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Leopard Gecko Complete Substrate Guide

Leopard Gecko Complete Substrate Guide

What Is The Best Substrate For A Leopard Gecko?

Whether you are creating a naturalistic, bioactive, or easy-to-clean terrarium for your Leopard Gecko, we will be covering several different Leopard Gecko substrate options to help you choose the best substrate for your Leopard Gecko!

If you are researching different options for your pet or seeking to gain knowledge on keeping Leopard Geckos in bioactive or naturalistic setups, we will be breaking down and debunking the common myth that it is unsafe to house Leopard Geckos on loose substrate!

There is no single best substrate choice for a Leopard Gecko. The best Leopard Gecko substrate depends on what works best for you and your animal. There was a common myth that had circulated for many years that Leopard Geckos cannot be housed on loose substrate for risk of impaction. However, a healthy Leopard Gecko housed on a proper loose substrate mix is not likely to become impacted any more than an unhealthy Leopard Gecko housed on solid substrate.

Pros For Solid Substrate:

  • Easy to clean and sterilize
  • Quarantine or hospital enclosure friendly
  • Reduce the risk of impaction related to ingesting loose substrate*
  • Lower initial cost
  • Less heavy for enclosures that cannot support a heavy load

Cons For Solid Substrate:

  • Doesn’t provide natural digging
  • Some options may be slick or not allow for proper grip
  • Potential for some options to be hard on limbs and joints over prolonged use, especially if other textures are not offered

Solid Substrate Options:

Zen Habitats provides leopard geckos with solid substrate options by using the Zen Mat by Zen Habitats

Pros For Loose Substrate:

  • Provides for natural digging and burrowing opportunities
  • Bioactive compatible
  • Less maintenance to keep clean if bioactive

Cons For Loose Substrate:

  • Higher initial cost to adequately fill a large terrarium
  • Impaction risk - Many studies have been done and it has been determined that the loose substrate alone does not cause impaction, but multiple factors along with the use of loose substrate including:
    • Incorrect loose substrate material (calcium sand, large materials like stones, gravel, or large chip mulch)
    • Dehydration
    • Improper diet and/or supplementation
    • Low basking temperatures
    • High parasite load in the gut
    • Metabolic bone disease or other ailments that may hinder proper digestion

*Disclaimer: An animal kept improperly can become impacted without the presence of loose substrate. A healthy, properly kept animal should easily pass small amounts of ingested substrate material, such as getting dirt in their mouth when trying to catch a bug or getting soil in their mouth while digging a burrow.

Loose Substrate Options:

  • Commercially available arid substrate mixes (Arid ABG mix)
  • Topsoil/sand mix
  • Super-fine quartz sand / Washed play sand
  • Excavator clay
  • Natural collected desert soils (such as Exoterra Stone Desert or Jurassic Natural Desert Sand; both naturally collected, commercially available desert soils)

Leopard Geckos loose substrate and bioactive enclosure for leopard geckos

Unsuitable or Unsafe Substrate Options:

  • Reptile carpet: Harbors bacterial growth and can catch reptile toenails in the fibrous material. Nearly impossible to clean and sanitize.
  • Calcium or Vitamin sand: These are dusty, which can cause eye irritation. They can cause impaction due to being made of calcium carbonate, which forms hard masses when wet. Calcium carbonate can also neutralize stomach acid which can lead to digestive complications.
  • Ground walnut shells: Dusty, sharp particles, which clump together when wet and can cause internal damage and impaction if swallowed.
  • Wood products (coarse large grinds of mulch, bark chips, and wood shavings): Can lead to impaction if ingested and particle size is too large to pass through the digestive Softwoods such as cedar and pine are toxic due to volatile oils that can aggravate the respiratory tract.
  • Linoleum / Shelf liner: Many of these products release VOCs which can be harmful to breathe in.
  • Gravel: unnatural, hard on joints, difficult to spot clean and sanitize, impaction risk if swallowed.
  • Coco coir / Coco fiber: Very dusty when dry, holds too much moisture when saturated to be used as a sole substrate option for Leopard Geckos. Best for tropical setups or moist hides.
  • Shredded paper or fluffy beddings such as CareFresh or small mammal/animal bedding : Unnatural, unsuitable for reptiles. May hold humidity and mold, or harbor bacteria.

How To Create Your Own Substrate Mix For Leopard Geckos

You can create your own substrate mix for Leopard Geckos using a mix of 40% organic topsoil, 40% sand, and 20% excavator clay. Saturate the mixture and mix well. Add to the enclosure and allow it to dry before reintroducing the animal to avoid illnesses related to high humidity.

Check out how we built our Leopard Geckos bioactive substrate here: Creating A DESERT OASIS For Our Leopard Gecko | Zen Habitats Leopard Gecko Enclosure Build

Zen Habitats meridian reptile enclosure, reptile terrarium for leopard geckos

Decorating the Terrarium

Decorations play a vital role in your Leopard Gecko’s enclosure as environmental enrichment. Enrichment items encourage exercise, stimulate your pet’s natural instincts, and help promote overall well-being. And, of course, they make the enclosure look nicer! Without décor, your Leopard Gecko’s terrarium is just an expensive box of dirt.

Hollow logs, thick branches, ledges, and artificial or drought-resistant live plants work well as décor in a Leopard Gecko terrarium. You can also provide additional hideouts. Arrange these items in a way that encourages your gecko to climb and explore and provides a variety of places to sleep in during the day.

To learn more about providing enrichment to your animals, check out our Reptile Enrichment Article or our YouTube video: Simple Ways To Improve Your Reptile's Life! | Enrichment Ideas That EVERY Pet Owner Should Know!

About the author: Maddie Smith Maddie has been keeping reptiles as pets for more than a decade. She has a passion for educating others about animals, and currently works with over 50 different species including reptiles, amphibians, and birds!

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