Lizards, snakes, turtles, newts, spiders, and frogs—they all come from very different places and habitats. About the only thing they have in common is that they are all frequently kept as pets. The key to keeping a pet reptile healthy is to duplicate as closely as possible the conditions he would be found in the wild. These pets are not adapted to a captive life. Many are captured in the wild and shipped to you, and even those born in captivity often had wild grandparents. Give them what they need, and they are wonderful pets. Neglect their very specific housing requirements, and the only outcome is heartache.
Perhaps the most basic choice to make for a new reptile, amphibian, or arachnid owner is bedding. What you should line the bottom of the enclosure with depends on the pet. The first thing to do is find out where the pet is from. Did it evolve to live in the rainforest or a desert? Does it live in the trees, on the ground, in water, or in a hole? This information is beyond the scope of this article, so do some research on your chosen pet before setting up its habitat.
Bedding can affect things like humidity levels, burrowing opportunities, and even the health of your pet. Proper bedding helps keep the animal stress-free, and since stress is a major cause of disease, it is a very important choice. Let’s look at the basic habitats you may wish to recreate.
Tropical animals live in very warm, very humid areas. They may live in trees or on the ground.
- Tropical tree dweller
Examples are many tree frogs and day geckos. Ideal substrates are coconut fiber and cypress mulch. Cypress in particular holds humidity and retards decay. Substrate for a tree dweller is mostly to add humidity, as these pets are rarely on the ground. You can cover substrate with a layer of sphagnum moss to further supply humidity. A layer of aqua balls under the base substrate will allow the creation of a water table in the enclosure, boosting humidity considerably.
- Tropical ground dweller
Examples include horned frogs and some snakes. Ideal substrates allow for humidity and burrowing. Cypress and coconut are good choices, as are bark mulches. Some ground dwellers, especially frogs, will use a top layer of sphagnum moss as well.
- Tropical beach dweller
Most commonly hermit crabs. Ideal substrate is calcium-based sand mixed with coconut fiber for humidity, or very fine gravel mixed with the coconut. Substrate must be deep enough to burrow under completely; 3 to 4 inches deep is ideal.
Desert animals live in very dry, usually very hot areas. They may live on the ground or in burrows underneath it.
- Desert ground dweller
Examples include bearded dragons and some tortoises. Ideal substrate is calcium-based sand. This is not normal “play sand.” Play sand is silica-based, and if swallowed can block a reptile’s stomach. Calcium-based sand can be digested if swallowed, and provides necessary calcium to the pet. Sand should NOT be used with very young reptiles, as it can block their respiratory system and cause injury or death. You can use ground walnut hulls or a paper-based product called Desert Snow successfully, with the Desert Snow recommended for very young reptiles. Some do well on birdseed or alfalfa pellets, but these are less desirable.
- Desert burrow dweller
Examples include leopard geckos and some tarantulas. Ideal substrate is approximately 50% coverage with clay excavator substrate, and the rest filled with calcium sand. The special substrate allows you to make burrows and caves under the calcium sand layer that will not collapse. This is the most natural way to keep burrowing lizards, but as it doesn’t hold humidity, it is only suitable for desert species. It should not be used alone to fill the tank, but covered with a layer of sand for easy cleaning.
Water-dwelling animals may live part or all of their lives in water. They may be found on a muddy, sandy, or rocky bottom. Some are not picky, while others will only do well if provided the right substrate under the water.
- Muddy, silty, and sandy-bottom water dwellers
Example is the soft shell turtle. These animals must have a deep soft bottom that they can burrow in. Aquarium sand mixed with a small amount of coconut fiber in a layer several inches deep is needed.
- Rocky-bottom dwellers
Examples include slider turtles and clawed frogs. These animals do well on aquarium gravel that is properly sized. It must either be too big to be swallowed, or small enough to pass through the animal’s gut without harming them.
Some animals need very specific substrates, but the majority of herps offered as pets will fit one of these categories. Understanding how to choose the right bedding will help you build a healthy habitat for your new pet—from the ground up!