What this post covers
In our article What Do Bearded Dragons Eat? we explore various different insects and live food that you can feed your bearded dragon and in the article about Suitable Fruits and Vegetables For Bearded Dragons we highlight the vegetable options for your Dragon and highlight that the mixture between live food and vegetable food changes as your Bearded Dragon matures. In this article we’ll look at how often you should feed them, when you should feed them and how much at a time.
Diet Differences Between Baby Bearded Dragons and Adults
Baby bearded dragons have a very different set of nutritional demands compared to adults. In the wild, baby bearded dragons are trying to gain weight and grow quickly so they’re not so easily picked off by predators. The strongest, fastest and biggest will be more likely to reach maturity. The survival of the fittest.
Once they reach maturity though, their biggest goal in life is now achieved. They don’t need to gain more weight to survive – in fact, too much weight in adulthood becomes a problem for their survival because it slows them down and makes it more difficult to fend off predators.
So, over the millennia they have evolved these changes in diet to enable them to be the fittest survivors.
What this translates into is that baby and juvenile bearded dragons require food with a lot more protein content than an adult. The baby uses the protein to grow its muscles and organs quickly. The adult needs just enough protein to maintain those organs
Why Is The Right Diet Balance Important?
In captivity, too much protein leads to obesity, fatty liver and kidney problems. Well worth avoiding. Most dragons in the wild never live long enough for this to become a problem.
Too many soft treats such as soft fruits, soft worms or insects can lead to tooth decay problems. Too much sugar from fruits can also lead to digestion problems since the bearded dragon digestive system relies on a fermentation process which sugar interferes with.
Equally however, too many hard shelled insects can cause problems with impaction, particularly in babies and juveniles.
Too little calcium will result in Metabolic Bone Disorder, and too much calcium can lead to hypercalcaemia and other complications.
So it’s important to get the balance right if you want your bearded dragon to live a long and happy life.
The Right Ratio Of Live Food To Vegetables
There’s a lot of information on the internet that suggests that for babies the ratio should be 80-90% live food, whilst adults should be the reverse of that. Adults therefore should be 80-90% vegetables.
This is in general a good rule of thumb, but what does it actually mean? How can you quantify this, it all sounds so confusing.
The reality is that this simply means that baby bearded dragons should be fed mostly live food whilst adult dragons should be fed a mostly vegetable based diet.
Don’t become fixated on the numbers. They’re a guide and if you follow the feeding formula here you’ll be pretty much right.
Juveniles will gradually switch over from mostly live food to mostly vegetables over the course of about 6 months from about the age of 4 to 6 months. In other words, when they reach 4 to 6 months old, start gradually reducing the amount of live food they are offered and start increasing the amount of vegetable food. Expect the switchover period to be awkward because your baby won’t initially want to eat much in the way of vegetables!
How Often Should a Baby Bearded Dragon Be Fed Live Food?
As we said above, baby dragons require a diet of mostly live food. So, it follows that they should be fed live food every day up to the age of about 4 to 6 months.
Baby bearded dragons can be voracious eaters, which can be expensive at first since the live food needs to be bought from a reputable reptile food shop, unless you breed your own.
Baby dragons will require feeding live food 2 to 3 times a day, every day. Generally this should be as many live insects as they’ll eat in around 10 minutes.
Fresh leafy green vegetables should be available in the tank all day for them to pick at as and when they feel like it, but don’t be surprised if most of this goes to waste. Fortunately they won’t need much in there at a time and leafy green vegetables go a long way.
How Big Should The Insects Be?
To avoid complications of impaction, and in severe cases paralysis, baby dragons should not be fed any insects that are longer than the gap between the baby’s eyes.
We’ve seen posts online recently that state this is a myth – however, we strongly disagree. We have seen baby bearded dragons require significant veterinary care after being fed insects that were too big which leads to spinal cord compression internally and therefore paralysis. Baby dragons aren’t overly clever and will try to eat anything that moves, even if it is too big.
In the wild, a baby bearded dragon that eats something that is too big and becomes paralysed becomes a meal for something else – usually birds. In captivity you have to watch them struggle and potentially die. It’s just best to stick to smaller food and avoid that.
What About Water? Do They Need It?
Central bearded dragons have evolved in the dry, arid areas of Australia and will generally get most of their water content from the food they eat. However, they do still require some water so a small water bowl in the vivarium is a good idea.
Don’t make this too big though. A baby dragon can easily drown if the water is too deep and big water bowls will increase humidity. A bowl of about the circumference of a mug and a centimetre deep should be plenty. Change the water at least every day though as it will go stale quickly and is likely to get pooped in too.
You may need to wiggle your finger in the water after feeding to show your beardie where it is. Baby beardies especially don’t see stationary things as food (which is why their vegetables aren’t likely to get eaten voluntarily). Wiggling the water in the bowl may entice them to have a taste. Once they get used to it they’ll drink on their own if they want to.
Should I Feed In The Vivarium or Out?
This is largely a matter of personal choice, although for babies we’d generally recommend a separate feeding environment. You can take baby out of the vivarium and into a separate smaller enclosure to feed.
There’s 2 reasons we recommend this, although 1 of them depends on your substrate.
If your baby is on a loose substrate (which we don’t recommend anyway for babies, but some people insist) then feeding outside the vivarium in a separate enclosure without any loose substrate in it reduces the risk of impaction as babies are clumsy eaters and will often miss their prey. If they’re on a loose substrate in the vivarium their tongue will likely pick up the loose substrate instead, which they’ll swallow and be unable to digest.
The second reason for feeding outside the vivarium is that it can be easier to put the live food in the feeding enclosure, introduce your dragon and let them hunt it and eat it in a controlled way. You’ll be able to time their excursion to around the ten minutes and when their time is up you can put them back in their vivarium knowing that there’s no escapees to round up. We don’t recommend leaving any live foods in the vivarium, particularly crickets, as they can bite or nip at your dragon while they sleep.
This may also help your baby dragon to accept you handling them as they’ll get used to the idea that you picking them up often results in a tasty dinner excursion for them. They’re not as daft as many people believe and will soon learn that your hand means food.
Can I Hand Feed The Live Food?
Absolutely. You can hand feed in a separate enclosure or in the vivarium. Sometimes it can be best to mix hand feeding in the vivarium with non-hand feeding outside. Either way it’s up to you.
Hand feeding can be a great way to build a bond with your baby as they’ll soon grow to recognise that your hand isn’t a threat but instead means a tasty treat.
But do be aware, some dragons can become lazy and will only accept food if it’s hand fed to them. It’s probably best to mix it up a bit, with some hand feeding and some feeding that they have to hunt for themselves. Lazy dragons become fat dragons.
Why Won’t My Baby Bearded Dragon Eat?
This is a huge topic and there are a whole range of reasons why your baby dragon might not be eating. We’ve covered this in a separate article so we won’t go over it again here. For more information see My Bearded Dragon Won’t Eat.
How Often Should An Adult Bearded Dragon Be Fed Live Food?
As we mentioned above, the metabolic demands of adults differs from that of babies and so adult bearded dragons do not require as much protein as babies do.
They do still require some protein of course, and as such live food still forms an important part of their diet.
Many online sources state that your bearded dragon should be fed live insects twice to three times a week, with them eating as many as they want in a 10 to 15 minute setting.
Our opinion is that this is too much. Wild dragons will not have access to as much food as that in general and many dragons in captivity are quite obese. Wild dragons will also get significantly more exercise on a daily basis than many captive dragons. Obesity can lead to many health complications, such as fatty liver, kidney issues and respiratory issues.
Feeding live food once to twice a week, with an emphasis on keeping your dragon at a good healthy weight is better. They only need one sitting on their designated live food days too. Be guided by their weight rather than how many times you should feed. It is however very difficult in an online article such as this to define a healthy weight for your dragon as every one of them differs.
In general an adult bearded dragon will weigh between 300 to 500 grams, depending on its length. A good rule of thumb is to make sure that their fat pads on their head and around the base of the tail are visible without too much fat around their belly.
If you are unsure if your dragon is a healthy weight, you can join our Facebook group at Bearded Dragons Rock Facebook Group and post pictures. We’ll try to help you.
Bear in mind if you’re feeding a lot of live insects but your dragon is still looking underweight, they may be sick – check out our post about My Bearded Dragon Looks Sick – What Could It Be? for more information.
What Size Should The Insects Be For An Adult?
This isn’t as much of an issue with adult dragons as it is for babies as they’re generally a bit better at regulating their food intake. Adult dragons have a much bigger digestive tract so they’ll fare better with bigger insects and you probably won’t find many insects that are in their staple list that’ll be too big for them.
The rule of feeding nothing longer than the space between the eyes doesn’t really apply to adults as they’re better adapted to eating larger insects, but it won’t hurt if you do decide to stick to this.
What Are The Complications With Over-feeding an Adult Dragon?
The biggest complication with overfeeding an adult bearded dragon is obesity. Obesity in dragons is similar to obesity in humans, in that it deposits fat around essential organs.
Obesity is a vicious cycle and hard to break. Obesity generally results from too much food and not enough exercise and is very common among captive bearded dragons.
Fatty liver is one of the main complications of obesity. This means that fat deposits end up being formed in the dragon’s liver, increasing the size of the liver and reducing its effectiveness at producing the necessary hormones and enzymes required for optimal health.
Obesity can also result in respiratory conditions and leave your dragon more vulnerable to respiratory infections because the excess body fat reduces the ability to breathe properly.
Can Obesity Be Reversed?
Yes, it can, but it’s going to require a bit of effort on both your part and your dragons. The basic formula is energy in – exercise out = dragon weight. So, to reduce obesity you’re going to need to either reduce the amount of food they eat or increase the amount of exercise they get, or both.
If your dragon is obese, gradually reduce the amount of food and increase the amount of exercise. But don’t be cruel about it. Starvation won’t do them any good and sudden intense exercise in an obese dragon won’t either. Make it gradual. You can also reduce the amount of live food they’re getting while increase the amount of leafy green vegetables so they get less fat and protein in their diet.
Other complications of over-feeding
This one only really applies to female bearded dragons, but there has been some evidence released recently from research that suggests that female bearded dragons will ovulate and become gravid if they’re fed too much. This appears to be a natural response in the wild as an abundance of food is a good time to produce offspring.
These eggs will be infertile unless they’ve been with a mate of course, but the female still has to ‘give birth’ to them when they are ready. As with any animal giving birth this can be a traumatic time and injury and death can occur.
If you have a female dragon who’s producing lots of eggs without a male nearby then over-feeding may be the culprit.
When Should I Feed My Dragon?
There’s only one thing to bear in mind when it comes to timing of feeds for your bearded dragon and that is that they require heat to digest their food properly. This is because Bearded Dragons are reptiles and as such they’re cold blooded animals that rely on external heat sources to provide them with their body heat.
Digestion relies on the right temperatures to operate the chemical reactions between the food and the hormones and enzymes involved with digestion. If the environment is too cold then the chemical reactions slow down or don’t work properly at all.
With this in mind, you’ll need to firstly make sure that the temperatures in your vivarium are correct – see our article on Bearded Dragon Lighting for more information on this.
With the correct temperatures in place, it’s advisable to give your bearded dragon enough time in the morning to warm up before feeding, and allow enough time after feeding for them to stay warm to digest properly.
Allowing around 2 hours to bask in the morning before feeding is advisable, and ensuring the basking lights stay on for at least 2 hours after feeding is also advised. This gives you an 8 to 10 hour window in which to feed them.
For example, if your lights are on a 12 hour schedule and come on at 8am and go off at 8pm we advise not feeding your dragon until at least 10am, and not feeding them after 6pm.
I’m Going Away For A Few Days, What’s The Best Way To Feed Them While I’m Away?
There’s a few things to bear in mind if you’re going away for a few days and leaving your dragon behind.
We wouldn’t recommend it at all with a baby dragon because their feeding regime requires feeding 3 times a day every day of the week. Of course if you have someone you can trust to feed them while you’re away then it’s not a problem at all.
If you’re going away for a few days and you have an adult dragon this isn’t an issue from a live food point of view. You can schedule their feed around your time away. Feed their live food before you go and so long as you’re not away more than 3 days or so they shouldn’t require feeding live food again until you return.
However, you should always ensure your dragon has adequate fresh water available and more importantly, fresh leafy greens and vegetables available every day. Salad will wilt and go off if left in the hot environment of the vivarium for too long.
If you’re going away, it’s best if you can have someone you trust come in to replace the water and vegetables. If it’s only for a few days that person doesn’t need to worry about the live food (for an adult) which should help your ability to find someone to help.
If you’re going away for longer, or can’t find anyone to replace the salad we’d recommend looking for a reputable Reptile Hotel or somewhere similar. They do exist and a google search or a question in the Facebook Group should be able to help.
Can I Leave Live Food In The Tank?
You can leave live food in the tank although in general we’d recommend removing it where possible.
Crickets in particular can nip bearded dragons overnight while they sleep, causing damage to scales and skin and other injuries. Worms will turn into their adult insect ( either beetle or moth ) after a time if they’re left too long.
But, it can be fun for the dragon to hunt their food during the day, so if you do introduce some live food into the tank during the day it can provide some stimulation for your dragon to help them from becoming bored, and it can provide some exercise for them having to hunt down and snatch their prey. So a couple of insects left in the tank isn’t going to do any harm.
It’s not generally a good idea though to just throw the whole amount of food into the tank and close the door and think you’ve done your bit for their daily diet. Too much live food will remain uneaten and will either bite your beardie or will poop and potentially die in the corner causing infection risk. Bacteria and fungii thrive on decaying organic matter.
The same therefore goes for vegetable foods. Whilst vegetable food definitely can and should be left in a bowl during the day, it’s wise to remove it 2 hours before lights out so that beardie doesn’t eat it when they can’t digest properly and to prevent it going soggy or rotten.
What Can I Feed My Dragon?
This article has dealt with how much food, when they should be fed and the differences between adult and baby bearded dragon’s diet. We’ve not gone into detail about the different insects or vegetables to feed. To get a list of suitable live foods please visit see our other articles in the Bearded Dragon Diet section for more information.
We hope this post has been useful. Please leave a comment below if you’ve any questions or feedback, or join the Facebook Group, Bearded Dragons Rock for interactive questions and answers.