Choosing the right substrate for your leopard gecko is essential. There are so many different varieties available, and making the right decision can be confusing and overwhelming.
So, what is the best substrate for leopard geckos? The best substrate for leopard geckos is either reptile carpet, excavator clay, or coconut husks. You can also use paper towels if you’re working on a tight budget.
To learn more about which substrates to use and which to avoid, read on.
Before we get into the best (and worst) substrate options, I first want to explain why choosing the proper substrate is so important.
The substrate is the material or bedding that’s placed at the bottom of the leopard gecko’s tank or terrarium as flooring and bedding.
The choice of leopard gecko substrate is one of the biggest things that will impact the health and well-being of your leopard gecko.
The right substrate can considerably improve your leopard gecko’s quality of life. However, choosing the wrong substrate may lead to illness and sometimes even death.
Many leopard geckos die within just two years of being purchased because their owners don’t choose the right substrate. If that’s not a good reason to select a high-quality substrate, I don’t know what is.
A lot of people choose to use sand, gravel, or another small – and indigestible – substrates for their leopard gecko’s aquarium.
This is a huge mistake.
As leopard geckos live and are fed on this substrate, and as it inevitably gets into their drinking water, leopard geckos are prone to ingesting individual grains.
This doesn’t seem to have any impact at first, but the gecko is unable to remove them from its digestive system. Over time, more and more build up, which leads to a condition called impaction.
Impaction is a life threatening condition that can quickly kill your leopard gecko.
And the big issue?
It’s often difficult to diagnose until it’s too late to do anything about it.
This is why it’s critical for you to avoid some of the substrate choices – sand chiefly among them – you see in the reptile section.
When choosing a substrate, it is important to consider all factors that could harm your beloved pet.
First of all, keep in mind that this material will be regularly walked and laid on. A quality substrate will be soft enough not to harm your gecko’s feet or soft underbelly. It should also be firm enough to withstand the weight of your lizard’s feet.
The substrate will also need to deal with the waste produced by your leopard gecko. To accomplish this, it needs to be reasonably absorbent, so you don’t need to change out the substrate every single day. It also requires strong odor-absorbing capabilities. If it doesn’t, both you and your lizard will be bothered by the smell of the waste.
The third thing your substrate will need to deal with is the fact that your leopard gecko may burrow and eggs in the substrate.
Finally, the substrate should meet one of the following two criteria:
- They can’t accidentally eat any of it in the first place.
- If they do eat it, their digestive system can break it down and pass it safely.
The frequency with which you clean or change the substrate will depend on the kind of substrate used.
Reptile carpets, also called Repti-Carpet, are an excellent choice of substrate for leopard geckos.
Reptile carpets are not loose, problematic, edible, or messy. They can be easily cut to size, and often come in convenient rolls.
In addition to their low maintenance requirements, they’re also fairly durable and have a low risk of ingestion.
Although this isn’t super important, Repti-carpets have a distinctive look that can make terrariums or tanks look awesome.
On top of everything else, they also dry quickly, making them easy to clean and return to the tank.
You should know that Repti-carpets need to be washed as soon as they are soiled. If you allow waste to sit on them for longer than a few days, they can be permanently stained.
Paper towels are, in the opinion of a lot of experienced leopard gecko keepers, the best substrate for leopard geckos, especially those on the younger side.
The downside is, of course, that they can be quite ugly.
There are quite a few reasons you may want to choose them, however:
Paper towels are easily replaceable and easy to clean, which lowers the risk of illness.
They’re also white, which lets you see unwanted mites, mold, etc. The distinct coloring also makes monitoring eating habits and bowel movements very easy.
And with this hygienic substrate, you do not need to worry about ingestion and inhalation of particles.
Paper towels are also soft and durable, which is vital for leopard geckos and their sensitive bellies. The affordability, hygienic advantages, and softness are why they preferred by enthusiasts and breeders who have multiple enclosures to care for.
Stone slabs are probably the most attractive and eye-catching of all non-loose substrates:
They offer a natural environment that distributes and retains heat well. And like the Repti-carpet, there is no risk of your leopard gecko ingesting the substrate.
This substrate is also easy to clean, making it an attractive option for gecko owners who want to keep tank maintenance at a minimum.
Coconut fiber is affordable, looks natural, and has excellent antimicrobial properties that prevent mold, rotting, and bad odors.
This is still a bit controversial, since it can be ingested.
The argument in favor of it is that it can be digested and is less likely to cause impaction (compared to sand or similar). The argument against it is that it’s still an unnecessary risk.
I’m including it with this note so that you can make an informed decision. It’s lower on the list because I think the top 3 options are better.
One unique benefit of coconut fiber is that it won’t increase the humidity level inside your leopard gecko’s vivarium. This is important, as an overly humid environment can cause health problems in your gecko.
Your leopard gecko will also be able to dig in it, and it will look naturalistic, which is great. And there is another benefit; as it can be used both wet and dry, you do not have to use two different substrates.
Excavator clay substrate is one of the newest substrates on the market. Although it can get a bit pricey, it’s an attractive option with some unique benefits.
If you get the clay sufficiently moist, it can essentially be used as modeling clay. Whichever shape you create will stay firmly in place when it dries. Because of this unique property, using this substrate lets you build your own scenery in the form of burrows, caves, and basking spots.
I’m including substrates on this list if they have a significant chance of causing health problems with your leopard gecko.
Whereas the above are mostly harmless choices that you can make based on aesthetic and level of bother you’re willing to go through, the below should be avoided at all cost.
Sand is one of the worst substrates you can use. It’s edible, loose, and messy – all characteristics you do not want your gecko exposed to.
Despite these problems, sand is one of the most widely used substrates today, especially by inexperienced leopard gecko owners.
Here’s the issue: as leopard geckos come from a desert environment, a lot of people automatically assume this means a Sahara-like sandy desert landscape. But leopard geckos don’t come from sandy deserts – they originated in the rocky and grassy deserts of Asia.
You should avoid using sand as a substrate entirely.
Once your leopard gecko ingests enough of it, it can cause a blockage in their digestive system (a condition known as impaction). Once this happens, it’s pretty much a death sentence.
There are many other substrates you should avoid if you have a leopard gecko. Here’s a list of the most popular options:
- Wood shavings
- Corn cob
- Walnut shells
- Anything with sharp edges
In this section, we’re going to cover some of the best products you can get commercially to use as substrates.
You don’t need to buy any of these. Paper towels will be just as good as anything you find on this list. If you’ve decided that you want something that looks better, however, feel free to choose one of the below.
If you want a high-quality excavator clay substrate, go for the Zoo Med Excavator Cavern Kit (available on Amazon).
This substrate comes with a cavern kit, which will allow you to quickly create a suitable cave, shelter, or tunnel for your leopard gecko to use. It’s is an excellent way to add some creativity to your lizard caretaking duties while still providing a suitable habitat for your scaly companion.
If you’d prefer a reptile carpet, I recommend going with the Zilla Reptile Terrarium Bedding Substrate Liner (available on Amazon).
This substrate option looks like a well-manicured lawn with small hills. It’s also made explicitly for reptiles like leopard geckos and has been optimized for their well-being.
This carpet liner is solid on one side, and soft and plushy on the other. The soft side should face up to protect your leopard gecko’s feet, teeth, and sensitive tummy.
If you’d like to try a coconut fiber substrate, the Reptile Prime Coconut Fiber Bedding (available on Amazon) is your best bet.
This coconut fiber substrate is an eco-friendly product made out of coconut husks.
One great thing about this coconut substrate is that it has incredible humidity retention abilities. It also helps break down and absorb waste products and odor naturally,
It can also be safely composted and recycled into gardens and potted plants, allowing you to do something with used substrate other than throwing it out.
The down side?
While it isn’t as bad as sand, it can still be ingested. This means that you may want to skip it in favor of paper towels or a reptile carpet. The good news is that it can be passed through the digestive system, meaning there is a lower risk of impaction.
When choosing a substrate for your leopard gecko, you need to consider a few things:
- Is the substrate hygienic?
- Is the substrate ingestible?
- Is the substrate easily cleaned?
All of the following substrates address these concerns and others. If you use one of these options for your leopard gecko’s tank, you won’t be disappointed.
- Zoo Med Excavator Cavern Kit
- Zilla Reptile Terrarium Bedding Substrate Liner
- Reptile Prime Coconut Fiber Bedding Substrate