Choosing the Best Substrate for your Bearded Dragon

The choices for substrates or flooring for Bearded dragon is not as complicated as it may seem. The environment should replicate the natural environment as much as possible and what is natural depends on the species and its range.

What is natural?

It is a widespread belief that the Bearded Dragon is a desert creature, this is not entirely true. The ‘desert’ often conjures images of land covered in sand dunes and stripped of all vegetation. Bearded dragons are spread across many parts of Australia covering different terrain and climate.

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 certainly outside of Australia, has a huge representation in desert areas.

Pogona barbata, Pogona vitticeps, Pogona minor minor distribution in Australia
Pogona barbata, Pogona vitticeps, Pogona minor minor distribution in Australia. (1)

Important factors to consider in choosing the substrate include the environment that the naturally range on such as loose sand, leaf litter and fallen branches and rocks. In addition, bearded dragons can range hundreds of meters in a day some days, very little on other days so they are experiencing a range of environmental elements. Plus they are semi-arboreal? They do not spend all their time on the ground surface and some studies have shown long periods of time can be spent up trees and in bushes, basking, sleeping, watching or hiding from danger.

Place focus on providing an environment that suits a semi arboreal creature and the floor substrate becomes slightly less of an issue.

What is natural can vary by species

Internationally the two most common species of bearded dragons kept are Pogona vitticeps followed by P. barbata. In Australia, the species that naturally live in the state or territory can be kept. Knowing which species you are keeping helps to identify any specific natural behaviours and habitat.

Example of natural habitat for Pogona minor minor
Example of natural habitat for Pogona minor minor in Perth, Western Australia

Just one of the many example of the outback (desert) in Australia where you may find some bearded dragons such as the Pogona vitticeps.

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.

Substrate examples to follow

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. This means they can easily add natural elements into the environment providing the occupant a range of options as to what surface type it chooses to be on at any moment.

Size and setup of bearded dragon house
Size and setup of bearded dragon house

Isolating substrates in the environment

Extracting one element from a bearded dragons natural habitat and providing only that in a small captive environment is not likely to provide much joy for the animal and can well lead to health issues. For example, deciding sand is the best substrate and covering a small terrarium with that is likely to lead to a lot of sand being consumed accidently and potentially even deliberately as it stresses in an inadequate environment.

It really isn’t that hard to make a good choice on the best substrate once you understand the needs of the animal and the potential hazards those choices can cause in captivity in the environment you are providing. Also keep in mind that you can switch up your choices at any stage, so any decision you make now can be easily changed tomorrow.

Keeping substrates clean

Cleaning routines in small environments are more critical than larger ones since the animal is confined to be exposed to a greater concentration of pathogens. Substrate choices need to consider how regularly it can be cleaned or replaced with cleaning being at least daily.

Cleaning needs to include not just removal of debri but also disinfecting and easy removal of parasites or replacement of the entire substrate which will likely come at an additional cost.

Dust is also a factor for breathing it in or getting into sensitive areas such as eyes or wounds.

One scientific study, that I will find at a later date for you, indicated that bearded dragons are quite discrete about their stools. The researches found it difficult to locate stools despite tracking the bearded dragons for some time. This behaviour could be related to making it harder for predators to find them but whatever the reason, they don’t appear to interact with their own stools once passed in the wild. Vast contrast to captivity where they may end up moving through it and having to live and eat near it.

Assessing what substrate is best for bearded dragons

The best substrates are based on making an assessment of the range available (see the table below) and providing more than one option at any given time in the environment. For example, you could provide a sand box 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.

What substrate is best for bearded dragons
What substrate is best for bearded dragons comes down to an easy and logical assessment.

Just as a side note, there are no substrates (no matter what manufacturer claims) that are safe to eat. Even if it isn’t for the substrate itself being a hazard, certainly from the perspective of eating a high concentration of pathogens there is still an issue.

Substrate Easy to Disinfect Replacement During Life Can be Ingested Can be Fed on Potential for other Harm
Seeds (i.e. Millet or oats) No Frequently Yes No 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 11, 14
Sand – Vita or Calci No Frequently Yes No 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 13, 14
Sand – Children s Play Sand No Frequently Yes No 1, 2, 4,  5, 7, 14
Sand – Clay or molding sand No Frequently Yes No 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 14
Paper Products No Frequently Yes but little risk if not torn Yes 8, 12, 14
Walnut No Frequently Yes No 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 11, 14
Bark No Frequently Yes No 1, 2, 11, 14
Reptile Carpet Yes but remove for cleaning Yes No Yes  8, 9, 10
Lino Yes Potential but long term substrate No Yes 8
Tiles Yes No No Yes 8

Legend:

  1. Potential to stick to soft tissue such as exerted hemiphenes and be retracted into the body.
  2. Adheres to wounds, likely to increase animal discomfort and difficulty in cleaning wounds.
  3. Potential to become stuck in burrows that have dried out and become solid.
  4. Dust may be inhaled and cause irritation.
  5. Cause irritation to eyes.
  6. Danger of consuming high levels of phytic acids.
  7. Danger of consuming substrate resulting in impaction.
  8. Potential for injury if falling onto surface (i.e. surface is hard or does not provide sufficient padding from a hard surface below the substrate. Note that correct placement of accessories reduces issues).
  9. Danger of claws being caught and ripped off.
  10. Odors collect, difficult to eradicate.
  11. Grow excessive levels of bacteria.
  12. Poor environmental stimulation.
  13. Dries skin, excessive & uncontrolled quantities of minerals if ingested.
  14. Can hide live food that may cause injury when not monitored. (i.e. crickets have been known to eat the predator causing serious injuries around the eyes, mouth, etc.)

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