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Water Dragon

Water Dragon Care Sheet

Developed with and approved by a qualified veterinarian.

Overview 

Physignathus cocincinus

Also called Chinese or Asian water dragons or green water dragons, these bright green lizards with large golden-brown colored eyes originated from China, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. In nature, they are found in tropical rainforests, usually close to a water source. Water dragons are diurnal (active during the day and asleep at night), arboreal (tree-climbing) and need plenty of space to climb and hide. 

Table of Contents

Typical water dragon appearance and behavior 

  • Water dragons are capable of changing shades of colors between green and brown, depending on the temperature and humidity
  • They are typically quite personable and docile and can remain social as adults if handled frequently as juveniles
  • Males often fight when housed together, and females will occasionally fight, too; if housing more than one dragon in a habitat, it’s best to keep one mature male with 2–3 females
  • Their tails make up nearly 75% of their body length; they use their tails for balance and as an aid when climbing, and they also use them as whips when fighting off predators
  • Their tongues are large, forked at the tip and sticky on the surface to help catch and hold prey; they have small teeth adapted to eating an omnivorous diet
  • Above their necks, just behind their heads, both males and females have a nuchal crest—a central row of large, spikey spines; typically, males have larger heads and taller nuchal crests with longer spikes 
  • Males and females look similar until they reach about 15 inches long
  • Water dragons have a small, round, shiny-looking scale between their eyes, on top of their heads, called the parietal eye; this organ helps dragons sense differences in light (such as when they are looking for a basking spot) to help them regulate their body temperatures
  • They use their front legs to climb and grasp and their muscular hind legs to run fast, as well as to swim They are easily frightened or startled; avoid loud noises and quick movements around them

 

Characteristics

Care difficulty Intermediate
Average Life Span Up to 15 years with proper care
Average adult size 2–3 feet from nose to tip of tail; males are larger than females
Diet Omnivorous
Minimum habitat size 40-gallon breeder tank for juveniles

Habitat

Habitat size

Under ideal conditions, water dragons reach adult size in 1–2 years; upgrade habitat size as your reptile grows.

House your water dragon in an appropriately sized and shaped habitat to accommodate normal behaviors and exercise. Habitats need to be vertically oriented to allow tree-climbing behavior. A minimum of a 40-gallon breeder tank is recommended for a juvenile water dragon. An ideal habitat for more than one water dragon would be 6’H x 3’W x 4’L. Habitats should be enclosed to maintain humidity and should have a securely closing lid to prevent escape; they also must have adequate ventilation to prevent mold growth. Screened-in habitats are typically much harder to keep humid than glass habitats.

Building your habitat

  • Décor: Provide multiple hiding areas and branches for basking and climbing
    • Water dragons typically prefer high basking areas, so provide climbing branches (from live or artificial plants) or shelves in the habitat to enable them to reach these spots 
    • Provide hiding places to enable dragons to feel more secure; live plants that may be used safely include hibiscus, dracaena, pothos, ficus, philodendron and spider plants
  • Barrier: Some water dragons rub their noses against the glass of the habitat, causing injury; a 2–3" visual barrier (of paper, carboard, or solid-colored tape) can be placed around the outside of all sides at the bottom of the habitat to discourage water dragons from rubbing
  • Substrate: Cypress mulch or orchid bark works well to help increase habitat humidity, as long as mulch pieces are too large to ingest, which can lead to accidental gastrointestinal tract obstruction
    • Sphagnum moss also helps maintain humidity but must be changed frequently to ensure it doesn’t become moldy 
    • Reptile carpet may also be used but must be replaced often when it becomes soiled 
    • Coconut husk is generally not recommended, as it can cause eye irritation.
  • Temperature: Provide a temperature gradient with 95–100°F for the warm end and 80–85°F for the cool end
    • Nighttime temperatures should not fall below 75°F
    • Use an incandescent light or ceramic heater as primary heat source
    • Use at least two thermometers (one on the cool end and the other on the basking end) or a “point and shoot” thermometer gun to monitor habitat temperatures; ideally, a thermostat should be used to maintain temperatures within a safe range
  • Humidity: Maintain 70–80% humidity by misting as needed every day 
    • Monitor humidity closely with a humidity gauge within the habitat 
    • Live plants and sphagnum moss can help elevate humidity
    • Habitats with screened tops may need more frequent misting to keep humidity levels elevated
  • Water: Water dragons often enjoy swimming and soaking, so they should have access to a large water bowl that is deep enough to allow soaking and that is changed frequently (every 1–2 days) to prevent bacteria from building up and infecting animals
    • More elaborate waterfalls and air bubblers placed in water dishes can also provide a place for dragons to bathe; these water sources help increase humidity and are typically filtered to prevent them from becoming dirty
  • Lighting: More elaborate waterfalls and air bubblers placed in water dishes can also provide a place for dragons to bathe; these water sources help increase humidity and are typically filtered to prevent them from becoming dirty
    • Without UVB, reptiles can develop metabolic bone disease, in which their bones fracture easily, they have seizures and they can die
    • An incandescent day bulb can be used to provide heat in the basking area, along with a separate UV bulb during daylight hours; alternatively, a mercury vapor bulb can be used to provide both heat and UV light during the daytime
    • At night, lights must go off to allow water dragons to sleep, so a ceramic heater or nocturnal bulb can be used at night to maintain nighttime temperatures when the lights are off; light timers can be used to turn bulbs on and off

Cleaning your water dragon's habitat

Thoroughly clean the habitat at least once a week. To safely clean the habitat:

  • Place water dragon in a secure habitat
  • Scrub the habitat and furnishings with a reptile habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution
  • Rinse thoroughly with hot water, removing all traces of habitat cleaner or bleach smell
  • Dry the tank and furnishings completely
  • Add clean substrate and replace décor and animal

Feeding

A well-balanced water dragon diet consists of:

  • A variety of whole prey, including cricketsroachesmealwormsCalciWormswaxwormshornwormsSuperworms and earthworms (which can be fed daily) and frozen and thawed pinkie or fuzzy mice and small common goldfish (which can be offered to juveniles 2–3 times/week and to adults less often); whole prey provides calcium and other nutrients especially important to the developing skeletons of young water dragons
  • Vegetables and fruits can be fed 2–3 times/week and should add up to no more than 10–15% of your dragon’s total diet; acceptable vegetables include leafy greens, such as kale, romaine, dandelion and mustard greens, along with squash, sweet potato, carrots and green beans, and acceptable fruits include smaller amounts of strawberries, raspberries, mango, papaya, cantaloupe and figs 
  • Supplements, including a calcium supplement without vitamin D3 that you alternate daily with a calcium supplement containing vitamin D3, should be sprinkled on food, along with a complete vitamin and mineral supplement once a week

Things to remember when feeding your water dragon:

  • Offer juveniles food daily; adults may be fed every 2–3 days
  • Fresh, clean water should be available at all times
  • Do not use a microwave to defrost frozen rodents, and do not prepare them in the same area that you prepare food; they carry bacteria that can cause serious illness if ingested. If this is unavoidable, be sure to thoroughly disinfect the area; see the Feeding Frozen/Thawed Foods Care Sheet for more information
  • Vegetables and fruits not eaten within 10 hours should be discarded
  • Water dragons can become fussy eaters if not provided with variety in their diets; to prevent boredom, rotate the types of prey and vegetation offered
  • Offer food in a dish off the floor to prevent accidental ingestion of bedding

Water dragon care

Water dragons regularly shed their skin, so ensure habitat humidity is at appropriate level to allow proper shedding. To facilitate shedding, provide water in a large, shallow container that allows the water dragon to immerse their entire body, or provide a shedding box—a hiding box with moist sphagnum moss to increase humidity and aid in shedding.

Where to buy 

Water dragons are available for purchase at your local Petco location. Please call ahead to check availability.

Habitat mates

House adult male water dragons separately, as they may fight, and do not house different reptile species together.

Health 

Signs of a healthy animal

  • Active and alert
  • Clear eyes
  • Body and tail are filled out
  • Healthy, supple skin (no retained shed)
  • Clear nose and vent
  • Eats and passes stool regularly

Red flags (if you notice any of these signs, contact your veterinarian)

  • Weight loss or decreased appetite
  • Discharge from eyes, nose or mouth
  • Lethargy
  • Bumps, sores, discolorations or abrasions on skin
  • Retained shedding skin
  • Closed eyes
  • Labored breathing
  • Sneezing or coughing
  • Weakness or paralysis of limbs
  • Abnormal feces or lack of feces

Common water dragon health issues

Health Issue Symptoms or Causes Suggested Action
Gastrointestinal disease Runny or bloody stools, caked or smeared stool around the vent and loss of appetite caused by bacterial, viral or parasitic infection Consult your veterinarian
Metabolic bone disease/vitamin deficiency Inability to absorb calcium due to insufficient UV light or improper dietary calcium or vitamin D supplementation; if untreated, may lead to skeletal deformities, softened bones, fractures, swollen limbs, lethargy, decreased appetite, weight loss and death Consult your veterinarian; provide ample UVB lighting and the proper amount of calcium/vitamin supplements
Nose rubbing Red, scabbed or swollen snout caused by running into tank wall repeatedly Consult your veterinarian; make changes to the habitat
Respiratory disease Labored breathing, decreased appetite, discharge or bubbles from mouth, nose or eyes; may be caused by a habitat that has inappropriate humidity and/or temperature Consult your veterinarian; ensure habitat is the proper temperature and humidity

FAQs

  • What do water dragons eat? Water dragons eat variety of whole prey, including insects and occasional frozen and thawed pinkie or fuzzy mice or small common goldfish, plus smaller amounts of fresh vegetables and fruit.
  • How long do water dragons live? Water dragons can live up to 15 years with proper care and nutrition.
  • How big do water dragons get? Water dragons can grow up to 2–3 feet from their nose to the tip of their tail; male water dragons are larger than females.
  • What is a water dragon? A water dragon is a green lizard that is a type of reptile with a huge personality.
  • Are water dragons poisonous? No, water dragons are not poisonous.
  • How do I set up a water dragon enclosure? A water dragon enclosure should consist of a tank (at least 40 gallons in size for juveniles) with a secure lid, branches for climbing, a UV light, an incandescent heating bulb or ceramic heater, substrate, food and water bowls, a water bowl for soaking, places to hide, moss to help maintain humidity, and a cool zone and a basking spot.
  • Why is my water dragon brown? Water dragons change colors from green to brown depending on the temperature and humidity.
  • How fast do water dragons grow? Water dragons can reach adult size in 1–2 years.

Additional care sheets

Notes and resources

Ask a Pet Care Center associate about Petco's selection of products available for the care and happiness of your new pet. All products carry a 100% money-back guarantee.

Because all reptiles are potential carriers of infectious diseases, such as salmonella, always wash your hands before and after handling your reptile or habitat contents to help prevent the potential spread of disease.

Pregnant women, children under the age of 5, senior citizens, and people with weakened immune systems should contact their physicians before purchasing or caring for reptiles and should consider having a pet other than a reptile.

Go to the Centers for Disease Control at cdc.gov/healthypets for more information about lizards and disease.

Note: The information in this care sheet is not a substitute for veterinary care. If you need additional information, please contact your veterinarian as appropriate.