“Substrate” is how many reptile keepers refer to their animal’s bedding. Opinions on appropriate bearded dragon substrate vary widely in the dragon keeper world. This is a list of options so you can pick one that fits your lifestyle, taste, and needs best.
If you choose to use a loose substrate, you will need approximately 80-120 quarts / 2.7-4 cubic feet of substrate in order to create a substrate layer 4-6″ deep in an enclosure with a 4×2 footprint.
If you are using an enclosure with a 6×2 footprint, you will need approximately 120-180 quarts / 4-6 cubic feet of substrate in order to create a substrate layer 4-6″ deep.
These substrates mimic a bearded dragon’s natural environment in Australia, making them the best. They are burrowable, which means that your dragon can dig in a nice thick layer of these substrates to its heart’s content. And although they are technically “loose” substrates, they do not pose an impaction risk because they pack well and are composed of natural materials that bearded dragon’s digestive tracts are built to handle. Pack the substrate 4-6″ deep for best results.
- Jurassic Natural Australian Desert Dragon Habitat — Actual Australian sand/soil harvested from Central Australia. It doesn’t get more natural than this!
- Jurassic Reptile Substrate — Dust-free, soft, natural sand with a very fine texture.
- Zoo Med ReptiSand — Super fine quartz sand available in white, red, or black (natural colors, not dyed). Not to be confused with Vita Sand or Reptilite!
- Exo Terra Desert Sand/River Sand — Super fine quartz sand available in yellow, red, black, or brown (natural colors, not dyed).
- The BioDude Terra Sahara substrate kit — Bioactive-ready and lasts a long time.
- DIY naturalistic mix — 50% sand (preferably very fine), 30% organic topsoil, 20% Zoo Med Excavator Clay. (NOT bioactive-ready!)
Still not convinced that loose substrate is safe? In a 2017 study (A survey of diseases in captive bearded dragons: a retrospective study of 529 patients by S. Schmidt-Ukaj et al.), despite most of the dragons having been housed on loose substrate, very few patients were impacted. Most of the few impaction cases that there were already sick with other conditions such as parasite infestation and MBD, which were attributed as causing the impaction.
These substrates retain heat well and are more attractive, but they are unlikely to offer digging/burrowing value.
- Zoo Med Excavator Clay
- Slate tile
These substrates are cheap, sterile, and make cleaning easy, but they’re better for quarantine than for long-term housing.
- Paper towels
DO NOT USE:
These substrates pose significant health risks to your bearded dragon!
- Calcium sand — leads to impaction if ingested due to presence of calcium carbonate
- Vitamin sand— leads to impaction if ingested due to presence of calcium carbonate
- Ground nut shell — dusty and causes impaction if accidentally ingested
- Wood products (bark, shavings, etc.) — causes impaction if accidentally ingested
- Linoleum — produces VOCs
- Shelf liner — produces VOCs
- Reptile carpet — fibrous nature traps and breeds bacteria, can also catch claws and break toes
What's the big deal about sand?
Using sand for bearded dragon substrate is highly controversial, and most folklore husbandry-based sources will tell you that sand is the devil’s substrate. However, when done correctly it can be an attractive and enriching part of your bearded dragon’s captive environment. Here are some common risks of sand and how to circumvent them:
- Dust – can be prevented by using high-quality sand. Play sand is the dustiest of them all.
- Dyes – are pretty easy to spot. If you see sand in an unnatural color (for example green, pink, or blue), it’s likely to be dyed, and will dye your dragon in turn. If you’re not sure, do some research on the product.
- Sticks to medical ointments – unavoidable. If your dragon is wearing an ointment, the best thing you can do is remove the sand or lay another type of substrate on top until treatment is completed. Tile and flagstone do well as temporary, immovable substrates.
Sand substrate should be completely replaced every 3-6 months to control bacterial growth. Spot-cleaning substrate daily will help it stay clean and odor-free. For best results, remove surrounding sand along with the waste.
DO NOT use calcium sand, Vita-Sand, Reptilite, or whatever else they’re calling it these days. Though it is advertised as a substrate-based calcium supplement, it has a nasty documented history of clumping up inside reptile intestines. The calcium carbonate also can neutralize stomach acid, preventing proper digestion. So even if it may be digestible, it can still interfere with digestion.
What about impaction?
Contrary to popular belief, sand does not cause impaction, and ReptiFiles has a whole article on the subject here. Dehydration, low basking temperatures, and high parasite loads cause impaction. A healthy bearded dragon should be able to handle being housed on a loose substrate with no problems, passing any sand particles that do get ingested safely through their poo.
After surveying the natural environment of Pogona vitticeps in Australia, Dr. Jonathon Howard found that their natural substrate is composed for the following:
- 0.3% gravel
- 1.5% silt
- 2.3% clay
- 95.9% fine sand (quartz and iron oxide)
In other words, bearded dragons evolved to thrive on a thick layer of packed Australian red sand. Jurassic Natural’s Australian Desert Dragon Habitat substrate is imported from Central Australia and the same as what many bearded dragons live on in the wild.