What is the best substrate for bearded dragons is probably the most common question of all. In short, best substrate for bearded dragons is not a single substrate, but a combination of substrates and accessories.
In this post we look at how to assess the best and worst substrates so that you can make well informed decisions, be clear on the benefits and risks of each.
What Substrate is Good for Bearded Dragons?
What substrate is good for bearded dragons will be influenced by the environment it is living in. In general, an example of a good substrate combination is:
- Hard flooring such as tiles with
- Sand 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 is the best substrate for bearded dragons but more what combination of substrates and accessories provide the best enrichment.
Have a look at the post on what do bearded dragons live on in the wild and you will see that they do not confine themselves to any one element of their environment. Wild bearded dragons make use of all their habitat including sand, rocks, fallen branches, trees, grasses and even man made objects like fence posts and the roads.
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 pet and the floor substrate becomes slightly less of an issue.
We want to replicate for our pet bearded dragons house to that of its natural environment to provide them a fuller and more natural life. The best substrate for bearded dragons should encourage natural behaviours and that includes providing them the means to get off the floor substrate and onto other branches and rocks as well. Encouraging natural behaviours requires natural elements. Natural behaviours reduces the risks stress and disease.
Always keep in mind that once you have chosen a substrate you are not stuck. You can change your mind at any time and try something new.
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 many natural accessories that provide the reptiles a range of options as to what surface type it chooses to be on at any moment.
Practical Guide to Assessing the Best Substrate for Bearded Dragons
11 Questions to Assess the Best Substrate
To identify the best substrate for your bearded dragon, here are 12 essential questions to assess the substrate with.
Keep in mind that answering yes to any particular question does not make the substrate better than another and nor does it totally preclude it from usage. For example, walnut sand gets some ticks but it is never going to be a good substrate choice due to the severity of other hazards it presents.
- Will the substrate provide good environmental stimulation? Encouraging natural behaviours, it important in keeping stress levels down and supporting good health. Stress lowers immune system effectiveness. Some of the natural behaviours that substrates can stimulate include digging or laying on the surface to absorb heat or soak in water when wet. Note that gravel and pebbles are not suitable as digging substates despite being classed as loose substrates.
- Is it easy to keep clean and disinfect? Cleaning being able to wipe stuff off it and disinfect being able to kill some level of pathogens. More on that in the post on best ways to get a super clean bearded dragon house.
- Can pathogens build up quickly? Does the substrate promote growing or harboring nasty pathogens? Some substrates are better than others at promoting the growth of pathogens such as walnut sand. Harbouring pathogens means giving them a safe place to grow undisturbed. Parasites are another consideration. Mites can hide in the smallest of spots. Substrates such as pebbles can let fluids pass down to the floor of the housing without being noticed. Even tiles can hide pathogens if joins are not sealed to prevent seeping of fluids and organic matter.
- Will odours build up / be retained quickly? No one wants a smelly bearded dragon house, reptile carpet is notorious for this.
- Has it been associated with Impaction? Many loose substrates are associated with impaction. This does not mean the substrate cannot be used at all but must be restricted to a dig box.
- If the substrate is eaten, even accidentally, could it result in excessive consumption of antinutrients or nutrients? For example, if rolled oats were used as a substrate its level of phytic acids could be dangerous. Also consuming calcium sand can result in unknown levels of calcium.
- Will it stick to soft tissue such as exerted hemipenes? When the hemipenes is brought back into the males body loose substrate can come with it.
- Can the substrate cause irritation? Irritation might occur if it got in your bearded dragons eyes such as calci sand. Or the substrate may have a lot of small particles that will create a dusty environment and breathing hazard.
- Can the substrate dry the skin? Some substrates, such as calci sand, can dry the skin out which may cause issues with hydration and shedding.
- Can the substrate hide live feeder insects? Will live food like mealworms, cockroaches or crickets be able to hide in it? Some insects, such as crickets, have been known to cause serious injuries as they the reptiles eat eyelids, mouth area, etc. Even paper can hide feeder insects but they are easier to find in paper than gravel.
- Is there any danger of traps? One of the vets who frequented Bearded Dragons World mentioned that he saw a few cases of toenails missing because they were caught in reptile carpet and ripped off. Artificial grass can also become a trap or may even cause choking if threads come loose from the edges and can be swallowed or wrapped around toes. This is easily fixed by heating up the edge to seal it.
Substrates in Review – Best and the Worst
- Tiles and Lino
- Can I Use Living Grass?
- Can I use Artificial Grass?
- Is Reptile Carpet good?
- Paper, Paper Towels and Newspaper
- What Kind of Sand Do You Use For a Bearded Dragon?
- Hay and a sandbox…Perfect
- Walnut sand and Corn Cob
- Leaves and Leaf Litter
- Potting Soil as a Substrate
- Sphagnum moss, Vermiculite and Perlite
- Bark, Wood Chip and Wood Shavings
- Alfalfa pellets
- Bioactive substrates
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.
Another consideration on the best substrate for bearded dragons is the biological stage it is in. 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.
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 (Baines, 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.
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.
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.
References and Further Reading
- Baines, F. (MRCVS) (2017) Your First Bearded Dragon Care Information.
- Rossi, J. V. (2006) General husbandry and management. In: Mader DR, editor. Reptile medicine and surgery. St Louis: Saunders. p. 25–41.
- Turner, G. and Valentic, R. (n.d.) 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. (May, 2015) Reptile Wellness Management. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice. Vol 18 (2): 281-304