The general consensus with leopard gecko substrate (bedding) is that solid is best—and for good reason: every year, many leopard geckos lose their lives to loose substrate-induced impaction. But like bearded dragons, the loose vs. solid debate is a hairy one, so the following is a list of safe options to fit your lifestyle, taste, and experience.
- Paper towels: Absorbent, easy to replace, and cheap. Must be replaced immediately if wet. Also looks nice.
- Linoleum/shelf liner: Cheap and easy to clean. Attractiveness varies.
- Tile: Easy to remove, easy to clean, holds heat very well. More attractive than linoleum or shelf liner.
- Reptile carpet: No risk of impaction and can be tossed in the washing machine for cleaning. However, loose fibers can snag claws and damage toes, and it can become a cesspool of bacteria without frequent cleaning. Using a sand mat can be a better alternative.
- Zoo Med Excavator Clay: Very attractive and naturalistic, but difficult to set up and difficult to clean. In theory this substrate can be shaped and dries rock hard, but in my experience it crumbles easily and is a general nuisance. If you are experienced with excavator clay and can achieve the advertised “rock hard” result, go ahead, but I don’t recommend it.
- Bioactive: Bioactive terrarium setups are designed to mimic a reptile’s natural environment and stimulate natural behaviors. If you are interested in creating a bioactive habitat for your leopard gecko, great! Join Reptile and Amphibian Bioactive Setups on Facebook to get started.
What about other substrates?
For safety’s sake, just say no. For example, Sani-Chips and Eco Earth are sometimes touted as digestible substrates. However, Sani-Chips are made of aspen wood, and Eco Earth is made from ground-up coconut shell. Both materials are primarily cellulose, a type of fiber that is 100% indigestible to all animals, except for those that are built specifically for it (ex: termites, cows, sheep, horses, etc.). Leopard geckos, being insectivores, are not built to digest cellulose. The result is that the substrate is not digested, and can lead to issues like impaction, prolapse, and even death.
What about sand?
Sand is very controversial as a leopard gecko substrate. Many keepers argue that sand can kill a leo within 6 months of making the switch; some others argue that they’ve never experienced negative effects. There is well-documented evidence that sand (especially calcium/vita sand) can cause fatal impaction in leopard geckos. Even if it’s claimed to be “digestible,” calcium carbonate-based substrates can neutralize stomach acid, causing other digestive issues. Sand also has a nasty habit of getting in reptiles’ eyes, causing injury and infection.
So after extensive research and thought on the matter, I’ve decided that sand is more trouble than it’s worth, and should not be attempted. Sand is unsafe for leopard geckos in ALL of its forms — play sand, calcium/vitamin sand, crushed walnut, etc. And it’s not like they’ll miss it; leopard geckos’ natural habitat is mostly rock, with very little loose sand.