The water dragon is a beautiful arboreal (tree-dwelling) lizard that is native to eastern Thailand, Vietnam, parts of China and in eastern and south-eastern parts of Australia. Favored in the pet trade, due to their beautiful coloration, shorter lengths, and docile natures, water dragons can make a wonderful addition to any family, provided they are given proper care. As with many exotic animals, however, the water dragon does require a special habitat and has certain nutritional needs that must be met, in order to promote his good health and well-being. Unfortunately, many breeders neglect these needs or, even worse, flood the pet stores with animals that have been wild-caught. Once you’ve gone through and set up the perfect environment for your water dragon, how do you go about choosing the right reptile? What are some of the concerns that you should have, some of the questions you should ask, and what should we look for in a desirable water dragon? Read on to learn more about choosing a happy, healthy, little pet.
The first thing to educate yourself about, is the difference between captive-bred and wild-caught animals. There is a world of difference between the two and this is one of the first questions that you should ask someone that you are considering purchasing your water dragon from. Wild-caught reptiles not only suffer a great deal more stress when changing hands, but quite frequently will refuse to eat in captivity, slowly starving to death in their new owners’ hands, and are quite often heavily infested with parasites and disease. This does not mean that buying a captive-bred water dragon will ensure that he has been well-treated and is healthy, nor does it guarantee that your new pet will be trouble-free. It does, however, lessen some of the chances that he might not be and, therefore, is essential.
A good question to ask the person that you intend to purchase your water dragon from is, “Can you please explain the set-up / environment that you keep your water dragons in?” This is a very important question because, not only does it allow you to learn more about other peoples’ set-ups, but it also will tell you how this individual animal has been kept, as well as giving you insight into how much this particular breeder knows about his water dragons. It can often be used to catch breeders with substandard practices, when they tell you that the animals can be kept in a tiny tank or failing to stress the necessity of proper heat gradients or UV lighting.
Water dragons require an enclosure that caters to their various needs. It must be long enough for them to be able to comfortably stretch out and bask, while providing the height to allow them to move up and down provided tree branches. Additionally, as their name implies, water dragons need water. Ideally, these reptiles do best in a filtrated vivarium that allows owners to mimic their habitat, offering a water base with lots of height and an arboreal environment of tree branches and vegetation for them to hide in amongst. However, some people prefer to use large bins or kitty litter pans for water. A good rule of thumb is that the water should be deep enough and the basin generous enough that your reptile can submerge at least 50% of his body underwater. Equally important is that, once your water dragon can get into the water, making sure that he has a safe, easy access to get out of it and back into his ‘trees.’
What temperatures have they been keeping their reptiles at? Water dragon enclosures should maintain a healthy heat gradient of 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit, with basking temperatures of 90 degrees. Anything colder or hotter than those temperatures and the animals run the risk of suffering illness and digestive problems. Also ask how they heat their water dragons’ enclosures. If they mention heat rocks, know that this is not an effective method of keeping your reptile warm; if you were in a cold house, would you prefer to have a toasty furnace keeping you warm, or would you prefer to just lay your belly on a hot water bottle and nothing else? Hot rocks and heated tank branches are not only impractical, but they are notorious for developing hot spots and shorts which can severely, if not fatally, burn your reptile.
Equally important is asking what kind of lighting that they use for their water dragon enclosure. In addition to requiring heat lights, water dragons require UV lighting. Being placed by a sunny window does not cut it; glass and, even window screens, will diffuse the UV rays that your reptile needs. Furthermore, outside noises or changes to your reptile’s environment can also stress them needlessly. For best results, UVB lighting should be used and water dragons should be allowed to get within 12 inches of these bulbs, during basking times, for maximum effects.
Once you have established that your breeder knows what they are talking about, ask to examine the animal that you would choose as a potential pet. At first glance, you should want a reptile that appears awake and alert, with bright eyes and good coloring. Water dragons come in various shades of green but you will want to avoid any that seem overly dark or lean towards brown or blackish shades, as this can often be a sign that they are sickly and ill-kept. Also, a preliminary scan of the animal should show that he is plump without appearing pot-bellied and it is highly suggested that you examine the base of the tail; quite often, animals that are suffering stress or malnutrition will exhibit some ‘wasting’ in this area. The base of the tail should appear somewhat muscular and meaty, even in juveniles, as the water dragon’s tail is used to help them swim, maintain their balance as they climb, and as a method of self-defense.
Ask to hold your potential water dragon. While there are always some exceptions to the rule, water dragons are generally docile reptiles and, while they may claw in an effort to escape or thrash their tail and attempt to ‘alligator roll’ to escape, they rarely resort to biting. Holding a potential water dragon will allow you to not only check his temperament, but will also allow you to give him a closer examination; check his skin closely for external parasites, like mites, and check him over to ensure that he is suffering no burns to his underside or puncture wounds from sharp objects or tree branches in his cage. Check, also, to ensure that he is not suffering MBD (metabolic bone disease) by pressing gently on the end of his nose. Animals suffering MBD or calcium deficiencies will have a squishy nose or can exhibit blunted or bleeding noses, from banging them against a too-small enclosure. Also check the water dragon for any sign of strange lumps under the skin, lesions or discharges.
Even after you have taken these steps to ensure you choose the best possible pet, it is also highly recommended that you take your newly purchased water dragon to a veterinarian that is specialized in reptiles (often a trick in itself, as exotic animals can sometimes be troublesome to find care for). Ask the veterinarian to examine your new pet as well, and to run a fecal sample to test for internal parasites. Remember that choosing a healthy pet is only the first step; keeping him happy and healthy from there on in is your job. Do it right and you will have a wonderful reptile companion for the next 15-20 years.