Tricia's Chinese Water Dragon, Reptile and amphibian care page Tricia's Store Herp Sites on the Net Reptile and Amphibian Care Sheets Reptile Health Care Articles Napoleon the Iguana's Home Page Care of the Chinese Water Dragon

Initial set up and yearly maintenance
of a Chinese water dragon

      Occasionally I receive a letter asking me to estimate the initial and yearly cost of keeping a Chinese water dragon.

     The following letter is my reply to one such inquiry.

     I was actually quite surprised when it came time to total the food costs. I know I over estimated on the amounts that the average dragon, and the amount that the average dragon keeper might feed the dragon.

      It might be a good idea for potential or brand new dragon owners to see the approx. cost of keeping one dragon healthy. :)

     I'm in Canada so my prices may differ slightly from what you are used to. If you are in the USA you can easily convert my price quotes to American equivalents by subtracting about 5%. Actually as of March 2010 the Canadian dollar and US dollar are almost equal but I suspect prices are still higher in Canada so you might subtract 5 to 10% for a US estimate of your costs.

Initial costs of maintaining a water dragon:

     Purchase price- $20 to $80 or so, depending upon where you live, and if the dragon is wild caught or captive bred. I highly recommend purchasing a captive bred dragon because it is likely to be healthier and thus cost less in the long run. Wild caught water dragons imported from countries like Vietnam often arrive injured, dehydrated, have parasite infections that need medical attention, and may have other illnesses that will mean multiple visits to a reptile vet to cure.

Initial visit to a reptile vet- $20 to $40 +

      All water dragons, whether captive bred, or wild caught should have a visit to a reptile veterinarian shortly after purchase. A fresh stool sample should be taken to the vet to be examined for internal parasites. If parasites are found the doctor will prescribe one or two antiparasitic medications to give to the dragon to cure the infection. I strongly believe that undiagnosed parasite infections are the number one killer of most new reptile pets.

Cage or Enclosure and set up:

The Enclosure:

      I don't recommend keeping a dragon in a glass aquarium at all. They do not understand glass at all and tend to rub their snouts off, especially when kept in too small tanks. If you must start with a tank due to lack of room or lack of funds, please purchase a 50 gallon (or larger) tank for a small water dragon (less than 12 inches) or a 100 gallon tank (or larger) for a larger dragon (12" plus).

      I don't know what the going rates are for tanks right now. You could purchase one in a pet or aquarium store, or you could call up these stores and ask if they have any slightly damaged tanks- ones with a slight crack on the side or on the bottom, or a problem with the top of the frame might be ok to use. You can use some aquarium safe silicon to seal up a crack- but don't count on that area of the tank being water proof. These "seconds" might be quite a bit cheaper. You can also look in the classified papers, or go to garage sales or flea markets looking for a tank or a suitable piece of furniture that might be converted into a great enclosure. This is often an inexpensive way to find a great enclosure for a great price. Please see " Inexpensive ways to make a great enclosure!" for more cost cutting ideas.


      Depending upon the size of your enclosure you will need one or two basking lights, which if bought in a pet store can cost approx. $14, and you will need at least one UVB fluorescent light (vitalight, reptisun or similar) which vary in price depending upon the size that you need to purchase. A 24" inch UVB fluorescent vitalight costs approx. $20, a 24" UVB fluorescent reptisun or Iguana 5.0 costs about $28.

      Some will argue that one product is better than the other, or that the UVB output is higher in one than the other. I will leave that for you to decide. I've used both of these products and others over the years and have had no problems as of yet with metabolic bone disease (calcium deficiency).

      Basking lights are necessary for providing light and heat, UVB fluorescent are important for helping the dragons use the calcium in their diet properly.

      You will also need clamp lamps or another type of suitable holder for the basking lamps- lets say they are $10 each or so. Plus, you will need a fixture to hold the UVB fluorescent light. You can purchase both of these in the pet stores, or in hardware stores. Please see " Inexpensive ways to make a great enclosure!" for more ideas on how to cut some expenses for lighting needs.


      You can purchase commercial substrates such as repti-litter or repti-bed or similar products but I find this loose litter type of substrate can be dangerous. It can cause intestinal impaction or obstructions if accidentally ingested. Please see the water dragon FAQ for more info about substrates and impaction etc.

      I prefer to suggest sterile top soil as the substrate. It's inexpensive, it helps maintain some humidity in the cage, it provides an area for a gravid female dragon to dig and lay her eggs, it's soft to land on, you can grow nice plants in it ... need I go on? :)

      Orchid bark is also suitable provided that the smaller pieces of bark are removed. Bark pieces should be larger than the dragons head to prevent accidental ingestion.

Water area:

      You will need a water dish. Preferably something large enough for the dragon to soak it's whole body, and at least part of it's tail in, with water at least up to it's chest in depth. Large Tupperware containers are wonderful for this, and they are inexpensive too.

      A misting bottle is also a great idea. You can pick on up in any hardware store. Mist the dragon twice a day to keep the cage humidity up.

Cage furnishings:


      Live plants are always nice in a cage. It gives the dragon a place to feel sheltered and secure, and live plants help add some, usually, much needed humidity to the environment. Plants such as pothos, Philodendron, Dracaena (dragon tree), hibiscus shrubs, ficus shrubs and spider plants are all safe to use in the cage. Plants aren't very expensive if you buy them in a large garden centre or nursery.

      Just be sure to ask if they use pesticides on the plants. To be on the safe side, I usually give my plants a few showers, and keep them out of the viv for a few weeks before adding them to the enclosure.

      Fake plants or fake vines, in addition to live plants or instead of are great too. I think there are more benefits to having live plants but fake plants will let you add some greenery to areas that you cant easily put a live plant. Fake plants and vines can cost anywhere from $2 to $20 depending upon what you are buying and where you are buying it.


      Branches, logs ... You can purchase grape vine, or nice pieces of drift wood in the pet stores, and sometimes in garden centres. Or you can go out hunting for just the right branch yourself. If you use a branch that you found make sure that it is a hard wood as this kind of tree is usually safe and non toxic. Do not use a soft wood such as spruce or cedar as the resins can be toxic to reptiles. Dead or fallen branches are suitable for use.

      Whether store bought or using a branch found in the forest I treat all of them as if they are contaminated. I fill my tub with water and add some bleach and soak the branch for 12 hours. Then I rinse the branch well and let it soak in plain water for another 12 hours. I do this to kill any germs, fungus, bacteria and perhaps any bugs that might be on the wood. Then I let it air dry, preferable in the sun, for a few days before adding it to my cage.

      That covers the basics of setting up an enclosure.

Yearly Maintenance:

      Substrates should be changed on a regular basis when it become damp or soiled. If the dragon defecates on the substrate a large area surrounding the soiled substrate should be removed as soon as possible.

      UVB fluorescent lights only put out UVB rays for 6 months to a year, even though they continue to provide light after that period ... don't let that fool you as the beneficial rays do not last. UVB fluorescent should be changed once or twice a year.

      Plants will need to be maintained and perhaps replaced once or twice a year. The cage will need to be cleaned on a regular basis, and the water container should be cleaned daily- both with soap and water, then rinsed, then with a disinfectant such as a weak bleach and water mix or a quatricide compound. The dragon should not be in the enclosure when you are cleaning it. So figure in a few extra dollars for cleaning solutions, and possibly a soft sponge or two for cleaning the cage.

Home-Made Enclosures:

      I haven't discussed building a large home-made enclosure because the materials used and the costs of those materials can vary greatly.

     I do suggest building a home-made enclosure, a large one, over using an aquarium of any size. Depending upon materials used a home made enclosure can cost $250 or more to build and set up. You can also add a larger water area with filters for the water in a larger enclosure. These are extras, beneficial extras, but they cost more initially of course.

      Large enclosures may also benefit from the use of a ceramic heat emitter (I use a 150 watt CHE) or heat panels, but if you choose to use one of these forms of heating equipment it's a good idea to use a proportional thermostat as well, such as a biostat or a Helix brand thermostat. Both of these thermostats cost over $100, but they take the worry out of keeping your animals enclosure temps regulated properly.

      For a complete description of my vivarium see and for additional information about the enclosures set up please see I'm sure I'm forgetting something . :)


      A water dragon can eat 5 to 10 food items a day, or more. The more variety that you can give your dragon diet wise the better. For a healthy selection of food items and an explanation of what is good and bad about each item please see the water dragon FAQ diet section

      I've tried to raise some of my own insects to defray the cost of feeding 5 water dragons and two box turtles ... but living in a small apt I have trouble raising the insects in the quantities that I need to feed all of my animals so I end up purchasing insects on a regular basis. I buy my crickets, mealworms and occasionally wax worms in large quantities. It's usually cheaper this way.

  • From the pet store:
  • Crickets: 100 for $6 (.06 ea.)
  • King mealworms: 100 for $10 (.10 ea.)
  • Wax worms: 250 for $25 (.10 ea.)
  • Earthworms: 25 for $4.50 (.18 ea.)
  • Feeder fish: Ahh I cant remember how much they cost!
  • I don't purchase the small mealworms (tenibrio) but I believe they are $2 or $3 for 100

          I can get even better prices for any of these food items if I buy 500 or 1000 at a time, which I do purchase on occasion, but I'm trying to give you an idea of daily costs.

  • Baby pinky mice, pre killed are $1.00 each.

          When I offer these to my dragons they eat two or three each. It is possible to purchase pre killed frozen pinkie mice in large quantities, and it's cheaper, but I've never done that. In fact, being in Canada I have a harder time with mail order. There doesn't seem to be any large insect or feeder mail order suppliers here really, and importing insects etc. from the United States is a pain! Plus when you convert to Canadian funds and add the shipping it's often cheaper to buy in bulk here. :( But if you are in the United States you might want to check out as they list several mail order suppliers of reptiles, reptile products and food items.

      If you'd like to try raising your own food items please see:

      On a typical day one of my dragons might eat 5 king mealworms (.50) , 2 earthworms (.36), and a few crickets (.18) . Lets say 10 food items. So that would cost approx. $1.04 a day or $7.28 a week. But don't forget I also give them whole prey food items once or twice a week. My dragons don't really like feeder fish, which I cant remember the price of right now, and which are also much cheaper than pinkies, so they get pinkies. Two or three a day, once or twice a week. So Pinky day costs about $2 to $3 per dragon. How about we just say, that if you don't raise some of your own food items, and you don't purchase food items in very large quantities, that it will cost approx. $10 (Canadian) or approx. $7 (US) to feed your animal on a weekly basis. That is, if the dragon eats the amount I'm suggesting/estimating.

      Crickets are the least expensive food item, but don't let that fool you. Crickets have the highest phosphorus content and a diet high in phosphorus, and perhaps low in whole prey food items can cause calcium deficiency to develop.

      So please, if you get a dragon, be prepared to feed it a large variety of food items in order to help maintain it's health. Believe me, curing a sick dragon costs a lot more than feeding it properly.


      As you can see I haven't broken everything down into prices for you. There are just too many variables involved. Water dragons, just as many reptilian pets, are not inexpensive to care for. They are high maintenance animals, and because they eat unusual food items, feeding them properly can be expensive. Medical bills tend to cost a bit more for them than they would for a common household pet, but perhaps the reason for this is that many reptile owners don't bring their reptiles into the vet until the animal is very very sick and needs extensive medical care. Perhaps if the animals were brought in before they became sick, for a check up, or as soon as a problem started to develop the cost of medical care would be much less.

A very rough estimate of a basic set up and initial costs:

  • Dragon: $50
  • vet check up: $40
  • tank: $50
  • 2 basking lights $20
  • 1 24 inch UVB $25
  • 2 clamp lamps $20
  • 1 fluorescent fixture $20
  • Substrate $5
  • water container $5
  • plants (live or fake) $20
  • grape vine $20
  • Misting bottle $ 3
  • -------------------------------------------
  • $278 Canadian (or approx. $194.60 US) *

      Of course these prices will vary depending upon where you shop, what brands you purchase, and or how savvy you are ... remember garage sales, flea markets, auctions, herp societies might have sales too, and of course a good 'ol walk in the woods for some cool branches.


  • small filter: $ 30
  • ceramic heat emitter: $ 40
  • proportional thermostat: $100
  • ----------------------------------
  • $170 Canadian (or approx. $119 US)

A very rough estimate of yearly maintenance:

  • Replace UVB fluorescent: $20
  • Replacement basking lights once: $25
  • Replace substrate at least twice: $10
  • Second water container to make life easier: $ 5
  • Replacement or additional plants: $10
  • Yearly checkup at the vets: $40
  • Calcium and vitamin supplements $40
  • Soap, bleach or quatricide for cleaning: $50
  • Yearly food costs, purchased foods: $520
  • ---------------------------------------------------
  • $720 Canadian Or $504 US

Your first year with your dragon could cost:

  • Basic set up and initial costs- $278 Canadian (or approx. $194.60 US)
  • Yearly maintenance and food: $720 Canadian Or $504 US
  • -------------------------------------
  • total= $998 Canadian or $698.60 US
  • Plus Extras- $170 Canadian (or approx. $119 US)
  • -------------------------------------------
  • Total with extras= $1168 Canadian or $817.60 US

      ** Based on a dragon eating 10 food items 6 days a week, and up to three pinkies on the 7th day, at full insect and pinky cost. Ahhhhhhhh! Thank god I raise at least half my own food! As you can see food is the major source of expense. I didn't realize it cost that much to feed them, provided they eat as much as I'm estimating.

      I've double checked my figures, it seems it really does cost that much. :( Remember I'm doing the best I can to guestimate prices, and these prices are Canadian ... so if you are in the USA please take about 30% off of these prices. I have already done the math for you in the lists above though. :)

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Water Dragon Books

Green Water Dragons, Sailfin Lizards and Basilisks (General Care and Maintenance of Series) by Philippe De Vosjoli

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      Basic but detailed information about the care, diet, and health of green water dragons, sailfin lizards and basilisks.

Anoles, Basilisks, and Water Dragons Anoles, Basilisks and Water Dragons : A Complete Pet Care Manual (More Complete Pet Owner's Manuals) by Richard D. Bartlett, Patricia P. Bartlett (Contributor)

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     Discussion of the general care of many species of anole, basilisks and water dragons. Excellent information regarding enclosures, cage building, and insect care and breeding.

Eat this Bug Eat This Bug : A Guide to Invertebrate Live Foods for Reptiles and Amphibians by Lynn Davis

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      This book is a guide for owners of reptiles and amphibians who feed insects and other live foods to their pets. Advice is offered for selecting , ordering and raising your own supply of live invertebrate foods. More than a dozen species of live foods are discussed. The book includes instructions on keeping cultures of insects, and recipes & diets for insects.

Last updated
April, 10, 2012

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