Water Dragon: Captive Care of the Chinese Water Dragon

Chinese Water Dragon Care

Water Dragon

Chris Whitney

By far the most popular species of ‘Dragon’ in captivity is the ever-present Bearded Dragon Pogona sp. Not far behind is the Chinese Water Dragon Physignathus cocincinus which shares the family Agamidae with its cousin the Bearded Dragon Pogona sp. there are two other species of water dragon occasionally offered for sale as well but the Chinese or Green Water Dragon P. cocincinus is the most common. For informational purposes the others are known as the Eastern Water Dragon Intellagama lesueurii formerly known as Physignathus lesueurii and the Northern Water Dragon Lophognathus temporalis formerly known as Physignathus temporalis. I am personally aware and have seen the Eastern Water Dragon I. lesueurii for sale in various shops but I haven’t seen the Northern Water Dragon L. temporalis for sale. For most people who are unfamiliar with this species it would look at first glance very similar to the Green Iguana Iguana iguana in appearance. But the similarities end there.

Chinese Water Dragon

Lisa Baines

The Chinese Water Dragon P. cocincinus is green in coloration but lacks the longer dorsal spines that are common to the Green Iguana Iguana iguana. This species also lacks the length and attitude commonly seen Green Iguana’s Iguana iguana. The Chinese Water Dragon P. cocincinus achieves a total length of just over three feet in large males while Green Iguana’s Iguana iguana can reach lengths of 6 feet. The Chinese Water Dragon P. cocincinus also has a row of scales around the bottom lip area which are generally a pinkish color.

Chinese Water Dragons P. cocincinus is considered to be a semi-arboreal lizard which likes to perch in the branches above rivers or fast-moving streams in the wild. These bodies of water provide a means of escape according to the little research I have been able to find on their behavior in the wild. When approached in the wild it is said that the Chinese Water Dragon P. cocincinus will jump from their perch and into the water and swim away from the perceived threat. If found on the ground one report states them as being able to rise up into a bipedal position and run for short distances much like the Green Basilisk Basiliscus sp. and the Frilled Lizard Chlamydosaurus sp. which are also in the same family of Agamidae. In captivity we do not see this type of behavior as we typically do not give them enough room to express a bipedal run. Another interesting behavior is their close relationship with water which is shared with the Green Basilisk Basiliscus it would be interesting to see these behaviors studied further in the wild if they haven’t been already. If anyone knows of wild studies please let us know via email at reptileapartment_at_gmail.com we’d love read some more on the natural behavior of the species. Tom Crutchfield of Crutchfield Reptiles has encountered them in both Asia and Florida and has witnessed them personally running on top of water.

“They can run on the top of the water like Basilisk for sure” Tom Crutchfield Pers. Comm.

Water Dragons in the Wild

Chinese Water Dragons P. cocincinus are found in tropical rainforests around fast-moving rivers and streams as we have previously stated. Being semi-arboreal they are reportedly found lying on branches which hang over the river or stream. These branches are large enough to support their weight but also small enough for them to get their finger like claws around. These environs are found in the Mainland of Southeast China as well as what is known as the Indo-Australian Archipelago which may explain the dispersion and evolution of the separate species known as the Eastern Water Dragon Intellagama lesueurii. Most of the imported Dragons here in the United States are imported from Thailand or Southern China.

As we stated earlier, informational studies on wild populations are very limited but experience in captivity has shown that they require a temperature gradient of 82 degrees Fahrenheit as an ambient temperature and a basking spot of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. You can find the necessary heating elements right here in our store (affiliate link). They must also be exposed to ultraviolet radiation for a minimum of 12 hours a day this can either be done via an outdoor enclosure or through the use of artificial UV producing bulbs (affiliate link). There is a lot of debate over which bulbs are the best and rather than get into that discussion here I will let you see the results for yourself over at www.uvguideco.uk. Humidity plays just as big a role in the health of Green Water Dragons P. cocincinus as heat and ultraviolet radiation. With this species we must keep the humidity between 70-80% at all times.

Captive Enclosure

Chinese Water Dragon

Lisa Baines

If you use a screen enclosure (affiliate link) which we recommend this can be difficult if you live in an extremely dry area such as we do. In order to combat this and achieve a humid environment that is not mold and bacteria infested we usually use a screen front enclosure with the other three sides being solid material. The top is also screen and this has given us a humid environment without growing bacteria and mold. Mold and bacteria need a place which is wet and warm so a tropical environment is a great place for this to happen in order to prevent this from occurring in your enclosure, spray when needed lightly. This means the top layer measuring about ¼” below the surface is moist; by then letting this evaporate throughout the day the humidity will be in the proper parameters for shedding, and overall health. A large cat litter pan of water which is changed daily is also important as the Chinese Water Dragons P. cocincinus do like to soak and bathe on occasion. They will defecate freely in the water as well and this is why it is important to change the water daily as fouled water can lead to serious bacterial infections. 

Feeding/Vitamin Supplementation

Chinese Water Dragons P. cocincinus in captivity are known to accept a varied diet of fruits, insects, and vegetable matter. In order to give them the varied diet they require we feed insects such as appropriate sized crickets, mealworms, or Wax worms about every other day. On alternate days feed shredded or chopped veggies and fruits. You absolutely must offer vitamin supplementation as well as the food. This is usually done through the use of a calcium supplement.

Chinese Water Dragon Feeding

Lisa Baines

When it comes to enclosure size most will tell you that you can start with a 29 Gallon terrarium with a screen top. While this is accurate, we here at Reptileapartment.com don’t see the point of buying this smaller size knowing you are going to eventually buy at minimum a 100 gallon enclosure. More on this topic can be seen in our article Reptile Foraging. Your enclosure should measure at least 6 feet in length. Personally, a large screen enclosure seems to work the best in our experience typically to get the proper dimensions you will resort to a custom-built one. It should be 6’ tall, 6’ Long, and 3’ wide at a minimum.


Décor should be regarded not only as visually appealing to the keeper but also useful to the Chinese Water Dragon P. cocincinus. In order to do this, one vertical cork bark tube placed to terminate beneath a basking area and two more that are added to give more area for climbing are very welcomed by the Dragon. Cork Tubes can also provide a hide spot for dragons as well as they will go into the hollow of the tube itself. You can also provide sandblasted grapevine pieces as climbing branches as well. All of these must be secured in some fashion (aquarium silicone works well) to assure that they will not slip or fall onto the dragon as they are climbing which may injure them.

Adding live plants really sets off any vivarium construction as long as the proper plants are used. For Chinese Water Dragons P. cocincinus we have found the best plants to use are Pothos, Spider Plants, Dracaena, Epiphytes, Staghorn ferns, and hibiscus. All of these must be placed in safe potting soil which is usually organic potting soil which is perlite free. This will ensure that the soil should the Dragon ingest it will most likely pass through without harming it. This generally means that you will purchase the plants then bring them home and re-pot them with organic soil after washing off the roots of the plants to make sure that nothing is left on them.


Many people say that you can use Astroturf also known as indoor/outdoor carpeting as a substrate when keeping the Chinese Water Dragon P. cocincinus this is something which I would never recommend to anyone keeping any type lizard species as their claws might become trapped in the carpet and cause serious injury. Cage carpet is another substrate substitute that I don’t care for at all. Not only is it an unattractive substrate its something that the lizard would never encounter in the wild. Chinese Water Dragon P. cocincinus requires a certain level of humidity that cannot be provided by this type of substrates. We therefore recommend using what we have found as an inexpensive substrate which is orchid or ground cover bark readily available from most home improvement stores and have never had any issues with ingestion. For in-depth secrets on substrates we recommend Substrates: Getting Your Hands Dirty. Which is where we delve in-depth to the truth behind substrates.


A cat litter pan of water with proper heating and the humidity of the water evaporation will raise the humidity level. Chinese Water Dragons P. cocincinus being an arboreal species, will occasionally come to the bottom of the enclosure to use the litter pan of water for swimming and soaking purposes. The other way to provide humidity is to spray the entire enclosure once or twice a day depending on what the humidity levels are in your area. Where I live it’s a very dry area with low humidity so I would recommend spraying three times a day here.

A Dragon in the Hand

Handling Chinese Water Dragons is not complicated. However, it may take some time and patience for them to obtain a level of comfort with you wanting to interact with them. For the most part it is said by many that reptiles simply tolerate the handling that we as humans want to give them. Regardless of your beliefs on this subject there are certain ways to ensure the comfort of your pet lizard and with less risk handle your Chinese Water Dragon P. cocincinus. Place your hand beneath the entire body of the dragon and support their body with the forearm with your free hand resting on top of them gently.

“At first encounter they might be a little squirmy so be prepared for scratches as they obviously have claws used for climbing etc.”

We recommend handling the Chinese Water Dragon P. cocincinus about ten to fifteen minutes per day every other day or so or at least interact with the lizard. This can be hand feeding or simply petting the lizard in the enclosure itself. If you choose to not handle the lizard this is fine too. Many people keep the Chinese Water Dragon P. cocincinus as an ‘ornamental’ pet that they do not interact with other than regular maintenance.

Regular Maintenance

Daily water changes are necessary with any reptile or pet. Washing out the feeding bowl and adding fresh greens is also a daily task. Spot cleaning the substrate daily will allow you to go about two weeks before completely changing the entire substrate. Once a month we take the entire enclosure apart and clean and disinfect all the decor as appropriate. When putting it back together we often change the positions of various branches or other decor to stimulate the reptile.

Tell us what you tips you might have for keeping the Chinese Water Dragon P. cocincinus below in the comments field we would love to hear your experiences with this incredible species.

Special thanks to Chris Whitney and Lisa Baines for allowing us to use their photographs in this piece. Photos are copyrighted by their owners. If you would like to use them please email us so that we may speak to them before using their works. Also thanks to Tom Cructchfield for his input as well.