Whether it be a fine-particle sand or calcium-based, sand is a common substrate that is sold for leopard geckos and other desert reptiles. The mentality behind it is that because leopard geckos are native to deserts, they should be housed on sand, but most deserts are not filled with loose sand. Leopard geckos are native to Southern Asia, Pakistan, and Northwest India, and these deserts are not big sand boxes. These locations are more likely to be composed of compressed rock and clay instead. The land does have a variety of loose sand, pebbles, and other substrates in their native range, but the bulk of the land is compressed versus loose.
Impaction is Caused by Sand
The native habitat of leopard geckos does contain a variety of substrates, so it’s not impossible for them to ingest loose sand. In fact, it’s actually very common for reptiles in the wild to ingest substrate material. In most cases, they actually receive minerals from the sand and substrate, but keep in mind that wild animals have a different lifestyle than animals in captivity. In captivity impaction is a big concern when housing leopard geckos on sand. Impaction occurs when an animal’s digestive tract is blocked. This can potentially be deadly if the signs of an impaction aren’t recognized. The most basic and initial sign of an impaction is sand in the fecal matter. You may also notice constipation, straining to excrete fecal matter, slight leg trembles, regurgitation, bumps along the spine, lack of appetite, lethargy, and a blue-bruised area on the abdomen. So, when you’re purchasing the bag of reptile sand, keep in mind the potential risks you are taking when putting your juvenile leopard gecko or adult leopard gecko on the sand.
Impaction May not be Caused by Sand
Although I would rather be safe than sorry, there is another perspective about impaction, which basically says that impaction is not caused by sand but inadequate care. There are a few breeders and leopard gecko keepers who do use sand as a base substrate in their enclosures with this mindset. These keepers feel that sand is the secondary cause of impaction, not the primary. Inadequate heating, dehydration, poor nutrition and diet, parasites, and stress cause the body extra strain. When the body is stressed, the immune system and other bodily systems do not function as well, which can hinder the body’s ability to pass the sand substrate that has been ingested. By keeping the temperatures at the correct level, supplementing the diet with vitamins and minerals, watching the water in the water bowl, and ensuring that your leopard gecko is healthy, you can potentially prevent impaction while still using sand as your main substrate. Some feel that a healthy and well cared for leopard gecko can consume and pass sand without any further complications.
Alternatives to Using Sand
If you don’t want to take the risk of using sand as the substrate in your leopard gecko enclosure, or if you just want something a little different and maybe easier for you, there are other alternatives. Paper towels are cheap, disposable, and easy to come by, but because they are thin, you will need to watch the surface temperatures so that the enclosure isn’t too hot. Reptile carpet is washable and you get two per pack, making it easy to swap out, but your leopard gecko’s toenails may get stuck in the threads. Ceramic or slate tiles come in a variety of colors and styles; they are easy to clean and are great heat conductors. Roll-out vinyl tile or shelf liner is another great option as it is easy to clean and comes in a variety of colors and styles. The Zoo Med Excavator is a product that hardens when it dries, so you don’t have the impaction concern, and you can create tunnels and hides within the ground that resemble a natural habitat. Be aware, though, that this material can be difficult (though not impossible) to get out of your enclosure once it hardens.
Types of Sand
If you are trying to be safe, and spot the calcium-based sand for reptiles on the shelf at the pet store, you’ll notice that it says digestible and great for reptiles. It’s not. When you pour water on the sand, it clumps as opposed to dissolving, which means when in the body, it does the same thing. There have even been studies and experiments where calcium carbonate sand has been soaked in an acidic solution, similar to the acid in the intestinal tract of a leopard gecko. Instead of dissolving, the sand sat there. A percentage of the sand had dissolved after a few days, but it took over a week for the entire amount of sand to dissolve in the acid solution. The fact that the sand dissolved is great, but in a leopard gecko, throughout the week when sand is dissolving, more sand would be digested adding to the collection in the intestinal tract, which would eventually just build. When the amount of acid in the body isn’t changing, yet the blockage is growing, it’s going to be hard to dissolve completely before a mild to severe impaction has developed. Even with proper housing, temperatures, and diet supplementation, calcium-based sand is not an advisable substrate to use. The bright dyes can potentially cause a problem, but the biggest concern is the sand. It just is not digestible. The calcium within the sand will actually entice the gecko to lick it, and once in the intestines, it will sit and create blockage.
Fine play sand is a common substrate choice for leopard geckos, whether it’s purchased in a large bag for $5 from a garden store or in small bags at the reptile store for $10. It’s generally the first substrate most beginner reptile owners will purchase. Some will stick with the fine grade sand, whereas others may change to an alternate substrate choice.
Whether in the wild or in captivity, grains of sand are not all the same. They’re not going to be perfect spheres that will pass through the body with ease, but if you’re going to use sand, try to find a fine grain sand. The larger, coarse grain sand can be harder to pass and easier to lodge in the body.
If you opt to use sand in your leopard gecko enclosure, try to white play sand without any dyes or additives, and certainly no added calcium or mineral deposits. The reptile sand is fine, but most have added dyes; plus it’s much more expensive than a bag of regular play sand.
Other Substrates That Aren’t Recommended for Leopard Geckos
Bark or wood chip could be a consideration for reptiles that require higher humidity, but with leopard geckos it’s not necessary to raise the humidity levels. Plus, there have been many cases where reptiles housed on bark have had to have the bark cut out of their body where it had lodged. Crickets can hide under the bark, making it hard to find, and it’s not ideal to leave uneaten food in the enclosure. Soil, Bed-a-Beast, and other dirt beddings are not the most sanitary options, as they are prone to housing mites and parasites. Mites can be a pain to get rid of once they’re in your home. Once again, you have the issue of raising the humidity using a dirt substrate. Walnut bedding, such as walnut cob, walnut litter, and walnut shells, are prone to bacteria growth. When the bedding is wet from the water bowl spilling, feces, or urates, bacteria and/or fungus will start to grow and will spread underneath the bedding. It’s also been reported that when the reptile defecates, the walnut shells may stick to the tissues around the bum, which can eventually retract into the body, causing inflammation, irritation, infection, and may damage to the digestive tract. If you choose to use a loose substrate, whether it be sand or another product, remember that no matter how closely you watch your reptile, you just can’t guarantee that it’s not ever licking at the substrate. An option is to feed in another enclosure, but again you can’t prevent the leopard gecko from licking the substrate ever.
The great sand debate will most likely never be resolved. Keepers who are informed about the pros and cons of either approach should be able to make the decision that is best for them and their leopard geckos.