Whether you’re a new bearded dragon owner or experienced, you’ll often wonder if the environment you’ve set up for your exotic pet is as perfect as it could be.
After all, it’s really difficult to replicate their natural habitat. As these lizards come from Australia, you need to replicate the country’s temperature, humidity levels, and UVB light among other considerations.
A bearded dragon will likely grow well and live a healthy life if he is well fed and well looked after. One of the most important considerations is the substrate.
One question many bearded dragon owners often ask is what is the best bearded dragon substrate?
In this article, we’ll go over the three best bearded dragon substrates in terms of safety, maintenance and affordability. We’ll tell you which ones we think you should avoid. Let’s go!
The Importance of Choosing Your Substrate Carefully
Aside from your bearded dragon’s tank, taking care to choose an appropriate substrate is of utmost importance. For anyone not aware, when we refer to substrate, we’re talking about the enclosure flooring.
It’s not as simple as saying ‘X is the best bearded dragon substrate’ because you’ll find lots of bearded dragon owners disagree!
It’s certainly a source of argument among many! For this reason, we’ve chosen the three that we think are great bearded dragon substrates.
It’s important to choose your substrate carefully because there’s a lot of false information out there. And, believe it or not, even exotic pet stores get it wrong!
Lots of the substrates available aren’t suitable for a beardie, which is why you need to do your research (or read this article!).
What’s the big deal? you might be thinking. Well, if you choose a low-quality or unsafe substrate, it could affect your bearded dragon’s quality of life and health. With such serious issues at stake, it’s an important decision.
Ultimately, the aim is to choose a comfortable and safe substrate that doesn’t need a lot of maintenance. If the substrate you choose doesn’t fit those characteristics, you could create an unhygienic or dangerous living environment for your beardie.
When all’s said and done, your pet’s health and safety are your number one priority and so choosing the best bearded dragon substrate is key.
The Best Bearded Dragon Substrates
Don’t let clever marketing fool you. It’s important to research your bearded dragon’s substrate of your own accord so that you understand the reasons why some substrates are better than others.
The market is awash with seemingly suitable products for your bearded dragons tank. Knowing the difference between a good substrate and a bad one is vital.
Thankfully, we’ve done all of the hard work, and provided you with a list of the three best bearded dragon substrates.
Before we delve into which ones we recommended, we’ll discuss why loose substrates should be avoided.
Avoiding Loose Substrates
Typically, you’ll find bearded dragon experts talking about two distinct substrate types: non-particle substrates and loose substrates.
You’ll find many bearded dragon experts dismiss using loose substrates because of their ingestion risk.
With loose substrates (especially with baby bearded dragons and juveniles) there is a risk that they will consume some of the substrate.
The reason they consume them is not because they think it tastes nice! Rather, when they eat their meals (e.g. crickets) they often take in some of the substrate particles at the same time.
Though you might think it’s not a problem to eat a small amount, it really can cause serious issues.
One problem that loose substrate consumption causes is a risk of impaction. This means that pieces of the substrate get stuck inside the bearded dragon’s digestive tract, which can be life-threatening.
Best Bearded Dragon Substrate #1: Reptile Carpet
The first example we’re sharing of a non-particle substrate is reptile carpet.
If you choose reptile carpet as your substrate, you don’t need to worry about consumption or the risk of impaction.
Like a household carpet, a reptile carpet is a solid, woven material that you can cut to fit your enclosure shape. It’s also available in a variety of finishes and colors.
However, most reptile carpet looks like sand or grass to create a more natural-looking habitat.
Bearded dragons like reptile carpet as it feels good under their feet.
You don’t want to take chances with your bearded dragon. A low-quality carpet can cause problems like loose fibers that snag their claws, which could lead you into an unpleasant situation for both parties involved!
The reptile carpet needs to be tightly woven. A rug or carpet made for humans just isn’t good enough.
Reptile Carpet Maintenance
In terms of maintenance, reptile carpet is pretty easy to look after. You should use a lint shaver if you start to see fuzziness – or change your carpet instead.
As for cleaning, this is more tricky. You will need to clean your reptile carpet frequently and do spot cleans if your beardie poops on the carpet.
It’s often easier to have more than one carpet so that you can swap a clean one in while you deal with the soiled one.
Without proper cleaning and maintenance, a carpet can hold smells but you’ll soon figure out a cleaning routine that works to avoid this.
In summary, using a reptile carpet is a great bearded dragon substrate. It is safe, efficient, and does the job well.
If you like reptile carpets, you might also consider artificial grass or rubber shelf liners too.
Now for the advantages and disadvantages:
- Installation is easy.
- Comes in a variety of types/patterns.
- Very safe.
- More expensive than other substrates
- Cleaning is intensive and time-consuming
Best Bearded Dragon Substrate #2: Ceramic Tiles
Ceramic tiles, yes, the very same ones you’ll find in your home, are a great bearded dragon substrate material. In fact, many owners say they’re one of the best substrates.
Some beardie owners have used ceramic tiles for a while but they’ve only recently been talked about on a wider scale.
If you look at the benefits of using ceramic tiles as a substrate, you’ll quickly realize why they’re such a good option.
Ceramic tiles are durable and can withstand almost anything. Any bearded dragon waster can be wiped up swiftly and hygienically. What’s more, ceramic tiles are completely safe.
There are no loose pieces for your beardie to accidentally ingest and they won’t retain moisture and get stinky!
The best thing about ceramic tiles is their low maintenance. These are a permanent solution that you’ll never need to replace.
Ceramic tiles also have unique benefits for our beardies! Firstly, if you get the right ones, they will absorb heat from your basking light and will provide warmth even after the lights have been switched off.
Secondly, the tiles can help keep your bearded dragon’s claws short, just like a nail file would! You’d need to ensure you got the right type of tile though – a polished tile wouldn’t do this!
There are lots of textured ceramic tiles and the added benefit of using a textured one is that your bearded dragon won’t slip.
There are some considerations when choosing tiles. The best ones to use are ceramic, linoleum, and slate.
Don’t be tempted to use metal or glass or anything else that will reflect light and heat.
The last thing you want is to create more heat! Always choose a material that will absorb the existing heat in the tank.
Let’s summarize the advantages and disadvantages of ceramic tiles:
- Easy to clean and maintain.
- Attractive and natural appearance.
- Absorbs heat.
- Can be difficult to install.
Best Bearded Dragon Substrate #3: Newspaper or Paper Towels
If you want to save time and money, a simple yet effective substrate for bearded dragons is newspaper or paper towels.
A newspaper substrate works amazingly well for bearded dragon enclosures. Granted, it’s not the most beautiful product out there but its benefits make this substrate a definite consideration.
The best thing about this substrate option is that it is easy to maintain and very low cost. It’s easy to use old magazines, newspaper or paper towels to line the enclosure. If you want, you can shred it to make it diggable.
Whenever your bearded dragon empties himself, newspaper makes it really easy to clean. You simply remove the soiled paper and replace it.
The paper towels or newspaper should be removed and replaced every day to keep the enclosure free from bacteria. If you already buy a daily newspaper, this will be at no extra cost to you!
Like reptile carpet and ceramic tiles, newspaper or paper towels don’t have a risk of impaction. Even if you shred the paper, they will be too big to consume.
All in all, this substrate for bearded dragons is low maintenance and safe, which is exactly what you’re looking for!
There are, however, a few small downsides. Firstly, unlike reptile carpet, there isn’t a lot of traction on paper and so your beardie won’t be improving his grip when walking on it.
Secondly, since newspaper isn’t very secure, you might find that feeder insects can hide under it to avoid being eaten!
Most people that use newspaper or paper towels as their bearded dragon substrate do so temporarily while they save money for a more permanent reptile carpet, for example. But there’s no reason why you can’t use it through their lives if it suits you.
If you don’t like the appearance of newspaper, another alternative is a rubber shelf liner. Rubber shelf liners are cheap and don’t need to be changed as regularly.
Let’s summarize the advantages and disadvantages of this substrate for bearded dragons:
- It’s easy to change bearded dragon substrate.
- Low cost.
- Paper towels or newspaper looks temporary.
- Not durable.
- Needs replacing daily.
- Doesn’t have a natural appearance.
The Importance of Avoiding Sand Substrate for Bearded Dragons
Now we’ve discussed the three best substrate types, it’s important to know why we don’t recommend other substrates like sand.
Sand substrate lines the shelves of pet stores and is a popular bearded dragon substrate.
Using sand substrate seems to make sense to many people. After all, these creatures originate in semi-desert and arid places that are covered in sand.
However, this doesn’t make sand a good substrate for bearded dragons. It’s actually among the worst. This is because it poses significant risks to your bearded dragon’s health.
As mentioned above, bearded dragons are likely to consume any loose substrate. Because sand is so fine and loose, it tends to stick to things and will easily get stuck to your beardie’s food.
Consuming sand brings with it the risk of impaction, which can be life-threatening. What’s more, your bearded dragon’s teeth or throat can become damaged by sand consumption.
Many places sell a product called calcium sand. Calcium sand might seem a health option compared to other substrates like play sand.
Manufacturers often promote calcium sand as a healthy and safe option because it contains calcium in the form of ground nut shells.
Obviously, your pet needs calcium, but you don’t need to buy calcium sand for this! Provided you provide a healthy diet, it’s extremely unnecessary and can be dangerous.
Remember, you’re buying a substrate for its substrate properties and not for its consumable ingredients – you don’t want your bearded dragon to consume the substrate!
Even though it’s marketed as a healthy and safe alternative to play sand, calcium sand is just as bad. It comes with a risk of impaction just as much as other types of sand.
What’s more, calcium sand (or play sand) is an irritant. If your pet bearded dragon has a run around his enclosure, it’s easy for him to kick the sand about. This means it gets into his nostrils, eyes, and even sexual organs.
Moisture and Sand
Another bad thing about a loose particle substrate like sand is that it will retain moisture. While this might seem a good thing if you need to raise the humidity levels, don’t forget that it will also absorb and retain other liquids like bearded dragon excrement.
In terms of hygiene, play sand, silica sand, calcium sand or any other loose particle substrate is not very hygenic.
Firstly, it becomes difficult to clean even after one day. Yes, you can sift out any solids or any clumps that have been soaked, but it’s very easy to leave some behind.
This means that there will be more bacteria in the bearded dragon’s terrarium, which can lead to health problems and bacterial infection.
Essentially, any bits of waste left behind will likely sink to the bottom of the terrarium and be a breeding ground for pathogens. In a hot tank with moisture, it is quite easy for parasites, viruses and bacteria to be rife.
What you want to avoid is your enclosure becoming a petri dish!
Many beardie owners think play sand is a valid option because it mimics the bearded dragon’s natural habitat. Naturally, bearded dragons live around sand – but not in it.
Other people also believe that sand is like a litter box substance. However, animals that use litter boxes don’t live in them!
If you’re really keen on having sand for your bearded dragon to enjoy, there’s no reason why it can’t be used for fun in a special digging box.
Simply put a small amount of play sand in a box inside your bearded dragon’s enclosure to mimic the sand he might find in her natural habitat.
This is especially important for female bearded dragons to prevent dystocia.
Just let your bearded dragon have fun rather than using it as a substrate!
Other Types of Substrates to Avoid
Play sand isn’t the only substrate you need to avoid for pet bearded dragons.
Here are other types of popular substrates that aren’t recommended either:
Compared to sand, gravel is worse. You might think that because the pieces are bigger, it is less of a problem.
However, gravel is even more dangerous because it might actually look like food to your bearded dragon.
If your bearded dragon were to swallow gravel, he might choke. What’s more, even if he does manage to swallow it without choking, it will almost increase the risk of impaction.
Beyond the risk of impaction and choking, like sand, gravel will harbor disease and bacteria. Even though it won’t absorb moisture, it does have small spaces where mess will fall through easily – especially if your beardie walks over it and moves it around.
This means that it is hard to keep clean. There might, for example, be a bearded dragon poop under the surface that you can’t see because you’re not watching the terrarium 24/7.
This makes it an ideal breeding ground for disease.
Just like sand, however, you can add gravel to your bearded dragon’s enclosure, especially if you have a waterfall feature. But it shouldn’t be used for a substrate.
Another substance that many pet stores market as bearded dragon substrate is crushed walnut shells and many people in the bearded dragon community like using this because it’s a waste product and environmentally friendly.
These are actually a bi-product of walnut processing and are simply the leftover shells and dust.
If you’ve ever cracked a walnut, you’ll know the shells have sharp edges. This isn’t good for bearded dragons skin as they can cut themselves. And if that happens, you’ll be worrying about infection!
Walnut dust is also very fine – more so than reptile sand. This means your reptile could inhale it and develop a respiratory infection or irritation of the airways.
Also, if a bearded dragon swallows it, there is a risk of impaction.
For these reasons, it’s best to steer clear of walnut shell substrates or similar products in a bearded dragon tank.
Mulch or Wood Chips
Like other loose reptile substrates, mulch or wood chips come with a risk of impaction.
Wood chips are sometimes used as a bedding material for other reptiles like leopard geckos but it isn’t good for bearded dragons.
Like other loose substrates, wood chips retain moisture and turn the enclosure into an ideal breeding ground for bacteria.
Mulch and wood chips also produce fumes and oils that aren’t good for your bearded dragon. Even though these have a natural appearance, they’re not a natural substrate for beardies.
Just like bearded dragons will eat sand, they will also eat potting soil.
Even if the potting soil is being sold as a substrate in a pet store, it could still be pretreated with chemicals and fertilizers that aren’t safe for pet reptiles.
There might also be microorganisms within the solid that are dangerous to your beardie.
Many people choose a bioactive substrate instead of potting soil, but this is still a loose substrate and comes with risks.
Millet is rarely seen as a substrate for bearded dragons but you might see it marketed in a pet store.
Simply put, millet is just as problematic as other loose substrate types. Even though it’s a grain, if your beardie eats it, the risk of impaction is high.
What’s more, millet is known to become moldy and rot!
Alfalfa pellets substrate are made of alfalfa hay. Even if they’re marketed for bearded dragons, alfalfa pellets are not a good material to use.
They’re still a loose particle substrate and can be consumed easily. If a baby bearded dragon were to consume alfalfa pellets, he would become seriously ill.
Like other substrates, they also absorb moisture, which can lead to bacteria and mold issues. When they do get wet, they become quite soft and mushy too!
Like alfalfa pellets, you can also get wood pellets or wood shavings. But, as you might expect, these aren’t recommended either due to their risk of impaction.
Moss or Hay
Both moss and hay can be put into your bearded dragon’s tank but only in smaller, private areas or hiding boxes to mimic their natural environment.
It is most certainly not the best substrate to use and you shouldn’t cover their whole enclosure with it.
As well as being great at retaining moisture and growing mold, hay can be itchy and uncomfortable.
How to Properly Clean the Substrate
If you’re using of our three best substrates, you’ll still need a strict cleaning schedule to avoid disease and bacterial build-up.
It’s not fair on your bearded dragon to be made to live in his own dirt!
If you’re using newspaper substrate, it’s a simple job of swapping out the old for the new. This is the same as you would with a loose particle substrate (if you do decide to use one).
If you decided to use a permanent substrate like ceramic tiles or reptile carpet, then you need to spot clean whenever your beardie makes a mess.
The longer the mess is left, the harder it will be to clean up – and the more time bacteria will have to grow.
Simply use paper towels to pick up waste in your bearded dragon enclosure. Then, if you’re using tiles, wipe them down.
It’s also recommended to use some disinfectant when spot cleaning. Just make sure you use a reptile-safe product or a vinegar solution that’s been heavily diluted. Simply spray where the solid matter was and wipe.
Every month, you’ll need to set time aside to do a deep clean in order to have a healthy bearded dragon.
This means removing everything: the accessories, the substrate, and anything else you’ve got in there.
If you have a reptile carpet substrate, you should let it soak before scrubbing it clean. Make sure you use hot water to kill any bacteria. It’s a good idea to use antibacterial, fragrance-free soap.
It might be tempting to put the carpet in the washing machine. However, we don’t recommend this. Bearded dragons are known carriers of salmonella.
You really should avoid risking your health with this zoonotic disease. So, make sure you clean the carpet separately in a tub.
If you’re using tiles, you can wash the tile and disinfect them. After doing this, baking the tile in an oven will sanitize it. Simply place it in the oven at 250 degrees for 30 to 60 minutes.
This is an excellent way of sanitizing a tile. Just make sure you let it cool before touching it or moving it back into the enclosure.
Final Thoughts on The Best Substrate for Bearded Dragons
When it comes to deciding the best substrate for bearded dragons, it’s a tough choice. We think that the best substrate for bearded dragon enclosures is either reptile carpet, ceramic tiles, or newspaper.
Loose substrates like wood chips, alfalfa pellets and the like simply aren’t worth the risk. Yes, they might create a look of more natural habitat but as bearded dragons substrate goes, they’re full of risks.
Even adult bearded dragons will inadvertently consume loose particle substrates and become impacted.
There simply is no best loose substrate due to the problems that can be caused by using one and the only one that some people recommend is a bioactive substrate. However, this still comes with risks.
Don’t forget, that choosing the best substrate for your bearded dragon will have an impact on his health as well as comfort. All bearded dragon owners should take this decision seriously!
Best Substrate for Bearded Dragons FAQs
How often should the substrate be changed?
This depends entirely on your choice of substrate. Each substrate is cleaned differently. If you do opt for loose particle substrates, these must be replaced every two weeks or sooner. It’s important to keep your bearded dragon in the best possible conditions to avoid infection and ill-health.
What is the right substrate for a bearded dragon?
Newspaper, reptile carpet, tiles, or even a rubber shelf liner are all good options. You shouldn’t choose a loose particle substrate – or even compacted clay-like sand because these come with too many risks.
What is a rubber shelf liner?
A rubber shelf liner is an alternative to carpet. It is easy to remove and clean. However, you shouldn’t use one with holes as this could catch in your bearded dragon’s claws.