Enclosures for Chinese Water Dragons
Day time temperatures should be between 84 and 88 F (28.9 C - 31.1 C), night time temperatures should be between 75 and 80 F (23.9 C - 26.7 C).
It's a good idea to have at least two thermometers in the cage. One should be on the cool side, and one thermometer should be placed on the warm side of the enclosure. Improper temperature ranges can result in your dragon becoming ill with a respiratory infection or make him more susceptible to other common ailments due to weakening of the immune system and inadequate digestion of nutrients due to slower metabolism when kept at too cool a temperature.
You'll have to play with different light wattages, or put your heat sources on a thermostat or dimmer switch to get the temps just right. I can't tell you exactly what wattage of bulb to use in your water dragons enclosure because this will depend upon the temperature of the room that the water dragon is housed in. If the room is generally cool you will need a higher wattage of basking light, if the room is kept fairly warm you will probably get away with using low wattage basking bulbs to heat the cage. Your lights should be on a timer so that your dragon will get a proper photo period. My lights come at 8 am and go off at 8 pm.
Many keepers have problems regulating the temperature of their enclosures in the summer and in the winter. If the cage is too hot in the summer try using basking lights with lower wattages. If the cage is too cool in the winter increase the wattage of your bulbs, and possibly put some insulation on the outside walls of the enclosure to keep the heat in.
We know that natural unfiltered sunlight is the very best form of lighting to provide for water dragons as well as most other herps, unfortunately many people who own water dragons are unable to provide natural sunlight at all (due to busy lifestyles or because they live in apartments and do not have the ability to provide adequate access to outdoor facilities for their dragons) so, you will note that I will only discuss the provision of artificial UVB light sources for the remainder of this care doc. If you are able to provide natural unfiltered sunlight for your water dragons by all means do so, but please supervise your water dragon while it is sunning itself in order to prevent either escapes or overheating (to prevent overheating in the sun please provide your dragon with a shady area to go to in case it gets too hot, and never put a dragon in a glass tank in direct sunlight either as this could cause severe overheating and death! ). :)
You will definitely need to provide UVB in the form of fluorescent lighting. Incandescent bulbs do not produce UVB rays, they usually only provide UVA lighting. The dragon needs UVB to produce vitamin D3 in order to absorb the calcium in the diet, without this lighting the dragon will get very little calcium from the food and supplements that you are giving it and will very likely develop Calcium Deficiency in herbivore and omnivorous reptiles or MBD (metabolic bone disease) which is basically a calcium deficiency, but can also be caused by too much vitamin D3 supplementation as well (please see Kidney failure/metabolic bone disease/ vitamin D supplements in reptiles and amphibians for more information on calcium deficiency caused by over supplementation of vitamin D3).
If your dragon gets calcium deficiency it may first exhibit symptoms such as shaking trembling limbs and body, rubbery pliable lower jaw, swollen limbs, which will progress to inability to move legs i.e. drags itself around ... and death! The first sign may also be swollen bumps on limbs which could be a sign of a broken limb - a sign of weak bone structure. Most of the above symptoms are generally reversible if caught early. The vet will probably get you to give the dragon injections of calcium and get you to give your dragon oral liquid calcium suppliments at home both of which usually begins to reverses the symptoms in about two weeks. However if you provide UVB fluorescent lighting, and supplement the dragons diet you will probably never have to go through this! :)
So again the first thing you need is a UVB light source that the dragon can bask under. The light should be set up so that the dragon is not more than 10 inches away from the light source when basking, otherwise the effects of the UVB light will decrease the further away the dragon is from it. The tube should also be set up so that there is no glass or plastic between the light and the lizard as this filters out UVB rays. If you have a screen lid between your dragons UVB tube and the dragon please try to use large holed screen as screen with very tight mesh can block out up to 30% of the UVB rays, glass and plastic between the light and dragon block out 80 to 90% of the UVB rays. Fluorescent lights do not produce much heat so there is little fear of your dragon burning himself on it, but I wouldn't count this as one of your heat sources. Try Zoomed's reptisun, iguana 5.0, or a vitalight. UVB fluorescent tubes only produce UVB for approximately 6 months- they will have to be replaced twice a year as a result even though the tubes themselves will still produce light they will no longer be outputting much if any UVB after a 6 month time period.
UVB rays are produced in the 290 to 320 nm (nanometer) range. The average florescent tube used for lighting in a house or office of even for plant growth does NOT produce rays in this range. They produced light at higher ranges and therefore only produce UVA. When purchasing a florescent light please make sure that it states somewhere on the package that it produces light in the 290 to 320 nm range.
Remember- round or incandescent bulbs do not produced UVB- they produce UVA. Many incandescent basking bulbs state on the package that they are full spectrum but this only means that they produce "light" in the full spectrum of colours ... not the actual full spectrum of light rays. Don't be fooled by marketing promo on packages- check the labels and make sure you really are getting something that produces UVB. Having said this please note that there is a new form of UVB producing light that is in bulb form it's called a UV heat light. I still haven't made up my mind as to how safe these bulbs are for humans or pets or if they are as effective as UVB tubes.
You will also need one or two basking lamps. This can be any incandescent light, either a specialized basking lamp or a regular bulb. You may have to buy different wattage to provide the right amount of heat. i.e. anywhere from 50 watt to 150 watt bulbs. These lights get hot so make sure that your dragon can't get near them!
Another good heat source might be a Zoomed, or Pearlco ceramic bulb (Ceramic Heat Emitter or CHE). These come in different wattages, and get extremely hot! make sure your dragon can't touch it at all! It will sear flesh!!! If you get one of these definitely put it on a thermostat or dimmer. Ceramic heaters are a great way to provide heat at night since they don't produce light. If you use one of these ceramic heat emitters and you are afraid that your lizard might at some point come in contact with the bulb you should try to build a protective wire cage around the bulb so that the lizard can never actually touch the CHE.
Another good source of heat at night would be a nocturnal bulb. There are many commercial brands available in pet stores.
Human heating pads, are good to bask on but don't raise the ambient cage temperature very much. They may be placed directly inside the enclosure or underneath a slightly propped up tank.
I don't like the stick on heating pads that the stores are selling lately. You cannot move these if you end up putting them in the wrong area, because if you do try to do this the pad usually tears and this will render it unsafe for reuse. These stick on heating pads also make direct contact with the glass tank and can cause the glass to become extremely hot and could actually cause the glass to crack as well. I've heard of a number of reptiles being badly burned when these sticky pads have been used.
Do not get a hot rock!, Many lizards, and snakes have been badly burnt by them! Hot rocks can crack, short, smoke and can develop hot spots over time that can burn your lizard. Some people try to get around these short falls by wrapping the rock in a cloth material or burying the rock in the substrate- but then how can you check to see if the rock really is developing hot spots or it has cracked? Hot rocks are also not good when in contact with moist substrates or moist humid environments- this is when they might short out and possibly electrocute your lizard. Many house fires have been traced back to the use of hot rocks in a reptiles cage. For all of these reasons I suggest that if you have already purchased a hot rock that you cut the cord off and use it only as cage decor- for your own and your lizards safety.
You should also have good ventilation in the cage, and the temperature should be on a gradient i.e. top of cage warmer or cooler, or have a warm side and a cooler side so the dragon can thermo-regulate. Typically the basking area is going to be the warmest but the dragon will need a cooler place in case it gets too hot! You should have a couple of thermometers in the cage to measure the temps in different areas!
Water dragons love water, (well not all of them, but most do!) you should provide a fairly large area of water by either using a large plastic container (kitty litter pan) or make a nice water area using an aquarium or something with a water filter and waterfall for example. It can be as simple or as complex as you like. Whatever you use you need a container that is large enough for the dragon to enter and exit easily, and it must be filled with enough water that he can immerse up to 50% of his body height. You should be able to remove the water container easily for cleaning and disinfecting, as well as refreshing the water supply. The water container should be changed daily. You will probably find that your dragon goes to the washroom in the water. This is a good thing as it means the rest of the cage stays cleaner longer! The water doesn't have to be heated, room temp. is good enough. You might want to use a filter in the water though to keep it cleaner longer. :)
When changing the water in the container please be sure to clean the dish with soap and water, rinse well, then disinfect the container with a 5-10% bleach solution, rinse the dish thoroughly afterwards before replacing the water container in the dragons enclosure. * soap and bleach may produce toxic fumes when uses together- so please use them separately and rinse the container well between use of the soap or bleach solution.* Other disinfecting solutions may be used rather than bleach if you prefer- a novosolin or quatracide solution will provide adequate disinfection as well.
Humidity should be about 80%, even with a water container in the cage this can be difficult to maintain. I have live pothos and dracenae plants in my cage, planted in soil, so watering and misting these plants also helps to provide a humid atmosphere. You should get a gage that measures the humidity. Try to mist the enclosure twice a day. If you are really having problems keeping the humidity above 50% or higher try covering part of the top of the enclosure if it has a screen cover- you could put a piece of plexiglass or even saran wrap or foil over part of the opening- this should help a bit- but, by all means never cover the whole top of the enclosure there must always be air circulating in the cage!
Some people feel that maintaining a humid environment is not necessary. I do not feel this way. Water dragons are from a tropical humid climate, and being kept in the harsh warm dry conditions of captivity can be harmful to your dragons health.
Iguana's also come from tropical humid areas and it has been found that if they are kept in captivity in a too dry enclosure they will more easily become dehydrated. Once an iguana becomes dehydrated the kidneys start to become affected. Many iguana's die every year from kidney failure. Some of these deaths are the result of animal protein in their diet, and some of these deaths are caused by chronic dehydration.
While iguana's and water dragons come from different areas of the world I feel that their habitat and living environment are very similar. Please mist your cages once or twice a day, and make every effort to maintain a proper humidity level for your dragons sake- his life span could be affected as a result of low humidity levels.
You can use a combination of soil and orchid bark but the dragon may accidentally ingest some of this when eating its food items on it, or you can use astroturf (but melt/bind the edges so the little pieces of green fibre doesn't fray as this may be ingested too!) With ingestion of substrate you run the risk of your dragons digestive track getting impacted, this could be very serious!
Substrates that I've heard other people mention with few problems resulting in their use are: Sterile soil and playground sand mixture; sterile soil and cypress mulch, or orchid bark mixture; Astroturf with bound or melted edges; bed sheets; newspaper, or butcher paper; paper towels; ceramic tiles, and alfalfa pellets.
I generally prefer to suggest that people use sterile top soil or a soil that has no additives or at most only some sphagnum moss added to it. This has proved to be a generally safe medium and it will also help keep the cage humidity in the proper range. If the soil is not marked "sterile" it would be wise to bake the soil at 300 F for 30 minutes or so in order to kill off some of the bacteria, fungus and or little bugs that could be in the soil before using it in the dragons cage. Some soil mixes have additives such as vermiculite (the shiny stuff) and or perlite (the tiny white styrofoam like balls) that are undigestable but extremely attractive to curious water dragons. Please don't use soils with these additives. Also don't use soils that have added fertilizers. Fertilizers could be extremely toxic to your dragon and I'm sure you'd hate for anything to happen to your dragon because you used a soil with fertilizers added to it.
Substrates that have been known to cause problems are: Commercial brands sold in pet stores such as bark, shavings and other products made with moss- All of these commercial products are easy for the dragon to accidentally ingest, and have been known to cause impaction in several reptiles and amphibians. Whatever you use as substrate don't use cedar or pine as they emit fumes and resins which are toxic to herps!
If your cage is an aquarium, or has glass or plexiglass doors, and is built in such a way that the dragon can see out of the glass at eye level, then you may find that he repeatedly bumps the glass with his snout either trying to get out, or fighting with his reflection... all this bumping will cause very bad damage to his snout. A way to prevent this, if your dragon has a tendency to do this, is to plant some plants around the edge of the enclosure or use some paper to create a visual barrier. This will also help to make your new dragon feel much more secure and give him some hiding places! :) If your dragon is constantly banging his or her snout on the glass it may be a sign that the dragons enclosure is too small. It may be time to get your dragon a nice large enclosure. :) The larger the enclosure the less frequently this snout banging activity occurs. Please also see the snout rubbing page for more information on how to prevent permanent damage to your dragons face!
You can get some great ideas and plans for building your own enclosure at Herp Habitats.
Water dragons need height, since they are climbers, but they also need length! Provide branches to climb on (soak in weak bleach solution to kill parasites first, rinse well, and let dry), plants, basking areas, hiding areas, and ideally if you can make at least 1/3 of the ground area water.
Water Dragons need a space at least 2 x their total length therefore you will need to provide an enclosure that is a min. of 6 ft long (side to side), 2-3 feet deep and 4-6 feet high to do it right. Green and Australian can be kept together, with one to three males in a room-sized enclosure. Some females can be domineering and may not want any other females around ... others can cohabit with 3-4 females. You must monitor to assure ALL are feeding and basking properly. If any aren't, you are likely seeing the results of intimidation, and will need to increase the number of basking and feeding areas and/or increase enclosure size, or separate them.
If you decide to make a large enclosure for your dragon(s), and you live in a cool climate it would be a good idea to have two or three sides of the enclosure made of wood. Wood is a wonderful insulator, so a vivarium made mostly of wood will hold the heat during cool winter months much better than an enclosure made mostly of glass.
If you have a dragon or dragons that are hatchlings or juveniles then you might be able to get away with a smaller aquarium or enclosure for a while but you will eventually need a fairly large area for your dragon so you might as well spend less money by starting out with the right size enclosure. :)
The enclosure that we built last fall is made of 3/4 inch plywood, has sliding glass doors and is 6 feet high, 3 feet long and 2.5 wide. If I were to do it again I'd leave the height and width as they are and but make it 6 feet long! For a complete up to date description and pictures of our vivarium please see "my vivarium"
In order to heat the vivarium we have a 150 watt ceramic heat emitter (screwed into a ceramic light socket) . The ceramic bulb is inside the enclosure fixed to the ceiling of the vivarium, and attached to a biostat thermostat in order to regulate the heat within the cage. We have a UVB Fluorescent light at the top and a foot under that is a shelf to bask on, then directly under that shelf is another UVB fluorescent, with another shelf under it to bask on, then directly under the second shelf are two 75 watt basking lamps aimed at driftwood basking areas. 1/3 of the bottom is a plexiglass aquarium with a water fall ( made using a fluval 2 water filter and siliconed rocks), with an external drain for easy water changes, and the other 2/3 of the ground area is well planted and has a substrate of soil, sand and mulch mixture.
We have a computer fan at the top of the enclosure blowing the warm air downward, and another computer fan at mid level that blows fresh air across the cage for ventilation.
The enclosure was sealed with aquarium safe silicone, then polyurethaned several times with a water based polyurethane. The outside of the enclosure is painted with a water based latex and is a nice forest green.
There are many benefits when live plants are included in an enclosure. The enclosure is pleasant to look at, the water dragons will have more hiding places, and humidity will be easier to maintain when live plants are included as they will need to be watered and misted. The only true downside to having soil and live plants in the enclosure is that crickets that are not eaten quickly tend to lay eggs in the soil. :)
Plants should be repotted in a safe soil mix that does not contain any fertilizers before being used in the dragons vivarium. It would also be a good idea to rinse the plant a few times in the shower to rinse off any powdered pesticides that could have been sprayed on the plants leaves to kill pests. Pesticides are toxic to reptiles. :( I generally keep new plants out of the dragons enclosure for a week or two after purchase and clean and shower the plant a few times before adding it into the dragons cage. Better to be safe than sorry!
I am currently using Pothos, and Dracenae plants in the enclosure, and Hibiscus and ficus trees in the living room for the dragons to climb in. These plants, as well as Philodendrons, Spider plants, and Epiphytes such as Staghorn ferns, and certain bromolaids are known to be safe for use with water dragons. Unfortunately not all plants are safe for use with reptiles. You can find a listing of Toxic plant links at:
If you decide to build your own enclosure over buying a pre-made one please make the enclosure with non toxic ingredients. Plywood is fine, plexiglass is okay- but it will scratch easily. If you use wood in your construction polyurethane the wood to water proof it. Water based polyurethane's are the best ones to use as far as having less toxic fumes however water based urethane's can still take 30 days or longer to cure. Latex and oil- based coatings will take even longer! If you polyurethane though, please keep in mind that it will need to air out for a week to a month before you use it (and when you put your heat sources in take a good smell again since when it heats up more toxic fumes may be released!) and up to 30 days or more if you really want to be sure that all of the toxic fumes will be gone! If you use silicone to seal the enclosure use a brand that clearly states that it is aquarium safe, others are too toxic to herps. Water based latex paints are okay but again the enclosure must have time to air out. You don't want to kill your new pet!
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April, 10, 2012
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