A Guide to Chinese Water Dragons

December 5, 2021


December 5, 2021

The Chinese water dragon (scientific name Physignathus cocincinus) is a green lizard native to China and several southeast Asia regions. They are known for living near flowing creeks, small ponds, and other fresh water bodies in forested areas. Chinese water dragons are becoming increasingly popular as pets. They typically live 10 to 15 years in the wild, and have specific care requirements to ensure they meet this life expectancy in captivity.

Chinese water dragon’s appearance

Chinese water dragons look like small iguanas, and range from light to dark green in color. Male water dragons have black speckling on their body, and their throat is blue, red, orange, yellow, or a combination. Females typically have blue striping along their back, and a bright pink throat.  Males typically grow to about three feet, while females usually average about two feet in length. 

Water dragons have an incredibly long tail, which can make up nearly two-thirds of their total body length. Their slim front limbs are used for gripping and climbing, while their muscular hind limbs are used for climbing and running bipedally. They have long toes with extremely sharp, curved claws that can harbor bacteria. When handling Chinese water dragons, wear gloves to prevent scratches. 

Chinese water dragon’s temperament and behavior

Chinese water dragons are typically friendly, and enjoy being handled. However, allow your new pet to become acclimated to their environment before you begin handling them, to ensure they do not become stressed. After a few weeks, you can gradually begin interacting. Regular handling is recommended, to ensure your Chinese water dragon does not become aggressive. If threatened, Chinese water dragons may bite or whip their tail. 

Chinese water dragons are active lizards, and enjoy swimming and climbing on rocks, trees, branches, and plants. They are also social animals, and tend to do better when kept in pairs.

Chinese water dragon’s diet

Chinese water dragons are omnivores, and can be voracious eaters. They should be fed based on their age:

  • Hatchlings to 3 months — At this age, water dragons should be fed feeder insects, such as pinhead crickets, daily. They can also receive small mealworms once or twice a week.
  • 3 to 5 months — At this age, offer larger crickets, wax worms, and small roaches. They should also start receiving leafy greens, which are high in vitamins and calcium. If they refuse to eat the greens, you can smear banana on the leaves, to make the vegetables more enticing.
  • 5 to 12 months — Chinese water dragons go through a growth spurt during this time period. In addition to insects and leafy greens, they can be offered fruits, such as blackberries, blueberries, grapes, and thin banana and peach slices, once or twice a week. A pinky mouse can also be offered once or twice a month.
  • 12 months and older — Adult water dragons do not maintain weight well, because their high activity levels mean they burn calories quickly. They should be fed adult crickets, large roaches, superworms, and nightcrawlers, and occasionally small mice.

All insect prey should be gut loaded to ensure they provide the proper nutritional value. A good insect gut load should include nutritious fruits, fish flakes, vegetables, grains, or chicken starter feed. Commercial products can also be purchased to gut load the insects. Avoid wild caught insects, since they may contain pesticides. Also avoid fireflies, because they may be toxic to water dragons. 

Sprinkle the dragon’s food with a calcium supplement daily, and a multivitamin once or twice a week. Ensure that chlorine-free water is available at all times in several dishes, including one large enough for soaking. Clean and refill the water dishes at least once a day.

Chinese water dragon’s habitat

Chinese water dragons cannot perceive glass, so they will continually run up against and rub their noses on glass walls. Therefore, fish tanks are not appropriate enclosures for water dragons. Considerations when setting up their enclosure include:

  • Size — The minimum size for an adult Chinese water dragon enclosure is six feet long, two to three feet wide, and five to six feet tall. 
  • Humidity — The humidity should be kept around 80 percent during the day, and 60 percent at night. Live potted plants can help keep the enclosure humid, and mist can be sprayed as needed throughout the day.
  • Lighting — Chinese water dragons require UVB light. A UVA/UVB bulb is preferable, and should be used to create a 12-hour-on and 12-hour-off schedule, to replicate a day and night cycle. 
  • Temperature — The enclosure should have a temperature gradient. One end should be kept at about 85 degrees during the day and 75 degrees at night. A basking spot kept at least 90 degrees should be provided at the other end. This can be achieved using a basking light, a ceramic heat element, or tank heat pads.
  • Decor — Choose bedding, such as sterilized potting soil, sphagnum moss, or peat, that will not cause an impaction if ingested. Provide numerous branches for climbing, and place some branches horizontally near the warmer end for basking. Live plants, including pothos, dracaena, hibiscus, ficus, and staghorn ferns, are also good additions.

Chinese water dragon grooming and hygiene

Chinese water dragons regularly shed their skin, so their enclosure’s humidity level must be appropriate to allow proper shedding. To facilitate shedding, they should also have access to a large water container in which they can submerge. A hide box containing sphagnum moss can also help the shedding process.

Chinese water dragon breeding

Chinese water dragons can breed all year round, producing a clutch every one to two months. If allowed to continue, this can be deadly for the female water dragon, since her nutrients, especially calcium, will go toward egg development. Breeding pairs must be separated between breedings, to allow the female to recover and maintain a healthy weight. Once the eggs are laid, they need to be kept in an incubator under exact temperature and humidity conditions, to prevent egg failure, deformities, or death shortly after hatching. Breeding is a difficult endeavor, and should be left to experienced Chinese water dragon keepers. 

Common chinese water dragon health issues 

Chinese water dragons experience a few common health issues, including:

  • Mouth rot — Chinese water dragons often rub or bang their head, nose, or chin on enclosure walls. This behavior can result in sores that, if not treated appropriately, can become infected and lead to mouth rot. 
  • Metabolic bone disease (MBD) — This often fatal condition is caused by inadequate calcium in the water dragon’s diet, or inadequate exposure to UVB light. MBD can lead to softened bones and deformities. Signs include lethargy and swollen limbs.
  • Dystocia — Also known as egg binding, this condition can occur in females. Mating is not necessary for females to lay eggs, and an egg can become stuck inside their body. Signs include lethargy and inappetence.
  • Respiratory disease — Chinese water dragons can develop respiratory diseases if their habitat is too cold or damp. Signs include labored breathing, and mucus discharge from the nose or mouth.
  • Gastrointestinal disease — Bacterial or parasitic infections can result in gastrointestinal disease. Signs include decreased appetite, runny stools, and caked or smeared stool around the vent area.

If your Chinese water dragon is exhibiting any concerning signs, consult an exotic animal veterinarian who is comfortable treating this species. 

Selecting a Chinese water dragon

Purchase your Chinese water dragon from a reputable breeder or pet store. Water dragons bred in captivity are more likely to adjust to being kept as a pet. Wild-caught Chinese water dragons are also usually infected by internal and external parasites. 

Chinese water dragons can make excellent pets, but they do require significant care to ensure they remain happy and healthy. If you are looking for an exotic animal veterinarian in your area, VetVet can help you find the right veterinary professional for your Chinese water dragon.


https://www.reptilesmagazine.com/chinese-water-dragon-care-and-information/. Reptilesmagazine.com 2018

https://www.thesprucepets.com/chinese-water-dragons-1239191. Thesprucepets.com 2019

https://www.petco.com/content/petco/PetcoStore/en_US/pet-services/resource-center/caresheets/water-dragon.html. Petco

https://www.petsmart.com/learning-center/reptile-care/a-set-up-guide-for-new-chinese-water-dragon-parents/A0034.html. Petsmart

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Disclaimer: Our content is for informational purposes only — it’s not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.