The hotly anticipated prequel series to Game of Thrones is upon us. House of the Dragon follows the fortunes of the Targaryens — the ancestors of one Danaerys whose affinity for the all-but-died-out breed of flying creatures was one of the OG fantasy series’ highlights. Fans fell in love with her trio of dragons, raised from hatchlings, Rhaegal, Viserion, and Drogon. We sobbed buckets at the demise of the first two — Rhaegal speared through the chest and neck (oof) at the hands of Euron’s fleet and plunging into the watery depths below — and were horrified at the subsequent resurrection of Viserion as an ice zombie by the Night King.
The new series is set hundreds of years before Game of Thrones and is based on author George RR Martin’s Fire & Blood which delves into Targaryen history and the time of dragons. The series is reported to feature close to 20 dragons and looks set to centre around the first Targaryen civil war known as “The Dance of the Dragons” during which dragons became extinct. Or dormant might be a better word, given that Dany’s three eggs hatched centuries later.
It seems that the Targaryens could learn a thing or two about caring properly for these magnificent beasts. As we saw in Game of Thrones, although Danaerys loved her dragons, she was guilty of not always giving them the proper care. Not only did the wannabe Queen of Westeros insist on flying poor Rhaegal before he’d healed following the damage he sustained during the Great War, but she was also guilty of keeping her dragons in inhumane conditions – chained in a dark and dank dungeon – and denying their basic needs.
Cold-blooded creatures, Daenerys’s dragons suffered from the low light and freezing temperatures of the north, and their appetite dipped as a result. While fighting in the coldest parts of Westeros, Drogon and his brethren could never be at full strength; the conditions led to them becoming pitifully weakened. Animal lovers should be up in arms. Even Jon Snow recognised what was best for his beloved direwolf, Ghost, and set him free to go live where he’d thrive.
We’ve yet to see what awaits the mighty creatures in House of the Dragon, but we learned snippets throughout Game of Thrones about what it takes to keep a dragon. We know that they eat farm animals, and also that they’re not averse to snacking on a human child or two between meals. Or fully grown noblemen, for that matter. Dany herself said that they basically eat whatever they want. We also know that they eat a lot – 18 goats and 11 sheep between Rhaegal and Drogon at one point in Season 8, and, we were told, that constitutes “barely eating”. But, aside from feeding them, it seems Dany paid scant attention to their other needs, including their ongoing training – they’re especially aggressive and unruly in Seasons 4 and 5, turning against her — and appropriate care.
We spoke to veterinarian Rory Cowlam – you’ll have seen him sharing his animal expertise on the BBC – who gave us an insight into exactly what it would take to look after your dragons, ensuring they’re happy, healthy and docile enough to train.
Dragons are carnivores, and are not equipped to supplement their diet with vegetation. So if you’re thinking any meat-shortfall can be made up with a few salad leaves, you’d be mistaken.
“If you look at their teeth,” explains Rory, “they are clearly designed for ripping flesh. They have no molar teeth, which are the ones used for crushing and chewing vegetation.”
Their claws are also meant for catching and killing prey – and not only will they eat animals from the ground, “they should be able to catch flying animals on the wing as well.”
The Komodo dragon, says Rory, could be seen as a dragon’s closest relative, a meat-eater that feasts mainly on vast mammal prey. Instead of using fire to incapacitate, kill and COOK its prey, a Komodo dragon uses a combined bite and venom attack to weaken its victim before eating it at leisure. Interestingly, Komodos are in possession of “the most complex [venom-delivery] duct system described in reptiles to date,” so venom researcher (cool job title) Bryan Fry said National Geographic. Episodes of Game of Thrones showed Daenerys’s dragons as also possessing a duct delivery system for the expulsion of biochemically ignited flames, meaning they share more in common than just teeth and claws.
So how much would your dragon need to eat? And how often? Bearing in mind that some reptiles, such as snakes, eat relatively infrequently – anything from twice a week to once every few weeks.
Game of Thrones director Matt Shakman said EW that Dany’s full-grown dragons are the size of Boeing 747s, a nugget of information that helps us to determine an adult dragon’s nutritional requirements. The 18 goats and 11 sheep consumed by Rhaegal and Drogon is described as them “barely eating”.
If we visualize that Drogon’s bodyweight matches that of an unloaded 747, he’d be tipping the scales at 180 tonnes.
“This is 180,000 kilos!” exclaims Rory. “If we apply a basic caloric intake equation to this then a single dragon will require 611,719 calories A DAY.”
This compares to the average recommended daily intake for a male human adult of 2,500 calories. About 245 times as much then.
“Lamb works out at about 2,000 calories per kilo, with an average sheep weighing approximately 80kg,” says Rory. “That means 160,000 calories per sheep.”
Which equates to less than four sheep to create up the daily calorie requirement.
“29 goats/sheep work out at around 4.64 million calories,” Rory continues. “Now, we know that a lot of dragon-type animals don’t eat every day so this may well be keeping them going for a while, however, if we do the maths, that sum of food should be enough for about a week for one dragon. Clearly, this depends on exercise storeys too, but on my reckoning, I think [Rhaegal and Drogon had been] eating plenty.”
On the subject of exercise, it’s interesting to look at how far they could fly without stopping and the kind of recovery period they’d need. Rory looks to the insect world for an equivalent.
“If we look at the farthest flying dragonfly species, the Pantala Flavescens,” says Rory, “it can fly distances of almost 4,500 miles. That’s just less than New York to Moscow. The vast wingspan and amazing muscling of dragons would be key in maintaining this distance. Clearly, after a journey of this distance, they would need gallons of water, a very vast meal, and a good few hours’ rest. This is probably a journey to be done once every few days, maximum.”
If a dragon were classed as a dangerous animal, as they doubtlessly would, the only place you’d be able to legally keep one would be in a zoo. But the question remains, what kind of enclosure could contain a dragon?
At a 747-proportioned 230-feet long, with a 210-feet wingspan – and room to move – you’re looking at a pretty massive space. Detroit Metropolitan Airport’s Twin-Bay Boeing 747 hangar measures 128,000 square feet and cost $26.3 million to build. You’ve also got to consider what material you’d build the thing out of.
Shakman says the flame of a GoT dragon is 30-feet wide and, Rory says, “It’s thought that their fire would reach temperatures close to 2,000 degrees Celsius; hot enough to melt most materials.”
According to the Game of Thrones community page on dragons, “dragon flame can turn flesh to ash, melt steel, and crack stone.”
Rory identifies two substances that could feasibly continue intact should a dragon release a fiery blast – Tantalum, a hard, grey acid-resistant metal often used in the fabricate of surgical and lab equipment, and in electronic goods; or Hafnium Carbide, a compound with a melting point of around 3,900 degrees Celcius. He logically points out, of course, that whatever material was used would “also have to withstand the driving force of those wings.”
Let’s not forget that Daenerys, as the Targaryens were wont to do, used her dragons as weapons of mass destruction. If such creatures existed in our world, would we treat them the same way? If that were the case, suggests Rory, they’d likely be “secreted away in nuclear bunkers.”
Watching Game of Thrones, you’ll know that dragons don’t like being kept in captivity. It’s been shown to be detrimental to their health and wellbeing. This prompted Tyrion to set Rhaegal and (a pre-death/reanimation) Viserion free from their chains after Daenerys reluctantly confined them to the dungeon following their increasing uncontrollability. So how would we combat this?
“I challenge anybody to contain a dragon,” says Rory. “The only way I can think of doing this is good training with high-value rewards such as bison or bears (nice meaty ones). If this fails, however, we could always try giving them a little sedative until they are used to it.”
However, he warns: “The pharmaceutical companies better obtain working though as the doses would be in litres rather than millilitres.”
Dragons also don’t respond well in cold climates, as we’ve already pointed out.
“Reptiles generally need UVB light to stay healthy,” says Rory. It’s no wonder that Dany’s dragons were flagging.
“Anyone keeping any reptile will know how important this is,” he continues. “If these guys don’t obtain enough precious light, their bones will soften and finally wear away, leaving them flightless and likely [leading to] their demise. Dragons are assumed cold-blooded, too, meaning to maintain energy storeys they will also need to bask in the warmth or produce heat from elsewhere. The question is, can they self-regulate with dragon fire?”
If not, we’d have to take steps to ensure they’re getting enough light and heat year round. According to Reptiles Magazine, “no artificial lighting system in the world can provide the full spectrum and intensity of natural sunlight… for these reasons alone, the more natural daylight a reptile experiences, the better.”
They recommend fitting out a vast reptile’s enclosure with skylights and windows glazed with special UV-transmitting acrylic – assuming the dragon won’t just destroy it with one fiery breath, of course. It might also be crucial to provide an extra source of UVB via special lamps – which we’re going to visualize the dragons wouldn’t destroy because of the feel-good factor they create. They’re clever creatures after all. The Komodo dragon enclosure at Colchester Zoo also incorporates underfloor heating, which could work.
Health and Maintenance
You’d have to pay attention to grooming to keep matters like claws in check. It’s no wonder Drogon seemed so angry a lot of the time.
“Overgrown claws can impact all sorts of matters and if they grow round they can be very painful,” says Rory. “You might need a Valyrian steel chainsaw, though.”
He also points out that your dragon might need dietary supplements: “Diet and light are very important as we’ve discussed, [so] supplementation may be crucial if they aren’t getting enough calcium from all those animal bones.”
And then there’s bathing. Not sure how long it would take – or easy it would be — to bathe a 230-ft winged behemoth but this is important, especially if your dragon is shedding: “Almost all reptiles alive shed in some way, either by a full skin (such as snakes) or scale by scale (like crocs).”
Bathing, and regular cleaning of their living environment, are also critical for another reason – hygiene. Keeping your dragon clean is critical to keeping him or her healthy as reptiles can be susceptible to viruses.
“Pox-Viruses, Reo-Viruses, and many, numerous more are hugely common in these guys. If you’re scrupulous with diet, hygiene and maintenance then you should be okay, though,” says Rory.
You presumably don’t want costly vet call-outs that are entirely avoidable. Another issue to watch out for on the health front is metabolic bone disease.
“This is completely to do with diet and UVB light — if they aren’t getting this spot on then their bones will become weak and they will become permanently injured, sometimes even getting fractures,” explains Rory. It’s becoming more and more apparent that Daenerys was partly responsible for Rhaegal’s demise.
The other big health concern to watch out for is egg-binding: “This is when a female tries to lay an egg and it gets stuck somewhere along the way. This would leave the egg to rot inside the mother dragon and could be fatal.”
Paying a Premium
The good news is that, if you can find a vet willing to treat your dragon (“I, for one, obtain nervous about a cat bite let alone a DRAGON,” says Rory), numerous issues will be claimable via your insurance. The bad news? A policy could set you back £450,000, or around $544,000, a month.
“An annual premium of just shy of £5.5 million,” says the vet. “It costs on average £25 a month to insure a dog in the UK. The average dog weighs about 10kg. Generally, as the dog increases in weight, they require more drugs when they go to the vets, meaning they generally cost more to insure.”
And so onto the big question. If we wanted to breed our dragon, but there was only one left in the entire world, we’d be out of luck, right? Not necessarily…
“Parthenogenesis is the technical term for uni-sexual reproduction,” explains Rory. “It is where eggs develop without fertilisation, leading to a uni-sexual population. By this logic, if we extrapolate to dragons, then yes, it is absolutely possible. However [if your dragon were male], this does require the male of the species to be able to produce an egg.”
According to Game of Thrones lore, there’s a distinct possibility that this could transpire in the new series – it’s discussed within the books that dragons may not have a fixed gender. Like some fish species such as clownfish and wrasses, they are thought to switch sex. In theory, then, perhaps our male dragon could well become a proud parent without even a whiff of a female in its vicinity.
House of the Dragon premieres on 21 August, 2022.
This article was originally published in another form in 2019 and has been updated.