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Suitable Substrates For Herptiles

 
The substrate or bedding is the material that is on the floor of a cage or enclosure. Because the substrate may contribute to the normal behaviour and health of the captive animal it is important to use the best suited substrate for the specific species. Burrowing species for example can become stressed which makes them prone more prone to diseases. Chances for respiratory or skin problems are significantly increased in captive reptiles kept on an excessively wet or irritant substrate.

There are a number of substrates that can be used, but for various reasons some are obviously better than others. The substrate used should be suitable for the keeper and the species being kept. The main factors that should be taken into consideration before choosing a suitable substrate includes the the following:

   Heat transmission
   Ability to remain in place (or the suitability to burrow in)
   Safety with regard to ingestion
   Ease of cleaning (disposability)
   Suitability for use with feeding insects (or other live prey)
   Odour
   Compostability
Dust accompanying
Toxicity
Absorbency
Appearance
Weight
Cost
Availability

   Properties   

Heat Transmission | Ability To Remain In Place | Safety With Regard To Ingestion | Suitability For Use With Feeding Insects | Odour, Dust Accompanying & Toxicity | Absorbency, Disposability & Compostability | Appearance | Weight


   Popular Substrates Used By Reptile Hobbyists   

Wood Shavings & Sawdust | Corn Cob | Vermiculite | Soil | Compost | Aquarium Pebbles | Aquarium Gravel | Build, Plaster, Play & River Sand & Calcisand™ | Shredded Aspen | Bark/Reptile Bark & Other Wood Mulches & Nuggets | Butcher Paper, Newspaper, Brown Paper & Kitchen Towel | Astroturf | Carpet | Rabbit & Alfalfa Pellets | Maize Meal (Corn) | Sphagnum Moss | Other Substrates


   Substrates For The Job   

Transport Substrates


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   Properties   

Heat Transmission | Ability To Remain In Place | Safety With Regard To Ingestion | Suitability For Use With Feeding Insects | Odour, Dust Accompanying & Toxicity | Absorbency, Disposability & Compostability | Appearance | Weight


Heat Transmission
:

Under tank heating like heat pads or heat strips are usually the logic choice when it comes to supplying heat to ground dwelling reptiles and amphibians. For heat to actually reach the animal, a good heat transmitting substrate must be used. Transmitted heat can be tested by placing a thermometer directly on top of the substrate. If the temperature is within the desired range the substrate should do, but alternatively a better transmitting substrate should be used or appropriate overhead heating should rather be implemented.

Accessories & Other Stuff for Herptiles

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Ability To Remain In Place:

When using any in-cage heat pad or heat strip it is important to prevent direct contact with the animal. Usually a deeper layer of bedding is used, but deeper layers insulate heat better and prevent proper heat transmission. Heat transmitting substrates that stays in place better than average can be used in lesser amounts.

Burrowing species needs a substrate that is loose and light in weight. For brumating (hibernating) herps it is also recommended that a deep layer of this substrate is used. It is once again important to prevent direct contact with the heat source. Good burrowing substrates include wood shavings, leafs and corn cob.

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Safety With Regard To Ingestion:

Herps might become ill after ingesting certain substrates. Most "particlelized" substrates can potentially cause intestinal obstruction after ingestion. Factors such as particle size, digestibility and ability to absorb water and swell should be taken into consideration. The more dangerous substrates with regard to ingestion includes the following:

  • Sand
  • Soil
  • Gravel
  • Pebbles
  • Bark nuggets
  • Corn cob
  • Wood shavings / sawdust
  • Vermiculite

Although dangerous for lizards, corn cob makes excellent bedding for burrowing snakes or snakes during the brumation period. It can also be successfully used as a traveling substrate.

Wood shavings are regularly used as bedding for snakes and gravel and sand are regularly used for lizards. Problems comes in with hungry or greedy herps when they accidentally ingest some of substrate while killing prey / eating or where the substrate sticks to wet or soft food like in the case of unthawed rodents. With snake species these substrates should not pose any problem when they are fed in another container or when a feeding platform or a shallow feeding dish are used.

Some lizard species will also purposefully ingest finer (calcium rich) substrates like sand to increase their calcium intake. This will eventually lead to life threatening sand impaction. Although these animals are usually depleted of calcium because of various possible reasons, the problem should be rectified as soon as possible. Unfortunately even when they problem is solved some herps still show this behaviour. This is why it is recommended not to use dangerous substrates from the start.

Another reason to ingest substrates include the fact that some species, i.e. some chelonians and hunting lizards, might explore a new environment and pick the fresh bedding up with the tip of their tongues which are then inadvertently swallowed potentially leading to impaction.

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Suitability For Use With Feeding Insects:

Insects such as crickets, cockroaches and mealworms can potentially hide under substrates that are loose, light in weight and/or "particlelized". This is especially important when it comes to the monitoring the eating behaviour of baby and juvenile lizards. Substrates that serves potential hiding places for insects include the following:

  • Flat newspaper
  • Wood shavings
  • Indoor-outdoor carpet
  • Soil
  • Corn cob
  • Pebbles
  • Bark nuggets
  • Vermiculite
  • Gravel

Some of these substrates are also dangerous when accidentally or purposefully ingested (see above). It is also not recommended to decorate the terrarium with "fancy hiding places" for insects. Decoration together with the abovementioned substrates should be saved until the animal is well established and its feeding behaviour is set.

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Odor, Dust Accompanying & Toxicity:

Dusty or odour treated substrates can cause respiratory problems. These include fine wood shavings, sawdust and fine sand.

Cedar (Cedrus spp.) and shavings contain aromatic resins that may be toxic herptiles. Redwood nuggets should be avoided at all times.

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Absorbency, Disposability & Compostability:

Wet and moist substrates serve as the perfect breeding grounds for various micro-organisms such as bacteria, micoplasmas, fungi and potentially viruses. Some of these micro-organisms might be pathogenic (disease causing) or even deadly to both the herptile and the owner (zoonoses). Tropical species may need higher humidities to function normally. In these conditions almost any substrate will somehow absorb water and eventually become moist enough for the multiplication of micro-organisms. This is why containers with high humidities should be washed, disinfected and cleaned on a regular basis. Cleaning will not be practical with substrates that are too heavy, too costly or too difficult to clean regularly.
    Other species need very clean and dry (hot) conditions. Some of these species benefit from very absorbent beddings such as shredded aspen or recycled paper or wood pulp pellets.

Tip: It is a good habit to remove droppings from a container as soon as possible. This will prevent bad odours from building up. With loose substrates, droppings can be removed manually by hand or with a so called "pooper scooper" or something similar. More solid substrates like carpet and astroturf should be completely removed, cleaned, washed and disinfected, which sometimes makes them less practical with some setup or species.

The compostability, or the ability to be used compost depends on factors such as its bio-degradability and contents.

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Appearance:

The emphasis of display terrariums and vivariums is to make it look as natural and aesthetically pleasing possible. Although these setups are usually more difficult to maintain and to keep clean and although the substrates are usually more expensive, there are usually more advantages. If a naturalistic setup is managed correctly it will greatly affect the overall health and behaviour of the animal. Natural looking substrates include:

  • Sand
  • Soil
  • Gravel
  • Rocks
  • Bark nuggets

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Weight:

Weight is an important factor when it comes to cleaning and/or removing the substrate and the strength of the floor of the container. Large pieces of heavy substrates tend to stay more in place than smaller lighter pieces, but they are harder (heavier) to clean.

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   Popular Substrates Used By Reptile Hobbyists   

Wood Shavings & Sawdust | Corn Cob | Vermiculite | Soil | Compost | Aquarium Pebbles | Aquarium Gravel | Build, Plaster, Play & River Sand & Calcisand™ | Shredded Aspen | Bark/Reptile Bark & Other Wood Mulches & Nuggets | Butcher Paper, Newspaper, Brown Paper & Kitchen Towel | Astroturf | Carpet | Rabbit & Alfalfa Pellets | Maize Meal (Corn) | Sphagnum Moss | Other Substrates

 

Wood Shavings & Sawdust:

Description: Wood shavings ("skaafsels") or sawdust ("saagsels") is a natural by-product of wood processing, It is available form most pet shops or in bulk from wood processing factories.
Pros: Light, inexpensive, absorbent, compostable and easy to clean manually and to replace.
Cons: Might cause compaction when ingested, not natural looking, when fine and dusty it may cause respiratory problems when used for long periods, makes good hiding for feeder insects, do not transmit heat well and can be pushed aside easily.
To Be Used For: Transporting or brumating snakes or for burrowing snake species. Popular substrate used for rats and mice, equine stables and broiler houses. Can also used as substrate for Hissing cockroaches.
Not To Be Used For: Rest
Recommendation: Because of their fine nature, sawdust should never be used as permanent or semi-permanent substrate. When using wood shavings it should be dust free and contact from an under tank heat source should be prevented. Never use Cedar shavings as they contain toxic resins and may cause respiratory problems and can be toxic when ingested. Pine shavings can cause compactions and are also not recommended herptiles.
Extra: In South African Pine wood / "Denneboom" (Pinus spp. ) is more popular than Cedar (Cedrus spp.). Wood shavings are more popularly used as substrate for rats and mice. Look for the following when buying in bulk:

  • Should not be too fine (i.e. sawdust)
  • Should not have a strong smell
  • Should be clean, free from dirt and other materials
  • Should be dry and light in colour
  • Should be free from mould and bugs
  • Should be free from anything else that might be harmful

Cedar tree (Cedrus spp.)foliage. Do not use shavings from these trees

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Corn Cob:

Description: Corn cob, a natural, non-toxic by-product of maize processing, probably incorrectly named after corn on cob (as in maize/corn), It is a small, roundish, fibrous substrate and is usually used as substrate for bird cages. Corn cob is available from some specialized pet shops.
Pros: Light, disposable, large insects cannot hide under it, looks clean and neat, are more natural looking than wood shavings and can be cleaned easily by removing droppings manually.
Cons: Does not transmit heat well, pushed aside easily, will support mould growth when wet and must be changed regularly, undigestible to herptiles and can potentially cause compaction when ingested.
To Be Used For: As transport or brumation substrates for snakes or for burrowing snake species. Also popular to used as substrates for bird cages and laboratory rats and mice.
Not To Be Used For: Lizards and the smaller and regular feeding snake species (without feeding platform) and in containers with high relative humidities.
Recommendation: Not recommended as it can cause drying of dermal tissues and can cause intestinal obstruction if swallowed which may lead to death. When planning on using corn cob as substrate it is recommended to feed the snake in another container without corn cob as substrate or to use a feeding platform or shallow feeding container.

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Vermiculite:

Description: Vermiculite is a natural, non-toxic, mineral that expands with the application of heat. It is available in a coarse and fine grade and can be bought from some specialized pet shops and some large nurseries where it is used as hydrophonic plant medium or soil conditioner.
Pros: Light, semi-natural looking, large insects cannot hide under it, can be cleaned easily by removing droppings manually, good absorber of moist (used for this purpose), compostable and relative safe with regard to ingestion.
Cons: Relatively expensive (cheaper when bought in larger quantities from nurseries) and because of that, less disposable, can be easily pushed aside, small insects can hide under it and not a good conductor of heat. It can also be difficult to see small droppings amongst the pieces.
To Be Used For: Egg laying, egg incubating substrates, transporting or brumating snakes or for burrowing snake species.
Not To Be Used For: Lizards
Recommendation: Because vermiculite tend to break up in smaller parts, especially when wet, it is recommended to replace regularly.

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Soil:

Description: Soil from the garden or potting soil.
Pros: Cheap, natural looking, can be collected yourself, droppings can easily be removed by hand, when whet it can raise the humidity of container, transmits and keeps heat relatively good, stays in place easily, difficult for large insects to hide in.
Cons: Heavy, has to be disinfected, has to be changed regularly, not easy to replace, when whet it can raise the humidity of container and become muddy, when dry it can become dusty, may cause impaction when ingested, can stain the container it is used in and can be a suitable breeding ground for ants and other small organisms.
To Be Used For: Display purposes.
Not To Be Used For: Rest
Recommendation: Unsterilized soil contains all the ingredients for the proliferation of various small ground insects and ground micro-organisms that can serve as harmful parasites or pathogens to you and your herptile. I do not recommend using soil, even if it's disinfected. Soil can be sterilized by baking it in a 200 - 250 °C / 392 - 482 °F oven for one to two hours. Soil must be free from perlite, compost, insecticides and other toxins.

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Compost:

Description: Bought from nurseries to fertilize soil.
Pros: Light, cheap, natural looking, easy to remove droppings manually, when whet it can raise the humidity of container, transmits and keeps heat very good.
Cons: Has to be disinfected when used for herptiles, has to be changed regularly, when wet it can raise the humidity of container, stinks, may cause impaction when ingested, is difficult to replace and clean a container after compost was removed and is a suitable breeding ground for ants and other small organisms.
To Be Used For: Culturing insects and other food. Planting substrate.
Not To Be Used For: Herptiles
Recommendation:  Compost must be free from perlite, insecticides and other toxins.

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Aquarium Pebbles:

Description: Pebbles are basically small round rocks (usually colourful) which is sold at most pet shops. They are available in different sizes and colours and are usually used as aquarium substrates.
Pros: Attractive, uniform in size, can be washed, disinfected and re-used, good transmitter of heat, natural colours usually look quite pleasing and cannot be pushed aside easily.
Cons: Can be ingested by larger lizards, heavy, expensive, insects can hide under it and difficult to clean droppings manually.
To Be Used For: Snakes
Not To Be Used For: -
Recommendation: (also for Aquarium Gravel mentioned below) A double set of pebbles can be prepared to save some time when cleaning. Pebbles can be cleaned by soaking it in a large bucket for a few minutes. Then stir and rinse until all the visible particles is removed and the water runs clean. Disinfect  by soaking in a chloride solution like diluted Jik™, Milton™ or F10 for at least half an hour. Follow the preparation instructions mentioned on the label of the disinfectant. Rinse everything very well and sundry on a piece of plastic or newspaper.
    Make sure that pebbles are large enough to prevent accidental ingestion by the animal housed on it.

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Aquarium Gravel:

Description: Natural small rock substrate. Used as substrate for aquariums and is available in different shapes and sizes. Available in small packets and bulk from most pet shops.
Pros: Cheaper than aquarium pebbles, clean and natural looking, transmits heats well, can be washed and re-used, not pushed aside easily and easy to clean droppings manually.
Cons: Heavy, can be ingested easily and may cause inmpaction, more expensive when disposed regularly, more difficult to clean than pebbles, small insects can hide under it and moisture and water may pool at the bottom of the substrate.
To Be Used For: Most herptile species especially ground dwelling insect eaters and those needing higher relative humidities.
Not To Be Used For: Lizards as they are the most probably to ingest it.
Recommendation: Make sure that the gravel is large enough to prevent accidental ingestion. See Aquarium Pebbles section above for cleaning procedure.

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Build, Plaster, Play & River Sand & Calcisand:

Description: Sifted plaster sand, building sand or play sand can be bought from all building suppliers and some toy shops. Calcium carbonate enriched or so called Calcisand™ are also available. Clean river sand can also be bought or collected.
Pros: Relative cheap, easy to clean droppings manually, natural looking, clean, not moved aside easily, transmits heat relatively well and no hiding for small insects.
Cons: Heavy and difficult to replace regularly, can lead to impactions when ingested with food or when sand is ingested on purpose i.e. one or other mineral deficiency (most probable Calcium) and fine/dusty sand like plaster sand can cause respiratory problems.
To Be Used For: Desert reptiles.
Not To Be Used For: Even if marketed as "digestible", Calcisand™ should never be used for most ground dwelling lizards. There are documented cases where this substrate caused impactions. Although it is recommended by some herpetologists any sand should not be used for lizard with high calcium needs.
Recommendation: Sand should always be washed to eliminate fine and dusty particles and sterilized before use. It can be sterilized by baking it in a 200 - 250 °C / 392 - 482 °F oven for one to two hours. Calcium sand should not be used with any lizard as these animals have high requirements for Calcium and might get impacted when too much sand is ingested. River and play sand are popular sand substrates to consider.

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Shredded Aspen:

Description: -
Pros: Somewhat natural looking, eventually forms a dense mat, safe to use, disposable, replacing is simple, very absorbent, minimize microbial contamination and dense mat not easily moved and transmit heat well.
Cons: Priced a bit higher than wood shavings.
To Be Used For: -
Not To Be Used For: -
Recommendation: -

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Bark/Reptile Bark & Other Wood Mulches & Nuggets:

Description: Commercially produced (disinfected) for herptiles or bark nuggets from plant nurseries. Cypress or other wood/bark mulches are also popular.
Pros: Attractive, natural looking and cannot be pushed aside easily.
Cons: Holds dangers when ingested and should be prevented, commercial bark very expensive and only available at some large pet shops, not a good conductor of heat, may cause compaction problems, make suitable hiding places for insects and can cause irritation and injuries to the legs and snouts of digging reptiles.
To Be Used For: Some lizards and snake species. Also used as substrate for insects such as Hissing cockroaches.
Not To Be Used For: Insect eating reptiles.
Recommendation: This substrate is not recommended for use with greedy lizards as it has a very high fiber content and is indigestible when accidentally eaten.

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Butcher Paper, Newspaper, Brown Paper & Kitchen Towel:

Description: -
Pros: Cheapest, disposable, easy to replace, ink (if present) is generally non-toxic, clean and safe to use.
Cons: Unattractive, makes good hiding place for snakes and large and small insects, should usually not be used when under tank heating is implemented where temperature is very hot.
To Be Used For: Popular to use with juvenile snakes and lizards and as a transport substrate for snakes.
Not To Be Used For:
Recommendation: -

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Astroturf:

AstroturfDescription: AstroTurf™ is a registered trade mark (www.astroturfusa.com), but the term isalso used more generally for any type of artificial/synthetic turf. It differs from carpet in that it resembles grass.
Pros: Transmits heat well, cannot be pushed aside, there's no hiding place for insects, safe and can be re-used.
Cons: Tends to rot easily when wetted, should be rotated regularly and serves as hiding place for insects.
To Be Used For: -
Not To Be Used For: Astroturf should not be used in a moist container with a high humidity.
Recommendation: Wash and let it dry in the sun before re-using.


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Carpet:

Description: A piece of indoor-outdoor, (cricket) pitch or reptile carpet. Theoretically any carpet can be used, but easy of cleaning & price need to be considered. The green pitch carpet that resembles flat grass can be bought in bulk from most carpet stores and cut to size. Ready cut reptile carpet can be bought for higher prices at some larger pet shops.
Pros: Semi-natural looking, safe, can be washed and re-used for a long time, transmits heat well, easy to clean, cannot be moved easily and can be used with higher relative humidities.
Cons: Expensive, labour intensive to clean, should be replaced and washed regularly and if not cut to the correct size it can curl up to  give hiding places for snakes and insects and may stink permanently.
To Be Used For: Most herps.
Not To Be Used For: -
Recommendation: Because of its difficulty to clean quickly, carpet should be used in a rotatory system. The extra piece should be washed/scrubbed, disinfected (stench can stay in for a very long time) and sun dried weekly. In case of an emergency carpets can be removed and vacuumed.

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Rabbit Or Lucerne/Alfalfa Pellets:

Description: Pellets that you feed your rabbits can be bought from most pet shops.
Pros: Safe to ingest, not much hiding for insects, easy to clean manually and to replace.
Cons: Loose and can be moved aside easily and crumbles when absorbing water so cannot be used in higher humidities.
To Be Used For: Raising lizards and some other reptiles.
Not To Be Used For: Cages with high humidities.
Recommendation: -

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Maize Meal (Corn):

Description: Produced as food product for human consumption and sold at most food stores.
Pros: Light, safe to use, disposable, easily replaceable, easy to clean droppings manually and transmits heat well.
Cons: Relative expensive, ferments and gets sour easily, need to be replaced regularly, easily pushed aside.
To Be Used For: When transporting or brumating/hibernating snakes or for burrowing snake species and as substrates for small lizards.
Not To Be Used For: Splashing lizards as they splash in their water and cause the maize to get wet and sour.
Recommendation: -
Other: Maize meal as substrate tends to ferment when wet. This is a problem especially when keeping batches of hatchling lizards in the same container.

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Sphagnum Moss:

Sphagnum MossDescription: Commercial sphagnum moss is a dried mixture of natural mosses in the genus Sphagnum. It is also known as Bog or Peat moss. They have a high water holding capacity and because of their strong cellular structure they do not decay readily. Sphagnum moss are available from specialized pet shops.
Pros: Attractive, natural looking and absorbs and keep water well.
Cons: Expensive and only available at some specialized pet shops, may cause compaction problems when ingested, make suitable hiding places for smaller insects and can be a source of fungal infections.
To Be Used For: Some amphibians and wetland environment reptiles as the main substrate or for humidifying shelters or hide bozes (i.e. Leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius). Can also be used as egg-laying medium.
Not To Be Used For: Desert reptiles.
Recommendation: Sphagnum moss can be prepared by soaking it in water and manual expression of  excess water.



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Other Substrates:

Other useful substrates which are not yet discussed on this page includes leaves, recycled paper pellets, shredded newspaper, stripped or shredded office paper, shredded coconut hull, bran, water and no bedding at all.

Other dangerous substrates include crushed walnut.

Rabbit pellets are a popular substrate for tortoises.

Water can be used as partial or main substrate for some herptile species such as frogs, toads and some snakes. Some of the important aspects of water as substrate includes the pH (brackish or salt), the chloride content and bacteria. Chloride can and usually should be removed from water either reverse osmosis or filtration. Bacteria are used as biological water filters to remove molecules such as ammonium, nitrates and nitrites.

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   Substrates For The Job   

Transport Substrates


Transport Substrates
:

Transport containers also need suitable substrates. Depending on the size of the transport container a large or a small towel for snake or lizard species can be used. This will give them some grip and suitable hiding. Something lighter like newspaper should be used for smaller snakes and snake species. Snakes can also be transported in containers with corn cob, dust free wood shavings or maize/corn meal.
    A 13 ℓ / 3.5 gal (US) ADDIS™ (35 x 25 x 15 cm / 14 x 10 x 5.5 ") container should do the trick for a few Leopard geckos, up to three adult Bearded dragons and most small to small/medium sized snakes. It is not always recommended to transport more than one herptile (even if they are that same species) in the same container and it is totally unaccepted to transport different species in the same container.

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"If you think I should add more information to this section or think that something is incorrect, contact me and let me know. I would love to hear your ideas or methods you might use that is different than ours."

Last updated 20 May 2007 by Renier Delport

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Related Topics:

General Snake Care Sheet
Bearded Dragon Care Sheet
Leopard Gecko Care Sheet
Accessories & Other Stuff For Herptiles
General Animal Bio-security & Quarantine
Photoperiod & Brumation / Hibernation
Substrates For Sale
Reptile & Amphibian Feeding Problems

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   Properties   

Heat Transmission | Ability To Remain In Place | Safety With Regard To Ingestion | Suitability For Use With Feeding Insects | Odour, Dust Accompanying & Toxicity | Absorbency, Disposability & Compostability | Appearance | Weight


   Popular Substrates Used By Reptile Hobbyists   

Wood Shavings & Sawdust | Corn Cob | Vermiculite | Soil | Compost | Aquarium Pebbles | Aquarium Gravel | Build, Plaster, Play & River Sand & Calcisand™ | Shredded Aspen | Bark/Reptile Bark & Other Wood Mulches & Nuggets | Butcher Paper, Newspaper, Brown Paper & Kitchen Towel | Astroturf | Carpet | Rabbit & Alfalfa Pellets | Maize Meal (Corn) | Sphagnum Moss | Other Substrates


   Substrates For The Job   

Transport Substrates


| Related Topics | Email This Page |

 

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