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    Bearded Dragons: What Substrate Should You Use?

    Our bearded dragon care guide offers a nice overview on feeding, habitat, setup, and sanitation.  But new owners may want more details.  And a common question asked by every new bearded dragon owner is: “What substrate should I use?”

    While this may seem like a simple question, there are actually many considerations to take into account. In general, there are two schools of thought. One, the “sterile” method, uses the safest and most basic bedding to reduce both costs and potential injuries. The “naturalistic” method, by contrast, seeks to imitate an organism’s natural environment to promote natural behaviors.

    Both methods have their merits. But first, we should take a quick look at how bearded dragons live in the wild.

    How do Bearded Dragons Live in the Wild?

    Bearded dragons are natives of Australia. The small Australian continent is actually an assemblage of many different ecosystems. Bearded dragons are often associated with the “desert” ecosystem, but this is not very accurate.

    Bearded dragons are actually much more common in dry scrublands that contain trees, shrubs, and other vegetation. In these environments, the lizards regularly scale trees to use as basking spots and to escape from ground predators. They also burrow under certain types of vegetation to make dens, which they use to escape the hottest part of the day and cool off.

    With this in mind, let’s discuss the different types of substrate that can be used to house captive bearded dragons.

    Bearded Dragons in Captivity

    As previously discussed, there are two basic methods used when determining what substrate to use when housing bearded dragons. These two methods can be used independently, or they can be mixed to get the best of both worlds!

    The Sterile Method

    In order to keep animals healthy and avoid many different kinds of diseases, zookeepers in the 1900s often resorted to the sterile method. In this method of animal housing, anything that can carry, cause, or transmit disease is removed from the housing unit. Typically, substrates in a sterile environment include bare concrete, tile, newspaper, and even artificial turf. These substrates are easily cleaned or replaced, ensuring that the organism housed in these situations is never harmed by the substrate or the pathogens it may carry.

    In the case of bearded dragons, the most common sterile substrate is newspaper. Individual sheets can be used to line the bottom of the cage. This makes it incredibly easy to remove feces, uneaten food, and any insects that were not consumed during feeding. Paper pulp bedding can also be used, though insects can easily hide within paper pulp bedding.

    The advantage of using paper-based bedding is that it will never harm your bearded dragon. Flat newspaper cannot be ingested, helps absorb any spilled water or moisture, and is the easiest possible bedding to clean and replace. This is also true of reptile carpets, tile, and other flat substrates not made of sediments or particles. Paper pulp can be eaten, but it is not likely to cause a gut-impaction or blockage because it is very similar to the plant material naturally eaten by beardies.

    However, newspaper bedding and others are not visually appealing. This is why many owners prefer the naturalistic method.

    The Naturalistic Method

    Many owners try to reproduce a more naturalistic habitat using sand and rocks. This would be great, except that bearded dragons do not tend to live in desert areas with no vegetation. A true naturalistic habitat for bearded dragons would include logs, climbing posts, and non-toxic vegetation such as succulents and small herbs that can grow in dry areas. Avoid any broad-leafed plants, though, as these tend to accumulate moisture below the leaves, which could lead to respiratory diseases in your dragon.

    While the naturalistic method can create very beautiful and aesthetically-appealing habitats, users should take some caution. When feeding in a naturalistic environment, your pet beardy can easily consume the small sand and rocks used as a substrate. Eating too much of the substrate can lead to gut impaction – a potentially fatal condition.

    That being said, a naturalistic environment can lead to many more natural behaviors. Your beardy may want to excavate a den. It also has the ability to climb trees, search for bugs among the substrate, and may even be more receptive to breeding in such an environment.

    If you prefer this naturalistic approach to the sterile approach, there are several things you can do to protect the health of your lizard by mixing aspects of the naturalistic and sterile methods!

    Mix up their Substrates

    Really, the only disadvantage to sand, rocks, and small stones is that they can block your lizard’s digestive tract. So, there are two basic methods you can use to avoid this and still use a naturalistic habitat.

    First, you can simply remove your lizard from its habitat during feeding times. Place your lizard in a warm, safe area. This can be outside, in an empty bathtub, or any other area with a flat, clean surface. This will ensure that your bearded dragon only eats the foods you provide and does not accidentally eat any of the substrates in their habitat. However, it is often difficult for you to monitor and you must wait for your dragon to finish its meal. This means that your dragon can only eat when you take it out. Most people do not have enough free time to make this a reality.

    In the second method, you mix aspects of the sterile and naturalistic environments within a single habitat. If you form a low and insect-proof barrier in the middle of the habitat, you can place tiles, flat rocks, or newspapers on one half of the habitat while filling the other side with sand, logs, a hidden den. If you only place food on the sterile half of the habitat, it will greatly reduce the amount of substate your lizard accidentally consumes. This is an excellent method that combines the benefits of both naturalistic and sterile habitats!

    NEVER USE THESE SUBSTRATES for Bearded Dragons!

    Whatever you do, stick to large sand, rocks, and paper beddings. Any of the beddings below will cause significant problems for your bearded dragon.

    • Wood Chips or Fibers – These will collect moisture and bacteria, which can lead to fungal and bacterial infections. Your dragon can also accidentally ingest these materials, which could lead to gut impaction.
    • Potting soil or dirt – These substrates will be extremely messy, and they have a high capacity for holding pathogens.
    • No Substrate – Without any substrate, your bearded dragon will not be able to move around, and will show almost no natural behaviors.

    Be sure to give your dragon plenty of room to climb, as well as sufficient basking spots and burrows in order to regulate their temperature. In general, a bearded dragon should have around 8 square feet of floor space. Males will fight if housed together, but 2 females can share a slightly larger space as long as they each have a basking spot and a den.

    Learn even more…

    If you want to check out more about bearded dragon care and raising bearded dragons in captivity, here are some great resources written by professional breeders and researchers!

    General Husbandry and Captive Propagation of Bearded Dragons, Pogona vitticeps
    https://www.jherpmedsurg.com/doi/pdf/10.5818/1076-3139.9.4.12

    Caring for the Bearded Dragon
    https://www.cabi.org/ISC/FullTextPDF/2006/20063121821.pdf