Setting up a new reptile habitat is an exciting, but sometimes confusing, task for many keepers. You have to decide what type of enclosure to use, figure out how you will light and heat the habitat and find a source for your reptile’s new food, among other things.
But choosing a bedding (also known as a substrate) for the habitat is often one of the most bewildering considerations for fledgling keepers. The market is overflowing with different products, and each claim to be better than all the other choices.
But never fear: We’re here to help cut through the confusion and give you the information you need to make an informed choice. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers when it comes to substrates, but there certainly are “better” and “worse” choices. So, familiarize yourself with the basic types of bedding on the market, consider your pet’s needs and try to make the best choice possible.
You’ll need to clean or replace your reptile’s substrate anytime it becomes soiled, but the frequency of this will vary depending on the species you keep. Snakes for example, may only go to the bathroom once every week or two, while most lizards and turtles will go on a daily basis.
If you use sheet-like substrates (such as paper cage liners), you’ll need to replace the entire substrate when it becomes soiled. But others, such as mulches or wood chips, can be spot cleaned. Sand and mineral-based substrates can be sifted with a fine mesh sieve, as you would cat litter.
Most substrates become dirty over time, and require periodic replacement to prevent the habitat from becoming a bacteria-laden mess. Typically, wood and paper products require more frequent replacement than sands, clays and mineral-based beddings do. Gravel is actually unique in that it will essentially last forever, assuming you wash it periodically.
However, even if you spot clean a substrate daily, you’ll eventually need to replace it entirely. As a rule of thumb, you’ll want to replace organic substrates about once every month, while sand- and mineral-based substrates need only be replaced about twice per year.
Some of the most common and popular beddings are detailed below. Make sure that you consider all the pros and cons of any substrate before making your decision.
Small pieces of indoor-outdoor carpet can be used as substrates for many reptiles, particularly lizards. Often sold in packs of two (which allows you to clean one piece while using the other in your lizard’s cage), carpets are soft on your lizard’s feet and they provide better traction than paper substrates do.
Carpet is a convenient substrate, as it can be removed, washed and replaced without having to sift through sand or pick feces out of wood chips. There are many different color options for your carpet and terrarium liners. Some keepers don’t like the unnatural look of a carpet-lined cage, but, this is not a concern for your pet, as lizards do not care what their habitat looks like – they only care how it functions.
Just be sure to wash and replace your reptile’s carpet daily to prevent bacteria from colonizing the substrate.
Carpet works well for:
Calcium substrates first came into vogue in the late 1990s, when they immediately became popular as an alternative to sand. Comprised of calcium carbonate, rather than silica and other minerals, calcium sands are digestible. This means that your lizard’s body will actually break down calcium sand, allowing it to pass through their body relatively easily, instead of causing impactions.
Calcium sands have a similar texture to sand, although they often feel silkier, thanks to the difference in particle size and shape (calcium sands generally use rounded grains). However, you can sift them in the same way you would sand, and they are easy to keep clean like sand substrates too.
They are often slightly more expensive than traditional sand substrates, but the small increase in price is easily offset by the additional safety they provide. Blue Iguana Reptilite Calcium substrate works well, is available in several different colors and brandishes a reasonable price tag.
Calcium sands are suitable for most lizards that will thrive on sand, including:
Gravel is an interesting substrate that offers a number of unique benefits, but it also presents a few challenges, so it isn’t ideal for all critters. Gravel is most commonly used in aquatic habitats, but it can work in some terrestrial habitats too.
When used in a water-filled tank, gravel provides visual appeal and serves as a way to anchor plants and other decorative items. However, dirt and debris can accumulate in between the rocks, so frequent cleaning is a must. Gravel is also helpful for providing a base layer in well-planted rainforest habitats.
One of the best things about gravel is that you can wash it and re-use it forever. The primary drawback to gravel is its weight – gravel is heavy and difficult to move about. Additionally, some reptiles have been known to swallow gravel, which often leads to tragic results.
The best way to avoid this is by simply purchasing gravel comprised of rocks larger than your reptile’s head, thereby eliminating the possibility that they will swallow it. Zoo Med River Pebbles fits the bill perfectly, as it is designed to be safe for aquatic turtles of all sizes.
Gravel works well for:
Mulched wood products are similar to the mulches you would see in the lawn and garden section of most hardware stores. But there are several important differences between those that are safe for reptile use and those marketed for outdoor use.
Both are made from various shredded barks, including cypress, eucalyptus and pine, but the ones marketed for lawn and garden are often treated with dyes and toxic chemicals, which could make your pet sick. They may also contain salvaged wood (which can be tainted with a variety of dangerous substances). By contrast, those marketed for use with reptiles are made from only wood that comes from safe sources, and is generally sterilized before it is packaged.
Mulched wood typically retains moisture well, so they are most commonly used with species hailing from humid habitats. Most hardwood mulches resist decay for an impressive length of time, but they will eventually require replacement to ensure the habitat stays clean.
Mulched wood products are ideal for:
Chipped or shaved wood products are not as popular as they once were, but some keepers still prefer them over other substrates. Usually made from chipped aspen, these wood chips are a great choice for reptiles that live in relatively dry – though not necessarily desert-like – habitats.
Wood chips and shavings can represent an ingestion hazard, so they are typically used for snakes rather than lizards or turtles, who tend to swallow pieces of substrates more often. These types of wood chips often allow snakes to tunnel through the substrate, thereby giving them more hiding places and a chance to exhibit natural behaviors.
These types of substrates must be replaced whenever they become wet or soiled, but their low price means that this isn’t an issue for most keepers. Zoo Med’s Aspen Snake Bedding is a great choice for those interested in a chipped wood substrate.
Chipped or shaved wood substrates are a good choice for:
Coconut husk beddings are usually sold in compressed bricks, which will expand into a surprising amount of substrate when broken apart. Absorbent and soft, coconut husk substrates are most commonly used for reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates that require a high ambient humidity, but it can also provide burrowing opportunities for animals who like to dig.
Coconut husk works in utilitarian habitats, but it is most commonly used in the creation of natural-looking habitats. In addition to using it as a substrate, you can actually coat the walls of the habitat with the fibers, by first applying a layer of silicone, and then covering it with a layer of coconut husk. This not only looks great, but it will help hold more water, thereby increasing the habitat’s humidity.
Zoo Med Eco Earth was one of the first coconut husk substrates produced specifically for reptile use, and it is still the leading choice among serious reptile hobbyists everywhere.
Coconut husk substrates work in most situations in which mulched wood works, including habitats containing:
Digging and tunneling are important behaviors for many reptiles and deprived of the opportunity to do so, they’ll often fail to thrive. The problem is, it isn’t easy to find a substrate that is soft enough to allow digging, yet firm enough for tunnels to retain their shape.
Reptile keepers struggled for years to develop a way in which they could provide digging opportunities in a safe and practical manner, but there just weren’t many good options. Some hobbyists would try to collect their own materials and mix up the perfect substrate, but this is labor-intensive and rarely works.
But modern reptile keepers needn’t worry, as there are now a few commercially processed clay products, which can be compacted enough to hold a tunnel or burrow system. Zoo Med’s Excavator Clay Burrowing Substrate is probably the most widely used among keepers, and it works quite well for digging critters.
Diggable clay substrates are perfect for:
Mosses are usually used for decoration, rather than for a proper substrate, but they do make great beddings for a few circumstances. For example, mosses are typically capable of absorbing and holding a large amount of water, and they take a very long time to decay. Accordingly, they work well in super-humid rainforest terraria and “nursery” habitats, used for hatchling and newborn reptiles.
There are two types of moss commonly used in terrariums: sphagnum and Spanish. Sphagnum moss is the more substrate-like of the two, while Spanish moss is more commonly used as decoration. However, they can both be used in either context.
Mosses are best suited for:
Although they aren’t as attractive as some other substrates, paper liners offer a number of benefits that make them popular among keepers who prefer to keep their reptiles in easy-to-maintain habitats or those with large collections. Paper substrates are also a fantastic option for new keepers, who are still learning the ins and outs of reptile husbandry.
Although some keepers use newspaper instead of commercially produced liners, which are designed specifically for use with reptiles, newspaper can cause a number of problems for your pets. For example, newspaper is rarely stored in a hygienic manner, which often causes it to harbor bacteria. Additionally, the ink used in newspapers will often rub off on your reptile.
Accordingly, it is simply wiser to go with commercially produced paper liners, such as Zilla Green Terrarium Liners. These are not only absorbent and easy to use, they come pre-cut for enclosures of different sizes.
Paper liners are great for:
Sand is a great substrate for animals that hail from dry, desert-like habitats. One of the more attractive substrates, sand looks great in a well-designed habitat filled with great decorations and small succulent plants. Many manufacturers even offer several different colors from which you can choose (you can even blend colors together if you like).
Sand is an easy substrate to keep clean, as you can sift it with a mesh screen (like you would sift kitty litter). Also, because it is generally kept dry in terrariums, sand won’t encourage fungal or bacterial growth like some other substrates. This means that, as long as you sift it regularly, you can use a single bag of sand for much longer than you could a single bag of mulch or wood chips.
The primary drawback to sand is its potential to clog up your pet’s intestinal tract, which can cause serious medical problems. But there are a few precautions you can take to help reduce the chances of this happening:
Zoo Med’s Dragon Sand is a great option for those wanting a high-quality sand that looks great and won’t break the bank.
Sand substrates are great for:
Do you have a favorite substrate? Why did you come to prefer this one over others? Let us know all about it in the comments – don’t forget to tell us what type of reptile or amphibian you keep too.
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While many aspects of reptile husbandry are fairly straightforward, lighting is often a subject that causes keepers considerable confusion.This is especially true for those who must provide ultraviolet light to their pets, and many keepers are unsure of the best way to care for their critters. Myth and misinformation abound, which often leads to suffering pets and heart-broken keepers.