How Often Do You Change Reptile Substrate?

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Last updated: March 23, 2023 at 14:37 pm

Reptile substrate is the material that is used to line the bed of the enclosure your reptile is kept in. The best reptile substrates will help absorb your reptile’s waste, provide grip for their footing, and act to help keep their tank dry or humid depending on the substrate used. Different substrates work best for different reptiles and how often you change your reptile substrate will likewise vary on the reptile you are caring for. 

Factors That Affect How Often You Should Change Your Reptile’s Substrate

The size of your reptile(s), more than one reptile in an enclosure, how active your pets are on a day to day basis, and how big their habitat is will all factor into how often you must change your reptile’s substrate. However, different reptile substrates will also vary in effectiveness from reptile to reptile. 

The Type of Substrate You’re Using

The best reptile substrate to use will primarily depend upon your reptile’s habits. For example, burrowing reptiles will have a tendency to prefer coconut fiber, shredded paper, sand, or vermiculite. It is worth noting that anytime you plan on using sand to line your reptile’s enclosure that you should consider calcium sand as a top candidate as it is safer if accidentally ingested in small quantities. Whichever substrate you plan to use, it is usually a wise idea to invest in a feeding dish to prevent substrate from being accidentally ingested, particularly if you have small or young reptiles.

The Number of Pets You Have In the Enclosure

More pets means more waste which equates to an increased frequency of cleaning their environment. While having larger enclosures can reduce the frequency, it is a good habit to get into cleaning their habitats at the very least once a month.

How Often Your Pet Has Bowel Movements

The more active and larger your reptile(s) the more often they will have a bowel movement. Frequent waste production will demand a more frequently cleaned habitat to help keep your reptiles healthy. 

Most Common Reptile Substrates

Many pet owners are looking for reptile and amphibian substrates to use in their pets habitats. The options are many and the best for your particular pet will vary based on its habits. Let’s look at the best reptile substrate options and note a few of their pros and cons along the way.

Paper Towels & Newspaper Bedding

A growing option in popularity is paper bedding due to its wide availability and low cost. Made from paper towels and old newspapers they can be used to line your pets habitat as a layer or shredded to make burrowing pets more comfortable. Another plus side to this option is the ease with which it can make cleaning up messes as paper towels are made to be absorbent. 

However a tradeoff of this method is no odor control and if shredded, may be accidentally ingested if a separate feeding dish is not used. Certain breeds may also have difficulty finding proper traction on paper. One last consideration for newspapers in particular is the ink may rub off on your reptile when wet and newspapers do not have the same hygienic guidelines for storage as other substrates making bacterial infection a notable concern.


Wood is available in a wide variety of formats, from chips to pellets or shavings. While these are excellent options for your pet if your reptile is arboreal (a fancy word meaning it spends most of its time on structures within the enclosure rather than on the ground) they do have a few negatives to consider. Above the rest is the risk non-arboreal reptiles have of getting splinter or cuts on their feet from the broken wood. Another risk is wood-based substrates can cause nasty medical problems if accidentally ingested by your pet. 

Many companies also put coloring in their products to make them more visually appealing, however this may stain your reptile scales. The last consideration I will put forward is that they lack absorbency for messes, and are not great for odor control as the scented products used in gardening may be toxic for your pet companion.

Coconut Fiber

Stringy pieces of fiber from the husk of a coconut which are an excellent reptile & amphibian substrate for pets requiring high humidity. As with wood substrates be sure to avoid coconut fiber intended for use with gardening as it may have been treated with fertilizer that may be detrimental to your pets health. Beyond excellent humidity control, they provide good odor control and are absorbent which helps reduce the mess from your pets waste. Burrowers will be especially pleased as the loose fibers make a cozy home with all the added benefits a reptile or amphibian could want.

Alfalfa Meal

A common reptile substrate choice is alfalfa meal, which is ground up hay compressed into a pellet the shape of a small cylinder. High in absorbency, eco-friendly, safe if accidentally ingested in small quantities, and great for odor control. If you shop around you can even find variants treated with germ control agents that are reptile-friendly. These brands may cost a bit more but are an excellent jack of all trades choice for your reptile substrate. The only downside is that if your reptile likes to burrow, there are certainly better options that would make them more comfortable, such as coconut fiber. 

Reptile Carpet Substrate

An excellent option for those with active or several pets within a habitat are reptile carpet substrates, which are washable and reusable. Carpets need to be washed on a daily basis to prevent the cultivation of bacteria which can make your reptile sick. However, they do provide excellent traction for your pet and are popular substrates for lizards in particular. While they do require much more frequent cleaning there is no accidental risk of ingestion which helps keep your pets healthy.


One of the most natural choices for your reptile to burrow in and make their home, with the added benefit of helping preserve humidity. Moss is also an excellent choice if your reptile is still young and requires a nursery-like enclosure to grow. 


A dry substrate option for reptiles suited to very low to no humidity, it makes for an excellent and absorbent material that can be used in a fashion similar to cat litter for odor control. When considering sand as your reptiles substrate you will also wish to adopt a separate feeding container to prevent accidental ingestion. There are reptile specific brands that should be used rather than just any old “sandbox” sand. 

This option should not be considered if your reptile is young as they are much more likely to ingest the sand itself when burrowing or trying to feed, especially if no feeding dish is used. One of the best benefits to sand however, is that it can be cleaned through sifting, making it highly reusable for your enclosure.

Conclusion – How Often Do You Change Reptile Substrate?

While it can be difficult to generalize how often your pets’ habitats will need to be cleaned and their substrate changed, the best rule of thumb is to base it off of your substrate. For example, if using paper substrates, the change is easier but will need to be done every time the substrate gets soiled which may be once a day to once a week depending on the frequency your pet attends to its bathroom needs. 

The second part of the rule of thumb is the consideration is the type of substrate being used, whether it is mineral based or organic. Most mineral based substrates may be spot cleaned with just the dirty patches sifted out, however they will need a complete replacement every 3 to 6 months to prevent germs from building up. Lastly, organic substrates may likewise be spot cleaned but will need to be changed every 2 to 4 weeks for the same reason. Reptile carpet substrates will need to be washed daily regardless of bathroom habits to keep bacteria in check.

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