What Substrate Should I Use in My Bearded Dragon Enclosure?

Bearded dragon substrate decisions
There is a wide variety of bearded dragon substrates and much debate within the bearded dragon community regarding which substrate is best. The choice frequently comes down to personal preference, cost, the personality of your bearded dragon, and other special considerations, such as your beardie's age and whether or not your dragon is dealing with a new or ongoing illness or a parasitic infection.

Bearded dragon substrates can be grouped into particulate or loose substrates and non-particulate substrates. Examples of particulate substrates include specialized sand-based substrates, clay burrowing substrates, sand/topsoil blends, coconut and walnut substrates, and many bioactive substrates. Examples of non-particular substrates include paper towels, newspapers, non-adhesive shelf liner, non-adhesive ceramic or slate tile, reptile carpet, and fake grass.

Non-particulate substrates are typically recommended for beginner bearded dragon owners to reduce the risk of impaction--a dangerous condition in which a beardie's digestive tract becomes blocked by bits of the ingested substrate. Non-adhesive shelf liners and non-adhesive ceramic or slate tiles are the easiest to clean and maintain and eliminate the risk of impaction from swallowing loose particles found in other substrates. They are also aesthetically pleasing and fit into many decor styles.
 
Some quality sand-based blends and clay-based blends formulated by several reputable reptile companies tend to appeal to owners who prefer a more "natural" substrate for their beardie. Some bearded dragons also like to burrow, dig, or explore new textures, so a burrowing clay substrate or a dig box with a sand-based product may be needed.

However, just because a product is marketed for reptile use does not automatically make it safe. Many people have reported safety issues using sand mats, calcium sand, ground walnut "sand," and many other sand-based products. Sand, in its various forms, remains the most hotly debated substrate in the bearded dragon community, with many owners using some sand or sand-based blend either as a primary substrate or in a "sensory" dig box set up in a part of a beardie's enclosure.

Proper husbandry practices can significantly reduce loose substrate impaction risk because healthy dragons usually only ingest substrates accidentally during feeding (and not when searching for nutrients, for example). Healthy dragons are also more likely to eliminate small amounts of the ingested substrate without health complications.

Substrates that hold too much moisture, such as bark or mulch, or products that degrade or become moldy when exposed to water, such as alfalfa pellets, are not recommended. Another substrate that is not recommended for bearded dragons is coconut fiber. Coconut fiber tends to be too dry and can cause upper respiratory infections (URI), in addition to being hard to maintain and prone to bacterial buildup. Reptile carpets can also harbor bacteria and be more challenging to clean. In addition, reptile carpet poses dangers to beardies' toes if their nails get caught in the loops of the reptile carpet material (felt reptile carpets are especially problematic).

Paper towels and newspapers are less aesthetically pleasing than other substrates. Still, they can be suitable for beardies dealing with parasitic infections and other illnesses because they can be frequently changed. Quickly disposable substrates, such as paper towels or newspapers, are also an excellent choice for baby bearded dragons who are messy eaters.

Generally, non-particulate substrates are preferred for young and juvenile bearded dragons because they tend to be more clumsy and curious about their environment than mature beardies.

Please maintain the substrate regularly to prevent bacterial buildup, fungal growth, and other issues. Beardies living in unsanitary conditions can develop fungal, parasitic, and upper respiratory infections.
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