If you’re new to the world of reptiles or Ball Pythons (opens in new tab) in particular, then you may be wondering, “What is substrate and why does my ball python need it?“
To put it simply, substrate refers essentially to what could be considered the flooring in a reptile’s enclosure.
Similar to how you may have wood flooring, carpet, or tile in your home, a reptile will have substrate.
And while the flooring in our homes doesn’t typically play a big role in affecting our health… in the world of reptiles?
Let’s just say substrate plays a MAJOR role in maintaining proper husbandry which DOES significantly affect a ball python’s lifespan.
So, it should come as no surprise that one of the most critical aspects of planning your ball python’s set up will involve selecting the RIGHT substrate.
The type, source, and depth of substrate have a significant impact on your pet’s health and happiness.
So, if you’re looking for a little guidance when it comes to finding the right ball python substrate, rest assured this post has got you covered!
Table of Contents
Curious or in a hurry?
✅ This specific substrate is the MOST popular amongst ball python owners AND also just-so-happens to take the top spot on our list as well.
What to Look for When Purchasing Substrate for Ball Pythons
Before we discuss all of your options for substrate, let’s first briefly discuss what you should consider when comparing one substrate against another.
The following 8 criteria will be used to rank the top 6 best substrates in the next section. As such, getting acquainted with them now will help ensure you make the most informed pick possible for you and your awesome pet.
8 Criteria to Consider When Choosing the Right Substrate:
#1. Water Retention & Effect on Humidity. Ball pythons originate in the forests and grasslands of Africa, where the humidity is always relatively high. Different substrates will affect the humidity level of your enclosure differently.
#2. Burrowing Habits. While not a particularly common activity, some ball pythons may enjoy burrowing and excavating in their substrate. Loose substrates that allow for this can enrich the life of your captive snake.
#3. Fungal & Parasite Risk. Some substrate are infamous for introducing itchy mites to your helpless pet or encouraging the growth of mold in high humidity environments.
#4. Cost. As long as the substrate is appropriate for a ball python, the next most crucial factor for most snake keepers is cost. This can range from pennies to fifty dollars every time you clean the cage.
#5. Ease of Cleaning. Speaking of cleaning the enclosure, the substrate can make or break the simplicity of such a task.
#6. Convenience of Purchasing. Some simple options can be purchased from the grocery store, while other options may require a trip to a specialty shop or an online order.
#7. Aesthetics. This is another option based entirely on personal preference. It won’t matter much if your ball python is housed in a rack or an opaque plastic tub, but display enclosures will require more thought.
#8. Ingestion & Impaction Risk. This can range from there being absolutely no risk of your pet ingesting the substrate to minimal impaction risk, to down-right “no.”
Now that we’ve covered the criteria that will be used to rank the substrates, let’s “dig in” (pun intended!) to your available choices!
Best Ball Python Substrates
While the following 6 substrates all make fine choices, we’ll now focus on discussing in depth how they differ from one another using the 8 criteria outlined above.
Rest assured, you can’t really go wrong here… but as you’ll soon discover, some substrates simply outshine others in specific categories.
Ball Python Substrate Option #1: Coconut Husk
Coconut husk, also referred to as “coco husk,” is made from roughly chopped chunks of coconut shell.
It’s widely considered the BEST substrate choice for ball pythons and other tropical reptile and amphibian species.
Humidity: Coconut husk can absorb large amounts of water, so it helps drastically with maintaining adequate humidity levels.
Burrowing: This isn’t the best substrate for burrowing due to the large size of husk chunks.
Fungus and Mites: Coconut products are naturally antimicrobial, meaning that they resist mold and fungus growth. Occasionally, this kind of substrate can harbor mites.
Cost: Coconut husk is, unfortunately, one of the most expensive substrate choices. It typically costs $20 to $30 per large bag.
Cleaning: The large chunks of coconut husk make it easy to remove anything that may have come into contact with your ball python’s waste, but the dark color makes it difficult to determine everywhere that may have happened. This substrate is excellent for absorbing foul odors.
Purchasing: Coconut husk bags are sold by volume, not weight, and it isn’t particularly dense or heavy. You’ll probably need to make a trip to your local pet or reptile specialty shop for this product or order it online.
Aesthetics: Coco husk is a lovely, natural-looking bedding. It can offer excellent contrast and make the colors “pop” on a light-colored morph.
Impaction: Unfortunately, the large chunks of coconut fiber may cause impaction if your snake accidentally ingests it. This can be avoided by feeding your snake in a separate enclosure, or on top of a paper towel in the cage.
🔑 Coconut Husk Key Takeaways: Although no substrate will 100% compare to that of what is found in the wild, coconut husk takes our top spot because it is easy to work with and maintains cage hygiene and aesthetics. Although not ideal for burrowing and potentially dangerous in terms of a small impaction risk, if you can stomach the more expensive price, this substrate is in our opinion (and that of many owners!) the BEST readily available substrate for a ball python. Final Rating: 5/5
Ball Python Substrate Option #2: Bio-Active Soil
Bio-active soil is the hottest new things to enter the herpetoculture world, and for a good reason!
It offers endless opportunities for enrichment, creating a beautiful landscape, and just letting your ball python live as naturally as possible.
Humidity: Bio-active soil is formulated to hold moisture and maintain appropriate levels of moisture. It does require occasional misting.
Burrowing: This bedding is PERFECT for allowing your ball python to engage in any natural burrowing behavior that she’s interested in.
Fungus and Mites: When properly maintained, the beneficial organisms in the bio-active substrate will handle any unwelcomed, harmful microorganisms.
Cost: The initial cost of setting up bio-active soil can be quite high, in the $50-$100 range. Luckily, you shouldn’t ever need to replace it if everything goes smoothly. You can also save money by researching and mixing up a DIY soil.
Cleaning: The beneficial organisms that live in the soil will handle all of the cleaning – including your ball python’s waste and shed skins!
Purchasing: You’ll either have to purchase a pre-made mix from a shop specializing in bio-active terrariums OR do research and buy individual components online or from a gardening supply store.
Aesthetics: Bio-active substrate is the MOST natural-looking choice because it is natural! It also allows you to utilize live plants and create a beautiful miniature eco-system.
Impaction: The risk of ingestion is ever-present; the risk of impaction is dependent on how “chunky” your substrate mixture is.
🔑 Bio-Active Soil Key Takeaways: Although on paper bio-active soil seems like it should take the top spot, the fact that it has a learning curve and can be difficult to perfect for first time owners, knocks it down into a close 2nd place. However, if you’re confident in your abilities to create and maintain a bio-active environment, and have the time, patience, and resources to do so, by all means consider this substrate in 1st place! Final Rating: 4.5/5
Ball Python Substrate Option #3: Coconut Fiber
Coconut fiber or coconut coir is made from very finely ground coconut shells. It creates a fibrous soil that can be dense or light and fluffy, depending on how moist it is.
Humidity: Coconut fiber is excellent at retaining moisture and maintaining humidity – probably the BEST choice for this purpose.
Burrowing: Being very soil-like in nature, coconut fiber is PERFECT for allowing your ball python to burrow, if he’d like.
Fungus and Mites: Being dense and thus limiting airflow, this substrate has a slight risk of developing mold. Luckily, coconut has antifungal properties. The risk can also be reduced by frequently aerating and turning the fiber, and allowing it to dry out occasionally.
Cost: Loose coconut fiber is moderately priced at $10-$20 for a large bag. Compressed coco fiber bricks are even more affordable, and often you can pay $5-$10 for an amount that hydrates and expands to 2-3x the volume of a large bag of loose coir.
Cleaning: It’s rather challenging to identify the soiled substrate and spot-clean it adequately. Completely changing the substrate is no small task either, thanks to its soil-like nature. It will get into all of the nooks and crannies, and stick to anything wet.
Purchasing: This bedding usually needs to be purchased from a brick and mortar or online pet shop.
Aesthetics: Since coconut coir looks like dirt, it gives a very natural appearance that appeals to many ball python owners.
Impaction: The risk of accidental ingestion is high, but the risk of impaction from the microscopic dirt-like particles is rather low.
🔑 Coconut Fiber Key Takeaways: Coconut Fiber is a great choice for those who prioritize maintaining humidity levels, allowing their ball python to burrow, and aesthetics above all else. However, it can be very difficult to clean and has the potential to develop mold without regular maintenance, which hurts it in our overall ranking. Final Ranking: 4/5
Ball Python Substrate Option #4: Cypress Mulch
Cypress mulch looks like any other mulch that you might use or see in gardening and landscaping. It’s made from ground-up chunks of cypress wood and bark.
Humidity: Cypress mulch is excellent at maintaining humidity. Straight out of the bag, cypress mulch is already moist and humid. Eventually, it will dry out, but this can be resolved with additional misting every few days.
Burrowing: Again, due to the size of the chunks, this is NOT the ideal substrate for ball pythons to burrow in.
Fungus and Mites: Cypress is antimicrobial and naturally resists mold and fungus growth. Since it’s typically sold in sealed bags, creating a very high moisture environment, mites usually do not stow away in it.
Cost: Cypress mulch sold specifically for reptiles costs about as much as coconut husk, at around $15-$30 per bag. It can be obtained for much less by shopping at garden supply stores.
Ensure that the product that you’re purchasing is 100% cypress mulch. Additives such as pesticides, fertilizer, and cedar are common, resulting in potentially deadly consequences for your ball python.
Cleaning: It can be hard to adequately spot-clean contaminated bedding, and even harder to identify when your snake defecates in the first place. Luckily, cypress mulch resists bacteria growth and absorbs odors quite well.
Purchasing: This is another product that will need to be purchased from a pet shop, online shop, or possibly a garden shop. It’s slightly heavier than coconut fiber due to the moisture content, but not by much.
Aesthetics: These attractive wood pieces create a gorgeous and natural terrain for your ball python.
Impaction: Pieces of cypress mulch may be somewhat sharp, so accidental ingestion may cause impaction and even perforation of your ball python’s digestive tract. Feed your snake on paper towels or in a separate container to eliminate the risk.
🔑 Cypress Mulch Key Takeaways: Despite the slight impaction risks and difficulties in spot-cleaning, cypress mulch is an attractive and extremely naturally clean substrate choice that is readily available and excellent at maintaining humidity. And while the pros certainly outweigh the cons with this selection, the risk or impaction or perforation can’t be overlooked. Final Rating: 3.5/5
Ball Python Substrate Option #5: Paper Towels, Newspaper, and Butcher Block Paper
A good option for those who are in a pinch, any of the 3 aforementioned substrate options can provide an easy-to-clean and simple aesthetic that make them low maintenance and ideal for temporary husbandry.
Humidity: Paper will absorb moisture, but it’s NOT particularly useful for impacting the enclosure’s humidity.
Burrowing: Ball pythons can’t exactly burrow and dig in sheets of paper, but some do enjoy hiding underneath it.
Fungus and Mites: Mites and mildew are easily avoided because paper substrate is typically completely changed every week or so.
Cost: Paper is the cheapest option. It can range from completely free to just pennies for enough to cover the bottom of the cage.
Cleaning: Changing the soiled paper substrate is extremely easy and quick.
Purchasing: Of course, this type of bedding can be purchased anywhere. Grocery stores, newspaper stands – locating paper substrate won’t be a problem.
Aesthetics: Paper isn’t visually appealing to most keepers, but it can work out if you are going for a basic, clean look.
Impaction: There’s no risk of ingestion or impaction with paper substrate.
🔑 Paper Towels, Newspaper, & Butcher Block Paper Key Takeaways: Although by far the most cost effective, readily available, easy-to-clean, and safe in terms of impaction… paper towels, newspaper, and butcher block paper come up majorly short in the aesthetics, humidity maintenance, and burrowing departments. Because proper humidity is so critical, this costs them big in our overall ranking. Final Rating: 3/5
Ball Python Substrate Option #6: Aspen
Good for a short term substrate considering how affordable it is, aspen unfortunately has more cons than pros.
But, with that being said, if you’re in a pinch and have a work-around for the potential humidity problems and impaction risk, it’s a solid choice.
Humidity: Aspen shavings do NOT help maintain humidity levels. In fact, they can dry the air out.
Burrowing: Depending on the brand and size of the shavings, aspen bedding can be great for burrowing ball pythons.
Fungus and Mites: Unfortunately, mites are common hitchhikers on commercial bales of aspen bedding. Mold grows readily if the substrate is left damp for too long.
Cost: Aspen shavings are very affordable. Huge bales typically cost around $50 or less.
Cleaning: Snake poop is easy to see and easy to smell on aspen shavings. This makes it easy to spot-clean all of the soiled bedding. However, changing the litter can be a messy ordeal since things can get dusty, and the lightweight shavings seem to just float away and all over the room.
Purchasing: Most supermarkets with a pet section carry aspen shavings. You can also purchase it at pet shops, online, or farm and feed stores.
Aesthetics: This substrate looks semi-natural. Darker colored ball python morphs will benefit from the contrast provided by the yellow-white wood shavings.
Impaction: Aspen shavings can vary from 1-2” chunks to hair-like strands. Impaction is more likely with larger-cut shavings.
🔑 Aspen Key Takeaways: A bit of a mixed bag when it comes to pros and cons, aspen definitely has appeal when it comes to substrates that are easily spot cleaned, great for burrowing, affordable, and at least somewhat realistic. However, with the potential to dry out enclosures and cause impaction, this substrate choice, although still acceptable, comes in last on our list. Final Rating: 2.5/5
Ball Python Substrates to Avoid
It’s best to be educated and prepared when you go shopping for substrate, especially if you still DON’T have a solid choice in mind.
Unfortunately, some common options that are often sold and marketed for reptiles aren’t exactly ideal AND can even be deadly!
As such, you’ll want to be well versed in all things safe vs. dangerous substrate!
To continue your education, consider and review the following 5 substrates, all of which should be on any ball python owner’s naughty list.
Substrate to Avoid #1: Sand
Although a common substrate for many reptiles, sand unfortunately is notorious for promoting the growth of mold.
On top of this, it also reduces humidity, can irritate the respiratory tract, AND can cause impactions due to its clumping properties.
The bottom line? Avoid sand at all costs!
Substrate to Avoid #2: Pine and Cedar Shavings
Pine and cedar shavings surely seem natural, almost like something your ball python may encounter in the wild, right?
Well, consider this: These seemingly safe substrate options may release harmful oils and compounds into the air, which can lead to neurological damage and respiratory irritation in your ball python.
Substrate to Avoid #3: Gravel
By now, you’re probably well aware of how important it is to consider impaction risk when choosing a substrate.
And when it comes to gravel? Well, let’s just say it gets a big, fat “F” in this subject on its report card considering how easily ingestible it is.
Another major con? Gravel offers NO physical or odor absorption when your pet defecates.
Give your nose a break and opt for something else.
Substrate to Avoid #4: Artificial Outdoor Carpet
Similar to pine and cedar shavings, artificial outdoor carpet may release harmful chemical compounds into the air, which you now know can lead to respiratory and/or neurological issues.
And since it isn’t absorptive, defecation day can get EXTRA messy. On top of this, the carpet usually starts breaking down after a few cleanings.
Unless cleaning up poop is your thing (???) and you love having to constantly replace something, skip this disaster of a substrate.
Substrate to Avoid #5: Recycled Fiber Fluff and Pellet Products
tend to be dusty and dry the air out. Pellets can’t be used for burrowing, may cause impaction, and probably aren’t very comfortable for your ball python to slither on.
Wrapping Up Ball Python Substrate
There are many safe AND ideal types of substrates to choose from. The BEST choice for you and your ball python will depend on your situation and personal preferences.
Feel free to experiment! What works for one keeper might not work for you. You could even try mixing different, safe substrate types.
Fortunately, if you AREN’T happy with the substrate that you pick, you can always change it up during the next cage cleaning.
If you switch it up enough and carefully observe your snake, you might even discover which one they enjoy the most!
Clearly, the right substrate is crucial to keeping your ball python happy. But there are still many other factors to consider!
Check out our ball python enclosure guide to see what else your ball python might need from you.
If you’re interested in more on pythons, read our blood python care sheet!