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Chinese Water Dragon Care Sheet | ReptiFiles

Chinese Water Dragon Care Sheet | ReptiFiles

Chinese Water Dragon General Reptile Care Guide

 (Physignathus cocincinus) Difficulty: Hard

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.

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Terrarium Size

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.

Can multiple Chinese water dragons be housed together 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, Temperatures & Humidity

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 can be tricky because, to get the right strength of UVB (measured by UV Index, or UVI), the distance must be considered. To provide appropriate UVB to a Chinese water dragon, you will need a 12% or 10.0, half to 2/3 the length of the enclosure, mounted in a reflective T5 HO fixture.

The basking branch should be placed as follows:

  • UVB mounted over mesh: dragon’s back is 12-15” / 30-38cm below UVB lamp when basking
  • UVB mounted under mesh: dragon’s back is 16-18” / 40-46cm below UVB lamp when basking

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.


Humans are warm-blooded, which means that our body temperature is automatically regulated. 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. 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 12-18” 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.

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.


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.

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 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 (Bedding)

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. 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. However, note that bioactive enclosures require a much thicker substrate layer, are very heavy, and require the inclusion of live plants to work properly.

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!

Branches, cork hollows, thick vines, ropes, shelves/ledges, and live or artificial plants work well as décor in a Chinese water dragon terrarium. 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. 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.

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. 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. Here is a quick list of safe insects you can feed your pet water dragon:

  • Crickets
  • Discoid roaches
  • Dubia roaches
  • Earthworms
  • Grasshoppers
  • Hornworms
  • Red runner roaches
  • Silkworms
  • Snails (captive bred only)
  • Superworms

How often chinese water dragons need to eat depends on age:

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

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.


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.

Handling Tips

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 chameleon home, leave it alone for 1-2 weeks to settle in. If your new pet hasn’t eaten by the time the 2 weeks are over, do not handle it 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.

Care information courtesy of ReptiFiles.

Need to rehome your pet?

Don't let it loose! Remember - it is NEVER okay to release animals. Many pets released into the wild are unable to survive. If your pet does survive, it can become an invasive species that can be harmful to native wildlife, the environment, and the economy. If you are no longer able to care for your pet, you can reach out to friends, retirement communities, local shelters, or visit to find a rehoming partner near you.

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