What is the Right Substrate?
What Is the Right Substrate/Bedding for My Reptile?Substrates are one of the subjects which probably cause most controversy and arguments amongst reptile keepers. Part of the problem is that in reality, there isn't always one right or wrong substrate, it all depends on the animal, the housing and many other factors including the keeper's preference.
It is very difficult to exactly replicate some animals living conditions in the wild, so decisions regarding setups, including which substrate to use are often based on how we want to keep our pets in order to meet their requirements.
A good starting point is always to look at the animal, its behaviour and its natural habitat in the wild. Important aspects to consider, are whether the animal comes from a forest habitat or an arid habitat, whether it burrows or climbs, and where and how it feeds.
By looking at an animal's natural environment, you will automatically start to see which substrates may be suitable. For example, a jungle animal would do fine on a humid soil-based substrate such as coir but wouldn’t enjoy dry sand or wood chips.
Silica/Desert SandsSand is probably the substrate that gets the most bad press as if it is eaten in large quantities, it can cause potentially fatal gut impaction. It is a fact, however, that many arid species of reptiles such as bearded dragons live on substrates which are at least partly sandy, and many keepers have used sand for years with no problems.
It is well known that if eaten in large quantities, sand can and will cause impaction, but taking a couple of precautions can prevent this.
Firstly, we do not recommend keeping young lizards on sand. This applies particularly to bearded dragons and leopard geckos. The reasoning for this is that the smaller the lizard the smaller the gut, so smaller quantities of sand which would pass through an adult may cause impaction in smaller lizards. Adult lizards also eat larger prey items and are more adept at catching them and therefore probably ingest less sand than babies.
Secondly, impaction is often caused when lizards voluntarily eat the substrate to try and obtain vitamins or minerals from it. Correct husbandry and supplementation can eradicate this problem.
If you want to use sand, then it is suitable for most desert and arid reptile species and can also be used in aquatic setups for frogs, newts and turtles. When using sand in an aquatic environment, it is always best to wash it first to remove dust.
When used in the vivarium, it readily clumps around waste which makes cleaning easy, and it warms up well and is great for digging. Silica based sands do not dissolve and can therefore be used for creating damp areas if required. It is not useful for tunnelling species, as it will not hold together when dry.
There are many sand types on the market, but those which are desert or river sands are silica based and most suitable for the purposes described. It is inadvisable to use builders sand, as it is often rougher and may contain dirt and impurities.
Calcium SandsWhen calcium sands first hit the market, they were hailed as the way to use sand whilst preventing impaction. Unfortunately, in reality, this proved to not be the case.
In theory, calcium sand is less likely to cause impaction because being calcium carbonate based (it's often made from crushed limestone) it dissolves in acid and therefore should dissolve in your reptile's stomach. In practice this only happens to a small degree and can neutralise your reptiles stomach acid and stop dissolving. Some people also believe that the partially dissolved sand can then clump and cause impaction, although this is mostly anecdotal.
With correct supplementation of your reptiles then, calcium sand can be used in any situation where you would use silica sand, although it is not as suitable for aquatic environments as it may dissolve and affect the water quality. Its advantage is that it is usually less dusty than natural sands.
Wood Fibre SubstratesThese are probably the most popular substrates when it comes to keeping small and medium sized snakes. Wood fibre substrate such as Aspen Bedding or Lignocel are produced from softwoods like Aspen which is either shredded into long fibres or chopped into small pieces. It is dry and clean and much softer than other wood chips, allowing animals to burrow into It easily and also create tunnels.
It is naturally very absorbent and clumps together really well which makes spot cleaning really easy. It works best for snakes as mentioned and is ideal when you want a hygienic enclosure which is easy to clean and maintain. Its disadvantage is that it can't be used to create naturalistic looking setups.