Where is my bearded dragon going to live? That, in some form, is one of the very first questions that all bearded dragon owners ask. Not far behind that is “Can I keep them in an old aquarium, or do they need something just for reptiles?”
Aquariums are okay temporary homes for young bearded dragons, but they are not suitable for adults. Aquariums are difficult to access and make it hard to control temperature, lighting, and humidity. A much better option is a wood or glass enclosure that measures 24”x24”x48”, has doors on the front, and is properly ventilated.
We understand that there are a LOT of bearded dragons out there being kept in repurposed aquariums. If this is your bearded dragon, we are NOT calling you a bad owner or saying you are doing anything wrong.
Many a bearded dragon has lived out its life in an aquarium. We totally get that.
But we also feel that this is one of those topics that fall under the old adage. Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. Yes, an aquarium can hold a beardie. No, it’s not the best option. Here’s why.
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Benefits of an aquarium
We should start by explaining that we don’t think aquariums are all bad. They can be made to work. They also have a couple of distinct advantages over purpose-built reptile enclosures.
This is an easy one. On the whole, aquariums cost less than reptile vivariums. There are more of them made. There are more of them sold. There are more of them on the market. All of these things lead to a lower price point.
But the real reason they cost less is that almost everyone knows someone with an old fish tank they aren’t using. That means that many bearded dragon owners are faced with the choice between a free fish tank or a kind of expensive reptile enclosure.
For many, that’s not even a choice. Free wins every time.
Also, there are just a lot more places to get aquariums. Every pet store carries them. Most Wal-Marts carry them. We’ve even seen them at some larger grocery stores.
Outside of grocery stores, a simple weekend spent going to garage sales is sure to net you several choices of old fish tanks to choose from. All at very reasonable prices.
Between cost and availability, it’s easy to see why so many bearded dragon owners end up using a fish tank for their beardie.
Drawbacks of using an aquarium to house a bearded dragon
Wait, so there are only 2 benefits of using an aquarium for your bearded dragon? Yes. And if you’ll notice, neither of those benefits are benefits to the dragon. They are both things that only benefit the owner.
We think that when putting together a home for your scaly family member, what should be considered are the benefits to the bearded dragon. Sure, it’s nice if the tank you use is cheap and easy to find. But it’s even nicer if it makes a great home for the beardie too.
So let’s take a look at why we feel that aquariums aren’t the ideal choice and how purpose-built vivariums are better.
Aquariums are hard to access
While not the most important drawback, this is the one that bugs us the most. Trying to access your beardie by reaching into the top of an aquarium just isn’t ideal. Cassidy, one half of Beardie Bungalow, is 5’4”. She simply couldn’t get to certain areas of an aquarium without the use of a step stool.
This will be an issue for anyone with small kids. Beardies make great pets (see our full list of reasons here), and your kids should be able to take them out for snuggles and playtime.
If the bearded dragon is in an aquarium, this will be an issue. It could even lead to a tipped-over enclosure as an eager child tries to reach their scaly friend!
Tim, the other half of Beardie Bungalow, is 6’6”. For him, it’s a lot easier. He has no problems reaching inside an aquarium with his long monkey arms.
But what about Bacardi, their bearded dragon? Does it matter to her? YES!!!!
Bearded dragons are prey animals. In the wild, they are hunted much more often than they are hunters. Their biggest predator? Birds.
This is such an issue that bearded dragons actually have a “third eye” on top of their heads (for this and a ton of other cool beardie facts, check out this article!).
This doesn’t mean they have a third eyeball, though. On top of their heads is a thinner area of skull and skin that is thought to be photosensitive. This spot can detect changes in the amount of light hitting their head.
Scientists believe that bearded dragons have this “third eye” specifically to detect birds coming at them from above. They have evolved for thousands of years with this defense against their airborne predators.
That means that any time you come at your beardie from above, they instinctively think you are a bird coming to eat them! This is not only stressful for them but dangerous for you.
You should always pick up your bearded dragon from the side. Otherwise, you risk getting bitten by a defensive dragon.
We wrote an entire instructional on how to pick up a bearded dragon without getting bit that you can read here. Step one is not to come at them from above.
With an aquarium, from above is the only way you can pick them up. With a purpose-built reptile enclosure with doors on the front, this isn’t a problem. These front access doors are really important when it comes to handling and picking up your bearded dragon!
Aquariums don’t have secure screen tops
Unlike fish, bearded dragons love to climb. They are semi-arboreal animals and spend a good deal of their time in the wild, up in trees and bushes.
This means that you should give them plenty of things to climb on. This also means that there is a chance of escape. The solution? A secure screen cover placed over the entire opening at the top of your beardie’s home.
Reptile enclosures come with these. They are a perfect fit, secure, and easy for humans to remove. Aquariums do not. This means it’s something else you’ll need to buy.
Finding a properly fitting screen top that can be secured is not as easy as you might think. Yes, there are some universal tops available that might work, but there are so many different sizes of fish tanks that you may not be able to find one that actually fits.
And yes, it does have to be made from screen! Please, please, please don’t buy an aquarium and then cover the top with something solid. This will block all ventilation and make it impossible to achieve proper temps or humidity.
It could also kill your beardie, so please stick with a breathable mesh cover of some type.
Aquariums are not well ventilated
Speaking of ventilation, there is much more to it than simply having a screen topper. Even with a screen top, aquariums do not have the ability to provide airflow to your beardie.
The key is to get air to flow through the enclosure. In order to do that, the screen top is only half the battle. You also need vents of some type towards the bottom of the vivarium.
Fish tanks simply don’t have this. If they did, they’d make terrible fish tanks as they wouldn’t hold any water!
Good ventilation is critical to several aspects of raising a healthy beardie. It will prevent skin conditions, mold, mildew, fungus growth, and even bacterial growth. It’s good for their respiratory system, eyes, mouth, and ears.
Fresh, clean air flowing through their homes is the single biggest reason to use a well-ventilated tank instead of a repurposed aquarium.
The two most important benefits of a well-ventilated tank are temperature and humidity regulation.
It’s hard to regulate temperature inside an aquarium
Get in your car, open the sun/moon roof, and go park outside for a while. You’ll quickly realize that it’s near impossible to regulate the temperature inside without adding airflow from your vents or opening your windows.
The same is true inside a bearded dragon’s tank. Without vents towards the bottom of the tank, humidity pools in the tank and doesn’t escape. That makes the air unhealthy, uncomfortable, and conducive to a host of problems.
One of those problems is temperature control. Your bearded dragon needs to live in a very specific range of temperatures.
On the hot side of their home, temps should get up to a high of about 100-110℉ in their basking spot (see here for a full guide to basking temps). On the cool side, you are looking for a temp of around 75℉.
Without proper airflow, it would be hard enough to maintain one of those, let alone get both right. You simply can’t get the right temperatures consistently enough to matter when using an aquarium.
It’s hard to regulate humidity inside an aquarium
An even bigger challenge than regulating temperatures is regulating humidity. Bearded dragons need a consistent level of relative humidity between 35-45%.
When using a fish tank with no ventilation, humidity tends to pool up inside the tank. It is heavier than the surrounding air and has no way to escape. That means that over time, the inside of that tank will become more and more humid.
The interior air of your beardie’s home will not only get more humid than the air in your home, but it will get too humid for your beardie as well.
In our complete guide to humidity for your bearded dragon, we outline all of the problems that can occur when humidity is not kept at the correct levels. We also outline quite a few strategies to help control humidity.
The most important among those tips is to have a well-ventilated enclosure. There simply is no way around this.
Aquariums are rarely the right size
You can probably guess by now that we have an entire resource already prepared on this subject for you. But if you don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s the main point.
Adult bearded dragons need an enclosure that measures at least 24”x24”x48”. This not only allows them enough room to move around and live a healthy life but also allows for the proper lighting and temperature setup needed.
It’s highly unusual to find an aquarium of this size. Most are much smaller, especially when it comes to depth from front to back.
Your beardie’s tank is their forever home. Don’t make it too small! Give them a place with enough room to roam and play and dig and be happy bearded dragons. And give yourself enough space to make it easy to get your lighting and temps right!
Aquariums are not useless
As you can see, we do not recommend using repurposed fish tanks as permanent homes for your adult bearded dragon. But there are a few instances where they might be useful to a bearded dragon owner.
It’s not a great idea to place live feeder insects inside your bearded dragon’s tank to feed them. Those little critters tend to run and hide. Then they die. Then they stink, rot, and present a possibility of bacteria and mold.
Crickets are even worse (which is one of many reasons why we recommend you never use them as feeders). Crickets will actually bite and nibble on your beardie when they sleep. This can cause open wounds and infection.
For these reasons, it’s a good idea to have a separate place where you feed your bearded dragon their live protein source. A fish tank is ideal for this.
They have high sides that will prevent the insects from escaping. They are also large enough to allow your beardie to hunt those insects much like they would in the wild.
Regular bath time should be a part of every bearded dragon’s life. It should happen 2-3 times per week or more.
At some point, you may need to bathe them daily. Things like clogged femoral pores or trouble shedding will necessitate daily soaks.
We like to have a dedicated place to bathe our bearded dragon, Bacardi. A lot of folks simply use their own tub or sink, but we are a little overly cautious when it comes to that.
Those spots can have some chemical, cosmetic, or soapy build-up that may not be good for your dragon. For that reason, we err on the side of caution and use a dedicated bin for bathing.
A fish tank would be ideal for this. It holds water, and the sides are high enough to keep your beardie from escaping (although please remember to never leave your dragon unattended in a container of water!).
Fish tanks also tend to make good homes for younger bearded dragons up to the age of about 10-11 months.
These bearded dragons don’t require as much temperature or humidity balance. They don’t need as much room to roam, either.
So for a temporary solution, it would be okay to use a fish tank for younger beardies.
That said, here’s a piece of advice our vet gave us…
You’re going to need a bigger tank, anyway, once they are grown. Why spend money getting something small when you are just going to need to replace it down the road? Get the right size to start with.
Where to buy a bearded dragon tank
If you don’t live near a reptile or exotic pet store, it may be hard to find the right type of tank for your bearded dragon. As with so many other things in life these days, that leads us to look to the internet for a solution.
And as is the case so often, Amazon has you covered.
The best place to buy a well-designed and appropriately sized bearded dragon tank is from Carolina Customs on Amazon.com. Their 24”x24”x48” tank has front access, good ventilation, and is easy to assemble. This reasonably priced option is perfect for almost all bearded dragon owners.