Chinese Water Dragon: Breeding and Care

22 April, 2021
The Chinese water dragon is an exotic pet, but not very easy to keep, so it’s only suitable for reptile experts. Don't be fooled by its similar appearance to an iguana.

The Chinese water dragon (Physignathus cocincinus) is an exotic pet that is very similar to green iguanas (Iguana iguana) due to their aquatic habits. Even though they reproduce easily in captivity, many Chinese water dragons are still cruelly removed from the wild.

This reptile requires very specific care and, if all goes well, can live for about 16 years. Before acquiring a specimen of this species, you should get to know all its needs, which may be more complex than it may seem at first. Learn how to care for this fascinating animal.

Preliminary considerations

CITES treaty doesn’t protect the Chinese water dragon due to the lack of necessary data to categorize the species. However, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the dragon as a vulnerable species.

Since ancient times, this animal has served as a food source in many regions of China. In recent years, many animals have been taken from the wild to be sold in Vietnam and even in Europe.

Even though these reptiles breed easily in captivity, many people continue to promote their illegal or legal capture and subsequent sale. Similarly, they’re also hunted for the sale of their skins to third countries.

On the pet market of Western countries, you can find captive-bred animals as well as animals caught in the wild. For this reason, it’s important to make sure that the animal purchased was born in regulated facilities.

A wild animal doesn’t adapt to captivity in the same way that an animal born in captivity does, that’s why it can end up dying. These specimens, in addition, usually come with a high load of viruses that can be transmissible to other animals. Moreover, purchasing a wild specimen encourages illegal —or legal but unethical— trade to continue.

Additionally, in order to properly house this pet, you must have plenty of space, as it requires a large enclosure that includes a pool. If this, and many other things can’t be offered, it’s better to opt for less demanding reptiles.

A Chinese water dragon on a white background.

Chinese water dragon: basic care

The Chinese water dragon is a social animal that thrives in the company of individuals from the same species. So, it’s best to house reptiles in pairs or small groups. This won’t make their care more difficult nor raise their maintenance cost.

Terrarium

An adult specimen can reach more than 80 cm (31 in) in length, which makes them really big animals. For an individual or a pair, the recommended terrarium size is 1.8 x 0.9 x 1.5 m (70 x 35 x60 in). As this is a really large enclosure, you’re unlikely to find one in stores. It usually has to be custom-made, which is expensive.

There are several options for putting more than one individual into the enclosure. First of all, you can introduce a pair in the terrarium, as long as you know for sure that they’re male and female. Otherwise, housing 2 males or 2 females together may cause territoriality problems, unless the terrarium is very large.

Regarding the substrate, use one that doesn’t cause impaction if ingested. Ideally, you should use sterilized potting soil mixed with peat, coconut fiber, sand and mulch. A layer of Sphagnum moss, which maintains humidity —something very important for these animals— should be placed on top of it.

In addition, the configuration of the terrarium should include a large number of branches, logs, and rocks. Don’t forget that they’re very active animals and will spend the day moving around the terrarium, both on the ground and on the branches. It’s also a good idea to place natural vegetation to enrich the enclosure.

Finally, the pool should never be missing in the Chinese water dragon’s terrarium. These animals are good swimmers and, as their name suggests, spend a great part of the day swimming. The pool should be large enough for an individual to submerge half of its body in height. The water needs to be changed daily, so it should be fairly easy to manage.

Environmental conditions

One of the most important factors when keeping a Chinese water dragon in a terrarium is the humidity. Humidity should be constantly at 80%, so it’s important to install a hygrometer.

Besides sprinkling or spraying water inside the terrarium, you can also use natural plants. Golden pothos, hibiscus and ferns are plants that enjoy high humidity. They’ll give a more natural look to the enclosure and help regulate the humidity of the environment.

Moreover, the optimum temperature range is very narrow, between 29 and 31ºC (84 to 88ºF). Such high temperatures cause the environment to dry out quickly, hence the importance of plants and the pool.

There must be a spot in the enclosure where the temperature reaches higher values of up to 32ºC (90ºF). To achieve this, you can place a heat lamp or stone at one extreme of the terrarium, so that the other is kept cooler, but avoiding an abrupt transition. Also, place heat tapes or heating pads to create a gradient from one end of the terrarium to the other.

Finally, during the night the temperature should  gradually decrease to 24ºC (72ºF). The light-dark cycle should be 24 hours divided equally, and during the day, a UVA/UVB light should remain on.

Feeding the Chinese water dragon

The Chinese water dragon is an omnivorous animal, and it’ll eat insects as well as fruit and vegetables. It can ingest the following arthropods:

In addition, adult specimens can also eat king worms, small fish, and mice. At least 15% of their diet should contain fruits and vegetables, always with more vegetables than fruits.

Adults should be fed every 2 or 3 days, while the young should be fed daily. Every 2 days, you should add to your pet’s diet D3 and calcium, as well as vitamin and mineral supplements once a week.

Reproduction

When a Chinese water dragon reaches 50 cm (20 in) in length, it’s ready to breed. If sexing was successful and you have a pair of dragons, they’ll reproduce easily.

Copulation is aggressive. The male will grab the female by the crest at the back of the head and drag it to a quiet area. This may occur several times in a single day. After this, if copulation has been successful, the female will lay an average of 15 eggs.

Before laying them, the female will search and dig around the enclosure for a nest in which to lay them. After about 2 hours, it’ll cover its nest with soil and moss. Finally, the female will dig another nest as far away as possible to deceive potential predators.

When the eggs hatch, place the little hatchlings in a pot of warm water overnight. The specimens must be able to breathe, so don’t cover them completely.

After that, relocate all hatchlings to another enclosure with an ambient temperature equal to that of the adults. From this point on —and until they’re 4 weeks old— they’ll be fed every day with 3 pinhead crickets sprinkled with vitamins and minerals.

A Chinese water dragon on a branch.

As you can see, properly caring for a Chinese water dragon in captivity is quite complicated. If you’re not sure that you can strictly comply with its needs, it’s better not to acquire one.