If you want to get a lot of enjoyment out of owning a bearded dragon, you'll have to be willing to put some effort in. This post will give you an overview of the things you can expect to need and do to own one of these little guys (or girls).
Don't go out and get a bearded dragon (or any other reptile, for that matter) until you have a safe, adequate habitat waiting for them. The dragon won't be happy (or healthy) and you won't be happy if your aim is to be a good dragon parent.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
If you have never owned any kind of reptile before, a good place to start is at your local library or online. Find some YouTubes that cover owning a reptile (we can't possibly cover everything here). After you think you know everything there is to know, then watch a few more, because there is a TON to owning a happy, healthy dragon. What we cover in this post is just barely scratching the surface.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you should be prepared to set up the enclosure (complete withe all equipment) and have it up and running for at least a week prior to adding the dragon. You will want to make sure everything is working correctly and that temperatures are being maintained correctly. Skipping this "checking out" period is almost always a mistake.
THE COSTSWe decided to put this early-on in the post, as the realization of how much you'll need to spend may slow some of you down a bit. You can expect to pay $200 USD at a minimum for the enclosure and the equipment needed. You MIGHT be able to find used equipment, but be wary of those, as they might have housed very sick reptiles - be sure to clean and sterilize them thoroughly.
The amount spent for the enclosure and equipment will probably be closer to $350 USD, depending on what you can buy locally and what you will have to order online if your local pet stores don't carry much in the way of reptile supplies.
You should also expect to visit a veterinarian annually for a regular check-up. Check in your area to find out vet fees and make sure you find a vet that actually treats bearded dragons BEFORE you buy one. Vet costs can run anywhere from $35-$75 for an annual checkup to thousands if emergency care is needed.
Food will cost at least $5 weekly, but the initial cost will be more - around $100 - to make sure you have all the vitamins and minerals and live crickets, and a place to store the crickets, etc.
KEEPING COSTS LOW
You can avoid some of the costs by building your own enclosure and raising your own dragon food. There are plenty of YouTubes and articles online how to do both of these, check them out!
HABITAT - FIRST STEP IS THE ENCLOSURE
What constitutes an adequate habitat? Well, more than you may realize.
Make sure you find a place for the dragon's habitat that will allow for, more or less, a permanent installation. By the time you get everything in there, it's going to be quite heavy and moving it would mean a lot of stress for your dragon, along with probably a big mess.
There is a "rule of thumb" to sizing a habitat for a reptile. The enclosure should be at least 3 times as long as the length of the reptile. So, an average adult bearded dragon will reach between 18 and 22 inches. That means the enclosure should be at least 60 inches across. If the enclosure is large from front to back, you might be able to get away with having a slightly less wide enclosure, but don't scrimp here - you'll just wind up having to buy a larger one as the dragon grows. It doesn't have to be very tall, they don't really jump, although we have seen a few "climbers." The enclosure should be tall enough to be able to stack a few rocks, as they like crawling up on the rocks and "sunning" there.
NOTE - If you are starting out with a baby, you still want the large enclosure, but you should put a divider of some type so the baby doesn't get stressed out with all the space. Just use the "3 times" rule and as your baby grows, move the divider to make the enclosure bigger and bigger - until the dragon is an adult and the divider can be removed from the enclosure.
The enclosure should really be an aquarium/terrarium or other glass sided enclosure. There are two really good reasons for this - (2) ease of cleaning, and (1) most important, it will keep the heat in better and make it much easier to regulate the heat.
ADD HEATING AND LIGHTING AND MORE LIGHTING
Your dragon will need a heater that can run 24-7. They require a consistently high temperature, as they are originally desert dwellers.
Also needed are two kinds of light. The first is a basking light - one that provides radiant heat they can enjoy while perched on top of their pile of rocks. The second is a UVA/UVB full spectrum light, which looks like a regular fluorescent light - but isn't - do not be fooled. Ideally, both types of lights should be installed in a hood that goes over the enclosure - to be sure the dragon cannot come into direct contact with either.
ADD MORE STUFF
Next you will need something that covers the bottom of the enclosure - something for them to crawl around on. You can find reptile "carpet" on Amazon or at most large pet stores. It's not too expensive and it's fairly easy to clean. The easiest thing to do for cleaning is buy two of the carpets, so one is always clean and ready to exchange with the dirty one.
While it is possible to use sand or small pebbles for the bottom, those are harder to clean and may cause you to put off cleaning because it's such a hassle.
NOTE - If you buy a baby dragon, do NOT use sand or other "fine" material than can cause health problems.
ADD EVEN MORE STUFF
So, your dragon is going to need a place to crawl up on that is large enough for their whole body. They like to keep "look out" and a (short - 2 to 4 inches high) pile of nice large flat rocks located directly under the basking light is ideal. Make sure the stack of rocks (or single rock) is stable too.
If you go out and pick up rocks from the side of the road - you will need to sterilize them before putting them into the enclosure. Don't skimp on this step, or you could easily wind up with a sick dragon - or worse.
You can also add a few tree branches. These will also need to be sterilized before placing them in the enclosure. Just look up how to sterilize items before putting them in an enclosure and you'll find several YouTubes that will show you how step-by-step.
Live plants? Well, not so much, as your dragon will eat them just about as fast as you can replace them.
A hiding place is also needed. Be sure your dragon has something they hide under when they aren't feeling social or when they want to sleep or cool down.
FEEDING AND WATERING
You'll need a nice low bowl for water and another nice low bowl for food. Locate them away from the area with the basking light, which should help somewhat to keep food from spoiling.
NOTE - If you are buying a baby dragon, make sure the bowl is shallow enough they can get in and out easily to prevent drowning. Once they get a little older, you can switch to a slightly deeper watering bowl.
You'll need to be able to monitor temperature and humidity. Two quality thermometers, meant for terrariums, and a hygrometer (it measures humidity) are essential. Locate the thermometers at opposite ends of the enclosure. One at the end with the basking rocks and one a the other end - which is usually referred to as the "cool end."
FEEDING AND WATERING
You'll be feeding your dragon fresh food and live stuff every day. You'll also need to be sure to offer your dragon a fairly wide variety of foods. In the wild, bearded dragons would eat crickets, grubs, various worms, ants, roaches, all kinds of plants, etc. Just like you and me, they need a variety of foods to stay healthy and get all their nutritional needs met. If the person at the pet store tells you they can exist on a diet of crickets and lettuce, you know that person doesn't know anything about dragons.
Avoid avocados, lettuce, and rhubarb. They are toxic to dragons. Avoid spinach and beet greens. While they are not strictly toxic, they cause calcium to not be digested correctly, which can cause health issues. Also avoid citrus fruits, especially the peels. It's just easier to avoid all these foods than to wonder if you've feed your dragon something that will make him sick.
You can feed them many kinds of greens - mustard, collard, dandelion, and turnip. They can also eat as much as they want of watercress, acorn squash, mango, yellow squash, butternut squash, parsnips, papaya, cactus "leaves," endive, snap peas, green beans, sweet potato, and more. Fruits and veggies are essential to a healthy diet for your dragon.
Give them fresh (non-chlorinated) water at LEAST once a day. You can set out chlorinated water and let it "off gas" for at least a few days before giving it to your dragon, but spring water is better. Sometimes a dragon will not drink very much in a day. If you observe this, you can take a spray bottle with some spring water in it and spritz him a little in the face. He will lick the water off as it drips down his face. Spritz about once a minute and continue spritzing until he quits licking and looks at you with hostility. (The hostility may be all in your mind, but you never know...)
As mentioned before, do a lot of research and have some of these foods (and a spray bottle and spring water) available before you bring your dragon home.
WAIT THERE'S MORE
When you feed your dragon live insects, it's necessary to coat the insects in vitamin dust. It also helps to feed the live insects vitamins and minerals before you feed them to your dragon, as these helps gets nutrients into your dragon. (This is called "gut-loading" - making the live insects you feed your dragon similar to a vitamin pill!)
Your pet shop may try to sell you dragon food. This stuff should be considered a treat - fed only occasionally and NOT as a regular diet. It just doesn't have the nutrients your dragon needs. Your dragon can barely exist on bagged food, or thrive on food you raise or buy from the grocer.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
Shoot for roughly 30% insects and 70% plants (meaning veggies, fruits, greens, etc.) for your dragon's diet to maintain their health. You'll get the hang of how much they eat in a day by paying attention to how much uneaten food you take out every day. Your goal will be to take out only a tiny bit of (but SOME) uneaten food every day.
CLEANING THE ENCLOSURE
Every day, you'll need to pick out uneaten food and dragon poop (yay...).
Every week, the sides of the enclosure will need to be cleaned. If your dragon pooped on his hiding place, or his basking rocks, those will have to be taken out and cleaned too.
Every month, you'll need to take EVERYTHING out of the enclosure and clean it thoroughly with a bleach solution.
We didn't go into detail about cleaning, but you should allow at least an hour - probably closer to two every month - to clean the enclosure. It's a lot of work, and it needs to be done on a regular basis.
Remember, this article doesn't contain everything you need to know about owning a bearded dragon. It's just a starting place meant to give you an idea of how difficult (but fulfilling!!) owning a bearded dragon can be.