I've heard it all more than I'd like to admit; "oh, you've got a bearded dragon? I have one too, but I don't feed mine insects because I find it creepy" and "doesn't their food get expensive? I only feed them every other day, because in the wild they wouldn't get to eat every day, so that's better for them and cheaper for me!" And even the terrifying misconception "sand is their natural substrate so they should be on that."
In order; if you can't stand live food a reptile isn't for you. Starving an animal is never best for them (again if you can't afford it then they aren't for you) and they don't live in the Sahara desert, it’s mostly compacted clay. Sand (even Calci) risks impaction which can be fatal and also is unhygienic. A reptile has a fragile balance of parasites and sand risks upsetting that balance.
There's one bearded dragon I have that I want to talk about. She (and another) fell prey to misconceptions, poor research, and ultimately fell to what was best for the owners, not for them.
Her name is Double D. I happened to see a Gumtree advert selling two bearded dragons in their own separate vivariums for an alarmingly low price. The male looked like he could have MBD (Metabolic Bone Disease) which is what flagged me to them, and the female (like the male) just looked very underweight and dehydrated.
After some contact I went to collect them – it was an experience. The female was on top of a four-foot chest of drawers meaning I couldn't see inside the vivarium and she wouldn't be able to see anyone or anything.
I was told she didn't like to eat much and that they had ‘rescued’ her from someone. They then proceeded to tell me she was fed on bell peppers and lettuce, that she was very underweight when they got her, and to hold her you have to throw a towel over her head and pick her up. Even going near her vivarium she got terrified and flared up defensively. The lady boasted how they not only saved her, but her and the male had accidentally bred together and she has some hatchlings.
When I went through to see the male I was told by the son how they had successfully bred them together after trying to do so (as you might guess he wasn't in the room when his mum had said it was an accident) and that the male was skittish; he proceeded to take the male out who panicked, wriggled free and ran off the bed.
The mum told me how neither liked baths so they are both fed on lettuce and peppers because the high water content is the best way to keep them hydrated. That is the shortest of nutshells of what I was told.
Let me say here; an underweight female of any species being impregnated is a dangerous thing, beardies are not exempt from that and her diet was appalling. High water content flushes out nutrients and is not even remotely a good staple, meaning while she was already lacking nutrients for herself she should have needed double the amount while carrying eggs. Plus, never, just never, throw towels over a scared animal’s head.
The female who I named Double D (neither came with any names) was a colour I've never seen a bearded dragon before; pink. Not bred that way but she was paper-thin which made her a pink hue. What I thought was dehydration and weight (when their skin folds over and sags) was actually her bones.
I got them both home, made up their health charts, and recorded all the information I had. I didn't trust their UV bulbs so replaced them – remember the UV in a UV bulb only lasts around six months, even though the light is still going.
A visit to the vet showed Double D was impacted and so I was given liquid calcium to bath her in. When the male (Ed) was first given a healthy diet of dark greens, flowers and a few locusts he ripped his tract when he next toileted. Ripping a tract is a common symptom of the body not being used to digesting nutrients.
Ed wasn't too bad he just needed some handling and his weight improved quickly – going strength to strength I was able to put him to a good family I trusted after getting him into shape. This was my plan for them both as I didn't really have room and already had a bearded dragon and a milk snake.
However Double D wasn't so fortunate. Being the only bearded dragon to have been kept out of sight, never looked at, never fed right, never handled, neglected, sold on to be bred and re-neglected, it all had its toll. She even had physical marks of her life; some damaged scales, a stunt in her tail (which would be from way back as a hatchling) and a few of her nails were ripped and torn.
One day she was lethargic. Slumped over her log, not moving. She had been eating like a horse since I got her, toileting well, and putting on some weight, but she suddenly hit deaths door. What shocked me was when trying to find a medical brand in a reptile store they actually advised me to let her go. That it happens and she will likely die. This story is me saying; don't listen to anyone who isn't a specialised vet.
The previous vet I took her to wasn't an exotics specialist, but she knew about reptiles and had a quick appointment so I took it. But Double D being dangerously ill I rushed her to an exotics vet. He was fantastic and I found out a lot of about beardies you don't easily find and he told me about his own studies with wild bearded dragons.
He explained that bearded dragons have two stores of calcium and basically her first ‘reserve’ was entirely depleted; basically, living the life she had been was killing her and so it didn't matter now that I had her on a good diet, because the damage had already been done.
However, he did had medicines for her. He gave her three shots which included calcium and steroids and said he didn't believe it was too late but that it is a very close call.
I never did re home Double D. I couldn't imagine risking anything like this again. However, I did find out she is a citrus dragon (yellow/orange) because after the vet she got better, put on a lot of weight and started to show her true colours.
Like most bearded dragons she loves her crickets, Dubia roaches and locusts. She also loves her worms as dessert! Her vegetation needs dark leafy greens and a mix of fruits and plants. She is now a happy, healthy bearded dragon, with a good vet on side and a four-foot vivarium to call her own.
What’s the point of this story? Let me go back to the beginning for a second. One of the worst things I've known is to find out someone found their bearded dragon ill, decide that they were going to die so switched off all their lights and left them in the dark to wither out because “it's what they'd do in the wild.” The wild is a ruthless place. The common cold and diarrhoea can kill people naturally but we rely on medicine and research.
If you have a pet; do your research and do your budgeting, but always be realistic and always source a good, reliable vet. If an animal changes in behaviour – get a vet to check them. From stories, and what I was told at the time, and other people I’ve spoken to since, they would have given up on Double D. The vet stated she needed a vet because she needed that medicine. That was back in 2013, and now three years later and she's happier than ever, settled, and never been so healthy.
Research. Budget. Vet. Those are keys to a healthy pet.