The truth about sand

So, this one’s been on my mind lately. I thought I’d dispel some myths about sand substrates for reptiles, as usually this question comes up at some point in a reptile discussion.

Now, some quick googling will net you tons of hits on “sand kills!” “don’t use sand” and such. Unfortunately, this is not the whole story.

The main concern with any particulate substrate is impaction, an ubstruction in the intestinal tract that can may need surgical intervention, or if left untreated can cause the death of the herp. This concerns reptile keepers who feed in their main habitat (mostly dealing with lizards and amphibs, but sometimes snakes too, though it is recommended never to feed your snake in it’s habitat) because of the way many reptiles and amphibs (reffered here after as “herps”) do a nose dive into the ground to catch their prey. The fear is that the herp will ingest too much of the substrate (especially over a lifetime) and become impacted with it. Now, certainly this CAN happen, as there are documented cases of it, but there’s reasons why.

Speaking specifically to cali-sands, the latest veterinary reports on this is that healthy herps will not ingest enough of this substrate to become impacted unless they are not being provided with enough calcium suplimentation, thus leading them to seek out calcium by ingesting the only available source; the substrate, which contains only minimal amounts of calcium so larger amounts must be ingested. If proper supplementation is provided, the herp will not ingest enough of the substrate to become impacted.

The other issue is hydration. Improperly hydrated herps have a greater chance of becoming impacted, regardless of the substrate. Most vets cannot give any instances of helthy, properly hydrated, and properly supplemented herps becoming impacted. Most breeders will give the same results. Now, this doesn’t mean that the odd animal here and there CAN’T become impacted, but vets suspect this may be due more to a syndrome similar to Pica than to accidental over-ingestion.

All this being said, the question then remains: If you want to avoid substrate ingestion by properly hydrating and supplementing your herp pets, then why purchase a substrate with added calcium at all? And that’s the real issue for the most part. Using washed play sand (which has smoother grains than calci- sand anyhow) will provide the same advantages but without the calcium added. This not only is much less expensive, but for the most part eliminates the temptation by an under-supplemented herp to ingest copious amounts of it.

I believe though, that as we see less cali-sand being used, we will see more instances of MBD (metabolic bone disease) as this problem kills less quickly than impaction, and presents less acutely, sometimes outwardly asymptomatic for years. Calci-sand is not a fix for poor supplementation. Nor is it the evil killer the internet may make it out to be. All in all, it’s just pretty much useless and a waste of money. But “serial killer” as I’ve seen it called, it is not.

Another point I wanted to make is that anyone looking into sand as a substrate should heavily research the species of herp they are keeping to see if loose sand is even what the animal is found on in the wild. Many desert species are not dune dwelling, but reside on hard packed sand and clay-soil and rocks, not loose sand. A mixture of packed sand, dirt (you CAN use dirt from your backyard as it’s actually reletively clean, or coconut fiber products such as bed-a-beast, eco-earth etc) and rocks would be more appropriate for these species and allow them to express more natural behaviors than on an un-natural loose sand substrate. Care should also be taken to provide a humid-hide or shed box for desert dwelling species as this not only helps them shed, but helps in their hydration. Water should always be available to herps at all times in a form that they will accept. Some herps will not drink standing water and will need misting or a bubbler in their water to see the water as drinkable.

In conclusion, don’t buy into the hype, weather it be from the companies selling substrate or from forums touting x-rays of impacted reptiles and claiming you’ll kill your pet if you don’t get it off the sand. Research your species before purchase and make an appropriate decision on substrate based on the needs of the herp.