Updated: July 22, 2022 by Jennifer Munsell
In normal situations, bearded dragons do not breathe very heavily or deeply, so you may be alarmed and wonder why your bearded dragon is breathing heavily when you have never noticed it before.
Bearded dragons breathe heavily after certain activities such as eating, exercise, and displays of dominance. Breathing heavily after these activities is generally not a cause for concern and is just part of your bearded dragon’s normal eccentric behavior.
However, sometimes bearded dragons breathe heavily because they are stressed out, trying to get water out of their lungs, or battling a respiratory infection and are very ill. These reasons are definitely a cause for concern, and they should be addressed immediately.
To help you understand which of these scenarios is the cause for your bearded dragon’s heavy breathing, read on!
Normal Reasons Why Your Bearded Dragon Is Breathing Heavily
Even though the behavior may seem odd or even alarming, breathing heavily can sometimes be completely normal for bearded dragons in specific situations. Normally, bearded dragons breathe fairly shallowly. But there are circumstances when they do take big breaths, and you should familiarize yourself with them.
1. Breathing Heavily Due to Eating
Humans and reptiles digest their food very differently. As mammals, we generate our own heat and have no direct control over our metabolism or digestion.
Reptiles, on the other hand, are ectotherms. This means they need an external source of heat to keep them warm. They move to warmer or cooler spots in order to speed up or slow down their metabolic process such as digestion! They do all of this by instinct.
After your bearded dragon has eaten, they will most likely go and sit under their basking light. This is so their body warms up enough to fully digest their meal. Bearded dragons need to be fairly hot to digest food.
Ideally, your beardie’s basking spot will be around 90°F to 100°F. This is pretty hot, even for a reptile like a bearded dragon, so they may need to open their mouth and do some deep heavy breathing in order to regulate their temperature while still being hot enough to digest their food.
For a more in-depth look at gaping, check out our dedicated article on why bearded dragons open their mouths.
Digestion also takes effort. This can lead to an increased heart rate, which will also increase your bearded dragon’s depth of breathing.
Your bearded dragon will breathe especially heavily if they are struggling to digest pieces of food that are too big. It is important to always cut your bearded dragon’s food to no larger than the space between their eyes.
If your bearded dragon is breathing heavily because of digestion, they will start breathing normally again fairly shortly, so there is no cause for alarm unless the heavy breathing continues for especially long periods of time (which could indicate digestive impaction and require a trip to the vet).
2. Breathing Heavily Due to Exercise
Just like when we push ourselves with exercise and need to breathe heavily to catch our breath, bearded dragons will do the same!
If your bearded dragon has been running around their enclosure, chasing after an insect, or is actively involved in mating rituals, they will be out of breath and will need to breathe heavily because of the physical effort needed to sustain the activity.
There is no need to worry about this if exercise is the reason for heavy breathing. In this case, your bearded dragon should breathe heavily for a couple of minutes and then go back to their normal, steady shallow breaths.
Bearded dragons need a lot of exercise and love a good obstacle course. So, this is a great way to experiment with your dragon to monitor their breathing and time how long they start breathing normally again after exercise.
This experiment will help set your mind at ease if you catch them breathing heavily and don’t know why they are doing it. You can time them, and if they exceed the amount of time they usually take to get back to normal, you know something may be wrong and can look for other causes of the heavy breathing.
3. Breathing Heavily Due to Showing Dominance
Sometimes, owners keep bearded dragons together in the same enclosure for reasons such as breeding. If this is the case for you, your enclosure needs to be a minimum of 40 gallons for a single bearded dragon with an additional 10 gallons added on per additional bearded dragon you add to the enclosure.
The bearded dragons sharing the same enclosure should be of a similar size and weight and there should be a maximum of one male. These are precautions you can put in place to avoid shows of dominance and the resulting stress your submissive bearded dragons will experience.
However, sometimes displays of dominance are inevitable, even if your bearded dragon is not in the enclosure but they can see another bearded dragon across the room or even mistake you as one!
A full display of dominance includes puffing up the beard and the air pouches along the sides of the body. This is to make the bearded dragon (usually male) seem much larger and more intimidating.
Unfortunately for the show off, it also takes a lot of effort, and the bearded dragon may breathe heavily afterwards in order to catch their breath back.
Just like when they are exercising, monitor your bearded dragon’s ‘recovery time’ until they start breathing normally again. Record the time so you can have it on hand if you catch them breathing heavily for an unknown reason and need to know when to start worrying.
Problematic Reasons Your Bearded Dragon Is Breathing Heavily
While breathing heavily may be a normal occurrence, in some cases, it can be a cause for concern. Bearded dragons breathe heavily when they are stressed, have taken water into their lungs, or are suffering from respiratory distress.
It is up to you to determine when their heavy breathing is a serious concern and make the call of whether you can treat them at home or need a vet’s intervention and antibiotics.
1. Breathing Heavily Due to Stress
Sometimes, bearded dragons will do some heavy breathing if they are stressed out. Breathing heavily brings a lot of oxygen to the muscles, which helps them to react quickly if they are in a stressful state and need to make quick movements to save their lives in the wild.
There is no way to ‘switch off’ this part of their behavior, as it is what keeps them alive naturally. If your bearded dragon is experiencing stress in the enclosure or during handling, they will start behaving in the only way their body knows how to keep them alive, i.e. breathing heavily.
Your bearded dragon may be experiencing stress for a number of reasons, such as:
- Your bearded dragon can see another bearded dragon in the same or a different enclosure and they are submissive but still stressed out. If this is the cause of their heavy breathing, look for other signs of submission such as arm waving or hiding.
- Your bearded dragon may be able to see their natural predators such as dogs, cats, or birds. They could be in the same room as your bearded dragon’s enclosure, or it could even be a neighbor’s cat looking in through the window and your bearded dragon happens to be able to see them.
- The enclosure settings may be incorrect. It may be too hot, too cold, too humid, or too dry in the enclosure, and this will cause your bearded dragon to be stressed. Your bearded dragon’s enclosure should sit between 75°F on the cool end and 90°F on the warm end with a slightly hotter basking spot. Their humidity range should be between 20% and 40%.
- Your bearded dragon may not have enough hides in their enclosure and feel very exposed. Make sure there are at least two hides in the enclosure per dragon: one on the cooler end and one on the warmer end of the enclosure.
If your bearded dragon is stressed out, look for other signs that coincide with them breathing heavily, such as glass surfing, stress marks, excessive digging behavior, hiding, and an unwillingness to eat.
If their heavy breathing coincides with other stress behaviors, start looking for ways to decrease the environmental stressors in the enclosure and watch them carefully for any changes.
2. Breathing Heavily Due to Bathing
Bathing and swimming can be good exercise, and you may notice your bearded dragon breathing heavily after some time in the water. This may be because of the exercise they just had; however, they also could be breathing heavily because there is water in their lungs.
Bearded dragons do not have lips, noses, fingers, and tongues like ours to block water from going into their lungs through their mouths or noses. As a result, they sometimes take in a bit of water during bath and swim time.
Their diaphragms are not strong enough to ‘cough up’ the water. Instead of coughing like mammals, they will breath heavily and forcefully, which will sound like huffing or panting in order to get rid of the water.
If you notice your bearded dragon huffing and breathing heavily after being in the water, then you need to act fairly quickly. You can help them get rid of the water in their lungs by carefully holding them in both hands and gently tipping them at a 45-degree angle so their head is pointed down.
This will help the water come out of their lungs while huffing and breathing heavily. If the heavy breathing persists for more than 15 minutes, take your bearded dragon to the vet because this likely means they have taken on a dangerous amount of water.
3. Breathing Heavily Due to Respiratory Distress
The worst possible cause of heavy breathing in bearded dragons is a respiratory illness.
Bacteria can get into the lungs of your bearded dragon fairly easily if:
- Their enclosure is too humid or too dry
- They do not have access to a proper UV light source
- Their diet is poor and their immune system is suffering because of it
Install a hygrometer in the enclosure to monitor the humidity levels at all times. The humidity should be between 20% and 40%. If your bearded dragon is shedding, it should be on the higher end.
Make sure the UVB bulb in the enclosure is the required strength and the UVB has not run out. Also, ensure they actually have enough time near the UVB source during the day and they are not hiding away.
Ensure your bearded dragon has a varied diet that provides all of the nutrients they may need to build and maintain a healthy immune system, such as vitamins A and C.
If your bearded dragon is suffering from a respiratory illness, they will be breathing heavily as well as displaying other signs.
Look out for the following symptoms:
- Thick, sticky mucus
- Mucus bubbles around the nostrils and mouth
If you suspect a respiratory illness, take your bearded dragon to the vet immediately.
At the Tail End of Things…
There are many reasons why your bearded dragon may be breathing heavy. Some of the reasons are benign and just mean your bearded dragon is exercising, digesting their food, or showing off a little.
However, if your bearded dragon is breathing heavily for an extended period of time, it can be a sign that something is wrong. Your bearded dragon may be stressed out, they may have breathed in some water during bath time or swimming time, or they may be suffering from a respiratory illness.
It is up to you as their owner to pay attention to all of their behaviors and their surroundings to try and figure out what is causing them to breathe heavily. Additionally, you’ll need to make the call as to whether you are able to take care of it at home or whether you need to take a trip to the vet.