OK, so the above is a bit of an exaggeration. But it can certainly feel like a battle when our pets won’t eat what we know is good for them!
Bearded dragons are, as we know, omnivores. This means that they can eat animal protein – in the form of insects – and plant material. The areas where they come from in the wild are dry, arid scrub, with not much by way of food except for tough plant growth and the occasional insect. Wild beardies are hard wired to eat anything remotely edible, fuelling their bodies with abundant sunshine and mineral rich plant material, with a little insect protein to top it up.
The trouble is, your captive bred bearded dragon doesn’t know that it is living in the lap of luxury – its instincts are still working from the wild model!
Look at it from your dragon’s point of view. As far as he is concerned, he needs to put on as much weight as possible to survive the coming dry season, when there will be next to nothing to eat. The dragon’s instincts tell him that the best way to get fat is to eat as many bugs as possible, which we very kindly provide for them on a daily basis along with a bowl of greens, which they ignore. We know that our dragons need salad – but they don’t!
To a dragon, plant material is what you live on when there’s nothing better available.
We, as loving pet owners, want our companion animals to be happy, and feeding is one of the ways we show our pets how much we love them. We are mammals, and need to eat every day to maintain our bodies; our mammal pets need that too, so we become accustomed to feeding our pets every day.
Consider the dragon. He’s from a harsh part of the world where there is very little to eat, and he has to make the most of every opportunity in order to survive. He’s still a smart lizard who can make the most of his surroundings even though he was born in captivity.
What we need to take in to account is the fact that our dragons have a much more efficient metabolism than we do. A large number of the calories we ingest are taken up with just keeping our body at the correct temperature; if we’ve given our dragon a good habitat then he doesn’t need any food to help him do that. In short, they don’t need to eat every day.
As a smart lizard, the dragon very quickly figures out that if he doesn’t eat his greens – because he’s not hungry, for whatever reason – then something really yummy is presented to him, which of course he munches all up quite cheerfully.
So how to get round this and amend your dragons naughty eating habits?
The first thing to try is what we do in the shop. All our babies, from the day they hatch, are kept on the same feeding regime. First thing in the morning they are presented with a big bowl of greens, usually the weed varieties which we grow and sell as our herbivore mix.
As the babies wake up and warm up, they get hungry – and a hungry dragon will eat whatever is put in front of it, especially if one of the others goes near the food bowl and they think they’re missing out! So we manipulate a combination of appetite and jealousy, and sure enough – it works.
Obviously, you only have a single dragon so the competitive part of the behaviour is no longer an option. But by offering a bowl of greens first thing in a morning, you are appealing to a hungry dragon’s appetite.
Remember, we have often been reinforcing the wrong behaviour – if your dragon has been brumating, for instance, we may have been using the juiciest titbits to tempt him to eat. Once he comes out the other side he wants food, but has learned that if he refuses to eat the healthy stuff he will be presented with the stuff he wants.
(After all, the dry season could be coming…)
We have to get tough at this point. Provided that he is otherwise healthy and has a good habitat with the correct temperatures and an effective source of UV light, your dragon will not starve himself to death. Honest. It’s very common that beardies will come to us for their holidays and will cheerfully eat their salad, when at home they act as if that green stuff is poison. Once they go home, they often revert to their old ways; again, look at it from the dragons point of view. He’s in a new habitat, and has no idea what sort of food he’s going to get. When provided with a bowl of greens, he decides to eat as he has no idea when he might next get a meal. It might be the dry season!
Don’t worry. We do give them their bugs in the afternoon.
So if your dragon will not eat his greens, take a mental step back and look at how you’re feeding him. If he can stuff himself with protein first thing in a morning, he won’t bother topping up with all that nasty fibre and carbohydrate. Why should he?
Go easy on the calcium and multivitamin powders. Some beardies don’t like the taste, and if the food is covered in a thick white blanket they’ll be discouraged from even trying to eat it – a light dusting is what we should be aiming for.
Treat your beardie as though you’ve just brought him home. Be a little more strict with his feeding – offer fewer bugs in the afternoon so that he wakes up hungry.
Try different plant foods. Some beardies go crazy for flowers, others like herbs. Colour can be important – some beardies save their enthusiasm for red coloured food (sweet peppers, red lettuce), whilst others get excited about yellow.
Once you find a food that your beardie likes, try mixing it with other leafy greens. It’s possible that he’ll grab a mouthful and take in some of the ones he would usually avoid.
Whilst fruit isn’t good for dragons, a little as a treat can sometimes help them eat their greens. If they like blueberries, chop them up and mix them with their salad, or even squeeze the juice over the bowl to spread the taste and smell over the less palatable food.
You can try living cress, lifted out of its plastic pot and sat in a saucer of water or even in the water bowl itself. Sprinkle a little calcium over it and let the dragon go to town and make a horrible mess; if he likes it, you can slowly progress to cutting the cress and mixing it with the other greens.
Remember, don’t chop the leaves too finely! Dragons have a robust set of teeth made for tearing bits of leaf away from the stem, so give them a chance to tackle whole leaves. The action of tearing pieces of leaf up helps to keep their teeth clean, and will aid in preventing infections setting in from decayed teeth.
Thinly sliced butternut squash gets some dragons going, and grated carrot appeals to others.
Easiest of all is to start as you mean to go on. There’s certainly something to be said for keeping your new baby dragon on a mainly veg diet for at least the first week; it won’t do him any harm and will reinforce you both with good eating habits.
So, to recap:
Most of all, don’t give up! Keep trying with different foods and combinations of food – he’ll get the message eventually.
Addendum: Good foods for your beardie.
Salad and veg:
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