep. This lay box should be moist, or else may be ignored giving the female no place to lay her eggs. A gravid female will stop eating as much, have a large belly, and look extremely skinny. Do not worry this is normal behavior.
Next is the incubation. 2/3 of the egg should be gently placed in peat moss. Temperatures in the incubator should stay a constant 86F. Keep the humidity high, but not so high that the eggs rot or have mold growing on them. These eggs should be placed 1-2 inches apart. Once they hatch, the real fun begins.
The hatchlings should be removed from the incubator when they are fully out of their egg into their own cage. Babies can be kept together, but monitor them to be sure that they do not fight, and are all eating.
Hatchlings will eat crickets, mealworms, and vegetables. The rest of the care is covered in the above care sheet.
Chinese water dragons are great lizards with a lot of personality. They need large cages, and eat a lot but overall, they are good pets to have. These lizards may not be for the first time lizard keeper. Be sure to research and do your homework before purchasing any pet.
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Robert Crespo - December 3, 2020
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