A substrate is the layer of material at the bottom of your snake’s tank. It’s quite commonly referred to as “bedding”, and there are many different materials to choose from. If you’re getting a new garter snake as a pet, it’s important to consider which bedding would be best.
We’re going to introduce you to the most popular snake substrates. We’ll look at the pros and cons of each one, and how suitable they are for garter snakes. Then, we’ll advise you on which substrates you should always avoid. We’ll then answer some related questions.
- 1 What Kind of Bedding is Best for Snakes?
- 2 Which Substrates Should I Avoid?
- 3 Where Can I Get Snake Bedding?
- 4 How to Make Snake Bedding at Home
- 5 How Deep Should Snake Bedding Be?
- 6 How Often Should You Change Snake Bedding?
What Kind of Bedding is Best for Snakes?
Different species of snake fare best with different substrates, and snake owners all have their own personal preferences. Let’s look at the most popular choices:
1) Aspen Shavings
Aspen bedding for snakes is probably the most popular choice, after newspaper. It’s also our favorite, and our personal recommendation.
Aspen offers many of the same benefits as paper pellet bedding. Aspen is absorbent, easy to clean and allows for burrowing.
One unique aspect of aspen is that it retains its shape; the tunnels that your garter snake digs will stay in place until you need to replace the substrate. You can buy aspen shaving on Amazon by clicking on this link.
Another bonus of aspen is that it is usually fairly cheap. It also looks a lot better than newspaper or paper bedding. It’s quite dry, which isn’t the best choice for humidity-loving snakes but works well for garters.
Just be sure to remove your garter snake into a separate box when feeding, as aspen can become stuck to prey, and shouldn’t be ingested.
2) Cypress Mulch
If you’re not a fan of the appearance of aspen, cypress mulch may be a better choice for you. It’s made of a different kind of wood and is much darker in appearance.
A thick layer of cypress mulch looks a lot like a forest floor. You can buy Cypress mulch on Amazon by clicking this link.
Cypress mulch is one of the moistest choices. It starts off damp and holds moisture well. While this is great for tropical snakes, such as boas, it’s not necessarily ideal for garter snakes.
If using cypress mulch, you must keep a regular check on your enclosure’s humidity to ensure that it doesn’t surpass 60%. Excessive humidity can lead to problems such as scale rot, which can be deadly.
3) Coconut Husk
Coco bedding for snakes is very similar to cypress mulch, but it’s made from coconut fibers instead of wood. It’s also dark brown in color and holds onto a lot of humidity.
Depending on the brand, you can purchase different “grades” from coarse to fine. Some forms of coconut bedding come as compressed “bricks” which you need to add moisture to and let them expand. A common choice for snakes is Zoo Med Eco Earth brand, which is available online.
Like cypress mulch, coconut husk is great for burrowing and easy to spot clean. However, keep an eye on the humidity, as it can easily exceed the recommended levels. You can buy coconut husk substate on Amazon by clicking on this link.
4) Fir Bark
Another popular choice, fir bark is sold under the brand name Repti Bark among others. It’s another great choice for burrowing snakes such as garters and tends to look the most natural out of all the substrate choices.
Fir bark usually provides adequate humidity for garter snakes, without being excessive. Although the humidity usually rises in the first few days of using this substrate, it dries out quickly enough. Fir bark can sometimes be quite expensive compared to choices such as aspen.
Newspaper is one of the most popular choices of snake bedding, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s extremely cheap (if not completely free), and widely available.
Though it looks a bit plain and may not be aesthetically pleasing, a few layers of newspaper at the bottom of the tank will suit most kinds of snake.
Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks. Garter snakes love to burrow in their substrate, which they cannot do with a few layers of newspaper.
It’s possible to use shredded newspaper, but it’s not very absorbent and so will not hold on to smells. Garter snakes also defecate very regularly, so it will need to be replaced very often.
6) Paper Bedding
Paper pellet bedding is a step up from newspaper. It’s usually sold as bedding for rats or other small mammals but works well for snakes.
It’s absorbent and easy to clean – simply use a scoop to remove any soiled bedding along with feces or urates. As a plus, garter snakes are able to burrow in it, if you use a thick enough layer.
The main downsides to paper bedding are its appearance and price. Paper pellets can look “unnatural”, so may not match the aesthetic that you want in your vivarium. It’s usually sold under a brand name such as Carefresh and can be on the expensive side.
Which Substrates Should I Avoid?
Now that you know which substrates we would recommend, let’s go over the list of substrates to avoid. There are some materials which you should never allow in your garter snake’s vivarium, as they pose safety concerns or health risks.
1) Pine and Cedar
Pine, cedar and other aromatic woods contain oils, which can be dangerous for snakes. The oils give off fumes which can be very irritating to snakes’ respiratory tracts. Pine bedding for snakes can cause respiratory infections, trouble breathing, and even death.
Sand is another substrate which we would never recommend for snakes. While it looks attractive and “natural”, sand can be dangerous. It can get stuck underneath your snake’s scales, and become stuck to prey items which your snake then ingests. This can lead to intestinal impactions, which can be fatal.
Because soil is so fine, it poses a similar risk of impaction as sand. Not only that but as the soil is made from organic matter, it traps moisture and harbors bacteria easily. It is incredibly difficult to keep clean. Soil can also contain mites which can transfer to your snake.
We would never recommend gravel for snakes, for the simple reason that it is completely unabsorbent. Because the particles are very large, urine and water simply drain to the bottom, creating a moist environment which can harbor bacteria.
It is difficult to keep clean and can result in your snake developing scale rot or infections. A particularly nasty case of a boa constrictor with scale rot is outlined in a study by the Veterinary Medicine journal.
A clay-based substrate, such as cat litter, is also unsuitable for snakes. This is because snakes can inhale the fine particles, leading to respiratory trouble. It affects them in the same way as aromatic woods, such as pine.
Where Can I Get Snake Bedding?
Once you’ve decided on which substrate you’d like to use, where do you buy it from?
If you’re using newspaper, any type is fine. There is some debate over whether newspaper ink is bad for snakes, but it’s generally thought not to cause any harm. If you are concerned, you can purchase an unprinted newspaper and plain packing paper online.
Generally speaking, any good pet store should sell aspen shavings and paper bedding such as Carefresh. You might have to look in the section for hamsters and rats in order to find it. Just be sure not to pick up pine bedding by mistake.
Some retailers also stock cypress and Repti Bark, but not all of them. You can always purchase snake bedding online. Amazon.com, for example, sells all different kinds of snake-suitable substrate. Specialist online reptile shops can also be a good resource.
How to Make Snake Bedding at Home
There’s no doubt about it: reptile bedding is not always cheap. Name brand bedding (such as Carefresh and Repti Bark) can be particularly expensive. While a bag of bedding will not bankrupt you, the cost can quickly add up, especially if you own multiple snakes.
If you can’t justify the cost of store-bought bedding, why not make your own? A home-made paper substrate can be a great alternative snake bedding for garter snakes.
- Source your paper. You can use unprinted newspaper, plain white paper, or unused brown paper bags.
- Cut the paper into strips, and soak it in a bowl of water.
- After soaking for five minutes, tear the paper into small pieces in the bowl of water. At this point, it will look like a pulpy mess, but this is correct.
- Use a colander to drain all of the water out.
- Squeeze the pulp into small balls, and leave them out to dry. They’ll take a few days to dry but will dry more quickly if left in a sunny place.
- Once the paper balls are dry, use your fingers to break them apart into small chunks. It will now resemble shop-bought paper pulp bedding. Be sure that the paper is completely dry before using it in your snake’s enclosure.
To save time, some snake owners prefer to simply use a paper shredder to make their own bedding. While this can work in a pinch, shredded paper is not particularly absorbent, and can start to smell much more quickly than home-made pulp bedding.
How Deep Should Snake Bedding Be?
Garter snakes love to burrow. They do this because, in the wild, burrowing aids them in searching for their prey. Wild garters love to eat earthworms, which can be found in the soil, as well as frogs and toads. Not to mention, borrowing is a great strategy for escaping predators.
According to the American Naturalist, it also helps garter snakes to regulate their body temperature. Garter snakes have this trait in common with many other pet snakes such as hognose snakes, gopher snakes, and corn snakes.
For burrowing snakes, we would always recommend using at least a two-inch thick layer of loose substrate. If the layer is any thinner, they won’t be able to burrow properly. Our favorite bedding to use for burrowing snakes is aspen, as it’s loose enough to burrow into but still holds the shape of the “tunnels”.
Some types of snake – ball pythons and boa constrictors, for example – do not tend to burrow in their bedding. For these snakes, a one-inch thick layer of substrate is acceptable. You can even use flat sheets of newspaper, or reptile carpeting if you prefer.
How Often Should You Change Snake Bedding?
So, by now, you should have a good idea of which bedding you’d like to use for your snake. If you have a garter snake, we would ultimately recommend aspen shavings or paper-based bedding (either store-bought or homemade).
This will give them the opportunity to burrow, without the humidity rising too much, as both aspen and paper are quite dry. Just be sure to place your snake into a separate container when feeding.
But how often should you change the substrate? This will all depend on how messy your snake is. As a general rule, we recommend discarding and replacing all substrate at least once a month.
If you use paper, you’ll need to replace it more often, as aspen is better at containing odors and absorbing moisture. Use this opportunity to clean your snake’s vivarium and accessories, too.
As well as the monthly substrate change, you should also spot-remove any soiled bedding as and when you see it.
When your snake defecates, urinates or tips his water bowl over, remove the waste along with any bedding that it has touched. Garters defecate relatively frequently (multiple times a week), so be prepared to spot-check daily.