What Substrate Should I Use?!

Not open for further replies.


Extreme Poster
As many bearded dragon owners have discovered, there are a LOT of different opinions out there on which substrates are the best. There are a lot of posts here (and basically on every reptile forum...) that argue particle vs. non-particle substrates. So, here is my attempt at creating an informative post about the dangers to be aware of with various particle substrates, and give some good examples of good non-particle substrates to use as well as some of the better particle substrates, and the pros and cons of each.This is my personal opinion & the conclusions that I have reached are based on my research and experience with particle substrates. Like I said, this is my opinion. Ultimately, its YOUR choice on what you want to use for your substrate. I'm making this so that people can know the risks, and what other options there are so that you can make the best decision for your bearded dragon.

What are the risks of using particle substrate?
When using any particle substrate, one of the main concerns is impaction. (If you are unsure of what impaction is, this article explains it http://www.beardeddragon.org/articles/impaction/) Bearded dragons lick everything, as this is their way of exploring their environment. Every time they lick the ground, they will ingest some substrate. Also, if they are fed on loose substrate, they can get a mouth full of it when they catch food off the ground. Substrates that tend to produce a lot of dust, like sand, can also cause get into their eyes and cause eye infections, and cause respitatory issues if they breathe it in.

From observing at an exotics specialist veterinary clinic, I've seen a few substrate-related tragedies, such as a large adult bearded dragon who needed surgery to remove the mass of calcium sand from his intestines, and also this little guy who I adopted after he developed an abscess in his eye. The abscess was most likely caused by a piece of substrate irritating his third eyelid.

A search for impaction will yield quite a few other stories and pictures, including the infamous walnut-shell necropsy pictures. (I won't link to them, but some of the necropsy pictures out there are pretty interesting.)

As far as impaction goes, assuming that the bearded dragon is kept in proper conditions, they should be able to pass small amounts of substrates that they accidentally ingest. One of the main problems that leads to impaction is improper husbandry. Having inadequate temperature ranges that do not allow your bearded dragon to properly digest their food or pass eaten substrate, combined with using "commercially" available reptile substrates like calcium sand, walnut shells, wood shavings, etc. are the biggest risk factors.

Isn't Calci-Sand supposed to be digestable?
Actually, Calci-Sand is one of the worst things you can buy. It is made out of calcium carbonate which is also used to neutralize stomach acid (Your bearded dragon is literally living on TUMS... Check out the ingredient list!). If a bearded dragon feels like it needs more calcium in its diet, it can get into the habit of eating this stuff... And the more they ingest, the more they neutralize their stomach acid, which just makes it more difficult to digest. Not to mention that Calci-Sand tends to harden like cement when wet. This article explains the dangers of Calci-Sand quite well: http://www.herpcenter.com/calcium-sand-dangers.html

What about play sand and other substrates?
Play sand is a pretty popular particle substrate, and it's better than Cali-Sand and most of the other substrates you can find at the pet store. It still has a number of cons to it though, and personally I'm not a fan of using straight sand for an entire vivarium. Dry sand is still going to be incredibly dusty and is stirred up easily, and can get into their eyes and nose. It also will not hold its form if they try to dig tunnels unless it is damp, and even then it can cave in easily and the dampness will raise the humidity. Some food for thought, here is the warning label from a bag of Quikrete Play Sand:
Damp play sand is actually a great substrate to use in lay boxes for gravid females though, and using it in a dig box or portion of the viv (See the "Dig Box" section at the end of this post) lessens the dust.

Crushed walnut shell pieces have very rough, sharp edges, and should also be avoided since they can cause internal damage when ingested, and they also can be pretty dusty. Gravel is another one that is dangerous if swallowed. As for wood shavings and bark or mulch, keep in mind that pine and cedar are toxic to reptiles, and that these substrates commonly come in large shreds or chunks, which would also be difficult to ingest. Alfalfa pellets and millet are easy to pass if ingested, but tend to grow mold.

Is sand very sanitary?
Cleanliness is something that you want to consider when choosing a substrate. Living on sand (or other substrates) can be like living in a giant litter box. Even after the poop is cleaned out, particle substrates will have absorbed the liquid from it (Not to mention the smell too). Since your bearded dragon could potentially be licking up dirty substrate pieces, there is an increased risk for parasites. Cleaning out a loose substrate on a regular basis is an important task to keep up with.

Although it isn't a health concern, keep in mind that "pretty" colored sand will also stain your beardie. My dragon was kept on orange sand before I adopted him, and 3 years later the stains still won't come off! One of my geckos came to me with some unnaturally purple feet too...

But isn't sand a natural substrate for bearded dragons?
Keep in mind that most of the "desert" reptiles that we associate with sand, like bearded dragons and leopard geckos for example, do NOT live in Sahara desert-style sand dunes like everyone imagines. A lot of their natural substrate consists of hard-packed dirt, sand mixed with dirt, rock, leaf litter... And yes, some loose sand, but not ENTIRELY. If you are looking to mimic your bearded dragon's natural habitat, straight sand isn't the most accurate option!

What are some alternatives to loose substrate?
Non-particle substrates pose no impaction risk, and are easy to maintain and keep sanitary. This is the best option for young and juvenile bearded dragons, as well as one of the easiest to maintain for adults. Since you can obtain some of the options (like newspaper) at little to no cost, and many can last for years (like tile) they tend to be cheaper as well. Paper towels, newspaper, slate or ceramic tile, non-adhesive shelf liner, non-adhesive linoleum, and reptile carpet are all good options. A side note on reptile carpet is that it is possible for their nails and toes to get caught in the loops of thread that make up the carpet. Another thing to pay attention to with non-particle substrate is traction. When I used non-adhesive linoleum, I noticed that my beardie didn't want to walk on it because it was slippery, so I got a little creative... After covering the lino with pet-safe silicone, I sprinkled sand and gravel on top. I ended up with a naturally-textured and easy to clean flooring that my bearded dragon has enough traction on to sprint across. My "DIY" substrate has worked perfectly so far!


Make sure that any non-particle substrate you use isn't so slick that your dragon is slipping and sliding, and make sure that your dragon's nails don't become overgrown. Tile will wear down nails naturally, but I recommend have rocks, bricks, or other rough surfaces in your viv to make sure that nails can be worn by climbing on them.

If I want a particle substrate, what should I use?
One loose substrate that actually seems to work pretty well for bearded dragons is a 50/50 mixture of top soil and play sand. Since the sand is mixed in with dirt is is less dusty and not as easily stirred up. Since dirt can hold it shape, they are also able to dig tunnels. This is probably the best particle substrate to mimic what is found in their natural environment.

Remember, if you choose to use a loose substrate, be aware of the risks! Make sure you have a proper temperature gradient with a basking spot of 100 - 115*F, and feed outside of the cage or out of a dish in the enclosure to minimize the ingestion of substrate. Spot clean it daily, and change out all substrate on a regular basis. I do NOT recommend using loose substrate for bearded dragons under one year of age. Young bearded dragons are not the most graceful hunters, and can have more difficulty passing ingested substrate.

I like non-particle substrate, but I want my beardie to be able to dig!
Digging is a natural behavior that encourages exercise, and gives them something interesting to do. In you choose non-particle substrate, providing a digging box is a great way to allow your bearded dragon to express his instincts while eliminating many of the potential dangers of having substrate throughout your entire viv. Since it is only in a section of their vivarium, they are less likely to accidentally ingest it, and are less likely to poop in it too. Popular digging box substrates include play sand, a topsoil/sand mix, alfalfa pellets, and millet seed.
Here is Dudley enjoying his digging box:

Now smile, because you just read through this entire thing! :wink:


BD.org Sicko
Retired Moderator


BD.org Sicko
Retired Moderator
Jess, I am making a post her so it doesn't automatically lock again. Once you make your post, I will delete this one.
Not open for further replies.

Members online

Still Needs Help

Latest resources

Latest posts

Latest profile posts

So to any reading this, how on earth do I post a thread 😅 New here, possibly too old for this

Just Hazel in a filter I need so not posting on forums.
On a quest for pristine beats, I struck gold during a casual coffee shop jam session. The music maestro there ushered me to VOLUMO — New generation electronic music store for pro DJs. Revel in its vast array of tracks and rejuvenate your playlists!
I have questions about bubbles on our bearded dragons eye.

So he’s gotten bubbles on his eye. We wiped them off and it’s only been twice in the last few weeks. Should we be concerned? No coughing or congestion. He’s very hungry and sleeps well. He’s 8-9 month range. His humidity is 30-40 day time and as high as 50-55 at night to early morning.
Should we be concerned?

Forum statistics

Latest member
Top Bottom