Water Dragon Food Pyramid
The pyramid is a guide to feed your water dragon. You do not have to follow the schedule exactly (see special considerations). It is based off of research on the macronutrient and calcium requirements of various types of reptiles outlined in the Merck Veterinary Manual as well as individual scientific studies about wild water dragon diets. This pyramid is also based off of what experienced water dragon breeders have found to work for their animals.
The water dragon food pyramid is designed to be a user-friendly guide. The diagram in the insect section shows how feeder insects should be properly gut loaded for a water dragon. These amounts are proportioned by weight. The key on the right side describes how many times to feed this food group per a week. When the pyramid level is broken in half, you can choose either food group. The larger the section, the more important it is.
This guide is made to combat the incomplete knowledge of water dragon nutrition. Many new owners are confused about what to feed their pets while experienced owners are looking for the best diet possible.
There is no such thing as a complete guide to water dragon nutrition because there is no realistic way for the in-home keeper to formulate a total diet. It is conventional wisdom that variety is the key to combat an incomplete diet, but that isn’t always the case. For example, almost all the foods a water dragon is fed will be deficient in calcium and iodine. This is simply a product of commercial agriculture raising plants and insects so that they grow as cost effectively as possible.
This guide will get you as close as possible to a complete diet without expensive scientific testing. The most important thing in any animal’s diet is feeding appropriate foods in appropriate ratios in order to get the correct balance of protein fat and carbohydrates. It will also help you understand other nutrients how to get them too.
Key Food Groups:
Meat is source of protein for water dragons, but is consumed less than insects in the wild (Cogger 2000). Water dragons have been observed eating mollusks and crustaceans along the coasts of lakes (Anonymous 1974) as well as frogs (Cogger 2000). However it is important to note that they do not forage for food underwater, but primarily enter the water to escape predators (Doody et al 2014). This indicates that fish is not a portion of the water dragon's natural diet.
Mollusks, such as mussels and snails, and crustaceans, such as fresh crab meat and shrimp, can be fed to water dragons to mimic their natural diet. However it is important to note that most commercially available mollusks and crustaceans are from salt water sources, while water dragons eat fresh water mollusks and crustaceans. Because of this it is important to feed these foods in moderation.
Whole vertebrate prey items such as pinky mice and feeder lizards can also be fed to mimic the "small terrestrial vertebrates" that water dragons eat in the wild (Cogger 2000). These food items are a great source of calcium and other vitamins and minerals.
Insects are the main protein source for water dragons. Most commercially raised insects are deficient in several nutrients, including calcium, thiamin (vitamin B1), vitamin A and vitamin E. It is necessary to feed the insects a high calcium and vitamin A diet before feeding to your water dragon. Gut loading is much more effective than dusting insects. The insects fed should also be low in fat content.
Water dragons eat a wide variety of insects in the wild including ants, cicadas, and mosquitoes (Anonymous 1976). Captive animals are likely to become bored of one or two insect species. Ensure that a wide variety of insects are fed.
Ideal insects include crickets, roaches, hornworms and soldier fly larva (reptiworms). Insects that should be fed more sparingly due to their fat content include mealworms , superworms and waxworms.
Check out the nutritional analysis of some common feeder insects.
Insects' Diet- Gut Loading:
Gut loading insects is critical for leopard geckos because all of their diet comes from insects. The food for gut loading should be 20% calcium, 50% greens, 10% vitamin/mineral supplement and 20% vegetables, by weight. This diet should be fed to the insects for at least 48 hours. This allows the body to absorb nutrients such as vitamin A. Calcium is not well consumed by insects, so in addition to feeding this gut load diet, insects should be dusted with a calcium powder.
-Calcium (20% of gut loading diet):
A calcium supplement should be purchased separately from a vitamin and mineral supplement. Almost all feeder insects are deficient in calcium and calcium is required more than any other mineral in reptiles. The calcium supplement fed to insects should include vitamin D3 to ensure that the insects can process the calcium.
The calcium recommendations for gut loading are based on the Finke (2003) study that recommends 3-9% elemental calcium in a gut loading diet, depending on the insect species. Calcium carbonate (the most common calcium supplement) is 40% elemental calcium, thus 20% calcium supplement is needed in the diet. This recommendation is also backed up by Finke et al. (2005), which showed that 15% calcium carbonate supplementation to the gut loading diet increased the calcium content of small crickets from 0.2% to 1.1% calcium. Considering that the 20% calcium supplement amount is by weight, it actually won't appear to be as much calcium as you would expect. It is highly recommended you weigh out the ingredients in your gut loading diet.
Due to palatability issues with simply adding a calcium powder to a gut load diet of fresh vegetables, insects should also be dusted with a calcium powder before feeding. It is unlikely that insects will consume enough calcium in a home-made gut load diet.
For the water dragons be sure that you have proper UVB lighting. Without UVB, water dragons cannot process the calcium they are eating.
-Vitamin/Mineral Supplement (10% of gut loading diet):
A vitamin and mineral supplement is essential when feeding insects to ensure no nutrients are missing, however there is quite a variety of supplements on the market. When looking for a supplement for a healthy gut loading plan, as outlined here, there are a few key nutrients one should consider. Most insects are low in magnesium, iron, iodine and vitamin E. Make sure your supplement provides these nutrients as well as ample amounts of B vitamins. Often iodide is provided using kelp as an ingredient. Vitamin A is also a nutrient commonly lacking from commercially raised insects. A vitamin and mineral supplement can be used to help increase the vitamin A content of a gut loading diet, but if fed the correct vegetables in the gut loading diet, this is not required.
Greens are a powerful source of nutrition for water dragons. They also provide bulk and vitamins to a gut loading diet. Greens generally can be divided into three categories, staple, occasional rare and never foods. To make a green an every day green it must be rich in nutrients like calcium, low in phosphorus and low in anti-nutrients like oxalates and goitrogens. Occasional greens are rich in nutrients, but contain too high a level of oxalates or goitrogens to be feed every day. Rare greens have very high oxalates and goitrogens. They should be avoided. Never greens have high phosphorus, low calcium and sometimes have high oxalates.
Staple greens are escarole, endive, alfalfa and dandelion greens.
Occasional greens are bok choy, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, watercress
Rare greens are kale, dark lettuces, parsley, swiss chard, spinach
Never greens are iceburg lettuce, cabbage
This is the part of a water dragon’s diet that will bring in a diversity of nutrients and flavors. In the wild water dragons are known to eat flowers (Anonymous 1976). Vegetables are also critically important for gut loading as a source of beta-carotene, which is processed by the insects into retinol, a form of vitamin A that water dragons can use. Good vegetables are often bright in color and not too high in oxalates and phosphorus. Sometimes the healthiest foods are also the strangest, such as prickly pear leafs and hibiscus flowers.
Some of the best vegetables include acorn squash, butternut squash, bell peppers, prickly pear leafs, hibiscus, common button mushroom, okra, and pumpkin.
Other good vegetables include asparagus, broccoli, brussel sprouts, carrot, green beans, snap peas, tomato, yellow squash and cucumber.
Check out the nutritional analysis of vegetables.
Water dragons do eat fruit in the wild, including figs and berries (Anonymous 1976, Cogger 2000), but almost all fruit you can buy in the store is heavily domesticated and has little relation to the nutritional content of its wild relatives. Fruit should be used as a flavor enhancer and rare treat.
Some healthier fruits include berries, cantelope, dates, figs, guava, kiwi, mango, oranges, papaya and pineapple.
Anonymous. Observations on the Eastern Water Dragon Physignathus lesueurii in the Natural State and in Captivity by A.H.S. Members. Herpetofauna. 8(2): 20-22 (1976).
Cogger, Harold G. Intellagama lesueurii - Eastern Water Dragon. Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia 7th ed. 744-745 (2000).
Doody, Sean J., Peter Harlow, Donna Douglass, Jason D. Thiem, Ben Broadhurst, Dane Trembath, Jerry Olsen, Esteban Fuentes and Tony Rose. Patterns of Predation and Antipredator Behavior in the Australian Water Dragon, Physignathus lesueurii. Herpetological Conservation and Biology. 9(1):48-56 (2013).
Finke, Mark D. Gut Loading to Enhance the Nutrient Content of Insets as Food for Reptiles: A Mathematical Approach. Zoo Biology. 22(2):147-162 (2003).
Finke, Mark D., Shari U, Dunham and Christabel A. Kwabi, Evaluation of Four Dry Commercial Gut Loading Products for Improving the Calcium Content of Crickets, Acheta domestics. Journal of Herpetological Medicine and Surgery. 15(1) 7-12 (2005).
These dietary guidelines are designed for an average, healthy, water dragon. As with anything, if your reptiles are ill you need to consult a veterinarian for advice. That being said, there are some normal dietary considerations that apply to many water dragons. If your water dragon is sick, please check out our diagnostics page.
Many captive animals of all kinds suffer from obesity. The best thing you can do for an obese water dragon is feed only lean insect species and stop feeding fruit. Obesity is deadly. It can cause liver failure and many other issues. Supplementing with a very small amount of omega 3 fish oil is also wise to prevent liver disease in obese animals.
Young water dragons are growing fast and need more protein and calcium than older water dragons. In the wild juvenile water dragons eat primarily insects (Anonymous 1976), however this is not necessary to replicate in captivity. Captive raised insects are low in calcium while vertebrate prey, such as pinky mice are a much better source. Juveniles also will not be interested in eating plant matter. Make sure you feed lots of insects that are gut loaded with calcium and vitamin A as well as pre-killed vertebrate prey items that are small enough for a juvenile water dragon to eat.
Not eating is a common occurrence with many pet reptiles. Usually the issue is with the temperature of the enclosure, or another husbandry problem. Ensure that your tank is up to standards and visit a
veterinarian. In the mean time, remember that eating any food is better than eating no food. Even if all your water dragon will eat is pinky mice food this is better than not eating anything at all. Work on getting them to eat healthy foods, but again, unhealthy food is better than no food. For tips and tricks to get your animal to eat see our "appetite stimulation" page.
There are many key nutrients in a water dragon's diet. Calcium is a particularly important nutrient that many beginner keepers do not offer enough of. It is imperative to supplement your water dragon with calcium and provide proper UVB lighting.
The key nutrients are listed in alphabetical order.
Definition-natural plant flavonoid pigments that appear blue or purple
Function-a weak antioxidant that enhances color
Foods-acai, blood orange, blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, purple grapes
Definition-a red-orange pigment in plants that can be converted by some animals to vitamin A
Function-A vitamin A supplement for omnivores and herbivores that cannot be overdosed as well as an antioxidant that enhances color
Foods-carrot, pumpkin, sweet potato, spinach
Definition-an abundant chemical element that essential for life
Function-building blocks for bones and teeth and an essential element for cell physiology
Foods-calcium carbonate supplement, mice, prickly pear leafs, collard greens, oranges, soldier fly larva, mustard greens, bell peppers
Definition-a biological molecule made of chemically linked sugars. Carbohydrates include, sugars, starch and fiber
Function-simple energy source for animals
Foods-almost all foods, especially plants
Definition-a chemical element that is an essential mineral
Function-Copper has many functions, including collagen formation, enzyme cofactors, incorporating iron into red blood cells and generation of energy from carbohydrates. It is usually abundant in foods for water dragons and inhibits zinc uptake, so copper intake needs to be limited.
Foods-spinach, turnip greens. asparagus, beans, nuts, kale, mushroom, pumpkin
Definition-a biological molecule that is found in plants and animals
Function- a dense energy source and an energy storage method
Foods-waxworms, superworms, mealworms, nuts, seeds, mice
Fiber - Click Here for More Information
Definition-a type of complex carbohydrate in plants that cannot be digested
Function-Fibers add bulk to the stool and give food for gut bacteria
Foods- all vegetables and fruit
Definition-substances that disrupt the production of thyroid hormones
Function-These anti-nutrients should be avoided in excess in order to maintain thyroid health of water dragons. They are less harmful when proper iodine supplementation is provided.
Foods-cassava, soy, peanuts, strawberries, spinach, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, kale, turnip
Definition-a chemical element abundant in the ocean that is an essential mineral
Function-key component of hormones made by the thyroid
Foods-kelp, ocean fish, shrimp, spirulina, scallops, standard table salt
Definition- A category of nutrients that makes up the bulk of foods. It includes protein, fat(lipids), carbohydrates and water.
Function-each macronutrient has a different function, but protein, fat(lipids) and carbohydrates can all provide energy. The ratios of these nutrients in a diet is extremely important.
Definition-a chemical element that is required by living organisms other than carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen
Function-builds bones, tissue, catalyzes biological reactions, transports oxygen and many more
Foods-all foods have some mineral content
Definition-a specific organic acid found in plants and animals
Function-binds with calcium to form kidney stones and prevent calcium from being used in the body
Foods-soy, nuts, beans, spinach, swiss chard, beets, collard greens, okra, blueberries, grapes, raspberries
Definition-chemicals naturally produced by plants that are not of conventional nutritional value
Function-functions vary but they are usually antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and promote liver health
Foods-plants, especially ones rich in color
Protein - Click Here for More Information
Definition-a biological molecule made of chemically linked amino acids
Function-maintains the structure of the body and excess can be used as an energy source
Foods-all foods have some protein, with insects, crustaceans, mollusks and mice being especially high as well as a decent amount of protein in nuts and seeds
Definition- an abundant chemical element that essential for life
Function-enables cell function and builds bones, but is easily consumed in excess in a water dragon’s diet. Excess consumption impairs calcium absorption and can cause muscle disorders.
Foods-asparagus, beans, soy, seeds, cricket, mealworms, mushroom
Definition-A vital organic compound that an organism cannot synthesize on its own. They can be divided into fat soluble and water soluble.
Function-each vitamin has its own function in the body
Definition-a group of related fat-soluble nutrients (carotenoids and retinoids) that are essential for the body.
Function- Carotenoids come from plants and cannot be overdosed, so they are the safest form of vitamin A, however it is not known if water dragons’s can convert carotenoids to retinoids. Vitamin A is needed for immune responses, night vision and many other functions in
Foods-egg yolk, turkey liver
Definition-a fat soluble vitamin derived from UVB light or dietary sources
Function- needed to absorb calcium and other minerals from food
Foods-UVB lighting should be provided for water dragons so that they can synthesize vitamin D.
Definition-a fat soluble vitamin that acts as a powerful antioxidant
Function-protects against free radical damage, ageing and heart disease. It is especially crucial in a high fat diet. Most foods high in vitamin E are also high in fat, so a balance is difficult to achieve.
Foods-sunflower seeds, shrimp, greens. almonds, broccoli
Science Behind the Pyramid:
The proportions of the pyramid are based on macronutrient balancing. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, omnivorous reptiles need a diet of 20-25% protein, 3-6% fat and 20-35% fiber on a dry matter basis. According to this manual carnivorous reptiles need 30-50% protein. Considering water dragons are almost carnivorous the target for protein is at least 30%. To achieve these macronutrient ratios the pyramid recommends how often to feed a portion of insects, meat, greens, or vegetables. There is a total of 10 portions of these food groups fed each week.
.75 greens portions/6 total portions=12.5% greens
.25 vegetable portions/6 total portions=4.2% vegetables
4 insect portions/6 total portions=66.7% insects
1 meat portions/6 total portions=16.7 % meat
The most important macronutrient is protein. The diet aims to achieve a >30% dry matter protein content. Greens, vegetables, insects and meat are typically 20%, 10%, 50% and 60% protein, respectively. Multiplying the % of protein by the proportion of portions gives us:
.125x20% + .042x10% + .667x50% + .167x60% = 46.3% protein
Therefor this food pyramid provides an adequate amount of protein. Using this same method fat and fiber can also be calculated. Greens, vegetables, insects and meat are typically 2%, 2%, 18% and 20% fat, respectively. They are typically 25%, 25%, 10% and 2% fiber, respectively.
.125x2% + .042x2% + .667x18% + .167x20%= 15.7% fat (goal 3%-6% omnivores, much higher for carnivores)
.125x25% + .042x25% + .667x10% + .167x2%= 11.2% fiber (goal 20%-35%, lower for carnivores)