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Water dragon care

I am about to acquire a very young Chinese water dragon and I am very confused as to the size of enclosure and care systems that it requires. Everyone I ask seems to provide me with different advice – please help!

Firstly, congratulations! The Chinese or Asian water dragon (Physignathus cocincinus) is a fantastic lizard to keep. This was the very first pet lizard species that I ever kept, back in the late 1980s and right up until the early 2000s. Water dragons became popular in place of the green iguana (Iguana iguana), which had been sold on the basis of being a big, impressive species.

This was because everyone realised that the iguana was far from a perfect pet for most people. Apart from growing to a very large size, it has particular care needs and can be very territorial and aggressive. So what could be better than a friendly and easily-reared species from Asia that looked quite similar, with matching prehistoric appeal? Water dragons soared in popularity, which peaked in the 1990s, just before bearded dragons started to be bred on a large scale.

Key considerations

They are surprisingly adaptable lizards, but please do not get me wrong. The water dragon is still a large lizard that has particular needs in terms of the size of its enclosure and the equipment needed to care for it. It also benefits of course from a full and very varied diet, and should not be subjected to a “cricket only” menu. Having said all of this, I still believe that for the right family and with sufficient time and money being spent on the animal, it can be prove to be almost the perfect arboreal lizard to keep.

Bear in mind that most if not all of the youngsters that are available in reptile shops will have been captive-farmed in Asia. For this reason, it is always best to worm the lizard as part of the quarantine procedure. Speak with a vet specialising in exotics for this purpose. You can then carry on by using Verm-X, which should prove beneficial.

Young water dragons are quite famous for being tricky to feed when first acquired. This is not a surprise to me. They need peace and quiet in order to settle away from the typical hustle and bustle of the home. It may even be a good idea to cover the enclosure with a thin cloth for the first week (obviously taking care not to block the ventilation slots or cause a fire risk) and slowly uncover the enclosure over a further week as the lizard settles down.

You need to take particular care at this stage, because young water dragons can injure their snouts by rubbing them along the front of the enclosure. Hanging something down the front here will indicate the presence of a barrier, deterring this behaviour. Snout injuries can be slow to heal, and are liable to become infected.

This species is also vulnerable to dehydration, and this can affect its appetite. In simple terms, water dragons are not designed to drink from a bowl. They are uniquely shaped to cling onto a tree and to drink from rivulets of water running off the leaves and down the trunk. A twice-daily spray of the enclosure is required as the minimum.

You may decide to add liquid calcium to the water that is sprayed into the vivarium too, or through a rain system if you choose to incorporate one into the vivarium. This will of course cause the glass to discolour, necessitating regular cleaning to wipe off the white deposits, but it is a great way of providing a ready source of calcium for your water dragon.


The Asian tree dragons in general, including the water dragon and the closely-related Calotes species, prefer to eat grubs, as they would in the wild. Many individuals may never have seen a cricket before and tempting them to eat crickets or locusts can prove difficult, especially as these are not likely to be instinctively recognised as food.

Fortunately, many species of grub and worm are available commercially which does mean that we can now offer both a good variety of foods and a more natural diet too. I would certainly look to include a measured quantity of waxworms, silk worms, calciworms and fruit beetle grubs as and when available. Calciworms in particular are very valuable because of their relatively high calcium content. Once your young dragon is feeding well, you can then start to introduce some locusts, crickets and roaches of suitable size.

Water dragons will also take “clean” earthworms (not fresh-dug from a garden) and many other items, including small eggs. The odd hard-boiled quail egg (as sold in some supermarkets now) will certainly play an important part in a varied captive diet. They will also eat a small amount of plant and flower matter. I would look to including plants like alfalfa and hibiscus and others such as dandelions as part of a varied diet.

Feeding (unsprayed) hibiscus flowers to newly acquired herbivorous or omnivorous lizards, (and tortoises too), is a very positive thing to do as this plant provides a ready source of Vitamin C which may have become depleted as the result of stress. Some keepers also offer pinkies to their water dragons, but these are not essential.

As a staple diet, I would suggest using calciworms and silkworms, mixed with more traditional insect fare, as a starting point. As always, make sure that you obtain the very best supplements possible. The Vetark range is very good, and includes both calcium lactate, designed to dissolve in drinking water, and Nutrobal powder, which incorporates both vitamins and minerals.


Do not skimp on the size of the enclosure, as your water dragon should grow rapidly. As a minimum, I think that you should acquire a vivarium that is no less than 1.2m (4ft) high, about 0.9m (3ft) wide and 0.6m (2ft) deep. If you can accommodate a larger unit in your home, then so much the better. I would want to see a minimum of 4-6 air vents in the design to ensure good airflow and to prevent the build-up of stale humidity.

Some keepers include a “push/pull” fan system that can also be very useful. The vivarium will also need to be sealed inside so that the water does not cause the vivarium to swell and break. I have seen some wonderful glass liners in the past and this does seem to be a very good idea. Use live plants to decorate the enclosure and provide some cover, as these will help to keep the humidity up.

For heating purposes, you will need a good quality heat source and stat, plus an effective means of shielding the lizard from burning itself on the heat source. You also need to be extremely careful when spraying, as water and electricity do not mix. In terms of temperature, aim to create a thermal gradient that ranges from 30-25°C (86-77°F) across the enclosure. This should fall back slightly to 25-20°C (77-68°F) at night.

Lighting requirements

As always, look to the wild. You need to ascertain the average index of UVB that is experienced by the species where it occurs in the wild, and aim to re-create this in a measured way in vivarium surroundings. By so doing, you can be sure that you are properly energising the lizard to the level that it has adapted to thrive in the wild.

Obviously, UVB output decreases in power the further that light has to travel from the lamp, so we do need to factor in the height of an enclosure and the density of its planting. In most cases, and for the height of vivarium that I have suggested earlier, a D3+ 12% T5 lamp of 24watts would provide all that the dragon will require over a dedicated energizing area. Remember all heat and light should be grouped at the same end and that will leave a gentle graduation into cool and shade at the other.

This is known as the light and shade method, and allows the dragon to self-select the level of energy that it requires, as and when this is needed. We must make sure that the dragon cannot get too close to the lamp. As such, you should adjust the furnishings so that lamp is no closer than 30cm (12in) measured to the dragon’s back at the highest point, with the basking area being around 38cm (15in) from the lamp.

You can also use a good LED moonlight system for the last two hours of the day to re-create dusk, and continue to watch the dragon as it has its last feed before its essential rest period. It is vital to provide total darkness through the night though, as this is a key part of the D3 cycle.

I would not seek to handle your new pet for at least the first week, if at all possible. The lizard should be left to settle down on its own. Once settled, then over the course of time, water dragons are usually quite happy to interact with their keeper and can become surprisingly tame, almost to the point of being stroked. As always though, if you are at all worried about the health or condition of your pet, you should seek the advice of a good reptile specialist vet without delay.

Due to our reliance on very affordable Asian shipments, not very many people are actually breeding this species in the UK at present. If imports were banned, this is one species that would almost disappear from the shops overnight. As such, I would encourage anyone with the adequate space and knowledge to start breeding this species in the UK now.

© John Courteney-Smith Taken from “Practical Reptile Keeping” magazine

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