Can I Use Sand for My Leopard Gecko?

Many people have heavily debated over this topic over the years, but for some reason, nobody can ever seem to come to a resolution for this question.  There have been many yeses and there have been many nos, but when taking everything into consideration and making judgments based on other peoples experiences, it’s best to choose wisely before buying sand for your leopard geckos tank.

Can I use sand for my leopard gecko? No.  Having sand in the tank as a substrate can lead to serious digestive issues caused by impaction and may or may not be treatable depending on how much of the sand has been consumed and how quickly it’s been detected.

As more and more people are coming forward with their experiences with impaction due to sand consumption, I think it’s making more of those in the reptile community decide to either switch away from their substrate or not choose to put it in their tank at all.  If you’d like more information on substrates that are safe for your gecko, then I recommend reading on for ones more suitable.

Safer Substrate Alternatives

With tons of different other options to choose from when it comes to a substrate, it just doesn’t make much sense to me to go with something that could potentially cause harm to your leopard gecko.  Although sand is never one of my recommendations, there are a few other alternatives that I do recommend that are much safer.  Here they are.

  • Paper Towels
  • Slate Rock
  • Newspaper
  • Stone Tiles

If you’re not using a specific brand for your substrate, then these are always my top recommendations.  A lot of people within the reptile community love these substrates and all are safe for most reptiles.

The good thing about most these substrates is that you can get them anywhere whether that’s at your local home improvement store, dollar store, or retail store.  I’ve tried a couple of the substrates on the list, but if I had to pick an all-time favorite, then I would definitely have to say that this brand here by Zoo Med that I’ve been buying from Amazon is my favorite type of substrate to use.

I didn’t add it in the list because it is brand specific and can’t necessarily be picked up at any of the locations listed above aside from Walmart ( maybe ), but it is by far the best substrate my leopard gecko has ever been in.

Depending on your gecko, it may take them a while to get used to it because it’s something that’s new to their environment, but once they do, they’ll fall in love.  I can’t see myself using any other type of substrate.

You can either fill your tank up with this alone or you can do what others have done and lay down some stone tiles and put a thin layer over top of it.  I get the 3-pack so it will last me a while, but whichever pack you decide to go with, if you do end up getting it, is just fine as well.

Not so Safe Alternatives

Many people don’t know this, but sand isn’t the only bully on the block when it comes to bad substrates.  From the risk of respiratory issues, cuts and scrapes, and further impaction, here are some other substrates that you should absolutely avoid.

  • Bark Chips
  • Silica Sand
  • Walnut Shells
  • Calcium Sand
  • Cedar Shavings
  • Gravel
  • Pine Substrate

As you can see, there are a TON of different substrates and opinions out there that can confuse you when picking out what’s best for your tank, and although I could just be another person recommending a bad substrate, keep in mind that I have quite a bit of experience working with leopard geckos specifically and always do my research before buying something for my tank and especially before recommending something for someone else’s tank.  So I know a little bit when it comes to what’s safe and what’s not safe to use in a leopard gecko tank.

To read a little more on impaction, then click this article here and scroll down to the section titled ” IMPACTION “.  In that article, I cover 7 different reasons on how and why your leopard gecko could die and unfortunately, impaction is what of those causes.

Also, keep in mind for that every substrate that’s recommended by one person, there are always others out there who disagree with their decision.  So before blindly picking up a substrate, do your research first so that you’re not putting your leopard gecko at risk of impaction or any other complications that they might have due to a bad substrate.

Signs of Impaction

While some reptiles are good at showing that they’re not impacted, there are usually always some telltale signs and symptoms to look out for that are strong indicators that they may actually be.  Here they are:

  • Bruised Colored Spot On Stomach
  • Lethargy
  • Not Eating
  • Not Pooping
  • Slow Movements

These signs can be so subtle that sometimes they can be hard to catch, but if you have the slightest suspicion that something could be wrong with them, then pay close attention to their behavior.  Sometimes when it comes to beginner reptile owners, they will skip right past the symptoms without even noticing them because they mistake them for normal behaviors, but this is never usually the case.

Signs of one thing can actually be the sign of another thing just simply for the fact that leopard geckos show a lot of the same behavior as they would if they were shedding or stressed out, for example.  But, when they start displaying multiple different symptoms at once, then you should know something is up.

It may seem natural to wait it out and see if it will pass, but doing this can cause you to lose your leopard gecko due to its body not being able to handle the complications, so please perform the following steps so that things don’t get too bad.

What to Do When Impacted

Impaction can always be prevented if one is using the right substrate, but due to bad information or little research, sometimes reptile owners will buy substrates that aren’t good for their gecko.

Impaction is not something that you want to deal with, but at the same time, it’s not something that is as bad as some of the other things that leopard geckos are prone to and can be treated with the right steps and proper care.  For leopard geckos, here are my main remedies for impaction relief and treatment.

Baths

This remedy is not only good for leopard geckos, but for other impacted reptiles as well.  For some reason, warm baths are great when it comes to relieving tension and getting the digestive system flowing and will a lot of the times be the first and only remedy that you will have to try because of how effective it is.

This remedy has worked wonders for other reptiles that I currently own and has been my go-to thing to do whenever it has happened.  Now that I have a little more knowledge of certain reptiles, it doesn’t happen much anymore.   

Belly Rubs

Gently rubbing your leopard geckos stomach in a circular motion can really help get the digestive system moving by breaking up the contents that are impacted in their stomach.  If baths don’t work, this is usually what I’ll do secondly and have found great success in doing so in the past.

So keep in mind that you’ll want to first try a bath and if that doesn’t work, go on to the belly rubs.

Veterinarian

If all else fails and your leopard gecko is still not pooping, eating, or looks bloated after two days of effort to try to clear it out yourself, then by that time it’s best to go to your local veterinarian.  Impaction can be fatal if not treated and shouldn’t be something to take lightly.

So in order to stop things from getting worse, you’ll have to go to a professional that will give them what they need to clear their system out.

The Best Substrate

Besides the type of substrate that I use, I don’t particularly think that there is a ” best ” substrate out there.  Whatever is safe and in no way puts your leopard gecko in harm is the best in my eyes.  If you’re someone who loves making their tank look neat, then getting a more earthy looking substrate would probably be your best bet.

But, if your main and only concern is keeping your leopard gecko safe and you don’t necessarily care about looks, then substrates like paper towels or newspaper will do just fine.  Your leopard gecko won’t be able to burrow in them, but there have been many owners who have and currently use this substrate and their leopard gecko seems to love it.

In fact, paper type substrates are probably one of the most commonly suggested substrates besides slate rocks and tiles.  The only reason why some people opt of out choosing substrates like these is because they’re not pleasing on the eyes or with paper, for example, it’s too thin for their liking.  Many people ( including myself ) take pride in the appearance of their tank, so that’s no surprise.

Does that mean that you should pick any ole’ substrate because it looks good? No.  But, if looks are important to you then getting something that is safe and looks good at the same time, then that will be great for not only your gecko but for you as well.

The Worst Substrate

The absolute worst substrates out there are the ones that I listed above.  Each one of those substrates can cause their own different problems and are never recommended ( or shouldn’t be ) for those who love and care about their leopard geckos.

When you’re new to owning a reptile and don’t have much experience under your belt all while listening to tons of other people telling you what you should and shouldn’t get, then it can be hard to pick the right things for your leopard gecko and that’s understandable because I made the same exact mistake.

Once I started doing my own research, I soon found out that a lot of the things that were being recommended to me where either unsafe or could cause impaction, so from that point on I only got my information from credible sources and didn’t rely on certain forums or sources too heavily without double checking the information that was given to me because I didn’t want to make any more mistakes that could put my leopard gecko in more harm.

So basically what I’m trying to get at is to always look deeper into what substrate you’re buying whenever somebody recommends one to you.  I can’t imagine how many people have recommended sand or any of the other bad ones that I’ve listed and have been the cause of impaction in someone else’s leopard gecko because the owner didn’t know any better.

There’s tons of information you can find online about the safety of certain substrates, but if you happen to not be able to find any for a particular substrate that you’re looking into buying, then I recommend contacting a vet so that you can get professional advice and, therefore, feel safe knowing that you’re getting your information from a doctor who has studied animals for many years.

When to Replace Your Substrate

We all have to clean and replace our substrate at some point, but the question is when and how often.  Well, honestly, it depends on how much your leopard gecko pees and poops on it.  The good thing about leopard geckos is that all of them usually always poop in the same corner, so you don’t have to worry about the whole tank coming in contact with it, but that doesn’t mean that every now and then that they won’t poop in other places throughout the tank.

This can happen randomly or if they need to be trained.  Assuming that your leopard gecko already knows where to use the bathroom, though, then I would only recommend changing your tank if it becomes overly smelly or when the substrate starts to look dirty. 

Determining how dirty the substrate is by smell is usually pretty easy, but if you’re trying to tell by looking at it, then it can be challenging unless your substrate is white, like paper towels.  If I had to put a number on exactly how much often should change it, though, then I would say around once a month.

Leopard geckos are capable of pooping quite a bit, but since their poop isn’t that big, it doesn’t cause the tank to smell too bad until the substrate is overly soiled from all of the poop and pee over time.  For me, this usually happens over the course of a month or so, but for your leopard gecko, it might be a little bit different.

Each gecko can have things that are different about them compared to other geckos so it’s always best to make your best judgment and decisions based on the behavior of your own personal gecko.

If you get this substrate, then it can be hard trying to tell whether or not it’s dirty just based on looks alone because it’s so dark, so with something like that, I would definitely go by smell. Whatever you do, though, make sure when checking if it’s time to change your substrate or not, to not do it right after they’ve pooped or if there is poop still in the tank.  Doing this can make determining whether or not the smell is coming from the tank or the poop. 

If you happen to have a thinner substrate like paper towels and newspaper, then you might have to change it pretty often.  Like stated above, figuring out when to change substrate like this will be a little easier simply for the fact that they are lighter in color and will visibly show where any stains are at.

Conclusion

While others may recommend sand as a substrate, I strongly advise against it.  Sure, there have been people who have claimed to have substrate in their tank without having any issues, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that your leopard gecko won’t.

Each leopard gecko is different and just like humans, some things affect them differently compared to others.  If this article doesn’t convince you to not use sand, then I suggest looking up some of the incidents where leopard geckos have become impacted.  Although it can sometimes be treated, it’s still sad to see.

You are free to put whatever type of substrate into your leopard geckos tank, but keep in mind that you may be putting them in harm if you put something in it that’s not good for them.  Impaction will cause you the trouble of having to get it out in hopes that you won’t have to make a trip to the veterinarian and potentially end up with a fairly large bill.

So, just to be on the safe side, it’s best to just go with something that you know for a fact won’t hurt them instead of taking the risk of potentially causing your leopard gecko unnecessary pain or even death.