Best Substrates for Leopard Geckos
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There are many safe and affordable leopard gecko substrates on the market, in pet stores, online, or even in your local garden department. There are also some options that should never be used.
Here is a comprehensive guide on the safe substrates vs. the unsafe ones. But if you're looking for more information on caring for your leopard gecko, here is a full guide for all the important steps to consider when scheduling their diet, and habitat sanitation.
Never Use These Substrates
To be avoided are pet toilet products that are advertised as clumping or scoopable such as clay kitty litter (which often contains clumping agents like bentonite and silica). Materials that clump upon exposure to moisture will, of course, stick to reptile tongues and eyes and even get into food, where those sharp little particles can cause serious intestinal damage if ingested. This material is also highly irritating to a gecko’s skin and constant contact can result in abrasions and ulcerations.
Another taboo material is cedar. There is a reason that this material smells nice to humans, but repels fleas and moths. The volatile oils, known as phenols and which are responsible for that clean fresh pine scent, can cause damage to the skin and respiratory systems of caged animals. Within the confines of an enclosure, especially one with solid sides such as an aquarium/terrarium, the pet cannot escape the fumes from cedar shavings, and the phenols and acids this material releases will eventually erode the lining of the lungs and trachea.
Sand is another enemy of gecko health and safety. Silica sand and play sand can cause:
- irritation of eyes
- irritation of nasal passages
- irritation between scales
- silicosis, a disease of the lungs that develops after repeated exposure to silica dust.
And it is extremely dusty. Reptile “calci-sand” is not safe either. It’s composed of calcium carbonate – basically crushed antacid tablets. It’s dandy if applied on top of food as a calcium supplement occasionally, but as a substrate it is dehydrating and irritating. Some pet shops will indeed try to sell this product to the unwary, but don’t go there.
Exceptions to using sand
One exception to the sand rule is when it is being used as a sort of ‘grout’ in-between slate tiles. One inch slate tiles attached to a web backing make an attractive substrate for adult geckos and the cracks in between tiles can be filled with washed sand for a more natural look. So little sand is exposed to the gecko’s tongue as it searches for prey that a feeding dish can be dispensed with. A little sand underneath the tiles is also fine, since the tiles will form a barrier. A ½ inch bed of sand beneath the tiles provides a little air space, so feces that are rinsed off during misting have a place to go. That said, this sand and tile arrangement does need to be sanitized once a month.
Excellent Leopard Gecko Substrates
A product on the market that helps to maintain a habitat that will eventually require no cleaning at all is Terra Sahara. This is similar to orchid mix (see other postings in this site). The manufacturer suggests using an entire 40 pound bag for a 24 x 30 inch terrarium. This means that the substrate will be about 6 inches deep to start with. No other material is needed on the bottom of the tank if this much mix is used. Adding a bag of sphagnum moss and mixing it in is also recommended.
The whole mix needs to be thoroughly moistened but not to the point of soaking. The really interesting feature of this system is the addition of several kinds of detritivores (organisms and animals that eat leaf litter and rotting vegetation), helpful bacterium and mycorrhizal fungi. When the set up has been completed, along with some live plants placed directly into the substrate (and not left in pots), tiny insects such as springtails (use plenty) and various small isopods are added to the habitat. Although some spot cleaning may be needed for a few weeks, eventually the populations of these detritivores will have risen to the point that they provide the necessary janitorial services.
Daily misting is critical for this system to work, but when it does, it is attractive and low maintenance. Misting doesn't have to be a manual operation. There are plenty of scheduled reptile misters available to help automate your leopard gecko's habitat.
This system is best suited to adults and breeding female geckos. Unlike tiles or reptile carpet, females can easily find a space to burrow for egg-laying in this substrate. Also, since leopard gecko droppings are more watery than many other pet reptiles, the absorbency of this substrate helps with keeping down odors and smearing the messy bowel movements before they can be removed. Dead leaves make an attractive and necessary element for the clean-up-crew (detritivores). While the set-up is reaching equilibrium, the CUCs will need a little supplementation, like a small scrap of blackened banana peel, to tide them over. These tiny bugs are harmless to your pet, even if consumed, so no worries there.
Planting aromatic herbs (check on recommended species that are never toxic) in bioactive systems can help to keep the habitat sweet smelling, but the micro-inhabitants will do most of the work.
Despite the jungle appearing nature of this system, leos still require a moist hide for the purposes of successful shedding. Although an ambient moisture level of around 40% is sufficient, for shedding purposes they will still need a spot that can get up to around 80%. This system promotes good health of the respiratory tract by never being too humid overall, yet with a moist hide accommodates the humidity necessary for a successful shed. Personally, I find the concept of this tiny little ecosystem fascinating and so far these systems seem to get good reviews.
Draw-Back of Bioactive Substrates
One potential draw-back for the bioactive approach to substrate management is the size of the particles. They are lightweight, and unlike sand, are vegetation based. They can, however, stick to the gecko’s tongue and be ingested. A well hydrated gecko should be able to pass these particles without impaction occurring. But, any lizard fed a diet of primarily mealworms, with their hard chitinous shell, and bedded on this lightweight material may indeed become impacted.
A water dish or twice daily misting are critical to preventing impaction when using this substrate. Feeding black soldier fly larva and other softer shelled insects in a feeding dish should help to prevent an internal buildup of indigestible materials. By using a dish, you're isolating where their tongues will go, which will reduce the possibility of their tongue coming in contact with the substrate.
Bake Bioactive Substrate to Kill Mites
Mites can sometimes be a problem in this system. To reduce this, wash the undersides of any nursery plant leaves you intend to install, as well as their tops. Treat any new Terra Sahara substrate by baking at 250 F for ½ hour. This kills any hitchhiking mites. The magic of this system is in the bugs and mycorrhizal fungi (sold as soil inoculant) that you will add and not properties of the substrate itself. If, despite these precautions, there is a build up of mites after a year or two, the vivarium may need to be emptied and restarted from scratch.
A more tried and true substrate for leos is aspen shavings, especially those that are double shredded. It is inexpensive and readily available. Dustiness can be a problem, however.
When I purchase a bag as a substrate for any reptile, I take out all of the shavings and place them in fine mesh laundry bag. I throw this into my washing machine on cold. When done, I remove the shavings and bake at 250 degrees F for ½ hour. This dries the shavings nicely and saves wear and tear on my dryer. I do not use them wet, because even though this doesn’t bother the gecko, it will cause them to mold in just a couple of days.
Another drawback can occur with some really large leos, who have been reported to have trouble with shavings filling the mouth during feeding time. This can be circumvented by misting the shavings to weigh them down if one is living in an arid environment. Or, placing a heavy, indented kraft paper on top of the shavings until any live prey items are consumed, or use of a feeding dish. If the enclosure humidity is in excess of 70 % just naturally, the dry kraft paper approach is probably best.
For juveniles that measure 6 inches in length or less, paper towels are the hands-down favorite among breeders and fanciers. Unsightly yes, but the potential for ingestion and subsequent impaction in vulnerable young animals is zero. They are cheap, absorbent, safe, and can be changed daily.
Recycled Paper Products
Carefresh and other types of wood fiber and recycled paper based pet toilet pellets have mixed reviews. These recycled paper products are readily available and quite affordable. However, they may not be a good choice for large adult geckos. It is possible for adults to accidentally ingest them. Although they are non-toxic, they can swell inside the gecko, potentially causing gut impaction. Also, they do not inhibit molds and odors and so must be replaced frequently. So while some keepers swear by this bedding, others would not touch it with a 10 foot pole.
Most substrates require close observation for awhile and possibly replacement over the course of the gecko’s life span. Common sense dictates these changes much of the time, such as the need to exchange a tile substrate for a particulate one to accommodate an egg-laying female. Experimentation will eventually result in the most safe and useful system for your particular situation and geckos.