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Care of The
Chinese Water Dragon

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Care of The Chinese Water Dragon

Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Tricia Power

      First of all ... Congratulations! I imagine you are either reading this because you are thinking about getting a water dragon, just bought one or already have one.

     Water dragons are wonderful lizards! If you get your dragon going properly you will have a fairly tame, non aggressive pet!

      I have written this care guide specifically for Chinese water dragons but there are a few other species that are very similar in care.

      The Australian water dragon, Sailfin lizards, and most species of Basilisks can be kept in a similar fashion as those described in this document.

      This article has been very helpful to thousands of water dragon owners like yourself - especially when first starting out. May I suggest that you either bookmark this page, print it out or both? I'm certain that you'll find it worth reading more than once.

What is a water dragon?

Genus Species:

     Physignathus cocincinus- Green Water Dragon

     Physignathus lesueurii- Australian Water Dragon

     Please note that this document will contain only information pertaining to the keeping of the Chinese water dragon (Physignathus cocincinus) from this point onward.

     The care of the Australian water dragon (Physignathus lesueurii) is apparently similar to that of the Chinese water dragon. There is at least one other species classed in the genus Physignathus, and that is Physignathus temporalis, but I have been told that both lesueurii and temporalis will be re-classed in the near future.

Size and Description:

     Hatchlings are about 1 inch snout to vent, and 5 to 6 inches (13-15 cm) in total length; are often a brownish green dorsally (upper surface of the body) and a pale green to white ventrically (lower abdominal surface of the body), light coloured stripes (usually white or beige) run vertically across each side of the body, with brown and green banded tails, very large eyes and short snouts.

     Adult males are approx. 3 feet (92 cm) total length, adult females are approx. 2 feet (61 cm) total length. The tail of these lizards, from my observations, appears to make up approximately 70% - 75% of the water dragons total length. The tail is laterally flattened, banded brown and green, and ends in a fine point. Dragons use their tails for balance and leverage when climbing, and can use them to whip would be attackers, predators, and, or keepers. :)

     Adult water dragons are, of course, green with colours ranging from a dark forest green to a light mint green. The lower body of adult dragons is generally white or very light yellow. Vertical, slanted stripes run along the sides of the water dragons body. These stripes can range in colour from a pale green , mint green, to an aqua or turquoise colour. The throats of juvenile and adult water dragons can also be quite colourful, with throat colours ranging from a very pale yellow, to orange, to peach, and bright pink.

     The head has a triangular shape, and on adult male dragons the head will become quite large and wide. Large, rounded, white scales run just below the mouth area and end in one or two larger pointed scales where the head and neck meet. The tongues of water dragons are similar in shape to our tongues, in that they are thick and wide, but their tongues end in a very small fork. The tongue has a sticky surface that helps them to catch and hold their prey. Their teeth are small and pointed- the better to eat a omnivorous diet- and can draw blood if a dragon were to bite their keeper (luckily most dragons are even tempered and rarely bite their keepers). A dark stripe runs from the lower corner of the eye and extends out toward the ear .

     A very small (1-2mm) round shiny spot located at the top of the head, between their eyes, is known as the parietal eye or the third eye. The parietal eye is thought to help water dragons, as well as a number of other reptiles, sense differences in light. It is believed that they use their third eye to help them thermoregulate. For example, it may help them to decide upon a good basking spot, or it may help them sense that light levels are decreasing and that they had better find shelter for the night.

     Water dragons have well developed nuchal crests, but they are often higher, and have longer spikes on male dragons. Males also have prominent mid-sagittal crests.

     Water dragons have well developed legs. The front legs are generally much more slender than the back legs. The front legs, and strong 5 toed front claws, are used to climb and grasp branches. The muscular back legs are used to aid in climbing and swimming, as well as jumping or leaping from object to object! Water dragons can run bipedally, that is on their hind legs, and this is quite a sight to see, indeed! Their hind feet are 5 toed as well, with the middle toe being the longest toe. Their claws are long and thick and end in sharp needle like points.

     A recent article stated that water dragons are able to change their colours. While that is true to some extent, this article makes water dragons seem almost chameleon like in that ability, and this just isn't so. I have found that a warm, happy and healthy water dragon will most often be a nice bright shade of green, and this green will change shades only slightly if the dragon is content. A cold, sick, stressed, or frightened dragon will have a greater colour range from almost black to pale green. So if your dragon is in one of the latter colour ranges most of the time please take note of it because it is likely to be either cold, ill, or badly stressed.


     Chinese Water Dragon lizards originate from southeast Asian mainland (Thailand, Southern China, Vietnam, and Cambodia).

     Chinese water dragons are large diurnal, arboreal lizards, living mainly in the branches of trees and bushes, however they have also been found in burrows in sandy places.

     These lizards are also known to be semi-aquatic. Their long laterally flattened tail is well utilized when swimming.

     After viewing this information go on to visit Chinese Water Dragons in Vietnam- Natural Environment and learn more about sightings of water dragons in the wild!

Life span:

     Anywhere from 10 to 20 years ( from the feed back that I've received, the oldest one that I personally know of is an 11 year old male that one of my email buddies has, and this dragon is going strong, I'm sure he has many years ahead of him!) So be prepared for a long term pet! :) I have also heard that the two adult Chinese water dragons kept at the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo are 15 and 17 years old. I was told this by a curator who has recently confirmed these ages.


     Boy this is a hard one- With age males develop larger heads, large jowls, and a larger crest behind the neck, the femoral pores of adult males are slightly larger than that of the females. When dragons are mature and able to breed, they are generally about 2 years old and 2 feet in length. They are generally considered adults when they have mature colours just under their chins. One of mine has a nice yellow chin, and the larger one has a nice peach and aqua coloration under his chin. From what I can tell it is very difficult to tell if you have a male or female until they are mature. They generally have to be about twenty inches or longer in total length before their secondary sexual characteristics begin to develop thus making males and females easily distinguishable from one another. Your vet can probe your dragon to find out, but if you have a good vet he won't do this unless your dragon is about 18 months to 2 years old. There is also the danger of damaging the dragon when this is done, please keep this in mind if you decide to have your dragon probed! A safer way to sex your dragon is to compare it to other dragons. Please visit the Water dragon photo gallery to see pictures of male and female dragons.

     I've just complete a page on Sexing your water dragon- Do I have a male or female, which contains much more descriptive details about the differences in sexual characteristics than in this section. Check it out!

Thinking About a mate for your dragon:

     Hmmmm ... You better be pretty sure of what sex your dragon is first..... Two males generally will not get along, two females usually will. Of course a male and a female would be your best bet then you could get them to breed and provide more captive bred dragons to the herp community and hopefully help lower the amount of wild caught dragons that are brought in to be sold! :) Dragons breed very easily! :)

     I think it is best for new water dragon owners to begin with one lizard at first, unless you can get a guarantee that the company you are buying from will accurately sex a male and female lizard for you, if that's what you want of course.

     Keep your one Dragon for a while, get to know it, let it adjust, and then get it a mate. You will learn more from your first dragon, and make fewer mistakes with your second! :)

     Be advised, when you get your second dragon have a fecal (stool) test done for parasites (do this with your first too) before putting it in with your first dragon. Also check both dragons carefully for mites- they are hard to get rid of and you don't want to have an infestation.

     It's good to quarantine new animals for a month or more until you are sure they are healthy before putting them in with others. Please see New Reptile- Quarantine, and signs of Illness. Prior to putting your new dragon in with your first one, take the time to introduce them for short periods, supervise the visits, watch for fighting, aggressive behaviour, and stress. In time they should get along fine, but it will be less stressful on them and on yourselves if you do it slowly.

Moving on - the next step in the care of
your Chinese Water Dragon

     Now that you've learned some of the basics of caring for a Chinese Water Dragon you should move on and read my page Behaviour, Taming and Handling of the Chinese Water Dragon. On this page you'll learn about your new dragons personality, how to handle your dragon, as well as how to tame him or her, and how your new dragon will interact with you, it's surroundings and possibly its cage mate.

      I'm quite certain that at some point during your time with your water dragon you'll come to wonder about it's arm waving, head bobbing, throat puffing or why it chases it's cage mate or sleeps on top of it's fellow water dragon. The Behavior Taming and Handling page is where you'll find these answers.

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Recommended Reading

You may purchase some of the recommended books below through my Reptile and Amphibian Recommended Reading Page.

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.

  1. The General Care and Maintenance of Green Water Dragons, Sailfin Lizards, and Basilisks by Philippe de Vosjoli, Advanced Vivarium Systems, Series 100, ISBN 1-882770-14-5
  2. Reptilian Magazine Volume 3 Number 10 Pgs 34-38
  3. Reptiles Magazine, 1997 Annual, Pgs 94-105, By Dr. D. Mader DVM
  4. Reptiles Magazine October 1994 issue Pgs 48-60, By Dr. D. Mader DVM
  5. Water Dragons by John Coborn TFH Books RE-118 ISBN 0-7938-0281-4
  6. Anoles, Basilisks, and Water Dragons by R.d Bartlett and Patricia P. Bartlett, Barron's Educational Series, inc 1997 ISBN 0-8120-9789-0
  7. Reptiles and Amphibian Magazine May-June '96 issue
  8. Reptiles and Amphibian Magazine Nov/Dec 1995 issue as they have an article on breeding basilisks in it that you may find helpful since the care of water dragons and basilisks is very similar.

Thank-You's and Credits

     There are many people whom I would like to Thank personally for contribution of information contained in this page. Unfortunately, it would take about two pages for me to thank all of the people who have helped out! :) So in short, I would like to thank all of the members of the water dragon list, particularly those who were members before the list existed! (Patty, Chris, Kip, Philips, Gareth, Jez, and Jeremy); and Melissa Kaplan for letting me put her stomatitis, dystocia, and mite and tick eradication documents up, and all of the other help and advise that she gives me from time to time. :)

     In particular, I would Like to Thank: Kip, for contributing the title header image of his water dragon Cara, and several other GIF images that are featured in the picture gallery; Gareth, for his picture that is also featured in the picture gallery; Patty, for helping to get the water dragon list started; and last but definitely not least, Philips, for trusting me to care for two of his little babies!

Last updated
April, 10, 2012

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