Best substrate for bearded dragons

Your bearded dragon will spend most of her life running across the substrate in her cage. It is essential that you choose a substrate that is safe and pleasant for her. There are lots of substrates available commercially or things you can find around the house or at your local hardware store to use as a substrate for your dragon.

Learn all of the possibilities for substrate in your bearded dragon’s cage. Hear both sides of the sand debate. Learn about commercially available options like calcium based sand and tunneling clay. Consider the pros and cons of some affordable choices like reptile carpet and paper. Decide between some atypical options like ceramic tiles, bark, and commercially available substrate rolls.

Sand is a classic choice for your bearded dragon’s enclosure. Sand looks great and represents something similar to your dragon’s natural habitat. There are serious risks that you should be aware of. Learn the risks and how to mitigate them.

Commercially available substances like calcium-based sand, burrowing clay, and substrate rolls, all represent new options in the market for bearded dragons. What are the pros and cons of these options?

You’re already spending a lot to feed and house your dragon. Why spend more on substrate which you’re going to need to change frequently anyhow? Learn the safest and most affordable options for providing substrate for your dragon.


Sand is a popular substrate for bearded dragon owners because it looks natural and is relatively easy to clean. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of using sand in your bearded dragon enclosure.

Advantages of Sand

When we think of our dragons in the wild, we are likely to think about them running over a desert of sand. Sand is attractive and easy to clean because it acts like a giant litter box. It collects your dragon’s droppings so that they can be scooped up and disposed of.

You don’t need to throw sand away during the monthly thorough cage cleaning. Rather, wash sand, dry it, and use it again. Many bearded dragon owners find the routine of washing the sand to be too labor-intensive to be worth it, but for some thrifty owners with the time this is a handy way to keep their dragon’s enclosure looking good and clean with minimal expense.

Sand is an attractive substrate for your bearded dragon. Sand can either be of natural color or you can choose a wide variety of artificial colors. If your bearded dragon has a particular color morph, the sand you choose can help to amplify the color and pattern.

Black sand will make light-colored bearded dragons pop. Colorful dragons seem more intensely colored. Lights sand can bring out the impact of darker color dragons. Some keepers use colors that are dyed in a way to compliment the color of the bearded dragon, like purple sand for red dragons.

Potential Problems with Using Sand as a Substrate

The Australian outback is composed largely of sand. In the wild bearded dragons would have many other types of substrate to run over. Even sand would be unlikely to be pure. Patches of sand mixed with soil, grit, pebbles, large rocks, and bits of debris and plant matter would compose your dragon’s world.

A substrate of continuous sand can make it difficult for your bearded dragon to get a grip and run naturally. The sand will shift continuously under her feet. This can cause joint problems over time. Very fine sand can be especially difficult to grip. Fine sand may also be easier to ingest or breathe in.

A bearded dragon can become impacted when she eats sand. This potentially life-threatening condition is most common in young dragons, but older dragons can be affected if they swallow a lot of sand.

It is probable that in the wild some bearded dragons become sick or die due to sand impaction. It is, however, less likely than in captivity. Wild dragons have so many options in where they run. Much of their time is also spent on low trees and shrubbery. This means wild dragons are less likely to ingest enough sand to cause a problem.

Sand that is dyed or bleached may negatively affect your bearded dragon. Such sand may release respiratory toxins or rub off on your dragon skin, causing problems. If you choose to use sand in your enclosure, it is best to choose an all-natural variety that has been made specifically for reptiles.

Tips for Using Sand Safely

If you would like to use sand in your bearded dragon enclosure, there are a few things that you can do to minimize risk.

1. Wait Until Your Dragon is Grown

Sand becomes less dangerous as your dragon gets older. Even a very small amount of sand can cause impaction in baby bearded dragons. Play it safe and wait until your bearded dragon is an adult before housing her on sand.

2. Mix Sand With Other Substrate

If you are going to use sand in your bearded dragon’s enclosure, it is safer to use it mixed with other substrates. This can make it much more difficult or impossible to clean the sand during thorough cage cleanings, so may result in a more expensive substrate then pure sand. That said, the advantages of mixing sand with clean soil outweigh the expense. Furthermore, clean soil is cheaper than sand. You may not mind throwing out substrate during monthly cleanings.

You can bake soil to clean it from pests. Make sure that soil has no pesticides. You can mix soil with sand or alternated with sand so that your bearded dragon will be able to grip the substrate more easily and potentially burrow some as well.

Put large rocks into the substrate to provide grip and to reduce the overall area of the substrate that can be eaten. Don’t use any rocks or pebbles small enough to fit in your dragon’s mouth. You should provide a substantial section of your terrarium that is composed of rough, large pieces of wood and rock that your dragon can run over to wear down her nails and have an opportunity to grow well.

3.  Feed Away from the Sand

Many bearded dragon owners find it convenient to take the dragon out of the enclosure for feeding live foods. If you feed her in a large Tupperware or another container she won’t accidentally eat sand and so no insects will be left in the enclosure.

Provide fruits, veggies, dry foods, and other non-live offerings in a large shallow bowl. Put the bowl on the side of your cage that is mostly rock and wood where there is no sand. By placing the bowl somewhere without sand, you reduce the chances that your dragon will pull a piece of food out onto the sand and eat sand with the food.

What About Calcium-Based Sand?

The idea behind calcium-based sand is that if your bearded dragon eats some, they will just get a harmless calcium supplement as the sand breaks down in their system.  There are many of these sands available at your local pet store and online.

It is true that eating a small amount of calcium-based sand won’t harm your bearded dragon. Some keepers still find that their dragon becomes impacted on a calcium-based sand.

This may be because the dragon is more likely to eat sand that tastes like calcium. It may also be because calcium-based sand tends to be slightly finer and therefore easier to ingest than coarser natural sands.

If you choose to try calcium-based sand, it is still a good idea to provide a substantial surface of the cage that is not sand. Furthermore, observe your dragon very carefully and make sure she isn’t eating too much of the sand or eating it behaviorally.

Commercially Available Clay Burrowing Substrate

You can buy a substrate that is designed for desert dwelling reptiles to dig and burrow naturally. Mix the substrate with sand for a loosely holding sand that dragons can dig in. You can also use them undiluted so your dragon can dig burrows.

Some bearded dragon owners love these kinds of substrates because they compact and do not present as much of a risk of impaction. Furthermore, this substrate provides some humidity which can help with bearded dragon shedding.

That said, other owners expressed concern over too much moisture or a continued risk for impaction, especially with younger dragons. To play it safe, only use burrowing substrates with older dragons and watch your dragon carefully to make sure she is not eating the clay.

Reptile Carpet

Reptile carpet is a synthetic material that looks much like AstroTurf but is generally flatter. In general, reptile carpet provides a good grip for your dragon to move naturally across her cage.

It is easy to wash or spot clean reptile carpet. For some reptile carpets, you can them in the washing machine.

You can choose reptile carpet in whatever color you like. It is generally quite affordable. There are few risks to your dragon when you use reptile carpet. It is possible for your dragon to snag a nail on the carpet, which can potentially be dangerous. If you are going to use reptile carpet, choose a high-quality brand that lies heavy and flat to the ground so your dragon will be unlikely to snare a claw.

While reptile carpet is easy to clean,  it does nothing to hide the odor of droppings between spot cleanings. Reptile carpet is a good choice when the keeper is able to clean up steadily.

Dragons cannot dig in reptile carpet, so it is essential to provide good hiding places and tunnels to replace burrows.

Substrate Liner

Commercial substrate liners are available to make housing your dragon as safe and easy as possible. You can buy such products in a roll and cut it smootly to size. The material is safe for your dragon’s nails and feet and easy for her to grip and run across.

Some of these liners are designed to absorb droppings. Sometimes, they are treated with enzymes to break down the absorbed droppings. Other liners keep droppings on top so that you can wipe them off.

You can spray off most commercially available substrate liners and use them again, but sometimes they are disposable.

In general substrate liners are safe to use with your bearded dragon, but keep in mind that your dragon won’t be able to dig into them so it is important to provide her with plenty of tunnels and hideaways as well as coarse rocks to wear her nails down.

Crushed Walnut Shells

Some keepers are using a commercially available crushed walnut shell bedding with their bearded dragons. Crushed walnut shells will not scratch the glass like sand can and it tends to absorb droppings so that it will keep the cage smelling cleaner between cleanings.

That said, most responsible bearded dragon keepers have determined that crushed walnut shells are not worth the risk of impaction. Many keepers find that crushed walnut shells may be more tempting for your dragon to eat, they may do more damage if eaten.


Either commercially available paper liner for bearded dragon tanks, newspaper, paper towels, or other sources of paper are all popular choice for bearded dragon enclosures.

Paper is cheap and it is easy to change out soiled pieces. There is no risk of impaction when using paper.

This substrate does not look very good in your bearded dragon’s enclosure. You need to clean it regularly since it will absorb moisture and hold odor.

Furthermore, since paper slips around on the glass bottom and is slippery itself, your bearded dragon can have a hard time gripping it.

If you would like to use paper in your bearded dragon’s enclosure, provide plenty of natural wood and rock decor for your bearded dragon to run around on. Also, make sure you always change the paper daily or multiple times a day as your dragon dirties it.

Bark and Mulch

Some people use bark or mulch with their bearded dragons because it looks natural, is affordable, and may resist odors better than some other options. Rid bark and mulch of potential pests and parasites with thorough baking just as with soil.

There is some opportunity for burrowing with bak and mulch,  although it is unlikely that they will hold a shape for a tunnel that your dragon makes.

You can choose much better options than bark and mulch. The bearded dragon is a desert animal and these forest substrates are not a natural surface. The uneven surfaces and shards of wood may cause splinters or cuts on your dragon’s skin.

Bark and mulch tend to retain moisture, which can raise the humidity in your dragon’s enclosure higher than is safe.

Ceramic Tiles

Ceramic tiles are a popular choice for bearded dragon enclosures because they are highly customizable, attractive, affordable, and easy to clean. Wipe off tiles or take them out one at a time for spot cleaning as needed.

By using a rough tile, you can provide a surface that is comfortable for your dragon to grip and run over and will also wear down her nails.

If you are using tiles for your bearded dragon, make sure to securely anchor them into a bedding of sand, clay, paper, or something else to keep them from moving around. Otherwise, your dragon could get a toe or claw stuck between the tiles.

Also be certain that you are using rough tiles that are easy for your dragon to grip. Avoid slick tiles which will make your dragon slip. Since bearded dragons won’t be able to dig with a tile substrate, it is a good idea to provide lots of tunnels for them or a section of the cage where they can dig.


There are an awful lot of options in substitute for your bearded dragon. It can be a bit overwhelming but don’t be discouraged. Follow these guidelines and experiment with safe options to choose the best substrate for you and your dragon.