Suitable substrates for Leopard geckos

Ideal substrates for Leopard geckos are aesthetically pleasing, easy to clean and safe when swallowed. Here's a list of suitable substrates for Leopard geckos.

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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, but not all substrates are safe to be used with Leopard geckos.

This article lists and discusses good substrates for Leopard geckos and some bad substrates for Leopard geckos. It continues to list and discuss hide box, and suitable egg-laying substrates for Leopard geckos.

Desired characteristics of Leopard gecko substrates

Characteristics that need to be considered when choosing a good 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:

  • being cheap and easy to obtain
  • being clean and the ability to be cleaned
  • free from odours and dust
  • ability to retain and transmit heat
  • pleasing aesthetics (looks pretty)
  • not being able to be ingested, digestible and/or safe to ingest
  • not creating a hiding place for moving feeder insects

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 suitable substrates for Leopard geckos. 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(30)(32), plastic foam mats, Astroturf, clay mixtures and large pieces of slate rocks, and aquarium stones(30). These substrates are all easy to clean and are considered safe when ingested.

Paper

Paper (unprinted news(30), brown, butcher, kitchen roll(32)) and paper towel are amongst the safest and most suitable substrates for Leopard geckos. Paper towel is popularly used, especially where smaller enclosures are used for larger setups.

Paper is available in many colours and forms, is cheap, readily available and cannot be ingested. Unfortunately, paper substrates have obvious aesthetic disadvantages when used in natural setups.

Brown butcher paper for Leopard geckos

Although aesthetically unpleasing, brown butcher paper works well and is a suitable substrate for Leopard geckos.

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

Carpet

Carpet is also considered a good substrate for Leopard geckos. Suitable carpets include artificial grass, outdoor carpet(30) 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.

Carpet varieties with loops of fibre should be avoided, due to risk of toe trauma(32). When using carpet as a substrate for Leopard geckos, their bellies should be monitored for rashes and sores — indicating that the carpet is too rough and causing skin irritations.

Astroturf for Leopard geckos

Another suitable substrate for Leopard geckos is artificial grass and carpet. They are 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.

Zilla Reptile Terrarium Bedding Mats

Zilla Reptile Terrarium Bedding Mats are popularly used as a substrate for Leopard geckos. Available from Amazon.com

Slate rocks

Slate rocks are more natural-looking and are considered a good substrate for Leopard geckos. Flat, smooth stones are preferred over sharper ones. Pieces are anchored/stabilised by filling the gaps with sand or clay mixtures. Although sand should be used with caution (see later), this way there is less sand to (accidentally) consume. Spate rocks can also be used to create canopies.

Slate rocks are readily available from nurseries, keep heat well, are easy to remove, clean and disinfect.

Clay

As with slate rocks, clay surfaces are attractive and natural-looking. Clay is considered to be a good substrate for Leopard geckos. Various literature sources also report that wild Leopard geckos prefer clay over sandy surfaces.

A clay surface can be created by using a commercial product such as Lugarti’s Natural Reptile Bedding or Zoo Med Excavator Clay Burrowing Substrate (available from Amazon.com).

Clay can be shaped when it is wet, but rock hard when it dries. Enough time should be allowed for the clay surface to be completely dry — otherwise, humidity might become a problem.

Non-safe substrates for Leopard geckos

Any bedding/substrate consisting of particles(32) or granules (e.g. sand(30)(32), gravel(30)(32), wood chips(30), wood shavings, pellets, bark(32), shells(30), perlite, corncob(32), maize/cornmeal, etc.) can be accidentally or purposefully ingested by Leopard geckos and carry the dangers of causing deadly obstructions and impactions(32)(34).

Substrates like fine sand, sawdust and scented wood shavings carry the risk of containing harmful inhalants (e.g. dust and perfumes). Non-sterilised and/or unclean soil-based substrates might contain pesticides or harmful micro-organisms, insects and other arthropods.

Granular substrates also often supply hiding space for feeder 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.

The author is of the opinion that sand should not be used and is not considered to be a good substrate for Leopard geckos.

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 be removed/replaced easily(32). The downside to sand is that there are various literature reports that sand either increases the risk for or is the main cause for intestinal obstructions(29)(32). Sand can also release dust which can lead to respiratory problems and serve as a medium for bacterial and mould growth when wet.

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). Bark chips, corncob & gravel are considered to be bad substrates for Leopard geckos.

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 environmental 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, are relatively cheap and are easy to replace.

Vermiculite

The dangers of ingesting vermiculite are reduced by wetting. Vermiculite can be obtained from nurseries.

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.

Zoo Med All Natural Reptile Terrarium Moss

Zoo Meds all-natural, sustainably harvested Sphagnum moss. Contains no dyes or chemicals. Ideal for use with Leopard gecko humidifying hides and egg-laying boxes. Available from Amazon.com.

Suitable egg-laying substrates for Leopard geckos

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. When a heavy substrate is used, the bottom of the enclosure can be lined with newspaper or soft padding 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 only the affected area can be removed (called spot-cleaning), but where non-granular substrates are used (e.g. carpets and paper) the entire substrate sheet needs to be removed.

Direct contact with faeces can be prevented by using disposable medical grade gloves or an inverted plastic bag pulled over your hand. Cleanable Leopard gecko substrates should be removed, cleaned, disinfected/sterilised once a week.

Buying substrates for Leopard geckos

Substrates for Leopard geckos and other reptiles are readily available for sale. As discussed earlier, not all commercial brands and products should be considered safe, but branded products should be considered over non-branded ones.

Commercial reptile or Leopard gecko substrates are available from Amazon.com, most specialised pet shops or over the internet.

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.

Suitable substrates for Leopard geckos are those that do not consist of particles or those that are safe to swallow. These include paper, carpet, plastic foam mats, Astroturf, clay mixtures and large pieces of slate rocks and aquarium stones.

References

Cited references

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