This is a comprehensive guide to keeping the Chinese Water Dragon (Physignathus cocincinus) as a pet. I’m going to cover everything you need to keep Chinese Water Dragons in captivity, including housing, heating, lighting, substrate and decor, breeding and more. Don’t confuse the Chinese Water Dragon with the Australian Water Dragon as the care is quite different.

We don’t usually sell Chinese Water Dragons here at Reptile Cymru. This is because we have seen so many as rescues, as so many imported in very poor conditions. However, we do occasionally get captive bred animals in, or have rescues available as rehomes. Furthermore, we recognize that they can be kept very well as pets by people willing to research and build the appropriate enclosure. So we hope that this information is useful to you, but please do be aware of the requirements of an adult before picking up a baby Chinese Water Dragon from the pet store.

Meet the Chinese Water Dragon

Common NameChinese Water Dragon, Green Water Dragon, Asian Water Dragon
Scientific NamePhysignathus cocincinus
OriginSoutheast Asia
SizeUp to 36″ including tail
Lifespan10 – 15 years
HousingSemi arboreal, 4ft x 2ft x 3ft as a bare minimum
DietLive insects and occasionally salad / vegetables

The Chinese Water dragon comes from Southeast Asia and is a large lizard that grows up to 3ft, although females are usually on the smaller size of around 2ft. The tail makes up around 70% of the length. Chinese Water Dragons are intelligent lizards that are very calm and handleable as adults, although often very skittish and nervous as babies – often due to the fact so many are imported and wild caught.

They have powerful arms and can climb extremely well, often living in trees above water areas. This is an active lizard and needs a large space to display natural behaviours. They live up to 15 years in captivity.

Chinese Water Dragons in captivity are unfortunately almost entirely wild caught, although far less are being imported these days than they used to be. Wild caught Water Dragons are very nervous and flighty, and can have health problems, including both internal and external parasites. You will also see Chinese Water Dragons labelled as “captive farmed”. Captive farmed animals are allowed to live in an outside area, usually in their native climate, and then the eggs are harvested and hatched. This still has problems of importation and stress, but doesn’t take from the wild population, so is an improvement. If at all possible try to find one captive bred and you’ll have a much happier and healthier Water Dragon.

Chinese Water Dragon Housing

Chinese Water Dragons are semi arboreal and need an enclosure with a good amount of height as well as length and depth. Adult male Chinese Water Dragons grow up to 3ft in length whilst females usually grow to around 2ft in length. They need space to move, turn around completely, and climb. There are no commercial enclosures currently mass manufactured in the UK that are suitable for adult Chinese Water Dragons, so when housing an adult, you’ll need to research a custom vivarium maker, or be prepared to build your own enclosure. Care sheets for Chinese Water Dragons often gloss over this and pet shops will often sell you enclosures that are suitable for the first year or two, but not for life. Chinese Water Dragons frequently present as rescue / rehomes with nose and face damage from hitting the glass, as well as broken tails from lack of space when turning.

An ideal size enclosure for an adult is an enclosure that is 4 to 6 foot long (depending on female or male), 3 foot deep and 5 to 6 foot tall. This is quite an investment for the home, but will make a stunning display.

Juveniles can be kept in the largest arboreal setups manufactured by VivExotic (35 x 20 x 36″) or similar, but you should be prepared to upgrade by the time the lizard is a year old. We sell this as a Chameleon Setup but would sell one to a juvenile Chinese Water Dragon with the full understanding of an upgrade being imminent. It’s really important to note this is simply not big enough for an adult. A lot of shops will sell this as an adult setup simply because there is no other option to sell as vivariums are not made larger in the UK.

Babies and juveniles will almost always need a visual barrier. Many reptiles will walk into glass, register its presence and not hit it again. Unfortunately Chinese Water Dragons do not recognize glass like this. You will see Chinese Water Dragons repeatedly rubbing up against the glass and sometimes jumping into it at full force. This behaviour can cause serious problems such as nose rub, jaw and facial damage, and even broken limbs from jumping. It most often happens when an enclosure is too small, but can sometimes happen in a correct size enclosure as well. The easiest way to stop this happening is to create a visual barrier along the eye line of the glass where the Water Dragon is jumping. This can be as simple as taping pieces of cardboard or paper in front of the glass that you can remove as they get used to the enclosure and grow up, or you can use a frosted sticky glass backing on the outside of the glass for a more permanent solution.

Heating for Chinese Water Dragons

Basking Spot95F35C
Daytime Ambient84 – 88F28 – 31C
Nighttime Ambient75 – 80F23 – 26C

Your Chinese Water Dragon will need a basking spot of 95F (35C) with a tank ambient (cold to hot side) of 84 – 88F (28 – 31C). At night the temperature can drop down to 75-80F (23-26C).

You will need a ceramic bulb heating your tank 24/7 to provide your night time temperatures and ambient, and then a basking bulb in the hot side of the tank to create your basking temperature. Heat mats are unlikely to be suitable for a Chinese Water Dragon tank.

Ceramic Bulb – Ceramic bulbs are non light emitting bulbs that are now available from 40w up to 250w. They can be left on 24 hours a day and can be used with an on/off or a pulse thermostat.

Basking Light Bulbs – Basking light bulbs (light emitting) can provide intense basking heat but must be turned off at night and controlled with a dimming thermostat.

Whatever your method of heating, ensure that it is controlled by a thermostat and that you have a good way of reading it to make sure the tank is at the right temperature – I’d recommend a digital thermometer for the best accuracy.

UVB Lighting

Chinese Water Dragons are diurnal and UVB lighting is essential. We use Arcadia Reptile’s research which suggests a UV Index of 3-4 in the basking zone. The basking zone is the area in which your Chinese Water Dragon most often basks – since this is a semi arboreal species, this is likely to be the branches or raised area on the hot side, and not the ground of the tank.

If your basking area is 12-15″ away from your UVB bulb you will need a T5 6% UVB or a T8 12% UVB. If it is 15-24″ then it will need to be a T5 12% UVB.

Due to the fact that Chinese Water Dragons are excellent climbers and jumpers, you UVB bulb will need to be guarded to avoid them knocking it, burning themselves or getting injured.

Your UVB bulb should be on 12 hours a day, and always check the manufacturer’s recommendation for when to change the bulb. It is usually every 9 – 12 months.

Substrate and Decor

To help facilitate humidity and also natural digging behaviours, a deep substrate of something that holds moisture well is best. We recommend either Orchid Bark or EarthMix, although you can include some Coir in to mix it up. Chinese Water Dragons do well with bioactive enclosures, although their size may trample some plants. If going bioactive you will want a substrate layer of clay balls beneath your main substrate, and a plant light such as the Jungle Dawn LED.

You will want natural hiding places. Although a Chinese Water Dragon may not go in a traditional reptile hide, creating hiding places with dense foliage and plants, branches as well as large pieces of cork bark will create areas where they will feel secure. Provide lots of horizontal and vertical branches for climbing, in particular they enjoy hanging out over water.

Water Area

Chinese Water Dragons love swimming and diving. In a really large enclosure you can provide a prefab pond as the water area to give them a really natural environment. If it is too large to manually change out you will need a filter to keep the water clean. If your enclosure is not large enough for a pond, you’ll want to add a large tub that will allow soaking and hopefully swimming on one side of the enclosure. Putting this on the hotter end can help raise humidity and water temperature.

It’s critical to keep the water area clean as Chinese Water Dragons are susceptible to infections from dirty water. If your pond area is not filtered, change it every day. If it is filtered, do a partial change out at least every week.

Humidity

Humidity needs to be 80%. This will require daily or twice daily spraying. Your large water / swimming area will help raise humidity.

You will need a humidity reader to check the humidity.

Social Needs and Housing Together

Whilst Chinese Water Dragons are generally calm lizards, males are extremely territorial and two males will fight. You can house females together, but bear in mind that your enclosure will need to be even larger, and they already need large enclosures.

Generally speaking we would highly recommend that you keep your Chinese Water Dragon solo. They have no social needs and will be quite happy to live alone.

Never house Chinese Water Dragons with other species.

Chinese Water Dragon Diet

Chinese Water Dragons will eat a variety of livefood in captivity – crickets, locusts, mealworms, roaches, earthworms and waxworms. Waxworms should be fed in very small quantities as they have a high fat ratio. Livefood should always be gutloaded first; either by feeding with a variety of fresh greens or by using any of the powder or gel food available. Juveniles should be fed every day, as many as they will comfortably eat. Adults can be fed every other day and can also have occasional treats of defrosted mouse pinkies for extra protein. Your livefood should be supplemented with a multivitamin and D3 supplement twice a week and straight calcium once a week.

Some Chinese Water Dragons will also eat some salad and vegetables, although this is very variable and others will ignore it. Shredding it up very finely may have some success. It’s worth trying to get them to eat their salad from babies, but if they refuse, it’s not a big deal. It should only be around 10% of their diet if they do eat it.

Chinese Water Dragons are intelligent and can get bored in captivity, and this can result in them refusing food. By varying up the food as much as possible this can help stimulate their hunting activities and appetites.

Handling Chinese Water Dragons

Chinese Water Dragons as babies can be nervous and skittish. They can tail whip, gape, and may even try to bite if they feel threatened. Wild caught or captive farmed animals will be more stressed and take more time to calm down. Adults who have been in captivity a long time and kept in the right conditions are generally very placid lizards, and can be handled outside the enclosure. Handle your Chinese Water Dragon by supporting their body fully, and never pick them up by the tail. Be careful of their nails, although they don’t deliberately try to scratch, they do have claws that are designed to be able to climb and hang on to branches and will treat you as a branch. This can cause scratches which should be kept clean.

Sexing Chinese Water Dragons

Baby water dragons are nearly impossible to sex as they present the same visually. However as they mature over the first year, males will begin to develop larger and wider heads, larger jowls, and a large nuchal crest (on the back of the neck). Both males and females will have femoral pores, but males will be larger. It’s quite hard to tell the gender based on the ventral area of Chinese Water Dragons, but by two years old it will be very obvious from the size and crests who the males are.

Because of the difficulty sexing as babies we would only recommend purchasing one. If you end up with two males you will have to rehome one.

The below picture shows a male Chinese Water Dragon:

So are Chinese Water Dragons hard to keep?

As you can see, Chinese Water Dragons do require you to properly research and set the enclosure up. Their actual daily keeping isn’t any harder than any other reptile once you’ve got the correct setup, but providing the right space and achieving the correct temperatures can be a little more tricky and more expensive than smaller species. This is a beautiful lizard, but isn’t appropriate for every home. If you’ve read this and have decided you have the space to devote to an adult enclosure, then the Chinese Water Dragon might be the right pet for you.

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