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Diet- You need to feed whole prey food items!


The Importance of Whole Prey food items in our water dragons diet

      We have some lively discussions on the water dragon mailing list about all aspects of water dragon care. In the following paragraphs you will find excerpts from recent discussions (NOTE: I will not include the correspondents names):

Discussion of whether water dragons are Insectivores, Carnivores or Omnivores:

      It's very important to feed our dragons some whole prey items. They do eat whole prey food items in the wild- other lizards, perhaps baby birds and very likely rodents of one kind or another, as well as insects.

      Pinkies, fuzzies, rat pups, and feeder fish are all whole prey items. They contain bones ... bones contain calcium.

      There is no way that we can provide our dragons in captivity anything that comes close to what they have in nature as far as access to sunlight and their diet goes. We try very hard ... but we still don't offer enough variety, nor are most of the foods that we offer very well balanced as far as calcium to phosphorus ratio's go.

      Therefore it's very important for us to offer as wide a range of diet items as we possibly can and that does include offering pinkies (they aren't that high in calcium ... fuzzies and rat pups are much better!), fuzzies and rat pups as well as whole fish on occasion.

      If we are only feeding our dragons one or two food items ... such as crickets and mealworms (pretty much the easiest food items for all of us to get, and they don't gross us out too badly) we are not caring for our dragons properly. There is no way they could get all the nutrients they need from a diet that contains such a small variety ... that would be like us eating the same food day in and day out for months on end ... eventually we would probably get sick or something right?

      On the opposite side of the scale, I know there are some people that mainly feed their dragons rodents and rarely offer other food items. This isn't good either. Too much protein can cause damage to internal organs. (Fatty liver, liver disease, cataracts).

      Everything must balance out if we want our dragons to be healthy.

      Correspondent one said: "I believe that Water Dragons are classified as omnivores which means that they eat both animal and vegetable substances. Although they might eat a large amount of insects during the course of an average day, this would be because of the availability and not their preference or nutritional requirements. Eating lots of insects does not make them insectivores. "

      Correspondent two said: "May I suggest you read "Anoles, Basilisks, and Water Dragons," by Bartlett and Bartlett, Barron's. I can direct you to other resource material as well. WDs are primarily insectivores, not omnivores."

      I stepped into the discussion at this point and said: "I have that book and if you look on page 74 ... the second paragraph on the right of that page ... it definitely says that they eat mice ... the left side of the page talks about the two smaller species of the Basilisks family and states that they (the small Basilisks) are predominately insectivorous."

      This is also the only water dragon book that even mildly suggests in one paragraph (earlier on in the book) that feeding rodents might be unnatural ... no other water dragon book states anything like that, not that I have seen."

      " Philippe de Vosjoli's book "The General care and Maintenance of Green water dragons, Sailfin Lizards and Basilisks" states on page 11 that water dragons are carnivores "but will also eat a significant amount of plant matter". This is the book that I would tend to follow for overall basic info."

      "Coborns book "Water dragons, Sailfins, and Basilisks" states on page 5 "It feeds on a variety of invertebrates, small frogs, lizards, and nestling birds. Only occasionally will it show herbivorous tendencies." He also states on page 39 " Water dragons, Sailfin lizards, and Basilisks range from being strictly carnivorous to partially herbivorous (omnivorous)." "

      "There are three books about water dragons ... I cant find a statement clearly saying they are insectivores in any of them. In fact each book tends to lean more towards calling them carnivores or omnivores. I personally tend to think of them as omnivores myself and state that on my own page."

      Correspondent one said: "Personally, I would call them opportunists. When it comes to food items they will pretty much eat anything offered to them, especially if it's moving. Mice, rats, fish, large night crawlers, etc."

      I said: "True, but sometimes you have to try over and over again to get them to start eating something ... same is true for humans though isn't it? :)"

      Correspondent two said: "I have 50 night crawlers in my fridge for approx. 3 mos. now, would you like me to send them to you? Actually, most WDs are quite finicky. Perhaps you are reaching your conclusions based upon your WD and assuming that to be true of all WDs. It's not. "

      I said: "Again True ... they can be finicky ... but if you keep trying, offer them the food that they turn up their snouts at when they are very hungry (haven't eaten for a couple of days) they will often take the food item ... and once they do they will often take it with much less struggle the next time that its offered."

      "A couple of my water dragons will not eat pinkies ... I don't force them ... but I do know that if all I offered them for a week or so was pinkies they would eventually eat them ... and if I kept offering them for a while after that initial success the dragons would likely take them on a regular basis from that point on. This doesn't work in all cases ... but if you give the dragon long enough it will work in most cases, and often this is the only way to get an animal started on a food that it doesn't want to try. :( "

      Correspondent one said: "I would have a hard time translating that quantity of food into crickets, roaches, worms, etc.." In reference to the large quantities of pinkies and rat pups that his dragons eat.

      Correspondent two said: "Have you ever seen a 4 inch Hissing Roach?"

      And I said: "And the hard shell of an insect is not digestible (I worry about intestinal obstruction with these large hissing roaches) ... and insects usually have a very high phosphorus to calcium ratio ... rodents usually have a better balance of the two essential minerals. I'm not pushing pinkies here I'm just trying to point out that there are reasons for offering them ... very valid reasons such as the quantity of calcium and protein that they contain."

      Correspondent two said: "Last comment from me on the subject--WDs DO NOT REQUIRE PINKIES IN THEIR DIET! If some choose not to feed pinkies, they are not depriving their WDs. You may be harming your WDs health by feeding too many pinkies in order to save time and money simply because you prefer the ease of feeding a pinkie, rather than a larger quantity of bugs."

      And to that I said: "I totally 100% disagree with this statement. I think your statement may be inaccurate or not clear enough."

      "Yes, if a dragon chooses to eat pinkies it might in the long run be easier for the owner to fed this kind of diet to the dragon. After all, most people that feed rodents to their reptiles feed pre killed rodents right? So that means simply storing them in the freezer until it's time to thaw them and offer them to the dragon. Unlike insects where the dragon keeper must store and feed the insects for days or weeks at a time."

      "This is what I agree/disagree with: Ok ... no pinkies if you choose not to feed them ... as I've said a few times this evening pinkies have a very low calcium content as compared to fuzzies and rat pups :) ... BUT ... WDS DO REQUIRE WHOLE PREY FOOD ITEMS IN THEIR DIET!"

      " If you choose not to feed pinkies ... then you should be offering another form of whole prey food as a regular part of the diet. That could be small lizards, or it could be fuzzies or rat pups, or it could be whole fish ... "

      "Dragons need to have some items in their diet that have a higher calcium to phosphorus level and protein content than insects offer."

      " Insects tend to have a very high phosphorus to calcium ratio ... meaning that if your feeding a diet primarily of insects and your lighting isn't perfect, and your supplementing isn't regular, and you don't always have the temps right ... your dragon WILL be more susceptible to MBD (calcium deficiency)."

      " That is one reason why carnivorous and or omnivorous reptiles tend to have less problems with calcium deficiency than do reptiles that are primarily herbivorous (fruit and veggies also tend to have high phosphorus levels) ... it's the content on the whole prey food items that they do eat that make this huge difference. The only insect that has a half decent calcium level, and it's not really an insect, is the earthworm ... but it still doesn't make up for a whole prey food item offered at least occasionally in the diet."

      Correspondent two said: "To state that those that do not feed pinkies should have Igs instead of WDs is a bit off the wall."

      To which I stepped in and said: "It's not as off the wall as you might think. I get a lot of letters from new and old water dragon owners that cannot bear the thought of feeding pinkies to their dragons ... a fair percentage of these people are also very squeamish about feeding insect items to their dragons ... I reply back to them, offer them suggestions, tell them no you cant just feed them veggies and fruit like the pet store told you (grrr), heck you'll be lucky if they eat that at all anyway, and no you cant feed them canned dog or cat food either ... and you should see the replies I get back!"

      "Yes the statement above that, if you cant feed pinkies to your dragon you should have an ig instead is probably on the strong side ... but I tend to agree with the basis for the argument. How 'bout we generalize it a bit more? If you aren't prepared to feed your dragon a varied diet that will mimic much of what it would eat in the wild then perhaps you should not get a water dragon. I definitely don't agree that they should get an ig instead ... that's a whole 'nother ball game!"

What food items to offer, and Why

      Food items of the appropriate size should be offered to your dragon. As a general rule the size of the food item should be no longer than the length of the head, and no wider than half the width of the head, and preferably about one third the width of the head.


      INSECTS are fairly high in phosphorus and low in calcium, but do have nutritious value if not fed in abundance or as the soul diet. Most insects also have a hard indigestible exoskeleton that could cause a bowel impaction if fed in large quantities. All insects should be gut loaded with well balanced offerings of veggies and perhaps even some calcium and vitamins before being offered to reptiles. (See fruit and veggies below for some gut loading ideas)

      Insects that are fairly easy to purchase: crickets, mealworms (tenibrio), Super worms (tenibrio mealworms on steroids- I don't recommend these!), King mealworms (zophobas), and wax worms (very high in fat and very low in calcium- use only as a treat!), and earthworms.

      Insects that can occasionally be found locally or may be purchased by mail order: butterworms, grasshoppers, locusts, Hissing Roaches, cicadas, and silkworms ... (I'm sure there are many others!)

      NOTE: Wild caught insects, those found in your yard or otherwise, may be contaminated with pesticides and herbicides so I would advise you not to use these insects. Pesticides are extremely toxic to reptiles! Some insect contain toxins that may make your dragons very ill or kill them. The chemical in fireflies that makes them "light-up" has killed a number of bearded dragons and likely other reptiles, many caterpillars are also poisonous.

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      EARTHWORMS are fairly high in calcium, and are fairly well balanced nutritionally. They are also soft so the risk of impaction is lessened.

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      WHOLE PREY food items are generally high in calcium and protein, and due to the calcium content should be included as part of the diet. Mader states in his Reptile Medicine and Surgery " Carnivorous lizards should be fed pre-killed whole prey. Rodents are preferable to chicks, and chicks are preferable to fish." he also goes to state " If mice, rats, rodents, rabbits and chicks make up the bulk of the diet, vitamin and mineral supplementation should not be necessary. It should be noted that newborn pinkie mice have less total calcium than do adult mice, and a calcium should be supplemented if these are used."

      A selection of whole prey food items would range from pinkie, fuzzy and adult mice, rat pups, some people have offered gerbil fuzzies?, young chicks (Mader himself used to feed his dragons chicks), and feeder fish such as minnows. Some people also offer small lizards such as anoles to their dragons as a food source.

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      FRUIT AND VEGGIES: Some dragons will eat fruit and veggies when it's offered, but many dragons will not take fruit and veggies at all! Keepers that have success with this find fruit is preferred. Unfortunately fruit tends to be very high in phosphorus and very low in many other nutrients with the largest benefit being additional fluids and vitamins.

      Fruit that have good calcium content include figs, raspberries, cantaloupe, strawberries and blueberries ... starting to slide now on the amount of calcium ... I think mangos and papaya's are ok too?

      Veggies that have an adequate calcium to phosphorus ratio: Greens such as collards, dandelion (flowers edible too), and mustard greens. (Kale, spinach and other greens of this variety are high in oxalates which bind to calcium making it unusable) leafy veggies of the lettuce family have almost no nutrients thus are very low in value other than for their water content. Yellow squash, sweet potato, parsnips, green beans, and occasionally carrots ... Veggies such as broccoli contain oxalates and as stated above that binds to calcium rendering it unusable.

      Please NOTE that all of the well balanced fruit and veggies listed above can be used when gut loading your insects!

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Content of some common food items:

      Here is the content of some common food items (from Melissa Kaplan's page

mealworm 22.3 14.9 .26 .23 2.74
cricket 55.3 30.2 .23 .74 unk
earthworms 10.39 7.2 1.18 .90 4.71
mouse (1-2 days old) unk unk 1.60 1.80 unk
mouse (7-10 days old) unk unk 1.40 1.30 unk
mouse (adult) 19.8 8.8 .84 .61 2.07
rat 7.6 1.9 .54 1.35 .69

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A healthy Diet Combination- Ratio's

      I believe a healthy diet would be a combination of all of the above diet items, using as wide a variety of each item as possible, in the ratio of:

  • Insects 40% - 50%
  • Earthworms 10% - 20%
  • Whole Prey 40% - 20%
  • Fruit & Veggies 10%
    • (If possible, otherwise increase % of whole prey)

      Insects and earthworms should be gut loaded, and dusted with calcium supplement approximately every second day, dusted with vitamins once a week; It couldn't hurt to add some supplementation to the fruit and veggies if the dragon is eating them; unless it's pinkies that is being offered as the whole prey food item calcium supplementation shouldn't have to be added to these food items.

      Dragons receiving diets lower in whole prey food items should of course be getting more calcium supplementation than dragons getting higher quantities of whole prey.

      Please see my "Diet of water dragons" page for more information.

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
Mar, 19, 2010

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