When you are setting up your enclosure for your Beardie, it’s a good idea to know a thing or two about the substrate. The substrate being the ground covering material, (but I’m sure you knew that). You wouldn’t want to hurt your new scaly friend, now would you?
We’re going to take a look at all the top-recommended substrate types and judge for ourselves, which would be the best one. After all, how can you know if one is the best, without looking at all the options, right? Before we dive into the best substrate types for a Bearded Dragon, let’s take a quick look at where the Beardie originates. It is essential to help us understand the Beardie’s needs.
Our Top Pick – Slate Tiles
Slate tiles may be one of the best choices for bearded dragon substrate.
There is nothing for your bearded dragon to accidentally ingest, it’s easy to clean, and it’s not unsightly like newspaper or paper towels (which are the best free options for substrate).
They are a bit pricey at first, but you never have to replace them, so you make up the cost over time.
If you’re not sure that this is the choice for you, check out our runner up further down in the article.
Bearded Dragon’s Place Of Origin
Did you know there are at least eight recognized species of Pogona, the genus that makes up the Bearded Dragons? The most common in the pet trade is the Pogona vitticeps, or more commonly known as the Central or Inland Bearded Dragon.
All Bearded Dragons come from the deserts of Australia. The question remains, what type of substrate is there in the deserts where the Pogona vitticeps originate?
The area of Australia where our scaly friend originates is primarily in the middle of the continent. It includes the southeastern corner of the Northern Territory region, the southwest corner of the Queensland region, and the northern half of the South Australia region of the country.
The ground covering or substrate of this central region of Australia is sand, rock, and sparse scrubland. The dirt you might find would be compacted, dried, and baked in the sun. The Bearded Dragon is quite at home in this sort of environment.
As in many industries, when you offer choices, people are going to debate about which one is the best. The result should always keep the health of the pet as the most critical consideration in the debate.
There are multiple options readily available to choose from when it comes to the substrate of your enclosure for your Beardie. Some of the available options you could choose from might not be the best option but could still work just fine, depending upon a variety of variables. I’ve taken the liberty of going through several of these options to help you make your decision and try to weed out some of the myths surrounding this debate.
Commonly Found Reptile Substrate Types
Our Runner Up – Reptile Carpet
Any type of ‘all-weather’ carpet can work in this case. However, the brands marketed at your local pet store safe use with your lizard. The advantage of this type of artificial substrate is that there is pretty much no chance that your lizard could ingest any substrate.
There is one significant drawback to artificial carpet substrate types. That drawback is cleaning. If you’ve had a Bearded Dragon for any length of time, then you know that if you leave their enclosure for more than a few days without cleaning, it gets that characteristic smell. It’s the smell of a reptile’s litter box.
If you like the idea of a reptile carpet, then you should look for one that you can easily wash. A type that will survive the washing machine is preferred. That way, you can purchase extra carpets, and after a quick clean up of any fecal matter, you can throw them in the wash and use one of your backup pieces while the other gets washed.
It’s a good idea to let it dry before you put it back in the enclosure after washing. It will keep down the possibility of mold growth. For best results, simply hang to dry, whether you use a machine or wash by hand.
The problem with some of the artificial turf and carpet sold for reptiles is that some may break down under ultraviolet lighting (if you use it for your lizard that is). Some types also shed tiny plastic fibers that can also be bad for your lizard. Only use a high-quality product if you intend to go with an artificial solution.
There are a few different products that fall under this general heading. Some substrates labeled as actual bark, and some are labeled forest floor bedding. These sorts of beddings hold moisture and are not appropriate for desert species like the Bearded Dragon. As one of the labels suggests, these are for the more arboreal and ground, forest-dwelling lizards, not our scaly desert friends.
Similar to the bark bedding mentioned, this type of substrate absorbs and holds moisture well. Often made of coconut fiber, this type of litter is again not recommended for desert reptiles.
Natural Calcium Sand
Another product available in stores is the natural calcium sand. Marketed directly at owners of reptiles, such as the Bearded Dragon, this type is common in stores. And, it even states on the label that it is for use with these lizards.
There is also a warning not to use this sand with young Bearded Dragons. At least, that is what I found on one of the big-box store websites. The other claim of this product is that it is natural calcium sand.
Here is where I am going to take another look, and maybe you should as well. There are two significant points to consider here. The first is the definition of natural. The claim on this substrate is that it is natural calcium sand. Although it may come from a natural source, the Australian central region sand is not composed of calcium. The composition of the sand in that region is primarily quartz.
The second and slightly more concerning point we need to consider is as follows. When you mix calcium and water, you get a slow chemical reaction, as shown below.
Ca(s) + 2H2O(1) —–> Ca(OH)2(aq) + H2(g)
This formula is telling us that calcium and water react slowly to create calcium hydroxide and hydrogen gas. This reaction is slow, so it isn’t like you have to worry about a build-up of hydrogen gas, causing an explosion when introduced to flame or spark. However, there is strong evidence to suggest that the ingestion of calcium hydroxide in pure or concentrated form can cause vomiting, bloody stool, and even death. It depends upon the strength of the calcium hydroxide ingested, but that’s what it can do to people. Now, I’m no veterinarian but I’m guessing that something that is considered toxic and poisonous at higher levels can’t be a great thing for our little lizard to ingest.
If you’ve ever seen a Bearded Dragon gobble up crickets, then you know they use their tongue to stick the crickets and gobble them up. Bearded Dragons tend to get a bit of their substrate in their mouth along with the cricket. Do you see where I’m going with this?
The possible calcium hydroxide that the sand can create if water splashes out of the water dish is not a controlled dosage and should not be considered a substitute for adding calcium to their diet either. The calcium one purchases to add to food (often accompanied by vitamin D3) is specifically designed to be ingested. The calcium sand substrate and subsequent calcium hydroxide it can create are by no means intended for ingestion. Use this substrate at your own (and possibly your lizard’s) risk.
Normal Play Sand
Normal play sand can be a capable substrate. There are a few recommendations to use this sand, and we’ll get to those in a second. The reason I like this sand is that it is cheap. You can go to your local hardware store and usually find a rather large bag of play sand for a few dollars. Only get the type intended for use in a child’s sandbox. It is often quartz, but that can contain silica dust, and this has some reports of being bad for children if they inhale the dust. However, the majority of the desert in Australia is composed of quartz sand.
Quartz sand is the most natural substrate you can use that is like the Bearded Dragon’s natural environment. It is for this reason that I would recommend using quartz sand. But I would watch inhaling any dust from it for the purpose mentioned previously.
The other good thing about quartz sand is that it tends to clump some when you introduce liquid. It allows for relatively easy cleaning. Using a simple strainer type of scoop seems to work the best for spot cleaning, as long as you make sure you aren’t kicking up a lot of dust. A good trick to avoid the dust is having a water sprayer and just spray one pump or two of water ‘mist’ over the sand. The mist stops surface dust from rising when you disturb the sand. Just don’t spray too much, or you’ll wind up clumping all the surface sand together.
A Note On Impaction
A serious and severe illness can harm or even kill your reptile, and it is called impaction. But, what is impaction, and what does it have to do with substrate? Well, let me explain.
Impaction is the blockage of the digestive tract. It can happen for a variety of reasons. One of the more common reasons is the ingestion of substrate that blocks the digestive tract.
In normal conditions, this isn’t a common problem (otherwise, how would the lizard survive in the wild?), but it does happen and can kill a lizard in the wild just like it can kill a pet. But wait! There are a few things you can do to prevent impaction. Aside from proper amounts of food and readily available freshwater, if using sand, you can give the sand a quick spray with a little water. It will cause the surface to stick and form a sort of crusty skin on the sand. It inhibits loose sand and makes it less likely your pet will ingest it.
The second action is to feed the lizard by hand. It is quite easy when you use a container for your crickets that is large enough for the lizard to enter. Not only does this only take a few seconds, but it keeps them from inadvertently eating any substrate. It also keeps your cost of crickets down due to not losing them to the enclosure. Once you see how much these voracious little lizards can eat, you’ll want to do this to save on crickets anyway.
Or, you can use carpet as a substrate and have to clean it daily. Well, in truth, you should be cleaning any enclosure daily anyway.
The two substrate choices that stand out as having the most benefits are the slate tiles and the artificial reptile carpeting. The carpet (arguably) looks better and may be cheaper, but it is more work to keep clean than the slate. As you can see, both of these options are good options with their advantages and drawbacks. You’ll just have to decide which option fits your reptile maintenance plan the best.
Wikipedia Pogona genus. Accessed April 9, 2020.
National Geographic – Bearded Dragons. Accessed April 9, 2020.
Wikipedia – Central Bearded Dragon. Accessed April 9, 2020.
Wikipedia – Twidale, C.R. (1980). “The Simpson Desert, Central Australia.” South African Geographical Journal. 65: 3–17.
Boudreaux, Kevin A. Instructor, “Calcium + Water.” Department of Chemistry, Angelo State University. San Angelo, Texas. Accessed April 9, 2020.
Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet – Calcium Hydroxide. New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. Accessed April 9, 2020.