Thai Water Dragon Care (Physignathus cocincinus)

Erica Mede, CVT

Description

These medium sized lizards reach lengths of 2-3 feet from snout to tail tip with males being on the longer side.  Their whip like tail offers both balance and defense (tail whipping) similar to the Green iguanas.  Chinese water dragon hatchlings are commonly mistaken for Green iguana hatchlings.   Both hatchlings average around the same size of 5-6 inches long and sharing similar characteristics.  The throat of juveniles and adults are yellow, orange, or a pinkish color that iguanas do not have.  A dark stripe extending from the corner of the eye to the ear is also another species marker.  Adults, once mature, generally have a dark green to bright mint green color with a pale green or white underside.   Males, generally have a prominent nuchal crest and mid-saggital crest (along the back).  In captivity, water dragons have been known to live 10-20 years

Natural History

These dragons are found throughout south east Asia ( Thailand , China , Vietnam , and Cambodia ) during the daylight hours.  Generally, this specie is found on the branches of trees or tall bushes or swimming through the water.  They are proficient in both climbing and swimming.

Sexing

Males are generally longer and have a prominent mid-saggital crest.  The head of a male is also larger with well larger jowls and larger femoral pores.  Your veterinarian or an experienced reptile keeper can gently probe to determine gender as early as 18 months.  These dragons will typically breed around 2 years old or once they reach 2 feet in length.

Feeding        

Hatchlings and juveniles should be fed on a daily basis whereas adults can be fed every 2-3 days to prevent obesity.  Chinese water dragons are primarily an insectivore specie but should be offered vegetation and whole prey as well.  Ideally, the diet of a pet water dragon should consist of 40% insects, 20% earthworms (high in natural calcium), 20% whole prey (baby mice or fish), 10% finely shredded dark leafy greens.  Many owners feel more comfortable feeding insects and earthworms.  If it is a problem to feed whole prey or the dragon is a hatchling, it is appropriate to supplement with more earth worms.  Whole prey fish include smelt, guppies, and minnows but no goldfish.  It is acceptable to use frozen fish that is defrosted thoroughly and cut into appropriate sizes. Insects that can be offered to water dragons include gut loaded crickets, meal worms (not a staple), horn worms (occasionally), earthworms, dubia roaches (these are the softer bodied of the roach family), locust, and silk worms (excellent feeders).

Enclosure

Chinese water dragons are arboreal and semi-aquatic so the length and height of the cage are vastly important!  Many owners who have large adults or multiple adults will create or purchase custom screen enclosures.  Ideally, an adult enclosure should be 4-6 feet long, 2-3 feet high, and 4-6 feet deep.  All ages require a third of the enclosure to be aquatic, whether this is through ingenuity of creating a naturalistic enclosure with a pond or adding a large container where the lizard can soak and swim.  Younger water dragons can be kept in glass aquariums but it is strongly recommended to cover 3 of the 4 sides to prevent constant escape attempts which can lead to nose deformities, inappettence, and generalized facial trauma.  Juveniles will need at least a 40 gallon sized aquarium or similar sized enclosure (Rubbermaid type containers with opaque walls work phenomenally for juveniles especially to decrease stress) and adults will need an enclosure at least the size of a 70 gallon aquarium.

Temperature and Humidity

This species should have an ambient temperature around 84-88F.  A basking site of 90-95F should be offered and maintained under a branch that the lizard can climb up to reach but never come into contact with a hot metal surface.
Ambient tank temperatures can be maintained utilizing under tank heaters, heat cable (never in the enclosure), heat tape, radiating heat panels, heat bulbs, and ceramic heat emitters (these emit no light however).

Basking site temperatures can be maintained utilizing radiating heat panels, basking bulbs and ceramic heat emitters.  All heating devices should be regulated by a thermostat. Temperatures can be monitored with 2-3 thermometers.  One thermometer should be placed an inch above the substrate on the cooler end of the cage, one an inch above the substrate on the warmer side of the cage, and one at the level the basking site.  The water should be kept on the cooler side of the enclosure and does not require supplemental heating.

Humidity for Chinese water dragons should be around 70-80% but never above 85%.  Humidity can be maintained with the large aquatic portion of the cage, waterfalls, frequent misting, mister systems, and foggers.  A hygrometer is essential to monitor and keep track of the humidity.

Substrate

The enclosure can be as simple or as complex as an owners imagination.  Ceramic tile and vinyl tile are ideal bottoms for the enclosure of adults due to their easy cleaning appeal.   Naturalistic enclosures can have soil but it is only recommended to use top soil that has no fertilizer or added insecticides.  Soil also needs to be spot cleaned daily and changed weekly to prevent bacterial and fungal growth.  Other suitable substrates that are easy to clean especially for new and hatchling animals is indoor/outdoor carpet, alfalfa pellets, paper towel, and news/butcher paper.  Spot cleaning (removal of feces, urates, old food, etc) should be performed on a daily basis.  A thorough cleaning of the cage should be done at least every 2-3 weeks for optimal health.

Lighting

All reptiles benefit from some level of UVB lighting.  The best is natural sunlight but most captive reptiles rely on specialized UVB emitting bulbs.  Chinese water dragons benefit from a 5.0 UVB bulb as adults and most hatchlings and juveniles thrive under a 10.0 UVB bulb.  The higher UVB output is beneficial for the lizards during their faster growth stages.  The UVB light should be on 12 hours a day during the day light portion of the light cycle.

Enrichment

A large water container is essential!  Items such as water falls and bubblers help keep the water from becoming stagnant and adds enrichment to the enclosure.  Sturdy branches and plants (both fake and real) are necessary for climbing.  Foliage adds hiding spots and offers a sense of security.  Rocks, hides of various materials, and other naturalistic looking materials can be added to the enclosure and should be changed or at least moved throughout the cage once a week to stimulate their minds.  Some water dragons may appreciate “bug boxes” where they can manipulate a box to coax prey out.  Creative enrichment is key to a healthy reptile!

Resources and Recommended Reading

The General Care and Maintenance of Green Water Dragons, Sailfin Lizards, and Basilisks, Philippe de Vosjoli
Water Dragons, John Coborn
Anoles, Basilisks, and Water Dragons, R.D Bartlett and Patricia P. Bartlett
Reptiles Magazine
Tricia’s Chinese Water Dragon, Reptile and Amphibian Care Page – www.triciaswaterdragon.com

If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.

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