When it comes to picking the best substrate for Bearded Dragon it can be hard to know where to begin. The vast amount of choices and alternatives can leave you feeling overwhelmed and not knowing if you are making the right choice. As a Bearded Dragon owner and enthusiast, I’ve researched substrates extensively to bring you this ultimate guide.

So what is the best substrate for Bearded Dragon? The best substrate for Bearded Dragons is ‘excavation clay’. This clay is a great option because it looks and feels very close to the terrain in a Bearded Dragons natural habitat. You can build hills and caves and it also allows you Bearded Dragon to dig which is very important.

Read on to discover more about excavation clay and all other substrate options for your Bearded Dragon plus much more.

Before we look at the best substrates for Bearded Dragons let’s take a look at what substrate actually is? And if it’s even important?

What Is Substrate For Bearded Dragons?

Substrate for Bearded Dragons is essentially the covering that you use on the floor of your Bearded Dragons tank.

The idea of the substrate is to replicate the terrain of the wild that your Dragon would encounter.

Just like you would use rocks and branches in their tank to create an authentic habitat, it’s also important to add the right substrate to enhance that authentic look and feel for your Bearded Dragon.

In the wild, a Bearded Dragon will walk on pebbles, rocks, fallen twigs, sand and similar terrain so ideally, you want to pick a substrate that replicates this look and feel.

There are many different options for you to consider and your final choice may be down to the age of your Bearded Dragon, how long they are going to stay in the tank before moving to a new one, the size of the tank, how much time you are willing to spend cleaning the tank and more.

Is Substrate For Bearded Dragons Even Important?

A substrate is hugely important to your Bearded Dragon. As we briefly mentioned above, you need to create a habitat inside their tank that is as close to their habitat in the wild.

Bearded Dragons love to dig and without a substrate or using a poor quality substrate you will be denying them of one of their natural behaviours.

This is the equivalent of taping up a birds beak and not allowing it to chirp and sing.

Having a good quality substrate is also important for females that want to dig to bury their eggs.

This is also another natural process and without a substrate, your female Dragon would most likely start to feel stressed as they simply wouldn’t be able to do what comes naturally.

Bearded Dragons also like to dig when they are about to start a period of brumation to give them a hole that helps to regulate their body temperature. Either not having a substrate or having a poor quality substrate can cause stress when they don’t have the ability to prepare like they would in the wild.

Substrates are good for keeping the length of your Bearded Dragons nails short. All the digging and moving around from place to place helps to keep their nails trim and healthy.

Using a good quality substrate that replictles their natural habitat in the wild will also help to keep your Dragon stimulated.

It can be easy for a Bearded Dragon to get bored in their tank when in the wild they would be free to roam and constantly seeing new things so allowing them a good quality substrate such as excavation clay is a fantastic way to keep them stimulated.

What Is The Best Substrate For Bearded Dragons?

When it comes to picking the right substrate for your Bearded Dragon there are many options and it’s hard to know what to pick.

Let’s take a look at the best options and also some options that you simply want to stay clear of so you can rest assured that you pick the very best option for both you and your Bearded Dragon.

Excavation Clay Substrate

Excavation clay is my number one choice by far and i would recommend any Bearded Dragon owner to use this substrate.

It has many advantages over other substrates and your Dragon will simply love having this in their tank.

Excavator clay is the substrate I use for my Bearded Dragons, here I share the exact brand I use and the best place to get it from.

As we mentioned earlier, it’s important to replicate their natural habitat in the wild and excavation clay does an excellent job on this.

You can build caves, rocks, little valleys and more to give an authentic feel and your Dragon can easily dig just like they would in the wild.

Another big plus is that your Bearded Dragon has little to no chance ofsuffering from impaction when you use excavation clay.

If you’re unfamiliar with impaction, it’s basically similar to constipation. A big contributor to impaction is small grains of sand or similar getting into your Dragons gut and causing impaction.

This can be very painful and cause other problems such as loss of appetite.

As excavation clay is a solid substance when it’s set, the risk of impaction through ingesting small grains in very minimal compared to other substrates.

Here is a full list of pros and cons for excavation clay to help you make a better purchasing choice.

Excavation Clay Pros

  • Looks and feels like a Bearded Dragons natural habitat
  • Create great looking hills, caves, valleys and more
  • Gives your Bearded Dragon the ability to dig (this is a natural behaviour and very important)
  • Little to zero chance of impaction (constipation that is common with other substrates)
  • Great for sticking in plants and tank decor before it dries to create a realistic habitat
  • Cleans very easily
  • Simply wet the clay to rearrange the layout of the habitat

Excavation Clay Con’s

  • Can be more expensive than other substrates (although it lasts a long time so will often work out cheaper in the long run
  • If you have a large tank it can take a lot of clay to create a good looking habitat.

Bearded Dragon Substrate Tiles

Bearded Dragon substrate tiles can be a good option if you don’t want to use excavation clay for some reason although you will lose some features that are only available with excavation clay.

The good thing about substrate tiles is that there is no chance of your Bearded Dragon suffering from impaction like there is with particle-based substrates.

Typical tile material is usually ceramic, slate or lino, this makes them super low maintenance and easy to clean.

Once they are in place they will rarely need replacing so the long term outlay is very low.

One thing you will need to keep in mind is that your Dragon won’t be able to dig. I always stress the importance of this, however, with the exception of excavation clay, all the other substrates that allow your Dragon to dig will give them a high chance of impaction so i wouldn’t recommend them over tiles.

Tiles can also be slippery and lack the look and feel of the natural habitat that your Bearded Dragon would be accustomed to in the wild.

Substrate Tiles Pros

  • Long lasting
  • Easy to clean
  • No risk of impaction from loose particles

Substrate Tiles Cons

  • Bearded Dragon can’t dig
  • Can be slippery
  • Lacks the look & feel of their natural habitat

Reptile Carpet Substrate

Reptile carpet has a lot of positives but just like substrate tiles, there are a few things you need to consider before you choose this as your Bearded Dragons substrate.

Reptile carpet is essentially a carpet that comes on a roll that you then cut to the size you require for your tank.

This makes it very handy and easy to fit into the tank. The carpet is made of special material that doesn’t allow your Dragon to nibble at it so you can rest assured that they won’t be ingesting the carpet as a midnight snack.

It’s also not slippery like the tiles but one massive drawback is that it’s an absolute nightmare to clean.

You will have to remove the whole carpet the clean it properly and it requires a lot of scrubbing and washing to get it 100% clean and ready to use again.

You also need to remember that your Bearded Dragon won’t be able to dig with reptile carpet.

The look and feel is slightly better than tiles but it’s still not authentic to a Bearded Dragons natural habitat which is something else you need to keep in mind.

Reptile Carpet Pros

  • Easy to fit
  • No chance of impaction from loose particles

Reptile Carpet Cons

  • Bearded Dragon can’t dig
  • Very hard to clean
  • Lacks the look & feel of their natural habitat

Calcium Sand Substrate

Many pet stores will tell you that calcium sand is a great option for a substrate because of the calcium it contains and it’s digestible.

Calcium is essential for a healthy Bearded Dragon and it’s easy to get fooled into thinking that having a substrate that contains calcium is going to be good for your Dragon but that’s just not the case.

Giving your Bearded Dragon dietary supplements that contain calcium is all you need to do and using a sand substrate just for the calcium will just cause problems.

One of the main problems is the high risk of impaction. The small grains of sand are easily swallowed by your Bearded Dragon especially at meal times but despite what pet stores will tell you, the grains aren’t digested very easily and they can cause impaction.

One good aspect of calcium sand is that it does allow your Bearded Dragon to dig, however, because the sand is so dry it doesn’t keep any shape or form so it won’t allow your Dragon to dig any holes and you won’t be able to form any hills or caves with it either so it’s worth bearing that in mind.

Another good thing about sand based substrates is that when your Bearded Dragon is moving around in the sand all day it helps to keep their nails short and trim.

This is especially true when they like to dog a lot and can save you a lot of time trying to cut their nails.

One of the main reasons i never recommend sand is that when your Dragon poops the moisture will absorb into the sand and unless you take a large chunk of the sand out of the tank when you clean the poop then you are essentially keeping a very unclean tank and a high risk of parasites that can be unhealthy for your Dragon.

Calcium Sand Pros

  • Bearded Dragon can dig
  • Helps to keep nails short

Calcium Sand Cons

  • High risk of impaction
  • Hard to keep tank hygienic

Play Sand Substrate

Play sand is often used as a substrate due to how easy it is to obtain and lay in the bottom of the tank.

If you choose to use play sand then you are going to get pretty much the same issues as you would with calcium sand.

Play sand still poses a high potential risk of impaction for your Bearded Dragon and is something that you should use with caution.

It’s a little bit better for digging than calcium sand for the simple reason that it’s damper and holds more moisture so any holes or caves will hold their shape a little better.

The moisture that helps the play sand stay firm can also cause problems with humidity in the tank. This can be a real pain because when you add new sand and it then dries out the humidity levels will be constantly changing.

Play sand can also be unhygienic when it comes to cleaning up your Bearded Dragons poop. Just like with calcium sand, the moisture from the poop is absorbed into the sand and you would need to clean out a large portion of the sand along with the poop to make sure the tank stays clean and parasite free.

On the plus side, the ability to dig will help to keep your Dragons nails short and trim which is always a good thing but on the whole, i wouldn’t recommend play sand as a substrate.

Play Sand Pros

  • Bearded Dragon can dig
  • Helps keep nails short

Play Sand Cons

  • High risk of impaction
  • Hard to keep tank hygienic

Walnut Shells Substrate

Walnut shells have to be one of the worst lose particle substrates available for Bearded Dragons.

They are sharp to begin with and the more they are trodden on by your Dragon the more they are likely to get sharper.

The walnut shells can easily cut the feel of your Dragon and hat obviously not something that you want from a substrate.

Another reason why you should steer away from walnut shells in that they can be ingested by your Bearded Dragon. This is something that can cause internal bleeding and actually be fatal to Bearded Dragons.

For the two reasons mentioned above I would never contemplate using walnut shells as a substrate as I’m sure you can imagine.

Hygiene is also still a problem with this substrate as it is with almost all lose particle substrates and you will run the risk of parasites and infection so you will have to be super thorough and disciplined with cleaning the tank in you use this or any lose particle substrate.

One good thing that I can think to say about walnut shells is that your Dragon would be able to dig and also keep their nails short and trim, however, I really don’t think the risks involved with this substrate are worth it.

Walnut Shell Substrate Pros

  • Bearded Dragon can dig
  • Keeps nails short

Walnut Shells Cons

  • High risk of impaction & internal bleeding
  • Can cut Bearded Dragons feet
  • Hard to keep tank hygienic

Bark & Wood Chippings

Bark and wood chippings is a substrate that I would stay well clear of for many reasons.

Bark and wood are usually damp and full of moisture so it can cause a problem with humidity in the tank.

Another big problem with bark and wood substrates is that if you don’t get the most trusted brands then you are likely to get poor quality chippings which can lead to sharp edges on the bark.

These sharp edges can result in your Bearded Dragon getting painful cuts on the bottom of their feet.

Hygiene with this kind of substrate is usually a big problem because as your Dragon poops and urinates the moisture will soak into the wood and even go through the wood chipping and onto the bottom of the tank.

I’m sure you can imagine that you will need to throw out the whole wood chipping around once a week, clean the bottom of the tank and replace the tank with new wood chippings to be sure your Dragon isn’t living in what is essentially a huge litter tray.

I think this alone is reason enough to not use wood chippings and bark related products as a substrate.

Having said this, there are a few good elements to having wood as a substrate such as the fact that it does look and feel quite like their natural habitat especially compared with tiles or reptile carpet.

It’s also good for digging which is always something that I look for in a substrate if possible.

Wood chippings also don’t pose a high risk of impaction as they are very large.

One more thing that’s worth mentioning is that if you get smaller wood chippings then there could be a risk of choking but this will depend of the size of the chippings and if you use chippings that purposely made for reptile substrates of you get them from a hardware store.

Bark & Wood Chippings Substrate Pros

  • Low risk of impaction
  • Bearded Dragon can dig
  • Looks & feels like natural habitat

Bark & Wood Chippings Substrate Cons

  • Constant cleaning and replacing required
  • Hard to keep tank hygienic
  • Chance of cutting Bearded Dragons feet
  • Chance of choking

Newspaper Substrate

If you are looking to use newspaper as substrate long term then I would never recommend it, however, it can actually be ok in the short term in certain circumstances.

Newspaper can actually be useful if you are cleaning your substrate and you just want to have a temporary substrate for a couple of hours.

It can also be ok if you are about to move your Bearded Dragon into a larger tank and just want to use your substrate on the old one.

This, however, is about the only two circumstances I would use newspaper as a substrate and it shouldn’t really be considered as a long term option.

One of the obvious drawbacks of newspaper is that it won’t allow your Dragon to dig and it also doesn’t look or feel anything like their natural habitat.

There are some positives about using newspaper for a substrate such as the fact that you can simply replace a sheet with ease when your Dragon poops or urinates on it and there is also no risk of impaction from ingesting lose particles.

Overall newspaper can be considered as a short term solution as a substrate but you really need to think about something more substantial if you are a serious Bearded Dragon owner and you respect the health and well being of your Dragon.

Newspaper Substrate Pros

  • No risk of impaction
  • Easy to clean
  • Inexpensive option

Newspaper Substrate Cons

  • Doesn’t look or feel like natural habitat
  • Only short term substrate solution
  • Bearded Dragon can’t dig

Alfalfa Pellets Substrate

When it comes to using alfalfa pellets as a substrate you are going to get the same pro’s and con’s that you will with just about any other lose particle substrate.

The only things that I think is better about alfalfa pellets than calcium sand, play sand, walnut shells and bark is that it’s actually digestible so the risk of impaction is smaller.

That being said, if your Bearded Dragon swallows too many of them then they can still suffer from impaction so overall it’s still not a great option.

You will still get the usual problems with hygiene and constant cleaning of the tank to make sure your Dragon is infection and parasite free.

This is a big minus for me because you will need to replace the pellets constantly and this can be expansive and the time it takes to constantly keep cleaning is something that isn’t necessary with other substrates.

This kind of substrate will allow your Bearded Dragon to dig and it does look and feel like their natural habitat so on the bright side it’s not all bad for alfalfa pellets.

Alfalfa Pellet Substrate Pros

  • Less chance of impaction than other lose substrates
  • Bearded Dragon can dig
  • Looks and feels like natural habitat

Alfalfa Pellet Substrate Cons

  • Constant cleaning and replacing required
  • Hard to keep tank hygienic

What Is The Best Substrate For Baby Bearded Dragons?

In my opinion, the best substrate for baby Bearded Dragons is excavation clay.

This is a great substrate for baby and adult Bearded Dragons alike and it would be the only substrate that I would 100% recommend. Here I share the best place to get Excavator clay and why I recommend it so much.

I honestly can’t see any reason why you would want to use anything but excavation clay, it’s got so many positives and your Dragon will love how natural it looks and feels.

If you don’t want to use excavation clay then i would recommend either using reptile carpet or substrate tiles but you will lose so much when it comes to how natural they look and feel and also your baby Bearded Dragon won’t be able to dig with these substrates.

If you need a short term substrate then the newspaper is fine but I would never use this as a long term substrate.

You may have noticed by now that I’m not a big fan of loose particle based substrates due to the fact that they pose a high risk of impaction to your baby Bearded Dragon.

What’s The Best Substrate For Female Bearded Dragons?

Female Bearded Dragons like to dig so they can bury their eggs. This is a natural process and something that you should allow them to be able to do.

Again, The only substrate that ticks all the boxes and allows your female Bearded Dragon to dig while having a virtually zero chance of impaction is excavator clay and this post here shows where you can find out more about Excavator Clay.

If you use tiles or reptile carpet you will be taking away the ability for your female to display this behaviour so it’s something that you need to think about.

Loose particle substrates will also allow your female Bearded Dragon to dig but the risk of impaction is so high that I wouldn’t recommend it.

Wrapping Up

I hope you got a lot of value from this post and you can now choose the right substrate with confidence.

The main things to consider are making sure that your Bearded Dragon has a low to zero risk of impaction, easy to clean & hygienic, allows your Bearded Dragon to dig if possible and it look and feel like their natural habitat.

Not all substrates will tick all of these boxes but having a low risk of impaction and being hygienic is the most important as these two factors can impact the health of your Dragon.

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