Whilst some keepers like to try to make caging conditions as "natural" as possible for their dragons, others prefer to keep the cage very "artificial" and "sterile"-looking.
This page will look at the pros and cons associated with both styles of setup, as well as details of how and why we decided to keep our dragons the way we do.
Like many aspects of dragon keeping, there is a lot of debate about "naturalistic" vs "artificial" when it comes to setting up and maintaining a vivarium.
There are varying degrees of each. At one end you have vivariums which aim to recreate a slice of the wild. These typically have natural substrates, varying day lengths, temperatures, light levels and UV levels which vary depending on the time of day, and quite a lot of natural decor - rocks, branches etc. This is the style of vivarium I was aiming for when I created my Fake Rock Display Vivarium.
This is a typically "naturalistic"-type setup: sand substrate, several rocks, branches etc:
At the other end of the scale is the completely artificial style vivarium - these often have a very sterile laboratory-like feel to them. You typically see an artificial, easily-cleanable or easily-replaceable substrate such as paper or tile. Lighting levels are usually constant throughout the day, with little or no variation in temperature or UV during daylight hours. Decor is usually sparse - typically a couple of dishes and maybe a couple of rocks or perches. Most keepers will use this style of setup at some point - even if not for permanent housing they're often used for quarantine or temporary housing for a sick animal:
I will primarily be looking at the style of vivarium, which encompasses various factors, rather than just the substrate used. Substrate will of course come into to, but it's possible to set up a vivarium using naturalistic principles (lots of decor, climbing areas, rocks piles, plants etc) whilst using a substrate such as paper. Likewise, it's possible to use sand as a substrate whilst keeping the rest of the setup very minimalist, in line with a typically "artificial" setup.
Each style has positive and negative points associated with them - the reason for the amount of debate surrounding this type of topic is that different keepers give different weights to the positive and negative points, and make their decisions accordingly.
Artificial-style vivariums are typically very easy to clean and maintain - paper can be changed daily (or more often if required), tiles can be scrubbed and disinfected daily etc. The relative sparsity of decor means that there's a lot less to remove to clean the vivarium. Although ingestion of substrate can still be a risk, it's generally accepted to be reduced in comparison to a more "natural" substrate such as sand. Many artificial vivariums will be set up quite simply, which can often make it easier for the dragon to catch its food - the fewer places there are for food to hide, the easier it is for the dragon to find it, as well as making it easier for the keeper to ensure all leftover food is removed at night.
By keeping the conditions pretty much constant, stress to the animal is removed - it is worth remembering that dragons are simple animals, without a concept of "fun". In an ideal world they'd lie on a basking rock at just the right temperature, and food would walk into their mouths - they don't want to be running around after food, or actively thermoregulating, even if it may be "good" for them to get some exercise and stimulation. However, for an obesity-prone species such as beardies, any reduction in exercise and movement will require much more detailed dietary management, due to the reduction in exercise.
Without the reliance on elaborate decor, artificial-style vivariums are often cheaper to setup, although not necessarily to maintain - in a sand-based vivarium the substrate may be completely replaced monthly, whereas a paper-based vivarium will need the substrate replacing pretty much daily.
Paper- or tile-based vivariums will also need cleaning much sooner after the animal has made a mess - in a sand-based vivarium the sand will quickly dry out any feces, turning them into solid, dry lumps. In a paper or tile vivarium the feces will sit there still wet, risking becoming stuck to your dragon if it walks through them. If you're out at work for the majority of the time the dragon is awake, this is a major disadvantage of using paper or tile as a long-term substrate. However for keepers wanting to perform checks on new arrivals or sick animals this is ideal, as it keeps the feces fresher for longer, to allow testing.
A final negative is the appearance - for a vivarium which is going to be the focal point of the living room, a paper-based vivarium with a simple setup isn't exactly the nicest thing to look at, even with a couple of extra bits of decor:
Moving onto the positive points of naturalistic setups, perhaps the biggest plus is that most people wanting to "display" their animals would rather do it in a more natural setting, such as this:
Another positive is that they can allow natural behaviour - such as digging and scratching - to a greater extent than artificial-style vivariums. There is also a lot more opportunity for exploring, climbing over things etc. Vivariums with varying light levels will promote natural behaviours such as basking in the morning and afternoon, and avoiding the midday heat. This can often stimulate the occupants more than they would be if housed in a simpler vivarium - dragons kept in simple vivariums can be prone to laziness.
However, this does come at a cost. As discussed earlier, dragons generally only display behaviours like this because something is lacking - they're not the right temperature, they need more food etc. Naturalistic vivariums encourage activity by mildly stressing the animal out and "forcing" them to think and react. Natural-style vivariums are also harder to keep completely spotless, especially when housing animals such as beardies which are prone to kicking food etc around the vivarium. They are also potentially more dangerous - allowing a dragon to climb more than a few inches above the floor can get risky, as they're not the greatest of climbers.
Naturalistic vivariums also require a lot more thought and planning when setting up - plants much be checked to ensure they are non-toxic, small hidey-holes for insects need to be dealt with, rock piles must be checked for stability etc. In comparison, a basic artificial-style vivarium is a lot quicker and easier to set up.
For the vast majority of my time keeping dragons, I'd used the naturalistic approach, in varying degrees. Some of my vivariums were very complex, with several layers, natural substrates, climbing areas, vines, branches etc. I'd always used very simple, artificial-style setups with babies - my emphasis has always been on getting the babies to eat as much food as possible, whilst keeping them as comfortable as possible. When young, they don't need the same stimulation that adults do:
However, following several discussions with Mark from Fire and Ice UK (a huge proponent of artificial-style, paper-based vivaria), I decided to give them a try. After a bit of trial and error and after giving the dragons a decent settling in period, I started to notice a few things about them.
Firstly, some of the dragons just didn't adapt to paper - these were typically older dragons which had lived on sand and stone their whole lives. They would often get stressed and tear the cage apart, and didn't seem very happy. These dragons were all moved back onto sand.
However, many of the younger dragons and some older but more laid back dragons took to living on paper quite quickly. Far from getting stressed and relentlessly trying to get out due to there being less to do in the vivarium, most quickly took to the new lifestyle - they seemed to find their food more easily, and generally looked more chilled out. This did require a few small adjustments to diet though, to prevent obesity due to the reduction in activity.
It also became a lot quicker to clean out all of the vivariums, and much easier to keep them looking spotless. I got into the routine of emptying each cage completely and disinfecting everything daily, rather than the spot-cleaning and localised disinfecting that I used to do when running a large number of naturalistic vivaria.
As a result, I have now moved some of my dragons onto paper, using very simple, artificial-style setups. I have kept those dragons which didn't adapt well on sand, as well as retaining a couple of "show" vivaria which are set up very naturalistically. I have also started experimenting with a style that I touched on earlier - the "simple", "artificial"-style vivarium, using sand as a substrate. This seems to be working well, as it combines many of the best points of each style - the simplicity of cleaning and finding food of the artificial style, but also with the more natural substrate which keeps a lot of dragons happier. Cleaning is done with two different grades of sieve, to remove everything from spilt greens to the occasional insect poo. This allows me to keep the "simple" sand vivariums looking very tidy:
When making your own decisions there are several things I would advise taking into consideration. Firstly, what do you want from the vivarium? If it's to be a centrepiece for a room, housing a single dragon, I'd still recommend the naturalistic approach. If it's literally just a house for a pet or two then the artificial approach may work well for you. Likewise, if your dragon has been in a naturalistic setup its whole life, it may not do so well when moved into a completely new setup - dragons are notorious for becoming stressed by change. If you have several dragons in several setups and are going to be around often enough to notice when they've gone to the toilet etc then the artificial style may work for you, whichever substrate you use.
I feel I owe Mark some thanks for his persistence in getting me to try the artificial approach to vivarium setup - even if I didn't permanently adopt all of his ideas, it did get me thinking about my housing methods, and eventually led me to the "compromise" setup that I now use for most of my vivariums.