The Best (And Safest) Substrates for Bearded Dragons – A Must Read!

When you’re designing your dream home, your choices for flooring are virtually endless!

From lush carpet, to hardwood floors, and beautiful tile… there is no shortage of options for great flooring.

However, when it comes to the flooring or “substrate” in your bearded dragon’s enclosure, the options aren’t nearly so endless.

Bearded dragons need specific types of substrates that will not only help them feel at home in their tank, but also keep them healthy.

So, what are the best substrates for bearded dragons?

Non-particle substrates like reptile carpet, ceramic tile, and newspaper are going to be the safest options. Loose particle based substrates, such as play sand and gravel, pose some health risks especially to younger dragons and are not my first choice for you to use.

Read on to learn more about the pros and cons behind the different types of substrates for your bearded dragon’s habitat!

Loose Particle Based Substrates

First and foremost, many bearded dragon owners are going to advise AGAINST you using a loose particle substrate. Why?

Well, because loose particle substrates are in fact, loose, they present potential health risks to your dragon since they can not only be ingested, but can also come into contact with the eyes and nose, potentially leading to serious infections.

Impaction in Bearded Dragons
Loose particle substrates have been known to cause impaction when ingested.

Baby bearded dragons especially have been known to ingest particles while eating as they are not the most skilled and graceful hunters.

If you are adamant about using a loose particle substrate, I recommend you keep a very close eye on your dragon and avoid using it completely with a baby.

Here are some examples of the most popular loose particle substrates…

Calcium Sand (Calci-Sand)

Calcium sand is this sneaky sand that was designed to try and fool reptile owners into thinking it’s a “safe sand” since it has calcium in it.

However, it’s not.

Many pet stores will tell you that calcium sand is safe and digestible but it most certainly isn’t and can lead to impaction issues just like regular sand can.

Another important thing to consider with any type of sand is how hygienic it actually is.

When your bearded dragon poops and you scoop the poop out, you’re leaving behind juices (gross, I know) and tiny flecks that can lead to parasites and health issues if ingested or in contact with food.

Calci sand substrate
Don’t let the name fool you… Calci-sand is NOT digestible or safe for consumption.

Don’t let the name fool you… Calci-sand is NOT digestible or safe for consumption.

A bearded dragon that has sand substrate is essentially living in a big litterbox, and I don’t know about you, but I personally would not want to subject my pet to that!

Play Sand

Although a better sand option than calcium sand, play sand is still not really an ideal substrate for bearded dragons because of the ingestion and infection risk.

Also, play sand, despite the name, isn’t necessarily ideal for “playing” since it doesn’t hold its shape well.

So, if your beardie is looking to dig in their substrate, you can pretty much forget about play sand holding up.

Now, you could dampen it some, but then you’re likely just going to raise the humidity level in the tank and that will present a whole other array of issues.

Also, play sand has been known to literally STAIN bearded dragons’ skin. SO, there’s that as well…

Bearded dragon stained from play sand substrate
Amongst other concerns, play sand has been known to actually stain bearded dragons’ skin.

Wood chips/shavings

I recommend avoiding this as a substrate since many kinds of wood are toxic for bearded dragons.

Walnut shells

Dusty, sharp, potential for internal bleeding if ingested… need I go on? Don’t subject your little guy or gal to this.

Alfalfa pellets

One of the only truly digestible substrates, Alfalfa pellets are perhaps a better loose particle option than many of the ones above.

However, they too can present the risk of impaction if too many are consumed. 

Also, just as with any other loose particle substrate, there is still the risk of parasites being left behind from urine and feces.

If you have your mind made up that you want to use a loose substrate (first of all, why?), then this is really the only one I can recommend.

Although, make no mistake… it’s by no means my first choice. 

alfalfa pellets substrate
Although they may be the best loose particle substrate option, alfalfa pellets still present quite a few health hazards that should not be ignored.

Millet

Similar to everything mentioned above, millet also can cause impaction when ingested, can mold (gross), and lead to the spreading of bacteria and parasites.

In general? Skip this option.

Non-Particle Substrate

Non-particle substrates are an all-around safer option for your bearded dragon because they don’t run the risk of causing them to become impacted nor do they get stirred up easily and end up irritating your beardie’s nose or eyes.

They also tend to be the easiest to clean and as such, don’t present the risk of parasites and hygiene issues that loose particle substrates do.

Check out the most common forms of non-particle substrate below…

Bearded Dragon Substrate Tiles

Whether slate, linoleum, or ceramic, tile is a great option for bearded dragon’s substrate.

On top of being super affordable it is also low maintenance in that you never have to replace it!

Tile substrate in bearded dragon tank
Tile makes a wonderful substrate for bearded dragon tanks.

Also, cleaning it is a total breeze and will even keep your dragon’s claws trimmed. Just make sure the tile isn’t slippery like glazed tile can be!

Now, there are some small cons with tile, such as how slippery it can be.

However, an easy way to get around this is making sure your dragon has plenty of other things to climb around on so they’re not always on the tile.

Also, you can always use a little bit of non-toxic adhesive and some topsoil or sand to add some traction and make the tile a little grittier.

Since the sand will be so fine (not to mentioned stuck to the tile), there isn’t any risk of impaction or it getting into the eyes or nose, so you’re find in that regard!

Also, one last thing about tile.

Make sure that whatever kind you get does not reflect light/heat, but instead absorbs it.

You’re going to want to make sure your bearded dragon’s substrate is not cold.

bearded dragon tile floor
Tile is not only easy to clean and maintain, but looks attractive and helps keep your bearded dragon’s nails nicely filed.

In terms of where to get tile, you can go to any hardware store like Lowes or Home Depot and have them cut you the sizes you need.

If they’re charging a lot to have the tile cut, try going to a tile store.

Rubber Shelf Liner

A bit of a new discovery amongst bearded dragon enthusiasts, is shelf liner as a substrate

Easy to clean and relatively inexpensive, shelf liner makes a great substrate option and can last up to several years before needing to be replaced.

This is a great option for those looking for something fast and convenient, that they don’t have to deep clean more than once a week or so.

Newspaper/Paper Towels

Newspaper and paper towels are wonderful options if you’re on a really tight budget or maybe are buying time between actually setting up something more permanent like tile.

Just make sure you regularly switch out soiled newspaper and paper towels to avoid leaving germs in your bearded dragons tank.

Bearded dragon newspaper substrate
Short on cash? Try newspaper as a substrate, just make sure to switch it out when it gets soiled from your dragon using the bathroom.

Bearded Dragon Carpet (AKA Reptile Carpet)

Zilla Reptile Terrarium Bedding Substrate Liner, Green, 55G

Although a better option than any loose particle substrate, reptile carpet like this one here is perhaps my least favorite substrate option due to the simple fact that it can be a total pain in the ass to clean.

In fact, if you’re going to go this route, I recommend having 2 carpets, that way you can switch one out for the other during cleanings.

You’ll want to spot clean as often as possible to keep smells and bacteria to a minimum.

Clay Substrate for Bearded Dragons (AKA Excavator Clay)

Another option for substrates is excavator clay, which gives you the ability to actually form tunnels and hills for your bearded dragon.

This is a great option for those willing to take the time and effort needed to really spend some time building a great enclosure.

It should be noted that depending on the size of the enclosure, you could need 20 or more pounds of excavator clay.

However, you can always use the clay in just part of the enclosure as well, it works well on tile.

Excavator clay bearded dragon substrate
Excavator clay allows owners to make custom landscapes within their bearded dragon’s tank.

Wrapping Up Substrates

So in conclusion, when it comes to choosing the right substrate for your bearded dragon, you will have several options to consider, typically categorized into either the “loose” or “non-particle” substrate categories.

Loose particle substrates are going to present several health hazards and hygiene concerns and as such, do not make as safe of substrates as non-particle or solid options.

As such, myself and virtually any other bearded dragon owner is going to recommend you stick to non-particle based substrate options, with tile being the clear standout, followed closely by a good rubber shelf liner.

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