Terrarium substrate is an important part of every exotic pet’s life and even more so for the ground-dwelling lizards like leopard geckos.
Think about it – every day, your leo will walk and run on the tank’s substrate, feed on it, poop on it, try to burrow into it and possibly lay eggs in it. That is why the choice of substrate is very important.
It might surprise you to learn that this choice is not (always) easy!
Did you know that there are some substrates that are really unhealthy for leopard geckos, and still they are readily sold and marketed as suitable for the species?
In a nutshell, what are the good and bad leopard gecko substrates?
|Good substrates||Bad substrates|
|“Controversial” substrates||Moist hide substrates|
In this article, I will introduce you to the commonly used leopard gecko tank substrates and their pros and cons.
Best Leopard Gecko Substrates
- Stone slate. Beautifully crafted by nature and natural for leos, stone slates provide a good grip, although they might be tricky to obtain and set up.
- Paper towel. An unsightly, but still highly practical and a very safe substrate, heavily used by leopard gecko breeders.
- Excavator clay. Not only that it allows you (and your geckos) to build your own burrows and rock formations, but hardened excavator clay also simulates your gecko’s natural habitat ground to a great extent. Exciting stuff!
Safe Substrates For Leopard Geckos
There are many fine substrate options for leo tanks, both natural and artificial.
1. Paper Towels
Paper towels are cheap, easy to change, and super absorbent, so they make maintenance a breeze. That is why they are favored by breeders and enthusiasts who have many enclosures to take care of. Paper towels are also commonly used with baby leopard geckos, who eat and defecate frequently. Another plus is that if you use white paper towels, you will be able to spot mites or some other health issues much earlier than with other substrates.
On the other hand, paper towels look completely unnatural; they will prevent leos from expressing their natural digging behavior, and they do not provide a good grip for adult individuals.
Although you can make your life easier and just use whatever towels are available, you do have many options when it comes to material, texture, colors, weight, and sustainability.
If you are worried about deforestation and habitat destruction, there are quite options to get “tree-less” paper towels, like Caboo Tree Free Bamboo Paper Towels ».
Also, you can use towels made out of recycled paper, like the Seventh Generation Unbleached Paper Towels ».
The one thing I would not recommend in any case is using perfumed paper towels. Always go for the ones that are the lowest in chemicals. Naturally bleached (or unbleached) non-perfumed varieties are the best.
How Much Paper Towel Do I Need In My Terrarium?
Many leo owners go for just one layer of paper towel. Personally, I would settle for two. Do not put too much because too many layers will turn into a paper pulp mush if it gets substantially wet.
Old newspapers are an even cheaper option than paper towels with many upsides. The paper is usually very absorbent. Also, you are recycling/repurposing, so if you are worried about your environmental impact, newspaper is better than paper towels.
On the other hand, using newspaper is certainly unnatural and quite unsightly, although you can tackle this by choosing pages with interesting or funny content for the upper layer of the newspaper substrate.
Always leave the newspaper to dry for a week or longer. Although the ink used for printing newspapers these days is non-toxic, you should err on the safe side. Also, drying partially resolves the problem of the specific newspaper smell.
How Many Newspaper Sheets Do I Need In My Leo Tank?
About five or six layers of newspaper will be about right to make this substrate sturdy and absorbent enough.
3. Reptile Carpet
Reptile carpet is an artificial substrate which is designed to be absorbent and supportive. Unlike the previously mentioned paper substrates, it ensures that reptiles can get a good grip when walking.
When choosing a reptile carpet, get one from a proven manufacturer and check if it has been designed with leopard geckos in mind. A wrong kind of carpet can lead to leo’s claws getting stuck in the fiber.
Reptile carpets do get dirty and smelly after a while. Leopard geckos are not as messy as some other popular lizards (beardies, for example), so this is not such a big issue. However, you will have to wash a reptile carpet as soon as you notice it got too soiled.
Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how to wash, and how many times you can do it until you have to change the carpet. Washing will cause the fiber to start sticking out eventually, making it more likely for your leo to get his delicate fingers stuck in them.
Zilla Reptile Terrarium Bedding Substrate Liner roll is easy to cut to your preferred size. It was pre-treated with biodegradable enzymes to reduce any odors and can be efficiently washed in cold tap water. Its color is a beautiful dark shade of green which will make a nice contrasting background for many leopard gecko morphs:
Zilla Reptile Terrarium Bedding Substrate Liner »
And if you prefer natural materials, an interesting alternative to plastics to consider are reptile carpets/terrarium liner made out of natural coconut fiber, like this Hamiledyi Reptile Carpet ».
How Much Reptile Carpet Do I Need In My Leo Tank?
You only need one layer of reptile carpet in your enclosure. Do everything according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Reptile carpets can come pre-cut to a certain size, or it is up to you to cut it so it covers the bottom of your tank.
Important: Reptile carpets are specialized equipment and are NOT the same thing as regular “human” carpets or astroturf. Do not use any of these in your terrarium.
4. Large River Pebbles (over 2 cm / ~0,8″)
Larger smooth pebbles – or river stones – can be safely used as a natural substrate. They are not so easy to clean as the mentioned artificial substrates, but since leos usually poop in one corner only, you can do the partial cleaning and replacement of the pebbles. Washing and disinfecting in plan boiling water promises easy maintenance and the endless re-use of the material.
There are certainly downsides to using large pebbles in your tank. Your leo will not be able to dig. If you put a layer of pebbles that is too thin or too loose, it will create rattling noises as geckos move. Prey items such as mealworms will easily find their escape among the rocks, so you will want to feed your lizards in a special tray, or by using tweezers.
Do not use pebbles smaller than your gecko’s head (on average), or mixes containing smaller pebbles and gravel. Smaller pebbles and gravel can cause a really bad impaction if ingested accidentally.
How Much River Stones Do I Need For My Leo Tank?
When putting a layer of river pebbles, you should aim for silence and stability – the number of centimeters is not overly important.
5. Stone Slates
Stone slabs, slates, or pavers are perhaps the most attractive of all non-loose substrates. They have all the benefits of true rocks, including a good grip and the natural look and feel. Also, if they’re not too porous, it is easy to clean them.
For lizards, including leos, slabs with rougher (but not sharp) texture are ideal because they will provide a stable walking surface.
Be careful when setting up an enclosure with slabs – there shouldn’t be any space between the tank wall and the edge of the stone slate(s) where a gecko could hurt himself or get stuck. The slab(s) should also be firmly attached to the bottom of the tank – no wobbling.
How Many Stone Slates Do I Need In My Leo Tank?
A single-layer slate or carefully arranged pieces should cover the entire bottom of your terrarium. Again, there should be cracks or spaces. Note that the size of the slate that will fit your tank perfectly might be hard to find, and it would be best if you could check with a dealer if he is able to provide you with the exact size you need on the spot.
6. Ceramic Tiles
Ceramic tiles are lighter and more affordable “cousins” of stone slabs. They are easier to obtain and easier to cut and install.
The only trouble with ceramic tiles is if they’re smooth, geckos won’t be able to get a grip and can end up hurting themselves because of slipping. Fortunately, there are some textured ceramic tiles with stone-mimicking 3D patterns, like this one ».
How Many Ceramic Tiles Do I Need In My Leo Tank?
You will need a single layer of tiles that should cover the entire bottom of your terrarium. You can use it in combination with a layer of paper towel beneath the tiles.
7. Excavator Clay Substrate
Excavator clay is a relatively new type of substrate on the market. When you get the clay moist enough, it can be shaped as any modeling clay; when it dries, the shape you created stays firmly in place. This is how this particular substrate lets you have some fun with building your own, customized leo scenery – caves, burrows, basking spots, and so on.
Since leos are burrowing lizards, they will enjoy the seemingly-natural burrows. Last but not least, the clay-type substrate is something much more similar to their natural habitat than the pure desert sand.
Zoo Med Excavator Clay Burrowing Substrate »
How Much Excavator Clay Should I Use For My Leo?
Since this is a special type of substrate, you should follow the instructions on the packaging, although the amount of clay you will use will also depend on the structures you want to build.
The Controversial Coconut Coir (Eco Earth)
Along with sand, coconut fiber, coconut coir, eco earth, or simply coco, has probably been one of the most debated types of substrate among leopard gecko keepers. Cocontroversy!
Coco is affordable, looks natural, and has antimicrobial properties which prevent rotting, mold and bad odors. It can be used both dry and wet, which means you don’t have to use two different substrates (moisture-retention substrate for wet hideouts and a drier one for the rest) – you just keep the hiding place moist and the rest of the terrarium dry.
However, there are a couple of issues with coconut coir.
In the case when coconut coir is kept dry (as it should be in a leo tank), it produces fine dust, which can, in theory, harm your gecko’s respiratory system. Secondly, like other loose substrates, coconut coir can be swallowed in quantities that can result in impaction – though most geckos don’t seem to perceive coconut coir as a “nutritional supplement”, so they won’t try to eat it on its own.
However, many consider that these properties do not make coconut coir worth the risk of using it in a leo tank.
Although because of its downsides and possible dangers I cannot recommend coconut coir to leo hobbyists, I have to say that I have been using it with no issues for many years. It was the safest and the simplest natural substrate available locally at the time I got my leos, and we had gotten used to it.
A small disclaimer: my leo tank contains only two mature female leos, so there is no commotion that would raise some dust in the tank. There are a lot of rocks and a 3D rock background, so my two precious ones don’t spend a lot of time on the dry coco itself. Also, I never put down any food on the coco coir.
Still, my experience is just one out of many, and the potential hazards of coconut coir must be recognized.
If you’re still opting for coconut coir, make sure that you get a brand that is made out of organically-grown coconut and, ideally, intended for use in reptile and amphibian tanks. You will usually have two choices: to get loose bagged substrate, like this 10-quart Fluker’s Loose Coconut Bedding for Reptiles ».
(…), or a compressed coco brick or coco block, like this Josh’s Frogs Coco Block Fine Coco Fiber, which will expand to 38-quarts when submerged into (ideally dechlorinated) water.
Josh’s Frogs Coco Block Fine Coco Fiber »
How Much Coconut Coir Should I Use In My Leo Tank?
A layer of about 1 cm (less than half an inch) will be enough to satisfy the basic needs for stable movement of your pets, as well as the absorbance level. However, if you wish for your leos to have the possibility to really dig into the substrate, feel free to put in a thicker layer.
Leopard Gecko Moist Hide Substrates
For most substrates on this list, you will need a small amount of additional, complementary substrate to add to your leo’s cave or hide box. This type of substrate has to be good at moisture retention while not being prone to mold.
The most commonly used substrates for moist hides are the following.
Coconut Coir (or Eco Earth)
While using coconut fiber as a general substrate has its downsides, there is no issue when you use coco as a moist hide substrate. Coco holds moisture well and will not get moldy easily. Leos will gladly dig and even lay eggs in this substrate.
When you first set up your moist hide, remember the smell of the freshly soaked fiber. If the scent happens to become funkier – it is time to change the substrate.
If you are using coconut coir as a moist hide substrate only, there is no need to get coco bricks or blocks – you don’t need that much of it. Instead, opt for bagged loose coco coir for terrarium use, like Fluker’s above, or this Carib Sea Coco Soft Reptiles Bedding, made out of 100% fresh organic coconut husks:
Although different in texture, sphagnum moss has similar properties like coconut coir. It is a bit more coarse and stringy than coconut fiber. Perhaps that is the reason that moss has a slightly higher impaction potential than coco. In the leo community, there have been occasional reports of sphagnum moss ingestion by the lizards – some of them leading to impaction. Still, sphagnum moss is generally considered a safe moist hide substrate.
As in the case of coconut fiber, always go for the sphagnum moss that has been intended for terrarium use, such as the Josh’s Frogs Sphagnum Moss package. The moss is quite chunky, and it takes a relatively thin layer to hold an optimum amount of moisture.
Wet paper towels
Because there is always some risk of ingestion with all loose substrates, some owners prefer to use (wet) paper towels even in the moist hides. However, it is not a 100% safe option either. How’s that?
First, lizards can’t dig in this kind of substrate. If you have a female that needs to lay eggs (this can happen even if you don’t have a male around) but doesn’t have a place to dig them in, she might hesitate to proceed. That increases the risk of egg binding – a condition as critical as impaction.
Also, there have been case reports of leos accidentally swallowing pieces of paper while shedding their skin – which could be even more dangerous than a bit of coconut fiber or sphagnum moss.
Now, let’s focus on what substrates to avoid.
Unsafe Leopard Gecko Substrates
Since leos come from “dry, desert environment,” many automatically assume this includes a Sahara-like sandy desert landscape. In line with that, many pet shops readily recommend sand or calcium sand as the best substrate for leos.
The truth is somewhat different. Leos do not really come from sandy deserts. Leopard gecko’s original habitat is the rocky Asian desert and grassland. The soil is hard and, yes, has some sand in it – but not the consistency you would get in an all-sand enclosure.
So, the fact that the pure sand is simply unnatural for leopard geckos is the number one reason it is not the best choice for a leo tank.
Secondly, there are safety issues when using sand and other loose substrates. Leos often take in and swallow some of the substrate material while feeding. This happens the most with younger individuals who are voracious and impulsive eaters, still fine-tuning their hunting technique.
Even if you feed your leos in a special tray or by using tweezers, some geckos will purposefully lick and eat gravel and sand in an attempt to increase their mineral intake and aid digestion.
Unfortunately, the uncontrolled intake of sand or gravel can lead to a bad case of impaction.
(you can insert the link to our health article here). The condition occurs when a gecko swallows a substantial amount of a solid substance which causes a blockage in the lizard’s intestines. Serious impaction is hard to treat and can be fatal.
Calcium sand is no different – it is still sand. Although it is digestible in theory, when swallowed in larger amounts it can still physically shut down your lizard’s tiny, delicate bowels. Also, leos who are deficient in calcium might purposefully lick the calci-sand substrate, with the same dangerous effect.
On the other hand, impaction is easily prevented with the right substrate and food choices. There is no need for any leo to suffer or die of this terrible health issue just because of the wrong substrate.
Bottom line: Your gecko will not miss out on anything if you skip using sand. Period.
However, we must recognize that there will always be leo owners who will use sand, for whatever reason. If you are really into keeping your leos on sand despite everything said about this substrate, at least you can get specialized reptile sand. It should be somewhat safer than using regular coarse playground/river sand, or aquarium sand.
Other types of substrate to avoid
- Loose plant-based substrates: wood chips, walnut shells, etc.
- Any material with sharp edges.
I hope you enjoyed finding out more about the various types of leopard gecko tank substrates and the general importance of substrates. In the end, it would be difficult to declare which substrate is truly the best for leopard geckos – only you can decide what is best for your leos. The important thing is that the decision is bailesed on some solid knowledge!
What type of terrarium substrate works for you? What’s your experience with substrates and the dreaded impaction? Let us know in the comments, and share with friends – the more opinions, the merrier!
9 thoughts on “What Is the Best Substrate for a Leopard Gecko (Quick Answer: Never Choose Sand)”
Hi. I am using wet paper towels in my gecko’s moist hide. I already know from your article that sphagnum is preferred, but is it ok to use a sponge, preferably a natural sponge? And how about loofa material? I’m looking for something that will stay moister longer. As an aside, I know that my gecko had eggs (I saw them in her tummy) but it seems they have dissipated. Could this be because there wasn’t really anyplace for her to dig? I did set up a small box with torn up paper towels, but after one brief period, she didn’t use it anymore. Thanks!
Sphagnum is one of the best materials for keeping a damp hide, well, damp. But, that doesn’t mean it is the only thing. A sponge may be a great option; just be sure that you use one that isn’t treated with soaps or detergents. A loofah may also be a good solution, although it may be a bit abrasive on your gecko’s skin.
Your leopard gecko may have reabsorbed her eggs for any number of reasons, including potentially, the lack of an egg-deposition site. It’s probably a good idea to go ahead and provide her with one, just in case she develops eggs again.
Best of luck!
I have tried a lot of searches and I can’t seem to confirm for sure the difference between excavator clay and regular old…red clay…is there any risk to using natural clay in parts of the Leo gecko habitat? I’ve already created the set up but she is not been introduced to it yet…
Regular ‘ol red clay should work. Just be sure that it’s not too wet. It may, however, stain your lizard’s skin (not to mention your hands and everything else that touches it). I don’t think I’ve used clay for leos before, but it’s never caused a problem with any other species.
Best of luck!
I read somewhere that a mix of organic potting soil (with no additives) and “play sand” in a 50/50 mix is safe for adult Leo’s and gives them something to dig around in. What are your thoughts on that? I know sand is bad, and we currently just use reptile carpet, but I’d like him to have something for digging/enrichment.
Hey Amy, A mix of organic potting soil and play sand is definitely safe for adult leopard geckos and is a great substrate for them to dig around in. The only thing to keep in mind is that you don’t want to use sand alone, as it can be harmful to leopard geckos. You also definitely never want to use calci-sand, as it can be fatal if ingested.
I have adopted a healthy adult leopard gecko from a relative. I’ve have had them in the past and they did fine on Zoo Med Reptisand, but I am having second thoughts. I have her on Reptisand now and her poops are fine. No sign of impaction. However, I am considering changing over to reptile carpet with pieces of slate for her to crawl on. She never seems to be interesting in digging, so I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.
What say you?
The problem with sand is that it’s sort of an accident waiting to happen. As with all accidents, the worst – the impaction – may never happen. But we try to minimize the risk. Since you never know if it’s gonna happen, and there is a possibility – it’s best to avoid the risky substrate altogether.
Besides, leopard geckos don’t naturally live on loose sand but on dry, usually hardened soil and rocks.
The carpet-slate combo sounds like a fine solution to me. Just make sure you wash the carpet regularly – ideally weekly – to avoid bacterial build-up. You can get two carpets and simply swap them because they need some time to dry.
Remember to keep the loose, wet substrate such as eco earth or coconut coir inside the moist hide.
Also, there are new generation loose, naturalistic substrates for bioactive setups marketed as safe for leos. IMHO, time still has to tell if they’re as safe as advertised. But if you want to take some risk and experiment, you can use these (or eco earth) as a base and then cover them with slate and rocks across most of the tank’s surface to minimize potential contact. Good luck!
Anyone try using two substrates at one time (coconut fiber and dolomite sand)? I am currently using both but separating the type of substrate based on the section of the enclosure…. wet hide of coconut fiber, middle region for exposed dolomite and a dry section of coconut fiber… also a large smooth pebble on the dolomite to add a buffer for the heating pad.