What Is The Best Bearded Dragon Substrate?
When it comes to hotly debated topics in the world of bearded dragons, picking the best bearded dragon substrate has to be at the top of this particular list, with so many wildly differing opinions it’s honestly difficult to know as a beginner which direction you should take.
If you are unfamiliar with the term substrate then this is referring to the type of covering on the floor of your bearded dragon enclosure. In this article, I plan to talk about the most popular options and provide some detail for when certain choices might need to be avoided.
So what is regarded as the best bearded dragon substrate to use inside your enclosure?
The most popular substrates are reptile carpet, paper towels, newspaper, tiles and clay, many bearded dragon owners also opt for sand or dirt as their baseline within an enclosure, however, a loose substrate such as sand or dirt should be avoided with a baby or juvenile bearded dragon since they can both cause impaction.
Let’s take a look at the requirements we need and then we will dive into each available option, also don’t forget we can mix some of these substrates together, they are not all mutually exclusive.
What We Need From a Substrate
A substrate needs to provide a few simple solutions for some very simple problems, however getting all these solutions to align at the same time is quite difficult for various reasons, at a basic level we need the following from a substrate in our enclosure.
- It needs to be safe for our bearded dragon
- It needs to be comfortable for our bearded dragon to live on
- It needs to be easily cleaned so that our bearded dragon is not living in his own waste
- It should ideally be visually appealing
With these guidelines in place, let’s take a look at the various options typically on offer from various retailers today.
The first option on our list is sand, this can be a good option but only for mature bearded dragons, sand probably looks like one of the most appealing out of everything on this list, and provides a comfortable surface for your bearded dragon to walk on.
The problem with sand is that bearded dragons can sometimes try and either eat the sand purposefully, or they can eat it accidentally when food such as insects become covered in a coating of sand.
For baby and juvenile bearded dragons I would personally advise against sand altogether, young bearded dragons have an insatiable appetite, and will pretty much attempt to eat anything, including sand!
For mature adult bearded dragons this needs to be decided on a per case basis, some bearded dragons never try to ingest the sand, so for some owners this is never actually a problem, but if you do try sand with an adult bearded dragon then you need to do so with extreme caution and pay close attention to make sure they are not ingesting it.
Also, be sure to provide a slate or feeding bowl, this way most of the insects you provide will ideally stay in the bowl and not be coated in the sand at feeding time.
Another issue with sand is that whilst it’s quite easy to clean using some scoops and a sieve, you also have to do this regularly and make sure no insects burrow down deep, you need to keep the sand free of dead insects and poop.
If a bearded dragon ingests some of the sand then over a period of time this can cause impaction.
What is impaction?
Impaction is where the bearded dragon consumes material or matter that it is unable to digest, over time this gradually builds up in the bearded dragon’s gut and can make your bearded dragon very ill, and in a lot of cases be fatal.
Impaction is probably one of the most feared conditions we have as bearded dragon owners, this is why a lot of owners will vehemently oppose the usage of sand.
Calcium sand was put forward as a solution to the above problem with regular sand, the idea behind calcium sand is that if your bearded dragon eats this then it will not cause impaction.
However, this is simply not true, just don’t buy or use calcium sand, it can be just as dangerous as regular sand and is also an alkaline which will neutralise stomach acids inside your bearded dragon when consumed, this will then obviously lead onto digestion and then health issues.
Reptile carpet is a decent option, however, there are still some problems with this solution. The first issue is that it’s a real pain to clean since the entire sheet runs underneath the contents of your enclosure which means it can be difficult to replace when your bearded dragon poops.
However, you must keep your bearded dragons enclosure clean, so just leaving it and cleaning up later on is never an option that should be considered.
Another problem with reptile carpet is some brands have strands of material on the very edges of the sheet, if you don’t take care to remove these then the bearded dragon can get tangled up and even pull off a limb!
In general, reptile carpet is a decent option, but it’s high maintenance since you have to clean it regularly and you also have to prepare it before using it to make sure you don’t end up with your bearded dragon becoming snagged on it.
Newspaper or Paper Towels
Newspaper or Paper Towels will not cause impaction, if you are really worried about impaction then this might be the direction to take, however as with all of these there are some downsides.
The first is that newspaper or paper towels can retain humidity, which we definitely don’t want with our bearded dragon enclosure, so if you do use newspaper or paper towels then just keep an eye on this as it could be a potential problem.
Another problem is that both newspaper and paper towels can move around and expose the bottom of the enclosure, this is not ideal as this will more than likely provide a slippery surface that your bearded dragon could be walking on regularly.
The final problem with newspaper and paper towels is that it just looks bad, there is only so much imagination you can have when it comes to making your enclosures look nice with either of these.
One huge positive is that enclosures which use newspaper or paper towels are very easy to clean, literally just grab the area in question and replace it!
This is a really interesting option, the idea is that you buy a package which contains everything you need to build out tunnels and burrows with clay, you can simply inflate a balloon or two which comes in the kit and then mould the clay around these tubes and balloons to create something really quite special for your bearded dragon.
I’ve included a clip below from the creators of this product who can show you exactly how you can build out an amazing looking enclosure using this option.
After some time you can remove the tubes and the balloons to leave a natural cavern type effect for your bearded dragon to roam around in.
You could also place this on the floor directly, and create a full surface for your bearded dragon, it won’t slip and it won’t be loose like sand or other loose substrates.
I do think this is a wonderful option as not only does it provide a nice home with hiding places for your bearded dragon, it also provides a slightly more natural looking habitat.
As for cleaning, that’s quite simple, waste can just wipe off of the clay easily, however, the only slight disadvantage is if your bearded dragon leaves you a nice poop package in one of these caverns you’ve created, this will need to be checked regularly and cleaned if necessary.
The clay can also be dampened if you want to remodel the setting in your enclosure, but obviously, you would need to remove your bearded dragon to do this.
So in summary, with clay your bearded dragon won’t be at risk from impaction, it won’t slip or be uncomfortable, it will look amazing, and the only slight downside is that it might be a little awkward to clean in some places.
Ceramic Tiles are a great option as well, these tiles are super easy to clean and you can pick them up from any hardware store.
Obviously, there is no risk of impaction since this would not be a loose substrate.
If you do go down this route, my only suggestion would be to not get glossy tiles and if you can pick up some with an engraved pattern on them, this means the surface isn’t smooth and gives your bearded dragon something to grip onto when he’s walking around inside the enclosure.
In terms of aesthetics, I think tiles do look pretty good, but I think where tiles really come into play are in the next section where we discuss using two substrates together.
A Mix of Substrates
In my own personal opinion, this option would be the best substrate for a bearded dragon, I would start the enclosure off with tiles which are a little rough and have maybe a pattern on them to provide some grip as I mentioned above.
I would then opt to use some of the excavator clay and build probably two-thirds of the enclosure with that, leaving the final third as just tile.
The reason I like this setup is that there is no loose substrate, it also provides a more natural environment with the options of little tunnels and burrows, and finally a nice flat and grippy space for him to walk around would be a nice option.
I would suggest placing the tiles at the cooler end of the enclosure as I wouldn’t want these to get too hot at any point under any basking lamps.
Is there actually a correct answer here?
As I mentioned at the top of this article, substrate is vehemently debated in bearded dragon communities, so the argument will always rage on, however, I think with a few sensible decisions and some learning you can build a great enclosure for your own pet.
As with most things, there are so many factors here, only you will know what is right for your pet, but we can certainly advise what we think in our opinions is to be avoided.
Should I avoid all loose substrate?
With baby bearded dragons and juveniles I would absolutely avoid all loose substrate, beyond that it’s what you feel most comfortable with and how your bearded dragon reacts to loose substrate.
If he starts to ingest the substrate, then please change it, as mentioned above this can cause impaction and result in illness, expensive vets bills and death.