This is probably the most controversial topic in the beardie world (and many other reptiles). People believe that since they are found in a desert that means their whole tank should be full of deep sand or sand-like substrate. The old way of thinking is that when beardies eat the sand, it somehow helps them digest food. There are many reasons why loose-substrates are dangerous, expensive and unsanitary.
*** For this page, I will be using the word SAND to define any loose-substrate that resembles sand, which includes: walnut sand, calcium/vita sand, excavator sand and reptile sand ***
Reason #1: IMPACTION
This is the biggest reason why VBR is against sand and wood chips. This is a common occurrence with captive reptiles. Impaction is when sand or certain foods cause the beardie to be essentially severely constipated and blocked up. Impaction can occur from beardies licking or eating the substrate. This CANNOT be prevented by feeding them in a bowl or outside of the enclosure. Beardies lick to explore their surroundings and smell, so no matter how much you try they will lick and ingest the sand or actually swallow full wood chips which can injure them internally.
Reason #2: INFECTIONS
Sand and wood chips harbour bacteria from feces/urates and even from their food. Sand has also been linked to yellow fungus disease, a fatal flesh-eating fungus. If a beardie has a cut or any kind of injury, sand has been known to cause infections from getting into the wounds. Sand and wood chips can also cause serious eye infections, this can happen from dust or the actual substrates getting into their eyes.
Reason #3: UNCLEAN
Sand and wood chips cannot be properly cleaned. Even if the feces is removed, bacteria begins to spread throughout the substrate and needs to be replaced. This is the equivalent to making a cat live directly in their kitty litter and not being allowed to get away from it.
Reason #4: NOT NATURAL
Believe it or not, sand is not natural for beardies. The Australian desert is primarily hard compacted clay, rocks and trees/shrubs. People often forget that beardies are semi-tree dwellers and spend most of their time in a tree or perched on a rock or log. They do not come into contact with that much dirt/sand as it would be dangerous to spend too much time in the open. The sand and substrates sold at pet stores are often not natural sand to begin with. Calcium sand, for example, is a fortified substance that almost turns into concrete when wet.
Walnut sand which is made of crushed walnut shells is a common substrate, yet is not something most animals would come into contact with or even think to ingest. Walnut sand has even been known to cut the insides of beardies stomachs.
Reason #5: EXPENSIVE
Using sand or wood chips is not cheap, surprisingly. The substrates all have to be replaced at least monthly, often needing more than one bag to fill up an enclosure. One bag of vitasand costs about $19, so if you buy at least one bag a month that can equal up to $230 a year. Tiles, our favourite 'substrate' is often already in people's homes, even if bought from a hardware store, it would only be a onetime cost and will last virtually forever.
What options are available other than loose substrate?
Tiles (recommended), slate tiles/flat stones, reptile carpet, reptile grass, papertowel, newspaper, sand mats, shelf liners and even blankets. The possibilities are endless when it comes to decorating with non-loose substrates.