Should I Keep my Leopard Gecko on Sand?

A leopard gecko
Source: Pikist

When designing the perfect home for your new leopard gecko, there are many things that you need to consider. One of the first questions you should be asking yourself is: what substrate is right for me? Similar to how, when you design your own home, the walls and carpets have to go in first, your reptile’s substrate needs to be added before any exciting hides and decorations. Here at The Nature Nook, we are happy to help you build the perfect set-up to give your lizard its dream home. From the substrate to the decor, we care about providing enriching enclosures. Any substrate choice has its pros and cons, but here is a list of the top choices recommended by our resident leopard gecko, Zilla. 

Sand

Sand is the most commonly seen substrate choice for leopard geckos because it has a number of notable benefits: it is easy to find, cheap to buy, and it looks attractive in a vivarium. Sand is not just a good choice for owners – it is often favoured by geckos, too, as it is easy to burrow into, distributes heat evenly, and is soft enough not to cause irritation to their soft underbellies. Most people assume that sand is also the safest choice, as much of the leopard gecko’s natural habitat – around the Middle East and South Asia – is desert or sandy grassland. However, sand is more controversial in the reptile-keeping community than you might expect.

While eating, some clumsy geckos will get particles of sand attached to their long tongues and end up ingesting it. Eating sand can cause an issue known as impaction. This is where the sand or other indigestible item causes an obstruction in the bowels. Impaction initially presents itself as lethargy, loss of appetite, bloating and constipation, but it can also have more vivid symptoms such as a dark bluish spot appearing on the side of the belly. Treatments for impaction vary depending on the severity, but taking your gecko to the vet and having surgery done may be the only option. This condition is, sadly, often fatal. Impaction can also be caused by eating food that is too large, by parasite infestations, dehydration, or other illnesses. Its link to substrate choice, however, is one that is hotly debated. Many people argue that only a gecko that is kept poorly – i.e. without the right temperature or humidity controls – or one that is otherwise sick will suffer impaction from sand ingestion, while others claim that it is always a risk and it is better to be safe than sorry.

close up photo of leopard gecko drinking water
Photo by Jimmy Chan on Pexels.com

If you do want to use sand for your leopard gecko, there are specific types of sand that may mitigate some of the risks of impaction. Calcium sand is a popular product as not only is it safer to ingest, it can also provide a degree of benefit to your leopard gecko. The extra calcium that it contains can be good for keeping your lizard healthy and many reptile keepers use calcium sand to feel more secure in the knowledge that their gecko is not only safer but possibly healthier too. However, the presence of calcium sand in a vivarium may actually encourage a leopard gecko to eat it, which can be very dangerous. Even though calcium sand is considered safer to eat, no substrate should be ingested in large quantities.

Fine-grain sand is another option. This is believed to pass through a leopard gecko’s gut more easily if it is ingested. And, unlike calcium sand, fine-grain sand isn’t actively tasty to your leopard gecko, which means it doesn’t encourage your lizard to eat it. Many reptile keepers report having no issues at all with fine-grain sand, but it is always worth being aware of the possible risks of anything we give to our beloved pets.

Please note that very young geckos should not be kept on sand regardless of its possible link to impaction. Most often, paper towel is the safest option while they are still babies.

Paper Towels

A popular choice among leopard gecko keepers is kitchen roll or paper towel. While far less attractive than sand, it is a very cheap alternative that is considered fairly safe to use. Paper towel is most often used for young or sick geckos. In addition to being cheap, it is easy to clean and replace, and it presents no concern of ingestion or inhalation. This makes it the perfect choice for a sick reptile that needs to be monitored closely, but it may not be ideal for a healthy lizard. This is because leopard geckos enjoy hiding, often by burrowing into their substrate, and this is something they cannot do with paper towels. This removes a level of enrichment from their vivarium and may even impact their feelings of safety and security, and while this can be somewhat addressed with the provision of plenty of hiding spots, it is worth considering as a drawback to using paper towels.

Shredded Paper

Shredded paper bedding, made specifically for leopard geckos, is often made of thinner, softer paper than the kind you put in your printer. This bedding is considered just as safe as paper towels, with the added bonus that it allows your gecko to burrow. Your gecko is unlikely to ingest this substrate but if they do the paper should go soft and soggy and pass through their bowels with relative ease. 

Zilla, our leopard gecko, enjoying some time out of her vivarium.

Carpet

If the substrate for your gecko’s vivarium is the equivalent of the carpet in your home, then why not just use actual carpet? Outdoor or reptile carpet can be purchased, which can look very attractive in your vivarium and present little to no risk of ingestion or inhalation. They are also long-lasting and reusable so present a much cheaper alternative to other substrates in the long run. However, carpets can be abrasive against your gecko’s body and cause carpet burns on the soft skin of their bellies. If you choose to use carpet, you should check it very regularly for loose threads as these can be ingested or even trap your gecko’s feet. Another drawback to reptile carpet is that it can be fairly tricky to clean. While they can be scrubbed clean and reused, this process may be fairly lengthy, which will most likely require you to have two pieces so as to switch them out when one needs cleaning. Some leopard gecko owners also complain that reptile carpet retains a lot of its smell even after cleaning. 

Mud

Many variations of dirt or mud are available that are designed specifically for reptiles (do not simply dig up earth from your garden as this may have any number of foreign bodies that could cause harm to your gecko). Bioactive setups are a popular option for a number of pets, and if cared for carefully a soil base can make for a very healthy bioactive vivarium set up. You can also make DIY mixes of sand and reptile-safe types of dirt, such as organic topsoil and/or excavator clay. These dirt mixes can be moistened and then packed into the vivarium to dry down, which creates a hardened earth effect that is safe for geckos, easy to clean, and not so hard that your lizard will be unable to create burrows in it. 

Substrates to Avoid

Your choice of substrate is a personal one, and it should be based on a number of factors: what is available to you, what is most convenient for your lifestyle, and what you consider safest for your leopard gecko and their own personal habits. However, there are some substrates that are simply never safe and should not be used, such as gravel. Leopard geckos have soft underbellies, which make gravel uncomfortable for them to walk on. It is also hard and unsafe to burrow into and can cause massive problems if ingested. Any variation of wood chip or shavings are also unsafe since bits of wood can easily impale the soft skin of your gecko. Corncob, walnut shells, coconut fibre and linoleum are all unsafe due to having a coarse texture, presenting a significant impaction risk or emitting harmful chemicals.

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