There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to this question and there are a number of factors to include in the decision. In an appropriately sized enclosure, the kind of flooring recommended for bearded dragons is hard flooring such as tiles with accessories which include a dig box for add stimulation. Add to that the right accessories, like a sand box, and both their needs and yours can be met.

What Substrates do Bearded Dragons Live on in the Wild?

There seems to be a widespread belief that bearded dragons are strictly creatures of the desert. That is mostly true for many of the Pogona vitticeps, which makes up the majority of pet bearded dragons internationally. However even the Pogona vitticeps is distributed across a lot of varying landscapes and temperature zones.

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, has a huge representation in arid areas.

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

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 to dig in.

Substrate Examples to Follow

Important factors to consider in choosing the substrate include the environment that they naturally range on, such as loose sand, leaf litter and fallen branches and rocks. In addition, their natural behaviours should be provided for in their housing setup.

This means offering branches and other furnishings that encourage them off the substrate. 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. Focus on providing an environment that suits a semi arboreal creature and the floor substrate becomes slightly less of an issue.

substrates for bearded dragons can include leaf litter
Leaf litter can be added to the housing floor.

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 accidentally 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. 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.

sand box and branches for bearded dragon
Sand box and branches for Otto the bearded dragon. Courtesy of Justin Peter.

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. Depending on the substrate this may come at additional cost.

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

One scientific study, indicated that bearded dragons are quite discreet 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

Better question than what is the best substrate is what is the best combination of substrates and accessories that encourages natural behaviours. 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.

What substrate is best for bearded dragons
Loose substrates easily mix with food and can be very dangerous for bearded dragons when consumed. No loose substrate is suitable for consumption regardless of manufacturers claims.

Some bearded dragons will eat loose substrates accidentally or deliberately from wood to sand. All loose substrates that can fit in their mouth can be eaten. Eating substrates is dangerous and can lead to impaction.

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.)

Is Reptile Carpet good?

Reptile carpet is a reasonable option for bearded dragon housing.

Reptile carpets can smell. Spot clean the reptile carpet whenever soiled and wash it at least once a week.

If reptile carpet is the choice then it is best to have more than one on hand to switch out during cleaning time. This way you will not need to wait on the carpet to dry and it can be aired out well. To clean, hose down outside and then wash in a disinfectant solution. While it can go in the washing machine, that presents hygiene issues for humans.

Claws can get stuck in the carpet and result in it being pulled off.

reptile carpet for bearded dragon housing
Reptile carpet may be a suitable substrate.

Can I use Artificial turf?

Artificial turf can be used for bearded dragon housing. The pieces do not need to be the entire length of the housing floor. Replace it if it becomes brittle over time or strands become loose.

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.

To clean, hose it down outside and then soak in a disinfectant solution.

artificial grass for bearded dragon housing
Artificial grass can be used in bearded dragon housing.

What Kind of Sand Do You Use For a Bearded Dragon?

There are many types of sands including beach, river, desert, play and calcium sand.
Sand absorbs spills quickly and it provides for the digging activities of the bearded dragon and adds to environmental enrichment.

Eating sand (which can be deliberately and accidentally) can cause impaction. Although it can be argued that bearded dragons live on sand naturally, they are not confined to a few feet of space in the wild and the sand can be covered in vegetation, leaves, wood and so forth.

Sand makes a great addition to housing in a dig box where it can be confined. The bearded dragon should not be in a situation where it must eat off the sand. To prevent respiratory issues, it is best not to use sand that will produce fine dust particles.

The kind of sand you use for a bearded dragon may be childrens play sand.

Is it okay to use calcium sand for a bearded dragon?

Calcium sand is not okay or safe for bearded dragons.

Calcium sand is claimed by manufacturers to be ingestible and digestible. It is made from calcium carbonate and has been accused of causing changes in the colour of skin, eye irritation and impaction amongst various other things.

The claims of the sand consisting of aragonite and being natural are not as good as they seem. Argonite is one of the forms of calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate is used as a whitening agent, additive to food, calcium source for animals, antacids (made to neutralize acid required for digestion in normal circumstances) and other uses. Overdose occurs when it is ingested above recommended levels (for humans).

Prolonged contact with concentrated solutions has a drying effect on the skin amongst other things. Drying of bearded dragons skin will at a minimum likely cause shedding issues.

If too much is ingested then the risk of impaction is significantly increase. In addition, to much calcium causes constipation. However the biggest concern on calcium sands is an overdose of calcium. 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.

bearded dragon body colour changing living on calci sand.
Bearded dragons skin is changing to the colour of the calci-sand.

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