Before I dig into this – and I really want to dig into this – I want to add a disclaimer to the top of this post. The reasons for this disclaimer will become evident later in this posting. I’m not a Bearded Dragon expert. This post is not Bearded Dragon advice – your experience may be different than mine. And with that, let’s get on with the story.
Back in late 2022, we made the fatal mistake of killing time in one of “those” pet stores. You know the ones – a giant store in a plaza, that seems to carry a bit of [almost] everything pet related, including an array of pets for sale. These stores no longer sell dogs or cats in my city – dog and cat sales are illegal in pet stores these days (adoption only!) So now, the stores have branched out into something more “exotic” to fill the void.
To paint a picture of the store we were in (if you’ve ever been into one of these stores, they’re all pretty much the same), imagine a seemingly endless wall of barely decorated fish tanks, then a vertical cube-farm of various critters, followed by birdcages and larger rodent enclosures. Somewhere in the middle of this wall sits a handful of 1x1x1 foot cubes, each with its own Bearded Dragon. Normally, wandering past and saying “oh neat!” is enough. Not this time. This time, one of them waved at my wife.
As soon as this happened I knew we were in a spot of trouble. My wife is a pet maniac. She loves all animals big and small. It’s how we ended up with two dogs, two cats, a fish – and now – a lizard. I want to make it perfectly clear this was not an impulse buy. I have learned my lesson when it comes to pet store visits – do not give in immediately. Walk away. The enthusiasm will fade and we will get through this! But when we got home, the discussion continued. We started googling and were amazed at what we found.
According to the Internet; Bearded Dragons are the most social of domesticated lizards. They like being handled. They’re good with kids. They’re good with other pets. They’re awake during the day and sleep at night. They don’t get too big, but they’re not too small to be fragile. They have basically the intelligence of a dog (I’m not saying a Border Collie. Maybe something like a Lab).
So two days later, we found ourselves at the store again, this time, armed with a bit of knowledge. I still wasn’t convinced however, I wanted more information. I asked to speak to someone at the store who knew the most about Bearded Dragons; and to my amazement – they actually had someone working who actually owns Bearded Dragons and was very enthusiastic about them. Not only were all of the things I learned on the Internet true – according to the signage, the salesperson, and the “so you’re thinking of getting a Bearded Dragon” pamphlet I was given, Bearded Dragons are considered a “Beginner” pet.
I need to stop this conversation right now and clear something up. This theory is not based on citable sources per-se, but I’m pretty sure that I’m spot-on here. Beginner does not mean easy. It does not mean “for everyone”. Beginner simply means “This pet will not actively try to kill you, or itself, every chance it can get”. (For the record, I also believe Intermediate is “It could go either way”, and Advanced would be “This thing will kill you, everyone you love, and then itself in a spectacular display of violence”).
Armed with my newfound knowledge, we started buying the requisite supplies. As it turns out Beginner also does not mean cheap. It means $600 in supplies for a $150 animal – all of which were on sale. The thing is, we wanted to do this right. We don’t half-ass when it comes to pets, we’re whole-ass or nothing. So we got home and set everything up and to be honest, it looked weak. Like really weak – did we really spend $750 on this much stuff and this is all we have to show for it?
After some more research later online (and in an actual print book – purchased at the insistence of the salesperson), I found myself back at another pet store locally, because now I needed to get some things the first store simply did not sell. Things like wood branches and fixtures for climbing, actual rocks for basking, improved lighting, supplements, lighting backups, thermostats, timers, and more.
We’re now about $1000 into a so-called “Beginner” pet at this point. Things are still early for us and the honeymoon period has not worn off yet. But we quickly found out some of the things we assumed, were not necessarily correct. One of these assumptions was when we had purchased everything we needed, we would be done for a bit. We quickly found out this is not the case.
At the beginning of this process, someone jokingly said to me “When you buy a Bearded Dragon, you’re not just getting one pet. You’re getting two – the Dragon, and the things it eats”. They weren’t wrong. As it turns out, a juvenile Bearded Dragon can eat a lot of crickets. Like upwards of 30 to begin with, and I’m told can sometimes reach 70-80 in one day. While the Bearded Dragon doesn’t actively try to kill himself, these crickets do. We have to constantly maintain them with special supplements and cricket food, change out water that has a sponge in it so they don’t fall in and drown, and by god – watch their enclosure to make sure the lid is closed, lest we become “The Cricket House”.
Crickets aren’t cheap – the per each unit cost is pretty good, but when you add it up, it really adds up. Let’s do the math. We pay about 13 cents per cricket. Currently, our Dragon is eating about 50 crickets a day, which adds up to $6.50 worth of crickets every single day. For those without a calculator, that is $195 per month, which is roughly double what we pay for our German Shephard’s food each month. I haven’t even factored in the costs related to feeding these crickets to keep them alive, and dusting them with special calcium and D3 powder before we in-turn feed them to our Lizard, or the special “Cricket Keeper” enclosure we had to buy for them.
About three weeks ago, my biggest fear came true – one of my kids left the cover off one of the tubes in the Cricket Keeper, and an endless parade of crickets ran for the hills. Our cats and dogs have proven to be utterly useless in this department, and their capture rate remains at zero. Thankfully my wife is a remarkably skilled cricket spotter and capturer and she went to work, collecting almost 20 in one hunt. It wasn’t enough, however, and weeks later, we still see the odd cricket hopping around aimlessly. “OH MY GOD we’re the Cricket House!” I’ll yell, as my wife chases down the cricket “I have to catch it – that’s 13 cents getting away!”. (For what it’s worth – I could catch the crickets, but my method involves using a Kleenex and a toilet flush – she has more finesse and these crickets are captured alive, only to be fed to a hungry Dragon).
In response to our concerns on one of our many, many trips to the pet store for crickets, we were told “Don’t worry – once they’re an adult, they slow down a bit and eat more salad than crickets”. Oh yes – we also have to make a daily salad for this fellow. And it’s not like your standard-fare iceberg lettuce and veggies salad – we have to be very careful with what goes into this thing. We have learned about the dreaded calcium-to-phosphorous ratio in all leafy greens, veggies, fruits, dried flowers, and more. Basically, everything other than crickets needs to be evaluated to ensure the calcium is at least 1.5 more than the phosphorous in anything we feed him, otherwise, he can develop a horrible bone disease and die. We don’t want that – we do want him to be healthy and happy – so we now have to carefully craft a salad that is calcium-rich, interesting, and has variety day to day so he doesn’t get bored.
Remember how I said earlier that Bearded Dragons have the intelligence of a dog? I wasn’t kidding around folks – they won’t blindly eat whatever is put in front of them, they have preferences. We’ve been cautioned that too many treats are bad – they will hunger strike waiting for more. Too much fruit; will start to eat only that and get diabetes. Same salad as yesterday? Hard pass. In many ways, Bearded Dragons are more intelligent than my dogs – my dogs absolutely will blindly eat whatever we put in front of them.
Clearly, the book we read wasn’t cutting it information-wise, so I signed up for some subreddits which will remain nameless – but I’m sure people can figure out which ones they were. (Here’s where the disclaimer comes in from earlier). The Internet is full of some seriously jaded folks, but the people who frequent these subreddits are militant by nature. They are a hateful bunch where they are not afraid to unleash on a person asking for advice and some of the criticism is extremely harsh. I’m all for calling a spade a spade, but some of these comments are downright scary. I saw one post about a classroom enclosure and there were people trying to figure out what school the teacher was at so they could call the principal on them (one person even advocated for calling 911).
I have to be honest, I was afraid. It seemed like everything we’ve done so far has been downright wrong, our Bearded Dragon must be miserable, we’re horrible human beings and we should die in a fire for the sins we’ve committed. I gathered all this from other posts with people asking the same questions I have, because after lurking these subreddits for a bit I knew I could never ask these questions, as I wasn’t ready for the inevitable shitshow to follow. Finally, I saw a post of reason which made me feel better – Some sane individual pointed out (paraphrased) “Is my Bearded Dragon happy? Probably not – he lives in a cage. He was born and raised in a cage, not the Australian outback. He has never ‘known’ freedom and would probably die there if taken from his cage. So I do the best I can, but I can’t say if he’s happy or not – that’s not for us to say”.
And I realized then – as long as we’re doing the best we can – we’re probably doing ok.