The best substrate for bearded dragons is not a single substrate, but a combination of substrates and accessories.
A good substrate combination example is:
- Hard flooring such as tiles, with
- Dig box for add stimulation.
The odd thing about substrate debates is that the focus is in the wrong direction. The question should not be so much about which substrate is best for bearded dragons but more what combination of substrates and accessories provides the best enrichment. This does not mean to mix substrates together to become a single substrate, but to add multiple separated substrates within a single environment.
The best substrate for bearded dragons should encourage natural behaviours and that includes getting them off the floor substrate and onto other natural habitat elements.
Always keep in mind when assessed the best substrate for your bearded dragons housing, you can change it at any time, try something new.
Bearded dragons naturally live on a range of substrates such as loose sand, leaf litter, fallen branches and rocks. Being semi arboreal they also use vertical surfaces such as trees, bushes and fence posts.
Studies have shown bearded dragons can spend long periods of time up trees and in bushes, basking, sleeping, watching or hiding from danger. Others will run for cover in cracks in the earth or spend many hours basking on rocks. Focus on providing an environment that suits a semi arboreal creature and the floor substrate becomes slightly less of an issue.
A number of zoos and reptile parks provide examples of how to set up environments. Likelihood is that they will offer a far greater sized enclosure and multiple natural substrates and accessories that provide the reptiles a range of options as to what surface type it chooses to be on at any moment.
Another consideration is the biological stage of the bearded dragon. For example, a gravid female can suffer serious health issues with egg retention if not provided with the right cues for laying, such as sand to dig in.
For example, you could provide a sandbox and tile/lino, or sand and some pockets of hay over the top. Note that hay over the top won’t do much to prevent sand being eaten during feeding if the feeders are let loose in the enclosure however it will help with feeding vegetation that can be put on top of the hay.
Combining a dig box with a solid floor along with branches and rocks provides for needs and enrichment.
14 Questions to Assess the Best Substrate
To identify the best substrate for your bearded dragon, assess it against criteria that is important to you. Here are the criteria I use to assess a substrate against:
- Will it provide good environmental stimulation?
- Is it easy to clean and disinfect (these are different, more on that in the post on cleaning)?
- Can pathogens build up quickly?
- Can fluids seep down the bottom of the substrate and be invisible at the top layer?
- Is it economical – how often must it be replaced and what is the replacement cost?
- Can it be ingested and if so:
- Is it associated with Impaction? This does not mean the substrate cannot be used, but it should not be used in the manner known to be commonly associated with the demise of animals.
- Will consuming high levels result in excessive antinutrients or nutrients? For example, phytic acids in seeds used for substrates such as oats or unknown levels of minerals such as calcium sand.
- Will it stick to soft tissue such as exerted hemipenes which can brought back into the body when the hemipenes is retracted?
- Will it irritate eyes?
- Will it create a dusty environment becoming a breathing hazard?
- Will it dry the skin?
- Will live invertebrate be able to hide in it? (Some invertebrates, such as crickets, have been known to eat the predator causing serious injuries as they eat eyelids, mouth area, etc.
- Once moist, will it set hard on drying potentially preventing the animal from getting back out of a dug burrow? This is a problem with desert sand and clay based sands.
- Is there a danger of claws being caught and and toes ripped off? This is surprisingly common for reptile carpet.
- Will odors build up / be retained quickly? Reptile carpet is notorious for this.
Solid substrates are generally easier to clean and disinfect than loose substrates. Combine with confined loose substrates will provide a better range of enrichment.
Solid substrates and accessories will help keep sharp little claws in check without the need to clip them much of the time.
Tiles and Lino
Tiles are the best substrate. They can be cleaned and disinfected, eaten off and water surfed on (some bearded dragons like sliding in water, misting post). Other flooring, such as artificial turf, can be put over top and when you take out the turf for cleaning, there is still a suitable substrate left.
Sand dig boxes are ideal on top of tiles, as are rocks and branches.
Gaps between tiles and the housing or lino and the housing can be sealed off with silicone to prevent water seeping underneath and insects from taking refuge.
Lino is much the same as tiles however it should not go near any lamps emitting heat.
One of the issues with tiles is that they do not provide grip for claws. However this is easily counteracted by the other flooring or accessories that go on top of it.
Can I Use Living Grass?
Trays of grass can be used in the bearded dragons enclosure. Clover and dandelions are easily added to the mix. With grass, dandelions and clover it will likely become a snacking tray.
This is somewhere in that middle land between substrate and accessory. Since it will cover part of the floor I have included it here.
The sand in the trays should be free of chemicals and fertilisers. It goes without saying that the soil should be free of mites, fleas and any other pests that could cause harm to your bearded dragon. Slaters (aka Pill bugs or rolly pollys) are not pests and your bearded dragon will happily snack on them. More on that in the diet and food post.
Keeping multiple trays going at any time. This will allow for rotating them out when they start to look tired. Frequent rotation and resting of the trays is important to prevent the build up of pathogens.
Each tray will last a few days to a week depending on size of tray, maturity of the grass, frequency of usage by the bearded dragon and other specific conditions only applicable to your setup.
Can I use Artificial Grass?
Artificial grass can be used for bearded dragon housing. Combined with tiles it can give variation to the housing floor.
It is easier to clean than reptile carpet but still best cleaned by taking it outside, hosing it down and then disinfecting.
As it is not attached to the housing floor, fluids and insects can get underneath.
Artificial grass can get very hot if too close to heating.
Replace it if it becomes brittle over time or strands become loose. Purchase artificial turf with a solid backing. Loose strands can trap toes and legs or become a choking hazard.
Like reptile carpet it is easier to have more than one piece on hand to easily switch out at cleaning time. It will smell if not kept clean.
Is Reptile Carpet good?
Reptile carpet is not the best option for bearded dragon housing. Common complaints with reptile carpet is the smell that quickly builds up.
Claws can and do get stuck in the carpet and result in them being pulled off.
Keep at least one backup carpet to make removal for cleaning easy. Spot clean the reptile carpet whenever soiled and wash it at least once a week.
To clean, hose down outside and then wash in a disinfectant solution. Do not use your washing machine, that presents risks of zoonotic disease.
Paper, Paper Towels and Newspaper
Newspaper and butchers paper can be used as flooring. The benefits really only extend to humans in reducing some of the cleaning required as paper can be picked up and replaced.
It does not provide any grip for claws, however in combination with other substrates and accessories it will not be such a big issue. If invertebrates are fed in the enclosure then they have ample places to hide. In addition, there is nothing even remotely attractive about it for human, and probably bearded dragon alike.
Paper does not provide any natural environmental elements but is useful during quarantining if health issues arise when substrates need to be disinfected or renewed at least daily.
Some loose substrates for bearded dragons are worth adding for enrichment, but best confined. Loose substrates should not be spread across the entire housing floor surface due to the risks they present, including:
- Drying of the environment or trapping excessive moisture such as fluid spills.
- Easily deliberately and accidentally consumed. Eating substrates is dangerous and can lead to health issues, especially impaction.
- It cannot be cleaned, or where it can, it involves significant effort compared to solid substrates.
- It will harbour a plethora of pathogens, particularly walnut sands and other similar substrates.
- If live invertebrate are fed in the enclosure then there will be far too many opportunities to hide. Some insects when left with reptiles, such as crickets, have been known to start eating the reptile. Soft and moist spots such as eye lids are attractive.
- Dust levels can be elevated with finer substrates which is a hazard to breath in.
- Loose substrates can get into sensitive areas such as eyes, hemipenes or wounds.
For female bearded dragons, providing a dig box could prevent dystocia which is not only painful but can quickly become disastrous. More on that in the post breeding and egg laying section Can bearded dragons get egg bound with Donald Buchanan DVM.
As with everything in the bearded dragon’s house, cleaning must occur even with loose substrates. Cleaning includes not just removal of debri, but also disinfecting or replacement of the substrate. Depending on the substrate, this may come at additional cost.
There are no substrates (no matter what manufacturer claims) that are safe to eat. Even if the substance itself was ok, the hygiene issues it presents are huge. Small amounts of substrate accidently eaten are unlikely to cause harm and should pass through (Baines, 2017).
If your bearded dragon is eating substrate then it is a good time to review:
- Is the substrate confined?
- Is it experiencing stress? Signs such as glass surfing, banging head, defensive signals, and so on. This is particularly so where glass or clear housing is used and the animal has little escape from perceived danger.
- Is it getting adequate vitamin D3?
- Does it have the right environmental temperature and lighting?
Even with the best of care, there may be time that a bearded dragon eats loose substrate. Baines (2017) suggest this may be a means to obtain calcium and could be associated with calcium deficiency which is common (complete guide to calcium post link here). This could also be a reason why some pet owners are reporting their bearded dragon is eating rocks. The bearded dragon is giving clues that it needs more calcium in its diet. Unfortunately, a calcium deficient bearded dragon is also much more susceptible to impaction since its muscles and body are not functioning well.
What Kind of Sand Do You Use For a Bearded Dragon?
Children’s play sand is very commonly used with few issues (Frances Baines (MRCVS), 2017). The best kind of sand for a bearded dragon may be childrens play sand.
There are many types of sands including beach, river, desert, play and calcium sand. Sand absorbs spills quickly and provides opportunities for the digging activities adding to environmental enrichment.
Eating sand (which can be deliberately and accidentally) can cause impaction. Although bearded dragons are exposed to a lot of sand in their natural, they are not confined to a few feet of space take many opportunities to be off it. Research on natural environments for a number of the bearded dragon species is at the end of this post.
Sand, like all loose substrates, is not good spread over the entire floor of a small enclosure but it makes a great addition to housing in a dig box where it can be confined.
Ensure your bearded dragon does not have to eat off the sand.
To prevent respiratory issues, it is best not to use sand that will produce fine dust particles.
Desert sand is very fine and if it gets wet it will dry into a solid shape. When slightly moist, it will stay in place more when being dug in. Play sand has rounded grains and a lower abrasion texture than other sands. When slightly moist it will hold some of the shape dug in, but doesnt shape up quite the same way as desert sand. Builders sands are abrasive, sharp and best avoided.
In Australia, when I see a packet of sand titled “Central Australian Desert Sand”, I don’t expect to see on the same packet “manufactured in China”, but there it is printed on the packet of one popular brand.
Is it okay to use calcium sand for a bearded dragon? Calcium sand is not okay for bearded dragons. Calcium sand is not safe for bearded dragons.
With manufacturers claiming that one of the reasons calci or calcium sand is safe is because it contains 100% digestible calcium carbonate just sets off alarm bells for so many experienced keepers. Reading on through the benefits of the calcium sand we see it contains strontium, potassium and magnesium…Let’s not confuse this as a dietary supplement; it’s a substrate not a food.
Calcium sand is not suitable to be ingested and does not aid in digestion. If calcium sand were used as a dietary supplement source, then you will never know how much it is consuming and when to add more to the diet without going to toxic levels. Since a substrate is not suitable to add to the diet supplementation, it is irrelevant.
Calcium carbonate is a calcium supplement used in diets, it is not intended to be applied to the skin. It is drying to the skin and has been accused of causing changes in the colour of skin, eye irritation and impaction amongst various other things.
Apart from a food additive and dietary calcium source, calcium carbonate is also used as a whitening agent and antacids (made to neutralize acid required for digestion in normal circumstances). Under normal circumstances stomach acid should not be neutralised.
Is calcium sand for bearded dragons safe?
- Prolonged contact with concentrated solutions has a drying effect on the skin and likely cause your bearded dragon shedding issues.
- Dyed sand will change the color of bearded dragons skin.
- If too much is ingested then the risk of impaction is significantly increased.
- Too much calcium causes constipation.
- Risk of overdosing on minerals, particularly calcium if it were ingested with any frequency or volume. No substrate should be used to add calcium or any other nutrients to a diet. Since the quantity ingested cannot be known or controlled, calcium sand should not be used.
Hay and a sandbox…Perfect
Use hay for a substrate in a bearded dragons house? Not really great as a substrate on its own, but ideal for corners to tuck away in to provide a bit of privacy. Hay makes for a fabulous cover on dig boxes for brumation.
Walnut sand and Corn Cob
Both Walnut sand and Corn Cob Litter are dangerous. Both are:
- Present ideal conditions for pathogens, particularly bacteria and fungus which will thrive in it.
- Associated with impaction.
- Sharp and abrasive.
Walnut sand is not a good substrate for bearded dragons and corn cob litter is also a hazard.
Gravel is not a natural substrate on its own, but more combined with sands where it is part of the environment. Fluids will get lost below the gravel surface where pathogens and parasites can breed protected. It is certainly a hazard for being swallowed and some bearded dragons will eat rocks and gravel for reasons yet to be identified. Gravel is not a replacement for other digging substrates, certainly not for laying eggs in.
Gravel can be useful where it is intended for fluids to drain through the gravel and be trapped for collection, such as in a mini waterfall. In this instance the gravel and liquids will be confined.
Leaves and Leaf Litter
Leaf litter can provide for great hiding spots which is likely to be attractive to many bearded dragons, assuming the leaves that are either beneficial for the bearded dragon or at least non toxic.
Issue with leaves includes hiding spots for invertebrate making it almost impossible to catch them. In addition cleaning will be problematic. Although the entire substrate can be replaced daily even if there is a ready source. Regardless it is something best confined rather than used over the entire enclosure.
Potting Soil as a Substrate
Potting soil is not a good substrate. Pottings soils have elevated levels of microorganisms.
However, potting soil can be used in plants in the enclosure. Ensure they are free from chemicals including fertilisers.
Sphagnum moss, Vermiculite and Perlite
Sphagnum moss, vermiculite or perlite are not suitable as substrates, however all can be used in plants within the bearded dragons house and all can be used in lay boxes ready for egg laying.
Bark, Wood Chip and Wood Shavings
Bark, wood chip and wood shavings are not good substrates. All the wood based substrates will trap fluids at the bottom of the substrate layer, many woods in this fine form can cause irritations, eaten they are dangerous and fumes can be an issue with many in heated environments. They all provide places for invertebrates to quickly hide and along with moisture will build a great concentration of pathogens.
Alfalfa pellets can be used and shouldn’t be much of a problem if consumed. However, it is highly unsanitary to eat what is defecated on and moisture in the alfalfa pellets will cause mold. There are far better substrates, as already covered, than alfalfa pellets.
Bioactive substrates may help prevent infections through growing bacteria and fungi that are compete with pathogens (Rossi, 2006). Bioactive substrates need oxygen to effectively convert waste which can be achieved through aerating. Pieces of shredded bark, coconut fibre and sphagnum moss mixed in the substrate are all useful additions to provide surfaces for the beneficial bacteria, keep air in the substrate and prevent it from becoming compact.
Bioactive substrates need to be at least 2-3 inches deep (Wilkinson 2016), more is better. They must be kept moist without being wet and must be warm.
To maintain the bioactive substrate, remove the bulk of waste (stools and food) and turn over the area where the waste touched the substrate.
What Substrates do Bearded Dragons Live on in the Wild?
There is no single substrate for bearded dragons in the wild. Bearded dragons have a wide range of habitats. The image below shows the wide ranging distribution of the Pogona minor minor, Pogona barbata and Pogona vitticeps covering many different landscapes. The Pogona vitticeps, which is the most popular of bearded dragons in captivity outside of Australia, is spread among varying landscapes. However, it has a huge representation in arid and semi arid areas.
Pianka (2005) studied the Pogona minor in Australia’s Great Victoria Desert (in Western Australia).
The description of the environment included being mainly red sands with some vegetation such as spinifex (Triodia), gum trees (including Eucalyptus gongylocarpa), Eremophila, Grevillea, Hakea and Thryptomene along with the red sands. Wetter areas also had mulga trees (Acacia aneura) and Lindley’s saltbush (Atriplex lindleyi).
Thompson and Thompson (2003) studied the Pogona minor near Ora Banda in Western Australia. They observed the Pogona minor often travelling over 100 meters a day in distance. They travel extensively across land stopping forage or bask in bushes such as saltbush (Atriplex spp) and bluebush (Maireana spp).
The Pogona minor are semi arboreal like other Pogona species. They have been noted to seek shelter in the heat of the day at a meter or more off the ground (Pianka 2005).
The Pogona barbata is one of the bearded dragons that lives in multiple states of Australia over a range of different environments.
Wotherspoon (2007) studied the Pogona barbata in the woodlands of the Cumberland Plain near Sydney, New South Wales. The bearded dragons in the Cumberland Plain lived among many gums (including Eucalyptus moluccana, Eucalyptus fibrosa and Eucalyptus sclerophylla) with bushes and ground cover. The Pogona barbata spends a lot of time up in the trees basking and staying safe.
On research on vertebrate species in the northern wheatbelt of New South Wales, both the Pogona vitticeps and the Pogona barbata have been classified as woodland generalists with some reliance on the presence of trees for their habitat (Ellis, 2005).
For research conducted by Smith et al (2106) a number of Pogona vitticeps were temporarily taken from the wild that lived north of Walpeup in Victoria, Australia. Much of the land is cleared for farming but some natural bush remains which Smith et al (2016) reported as semi-arid mallee woodland with a lot of silver emu bush aka Broom Bush or Scotia Bush (Eremophila scoparia) and blue-leaved mallee (Eucalyptus polybractea) trees.
Turner and Valentic (date unknown) observed 14 wild Pogona henrylawsoni (Black Soil Bearded Dragons) in October 1996 near Winton, Queensland.
October in Australia is late spring and in the middle of Queensland where these sightings were made, it is subtropical and hot. Six were sighted between 16:56 and 17:51 hours were all basking in full sun (37.0°C with a relative humidity of 31%) on a rock or on bitumen road. An additional one was found dead on the road.
Between 09:42 and 10:39 hours, temperatures ranging from 29.0°C to 35.0°C, 5 were found basking on rocks. Between 11:34 and 12:28 hours, temperatures ranging from 36.8°C to 38.9°C, 2 were found propped up or perched on shrubs.
Turner and Valentic (date unknown) describe the habitat as without trees, some shrubs and lots of grasses such as Mitchell Grass. Pogona vitticeps is also known to frequent the area.
While the bearded dragon is typically tagged as a desert reptile, it is clear that it is far more wide spread into many different habitats.
The best substrate for bearded dragons is not a single substrate. Replicating the wild natural habitat of a bearded dragon in its house is more than just what substrate has been provided, it is also about providing for its natural semi arboreal behaviour taking it off the substrate. More on that in the post on accessories and enrichment.
References and Further Reading
- Frances Baines (MRCVS). 2017. Your First Bearded Dragon Care Information.
- Ellis, M. 2005. A Classification of the Native Vertebrate Species of the Northern Wheatbelt of New South Wales. National Parks and Wildlife Services. Department of Environment and Conservation. New South Wales.
- Pianka, Eric, R. 2005. The ecology and natural history of the dwarf bearded dragon Pogona minor in the Great Victoria Desert Australia Draco, 6(N): 63-66 Nr 22.
- Rossi, J. V. 2006. General husbandry and management. In: Mader DR, editor. Reptile medicine and surgery. St Louis: Saunders. p. 25–41.
- Smith, K. R., Cadena, V., Endler, J. A., Porter, W. P., Kearney, M. R., and Stuart-Fox, D. 2016. Colour change on different body regions provides thermal and signalling advantages in bearded dragon lizards. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Volume 283, Issue 1832. 15 June 2016 https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2016.0626
- Thompson S. A., and Thompson G. G. 2003. The western bearded dragon, Pogona minor (Squamata: Agamidae): An early lizard coloniser of rehabilitated areas. Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia, 86:1-6
- Turner, G. and Valentic, R. (date unknown) Notes on the occurrence and habits of the Downs Bearded Dragon Pogona henrylawsoni (Wells & Wellington, 1985). Accessed Aug 2019 http://www.gondwanareptileproductions.com/pogonaarticle.html
- Wilkinson, S. L. Reptile Wellness Management. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice Vol 18, Issue 2, May 2015, Pages 281-304
- Wotherspoon, D. (2007) Ecology and Management of Eastern Bearded Dragon Pogona barbata. Western Sydney University Thesis Collection