Leopard gecko substrate is a controversial issue. Many sources recommend against using any kind of loose substrate (sand, soil, etc.), out of fear of causing intestinal blockage via accidental ingestion. This is an example of folklore husbandry — popular myth and pseudoscience that have become a standard of practice in leopard gecko instead of science and facts. Here at ReptiFiles, we base our recommendations on scientific fact, not hearsay.
Loose, naturalistic substrate can actually be the best kind of substrate for housing leopard geckos. A more detailed explanation is provided further down the page, which you can jump to here.
Good leopard gecko substrates:
These are the best substrates that ReptiFiles recommends for use with leopard geckos. Pack these substrates at least 3″ deep to facilitate natural burrowing behavior.
- Zoo Med ReptiSand: This substrate is made of natural, very fine quartz desert sand. It comes in two colors — white and orange — but is free of dyes and chemicals, and is not the same as calcium sand. (If you are concerned, see our note about sand further down the page.)
- Jurassic Sands Reptile Substrate: This substrate is pre-washed, natural dune sand. It boasts exceptionally fine particle size, low dust, and reduces risk of impaction and abrasion. It clumps like cat litter for easy removal of waste and helps eliminate odors. (If you are concerned, see our note about sand further down the page.)
- Lugarti Natural Reptile Bedding: This substrate can be wet down and allowed to dry, creating a hardened substrate very much like packed earth. Geckos can still dig in it to create burrows, and it’s fairly easy to clean.
- DIY Naturalistic Mix: 40% organic topsoil + 40% sand + 20% Excavator Clay. Mix well, soak until muddy, then pack it firmly at the bottom of the enclosure. Make sure it is 100% dry before introducing the gecko to the setup in order to avoid illness related to high humidity.
- Bioactive: Bioactive terrarium setups are designed to mimic a reptile’s natural environment and stimulate natural behaviors. If you are interested in creating a bioactive habitat for your leopard gecko, great! Read my blog posts on the subject and join this group on Facebook to get started.
Okay leopard gecko substrates
These substrates are not optimal, but they shouldn’t do harm, either. If you are concerned about impaction, these make decent alternatives to loose substrate.
- Paper towels: Absorbent, easy to replace, and cheap. Must be replaced immediately if wet. Best for use in quarantine setups.
- Slate tile: Easy to remove, easy to clean, holds heat very well. More attractive than paper towels.
- Zoo Med Excavator Clay: Very attractive and naturalistic, but tricky to set up or clean. This substrate can be shaped like clay when it is wet, then dries rock hard. However it does crumble easily if not prepared correctly.
Bad leopard gecko substrates
- Shelf liner
- Reptile carpet
- Aspen shavings or chips (Sani-Chips)
- Coconut fiber (Eco Earth, Plantation Soil, etc.)
- Ground walnut shell
- Zoo Med ReptiBark
These substrates are particularly dangerous to leopard geckos because they either emit VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that can make your gecko sick, or they pose a severe impaction risk if accidentally swallowed. Avoid these substrates at all costs and stick to the list in the previous section.
What’s the big deal about loose substrate?
Sand and other loose substrates are very controversial as a leopard gecko substrate. Many keepers argue that sand can kill a leo within 6 months of making the switch; some others argue that they’ve never experienced negative effects. The most vehement opinions are usually supported by claims that sand causes fatal impaction in leopard geckos by turning into a cement-like sludge inside their intestines. It is true that even though it’s claimed to be “digestible,” calcium carbonate-based substrates (Zoo Med Vita-Sand, All Living Things Calcium Sand, etc.) can neutralize stomach acid, causing other digestive issues.
High-dust sands also have a nasty habit of getting in reptiles’ eyes, causing injury and infection. The dust particles can also get stuck in a leopard gecko’s lungs, which is particularly problematic if the sand contains silica.
So sand is bad, right?
After extensive research and thought on the matter, we at ReptiFiles have concluded that sand is safe for use with leopard geckos, but only if it is used correctly. Leopard geckos should not be housed on loose substrate unless they have passed quarantine and are healthy. Pre-washed, silica-free play sand or fine-grain dune sand like Jurassic Reptile Substrate and Zoo Med ReptiSand (linked above) is perfectly safe to use with leopard geckos, although I do recommend mixing it with organic topsoil unless you have a way to pack it down.
Loose substrates that do not mimic leopard geckos’ natural habitat (tree bark, wood chips, paper substrate, etc.) are not safe for ingestion and should not be used.
But what about impaction?
“Impaction” is what happens when a reptile consumes a foreign object(s) that blocks the intestines, preventing proper digestion. Many leopard gecko keepers insist that sand will cause fatal impaction, and thus loose substrate of any kind should never be used.
This is an outdated notion that has contributed to the widespread use of minimalistic leopard gecko husbandry that we see today. The truth is that impaction is almost always caused by bad husbandry. When a reptile’s environment is too cold, otherwise inadequate, or the reptile itself is sick, it becomes unable to digest properly, and impaction happens.
For more information, I strongly recommend reading this article: Does Loose Substrate Cause Impaction in Bearded Dragons and Other Reptiles?
What is a leopard geckos’ natural environment like?
In the wild, leopard geckos are surrounded by limestone, with hardened clay dirt at their feet. Sometimes there’s a bit of loose sand and gravel or small stones, but it’s nothing like the sand dunes mimicked by most reptile sand products. Some keepers have had luck with pure sand, but the previously-mentioned Excavator Clay or a similar mixture of clay, soil, and sand is generally the best way to mimic the terrain E. macularius evolved to thrive upon.
It should also be noted that leopard geckos are arguably the world’s first domesticated reptile, with at least 40-45 generations bred in captivity. This means that captive bred leopard geckos can be significantly different from those in the wild, from dietary requirements and digestive capabilities to social habits. This means that while some wild-type leopard geckos are fine on loose substrate, others may have more sensitive digestive tracts.
At the end of the day, do what’s best for your gecko.
Keep reading about leopard gecko care:
- Introduction to Leopard Geckos
- Shopping List
- Terrarium Size and Cohabitation
- Lighting, Temperature & Humidity Needs
- Substrate (Bedding) Options
- Decorating Your Leopard Gecko’s Enclosure
- What to Feed Your Leopard Gecko
- Handling Tips & Leopard Gecko Body Language
- Common Diseases, Illnesses & Other Health Questions
- Additional Resources