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Bearded Dragon substrate. A fact-based guide to the best and worst options.

We can think of no more hotly debated topic in the world of bearded dragons than finding the best substrate. Everyone has a firmly held opinion. The problem is that, on the whole, those views are based solely on one person’s experience.

When selecting a substrate for your bearded dragon’s tank, you should choose one of three options: Tile, excavator clay, or ReptiChips. We prefer ReptiChips as they are easier to keep clean and provide a substrate for your bearded dragon to dig in. Using a mix of one or more of these is ideal.

Does that mean you should use Repti Chips too? Not necessarily. We consulted vets, reptile store owners, other beardie parents, and breeders. From that group, we received a variety of recommendations.

Check out our top 3 substrate options on Amazon now:

There were many options given, and each has its benefits and drawbacks. Some options should be avoided. Some are ideal for you and not your beardie. Some are good for your beardie, but not for you. A select few strike a delicate balance between both.

In this article, we will try to finally give beardie owners everywhere a useable resource. One that helps them make a good decision for them and their beloved bearded dragon.

Bacardi, happily digging in her Repti Chips!

We will do this by giving you the reasons and facts behind our recommendations, not just one-sided opinions.

Who should you trust?

Anytime you read an article about substrate that tells you “this is the best and only solution you should use”, run the other way.

When it comes to a substrate, as with most things in life, there is no “one best”.

That person’s opinion may or may not have some truth in it. But their eagerness to dismiss all but their own option should serve as a glaring red flag to look elsewhere for advice.

Mother Nature knows best

Bearded dragons in the wild thrive on a variety of landscapes. They are semi-arboreal and spend a good deal of their time in trees and bushes. When they do come down from those branches, they are as likely to be on grass as they are on dirt, sand, or rock.

A happy beardie in the wild.

That means that they can naturally survive and thrive on a variety of ground cover. When observed, bearded dragons will move to different types of environments based on what their needs are at the time.

Sometimes, they need a nice warm rock for basking. Sometimes, they need loose dirt to cool off in. Sometimes, they need a place to dig in and bury themselves and stay safe from predators.

This is why, when we were deciding on what type of substrate to use, we first looked to bearded dragons in the wild for clues. Who should you trust when it comes to the kind of substrate to use? We think that looking at Mother Nature and thousands of years of evolution is a great place to start!

While that helped us eliminate certain substrate choices from our search, it still didn’t help us pick the one or more substrate options that would be best for our bearded dragon, Bacardi.

For that decision, we decided to skip the internet forums and online arguments and go straight to the experts.

Calling in the experts

We started by going to Curious Creatures, a fantastic reptile only pet store in Chicago. They are experts in reptile husbandry. It’s a cool shop run by amazingly helpful people.

We then asked our vet. He was very opinionated as to what not to use, and almost immediately agreed with the recommendations from the folks at Curious Creatures.

They both gave us a few options and walked us through why we would use one over the other.

Their opinions have now been backed up independently by one other vet (our first veterinarian retired) as well as a well-respected local breeder.

So, who did we trust when it came to evaluating and selecting little Bacardi’s substrate? Mother Nature and a veritable board of professionals.

What you will read below is based on their years of success in raising happy, healthy, impaction free bearded dragons.

What is substrate?

While this might seem obvious, it’s important to touch on this question. It’s very clear to us by some people’s choice of a substrate that they really don’t fully understand what substrate is and what its purpose is.

A substrate isn’t just some random material to line the bottom of your beardie’s vivarium.

A substrate’s primary purpose isn’t to look cool, be cheap, be easy to clean, or anything else that benefits you first and your bearded dragon second.

Just because your bearded dragon looks cooler on white sand doesn’t mean that white sand is an appropriate substrate. Just because it’s easier for you to clean up sheets of a newspaper doesn’t mean that your beardie will thrive living on the pages of yesterday’s Sunday Times.

A substrate is what you choose to fill the bottom of your beardie’s home with. It’s what they will walk on, dig in, borrow through, and otherwise spend up to half of their lives in.

At its heart, a substrate is one of the things you use to make your beardie feel safe and welcome in their home.

The 2 purposes of the substrate

A substrate serves two primary purposes, neither of which serves the bearded dragon owner first. A substrate is where your beardie lives its life… It’s life in captivity.

Bacardi happy in her chips.

The first purpose of the substrate is to give your bearded dragon an environment to live on that somewhat closely simulates their home in the wild. As mentioned above, beardies like to bask, climb, dig, burrow, and sometimes lay eggs. 

Their substrate needs to give them the opportunity to do these things that Mother Nature programmed them to want to do. Just because we have decided to keep them as pets doesn’t mean we get to deny them their natural instincts.

The second purpose of the substrate is to give us, as owners, a way to provide a clean and sanitary environment for our pets. In the wild, they can simply poop and move on. They cannot do this in our vivariums. 

Substrate needs to be sanitary, relatively easily cleanable, and a place that does not harbor parasites and bacteria.

With those two purposes in mind, along with the opinions of Mother Nature and our panel of experts, let’s take a look at our substrate options. We’ll analyze what the pros and cons of each are. That will help us divide them into three categories.

Substrate you should never use

There is a pretty sizeable list of substrates that simply need to be eliminated from our options. These shouldn’t be used and can be dangerous or even lethal to your bearded dragon.

So why do these exist? Why do some people not only use them but recommend them? Why do manufacturers still make these options?

Those are all great questions we wish we didn’t have to ask. What we do know is that they are terrible options and they should be avoided at all costs.

We realize that we’ve included several options here that others have listed as okay to use even though they have some drawbacks. We feel that the drawbacks outweigh the positives. We also feel that since there are better options out there, it’s simply best to eliminate these right off the bat.

Nope!

Calci-Sand

Also known by several other brand names, calci-sand (short for calcium sand) is possibly the worst substrate option for your bearded dragon. Sand is not a good option in and of itself (see below), but calci-sand is the worst of them.

The idea is that since your beardie may end up ingesting sand, why not make it out of calcium? That way your bearded dragon is getting something it needs.

It sounds like it makes sense. That’s probably why so many people still think this is an ideal substrate to use. It’s not!

There are two huge issues here. First is that bearded dragons cannot digest this stuff! Second is that bearded dragons may feel compelled to eat it because of the calcium.

Combine those two things together and you have a recipe for impaction. You can see our full guide on impaction here, but the short version is that you want to avoid it. It can harm and even kill your bearded dragon.

Sand of any type

Wait, don’t bearded dragons live on sand in the wild? Didn’t we just say to look to Mother Nature for recommendations? Yes, they do and we did. This is where we decided to take the opinions of our experts over what we see in the wild. 

Your beardie evolved over thousands of years to live on a very particular type of sand. The red sand of Australia is very fine, has no sharp edges, and presents a moldable material that’s conducive to burrowing, digging, and laying eggs.

It’s the ability to burrow, dig, and lay eggs that matters. It’s not that they sometimes live on sand in the wild. Other things besides sand can provide these functions while not presenting a health threat to your beardie.

The sand you buy at the store is NOT the sand they live in in the wild.

Nope again!

It could be silica sand which has very sharp edges. It could be playground sand (highly recommended on some other sites) that discolors your dragon’s feet. It could be sand that doesn’t hold its form and so is useless when your beardie wants to dig or burrow.

Store-bought sand could be any number of things that are absolutely not what Mother Nature evolved the bearded dragon to live on.

You can actually buy bags of “red Australian sand” that say “Made in China” in small print on the bottom of the bag! Call me crazy, but I’m guessing that it’s probably not authentic red Australian sand.

Who knows what it could be?! Unless you are flying to Australia, bagging your own red sand, and flying back to your home, it’s just not safe to take chances with store-bought sand of any type!

Sand can create dust that leads to respiratory issues for your bearded dragon. Sand can get stuck in your beardie’s eyes, ears, or other less pleasant orifices and cause irritation or injury.

Sand has the potential to cause enough problems that it should be avoided all together!

You will see beardies at your local big-box pet store living on sand. You will see some exotic morphs (bred variants with striking visual characteristics) displayed on colored sand that accentuates the morph’s coloring. You will see some people online insist that sand is the best option because that’s what they live on in the wild.

Don’t be swayed by this. Sand can cause impaction along with other serious injuries or health issues. Sure, some people get lucky and never have an issue. But with so many other better options out there, it just doesn’t make sense to try our luck by using sand.

Gravel, rocks, and pebbles

Having one or more large rocks in your bearded dragon’s enclosure is a great way to give them something to climb or bask on. Our little Bacardi has spent many an hour lounging on one of her rocks.

Anything smaller than that is not a good idea.

We’ve already discussed the dangers of impaction, and any rocks small enough to eat will most assuredly cause this issue in your beardie. And yes, they will end up eating gravel and small rocks if they can. Beardies are weird that way.

Instinctively, if bearded dragons are mineral deficient in any way, they will look to eating rocks, pebbles, or sand to try to fix this problem. Since mineral deficiency is a possibility, it’s best not to use this type of material.

Another issue here is that rocks of varying sizes can break your bearded dragon’s teeth. While their front teeth will grow back (for this and 31 other cool facts you might not have known about bearded dragons, check out our article here), their back teeth will not.

Your little beardie friend needs their teeth to eat! Broken teeth will not only be painful for them, but it may prevent them from being able to eat–especially their protein like crickets or roaches.

Gravel and other similar substrates can also provide insects with a place to hide. If you feed your bearded dragon its insect-based protein source inside of their enclosure, this should be a concern for you. 

It’s not safe to leave your beardie alone with uneaten live crickets. Those suckers bite (one of the many reasons we don’t use them… To see a better choice, check out our article here!) and can cause injury to your bearded dragon if left unattended.

Other insects can hide, breed, deposit bacteria, or die and decay. This can cause mold and odor issues. Your substrate, if you choose to do your live feeding inside your enclosure, should not provide those little critters a place to hide.

Ground walnut shells

This one is an easy no. Ground walnut shells are sharp. If eaten, they will not only cause impaction, but will also cause lacerations and other injury to your beardie’s digestive tract. If it gets in their eyes or ears, you’ll have similar issues.

Walnut shells are also dusty. Any dusty substrate has the potential to cause respiratory issues for your bearded dragon.

Bearded dragons love to dig and burrow. The substrate you use will end up in their eyes, ears, and lungs on occasion. Ground walnut shells are a terrible choice for these reasons alone.

Bark, mulch, and coconut fiber

All three of these have similar drawbacks. While they might be ideal for other types of reptiles, they are not ideal for a bearded dragon.

The most common issues your bearded dragon may need to see a vet for are impaction, parasites, and respiratory infections. You can significantly limit the possibility of all three with the right choice of substrate.

Bark, mulch, and coconut fiber are conducive to all three. 

If eaten, they are very hard for your beardie to digest. This can lead to an impaction. 

It’s hard to clean their poop up in these types of substrates. This can lead to parasites finding a home and multiplying. In turn, this can cause a parasite problem for your beardie.

By retaining moisture, they can contribute to high humidity levels (see our article on maintaining proper humidity levels in your enclosure – article coming soon). Improper humidity levels can easily cause a respiratory infection.

In fact, when you see bags of this type of substrate in the pet store, you’ll notice the bag is lined with condensation. Moisture like this is definitely not good for your beardie.

Astroturf (artificial grass)

Astroturf is for football!

Due to its similarities to reptile carpet (see below), a lot of people think that astroturf (also known as artificial grass and easily found at your local hardware store) is a good choice. It’s not.

First, the plastic it’s made of can cause impaction. Your beardie’s sharp nails will easily dislodge some of the fake blades of grass over time. Those dislodged blades are easily mistaken for tasty greens and eaten when they shouldn’t be.

Second, it’s not a great idea anywhere near their basking area. Artificial grass will retain too much heat and could possibly burn your beardie. Anyone who has set foot on astroturf in the summer knows exactly what we mean here.

Third, it’s hard to clean appropriately and will start to smell in a relatively short amount of time.

If you like the look of astroturf, reptile carpet will be a better (although still not ideal) choice.

Alfalfa Pellets

Pet owners who have kept rabbits will be familiar with this option. While it’s not popular with bearded dragons, we have seen it recommended here and there so want to address this option.

These things stink (our opinion, but at the very least they can be described as having a very strong odor). They smell kind of like a dirty pet store or barn. If you get a whiff of them, you’ll know exactly what we are talking about.

Alfalfa pellets are also dusty. As previously touched upon, dust is not something you want to have flying around in your beardie’s enclosure. It’s a sure-fire way to cause a respiratory problem.

They also retain moisture too well. Proper (read that as low for bearded dragons) humidity levels are essential to respiratory health.

Finally, pellets make a great home for mold, bacteria, and loose insects. All things you don’t want sharing a living space with your pet beardie.

One positive here is that they are digestible if eaten and therefore shouldn’t cause an impaction. That said, this is true of some of the better options out there too and those won’t share any of the negatives that alfalfa presents.

Sand mats

These look cool. That’s where their benefits end. Sand mats are rolls of rubber or other synthetic material that have small rocks and sand glued to their surface. 

The idea is that you get the visual and textural benefits of sand without the impaction risk.

The problem with these is that they are near impossible to clean. A substrate that can’t be cleaned needs to be changed instead. This would be cost-prohibitive as these mats would have to be changed every time your beardie poops.

Your beardie can’t dig or burrow in these mats either. What a cruel trick to play! Giving them something that looks like fun, diggable earth only to have it be unrelenting and fixed.

And speaking of unrelenting and fixed, these aren’t the safest or most comfortable surface for your beardie to be walking over as they are pretty rough and sharp in some spots.

Seriously, don’t

We know that some of the above options may have been recommended to you. We can easily Google our way to multiple people who strongly recommend one or more of the above options. Those people will tell you how they’ve never had a problem with them and they work great.

The issue is that it only takes having one problem to regret a poor substrate choice. It’s like people who don’t use their seat belts because they’ve never been in an accident. It’s silly logic. Don’t wait until after you have a crash!

In the end, even if the above choices weren’t all dangerous and a really bad idea, there are better options out there. There’s simply no reason to use any of them since superior alternatives exist.

If for no other reason, avoid them because there is something better. What are those better options, you ask? Read on my fellow beardie lover.

Substrate we like, but don’t love

Once you’ve eliminated the substrate options that are just plain harmful to your bearded dragon, you are left with two basic groups of options. This next group are the options that lots of people successfully use. We don’t love them, but can’t make a case for eliminating them completely.

Reptile carpet

Reptile carpet is a very popular option. It’s inexpensive, attractive, easy to clean, and readily available at most pet stores.

Reptile carpet is different than the astroturf mentioned above in that it won’t come apart over time. It cannot be easily eaten and therefore is safe from causing impaction. It also doesn’t get ultra hot as artificial grass does.

Reptile carpet is a great option for young beardies who not only poop more often than older beardies but are also more likely to eat loose substrate.

Reptile carpet is usually treated to prevent odor and make it easier to clean. It does require you to remove it for proper cleaning, so it can be kind of a pain. For that reason, it’s recommended to have at least two pieces so you can simply swap them out when cleaning is needed.

While it is a viable option, there are three reasons we chose not to use reptile carpet for our bearded dragon, Bacardi.

First, we didn’t want to have to pull out and wash the carpet when it was soiled. Our beardie can poop a couple of times a week and we didn’t want to have to mess with changing out the carpet that often.

As a note, many beardie owners misinterpret “treated for smell and ease of cleaning” as not having to take the carpet out every time it’s soiled. That’s just not the case. Simply picking up the poop and not sanitizing can very quickly lead to bacteria of parasite problems.

If you go this route, get two or more pieces and change them out whenever soiled so you can fully clean the dirty one.

Second, it has been reported that your beardie’s nails can get caught in the carpet itself. Once caught, your bearded dragon may panic and pull at their trapped nail. This, in turn, can cause the nail to be ripped off.

While this isn’t a highly likely issue, we thought it enough of a concern not to use reptile carpet.

Lastly, Bacardi loves to dig and burrow. Most bearded dragons do. Reptile carpet gives our little girl nowhere to dig. Yet another reason we went with a different option.

News or butcher paper

This is possibly the least expensive and easiest to clean option out there. In two situations, baby and sick beardies, it’s probably the best as well.

If you have a baby beardie or a sick beardie, newspaper offers several benefits. Being easy to change out and keep clean is high on that list. It’s not dusty and doesn’t retain moisture, so it poses no danger to the delicate respiratory systems of young or ailing dragons.

It’s also highly unlikely that your dragon will eat the newspaper. This makes it a very low risk of impaction.

Why don’t we use newspaper? First of all, it’s ugly and nothing at all like a beardie’s natural habitat. Newspaper is a choice that’s good for the owner, but not very enjoyable for the bearded dragon.

They can’t dig or burrow in newspaper. It’s slippery and hard for them to get traction on it too. It doesn’t provide a healthy or older bearded dragon any unique benefits.

There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with newspaper, but we think of it as the lazy bearded dragon owner’s first choice.

Beardies are pretty low maintenance as it is. We don’t mind adding just a touch of work to our day to make sure we have a substrate our dragon can thrive on. There’s just no thriving on newspaper.

As a note, you may also find a substrate made from a shredded newspaper. We aren’t a fan of this option as it can retain moisture as well as harbor bacteria and feeder insects. It’s okay for a temporary solution, but probably shouldn’t be used as a permanent substrate choice.

Terrarium liner

Similar to reptile carpet, but a bit softer with more give, this type of liner is a very nice choice in most respects.

Like reptile carpet, you can cut this to size so it fits your enclosure exactly. It’s treated to prevent odors and easy to clean just like the carpet is. The same advice of having multiple pieces to swap out when soiled applies here.

The benefit of the terrarium liner over the reptile carpet is that it won’t snag your dragon’s nails. This makes it a better choice than the carpet in our opinion.

We would use this option if it wasn’t for one small detail. Our beardie still can’t dig or burrow in it. Our goal is to provide a home to our beardie that allows her to act on all of her natural instincts.

If she can’t burrow or dig, we just aren’t interested.

Substrates we love

Now we come to the options that we, as beardie owners, would and do actually use. After considering all the options available, which come out on top for us?

We think it’s important to note, at this point, that there is no perfect substrate.

All of them have benefits and drawbacks. It’s merely a matter of picking the option that, for you, has the least number of disadvantages while providing the most benefits.

For us, there are three solid choices in this category. One we use and two that we don’t. We based this decision on our particular needs and wants. Your mileage may vary.

Our personal stash

Repti Chips

Let’s start with the substrate that we use for our bearded dragon, Bacardi. As we noted at the beginning of this article, we made this choice based on the advice of several people we know and trust. All of them know more about bearded dragons than we do.

If you don’t want to read all the why’s and wherefores, then you can head straight over to Amazon to pick up some Repti Chips for your bearded dragon today.

What the experts say

Repti Chips were highly recommended to us by the folks at Curious Creatures in Chicago. They suggested this as the only option they use and recommend. We were skeptical because we had read so many articles online advising against using a loose substrate like Repti Chips. 

Many of those articles described loose substrate as dangerous and put it on their “never use this” list. They insisted that bearded dragons will eat the substrate and become impacted. This simply isn’t true and isn’t based on any real-world experience.

People who raise and care for bearded dragons as part of their livelihood know differently, and our vet cleared this up for us, putting our minds at ease. He also recommended Repti Chips as one of a few options he supports and uses with great success.

What about impaction?

Repti Chips are made from Aspen wood. Aspen is a very soft wood, and the chips are quite small. In most cases, your beardie won’t eat the chips. They typically will spit them out if they happen to get them in their mouth.

Aspen is the ideal wood for substrate

If they do swallow some (and no doubt this will happen), they pass easily and quickly. We have seen this on several occasions with Bacardi.

If she knocks some of her salad into the chips and ends up eating a few, she always passes them with ease. The wood becomes quite soft and breaks down easily in her digestive tract.

This is not the same for all wood, so we are definitely not giving an endorsement to just any wood chip type substrate. Repti Chips are what we use and recommend specifically because of the soft nature of Aspen wood.

If you need further assurances, a retrospective study was performed on 529 bearded dragons. The study indicated that impaction (constipation) was precipitated by endoparasites or metabolic bone disease, not substrate ingestion. The 2 cases linked to substrate ingestion were both linked to sand.

Other studies have found that healthy bearded dragons (juveniles and above in age) tended not to eat the substrate at all. Those that did passed smaller bits with no incidence.

The only exceptions to this are baby beardies and beardies who are sick to begin with. In both of those instances we, along with the professionals, recommend using newspaper. It seems to be the best option for very young or sick bearded dragons.

Benefits

Repti Chips have several outstanding benefits. Our favorite is that Bacardi loves to dig and burrow in them. It is not uncommon to find that she’s buried herself for the night under one of her hides or in a corner somewhere. 

Burrowed in for the night

Using a loose substrate like this gives her the ability to act on her instincts. This is important to us as bearded dragon owners. We want to give our little girl the best possible home, and we’d hate it if she couldn’t dig and burrow like she loves to do.

Having a place to burrow can also be very important for female dragons as without being able to dig, they will refuse to lay their eggs. If they have a group of eggs to lay and don’t do it, it can cause serious health issues.

It’s also very important when and if your dragon brumates (see our complete brumation guide here ). When they brumate, they do it for anywhere from several weeks to several months.

Their natural tendency is to get under a hide, burrow in, and block the door with the loose substrate. This is how they protect themselves from predators in the wild. It’s how they can comfortably brumate in captivity.

Repti Chips are also very absorbent. This makes cleanup a snap. When Bacardi poops, we can easily pick it up along with a good amount of the surrounding chips. We fill in the spot with some new chips and presto, clean enclosure.

This also performs the very important task of odor control. Poop on tile (another of our preferred substrate options) fills the entire enclosure with odor for a long period of time. Not so with Repti Chips.

We also like that Repti Chips are affordable, have little to no dust (making them unique among other loose substrate options), are easy to change out (a shop vac makes short work of them), and don’t otherwise make a mess. We are happy with our choice of substrate for sure!

We order our Repti Chips to be shipped directly to us from Amazon. You can’t find them in many pet stores (yet oddly, you can find all of the worst options every time!), so we’ve found Amazon to be the easiest and most convenient.

Be careful as there are several substrate options called Repti Chips, but only one of them is the version we use. The rest are not safe for a variety of reasons. See the version of Repti Chips we use and love here on Amazon!

Drawbacks

As we mentioned, no substrate is perfect, and Repti Chips are no exception.

If you decide to use this type of substrate, understand that you must be diligent in keeping a clean enclosure for your beardie. Loose material makes a great hiding and breeding place for parasites and bacteria.

Act fast when this happens

Because of this, you can’t leave your dragon’s poop in the substrate for long periods. If you do, you risk allowing any bacteria or parasites in their feces to find a home to breed in the long term. This will, in turn, pose a health risk to your beardie.

For this reason, we follow a few simple practices. Doing these few things will mitigate any risks presented by bacteria or parasites.

First, make sure to pick up any poop as soon as possible. We check on Bacardi several times a day so this is easy. It’s even easier because we’ve come to know her “I’m gonna poop” face. It almost always happens in the morning and we are almost always there right away for clean up!

Second, make sure to pick up a good amount of substrate around the poop itself. Don’t leave behind any wet or soiled chips. Err on the side of caution and take more than you think you should. Once done, fill in the spot with new, clean chips.

Third, it’s a good idea to change out the entire enclosure every few months. This will ensure that no bacteria or parasites find a long term home.

We feel that this little bit of extra maintenance is more than worth the trade-off of giving Bacardi a place she can dig and burrow and be happy.

The only other drawback of Reti Chips doesn’t apply to us, but it may apply to you.

When we feed Bacardi live feeder insects, we do it outside of her enclosure. We have a bin we feed her in (easy to do with Dubia roaches but not so much with crickets – one of many reasons we don’t use crickets!). This way we know she has eaten all of her food for the day and there aren’t any critters left.

Bacardi hunting a roach in her feeder bin.

If you feed your beardie their live feeders inside their enclosure, Repti Chips is not a suitable substrate for you. With a loose substrate like this, your feeder insects will be able to hide from your bearded dragon. Not only will your beardie not get its food, but with crickets, there is another issue.

Crickets bite. And they will bite your beardie if left alone with them. So much so that they could cause significant issues. Never leave live crickets in your enclosure with your beardie unless you can find and remove the uneaten ones easily.

Using Repti Chips makes this impossible and puts your beardie at risk. So what do you do if you fall into this category? Use one of our other two preferred substrate options!

***Please don’t confuse Repti Chips with Repti Bark. Repti Bark is a substrate designed to add humidity to the air of a reptile’s enclosure. A good idea for some reptiles, but a terrible idea for bearded dragons!

Excavator Clay

Excavator clay is an exciting option and one of the better choices for bearded dragons. It is a loose clay powder that you add water to. Once moist, you form it in the bottom of your dragon’s enclosure.

You can grab a bag of loose clay to try out on Amazon here. Even better, pick up the cavern kit which looks like a ton of fun in and of itself!

Benefits

The clay can be formed into hills, mounds, flat areas, tunnels, or any other terrain you can think of. It holds its shape extremely well. Once it’s in place, it will dry to a hard, clay surface. 

Despite it being a hard surface, your beardie can still dig in it. It won’t be like digging in their native sand, but they can dig. When the clay is new and softer, they can even burrow and dig their own tunnels.

One nice feature of your beardie digging in this harder clay surface is that it will help to keep their nails dulled. This makes them easier to handle and also means you may not have to cut their nails (see our full article on how to do this here)!

This feature makes excavator clay the coolest of our substrate options by far. The varying landscapes that you can create for your beardie to live on are endless!

You can even buy it in a “cavern kit” that comes with the clay and several tools you can use to form tunnels and burrows for your bearded dragon. You can see that kit on Amazon here!

Being a more solid substrate, it is safer to offer live feeder insects on as it gives them fewer places to hide. It’s also very easy to clean when your beardie poops said insects out!

It does not, however, absorb odor like the chips do. Keep this in mind if you can’t get to your beardie’s poo quickly and efficiently.

The solidity of clay lends itself to longevity too. You probably won’t need to do a complete change out of the clay unless your beardie gets sick and you need to fully sanitize their home.

This looks so cool!

The solid nature of the clay also means that it’s highly unlikely your beardie will eat any of it. One of the primary concerns when selecting substrate is impaction risk and there is virtually none with excavator clay.

Drawbacks

As cool as excavator clay is, we chose not to use it at this time (although we may give it a go down the road). There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, it’s cumbersome, dirty, and labor-intensive to put in. With Repti Chips, we open a bag, pour it in, even it out and voila! With clay, it’s not that simple. There is a mixing process, a forming process, and drying time. We simply didn’t want to go to that much effort!

Second, while bearded dragons can dig in clay, it’s not the same thing as burrowing in a looser substrate like Repti Chips. We wanted Bacardi to be able to easily dig and bury herself (which she does quite often!) and clay didn’t provide that opportunity.

Last, It’s a big project to change out your substrate with clay. While it’s not needed very often, we know ourselves well enough to know that we will be changing up Bacardi’s home relatively often. We just couldn’t do this with clay.

Even with these few drawbacks, excavator clay is one of the best possible options to use for your bearded dragon. If you are feeling adventurous and want to craft a unique home for your pet dragon, grab a cavern kit and go to town! Your beardie will love it.

Tile

The last great option we will discuss for bearded dragon substrates is tile. Not only is it an excellent option for many people, but it’s also one of the most popular and widely used.

There are several types of tile, but we are going to focus on ceramic or slate. That means that, for a variety of reasons, we do not recommend any other types. You can see an example of slate tile here on Amazon.

Linoleum and vinyl tile can absorb way too much heat and could possibly burn your beardie. They are also very slick and provide no traction for your beardie to be able to get around. This is true of lots of types of tile, so stick with ceramic or slate and you’ll be just fine!

Benefits

Ceramic and slate will absorb heat but not get too hot (color makes a difference here so be careful). Stick to darker colors as white and lighter color tile will reflect heat and remain cold. You definitely don’t want your beardie living on cold tiles. 

Ceramic and slate will also provide the best grip of all the possible types of tile you could use. Keep in mind they will still be somewhat slick, but they will have the most traction of all of the tile options. Being that they are a rough texture, they will also do a nice job of keeping your dragon’s nails filed down.

Being a solid, non-loose, substrate, tile presents virtually no risk of impaction. It’s one of the safest options you can use.

Tile is also the easiest to clean of all of your substrate options. This is a big part of the reason it is such a popular choice for owners. Remember to disinfect, not just wipe, as eliminating bacteria is vital to the health of your bearded dragon.

If cut correctly, tile will not present any places for live feeder insects to hide. As discussed above, we don’t recommend feeding your beardie in its enclosure. You don’t want to risk feeders hiding out and later harming your dragon. But if you do, tile is your best choice.

Tile can also be easily cut to fit your enclosure. You’ll want to pick up a tile cutter at the hardware store where you source your tile, but those are cheap and fairly easy to use.

While you are there, you’ll see just how many options you have. There will be a myriad of colors and patterns to pick from. Tile can be one of the best looking options while still being one of the best options overall.

Drawbacks

First, be very careful when placing your tile inside your enclosure.

Ceramic tile can easily scratch, crack, or break the glass on the bottom of your beardie’s home.

It’s a good idea to put down something between the tile and the bottom of the tank. 

Newspaper works okay, but something soft works even better. A thin microfiber towel is a great option. So is a layer of loose substrate like Repti Chips or even sand. Our favorite option is to use rubber drawer liner (you can see this here on Amazon)

Another downside of tile is that while it is the easiest to clean, that only counts if nothing gets between the tiles. If your bearded dragon poops where the tiles come together, you will have to pull the tiles completely out to properly clean. This will also mean cleaning whatever you have placed between the tiles and the bottom of the tank.

And as mentioned before, a hard substrate like tile offers no odor absorption at all. Beardie poop smells pretty bad, so this should be a consideration. It was for us!

Lastly, and this was the reason we didn’t choose to use tile, your bearded dragon cannot dig or burrow in tile. We feel strongly enough about this that we immediately eliminated anything our little Bacardi couldn’t dig in. This might not be a deal-breaker for you (and it certainly isn’t for many), but it is for us.

As we write this very article, Bacardi is snuggled in, burrowed deep in a pile of Repti Chips, happily brumating. She just couldn’t do this on a tile.

Bacardi brumating, safe behind a pile of substrate

One way to approach this problem is to use tile and then provide a “dig box”. A dig box is a small segregated area of the tank that contains a loose substrate for your beardie to dig in. In our opinion, a dig box is a must in a tile-lined enclosure.

The Ultimate substrate option

We have big dreams for our little beardie. We have plans for a much larger, custom enclosure at some point in the near future. When we do, we plan to mix two of the above options together.

Our vision is to have a varied landscape that provides our bearded dragon harder clay to scratch around and build in and softer Repti Chips to dig and burrow in. Our enclosure will have several levels and plenty of places for Bacardi to move around, climb, and explore.

We feel that this will give our bearded dragon the best possible substrate to live on. We realize that this isn’t what most will be able to do, but we are going to have fun with it!

Make sure to follow along on our YouTube channel (channel coming soon) as we will document the process of building the new enclosure every step of the way!

Conclusion

As we stated in the beginning, substrate is probably the most hotly contested subject when it comes to raising bearded dragons. Everyone has something to say on the subject.

Hopefully, we’ve provided you with enough information to make an informed decision on what is best for both you and your bearded dragon. The good news is that once you decide, you can move on to more fun things. 

Simply stick with one of our three best choices above and you can’t really go wrong!

Get yours ordered on Amazon right now!

Additional Questions:

Why is my bearded dragon actively eating their substrate?

This usually indicates a nutritional deficiency. If your substrate is sand or gravel, your beardie may have a mineral deficiency. Make sure you are giving regular doses of a good multivitamin (see our complete guide to supplementation here). And it is a good idea to consider a different substrate option.

Can I use dirt, clippings, and leaves from my yard?

We strongly recommend against this. Bacteria and pesticides are two things that are harmful to your beardie. They are also things readily found in the dirt from your yard. Stick to a bagged substrate that has been prepared for reptile enclosures or hard substrate like tile.

How deep should the substrate be?

We recommend a one to two-inch thick layer if using a loose substrate. This is usually enough to provide an excellent surface to travel on as well as provide enough substrate to dig and burrow in. We’ve found that anything more than that makes it a little hard for your beardie to get around in their home.

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