“Substrate” is how many reptile keepers refer to their animal’s bedding. Opinions on appropriate bearded dragon substrate vary widely in the dragon keeper world. This is a list of options so you can pick one that fits your lifestyle, taste, and needs best.
Pros – Cheap, sterile, makes cleanup easy.
Cons – Unattractive, slippery, needs frequent changing, and in my opinion better suited to commercial operations than pets. Also, ink can transfer onto the beardie’s feet, belly and tail.
Pros – Cheap, sterile, very absorbent, makes cleanup easy, no ink.
Cons – Relatively unnattractive and needs frequent changing. Does not file down claws.
Pros – Waterproof, sterile, can be more attractive than the above options, grippy for dragon claws.
Cons – Unnatural appearance, absorbs odors, does not file down claws.
Pros — Basically shelf liner, but with cuter design options. Waterproof, easy to clean, and stays put better than shelf liner.
Cons — Unnatural appearance, less grippy, not stain-proof, does not file down claws.
Pros – Waterproof, sterile, can look more natural than the above options, infinitely reusable, easy to clean. Most people prefer not to grout the tiles to make removal and cleaning easier.
Cons – Will make your terrarium look like a kitchen floor, but some people like that. It can also be a little slippery, so dragon enclosure tiles need texture (ex: slate).
Sand: Yes or No?
Using sand for bearded dragon substrate is highly controversial. Personally, I do not recommend it. Even if I were to set aside the danger of impaction, it’s generally unhygienic. Sand also has a nasty habit of getting into a reptile’s eyes, causing injury and infection.
However if you’re set on using sand, monthly replacement and following the right safety precautions is critical for success.
- Dust – can be prevented by using high-quality sand. Play sand is the dustiest of them all.
- Dyes – are pretty easy to spot. If you see sand in an unnatural color (for example green, pink, yellow, or black), it’s likely to be dyed, and will dye your dragon in turn. If you’re not sure, do some research on the product.
- Odor — unavoidable. You can only keep the smell under control through monthly replacement.
- Sticks to medical ointments – unavoidable. If your dragon is wearing an ointment, the best thing you can do is remove the sand or lay another type of substrate on top until treatment is completed. Tile and flagstone do well as temporary, immovable substrates.
- Sterilization – is easy, but only necessary for harvested sand. Just pour it into a pan and stick it in your oven. Let it “cook” between 250 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour. Let it cool (this takes a few hours) before application.
- Impaction – is most often seen in baby and juvenile bearded dragons. Avoid this by using fine-grained natural sand, and only keeping a full-grown bearded dragon on it. The most important thing you can do, though, is make sure not to feed your dragon inside its terrarium.
Whatever you do, DO NOT use calcium sand, Vita-Sand, Reptilite, or whatever else they’re calling it these days. Though it is advertised as a substrate-based calcium supplement, it has a nasty habit of clumping up inside reptile intestines. The calcium carbonate also can neutralize stomach acid, preventing proper digestion. So even if it is digestible, it can still interfere with digestion. Bottom line: don’t listen if the pet store people say otherwise—JUST SAY NO.
If you’re set on sand, I recommend Jurassic Sands. It’s all-natural, superfine, super clean, and reportedly veterinarian-approved.
What About Bioactive Substrate?
Some people like to keep their bearded dragons on a combination of organic topsoil and natural sand as part of a bioactive terrarium. If you would like to try going bioactive, go for it! However, this substrate should only be used as part of a complete bioactive setup, otherwise it poses the same (and possibly greater) concerns of hygiene.
The Sand Alternative: Millet
Here’s a new trick for bearded dragon substrate options: hulled millet! You heard me right—bird seed. Some keepers use it as a bearded dragon substrate alternative to sand, including myself.
- prevents odors (unlike sand, which gets seriously smelly)
- cheap (I found it here for just $1.10/lb!)
- 100% digestible if ingested
Are you converted? Because I am! It’s so pearly and pretty, and I don’t have to worry if my dragons swallow some. Just make sure to get hulled millet, because beardies can’t digest it unless the hulls have been removed.
Bearded Dragon Substrates to AVOID
- Dirt (nonsterile)
- Play sand (dusty)
- Calci-sand (recipe for disaster, tends to be full of dyes)
- Repti-carpet (can tear off claws or even toes)
- Anything made from cedar or pine (toxic)
- Wood products in general (too humid)
- Ground nut shells (potentially toxic, nondigestible, leads to impaction)