Chinese Water Dragon Care Sheet

Chinese Water Dragon (Physignathus cocincinus)

Chinese water dragons are more difficult to care for than most people think. Learn about correct Chinese water dragon care at ReptiFiles!

The Chinese water dragon is known by many names, including Asian water dragon, Thai water dragon, and green water dragon. Adult males can grow up to 36” / 0.9m long, with a large, crested head, prominent spines down the length of their spine, and jowls. Adult females are typically much smaller with fewer spines, minimal jowls, and generally less striking coloring. Although Chinese water dragons are known for their vibrant green color, their pattern can also include brown, white, yellow, and aqua blue.

Chinese water dragons are native to southeast Asia, where they inhabit tropical broadleaf forests on the banks of freshwater lakes and streams. As an arboreal species, they spend most of their time in the trees, although when alarmed they will drop to the water below, and they are proficient swimmers.

If you pay attention to providing high-quality Chinese water dragon care, your pet should have a 10-15 year lifespan. They can make docile, beautiful pets, but due to their large size and arboreal nature, they require large enclosures and specialized equipment, making them a significant investment.

Chinese Water Dragon Shopping List

These are products I personally recommend for setting up a functional Chinese water dragon enclosure. Some of the links in this care sheet are paid links — if you’d like to know why ReptiFiles uses paid links, visit this page.

Chinese Water Dragon Enclosure Size Requirements

Chinese water dragons need an enclosure that is large enough to give them adequate opportunity to thermoregulate, explore, hunt, and generally exercise natural behaviors. They are also arboreal, which means that as a tree-dwelling species, they require a tall enclosure. The minimum recommended enclosure size for housing a single Chinese water dragon is 6’L x 3’W x 6’H, or 1.8 x 0.9 x 1.8 meters. If possible, larger is highly recommended.

For the lizard’s mental health and ease of access, it is best to use an enclosure that is front-opening and opaque on all sides but the front. It also must be well-ventilated.

You are unlikely to be able to find a ready-made enclosure that is appropriately sized for housing an adult Chinese water dragon. You can purchase a custom enclosure through Custom Reptile Habitats, or if you’re handy, you can build your own. Tips for building your own reptile enclosure can be found at DIY Reptile & Amphibian Enclosures on Facebook.

Can multiple Chinese water dragons be housed in the same enclosure?

Generally, no. It’s true that Chinese water dragons have been successfully housed in small groups of one male and two or three females. However, this arrangement is for breeding and requires a much larger enclosure than outlined above, making it impractical for most pet owners. Fortunately, Chinese water dragons are not considered a social species and are generally quite content to live alone.

Lighting & UVB for Chinese Water Dragons

Chinese water dragons are diurnal, which means that they are most active during the day. This also means that they need exposure to bright light and UVB during the day for best mental and physical health. Light sources should be turned on for 13 hours/day during summer and 11 hours/day during winter, with gradual adjustments in-between.

UVB Lighting

UVB lighting can be tricky, because in order to get the right strength of UVB (measured by UV Index, or UVI), distance must be considered. To provide appropriate UVB to a Chinese water dragon, you will need one Arcadia T5 HO 6% or Zoo Med T5 HO ReptiSun 5.0, half to 2/3 the length of the enclosure, mounted in a reflective T5 HO fixture such as the Arcadia ProT5 or the Vivarium Electronics T5 HO fixture.

The basking branch should be placed as follows:

  • UVB mounted over mesh: dragon’s back is 7-9” / 18-23cm below UVB lamp when basking
  • UVB mounted under mesh: dragon’s back is 12-15” / 30-38cm below UVB lamp when basking

(These recommendations are approximations. It is strongly recommended to use a Solarmeter 6.5 to determine the best placement to achieve a UVI of around 3.0 – 4.0 in the basking area.)

General Illumination

A UVB bulb isn’t bright enough to meet a Chinese water dragon’s light needs. So you will need to supplement with a bright, 6500K T5 HO fluorescent or LED lamp, long enough to span most of the enclosure. This is particularly important if you have live plants in the enclosure, but it is also valuable for providing additional illumination and supporting your dragon’s general wellbeing. The Arcadia Jungle Dawn LED Bar and the Bio Dude Glow & Grow are my preferred choices.

Chinese Water Dragon Temperature Requirements

Humans are warm-blooded, which means that our body temperature is regulated automatically. Chinese water dragons, however, are cold-blooded, which means that they have to move between areas of different temperatures to regulate their body temperature. In the wild, Chinese water dragons warm up by basking in a patch of sunlight. In captivity, the warmth of sunlight can be replicated with heat lamps.

  • Basking area temperature: 90-95°F (32-35°C)
  • Cool side temperature: 77-86°F (25-30°C)
  • Nighttime temperature: 75-77°F (24-25°C)

Because Chinese water dragons are fairly large lizards, you will need to create a fairly large basking are to facilitate even heating and optimal circulation during basking. For this you will need at least three 75w or 90w-equivalent PAR38 halogen flood heat bulbs housed in 8.5” dome lamps with ceramic sockets. However, if you notice that the basking area is too warm, dial down the heat down with plug-in lamp dimmers. If your basking area is too cool, you will need higher wattage bulbs.

The basking area should be sturdy branch directly under the heat lamp, placed in a way that puts the dragon’s back about 7-15” below the heat lamp, depending on your UVB placement. The warmest temperatures in the enclosure will be at the top (near the heat lamp), and the coolest temperatures will be toward the bottom. You will need to place branches at all levels of the enclosure to allow for proper thermoregulation.

Because recommended nighttime temperatures for Chinese water dragons are higher than the average home temperature, you will need a lightless heat source to provide a little extra warmth. The Vivarium Electronics 120w radiant heat panel connected to a Herpstat 1 proportional thermostat is a great solution to this problem. Secure the thermostat probe to the basking branch with a zip tie for best results.

To measure the general temperature of different areas of your terrarium, use an infrared thermometer (a.k.a. temperature gun). To passively track basking temperature, use a digital probe thermometer, with the probe secured on the basking surface under the heat source. The Etekcity 774 is a good infrared thermometer, and most reptile-brand digital probe thermometers function well.

Chinese Water Dragon Humidity Requirements

Chinese water dragons do best in a high-humidity environment, with a daytime average humidity of 60-80%, plus a large pool of water for swimming. Humidity should be measured by at least one digital probe hygrometer with the probe placed in the middle of the enclosure. It is natural for humidity to be lower in the warm area and higher in the cool area, and higher at night than during the day. Note that low humidity levels can cause health problems for your dragon, but so can insufficient ventilation.

Humidity Management

To raise the humidity in your Chinese water dragon’s enclosure (and provide an extra source of drinking water), use a pump-style pressure sprayer to wet down the enclosure every morning and evening, preferably when it’s dark. If needed, you may mist again (lightly) in the mid-afternoon. Installing an automatic misting system like MistKing is strongly recommended, as it makes misting such a large enclosure much less of an inconvenience.

If you live in an area with a dry climate, it may be beneficial to install a cool mist humidifier or fogger such as the Evergreen Reptile Humidifier to help with creating a high-humidity environment at night. Program it to turn on and off for a few hours prior to “sunrise”. Humidifiers, foggers, and misters must be used with distilled water and periodically disinfected to prevent illness. Never use a humidifier or fogger during the day, as this increases the potential for illness.

Creating a “Swimming Pool”

Chinese water dragons naturally live near bodies of water in the wild, and when startled will often drop into the water from the trees as a defense mechanism. They are proficient swimmers, can hold their breath for up to 25 minutes, and have been known to sleep in the water. For these reasons it’s important to provide a large, deep basin of water (at least 65 gallons) on the floor of the enclosure. Alternatively you can create a sink-like basin as the floor of the enclosure and connect the pool to your home’s plumbing to make routine cleaning easier.

Change out the water once weekly or whenever it gets soiled. Give the basin a good scrub with disinfectant before refilling. Using a Python siphon makes emptying the basin easier.

Substrate Options for Chinese Water Dragons

Chinese water dragons spend most of their time in the upper levels of their enclosure, and when they’re not climbing, they’re swimming. So substrate isn’t super important, but if the “pool” doesn’t take up the entire floor of the enclosure, adding substrate can help with humidity maintenance. A fluffy 4″ / 10cm layer of moistened coconut fiber or sphagnum moss will do the trick, and it also helps act as a cushion if your dragon takes a fall. In a 6′ x 3′ enclosure, that will take at least 240 quarts of substrate. Change the substrate at least once a month to maintain good hygiene.

Alternatively, you can go bioactive, which helps maintain humidity and reduces substrate waste. The Bio Dude’s Terra Fauna kit is a good way to get started if you’re new to bioactive setups. However, note that bioactive enclosures require a much thicker substrate layer, are very heavy, and require the inclusion of live plants to work properly.

Environmental Enrichment: Decorating the Terrarium

Decorations play a vital role in your water dragon’s enclosure as environmental enrichment. These items provide climbing opportunities, hiding places, encourage exercise, stimulate your pet’s natural instincts, and help promote overall wellbeing. And, of course, they make the enclosure look nicer!

Options:

  • manzanita branches
  • cork hollows
  • thick vines
  • ropes
  • shelves/ledges
  • live plants
  • artificial plants

Large potted and hanging plants are a great way to add foliage. Any live plants should be sturdy enough to withstand occasional trampling, and nontoxic in case your dragon decides to have a leafy green snack. Dracaena, hibiscus, ficus, pothos, philodendron, spider plant, staghorn fern, bromeliad, and air plants are all safe options. 

Branches, vines, and other climbing materials should be large/thick enough to support the dragon’s body and securely anchored to the sides of the enclosure.

Feeding Your Chinese Water Dragon

Chinese water dragons are primarily insectivorous, which means that they get most of their nutrients from eating a wide variety of insects. However, they are also known to eat vegetation, fruits, and small animals. They get bored of eating the same old thing every day, so you need to provide a large variety of foods as part of enabling your pet to thrive.

How often Chinese water dragons need to eat depends on their life stage:

  • Hatchlings (<3 months old) — Insects daily
  • Juveniles (<16” long) — Insects and salad every other day
  • Subadults and adults (>16” long) — Insects every 3-5 days, salad daily

Offer as many insects as your dragon will eat via feeding tweezers in 5 minutes. Hard-bodied insects should be no longer than the dragon’s head and no wider than the space between its eyes.

As your dragon nears adulthood, monitor its body condition and adjust the feeding schedule accordingly. If it’s losing weight and looking too skinny, feed it more. If it’s gaining weight and looking fat, feed it less. It helps to use photos of wild Chinese water dragons as a reference.

Feeder insects for Chinese water dragons:

  • crickets
  • discoid roaches
  • dubia roaches
  • earthworms
  • grasshoppers
  • hornworms
  • silkworms
  • superworms
  • snails (captive-bred only)

Vegetables for Chinese water dragons:

  • collard greens
  • cactus pads
  • spring mix
  • arugula
  • kale
  • alfalfa
  • bok choy
  • carrot greens
  • spinach
  • dandelion greens/flowers
  • hibiscus greens/flowers

Pinkies, fuzzies, live-bearing fish, and chopped fruit can be used as treats, but keep treats to a minimum (no more than 1x/week) or else your pet will likely become overweight.

Supplements

All feeder insects should be lightly dusted with a 50/50 mixture of calcium and multivitamin powders to correct the calcium-phosphorus ratio and provide extra nutrition at each feeding. Arcadia Earthpro-A and Repashy Calcium Plus LoD are both excellent all-in-one supplements you can use.

Feeder insects should also be gutloaded and hydrated for at 24-48 hours prior to feeding.

Handling Your Chinese Water Dragon

Chinese water dragons generally make better display animals than a “pet” that gets taken out regularly, but they can usually be tamed with persistent, gentle effort. This may take a while, so be patient! Captive-bred water dragons are likely to be more tameable than wild-caught individuals.

  1.  After bringing your water dragon home, leave it alone for 2 weeks or so to settle in. If your new pet hasn’t eaten by the time the 2 weeks are over, do not handle and make an appointment with an experienced reptile vet.
  2. Introduce yourself with food via soft-tipped feeding tongs. Meanwhile, make sure to get your hands in the enclosure daily for spot cleaning, water changes, etc. This will help get the dragon further used to you.
  3. Once your water dragon regularly takes food from the tongs, encourage it to come to you. For example, entice it to climb onto your arm by bribing it with the tongs. 

If you have to pick up your water dragon, always gently scoop it up from below and support as much of its body as possible. Never approach quickly or from above, as this is predatory behavior that will scare your pet.

As you handle your water dragon, keep your movements slow, and only loosely restrain it (if at all), instead allowing it to walk on your arm. 

References

Baines, F. M., Chattell, J., Dale, J., Garrick, D., Gill, I., Goetz, M., Skelton, T., & Swatman, M. (2016). How much UVB does my reptile need? The UV-Tool, a guide to the selection of UV lighting for reptiles and amphibians in captivity. Journal of Zoo and Aquarium Research, 1, 56. https://doi.org/10.19227/jzar.v4i1.150

Chinese Water Dragon (Physignathus cocincinus). (n.d.). INaturalist. Retrieved December 6, 2021, from https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/31424-Physignathus-cocincinus

de Vosjoli, P. (1992). Green Water Dragons: Plus Sailfin Lizards & Basilisks. Advanced Vivarium Systems.

Hernandez-Divers, S. J. (2002). The Thai Water Dragon, Physignathus cocincinus. Journal of Herpetological Medicine and Surgery, 2, 41–44. https://doi.org/10.5818/1529-9651.12.2.41

Medium UV Species. (n.d.). Arcadia Reptile. Retrieved December 6, 2021, from https://www.arcadiareptile.com/lighting/medium-uv-species/

Power, T. (2014, January 23). Chinese Water Dragon Care. Reptiles Magazine. https://reptilesmagazine.com/chinese-water-dragon-care/

The ReptiFiles Chinese Water Dragon Care Sheet is a simplified care summary, not a full ReptiFiles care guide. While I have done my best to ensure that the information contained is accurate, due to time constraints, the research behind ReptiFiles care sheets is not as thorough as the research involved with my full-length care guides. I strongly encourage readers to do their own research from high-quality, reputable sources outside of just this care sheet as part of preparing for your new pet reptile.