Suitable substrates for Leopard geckos

The ideal substrate for Leopard geckos is inexpensive, aesthetically pleasing, easy to clean, absorbent, digestible and safe when swallowed. Here's a list.

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Introduction

The substrate, or bedding, is the material that is on the floor of the Leopard gecko enclosure. It represents the natural surface Leopard geckos prefer in nature. There are many types of substrates that can be used for pet Leopard geckos.

Characteristics that need to be considered when choosing a suitable substrate for Leopard geckos include its purpose, what it looks like, cleanliness and ability to clean, absorbancy, emission of dangerous vapours and digestibility and safety with regards to ingestion.

Desired characteristics for Leopard gecko substrates include the ability to be cleaned; being clean, free of odours and aesthetically pleasing (looks pretty); not being able to be ingested, digestible and/or save to ingest.

Commercial reptile or Leopard gecko substrates are available from Amazon.com, most specialised pet shops or over the internet. Some Leopard gecko keepers prefer to collect their own substrates.

The substrates of nature

The natural surface where wild Leopard geckos prefer to live on can be used to give keepers a better insight on what substrates to use for their pets. Although many keepers might think that Leopard geckos are naturally from areas that are covered with desert sand, various literature reports that they prefer non-sandy areas.

In the Gecko Time article Field Herping In Iran, Karsten Griesshammer said that they found a Leopard gecko in an area that was “not sandy at all”.  The soil was hard-packed clay, rocky and there were dry adapted plants.

Unlike some other desert geckos that burrow in sand, Leopard geckos prefer to retreat among rocks. This might be because sand may cause difficulty in movements and feeding(49).

Safe substrates for Leopard geckos

Suitable substrates for Leopard geckos include paper, carpet, plastic foam mats and Astroturf. These substrates are all easy to clean and are considered safe when ingested.

Paper

Paper (news, brown, butcher, kitchen roll(32)) are amongst the safest and most suitable substrates for Leopard geckos. Paper is cheap, readily available and cannot be ingested, but they might have obvious aesthetic disadvantages when used in natural setups.

Brown butcher paper for Leopard geckos

Although aesthetically unpleasing, brown butcher paper works well as a Leopard gecko substrate.

Clear paper is often chosen as the substrate in isolation(32) and hospital enclosures because it is clean and easy to replace.

Carpet

Carpet substrates include artificial grass and Astroturf and is available from nurseries and sometimes specialised pet shops. Carpet substrates are relatively easy to clean in entirety, but spot cleaning is difficult. Varieties with loops of fibre should be avoided, due to risk of toe trauma(32).

Astroturf for Leopard geckos

Artificial grass is easy on the eye, fairly easy to clean and safe to use. Artificial grass does need a vigorous disinfection strategy, though. Image from allcargos.com.

Unsafe substrates for Leopard geckos

Any bedding/substrate consisting of particles(32) or granules (e.g. sand, gravel, maize, pellets, bark, maize/cornmeal, etc.) can be accidentally or purposefully ingested by Leopard geckos and carry the dangers of causing deadly obstructions and impactions(32)(34). Granular substrates also often supply hiding space for insects such as crickets.

Sand

Although various forms of sand are used with great success by various Leopard gecko keepers, none of them is 100% safe. Their justification is based on the low probability of being ingested or swallowed based on the size of the lizard and husbandry methods practised. Sand is also often justified because it is considered to represent the natural surfaces where Leopard geckos are found in nature — which is not always the case.

Sand as substrate for Leopard geckos

Although sand is naturally found in deserts, these substrates tend to cause various problems when they are used for pet Leopard geckos. Image Simon A. Eugster (CC BY 3.0)

Sandy substrates are readily available, hygienic and can easily be removed(32). Various literature reports sand to either increase the risk for impactions, or the main cause for intestinal obstructions(29)(32).

Although it is considered the safest not to use sand, not all Leopard geckos will actively eat sand. Various literature sources give guidelines on reducing the risk of ingesting sand and empirical data suggests that it is possible that Leopard geckos might only prefer certain colours of sand(29).

To minimise the risk of sand impactions in Leopard geckos:

  • live food may be fed in a separate tank or placed in a deep bowl(32)(34)
  • supplying adequate food
  • supplying the correct vitamin/mineral supplementations
  • fine reptile or children’s play sand is superior to coarse grains(32)
  • Calcium-based sands should be used with extra caution(32)
  • Silica sand should be avoided

Whenever sand is used as a substrate, owners need to be mindful of its possible effects and know what to look for. The most obvious way to identify geophagia is by seeing it happen. Droppings can also be evaluated regularly to see if it contains sand (e.g. by mixing it with water in a test tube(34) or glass container). Early signs of anorexia and/or abdominal distention may prevent a full impaction(34).

Bark chips, corncob & gravel

As mentioned earlier, any large particulate substrate should be avoided as inadvertent ingestion carries a high risk of obstruction(32).

Leopard gecko hide box substrates

One or more hide boxes should always be available to ensure shelter during the day(32). By using the correct hide box substrate, its purpose will extend to being the perfect place to increase the humidity, to help with skin shedding and for females to deposit their eggs (see below).

Popular hide box substrates for Leopard geckos include pet/sphagnum moss(34), vermiculite(30) and coir(34). All three these substrates hold moisture well, are readily available, relatively cheap and are easy to replace.

Vermiculite

Vermiculite for Leopard geckos

Dry vermiculite is popularly used as a hide box and egg-laying substrate for Leopard geckos. Vermiculite can be mixed with an equal volume of water to serve as a moist substrate.

Sphagnum moss

Sphagnum moss can be wetted excessively and excess water should be manually expressed.

Egg-laying substrates

Humid hide boxes also double as egg-laying boxes. To be able to be used for hiding and an egg-laying site, the box should contain a clean, moist/damp substrate. A damp substrate will keep any eggs hydrated until they are removed for incubation.

Good egg-laying substrates include moist peat or sphagnum moss and moist vermiculite.

Below the substrate

To make it easier to remove or replace a substrate, many Leopard gecko keepers use a lining of old newspaper or a sheet of plastic before adding the substrate.

Replacing substrates

As part of good hygiene practices, soiled substrates need to be removed at least once a day. Where granular substrates are used, the affected area can be removed, but where non-granular substrates are used (e.g. carpets or butcher paper) the entire substrate sheet needs to be removed.

One can use an inverted plastic bag over your hand or disposable medical grade gloves instead of bare hands to prevent direct contact with faeces. It is also recommended to remove, clean, disinfect or even sterilise cleanable substrates at least once a week.

Conclusion

Evidence exists that wild Leopard geckos do not always prefer sandy areas. Some substrates are safer than others and certain ones are better suited for specific functions. Non-particle substrates, or those that are safe to swallow include news- or brown butcher paper, carpet, plastic foam mats, Astroturf, alfalfa/rabbit pellets or maize/cornmeal.

References

Cited references

For URL links, see the Reference article page.