Best Substrate For Bearded Dragons – What Is Good, What Should Be Avoided And Why
It can be difficult to choose the best substrate for Bearded Dragons. There are so many different opinions where-ever you search, particularly on forums and Facebook groups.
There are variety of substrates available that are aimed for bearded dragons, some good some not so good and some that should be completely avoided. This post is intended to help you decide which substrate is best suited for you and your bearded dragon.
What Is A Substrate?
If you’re new to the world of reptiles you may have heard the term substrate mentioned but aren’t really sure what it is. Well basically the term substrate is used to describe an underlying substance and in this case its the material used to cover the floor of a vivarium or terrarium. You may also hear substrate referred to as bedding. The types of substrates available are divided into two categories; loose or particle substrate and solid or non-particle substrate. Each has an array of options to choose from.
Which Substrate Should I Use For My Bearded Dragon?
This has to be one of the most commonly asked questions among bearded dragon owners. It has also been a long debated topic regarding which is best ….. particle or non-particle?
There are numerous forums where enthusiasts share their knowledge and experiences. This makes forums a great place to get some helpful information especially when starting out or if you’re unsure what type of substrate to use. In my opinion there is no one substrate fits all, and no right or wrong category.
There are many bearded dragon keepers who will condemn the use of a particle substrate. However there are many bearded dragons that thrive without incident on a particle substrate….. After all, their natural habitat largely comprises of sand! However, sand is not without risk.
The decision on which substrate to use for your bearded dragon is best made by looking at everything as a big picture. If you’re a new bearded dragon owner then a particle substrate can complicate things – so maybe start on a non-particle substrate. If your bearded dragon is only young and inexperienced, maybe start on a non-particle substrate. Once you have the rest of your knowledge and the environment up to scratch, change to a particle substrate if you choose to.
Careful consideration is needed when deciding due to the myriad of options on the market for both particle and non-particle. Some are good but many should be avoided in both groups. Research is key to find the best best substrate option for you and your bearded dragon.
Particle Substrate (Sand/Woodchips/etc)
Particle substrate is the term used for the flooring in a vivarium which is made up of loose particles rather than a solid mass. Particle substrates include sand, sterile topsoil, woodchips, calci-sand, crushed walnut shells, coconut fibre etc. Some of these particle substrates are absolutely not suitable for bearded dragons under any legitimate circumstance. Some of them even advertise that they’re suitable for bearded dragons when they’re simply not. Others might come with a pre-packaged vivarium. Later, we’ll go over the different substrates that are suitable and those that aren’t.
A particle substrate used for bearded dragon should be a soft and fine in texture with minimal dust residue and nontoxic. The smaller and finer the particles the easier it will be for the bearded dragon to pass any of the substrate it may have accidentally ingested.
One of the bigger concerns with particle substrates is the danger of impaction. This is where the bearded dragon ingests something that it cannot digest and then cannot pass in its faeces.
See our Impaction post for more information.
Since particle substrates are loose small particles that cover the floor of the vivarium, a non-particle substrate is one that is made of larger items of material. Things such as slate or tiles, newspapers or paper towels, fake grass mats or even sandcovered paper.
These non-particle substrate are an excellent choice when either you or your dragon are inexperienced. Baby bearded dragon’s for example are very inexperienced and often don’t do as well on particle substrates. Non-particle or solid substrates are recommended for baby bearded dragons or inexperienced keepers.
Substrate Pros and Cons
As with everything in life there are pros and cons to the choice of substrate. It’s up to you as the keeper to use the information and weigh up the choice that works best for you and your dragon. Every situation is individual and every dragon and owner are individual.
Particle Substrate Pros
Particle Substrate Cons
Factors When Considering Which Substrate To Use
The Age Of The Bearded Dragon
Adult bearded dragons are fairly robust hardy creatures and cope well with various substrate options. Babies and juvenile bearded dragons on the other hand do not always cope as well.
Particle substrates are best avoided for bearded dragons under a year old.
This is mainly because they are still growing and can often ingest loose particles while feeding (and the babies are clumsy feeders). This will consequently increase the risk of a blockage of the intestine leading to impaction. Impaction can very easily become life threatening.
Babies also poop a lot, so using paper towels or something similar makes cleaning easier and quicker as you just remove the soiled paper and replace it with clean.
Health Of The Bearded Dragon
If you are using a loose substrate and your bearded dragon becomes unwell it is always advisable to remove the substrate and replace with a simple substrate such as paper. Sometimes the substrate can exacerbate the problem by becoming an irritant. For example, one of our little girls had a mild prolapse after egg-laying. The sand was entering places it shouldn’t and making it worse so we removed it for a while.
Also If they are having bowel motion problems, for example if they are very loose , cleaning and hygiene is easier with paper.
Loose substrates can have an effect on ambient temperature so if you are struggling to maintain the temperatures consider removing and replacing with a non particle substrate for a while.
What Substrate is Best for Egg Laying and Gravid Bearded Dragons (carrying eggs)?
A gravid (pregnant) female will be looking to lay her eggs and to do so she needs to make a nest.
If you’re not using a particle substrate it would be a good idea to introduce a nesting tray of suitable moist / damp sand and sterile topsoil (see below) to give her somewhere to dig. This should be introduced as soon as notice her scratching around her enclosure shes preparing to lay. If you are already using a loose substrate it will be more obvious she is looking to nest. It is still advisable to provide her with a designated nesting area.
For the purposes of a lay-box, play sand or reptile soil works well. Vermiculite is also a good option. It expands with water retaining moisture for longer. Mixing some in with your choice of soil or sand will more structure to the nest site. Providing your gravid female with a suitable nesting area will encourage her to lay and reduce the risk of her becoming egg bound.
We discuss the issues surrounding pregnant / gravid bearded dragons in our article entitled 5 Signs Your Bearded Dragon Is Pregnant / Carrying Eggs (Gravid) And What You Need To Do.
Types of Substrate Available For Bearded Dragon Tanks
Children’s Play Sand / Sterile TopSoil Mix
Bear in mind when considering using sand that it can be more awkward to clean and can potentially harbour bacteria, fungal organisms and parasites. This isn’t a problem if you’re willing to meticulously clean the sand and even do full sand changes regularly to help reduce this.
All of the complications and fears around using sand (or at least, the sand we recommend here) as a substrate for bearded dragons are reduced significantly if your husbandry is up to scratch. This is why we don’t recommend sand for beginners, because beginners have enough of a learning curve to get right before introducing sand. Nevertheless, make sure your temperatures are spot on, and your UVB is properly maintained and your dragon is well hydrated. These things being in place, sand is OK.
Children’s Play Sand / Sterile Topsoil mix is the ONLY sand we feel can be used.
Even then, only if your husbandry is top notch.
Sand ( Builders / Beach Sand )
There are many varieties of sand products on the market. It is however important to note that not all sand is the same.
Builders sand, beach sand and anything similar should never be used as a substrate for your bearded dragon. These types of sand have sharp stones and other inclusions. It’s also untreated and may contain harmful toxins and other nasty things including parasites.
Builders or Beach Sand, Sharp Sand or any other non-Play Sand should not be used for bearded dragons
Reptile Sand / ReptiSand
Reptisand is made from fine particles of quartz sometimes referred to as silica sand, this product is non clumpy. It is available in various colours which can make the habitat stand out. There are however many reviews that state that skin staining is common problem and high levels of dust residue is also an issue.
Due to being made from quartz crystals, the product is quite harsh and some people report that it can cause problems with irritating the bowels and even potentially causing internal bleeding.
Reptisand should not be used for bearded dragons.
Despite the bearded dragon on the packaging.
Calcium Sand / Calcisand
Calcisand is not actually sand at all. It is in fact calcium carbonate, which is found in chalk and limestone. Calcium carbonate is also one of the active ingredients used to treat heartburn found in many antacid products.
Some people have the view that if an inadvertent ingestion occurs its better to ingest calcium. The problem with this theory is that if Calcisand is ingested it can neutralise stomach acid. Acid is absolutely essential in the stomach for the proper digestion of proteins. Neutralising the acid means that food digestion will be harder for your bearded dragon.
It is also worth mentioning that if your bearded dragon thinks it is lacking in calcium there is a high chance they will actively eat the substrate. Consequently this will increase the neutralisation of the bearded dragon’s stomach acid.
Calcisand should never, ever be used in a bearded dragon enclosure.
Vita Sand is the same as Calcisand but fortified with vitamins and beta-carotene. Both products are advertised as non dusty although many reviews report that dust is an issue as is the sand staining the skin of their bearded dragons.
Vita sand therefore carries all the same warnings and issues as Calcisand and should also be avoided for Bearded Dragons, despite the fact that the packaging shows a Bearded Dragon prominently on the front!
We do not understand the logic behind Vita-Sand. It’s fortified with vitamins – except that bearded dragons are not meant to eat dirt.
Do not use Vita-Sand for bearded dragons.
Wood chips / Sani chips
A wood based substrate of heat treated small chippings they are lightweight, long lasting and hygienic. Choosing wood chips as a substrate could been seen as controversial. The chippings are relatively large compared to other particle substrates, which could increase the risk of impaction.
Many would say (us included) that wood chips should be avoided as a substrate for bearded dragons, and are better suited for snakes and such like. However that said it is a popular choice frequently used by pet/reptile stores for adult bearded dragons.
Wood chips / Sani Chips are not recommended for bearded dragons.
Crushed Walnut Shells
Made from crushed walnut shells this substrate is extremely coarse. The particles are fairly large and sharp in texture. Its also fairly expensive. Walnut shells should be avoided as a substrate for bearded dragons.
There have been reports on various forums and social media of Bearded Dragons requiring significant intestinal operations or even being put down because of being kept on walnut shells. The sharp edges can literally rip their intestines apart if ingested.
Crushed Walnut Shells Should NEVER be used for bearded dragons
Made from a mixture of peat moss, sand, soil and carbon. This substrate is good for egg laying and burrowing due to its ability to retain moisture. It is more suited for a tropical set up, however that said it is becoming more popular to have an Eco ( bioactive ) environment.
Although this is not an area we are overly familiar with, this soil is a great medium for plants to flourish in. If an Eco/bioactive set up is something that interests you there are some informative videos on YouTube. Search for “bioactive bearded dragon setup” or click here to check them out.
Reptile Soil is OK for bearded dragons, particularly in bio-active setups
Also known as Eco earth, these are available as loose bags or dehydrated blocks. It is Eco friendly made from coconut husks and can be composted after use. This works well as a tropical substrate due to its ability to retain moisture and increase humidity.
Not the best option for a dessert reptile. It can be used dry but then makes it quite dusty and flaky. Making it an irritant for your bearded dragon’s eyes and respiratory tract.
Coconut Fibre is not recommended for bearded dragons
Made from pulp derived from pristine hardwood. By separating the cellulose fibres from hardwood chippings produces a soft textured substrate. Hardwood pulp is also used to make tissue and toilet paper.
Dessert snow is biodegradable, renewable, non toxic and virtually dust free. It is also highly absorbent making this a versatile substrate as it can be used for nesting. This is a popular alternative in the USA but not commonly used in the UK.
Desert Snow is OK for bearded dragons
Formulated to replicate the arid soils of the Savannah and deserts. This is a clay based substrate making it suitable for digging and burrowing. It isn’t cheap but It comes in 4 different colours and is available in 7 or 20 litre bags.
Zoo-Med Excavator clay is a similar product and can be used to create tunnels, hidey holes and caves. Zoo-Med have a couple of YouTube videos demonstrating how to do this.
Both these products become brittle and crumble when dry, they are also difficult to manage hygienically. However, if you don’t mind a bit of work and the expense they’re not a bad alternative.
Desert Bedding or ZooMed Excavator Clay is OK for bearded dragons
Non Particle Substrates
Reptile carpet is available in a range of sizes and several colours. It is soft and easy to cut to size. They are reusable and relatively easy to clean. It is advisable that you have several carpets or cut the carpet into sections to make cleaning easier.
The carpet will need to be taken out, cleaned and sanitized regularly at the very least weekly. It may need to be as often as daily especially for the babies as they tend to poop a lot! Buying multiple carpets can also become costly, but once bought they do last a while.
Reptile carpet is a good substrate for bearded dragons but must be regularly cleaned and does nothing to keep claws trimmed
Similar to the reptile carpet but these have a sandy texture designed to look like sand but without the loose particles. Sand mats do look effective in a beardies tank and come in a range of sizes. They are fairly expensive and multiples will be needed to replace while cleaning and sanitizing soiled mats.
The same principles apply for sand mats with regards to the cleaning as they do with the reptile carpet. Sand mats also look good as a wall covering.
If you like the idea of sand but you have babies or don’t want to use a particle substrate then a sand mat is a great alternative.
Sand mat is a good substrate for bearded dragons
It has been suggested that artificial grass is a good option, however there are many different variants around. Personally I would avoid using this due to the matting and looped fibres. There is a high risk that toes/nails could get caught especially for baby bearded dragons. This is also a costly option. Reptile carpet and sand mats are a much better option.
Tiles are a popular choice as A substrate for bearded dragons, they are relatively cheap and easy to clean. The choices are endless. It is important to choose suitable tiles. For example your shiny bathroom tiles will not be much fun for your beardie because he will not be able to grip and will slip and slide. This is easily rectified by turning the tiles over and have the raw side facing up.
Slate tiles are great option they are textured and retain heat. If you like the idea of using tiles you can grout them in place, but check that its nontoxic and safe for pets.
We recommend tiles as a great substrate for bearded dragons
Newspaper is readily available and easily disposable. Newspaper is suitable as a temporary flooring however the type of paper does vary. Some newspapers are printed on shiny paper which are not as absorbent. Print transfer is often a problem when using newspaper, especially when its wet.
Newspaper is a good substrate for bearded dragons
Kitchen Paper / Kitchen Towel
Kitchen paper is probably the best option when it comes to using paper. It is extremely absorbent, and can be replaced with ease. Babies and sick beardies (with loose poop) do well with kitchen paper because of the ease it can be changed out to help keeping their hygienic and clean.
Be aware though that since kitchen towel is quite light, babies can sometimes end up eating it by mistake. It shouldn’t do them any harm, but if they’re clumsy enough to eat it, it can be better to feed them away from the vivarium.
Kitchen roll is a recommended substrate for bearded dragons
Wallpaper makes an interesting alternative if you want to jazz up the look of the flooring. Its a really cheap option because you can get off cut pieces from the DIY stores for free. However the down side to wallpaper is that it is not as absorbent as newspaper or kitchen paper.
Wallpaper doesn’t just have to be used as a floor covering. Using it as it intended purpose and covering the walls can really individualize your bearded dragon’s home!
As you can see there is much to choose from and there is good, not so good and things to avoid for both options.
If you’re already using a substrate that works for you and you bearded dragon (whether is be particle or non-particle) and they are happy and healthy. Stick with it.
If you are undecided or looking to try something new maybe consider having both types of substrate in your vivarium. For example half sand an half sand mat looks really effective. This allows the best of both substrates and allows you to see which your bearded dragon prefers.
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