When I am working with a customer new to the hobby, I inevitably give them a little speech after we have chosen a first pet. I tell them that I would like to assemble the necessary products for the initial set-up, and give them a few minutes to look around as I do this. I emphasize “necessary,” explaining that I want them to have confidence that the materials I choose will be essential. They might in the meantime want to explore cage furniture and the like, of which we are well stocked. I will be happy to consult with them on their choices, but the things I choose are pretty much not negotiable; I am hoping that they will trust me on these choices. Amongst the things I will select (cage, lighting, heating, etc.) will be bedding. Now, it is essential for a new pet to have bedding, and to be honest, there are many choices that would be acceptable, but typically there is one that will be…perfect.
There are some choices, quite popular in the industry, which you will not find in my shop. I think everyone who is in this business should have some firm opinions that translate into options, and establish their shop and inventory based on these opinions. In my shop, for instance, you will not find the AstroTurf-style mats that so many stores carry. When someone inquires about them, I ask them to reveal to me exactly what animal species on this planet has established miniature golf courses as their preferred habitat. That’s right. There isn’t one. Nothing feels comfortable on fake grass. This is a product designed for the convenience of the keeper, not the comfort of the kept.
You may feel diﬀerently, and that’s fine. Your choices will distinguish your shop.
What beddings work for what creatures are myriad and variable. They roughly break down into soils, sands, mulch, shavings and gravel. Let’s start with the soils.
The Right Soils
Soils are appropriate for most forest-based amphibians, reptiles and arachnids. Because waste matter tends to blend in, they require regularly scheduled cleaning based not necessarily on looks or smell. We rely on Zoo Med’s mixture, which is a good blend of potting soil, sand and carbon. We also carry a local horticulture wholesaler’s orchid mix, which is similar but a bit chunkier with fir bark being a major component.
Many people like coconut based products (often called “coir”), which can come loose or compacted into bricks, which are easily reconstituted. It’s remarkably inexpensive, but I find it messy to work with, and the fibers tend to climb up the glass and statically stick, making for a tank that forever appears dirty, even when freshly changed. Its popularity puts me solidly in the minority on this one, however, and as I see nothing wrong with it as regards the well-being of the animals, we keep it in stock.
Relying on Mulch
One of my go-to beddings for most anything tropical and humid is cypress mulch. To me, it is de riguer for ball and other pythons, boas, forest tortoises and lizards. Cypress is a tree that grows directly in swamp water, and so it has evolved a resistance to rot and mold, and you get more use out of it than just about any other bedding. It retains humidity well, and really looks great. I have been prescribing it for years, and once tried, customers tend to stick with it with absolute loyalty.
It is also a great base for the latest trend in herpetoculture, the bioactive tank. I generally use a layer of cypress mulch, topped with a soil mix, and finished with leaf litter. Your isopods and springtails will go to town in that environment!
Another bedding that sort of falls into the mulch category is reconstituted paper product. One of the really cool things about it is that it is often made from recycled paper product (check your brand; if it is I guarantee they will make a big deal about it!) and is thus an ecologically sound option. It works well in a lot of captive situations, is of course by definition clean, and is super easy to work with. However, its one failing is the necessarily unnatural look it gives a cage. The application is more geared toward the serious hobbyist who deems function more important than look. I find that almost none of my general customer base cares for it.
Sleeping On Sand
Sand used to be the go-to bedding for, well, just about everything. We carry it specifically for desert arachnids and adult sand boas, bearded dragons and leopard geckos, but actively dissuade our clients from using it with most other animals. Baby lizards and tortoises tend to not be able to handle even small amounts of accidentally consumed sand that can get lodged in their guts and be near impossible to pass. I have found that many snakes get grains of sand lodged between their scales and it can be quite an irritant. Tortoises seem to not like it at all.
There are sands on the market that are advertised as carrying vitamins and calcium and being quite digestible, but a number of vets I have talked to virulently disagree. We have stopped carrying them, but if you do, definitely do not send them home with hatchling animals!
Shavings have also been an industry staple for roughly a gazillion years, and we stock several kinds. First rule: if they are made from any kind of scented wood (cedar and chlorophyll-treated being the most commonly available varieties for pets), they will be lethal to snakes and harmful to other reptiles. Snakes have one usable lung, and the heavy scents will essentially shut that lung down. Avoid.
We carry two styles of pine: fluﬀy and fine grain. The fluﬀy tends to look better, but is very dusty. The fine grain isn’t so dusty but does tend to lie flat in the cage and not look as attractive. Both are fine, and customers seem to have stronger opinions about them than I do, which is why I stock both. By the way, this is an item I usually bag in-store during slow points in the day, as the bale price is insanely cheaper than the pre-bagged.
My favorite of the shavings, however, and by a wide margin, is the aspen. It is virtually dust- free, tends to stay fluﬀy in the cage, and is nearly odorless. Best of all, it tends to retain form, meaning that if a small snake burrows into it, the new cave remains intact and the snake can personalize his little home! It’s my first choice for virtually all colubrid snakes, most lizards, and even desert animals. Even baby sand boas do wonderfully on it.
Going for Gravel
The last option is aquarium gravel, which has been in our business for perhaps a hundred years, and is still the top choice for aquatics. I find it is also useful for shoreline amphibian enclosures in which you want a 50/50 land and shallow water option, which can take the occasional complete clean and rinse without having to tear everything completely down. In the scheme of things, for herpers this is a really minor aspect of the hobby, but I find it prudent to keep a moderate selection of gravels in 10 pound bags on hand.
This may seem like a LOT of options for a lot of situations, but I find eager customers for most all of it. Your only limitation should be based on the needs of the specific critters you sell, and the storage space you have available. Oﬀ to bed you go! PB