The Asian or Chinese Water Dragon (Physignathus cocincinus) superficially resembles the Green Iguana and is popular with those iguana fans lacking the space for a 6 foot-long lizard. Alert, beautifully-colored and interesting, they are among the best of all large lizard pets. Water Dragons are subject to several unique health concerns but, as will be explained, all can be easily avoided.
Asian Water Dragons range from southern China through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. They are always found near water, frequenting riversides, swamps and canals. The less-common Eastern Water Dragon, Physignathus leseurii, may also be kept as described below.
Water Dragons are alert and somewhat high-strung, and will run from noises, cats, dogs, and other threats. In the wild, frightened individuals drop from branches to the water or dash into heavy cover; captives retain this instinct and are often injured during escape attempts. While most calm down and accept gentle handling, always avoid startling your pet.
Captive longevity averages 10-15 years. An Eastern Water Dragon under my care at the Bronx Zoo was still going strong at age 17.
Setting up the Terrarium
Water Dragons forage on the ground but are otherwise arboreal. They will be stressed if kept in enclosures that do not allow climbing opportunities.
Youngsters may be raised in large aquariums. However, a tendency to run along the glass leaves them prone to snout and jaw injuries. Cardboard borders along the lower 3-4 inches of the tank’s sides will help to discourage this.
Larger individuals (males reach 3 feet in length; females average 2 feet) are best housed in custom cages or homemade enclosures. A single adult will need a home measuring approximately 4 x 4 x 4 feet. More height – 6 feet or so – would be even better. The Basilisk enclosure pictured here, which I set up for the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, would work well for a pair of Water Dragons. In suitable climates, large outdoor enclosures, including pre-fabricated bird aviaries, make excellent “luxury accommodations”.
Numerous stout branches should be provided. Sturdy live (Pothos, Philodendron) and artificial plants should be added. Water Dragons always live near heavy cover and are ill-at-ease in bare terrariums. Never position rocks below braches, as startled lizards may jump to the floor and be injured.
A water bowl large enough for bathing must be provided. Large pools serviced by submersible filters are ideal.
The substrate should be capable of holding moisture and soft enough to cushion falls. A mix of cypress mulch works well. Avoid fine substrates such as peat and coconut husk, which tend to lodge around the eyes and jaws.
Water Dragons will not thrive without a source of Ultra-Violet B light. Natural sunlight is best, but be aware that glass and plastic filter out UVB rays, and that fatal overheating can occur very quickly.
If a florescent bulb is used (the Zoo Med 10.0 UVB Bulb is ideal), be sure that all animals can bask within 6-12 inches of it. Mercury vapor and halogen bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances, and provide UVA radiation as well.
The ambient air temperature should range from 82-88 F, with a basking spot of 95-100 F. Incandescent bulbs should be used to maintain these temperatures. At night, temperatures can dip to 75 F. A ceramic heater or red/black reptile night bulb can be used after dark.
Large enclosures will enable your pet to thermo-regulate, or adjust its body temperature by moving from hot to cooler areas. This behavior, important to good health, is not possible in small cages.
Water Dragons require high humidity (i.e. 80%) and the opportunity to dry off as well. The terrarium should be misted twice daily. Large bathing pools and reptile foggers can be used to increase humidity.
Males are territorial and will fight savagely. Females often co-exist, but may also battle for dominance.
Sex is difficult to determine until the lizards reach a length of 14-18 inches. As compared to females, males have wider heads, prominent crests and larger jowls.
Water Dragons need a varied diet. Those fed crickets and mealworms alone invariably contract developmental diseases.
Whole vertebrates such as minnows, shiners and pink mice are the best means of meeting their high calcium requirements. Pink mice should be used less often than fishes (once each 7-14 days), and furred rodents are best avoided. Earthworms and crayfishes are especially good food items, and always greeted with relish.
Gut loaded (please write in for details) roaches, waxworms, crickets, butterworms, silkworms, super mealworms and canned invertebrates (grasshoppers, snails, silkworms) should all be provided.
Wild Water Dragons add plants to their diet as they mature, but captives often reject non-living foods. Adding live insects to a bowl of kale, dandelion, apples, peaches and other produce may encourage them to sample the salad.
While ingested substrate is usually passed, food is best offered in bowls or via tongs to limit potential problems.
Females may be troubled by retained eggs and other reproductive disorders if they do not mate. In order to avoid these life-threatening conditions, unmated females should be spayed. Gravid females need an appropriate nesting site…please write in for further information.
Water Dragons are prone to snout and jaw injuries that result from rubbing against glass and screening; wounds often become infected and should be treated immediately. A change in the enclosure’s set-up and/or location often resolves this problem. Please write in for additional ideas.
Fine/gritty substrates may lodge along the gums and around the eyes.
Wild-caught individuals are usually afflicted with various parasites and should be examined by a veterinarian.
Water Dragon by Jakub Hałun (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Basilisk Babies and Basilisk by Kerstin Franke (Tinie) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons