Much disagreement persists over which substrate is best for bearded dragon cages. In this guide, therefore, we’re going to take a closer look at a range of floor coverings, to help you decide what’s best for your own bearded dragon…
The Purpose of Bearded Dragon Substrates
Before we take a more detailed look at the substrate options for bearded dragons, it does perhaps make sense to start off by considering the specific purpose of a substrate. After all, why do reptile keepers bother covering the base of their lizard cage at all?
The first goal of a reptile substrate is the practical element of cleanliness. In short, a good-quality substrate will help to keep mess such as faeces, uneaten food or spilled water off the base of the cage, while facilitating ease of cleaning.
In some cases a paper-based sheet of substrate is used – such as old newspaper. This can then be easily removed, rolled up and disposed of. In other cases, a more fluid substrate such as beech chippings are used, which can be “spot cleaned”, removing just the dirty substrate while leaving the rest in situ.
A second consideration is the natural habitat of bearded dragons, and how they might behave in the wild. After all, no wild bearded dragon would be confined to a sterile, wooden floor. Instead there would be interest in the form of rocks, logs and substrate can can be burrowed in to.
For this reason, many keepers prefer a more “natural” substrate to the less appealing options like newspaper.
Bearded dragons can have surprisingly sharp claws, which naturally wear down over time, while digging or running around on abrasive surfaces like rocks. In the absence of such abrasion, claws may get overgrown, requiring clipping.
Lastly, of course, some bearded dragon substrates simply look more appealing than others. While some keepers are happy to opt for the cheapest and easiest form of substrate, others want to design a beautiful “feature” which really shows their pet up to the maximum.
Types of Substrates for Bearded Dragons
There is a seemingly never-ending range of options available for lining the bottom of your lizard cage. Here are some of the more popular options, with a breakdown of the good and bad points of each…
It’s no secret that bearded dragons hail from desert regions of Australia. As a result some reptile keepers in the past have tried to use sand as a substrate – often the type of sand that is sold for children’s sandpits, for horticultural purposes or even for builders.
While such a substrate seems to make logical sense, there are a number of potential weaknesses to it’s use.
Firstly, sand can be highly insulative. In other words – it doesn’t really let heat through very well. This needn’t necessariy be a major issue, but depends on how you plan to heat your bearded dragon tank. If you’re planning to provide background heating using a stand heat mat then you may find that the heat struggles to make its way through the covering of sand, or even that the heat builds up so much under the sand that glass can break. Of course, this is only a problem if you plan to use under-floor heating.
A second, far more serious issue, however should ward anyone off the use of standard sand for bearded dragons. As bearded dragons hunt for their food, it naturally follows that they will likely swallow a few grains of sand now and again. Hardly a problem, you’d think. However on occasion this has led to a very serious problem known as “compaction”.
Compaction is the name given when sand starts to settle in the digestive system, creating a solid “plug” of sand. In this way, food cannot pass along the gut, requiring swift veterinary intervention.
As with all potential reptile problems, prevention is mos certaunly better than cure. To this end, it is not recommended to use standard sand as substrate for your bearded dragon cage to avoid the potential heath impacts that it can have.
As the name suggests, “reptile sand” is the name given to sand which has been specifically designed for us exotic pet keepers. Not only does it not cause compaction, but it is actually rich in minerals.
Reptile sand – or “desert sand” as it is often called in reptile shops – also has a number of other benefits. Firstly, it looks great. Not only does it help to create a really natural-looking vivarium setting, but it also comes in a wide range of different colour forms. To this end you can choose from dark, volcanic-looking sand through the brilliant reds and browns, allowing you a great degree of artistic control.
Reptile sand has another benefit of course, and that’s the way in which it can encourage natural behaviour. Such a sandy substrate allows your lizards to scratch around and explore, sifting through to try and find any hidden insects, just as they might in the wilds of Australia.
So while reptile sand can be quite a bit more expensive than normal sand, it’s an investment well worth making.
Over the last few years a number of beardie owners have started to use sand sheets – just as sold for cage birds. They offer a similarly rough surface to help naturally wear down claws as loose sand, but are lighter and cheaper to buy.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with sand sheets, I can’t help feeling personally that they’re a little “sterile” to look at and tend not to encourage natural behaviour. You also can’t “spot clean” sand sheets when they get mucky, needing to be completely replaced when soiled. That said, cleaning out does become far simpler, because you simply roll up the sand sheets and pop them in the bin. Job done.
An awful lot of bearded dragon owners use newspaper. It offers the same practicality as sand sheets – such as ease of removal – but without the cost. That said, in truth I feel that newspaper looks pretty terrible on the floor of the cage, and spoils very easily indeed. Bearing in mind that bearded dragons eat a fair amount of fruit and veg, and may spill their water as they dash around, it’s likely that you’ll need to replace the newspaper on a very regular basis.
Also, as with sand sheets, bear in mind that newspaper does nothing to encourage natural foraging behaviour, and also won’t wear down claws suitably. As a result you’ll want to be certain that you’re using a range of rocks and other rough surfaces in the cage, in order to keep growth under control.
In other words while newspaper isn’t the worst substrate to use for your bearded dragon, I certainly don’t feel it’s the best solution either.
Beech chippings are a very popular and attractive reptile substrate. It is well known that beech chippings can rot quite quickly in moist environments, but in the drier habitat of a bearded dragon cage this is rarely an issue.
The weakness of beech chippings is rather like that of sand – you need to be careful that your dragon doesn’t accidentally consume any or risk the problems of gut impactions.
The solution, however, is quite simple. Beech chippings come in a range of different chipping sizes, from fine through to coarse. In order to minimize the chances of any being eaten by your beardie simply make sure you use the coarsest grade possible.
Aspen has long been a popular choice among snake owners, but over the years a number of beardie keepers have tried their lizards on it. While it looks beautiful and fluffy, permitting snakes to burrow and explore, this texture does potentially open it up as source of gut impactions.
While it’s lightweight to buy and use, this is probably a substrate best left to snake keepers, rather than being used for bearded dragons.
What’s the Best Substrate for Bearded Dragons?
As you can see, there is a huge range of possible bearded dragon substrates available – but what is really best?
Over the years I’ve tried a huge range of options, and spoken to hundreds of reptile shop workers and bearded dragon owners on their opinions. During that time I’ve found a number of options that tend to work best.
For those individuals wanting a low-effort solution, newspaper tends to work well. I am personally concerned about the lack of environmental enrichment, however, so I tend to recommend against it.
Instead my opinion is that the very best substrate for a bearded dragon vivarium are either reptile sand or coarse beech chippings. They permit more natural behaviour, they look great and they won’t contribute to any health problems.