Silver Lining

Being well-informed on species-appropriate substrates is key to helping customers maintain their pets’ wellbeing.




woman came to my counter the other day almost in tears. She had brought in her baby boa constrictor, and she believed it was near death. I had to agree. It was stuck in massive layers of shed, its backbone was jutting upward and it was as limp as an overcooked linguini.


I hydrated the little guy for about 20 minutes, being careful to not let his head drop below the water line. He immediately perked up. I then carefully removed the sheds (I believe there may have been five of them) and overnighted him in a shoebox with some damp paper towels and heat. The next morning, I found him perky and inquisitive. He ate a fuzzy mouse with gusto. Two weeks later, with two more feedings under his little belt, he went home, confident and happy.


But he did not go home without a completely new cage and supplies. It seems his very grateful owner had originally bought him from a local independent full-line store that did not mind selling animals they did not know how to care for. When things started to go south with the original setup, the young lady went to a box store that proceeded to sell her an even less appropriate cage. My store represented her third, and hopefully final, try.


Almost all health issues that arise with herps are generated by one or more failures in husbandry and/or set-up. In my experience, the first hurdle seems to be temperature, followed closely by problems with diet, lighting and humidity. Every aspect of husbandry needs to be understood by both the buyer and the seller when it comes to exotics. Today, I will go through the fundamentals of substrates.


Like all other choices in cage design, a basic understanding of an animal’s life in the wild informs us of how to house it in captivity. Sometimes creatures that are basic to our industry are completely misunderstood as to their life in the wild. For instance, the leopard gecko, arguably the world’s most popular pet lizard, was for decades considered a “desert” animal, and keepers were advised to set them up on sand. They are from Pakistan, famously desert country, but they tend to frequent rocky outcroppings and scrubland. Thus, they are actually happier kept on something like dry pine shavings.


Options for reptile bedding break down roughly into the following categories: wood shavings, bark shreds and chips, sand, mosses, cage carpets, aquarium gravel, soils and newspaper.


Wood Shavings

The first and most basic factor is to never sell aromatic beddings like cedar or chlorophyll-infused pine. Reptiles, especially snakes, are incapable of handling the strong scent. I find pine bedding to be almost universally acceptable for snakes and low-humidity herps. Pine does come in different grades. I prefer the dust-free, kiln-dried pine for herps (the dusty shavings often sold for rodents will increase the dust level in your home). I carry two sizes of chip, but that is largely an aesthetic decision for the keeper.


I love aspen, especially for baby snakes, which tend to burrow through their bedding. Unlike pine, the aspen tends to maintain its form and a snake can create quite a warren for itself. Aspen also isn’t quite so airborne, meaning it stays in the cage instead of on your carpet.



Higher-humidity herps like boas, ball pythons, red-footed tortoises, Jackson’s chameleons and even many frog species prefer a high-grade redwood or cypress bark. Redwood is, in my experience, a little less expensive and works well if you are inclined to clean your animals’ cages frequently. It makes for a very attractive substrate, but its dark coloration means that keepers must be vigilant about pets’ defecations and urinations, which tend to be masked by the bedding. Redwood is also subject to mold and rotting.


Cypress, on the other hand, is much more resistant to both mold and rotting. After all, cypress evolved in swamp and grows in standing water. It’s therefore one of my go-to beddings for any number of animals.



Surprisingly few animals do well on sand in captivity. Off the top of my head, I can think of sand boas, desert arachnids, true desert species of gecko and that’s about it. It is very abrasive to many herps, even ones people often think of as desert species, including the aforementioned leopard geckos, spurred tortoises and desert kingsnakes. When I say abrasive, I mean both internally and externally. Animals that ingest sand, either accidentally or on purpose, will find themselves with ravaged digestive tracks, or worse, massive blockages.


Even the vitamin-infused, supposedly digestible sand some companies offer has recently raised some warning flags that smaller animals like baby geckos may be incapable of passing it. While that case has not been proven to my satisfaction, my store has opted to not carry it until further studies have been done.



While mosses have been used for decades as water sources for arachnids and humidity chamber bedding for snakes and lizards, I find more and more of my clients using it as a basic cage bedding. Of course, it’s perfect for most amphibians, but I have been surprised to see customers keeping it as a basic cage-wide bottom layer for any number of species. It sure does look good and provides ample hide and burrow options for critters.


There are several types of moss commonly found on the market: I carry basic whole moss (a standard of horticulture decor for decades), frog moss, which can come back to full life when hydrated and can flourish given slowly dripping water and cooler temperatures, and my favorite, New Zealand sphagnum moss. This moss clumps well and, even though it’s dead, it maintains an attractive appearance.


Cage Carpets

This is a very popular option for people who like an easy-to-clean substrate and a very minimal cage look. The operative phrase there is “for people”—I cannot help but feel that it is not a popular option for animals.


Look at it this way: name an animal that has evolved to live on miniature golf courses. See? I can’t imagine that there is an animal on the planet that, given its druthers, is going to opt to live on a carpet. This is a product for people who put their needs above those of their animals. Not my kind of people.


On the other hand, my vet seems to love it, pointing out that carpet can neither get lodged in an animal’s mouth nor go down its gullet.


Aquarium Gravel

Want a retro look? If you are keeping aquatics, this option is always appropriate. It takes me back five decades. But for landlubbers, there is no advantage to it, and it is heavy and difficult to clean.



My problem with soils, and their cousin, ground coconut husk (aka coir bricks), is that they are often messy, clinging to glass and making it look like you just threw some dirt in. That said, Zoo Med has come up with a blend of potting soil, sand, carbon and peat that is universally appropriate for animals that will do well on it, such as forest arachnids and land-based amphibians.



When shredded, newspaper is not bad for customers who have animals that would otherwise do well on shavings. But really, is it going to break the bank to drop a few bucks on a bag of shavings?  PB


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.


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