The Chinese water dragon is one of our favorite reptiles, hands down. These creatures are beautiful, friendly, and a lot of fun to own!
But due to their popularity, there are many new owners who are underprepared and unable to provide their pets with proper care. You see, these lizards need very specific habitat conditions in order to thrive.
To make things easy, this guide will cover everything you need to know about Chinese water dragon care. You’ll learn about setting up their enclosure and habitat, their recommended diet, how to handle them, and more!
Table of Contents
Chinese water dragons (Physignathus cocincinus) are beautiful reptiles with a lot of character. Unlike some other lizard species, Chinese water dragons are quite tame and don’t mind being handled after they get comfortable!
While they’re often confused with different types of iguanas, Chinese water dragons are vastly different. Not only are they smaller, but they have different care requirements, too.
This species originates from the southern parts of mainland Asia. They can be found in China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
Most of the Chinese water dragons you see for sale are wild-caught. It is possible to breed these reptiles in captivity. Captive-bred hatchlings are becoming more widely available. Though, they often come with a much higher price tag.
No matter where you get your Chinese water dragon, you’re sure to have a good time owning one. These reptiles are a joy to raise!
The average Chinese water dragon lifespan is 10 to 15 years if healthy. They can live a bit longer than that with good care, but it’s definitely less common.
Many factors affect the life expectancy of Chinese water dragons. These reptiles can’t get by with a small environment and a poor diet. They have some distinct care requirements, and failing to meet those requirements could shorten their lifespan dramatically.
Appearance & Colors
The cool thing about Chinese water dragons is that their appearance changes as they grow!
As hatchlings, these reptiles are pretty subdued when it comes to color. The body is covered in brownish-green while the belly takes on a white hue.
You may notice some vertical stripes of white or beige running along the body as well. Meanwhile, the tail is banded with brown and green. The throat may have some unique colors, too. Yellow, orange, purple, and fuchsia have been observed in younger lizards.
As the juvenile Chinese water dragon grows, it will shed its skin several times. Eventually, the upper body will take on more vibrant coloration.
Adult Chinese water dragons can vary dramatically in color. They can be anywhere from dark green to eye-catching mint.
The brown and green banding on the tail remains with adults. You might also see some subtle striped on the back and neck. The bottom of the neck is typically covered in white or pale yellow scales.
Chinese water dragons have a pretty iconic profile. They have massive tails that take up about 70 percent of the body. The lizards use them for balance and defense!
The legs are quite strong, too. The back legs can even support the lizard as it moves on two legs! The feet all contain five toes. The middle toe is longer than the rest, which helps with climbing.
The back of the lizard is often covered in small spikes. It complements the nuchal crest, which is a ridge that connects the head to the neck.
The head of the Chinese water dragon is triangular. Males tend to have a wider head than females. However, both have large eyes.
But here’s where things get interesting:
In the center of those eyes, you’ll see a small rounded scale. This is their parietal eye. Often referred to as their third eye, this unique feature helps the lizard sense differences in light.
There are a few noticeable differences between males and females. However, those differences aren’t seen until the lizard reaches lengths of 14 to 16 inches.
In addition to a wider head, males tend to have higher nuchal crests and long spikes. Males will continue to grow, outpacing the females quite a bit. When fully grown, the size difference between male and female lizards is very apparent.
The average size of a full-grown Chinese water dragon is up to three feet for males, and two feet for females.
Expert Tip: Most of this measured length actually comes from the tail. The main body of the lizard is much smaller, making them easier to handle.
Chinese Water Dragon Care
Chinese water dragon care can be a bit of a challenge if you don’t have a lot of reptile experience. These animals require plenty of space and a carefully-crafted environment to truly thrive.
But don’t let that scare you off!
Once you understand the essentials and put in the work to cover their basic needs, you should have no problem keeping your lizards happy and healthy.
By far, the most difficult aspect of Chinese water dragon care is finding the right enclosure. In many cases, owners have to custom build the enclosure because of the lizard’s unique needs.
These reptiles are arboreal. That means they like to climb (a lot). A standard reptile tank/cage is not going to cut it!
Enclosures need to be about six feet tall, two to four feet deep, and up to six feet long. An enclosure of this size will accommodate the reptile’s lifestyle and give them plenty of opportunities to climb.
When you’re choosing an enclosure for your lizard, it’s best to go with a unit that has screened sides. Screened habitats offer much better ventilation. Not only that, but they’re generally safer for the lizard.
Expert Tip: Chinese water dragons don’t do well with glass enclosures. They’re prone to running into it or rubbing their snouts on it, which can lead to injuries. Screened enclosures are safer and can promote climbing.
General Habitat Setup
Once you have your enclosure ready, you need to decorate their habitat! The best way to keep your lizard enriched in captivity is to recreate their natural environment.
These lizards live in forests with dense vegetation, so plants are a must!
Take advantage of live and artificial plants with tons of leaves. Those leaves are going to serve as shelter and will make your pet lizard feel secure.
Expert Tip: If you choose to go with live plants, go with cultivars like Dracaena, Ficus, Pothos, Hibiscus, and Philodendron. Spider plants work well, too.
As for the substrate, you have a couple of options. The most basic choices are carpet or paper. However, more natural alternatives are better.
The best choice is untreated cypress mulch. It’s good for humidity and is soft enough to keep your Chinese water dragons safe if they fall. Alternative options include Sphagnum moss and a mixture of soil, sand, and peat.
To facilitate their need to climb, add some vertical climbing surfaces in the habitat as well. Incorporate vines, large branches, and climbing shelves.
They should be arranged sporadically to give the reptile many choices. Make sure that they’re positioned to provide access to the top of the enclosure too.
Temperature & Lighting
Chinese water dragons are diurnal. They’re active throughout the day and tend to sleep during the night. This means you’ll need to have your lighting set on a schedule.
Utilize traditional incandescent lights. They will provide all the light the reptiles need while also creating some warmth.
Use your lights to create different temperature zones in the enclosure. One side can have the basking light while the other side remains cooler.
Here are the ideal temperatures to aim for in the enclosure:
- Ambient temperatures should be 84°F to 88°F
- The basking spot should be between 90°F and 95°
If temperatures fall below the accepted range at night, you’ll need to use a ceramic heat emitter. They don’t produce light but will provide the warmth your lizards need to stay healthy.
In addition to standard lights and heat, you’ll need to invest in a UVB lamp. UVB rays are crucial for reptiles kept indoors. They provide Vitamin D, which is essential for metabolizing calcium.
Use the UVB lamps to cover the entire enclosure. The lamps need to be on during the day for 12 to 14 hours.
Chinese water dragons thrive in humid environments. They prefer humidity levels to be around 80 percent.
But this can be a bit tough to achieve in captivity.
With a screened enclosure, you’ll need to take extra measures to keep things comfortable. Invest in a hygrometer and check levels regularly. Mist the environment once or twice a day.
Expert Tip: The decorations you choose can do a lot to keep humidity levels on point. Soft substrate materials can absorb water. The same goes for live plants.
Another way to keep humidity levels high is by providing plenty of water. While Chinese water dragons love to climb, they also enjoy swimming!
Place a large pan in the enclosure. It should be deep enough for the lizard to soak their entire bodies.
Make sure to clean this pan and replace the water regularly. Chinese water dragons are prone to using the water as a bathroom.
If you want to go the extra mile, you can create a vivarium setup. You’ll need to modify your enclosure to create a swimmable water area. Use the substrate to create a shore and install some filtration equipment to keep the water in good condition.
Chinese Water Dragon Food & Diet
Chinese water dragons are omnivores. They have small pointed teeth that can chew through everything from fibrous plants to tough insects.
This means some variety is key when it comes to providing these lizards with a balanced diet.
These reptiles are prone to getting bored with their food. You may find your lizard avoiding meals simply because you’ve provided too much of the same thing! You’ll have to mix it up to keep your Chinese water dragon interested.
Insects should be the staple of their diet. Provide gut-loaded insects if possible. This ensures that the lizard is getting all the nutrients they need.
Here are some good food sources to try:
Feeder fish and pinkie mice are good choices too. Mice, in particular, are good for juvenile Chinese water dragons. They’re a good source of calcium and can help younger lizards grow.
In addition to insects, you can provide finely chopped fruits and vegetables.
Plant-based foods shouldn’t make up more than 10 or 15 percent of their diet. Chinese water dragons enjoy foods like collard greens, dandelions, potatoes, carrots, squash, raspberries, and more.
Hatchlings and juvenile Chinese water dragons should be fed daily to support their rapid growth. Once they reach adulthood, you can cut back to every two or three days.
To ensure that your dragon can process calcium efficiently, dust the food with powdered supplements every other feeding. Once a week, dust the food with a vitamin and mineral supplement.
Potential Health Issues
When you first get a Chinese water dragon, it’s important to take a trip to the vet to treat for possible diseases.
You see, many wild-caught specimens already have parasites. You’ll need to address that in order to avoid any health complications in the future.
Even after you’ve brought your lizard home, they could encounter a few different health problems.
One common ailment many owners have to deal with is mouth rot. This is caused by a bacterial infection and injury. As we mentioned earlier, these reptiles are prone to running into glass walls. They could also get hurt climbing or scratch themselves on something sharp
Mouth rot often results in inflammation, visible sores, and pus. Luckily, antibiotics can clear that condition up pretty quickly.
Other possible health concerns include metabolic bone disease and skin infections. Metabolic bone disease is caused by a lack of exposure to UVB rays. It can lead to deformities and brittle bones, so make sure that you’re using a UVB lamp.
Expert TIp: Skin infections are caused by unsanitary living conditions. The enclosure should be cleaned regularly. Pay close attention to water pans. The water should be replaced every day.
Behavior & Temperament
Chinese water dragons are quite docile once they get comfortable in their new environment. Just give them some time to acclimate!
When startled or scared, this reptile may scurry off and hide in plants. They could also show their teeth and snarl at you. However, these creatures rarely bite owners.
As for their behavior with others, Chinese water dragons can exhibit some aggression. In fact. males are known to get very territorial.
It’s recommended that you don’t keep males together at all. If you want to keep multiple Chinese water dragons, you should keep one male and two females to avoid fighting.
One reason why reptile enthusiasts love Chinese water dragons is that they enjoy being held. They’re quite tame and exhibit friendly behavior towards humans.
In fact, frequent handling is recommended!
Taking your lizard out of the enclosure for some one-on-one time is said to strengthen your bond. This can prevent them from becoming aggressive.
When you handle a Chinese water dragon, carefully lift them off the branch or enclosure floor. Support the body and let the tail hang free.
If you catch them by surprise, the lizard may whip you with their tail and scurry off. Give them a few minutes to get comfortable and they shouldn’t have any problems with handling.
Ready To Get One For Yourself?
As you can see, Chinese water dragon care is actually pretty straightforward once you know what they need. Most of the complexity is actually in setting up their enclosure!
These reptiles are incredibly rewarding to own and are still one of our favorites even after all these years. The bond you can build with them is rarely found in any other pet.
If you have a question about something that we didn’t cover in this care sheet, don’t hesitate to ask!