Leopard Gecko Substrate: The Best And Worst Choices

Beginner leopard gecko owners will often scour the net for answers on choosing a substrate. There are so many different varieties available on the market.

Choosing the wrong kind however can directly affect the health of your reptile. This topic in particular has been highly debated. In this article I will do my best to walk you through the different types and help with making the correct choice for your lizard.

When choosing a substrate, we must consider all factors that can potentially harm your pet. The best choice for your gecko is paper towel sheets. They make cleaning a breeze and are very cost efficient, saving you money in the long run. There is also no risk of impaction or particles that can harm your lizard.

#1 Paper towel

leopard gecko substrate

Not to be confused with tissues, these are the go-to choice for many reptile keepers. You can use them for all life stages from hatchlings to adults. Most of us also have a least one roll laying around and thus making it easily accessible.

I like the fact that they are square and fit well with my plastic enclosures. A few reasons why I use them include:

  • Highly absorbent which is good for soaking up urates and feces. Mold and bacteria tend to thrive in wet or humid conditions and these help keep the cages dry.
  • Soft yet durable which is critical for leopard geckos as they have sensitive bellies. As they move around, their underside can rub the floor and become injured. You wouldn’t have to worry about that with paper towels.
  • Perfect fit for most flooring and easy to cut to size if not. You can cover every square inch of the habitat.
  • Easy to replace, just remove and add a new sheet when it becomes dirty. Cheap and affordable as well
  • Although not as soft or porous, you can opt to use newspapers. Be sure to remove when they become wet as the ink isn’t good for your leos.
  • In my opinion, visually appealing. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing white in my cages and it makes spot cleaning simple. I never really liked coarse (sand, chips) bases and have always enjoyed a minimalistic look.
  • Virtually no risk of impaction or eye problems. I haven’t heard or experienced any impaction issues with these sheets. Leos don’t seem to really care for it and there aren’t any loose particles that can irritate them. Eye infections are common when using sand.
  • Transfer of heat. Since they are thin and porous, heat can travel through with minimal effort. You do not need to turn your thermostat higher and avoid the risk of burning your animal.

I will say that one flaw(if you can even call it that) is that paper towels are not native to their environment. But plastic totes, artificial hides, and mealworms aren’t either yet they’re utilized in our hobby.

#2 Sand

sand substrate for leopard geckos

The highly controversial and discussed substrate in our hobby. Some people are for it, others are totally opposed to it. It comes in dirt form known as play sand and mineral or calcium based.

Most labels will classify it as safe and edible, but a quick search on the forums will say otherwise. There is a plethora of cases where the cause of impaction was due to accidental ingestion. Many of those cases sadly resulted in the death of the animal.

Calcium sand is often ingested by leos looking to boost their intake.

Real CA dissolves and is absorbed through the bloodstream, this form however is not. It will become hard and stick to the walls of the intestine causing blockage.

Are there keepers that use sand without any issues?

Absolutely, however I prefer not to use it since it’s fairly risky. In my opinion even if you have the right setup (temps, furnishings, food, etc) you’re still putting the animal at risk when introducing loose particle substrates. I rather be safe than sorry.

  • Can cause blockage even if consumed in small amounts.
  • Can irritate nostrils affecting breathing and cause eye infections.
  • Can infect hemipenes of males when they breed with females.
  • Insoluble and hard to digest
  • Much more risky for hatchlings and juvies due to their smaller intestinal tracts
  • Harder to heat through and can burn your leo especially since it encourages burrowing. Temps will be hotter towards the bottom compared to the surface.
  • If you decide to use play sand, I would recommend waiting until they are adults and use a very thin layer.
  • Feed in a bowl if possible to avoid any risks of accidental ingestion.
  • High probability of it being consumed during a shed cycle
  • Can get wet if your water bowl spills and clump up

A word of warning here, people on the internet are highly sensitive to this issue and care about the health of their leos.

If you take a picture and post it online, you may receive backlash for using sand.

It’s generally not accepted as a suitable choice. Even though it looks cool, I personally won’t use it for the reasons stated above. To each their own though.

#3 Eco earth (coconut fiber) and related products

ecoearth substrate

Mostly used in vivariums or live terrariums by frog keepers and crested gecko owners.

The bedding is made of coconut fibers that are compressed in brick form. Water is added which causes it to expand and break apart. Not as risky when it comes to the subject of impaction however it’s usually very moist.

Too much moisture not only causes mold growth but also upper respiratory problems especially in leopard geckos. Many enthusiast will use these in humid hides to aide with shedding. Be sure to use small amounts as it’s fairly damp.

  • Great for raising humidity but not very useful for our reptiles
  • Can get a bit messy and hard to spot clean
  • Fairly expensive when compared to other types of bedding
  • Good for moist hides and lay boxes though
  • Can cause URI especially when using belly heat in a tub

#4 Tile

leopard gecko tile

Next up is the use of ceramic and vinyl tiles as flooring. You can purchase these at any home depot or lowes. They are aesthetically pleasing with the wide array of colors available. Can be a bit slippery especially the vinyl ones.

These do not have loose particles however they are fairly hard and I wouldn’t loose feed any insects. I always use a bowl no matter the type of flooring. A bit tricky to heat as well but definitely doable. Slate is heavier and more porous making it harder to clean.

  • Nice and sturdy.
  • A bit on the heavy side if using slate.
  • Ceramic tile will be harder to cut as well and can chip or break.
  • Vinyl is easier to clean and adhere via peel n stick
  • A bit difficult to heat evenly and takes a bit of tweaking to get the correct gradient.
  • May cause injury if your leo dives for a cricket or mealworm and misses.
  • Definitely the best looking out of all the options mentioned
  • Fairly inexpensive
  • Not as wasteful when cleaning and won’t need to be replaced often if ever.
  • Harder to fit into tubs as floor dimensions are usually different or uneven.
  • No chance of digging or hiding.

#5 Reptile carpet

Leopard gecko tub size

Many hobbyist will use these to line their terrarium floor. They come in brown and green mimicking grass or dirt.

Carpet can be cut to size and usually comes in rolls. Being low maintenance, they are fairly durable.. Some companies claim they are treated with a special enzyme which apparently helps ward off nasty odors.

They can be easily cleaned with a rinse and some soap.

  • A little expensive at around six bucks per 10 gallon tank.
  • Easy to cut.
  • Can soak up water which can be good or bad depending on how much moisture is spilled.
  • The brown color scheme looks pretty decent.
  • No risk of impaction.
  • Dries quickly.
  • Loose threads can catch toenails, so be sure to replace accordingly.

#6 Wood chips (reptile shavings)

Also known on the market as repti-bark, these come in chunks and larger sized pieces. Some are made from shavings of fir, cypress mulch, cedar, pine, and aspen. When I first started keeping reptiles, I was told by a pet store employee that these were highly recommended and you use these for a variety of species. After a little research however, I saw that bark especially cedar and pine could be fairly toxic. The larger chunks are much harder to pass through if consumed and in my opinion it’s best to avoid these at all costs with the exception of aspen.

  • Can cause respiratory infections and irritate skin.
  • Unhygienic as feces can become trapped promoting mold and bacterial growth.
  • Perfect for prey to hide in and avoid being eaten.
  • Known to retain too much moisture and can raise humidity to dangerous levels.
  • When digging, your lizard can injure itself accidentally.
  • Hard to know which type of wood was used to process the end product.
  • Have been cases of reptiles dying from ingesting wood chunks.
  • If you decide to use a wood substrate, I would recommend aspen bedding.
  • If swallowed, will almost always require surgery to remove.

#7 Walnut shells

walnut shell substrate for leopard gecko

Often marketed as absorbent, low dust, and safe for reptiles these are processed from ground up walnut shells. It is a particle substrate and has been known to cut up your reptiles. Some have used these shells with no ill effects. In my opinion, there are better options available and thus I’ve never really gave them a shot.

  • Particles are rough and have been known to irritate the eyes of reptiles.
  • Can also cut underside of your herps including feet and stomach.
  • Very little information on what goes into processing the bedding.
  • Can easily stick to dusted crickets or feeders causing unwanted ingestion.

#8 Shelf liner

shelf liner for leopard geckos

There are two types, one with holes and another as a flat sheet. Liners are made from rubber linoleum and are non-toxic. I wouldn’t purchase the ones with holes due to toes and feet getting caught in them. Since they are made from rubber, they can distribute heat evenly as well as take on high temps.

  • Very cheap to purchase.
  • Easy to clean and wash.
  • Will stain a little bit but I recommend using darker colors or spot cleaning well.
  • Water resistant.
  • Melting point of 170F so safe for most heat pads.
  • Have been used in the hobby for years with no issues.
  • Durable and long lasting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *