“Do they bite” is one of the most frequently asked questions we get about bearded dragons. While we answered that question in detail in an article you can see here, the key to preventing bites is knowing how to properly handle your beardie.
New owners especially tend to make lots of mistakes here. We certainly did! It wasn’t until our vet spent some time going over this with us that we began to feel much more comfortable picking up, holding, and handling our beardie.
To pick up a bearded dragon, approach them from the side or front, never from above. Slide your hand under them from the side to support their chest and front legs. Use your other hand to support their rear legs and tail. Hold them firmly without squeezing so they can’t jump away and get hurt.
As simple as that sounds, there’s quite a bit more to be aware of. In this article, we will teach you everything we know about picking up and holding your beardie so that you are both safe. You won’t get bitten, and they won’t get dropped.
Is your beardie well-socialized?
Let’s start by stating the glaringly obvious fact that all beardies are different. The more beardies you meet, the more you’ll realize just how true this statement is. That means their temperaments will range from completely docile to crazed maniac and everywhere in between!
If you buy a baby or juvenile bearded dragon, it’s really important to handle them often. The more you handle them, the more docile, gentle, and friendly they will become.
A well-socialized dragon will almost never try to bite their human handlers. It’s up to us to get them be well socialized.
A dragon left alone that is only handled once a year for their veterinary exam (see our guide on how often you should do this and what to expect here) will quickly become anti-social.
An anti-social beardie will not want to be handled and may bite, jump, and otherwise be very hard to hold.
If you buy an adult or end up getting a rescue as we did, you’ll want to see how they react to handling before you bring them home. It’s best to stay away from aggressive bearded dragons unless you really know what you are doing and are an experienced beardie owner.
Trust us, being bitten hurts. Plus, it will make you want to spend less time with your new pet, and that’s no fun for either of you! Start off on the right foot, and make sure your dragon is relatively good with being handled from the start!
Your enclosure matters
The type of enclosure you use will make a difference when it comes to picking up your bearded dragon.
We recommend enclosures that open from the front. While a repurposed fish tank will work, you are relegated to only coming in at your dragon from above. This is not ideal.
Bearded dragons are prey animals. This means that they get pretty skittish around anything coming at them from above. In the wild, their biggest predator is birds. They have evolved to defend themselves against birds.
In fact, they have a kind of sensor on top of their heads that can detect changes in light. This is evolution giving them an early warning sign of approaching birds.
They don’t need to be able to see your hand with their eyes to know it’s there. This “third eye” will tell them right away!
You coming in at them from above is easily misconstrued as a bird coming in to eat them! This is one of the ways people get bitten. Best case, you don’t take a bite, but you do stress out your beardie.
Having an enclosure that allows you to come towards them from the front or, preferably, the side will be much better for both of you!
The size of your enclosure will make a difference too. Having an enclosure that is large enough will greatly facilitate being able to reach in and pick up your little friend. Not sure how big of an enclosure you should have? We wrote an entire guide on the subject that you can read here!
Before we get to the step-by-step instructions below, the overall rule is to go slowly. There is no need to jerk open the door to the enclosure and reach right in quickly.
Putting your dragon at ease and picking them up the right way will make it extremely unlikely that you’ll ever take a bite (if you are interested, we wrote an entire article on bearded dragon bites that you can read here).
Open the door. Wait a moment. Say hi to your bearded dragon. Let them know you are there.
Move your hand slowly towards them. It doesn’t have to be in super slow motion, but don’t jab at them, either.
Remember, your bearded dragon can get stressed out easily. If you handle them regularly and you take your time doing it, you’ll both love your time together. Beardies generally like being picked up and love spending time with their owners.
This is one of the biggest causes of children being bitten by bearded dragons. If you have kids, teach them to go slow and be gentle.
It’s great fun to take the beardie out and play, but sometimes a child’s enthusiasm doesn’t pair up well with the speed at which they should reach in for their little friend.
What Not To Do When Handling a Bearded Dragon
Let’s cover a few basics here. Some of these might sound like common sense, but we’ve seen all of them done, and it never turns out well.
- Don’t grab them by the tail. Their tail doesn’t detach, and if they do get torn off, they won’t regrow. Their tail is not a handle. Never pick up your beardie by the tail.
- Don’t grab them by their legs. Same as their tail, these won’t grow back, and it’s not comfortable for your beardie. It would also be fairly easy to break one or more bones in their legs if they squirm to get away.
- Don’t hold them on their backs for too long. Bearded dragons have a hard time breathing when on their backs. Always hold them bellies down.
- Don’t hold them too high up in the air without a firm grip. Beardies are known for trying to make jumps that they can’t land. A fall to the floor could be harmful or fatal.
- Don’t squeeze them too hard. Firm is okay. Tight enough so they can’t get away is fine. But squeezing is right out!
- Young children should always be supervised. If you have young children, we probably don’t need to explain this to you.
- Kids should always be sitting on the ground or on a couch so that if the beardie escapes, it doesn’t fall and get hurt.
- Don’t try to pull your bearded dragon out of its hide or other protected areas unless you have to. They are hiding for a reason, don’t stress them out even further.
- Don’t wiggle your fingers. Your dragon might think they are worms or food of some type and try to eat them. We know this one from experience! Our little Bacardi is quick to go after our fingertips if they are not held still and all together.
- Don’t pick them up if they are showing signs of aggression. An inflated black beard, hissing, arm-waving, or an open mouth can all be signs of aggression. It’s best to back off and let them calm down before trying again.
- Don’t hold them by hand in the car. Use a box or other carrier for this. A loose bearded dragon is a dangerous distraction when driving.
- Don’t forget to wash your hands after handling your beardie. They can carry germs and bacteria just like any other pet.
Phew! That’s a long list of don’ts but never fear. Picking up and holding your bearded dragon will be a snap and something you both come to love. Let’s take a look at what the best and safest way to do this is.
Step-By-Step Instructions For Picking Up a Bearded Dragon
Wash your hands
This is especially true if you have a baby or juvenile dragon, but it should be done every time, regardless of their age. Washing your hands every time you handle your beardie is a must!
Bearded dragons (in their poop) can carry salmonella. The best way to protect yourself is by washing your hands before and after handling your beardie! We wrote a detailed article talking about salmonella in bearded dragons that you can read here.
Open the enclosure slowly and let them know you are there. Yes, they will see you, but they will be comforted to hear your voice too. Always be calm. Never get startled or mad or yell or threaten.
Move your hand towards your bearded dragon from the front or side. Once your hand is in front of or next to your beardie, stop. Keep your hand there for a moment so they can see that no threat is posed by you.
We prefer to do this from the side, slightly behind the head of the beardie. We talk to our Bacardi the entire time.
We like this position better because if, for some reason, your dragon decides to try to bite, it is more awkward for them and harder to do.
A big part of not getting bitten is to never put yourself in a position where they can bite you. Coming at them from the front isn’t the best for this. As you can see in the picture, coming in from the side puts you at an advantage here.
Pet your beardie. Bacardi likes us to scratch the top of her head and her back. Other beardies like to be scratched under their chin and their cheeks. You’ll learn what your beardie likes pretty quickly.
Doing this puts your bearded dragon at ease. Many times they will close their eyes and enjoy this. This puts them in the perfect mood to be picked up.
Start with your thumb
Put your thumb along one side of their body and then move your hand over them so you have your thumb on one side and your fingers on the other side.
Your index finger should go in front of their front leg and behind their cheek/beard. Your middle finger will go behind their front leg.
Using this finger position, none of your fingers are in harm’s way, and they cannot easily be bitten. You also now control the beardie’s head and front arms. This is a great way to keep them from wriggling away or jumping out of your hand.
This also allows your bearded dragon to rest their front legs on your middle finger. Having their legs supported makes them feel more comfortable and less squirmy. Not supporting their legs will cause them to thrash and squirm, trying to gain purchase with their feet.
Slide the rest of your fingers under your beardie. If they are small enough, try to get them under their back legs. For larger beardies, you are looking to gently support their body. You’ll use your other hand for their back legs.
Again, having their legs supported is key. If they feel they have secure footing, they will remain calm and still.
Pick them up
Pick up your beardie. If all four legs are not supported by your first hand, gently move your other hand in to support their back legs and their tail.
You can also reposition your hand so that your beardie can rest all four legs on your hand and wrist and their tail along your arm.
A big part of successfully holding your beardie is making sure all parts of their body are well supported. If they are not, your beardie will start to squirm and could become startled.
Hold firmly, don’t squeeze
If your beardie is wriggling or trying to escape, hold them firmly. Never squeeze, but firm is good. They shouldn’t be able to squirm out of your hand.
This is something our vet taught us, and we were surprised at just how firmly we could hold her without hurting her.
Again, this IS NOT squeezing. It is an all-over even pressure applied with your hands that will keep your beardie from escaping.
We had to give Bacardi injections every day for a month when we first got her, and this skill was critical. She was such a good girl for this, but we still had to hold her very firmly every time.
One thing you’ll notice is that when you hold them firmly, they will very quickly stop trying to get away. Especially if they are fully supported. Most bearded dragons will calm right down after only a short attempt to wriggle out of your grasp.
They may start docile, or they may need to be held a bit before they settle down. Either way, once they are settled, you can loosen your grip to more gentle pressure.
Many bearded dragons are so accustomed to being held that you can even open your hand completely, and they will sit nicely for you without trying to get away. This is the goal and something almost any beardie owner can accomplish with regular handling.
Enjoy holding your beardie! Hold them for a bit before moving them elsewhere. If you plan to let them roam a bit or climb on you, it’s a good idea to sit down on a couch or the floor.
Your beardie will most likely enjoy climbing on you. Many beardies love to sit on their owner’s shoulder or lay on their chest. In fact, they will often find a comfy safe spot and go right to sleep!
Back in their home
Safely put your beardie back in their home, and don’t forget to secure their enclosure! This is very important if you have kids who will often forget this step!
We like to put Bacardi back on her hammock, which is where she basks. She’s just been outside of her home in cooler temps for a while, and this gives her a chance to warm back up.
wash your hands
Wash your hands again. Just like ALL pets, beardies can carry germs and bacteria. It’s always a good idea to wash your hands when you are done handling your bearded dragon.
There you have it. Once you’ve done this a few times, you’ll be a pro. The more you do this, the more comfortable both you and your beardie will be.
We highly recommend regular physical interaction with your bearded dragon.
This will make them very used to being handled. The more used to this they are, the easier it is to take care of them when they are sick or if they need to go to the vet.
Regular handling is also a must if you have kids who will be playing with your dragon. Take the time to teach the whole family what needs to be done.
In the end, enjoy your bearded dragon. Learn to pick up and hold them for your safety and for theirs. Once you do, you’ll have that much more fun with your scaly little friend!
Sources and Further Reading
What do I do if they bite me?
First, don’t panic. Shaking or dropping them will not make the situation any better. It will most likely be more startling than dangerous. Make sure to clean and disinfect the bite. For a full guide on bearded dragon bites, see our complete article here!
Their nails are sharp, and they scratch me, can I cut them?
You can and should cut your beardie’s nails. If you are using a ceramic or slate tile substrate, this may not be needed, but it will be with any other substrate. For step-by-step instructions with pictures on how to do this, see our complete tutorial here.
How long can I hold them?
Beardies are solitary creatures and like to be alone most of the time. They do like to be held and enjoy time spent with their owners, but it shouldn’t be an all-day thing. An hour or two would be the upper limit that we recommend.
When we hang out with our little Bacardi on the couch, we usually limit snuggle time to 1-2 30-minute TV shows before we put her back in her home. This seems to work very well for us.