What to Know About Chinese Water Dragons

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on November 17, 2022
5 min read

Chinese water dragons are a large, green species of lizard from Asia. Like other lizards, Chinese water dragons like to climb trees, but they’re also excellent swimmers. These large lizards can also be kept as pets.

Chinese water dragons, scientific name Physignathus cocincinus, are a species of iguana-like lizards. Other common names include Asian water dragons and Thai water dragons, as they’re found throughout Asia.

They’re also called green water dragons, thanks to their green color. They range from bright to dark green and have tails with brown bands. Chinese water dragons also have a ridge of thorny scales that runs from the head down to the tail.

Chinese water dragons are sexually dimorphic, meaning the males and females of the species look different. The males tend to have larger heads, and they also have brighter coloring, with a bright orange or yellow area under the throat and pink tones under their jaws. The Chinese water dragon’s size also depends on gender. Males can reach up to three feet long, and females are usually a little shorter. Their tails can be nearly 70% of their overall body length.

The term “water dragon” alludes to their strong swimming skills. If needed, these dragons can stay underwater for up to 25 minutes. They may do this if they feel threatened. 

Chinese water dragons are also excellent climbers. They have strong legs and long claws that help them climb and grasp branches. They use their tails for balance as they climb.

The back limbs of the Chinese water dragon are more muscular than the front limbs. This aids them in climbing and swimming and also allows them to leap and jump. They can also run bipedally, meaning on just two limbs.

Chinese water dragons typically live near permanent standing water, like rainforests, rivers, and swamps. They’re found in Asia, particularly in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and southern China. They prefer areas of warm temperatures, from 75 to 85°F (23.8 to 29.4°C), and high humidity that’s around 80% in the mornings and 60% in the evenings.

They typically live in groups with one male and several females and are territorial. They may be aggressive toward each other, displaying behavior like bobbing their heads, puffing up their throats, waving their limbs, and sometimes chasing each other away.

Chinese water dragons are omnivores. They have sticky tongues and sharp teeth that allow them to catch and eat a variety of foods, including:

  • Birds
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Insects
  • Invertebrates
  • Plants
  • Rodents

On average, Chinese water dragons can live for 10 to 15 years, although in captivity they may live up to 20 years.

Female Chinese water dragons usually lay six to 15 eggs at a time, and they hatch after 60 to 75 days. When freshly hatched, babies have a body about an inch long (2.54 centimeters) with an additional 4 or 5 inches of tail. They’re usually a brownish-green shade with a pale green underside, with light vertical stripes on their bodies and brown bands on their tails. Babies have large eyes and short snouts.

While females typically use a mate to reproduce, they can also perform parthenogenesis. That is, they can reproduce asexually, without a mate.

Caution should be used when taking on Chinese water dragons as pets, as escaped dragons can become an invasive species. Chinese water dragon care includes making sure your pet has the right habitat and diet.

Habitat. Chinese water dragons shouldn’t live in glass enclosures. They don’t understand glass and can injure themselves by running into the glass or rubbing their faces against it. Instead, a cage or even a grow tent works well as an enclosure. 

These are big lizards, and they need a big enclosure. Minimally, adult enclosures should be at least 4 feet wide, 2 feet deep, and 5 feet tall, although 6 feet tall is ideal for adult males. Babies can be kept in a smaller enclosure or 40- to 55-gallon glass aquarium. If you’re using a glass aquarium for a Chinese water dragon, cover three sides with paper and mist the enclosure frequently to keep humidity high.

The substrate, or bottom layer of the enclosure, needs to hold humidity well. Be Wild Reptile Rescue recommends using an organic topsoil. You can mix this with ingredients like coconut coir, cypress mulch, or sphagnum moss. Don’t use coconut coir on its own because Chinese water dragons can get this in their eyes. Aspen, cedar, and pine grow mold easily in humid settings, so these should not go in your pet’s enclosure.

A bioactive enclosure, which includes living elements to create a miniature ecosystem, is a good choice for Chinese water dragons. This is best for more experienced reptile owners, as you need to have the right drainage layer and substrate depth.

Chinese water dragons like to climb, so their enclosures need a lot of plants. These can be a mix of real and fake plants. They also like hammocks and branches. If you bring branches in from outdoors, they need to be made of hardwood and properly sanitized before you put them in the enclosure.

The atmosphere of their enclosures should mimic their natural habitat, so enclosures need to be warm and humid. The ideal humidity level for a Chinese water dragon’s enclosure is 65% to 80%, but if you notice your dragon has flaky scales or is having trouble shedding, increase the humidity.

Daytime temperatures in the enclosure should be around 78°F to 80°F (25.5°C to 26.6°C). The temperature should drop at night, but no lower than 75°F (23.9°C). Each enclosure should have at least one basking area that’s about 90°F to 95°F (32.2°C to 35°C). Chinese water dragons also need a strong UVB light with a UVB percentage of at least 10%. Reptiles can see red light, so a ceramic heater should be used in place of a red light heater. Don’t use a heat rock because these can cause burns.

Diet and hydration. In the wild, Chinese water dragons have a varied diet. In captivity, they mostly eat insects and some fish. They can eat greens, though they don’t need to, and fruit is okay as a rare treat. Some of the more common insects for feeding Chinese water dragons include:

  • Black soldier fly larvae
  • Crickets
  • Dubia roaches
  • Hornworms
  • Silkworms
  • Superworms

Chinese water dragons can also eat fish like frozen silversides and tilapia strips. Live fish can carry parasites, so avoid feeding these to your water dragon unless you know the source. Goldfish and minnows aren’t good choices because they can cause a vitamin B1 deficiency.

Chinese water dragons like to swim, so their enclosures should have 10 to 20 gallons of water. You can use something like a storage tub, cat litter pan, or aquarium. This needs to be cleaned daily, as the water dragons often use it as a bathroom.

Chinese water dragons can become territorial and aggressive and should be housed separately from each other.