You’ve chosen a crested gecko as a pet because it is so incredibly cute, looks exotic, and likes to be handled by humans, or whatever reason you’ve picked.
Now you have to figure out what is the best substrate for your new pet. There are a lot of choices out there and it can be overwhelming.
The things you need to look for in a substrate are how it will affect your pet first and foremost, how it handles humidity, how much cleaning is required, and of course what your budget can handle, as some can be quite expensive.
In this article, we will explain all of these, and give you the pros and cons of each option so you can make the best purchase for you and your pet.
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Why Do Crested Geckos Need Substrate?
Crested geckos are an arboreal species, meaning they spend the majority of their lives in trees and off the ground, so why would you really need a ground covering if that’s the case?
Despite being a tree-dwelling reptile, geckos in captivity do often spend time on the ground. They may come down to eat, drink, lay eggs, or because they have a need to explore their surroundings.
The proper substrate also helps maintain the necessary humidity in the tank. A crested gecko habitat requires humidity for proper health and a good quality substrate can help maintain that.
If you are looking to create an environment that best mimics their natural habitat, then you’ll want to have living plants in the terrarium. We all know plants need soil to grow, so you’ll have to find a substrate that provides a base and nutrition for plants, that is also safe for your crestie.
Prime Substrates for Your Crested Gecko
This brick is a compressed block of coconut fibers or what is sometimes called coir. It is eco-friendly, easily composted after use, and a renewable resource, so you can feel good about your purchase.
The compressed brick needs to be soaked in water to help break it up, and each package—once decompressed—expands into seven to eight liters of material. It’s enough substrate to fill a ten-gallon tank at least one inch high.
The benefits of coconut fibers include being hypoallergenic and naturally mold resistant, so you won’t have to clean them up very often. Also, if your crestie accidentally ingests some of it, it should pass without a problem.
Coconut coir naturally holds moisture well, so it will help with the humidity levels needed for your reptile. It is easy to spot and clean, which will help with the longevity of this product. When your crestie makes a mess all you have to do is scoop out the soiled section.
With proper maintenance, this substrate should last you a month or two before you have to replace it.
The only cons to this product that I could find are it can be dusty when it dries out, and some people have reported an unpleasant smell when it’s soaking. Even after soaking, sometimes the bricks are a little difficult to break apart.
This recycled material liner wins for best budget liner. While it might be a little more expensive than some other options at the beginning, they will last longer than any other option, and pay for themselves in a short amount of time.
It comes in several sizes and can be quickly cut to whatever size you need for your tank. Clean-up is a breeze because all you have to do is take it out and spray it off. This liner could last a few years with proper cleaning.
About once a week you should clean it thoroughly to prevent bacterial buildup and prevent mites. Simply throw it in the washing machine by itself with some baking soda and vinegar to clean it instead of soaps and powders that can leave behind residues. Then inspect it to make sure there are no frayed edges or loose, long strings.
There is no worry that your crestie will ingest it as there are no small pieces they can get in their mouth, and the smooth, soft surface won’t harm their delicate feet and underbelly.
The con of this mat is it doesn’t hold moisture very long. You’ll have to mist the tank more often to maintain the 60% to 80% humidity they need. And of course, it doesn’t look very natural. Other than that, this liner is a great option.
If you’re looking for the benefits of coconut fiber as a substrate, but don’t want to deal with soaking and breaking up the compressed bricks, this bag of loose coconut coir is a great alternative. It’s basically the same thing, but all you have to do is spread it out among the bottom of the terrarium.
It’s an easier alternative and comes in 8-liter bags, but the added convenience is a little more expensive.
This coconut chip substrate looks like it would be rough, but when it’s soaked in water, it actually becomes rather soft. It’s just larger pieces of coconut fiber, so it’s still a renewable, eco-friendly alternative for your crested gecko.
It retains moisture well and still has the antimicrobial properties of other coconut products. The larger pieces mean it won’t likely be ingested by your geckos.
This product helps to keep the tank odor free by absorbing and encapsulating waste. All you have to do is scoop out any messes daily, and this substrate will last a long time.
It comes in ten-pound compressed bricks that need to be soaked. Once it’s absorbed water, it expands to 2.5 cubic feet or 72 quarts of the substrate. One brick should last you several months.
Cons for this substrate are rather few. The biggest report is that it can get very dusty. Once it is soaked and kept humid the dust is dramatically reduced though.
Those who are seeking the most natural substrate and want to include live plants should think about this substrate mixture. This blend has soil, sphagnum moss, and larger chunks for drainage and airflow.
It is the best mix for live plants, but you can also use it without them for a more natural feel. It holds moisture extremely well and it breaks down slowly for long life. This mix is easy to clean as you only have to scoop out the soiled sections.
For those advanced keepers, this soil is made to support an entire ecosystem. The nutrients available and moisture holding ability are great for plants, and it decomposes slowly. You can also add springtails and isopods (pill bug/roly-poly) for a complete biome in this mix of soil.
The cons associated with this soil and substrate mix are it comes in one-gallon bags and can be initially expensive. With the right conditions, it can eventually become a cost-effective substrate, but it’s probably best for advanced reptile keepers.
Sphagnum moss is a great substrate for crested geckos. It is soft, holds moisture very well, and some plants can even be planted in it. Most geckos won’t try to ingest it because of the long strands, but if they do, it tends to break down pretty easily.
When sphagnum moss dries out, all you have to do is mist it well, or soak it again for it to retain moisture again. The soft feel of the moss won’t harm sensitive skin on crested geckos so they can explore all they want.
Sphagnum moss can also be a covering for other types of substrates. If you are adding live plants, but don’t want your crestie accidentally swallowing the soil, add a layer of sphagnum. It will keep them from getting to the dirt.
Sphagnum moss as a substrate can be one of the cheapest options as well. You can get enough to cover a 30 to 40-gallon tank for less than half the price of some other substrates.
This substrate does come with a few cons though. Green sphagnum might stain hides or other decor in the tank, and it can stick to the tank when it dries, leaving a mess to clean up. It can also be difficult to find waste excreted by your gecko.
This is a rollout, a trimmable mat made completely of coconut fibers. It acts just like natural coconut coir; except it’s woven together into a mat.
This mat is another eco-friendly option for your gecko’s tank. It’s all-natural, easy to fit into the tank, and is anti-microbial just like other natural coconut substrates. It naturally resists mold and mildew.
The coconut fiber mat is easy to clean as well. Just roll it up, and then spray it off really well when you need to clean it.
Unlike synthetic mats, it holds moisture better and is thicker so they will hold more moisture. It’s also soft and easy on even the most sensitive of reptiles. Since the fibers are tightly woven together, you won’t have to worry about your gecko eating pieces of it and getting impacted.
On the flip side, you may purchase a few mats because this one is only one size. It measures 11” by 10”, so for larger tanks, you’ll have to purchase a few. While it will probably last a few months, it won’t last as long as the synthetic varieties.
8. Paper Towels or Newspapers
While this alternative definitely won’t win any prizes for beauty or aesthetics, paper towels or newspapers are an easy, low-maintenance choice. These are especially useful for babies and juveniles because there is very little risk of impaction from ingesting impassible material.
It can be quite inexpensive as well, if you already get newspapers delivered then they’re already paid for, so it’s a potentially free substrate. All you have to do is mist them daily and remove them when they get soiled.
The downside, other than the plain, unappealing look, is they don’t hold moisture long so you will have to mist them much more often than another type of substrate. With that, paper towels or newspapers require more maintenance, as you’ll have to replace them more often and clean them sometimes on a daily basis.
9. Going Commando
Some crested gecko owners decide to go without any substrate at all just to keep everything as low maintenance as possible. While you don’t have to worry about your gecko eating anything it shouldn’t, it also doesn’t have a very natural look when there is only a glass bottom.
Going sans substrate will also mean you have to be more proactive with the humidity in your crested gecko enclosure. Crested geckos come from humid, rainforest-type environments so they need to have a high humidity environment. This can be a pain to manage without anything that will hold moisture.
On the other side of that argument, is the fact that mold, mildew, and bacteria will have a hard time establishing a hold in such an environment. It all depends on the owner and the gecko.
Don’t Use These Substrates
While you don’t have to use any of the suggestions above if you have something that works well for you and your pets, here are some to really steer clear of and why you shouldn’t use them.
Say No To Sand
Any type of sand should be avoided. This includes calcium carbonate sand that is readily sold in most pet stores, and clean, sifted play sand.
The biggest problem with sand is it will get swallowed by your gecko. Then it can clog and stick inside the gecko causing impaction.
Sand also sticks to everything when it’s damp, including your gecko, or insects if you feed live ones. When the sand sticks to your gecko, it will end up licking it off and accidentally eating more.
While you can add some sand to soil mixes, you should never use all sand in your crested gecko setup.
Don’t Use Straight Soil
Potting soil mix, garden soil, or dirt you get from your own yard is not advised for your gecko environment either. Like sand, geckos will end up eating some of the dirt, whether they are just exploring, eating insects, or preparing food, which will cause dangerous impaction.
If you want to add live plants, you will need some kind of soil-like substrate to keep them alive, and that is perfectly acceptable. If you do use soil of some kind, it’s advised to cover the soil with something bigger than your crestie can’t eat.
Use sphagnum moss to create a barrier over the soil, or coconut coir or nuggets. This way you can still grow live plants, but your gecko is safe from accidentally eating the dirt.
Most potting mixes also contain chemicals, fertilizers, and other additives that can be very harmful to crested geckos if they accidentally eat them. If you are using soil, look for organic brands that don’t use chemicals and stuff like pearlite and vermiculite.
Step Away From the Wood Shavings
This includes sawdust, and most types of mulch as well. Wood shavings and sawdust can cause impaction because of the small, light pieces. And some woods, cedar, and pine especially can be toxic to nearly all reptiles. It’s best just to avoid this stuff.
Some owners swear by orchid bark substrate, but there are many more alternatives that are much safer for crested geckos. This stuff in my opinion is better suited for terrestrial reptiles like tortoises and uromastyx lizards, not for humidity-loving, soft substrate needing crested geckos.
While it’s true, the large chunks won’t be accidentally swallowed by cresties, the rough and sometimes sharp edges can damage the skin on them.
The same goes for cypress mulch which is also sold at pet supply outlets. Aside from the above problems, many cypress trees are quickly becoming endangered, so cypress mulch might not be a viable, eco-friendly option.
Crushed Walnut Shells Are Bad
This is another “safe” alternative crested gecko substrate sold in stores that can actually be damaging to some reptiles like the crested gecko. Walnut shells, even crushed, can cause impaction in cresties just like soil and sand, but walnut shells also have large quantities of tannins in them.
These can be toxic in certain animals, especially smaller ones. Plus, even though they are crushed, they still have tiny, sharp edges that can cut into soft mucus membranes inside the digestive tract.
If those reasons weren’t enough to keep you away from walnut shells, consider that they can mold and grow fungus quickly. These things are detrimental to your crested gecko’s health as well.
Other Substrate Considerations
While picking the right substrate for your gecko, you might also want to consider your pet and its behavior. Some might have a habit of trying to eat anything and everything, if that’s the case, a mat type of substrate might be the best type for you.
Do they like to crawl across soft moss instead of scratchy coconut husks? Your gecko might show you what kind of substrate it prefers.
You might also want to consider how much maintenance you are willing to put into your tank. Soil types and chunkier substrates might need more time spent on them to keep your gecko healthy. Some substrates tend to mold or break down faster than others, so you’ll have to clean them more often.
Other considerations to think about are tank size and your budget. Geckos like to climb and hang out in branches and among the leaves so you don’t need wide floor space, but if you are housing a few of them together, you’ll need more space for them. You may have to purchase multiple packs of the substrate to fill the bottom of the tank.
If it’s a substrate that needs to be replaced monthly, it may be worth looking into something that will last long. Longer-lasting substrates may not hold moisture as long, so you’ll have to trade time for misting and making sure the humidity is staying at a proper level.
How much cleaning are you willing to do? Paper towels or an empty tank might be the easiest way to keep the tank clean. Maybe you don’t care about how much time you need to put into it, and you want to go all-in with soil, arthropods, and live plants, which will require a bit of time to keep everything working in sync.
Ultimately, you need to choose something that isn’t a chore for you, doesn’t put a strain on your pocket, and keeps your crestie baby happy and healthy.
Do juvenile and baby crested geckos need a different substrate from adults?
A: Younger cresties tend to be more curious and will taste their environment, so they need a substrate that is not able to be ingested. Paper towels, newspapers, or reptile carpets are best for babies under six months old.
Does my crested gecko need substrate?
A: You don’t have to use a substrate for your crested geckos, but it is recommended. Cresties will spend most of their time higher off the tank floor, but there are benefits to substrate. These include; helping to keep the environment humid, cutting down on odor, and giving your pet a natural-looking environment.
Can I use aspen or pine shavings as a substrate for crested geckos?
A: Aspen, pine, and cedar shavings can be toxic to reptiles. Exposure to these types of wood and some others can include skin burns, and respiratory illness when they breathe in the fragrances of these woods.
When choosing the proper substrate for your crested gecko, there are many considerations to think about. There are also plenty of options for discerning owners and cute little cresties.
Whether you want to do with a mat type of floor covering, or something more natural, you should consider the gecko’s age, what look you are going for, and how much time you are willing to spend on it.
You can go with natural coconut coir for its antimicrobial properties, ease of use, and safety of your pet, you can choose a synthetic or natural mat that can’t be swallowed, or you may want to go as natural as possible.
The options are out there, and we hope this has helped you decide on what to use and what will be the best, healthiest option for your pet.
More Crested gecko stuff
- Crested gecko care guide
- Types of Crested geckos (Different Morphs)
- How to breed Crested geckos
- Best food for crested geckos
- A Crested gecko setup guide
- Crested gecko vs leopard gecko
- Plants for Crested geckos