How my bearded dragon accidentally became a support animal
Anxiety is no joke.
I’ve suffered from general and social anxiety for almost as long as I can remember. Actions that come naturally to others—such as looking people in the eye, regulating my tone, not overthinking every little interaction—take a lot of work for me. And although I’d love to have a therapy dog, I have neither the space, or the funds to give a puppy the life it deserves.
Some years ago, I met my first bearded dragon, Timóteo. He belonged to a friend, and the first day I met Timóteo, he climbed up my arm and spent an entire afternoon cuddling against my neck. His owner, Carlos, said he’d never seen anything like that, and his wife, whose name is also Diana, remained amazed at how Timóteo just stayed there for hours, even as I played with their lovely (but eager!) rescue dogs.
I fell in love with bearded dragons that day.
Before I got my own, however, I did some research. They were relatively cheap to maintain, and most owners said they tended to be calm and friendly so long as they were handled properly.
As soon as I got my first paycheck, I got my own beardie. The breeder everyone recommended happened to be running a promotion (making the terrarium extra affordable), so I went there to see the newly hatched dragons. I stuck my hand in the terrarium where all the babies were, and this tiny fella just jumps onto my finger and hangs on. He wasn’t a girl, like I’d initially wanted, but the breeder wasn’t finding any girls in the clutch, and I didn’t have the heart to put back the beardie back.
That little dragon was Norbert.
I’m going to skip the part where my parents threw a fit, and my mother refused to come to my home for half a year. I set up the terrarium, prepared the eye-dropper with water (baby beardies need to be given water that way until they learn how to drink it from the bowl), looked at the box of roaches with determination and dismay, and set to raising a dragon.
For the first too weeks, I couldn’t take him out of the tank. He was too small, and still not acclimatized to a new home. So I’d sit at the edge of my bed, arm in the terrarium, talking to little Norbert while I petted him. Trying to pick up roaches with tweezers was an exercise in frustration, and that eventually won over disgust. I started hand-feeding him roaches every two days, and vegetables once a week. Young beardies, unlike adult ones, eat mostly insects—so it was… fun. I never thought I’d go through so many boxes of roaches, but roaches are the best source so. Yay.
Note: if you’re going to raise a bearded dragon, handling insects is non-negotiable. Bearded dragons need a lot of protein growing up, so giving them roaches and/or crickets is mandatory if you want them to be healthy. Once, while coming back from shopping for groceries, I came across a guy walking his beardie, and after I unapologetically screamed, “OMG A DRAGON I’M NOT THE ONLY ONE!” we talked for a bit. I thought the beardie (Stevie was his name!) was a juvenile because he was so tiny. NOPE. He was a rescue whose previous owner had refused to feed him insects.
Back to Norbert.
Once he was used to me, I started taking him out every night. I’d put him on my lap, I’d kiss him, I’d cuddle with him. We formed a bond. He started looking up when I came home from work and called his name. He was hand-fed, but because feeding wasn’t all I used my hands for with him, he wasn’t attacking my fingers thinking they were food. Because yes, if you hand-feed your beardie but don’t pet and handle them, they will associate your hand with food and strike at it.
When the good weather came (by February—thanks, climate change!) Norbert was around six months old. No longer the size of my finger, I could take him outside to enjoy actual sun. Naturally, that’s what I did.
There’s a nice park near my place where I used to hang out a lot as a student. There are tons of dogs after 6 pm, but it’s pretty chill before then. I took my notebook for some writing, my Kindle for some reading, got a towel to sit on the grass, and took Norbert with me.
I had to be extra careful, but most of the time, I found that Norbert just sat on my lap and basked in the sun. Some people screamed when they saw him, but I was surprised to see most reactions were positive. Grandmothers came to me with their grandchildren and told them, “Look, a dinosaur!” It was adorable.
And Norbert? He just sat there and took in the attention. Whenever a loud noise spooked him, I held him to me—eventually, he got so used to it he started climbing up my arm and nestling on my shoulder automatically. Soon, he was no longer bothered with loud noises, and he closed his eyes when strangers showered him with affection.
Then, I begin noticing something strange.
Usually, when a lot of people surround me and speak at me, I have panic attacks. When I’m alone in conventions and gatherings (like the Lisbon book fair,) I feel like a stupid dork wandering around, and my anxiety leads me to think everyone MUST be looking at me, even though I know they aren’t.
With Norbert, that all went away. Sure, I had more people than usual approach me, tons of people staring at me—except with Norbert, I know it’s not me they’re looking at, or me they’re curious about. It’s all him. So much so that when I have Norbert and someone comes near, I immediately think it’s for him.
And it is.
Thanks to Norbert, I’ve experienced some beautiful moments at the Lisbon Book Fair, at the park, at cons. Things that would’ve given me a crying attack no longer did. I had an entire class of 4th graders and their teacher come to me and ask about Norbert. I had a mom and her daughters come talk to me because the eldest girl had just done a report on bearded dragons and had never seen one. I ended up talking for hours with two random strangers from the same college I went to because Norbert decided he HAD to climb onto this guy’s lap and sit there. When I locked myself out of my house and had to call the police to break into my own home, four grown men lost their shit when they saw Norbert. To this day, I haven’t been charged for their intervention and I suspect that was all on Norbs.
I also found myself looking at people in the eye, something I’ve always struggled with and have been scolded for. I don’t find myself obsessing over what I’ve said or done, because most of the things I’ve said or done are related to Norbert, and Norbert is perfect.
I also had less beautiful moments. A lady found a cop in the garden and wanted him to arrest me. My own mom wishes Norbert would die because she hates him. I overheard people I knew from college saying, “She just wants attention,” when attention is the last thing I want and the exact reason I bring Norbert is to deflect it from me and onto him.
I can’t handle people as Diana, the person. But I have no problem talking to anyone as Diana, the dragon wrangler. And when I do get nervous, all I have to do is look down at Norbert and see him looking up at me.
There are limitations to bringing bearded dragons with you. For one, you can’t take them out if the weather’s too cold. If you do bring them, you have to make sure they catch at least 3 hours of sunlight, so there’s a lot of standing in the sun. But when you can take them, they’re wonderful, quiet, calm animals that ground you. It’s like they come with their own shield against anxiety. If Norbert was a pet in Pillars of Eternity 2, he’d give you +2 Resolve and resistance to Resolve afflictions. And yes, I’m still bummed I didn’t have enough money to pledge to name a pet in that game because in-game Norbert would’ve been A+.
Still, if you can’t have a dog, and only need a support animal for periodic situations, a bearded dragon might be perfect for you. I know Norbert is perfect for me.
Additional notes on bearded dragons:
If you want a healthy beardie, make sure to feed them insects! Crickets and roaches are great. If you can get silkworms and hornworms, give them those too because they’re high in protein—unlike mealworms, which are mostly fat.
Beardies require 12-14 hours of light exposure when in tanks. You’ll need an UVB and a heat lamp, and renew that UVB every 4-6 months. They lose efficacy and need changing regularly! If you have a yard you can release them in without worrying (or a yard you can stay and supervise), then 3-4 hours of daily, real sunlight should suffice.
Don’t use sand as a substrate, especially if you’re raising a hatchling! Beardies can be very messy eaters, and they’ll eat sand, causing impaction. I use paper towels and they’ve served me well.
Mist your beardie daily, or give him baths every week.
Beardies brumate in winter! They’ll be less active, and eat less as well. When he’s brumating, Norbert eats once a week, then as the temperatures go up, he starts eating more.
Give your beardie veggies! Green beans, dandelion greens, parsley, and coriander are some great staple foods. There are a lot more you can give them, just be sure to check! Norbert, for instance, loves hibiscus flowers. He also loves figs when they’re in season. Also, melon, papaya, mango, sweet potatoes, bell peppers (especially red ones), courgette/zucchini, kale, and so on.
If you get your beardie used to pooping in the bath (I did this accidentally by giving Norbert baths every 2-3 days when he was growing up) they will actually ask to be taken out of the terrarium so you can draw them a bath for them to poop xD When we’re outside, he’ll ask to be put down so he can poop as well.
Beardies also grow according to their terrarium, so try to have one that’s on the bigger side.
If you have other pets, be sure to monitor all interactions. Some dogs are very OK with beardies and won’t harm them (my vet has a Pit Bull that LOVES beardies and will let the lizards hop on him and won’t move until the lizards do), but either way, take extreme care. With my cats, Sushi completely ignores Norbert, but Jubas isn’t the same. I can never leave the two of them alone because while Jubas knows he can’t touch Norbert, sometimes he’ll get too playful and might accidentally do something to poor Norbs. So they’re never, EVER alone together, and when they are, I’m always nearby and paying attention.
Beardies live for about 10 years, give or take. They’re not a short-term pet.