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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 Sands

Sand 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 Sands

When 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 Substrates

These 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.

Beech Chips

Beech chips are a popular substrate for reptiles which need a dry environment. They are produced from beech wood which is chipped and then kiln dried to remove moisture and heat treat the product removing fungi, bugs and other potential problems. It is often used for large snakes and lizards, although many people use it successfully for smaller species such as tortoises and bearded dragons. Care should be taken to ensure smaller species do not eat the product as this can cause big problems with obstruction of the gut and potential lacerations from sharp corners. It is only suitable for dry enclosures as any increased level of humidity can cause it to quickly mould.

Bark Substrates

There is a huge variety of bark substrates available and most of them come from stripping the bark of trees such as pine or cypress. It is chipped or shredded and partially cleaned to produce the finished product. Bark Substrates are usually use in humid vivariums for jungle or forest animals either on their own or mixed with coco fibre to produce a more natural looking substrate. They are not brilliant at holding water, but if kept damp, will increase the ambient humidity to a degree. If they become too wet for long periods, then they can rot and begin to smell. They can be used in dry vivariums, but have a tendency to become quite dusty if used in this way.

Coco Fibre

Coco fibre or coir is the fibrous husk removed from a coconut before it is processed. It is great for humid vivariums as it is cheap, holds a lot of water to increase humidity, and is very resistant to rotting down. It is usually found as a relatively fine powder and is sold either loose, or more commonly compressed into blocks for rehydration. It can be used dry for animals which prefer a dry forest type environment but is more commonly used in humid setups either alone or mixed with some sort of bark. As a by-product of the coconut industry it is reasonably priced and environmentally friendly. It's great for burrowing reptiles, and also makes a great medium for plants and is used extensively in the horticultural industry. It is also an awesome substrate for spiders and other invertebrates.
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