There are a variety of things snake owners must consider when setting up their pet serpent. This includes everything from the type of enclosure you want to use to the amount of ventilation to provide.
But one of the most common questions snake keepers have relates to their pet’s bedding. Specifically, they are curious to know which type of substrate is best for their snake.
We’ll dive into the substrate issue below, so you can pick the best one for your pet.
Why Use a Substrate at All? What Do Substrates Actually Do?
It’s fair to ask why snake keepers use substrates at all. At first glance, it may seem like substrates unnecessarily complicate the maintenance of a snake’s enclosure, and they obviously represent an additional cost (in most cases).
However, substrates perform several vital functions and make it easier to care for your pet. Some of the most notable reasons to use a substrate include:
- Substrates help absorb excess fluids. Water-dwelling snakes aside, most snakes require a relatively dry habitat to remain healthy – even if they require high habitat humidity. So, if your snake spills his water dish or releases a lot of water when he defecates, the substrate will absorb some of this liquid, helping to keep the bottom of the habitat drier than it’d otherwise be.
- Substrates likely provide a more comfortable surface for your snake. It’s impossible to get into the mind of a snake, but it is reasonable to assume that snakes find many substrates more comfortable and natural feeling than the bare floor of their enclosure.
- Substrates can provide a place for snakes to hide. While most species should still be provided with a true hide box, some snakes will readily burrow into the substrate when resting. In fact, some species – such as various sand boas – may become stressed if not provided with a substrate that allows burrowing.
- Substrates can retain and slowly release moisture. As mentioned earlier, substrates can absorb spilled liquids in your snake’s habitat, but they can also absorb water that you deliberately add to the habitat. Then, they’ll slowly allow this water to evaporate into the air inside the enclosure, thereby increasing the habitat’s relative humidity.
- Substrates make it easier to keep the habitat clean. If your snake defecates on a bare enclosure floor, it’ll create quite a mess that is hard to clean. Conversely, if your snake defecates on top of a substrate, you can simply remove and discard the affected area to clean the habitat.
So, while it may seem like substrates are an unnecessary complication for your pet’s enclosure, they actually perform a number of valuable services.
What Are Some of the Most Popular Snake Beddings?
There are a wide variety of substrates available to snake keepers, and new and innovative materials are discovered or created on occasion too. These numerous options are beneficial to keepers and their snakes, but the sheer number of substrates available can make it overwhelming for owners to pick one – especially in the case of beginning keepers.
But don’t worry: Picking a substrate is easier than you may think. You’ll just need to get started by familiarizing yourself with some of the most popular options available. We’ll help you do exactly that below.
Newspaper is almost certainly the most popular substrate used by professional breeders, as well as those who maintain a lot of snakes.
It’s easy to see why:
Newspaper is very affordable (and actually free if you can track down a source of “used” newspapers), it is easy to use, and it isn’t likely to be inadvertently swallowed by your snake.
It also makes it easy to keep your pet’s habitat clean, and, while it doesn’t allow burrowing, snakes will often crawl underneath the newspaper to hide.
But newspaper does have a few drawbacks.
For starters, it just doesn’t look very attractive. Your snake won’t care about this, but it is typically more enjoyable for keepers to maintain enclosures that are aesthetically pleasing.
Additionally, newspaper won’t absorb very much liquid, nor is it ideally suited for holding moisture and providing habitat humidity the way some other substrates will.
Finally, the ink used in the newspaper may rub off on your snake. This is harmless, but it can be frustrating for keepers who keep brightly colored species, who become smudged with black to blue stains.
Paper towels offer the same basic strengths and weaknesses that newspaper does, except that it is more expensive and doesn’t feature ink that’ll rub off on your snake.
Paper towels are likely used less commonly than newspaper except for one situation: the maintenance of neonate snakes.
Whereas it’d be quite expensive to coat the bottom of a large enclosure in a thick layer of paper towels, it’ll only take one or two to adequately cover the bottom of a small snake habitat.
Commercial Paper Liners
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Like paper towels, commercial paper liners offer most of the same benefits and drawbacks that newspaper does. However, they (arguably) look better than newspaper does, and they won’t get ink all over your snake.
Paper cage liners are also available in a range of sizes, which means you won’t have to fold them to fit your pet’s enclosure or use several sheets to completely cover the bottom.
Some such products are also thicker than newspaper, which means you won’t have to stack several layers on top of each other.
Of course, the downside of commercial paper liners is that they’re more expensive.
This is the primary reason most breeders elect to use newspaper, but for a hobbyist with only a snake or two to care for, this may be an expense you’re willing to shoulder.
- Absorbent (191% absorbency)
- Odorless - safe for all snakes
- 99.9% dust free
Aspen shavings are another popular substrate choice with a lot of positive attributes.
For example, aspen is quite absorbent – if you use a thick enough layer, it would likely absorb the entire contents of a small water bowl.
You can also “spot-clean” aspen when your snake defecates, instead of having to change a whole sheet of newspaper or commercial liner.
The perceived aesthetic value of aspen shavings will vary from one keeper to the next, but most would likely agree that it is more attractive than newspaper. It also provides burrowing opportunities for snakes.
However, aspen is not a good substrate to use for providing high humidity, as it will quickly rot if left in a damp enclosure.
Additionally, it is often dusty and a bit messy – you’ll constantly be finding little bits of aspen shavings escaping from the enclosure. Finally, while not terribly expensive, aspen shavings are more expensive than something like newspaper.
Cypress mulch is another popular substrate choice – particularly helpful for maintaining snakes hailing from high humidity environments.
Cypress mulch will absorb a ton of water, and it can be kept damp for very long periods of time without rotting. And despite the subjective nature of aesthetic value, most keepers would agree that it looks pretty good in most habitats.
Cypress mulch will also allow snakes to burrow, provided that it is “fluffed up” (it tends to compact over time as your snake crawls over it repeatedly). Cypress mulch can also be spot cleaned like aspen shavings.
The price of cypress mulch, however, varies wildly from one location to the next. It’s typically very affordable in the southeastern United States (several cubic feet may only cost two or three dollars), while it is relatively expensive in the northern portions of the country.
The only other major downside of cypress mulch is that it can cause wounds and splinters to keepers who carelessly run their hands through it.
Orchid bark is named for the fact that it is frequently used by those who propagate orchids, but it is actually the bark of fir trees.
In my opinion, it is undoubtedly the most attractive substrate available, and it also provides a number of other benefits.
For example, orchid bark absorbs fluids readily and works well for maintaining high-humidity habitats. Snakes can burrow through it readily (although very small snakes may not be able to easily), and it can be spot cleaned like most other particulate substrates.
The primary (some would say only) problem with orchid bark is its price: This is an exceptionally expensive substrate – often prohibitively so.
There is a bit of geographical variation in the price of orchid bark, and keepers living in the Pacific Northwest may be able to obtain it for a very reasonable price.
Many keepers misunderstand the suitability of pine bark for snake maintenance, as they’ve heard that the wood of pine trees emits fumes that can be detrimental to the health of some snake species.
This is true in some cases (although several popular snake species often live inside pine trees, so this isn’t applicable to all species), and it means that pine wood shavings shouldn’t be used for snake maintenance.
However, it is also irrelevant: The chemicals in pine tree wood that may cause problems are not found in the bark of pine trees.
Safety aside, pine bark offers most of the same benefits that cypress mulch and orchid bark do. It allows burrowing and spot cleaning, and it will absorb a moderate amount of liquid.
It isn’t ideal for the maintenance of high-humidity enclosures, but it is better than newspaper or aspen shavings. The price of pine bark will vary, but it is rarely very expensive.
Gravel is a bit of a controversial substrate among snake keepers.
Some (including the author) find it remarkable for setting up aesthetically pleasing enclosures, and it is also a “forever” substrate that you can wash and reuse for the lifespan of your snake.
However, gravel also presents a number of drawbacks. For starters, it is very heavy, and it will make your snake’s habitat very difficult to move.
Furthermore, gravel is not absorbent at all, and it may cause intestinal obstructions if your snake accidentally swallows it.
Accordingly, relatively few snake keepers use gravel, but it remains a viable option for keepers who’re willing to deal with the downsides it presents.
Sand is the substrate of choice for many keepers who maintain sand boas, and it can also be useful for other desert-dwelling serpents. But for most other snakes, sand doesn’t make a particularly good choice.
One of the biggest problems with sand is that it is abrasive and dusty – you’ll likely end up with a fine layer of dust all around the enclosure after a short amount of time.
Sand can also cause internal blockages for snakes who inadvertently consume a significant quantity of it. Finally, sand doesn’t work well for species who require high humidity levels.
But sand does have a few benefits for keepers. The most notable of which is that sand looks great and helps create a natural-looking habitat.
You can also sift sand when it becomes soiled (somewhat like cat litter), and it will last for a very long time. Sand also allows subterranean species to burrow beneath the surface.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, sand is typically only useful for snakes that hail from arid regions.
- Bio-degradable enzyme reduces odors
- Absorbent, non-abrasive material that will not irritate reptiles
- Safe - cannot be ingested
For a long time, artificial carpet was a popular substrate among snake keepers. However, it has largely fallen out of favor in the modern world.
In the abstract, artificial carpet does exhibit some helpful features. It’s typically pretty absorbent, and – if you keep more than one piece on hand – it allows for easy habitat maintenance: Simply remove it when soiled and replace with a fresh piece. You can then wash the soiled carpet and allow it to dry.
However, the downsides of artificial carpet are legion. It does not allow burrowing, nor is it ideal for high-humidity habitats. And in terms of aesthetics, artificial carpet obviously falls short of many mulches or other natural materials.
But the biggest issue with artificial carpet is that keepers often fail to notice that it has become soiled, so they leave it in their snake’s enclosure, where it fosters the development of bacteria and fungi.
Finally, the fibers used in the manufacture of artificial carpets may come loose or fray. These loose threads can then wrap around your snake’s body, which may lead to very serious injuries.
Various types of soil are often used as a substrate in snake habitats. There are definitely a few disadvantages to soil, but there are also a lot of things that make it a good choice.
For example, soil is not a particularly sterile choice, as it may provide good conditions for bacteria to grow and thrive.
However, if strict hygiene is maintained and the soil is not allowed to become excessively damp, it is easily one of the best-looking substrates available.
Further, soil substrates give you the chance to install plants directly into the bedding. This is not always the easiest option from a maintenance standpoint, but it often yields the most aesthetically pleasing results for keepers interested in maintaining a natural-looking vivarium.
Soil also allows burrowing species to tunnel beneath the surface, it is fairly easy to clean (you may even be able to sift some varieties), and it holds humidity well. Soil is also absorbent and fairly inexpensive.
Nevertheless, soil can be a bit messy and it does represent a safety hazard for snakes who swallow it.
Accordingly, soil is rarely used by keepers who prize functionality and safety, but it remains a favorite of those who wish to maintain complex, natural-looking vivaria, complete with a number of live plants.
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Relatively recently (in comparison to things like aspen shavings, artificial carpet and other substrates) coconut husk has become a popular substrate among reptile and amphibian keepers. It certainly isn’t an ideal option for all scenarios, but it may be a fantastic choice for some keepers.
Coconut husk is often sold in large, compressed bricks. To use it, you break open the packaging, tear into the brick and mix in a little bit of water. A few minutes later, you’ll have a surprisingly large amount of fluffy, light-weight substrate.
Coconut husk fibers retain moisture well, they’re very absorbent, and some keepers have success installing plants directly into this substrate. Coconut husk is also easy to clean (you can sift it), and it allows snakes to burrow.
However, coconut husk may present a serious health risk for any snake who swallows a mouthful of the fibers. It can also be a bit messy, and – depending on the retailer you purchase it from – it can be a bit expensive.
Which Substrate Makes for the Best Snake Bedding?
Now that we’ve explained the reason substrates are important and covered some of the most popular choices on the market, it is time to return to our initial question: Which substrate or bedding is the best to use with snakes?
Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer here. All snakes (and their keepers) have different needs, so you’ll need to think carefully about your choice. Nevertheless, we’ll try to help you understand the most important things to consider, so you can make a good choice for you and your pet.
Best Substrate for Most Beginning Keepers
When you first begin taking care of a snake, you’ll want to try to keep things simple and avoid any unnecessary complications.
Accordingly, most advanced keepers recommend that beginners use one of the following options:
- Paper towels
- Commercial paper liners
Best Substrates for High-Humidity Species
If your snake species hails from rainforests or other high-humidity environments, you’ll want to be sure to provide a substrate that retains moisture well and helps provide a humid habitat.
There are a number of options that will work in such cases, but the following are typically the best options:
- Cypress mulch
- Orchid bark
- Coconut husk
- Pine bark
Best Substrates for Desert-Dwelling Species
If you are keeping a snake that hails from deserts or other arid habitats, you’ll want to choose a substrate that will remain dry.
Additionally, if the snake you are keeping is a burrowing species, you’ll want to select a substrate that allows him to do so.
This generally means selecting one of the following options:
- Newspaper (for non-burrowers)
- Paper towels (for non-burrowers)
- Commercial paper liners (for non-burrowers)
Best Substrates for Natural Vivaria
If you intend to set up a natural-looking vivarium, complete with real branches, plants and other decorations, you’ll obviously want to select a substrate that also looks natural.
Fortunately, there are several options from which you can choose that’ll look great and still work well in your pet’s habitat. This includes:
- Cypress mulch
- Orchid bark
- Coconut husk
- Pine bark
Best Substrates for Large Collections
If you are keeping more than a single snake or two, you’ll quickly find that substrate maintenance can become very time-consuming.
Accordingly, you’ll likely want to follow in the footsteps of those who maintain large collections or care for entire breeding colonies.
This typically means opting for one of the following:
- Paper towels
- Commercial paper liners
- Aspen shavings
Nevertheless, some keepers continue to use things like aspen or cypress mulch when caring for large numbers of snakes.
As mentioned earlier, there is no single best bedding for all snakes. Additionally, different keepers will value different things, which means they may come to different conclusions despite keeping the same snake species.
Substrate selection is a complicated issue, and all keepers will need to determine which bedding makes most the most sense for their snake and current situation.
Just be sure to think through your decision carefully and don’t be afraid to make a change if your first choice doesn’t work out. You’ll eventually figure out the best option for you and your pet.
Last update on 2022-09-25 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API