A substrate is a base on which your snake will live, so it is critical that you make an informed decision. A good substrate will retain moisture well, will not give off odor or toxic chemicals and will not be easily ingested by your snake.
Cypress mulch, aspen shavings, and coconut fiber are the better options for burrowing and non-burrowing snakes. They are good at holding humidity and controlling odor inside a snake’s cage, and don’t pose a risk for impaction. Newspaper and paper towels are free options, but they don’t have a high tolerance to moisture and aren’t suitable for snakes that like to burrow.
Note that not all substrates are safe for captive snakes. Sand is a popular choice among snake owners, but it can be easily ingested by your snake, resulting in impaction. You must also avoid using any substrate containing cedar or pine as it releases oils that can be extremely harmful to reptiles.
What’s the Best Bedding for Pet Snakes?
While choosing a substrate for your snake, it’s crucial to pay attention to how much moisture it holds, how easy it is to clean, whether it harbors bacteria easily, and how much it costs. A good substrate will not be physically or chemically hazardous to your snake.
1) Cypress Mulch
Snakes tend to enjoy cypress mulch because it is comfortable bedding that allows them to burrow freely. Cypress mulch looks good in a snake’s enclosure and has a pleasant, but not an overpowering woody smell.
Many snake owners like to use cypress mulch, such as the Zoo Med Forest Floor Bedding for its ability to hold moisture well and maintain humidity levels inside a cage.
Furthermore, you don’t have to remove all of the cypress mulch while cleaning your snake’s enclosure. Just scoop out the soiled mulch and replace it with a fresh batch. Cypress mulch is also a great substrate if you have live plants inside your vivarium.
One major issue associated with any wood-based mulch, such as cypress mulch, is mite infestation. If your cage does get infested with mites, it can be hard to eliminate them as they thrive in cypress.
Therefore, before using any mulch, always bake the substrate for half an hour before placing it in your snake’s enclosure. This will kill any insects or mites present in the chips.
2) Aspen Shavings
Aspen shavings are an excellent choice for smaller snakes that don’t require high humidity.
Commonly used for pocket pets, such as rats, mice, rabbits and guinea pigs, this type of bedding is perfect for burrowers as it allows snakes to dig around easily. The Zoo Med Aspen Snake Bedding is a popular choice on Amazon as it helps snake owners easily find and scoop out snake droppings.
Since aspen shavings are wood-based, they are also lightweight and naturally odor-controlling. However, note that too much moisture inside a cage can make the shavings moldy.
Therefore, aspen shavings are only recommended for snakes that don’t thrive in highly humid environments. Particles in this substrate are also very fine and can thus, get under a larger snake’s scales on its ventral (belly) surface, causing irritation.
Wood-based substrates such as aspen shavings and cypress mulch are best for arboreal (tree-climbing) snakes as they don’t spend much time on the ground.
Note that some companies also dye shavings to produce different attractive colors. They may also infuse the shavings with chlorophyll.
Wood shavings that have been artificially colored don’t increase the odor-controlling or moisture absorbency of the end product. Plus they may stain your snake scales, so it’s best to avoid natural substrates that have been artificially treated to enhance their appearance.
3) Coconut Fiber
Coconut fiber makes a soft and comfortable substrate bedding for snakes. Most people find that coconut fiber substrate is more suitable for smaller burrowing snakes than larger ones.
Like cypress mulch and aspen shavings, coconut fiber has odor-controlling properties that help keep your cage smelling fresh. It holds humidity well, but it can be kept dry for desert species.
Coconut fiber also helps break down waste and is easy to clean. You can scoop out the soiled fiber and replace it with fresh coconut fiber during cleaning without having to change all of the substrate when you’re doing your routine cage cleanup.
While looking for coconut fiber substrate, choose a product, such as the Reptile Prime Coconut Fiber Bedding Substrate, that doesn’t have any dust to prevent respiratory issues.
AstroTurf or artificial turf works similar to carpeting inside a snake’s enclosure.
Most snake owners will get at least 2 to 3 pieces of AstroTurf for their tank to place a fresh piece while the cage is being cleaned or the soiled piece is getting washed. Buy a large piece from a home improvement store and cut it up so that it fits into the enclosure.
AstroTurf is durable and easy to clean. It lasts a long time. However, its appearance does diminish due to repeated washings.
Artificial turf is a more visually appealing choice for most snake owners, and it’s more comfortable for a snake as it mimics real grass. However, snakes can’t burrow in AstroTurf, so it’s only ideal for non-burrowing snakes.
The only major drawback is that artificial turf tends to absorb odor from snake feces and urine. It may also trap dirt and bacteria in its fibers.
Therefore, you will have to wash it thoroughly to ensure it is odor-free and completely clean. Make sure the artificial turf is dry before placing it back into your snake’s enclosure.
Newspaper is a common choice for snake substrate because it’s easily available. Even though newspapers don’t aid in making your vivarium look better, they’re incredibly cheap and easy to replace.
Most of the time, newspapers can be obtained for free and can be changed easily when your snake soils them. Note that newspapers aren’t easy to burrow through, so this type of substrate is most suitable for snake species that don’t dig.
Although cheap, newspapers do come with their own set of shortcomings. One major issue with newspapers is that they have little tolerance for moisture.
Therefore, you’ll need to replace them instead of merely throwing out the soiled area. However, because they’re readily available, most snake owners feel like the pros outweigh the moisture issues associated with using paper.
Another concern many individuals have with newspaper is the possibility of the ink being toxic to snakes. Luckily, most newspapers today use organic pigments, similar to the inks and dyes used in cosmetics and tattoos.
6) Paper Towels
Paper towels are similar to newspaper regarding their absorbency and convenience. They can be removed when soiled and easily replaced with fresh paper towels.
Paper towels are not suitable for natural burrowers. However, you can shred paper to create fluffier bedding, which will be more suitable for snakes that enjoy burrowing. If you don’t have a burrowing snake, place a few layers of paper towels flat on the bottom of your snake’s enclosure.
It’s also important that you don’t use perfumed paper towels for your snake. Artificial fragrance in any substrate can lead to respiratory problems among snakes. Furthermore, just like newspapers, paper towels get wet easily so you’ll have to replace them regularly.
While paper towels and newspapers are highly absorbent, they don’t offer much odor control inside a snake’s enclosure. This again, increases the need for regular changing of the substrate.
However, when looking at the cost, availability, lack of potential ingestion, and ease of cleaning, most snake owners prefer paper towels and newspaper compared to other commercially-sold substrates. The only major downfall is they don’t offer any aesthetic appeal.
You’ll need at least two pieces of carpet that fit inside your cage so that you can leave one inside the enclosure, and the other as a backup when the first is being washed.
If you don’t have access to remnants, some stores will cut carpets to match your size requirements, and others offer pre-cut pieces for specific cage measurements.
Carpets are ideal for non-burrowing snakes, and there is no risk of ingestion. They are available in many colors. Carpets can also be washed and cleaned, helping you keep your tank sanitary.
Moreover, you can reuse them several times before purchasing a new pair. However, carpets are easily soiled so you will have to wash them often.
What Substrates Should Be Avoided?
If a substrate gives off odor, has been treated with toxic chemicals or causes a risk for ingestion or impaction, it’s probably not going to be good for your snake. The following are the worst substrates for pet snakes that are used by some snake owners and why you must avoid them.
Sand is readily available at pet stores in a variety of colors to match your decorative scheme.
However, even though sand is the most aesthetically pleasing substrate out there for snake owners, it isn’t the most recommended type. This is because snakes can burrow in sand, which can be an issue if your snake swallows it.
When ingested, sand can cause impaction in snakes. Also, it can get under a snake’s scales. Sand also gets soiled easily and has to be replaced completely while you clean out your snake’s enclosure.
It’s difficult to clean, doesn’t hold moisture well and does not have any odor-controlling properties. Therefore, for most hobbyists, the downfalls of using sand outweigh the visual appeal it offers.
2) Cat Litter
Several factors make cat litter unsafe for reptiles. One, cat litter is grainier than commercially sold snake bedding and can, therefore, cause a risk for impaction, especially while the snake burrows.
Furthermore, it is possible for the snake to ingest the cat litter while it eats. Since cat litter is absorbent, it can cause dehydration inside your snake’s system.
Cat litter also molds easily and has a lot of dust, which can cause respiratory issues in your pet. It’s also often treated with chemicals and has an artificial fragrance, which can result in irritation.
The fine particles in cat litter can also get trapped underneath your snake’s scales, resulting in bruises and sores.
3) Walnut Shell Bedding
Walnut shell beddings are made of finely ground walnut shells. They are easy to clean as your snake droppings can be easily be scooped out and thrown away. Moreover, walnut shell bedding doesn’t clump up in the same way as sand.
However, like sand, ground walnuts do pose a risk for impaction. They don’t hold moisture well and do not offer much odor control. Apart from them being natural, there’s not much that makes them an appealing choice for snake substrate.
Best Substrates for Snakes by Species
Different snakes have different substrate requirements. In general, you must avoid anything containing harmful chemicals or fragrances. Aromatic woods such as cedar and pine are also not suitable for captive snakes.
The following are some substrate suggestions based on the humidity and habitat requirements of common pet snakes.
Corn Snake Substrate
Corn snakes are terrestrial burrowers and highly skilled climbers. They’re typically found in overgrown fields, wooded groves, grasslands, tropical hammocks, palmetto flatwoods, Meadowlands, and pine forests.
Corn snakes prefer substrates that allow them to dig around. Most corn snake owners like using aspen shavings as a substrate for corn snakes because they’re highly absorbent, fluffy and can hold their shape while a snake burrows through them.
Cypress mulch is also a good choice as it holds moisture well and helps maintain optimum humidity levels inside a snake’s enclosure.
Cypress mulch and aspen shavings are also great odor-controlling substrates for corn snakes.
Reptile carpet and newspaper are easy options as well, but note that your corn snake will try to get under these. If you are using paper, try shredding it to pieces to create bedding that allows your snake to burrow. Sand is not recommended due to the risk for impactions when ingested.
Garter Snake Substrate
Garter snakes are normally found around water, such as lakes, rivers, streams, and marshes. They have high humidity requirements, especially when they’re shedding. However, a garter snake’s enclosure should never be damp as this can cause blistering on its ventral region.
Aspen shavings, cypress mulch, and coconut husk bedding make excellent substrates for garter snakes. While paper towels and newspapers laid out flat are decent choices for baby garter snakes, they aren’t suitable for adults.
This is because garter snakes have high metabolisms and require more absorbent substrates in their enclosure. They also like to burrow so be sure to fill the tank with 1 to 2 inches of substrate.
While the above substrates can help add some extra humidity inside a garter snake’s enclosure, you must also include a water dish that is large enough to allow your snake to submerge in it and provide enough humidity inside the cage.
Boa Constrictor Substrate
Boas are popular low-maintenance pets that can be kept on many different types of substrate. Newspaper, paper towels, butcher paper, carpeting and aspen shavings are typically used by boa constrictor breeders. You can use cypress mulch, but note that this isn’t a common choice.
Mulch and other wood-based substrates tend to absorb moisture well, but in the case of boa constrictors, you want to make sure they don’t get too damp as this could increase your pet’s risk of getting scale rot.
If you are using carpet or aspen shavings, make sure you spot clean regularly and do a complete change whenever needed. When using paper, you’ll have to replace the entire substrate every time you clean as paper does not have a high tolerance to moisture.
Ball Python Substrate
Ball pythons thrive in the warm, tropical regions of central and western Africa. The best and easiest substrates for ball pythons are newspapers and paper towels, as you can quickly discard them and clean your snake’s enclosure within minutes.
Cypress mulch is also a great choice, but they do tend to hold a lot of humidity, so be sure to keep moisture levels inside the enclosure in check. Too much moisture can be as big of an issue as too little moisture inside a ball python’s enclosure.
Kingsnakes thrive well in a variety of commercially sold substrates and are relatively easy to take care of. Cypress mulch and aspen shavings are excellent choices for kingsnakes as they keep the snake comfortable, while allowing it to dig around.
Newspaper, indoor carpets, and paper towels are acceptable options, but it helps to choose a substrate that will let your snake burrow.
It’s critical that you keep your king snake’s cage clean. Cleaning will involve a twice a week spot cleanup and an entire substrate change 6-7 times a year. Note that leaving dirty substrate unattended can cause bacteria to build up, increasing your snake’s risk of getting sick.
Just be sure to pick a product that doesn’t contain any dust or fine particles. As a general rule, if it doesn’t give off a strong smell and doesn’t pose a risk for impaction, it’s going to be safe for your kingsnake.
Does Damp Substrate Cause Health Issues for Snakes?
According to the University of Zurich, when a snake’s substrate is too damp, or the conditions inside its cage are too moist or unsanitary, it can increase its risk of scale rot. Scale rot is a bacterial infection that is common among captive reptiles.
However, when left untreated, scale rot can become deadly, according to a study published in the journal, Veterinary Dermatology. Scale rot occurs when snakes slither around in wet substrate or their excrement and end up coming down with a noticeable infection on their belly.
Scale rot will start with reddish-brown ulcerations or sores on your snake’s ventral region. Over time, these sores erode the scales, creating large unsightly blisters.
Therefore, whatever substrate you use, it is crucial that you check your snake’s body at least twice a week to ensure there aren’t any health issues. Snakes don’t often show signs of stress or disease, so a weekly inspection is required for their optimum health.
If you notice signs of scale rot before there is any blistering, the following at-home treatment measures can help:
- Setting the right temperature
- Getting the humidity right, for example, corn snakes prefer humidity levels between 30 to 50 percent and ball pythons, thrive in humidity levels between 50 to 60 percent
- Using a triple antibiotic ointment on your snake
- Giving your snake a 10% betadine solution bath
- Cleaning the tank thoroughly
If you notice any blisters forming, a trip to the vet will be necessary.
How to Keep Moisture Levels Optimized
You can measure the humidity inside your snake’s tank by using a hygrometer. Hygrometers are just like thermometers, except they don’t measure the temperature, but the moisture levels inside your snake’s enclosure.
Hygrometers are relatively inexpensive, but they’re invaluable while setting up a snake’s enclosure. A hygrometer can help you set up the ideal humidity level inside your snake’s enclosure as too much, or little moisture can be equally detrimental to your snake. You can secure a hygrometer inside your snake’s cage using a suction cup.