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This book is packed with easy-to-understand information on selecting and setting up a habitat, feeding, breeding, and all other aspects of proper leopard gecko care.

What Is Bioactive Substrate For Leopard Geckos? (Setup Guide)

Should you use bioactive substrate in a leopard gecko’s enclosure?

Are there any benefits to using a bioactive substrate?

Keeping a well-maintained habitat is vital for keeping leopard geckos healthy and happy.

With so many bedding options, it’s challenging to know which one is best for your leopard gecko.

In this article, we will explore bioactive substrate and detail what it is, how it works, and what kinds of benefits it offers your gecko, as well as which type of loose substrate mix to avoid.

leopard gecko bioactive substrate

What Is Bioactive Substrate For Leopard Geckos?

A bioactive substrate mix consists of soil, sand, and mulch that provides an environment closer to a leopard gecko’s natural habitat. Bioactive substrates support microfauna, which helps naturally clean the enclosure, and layering this loose substrate can even support plant life.

Bioactive substrates allow your leopard gecko to explore different smells and textures to give them a more realistic experience versus other types of substrates such as sand or newspaper.

A bioactive substrate makes it easier to keep your leopard gecko’s habitat clean and well-maintained.

How Does a Bioactive Substrate Work?

A bioactive substrate starts with a drainage layer composed of smooth rocks to ensure the soil layer above can maintain proper moisture without being too saturated.

bioactive substrate soil layer

The soil layer, composed of a mixture of soil, sand, leaf litter, and mulch, creates an environment where microfauna and plants can survive. 

This loose substrate layer also has a role in keeping humidity levels normalized in the enclosure, and it gives your leopard gecko an excellent surface for walking and digging.

add sand to soil mixture

Optionally, add a layer of mesh underneath the soil layer to keep it from settling into the drainage layer, but this is not necessary.

This soil mixture may be mixed by hand according to your leopard gecko’s needs, or purchase a pre-mixed soil already with the proper ratios of soil, sand, and mulch specific to your gecko.

mix substrate by hand

Terra Sahara is an excellent bioactive substrate formulated for leopard geckos, and it maintains proper humidity in the enclosure without the need for a drainage layer.

The Bio Dude Terra Sahara Bioactive Reptile Substrate 6 quarts for terrariums and vivariums
  • DESERT PLANTS THRIVE: Proven for years to accommodate a huge variety of plants from succulents to cacti.
  • DOESNT RAISE HUMIDITY: Keeps your desert environment perfect, while maintaining proper water balance in the middle and bottom layers.
  • BIO-BALANCED: Each of the multiple ingredients in this precise mix support a balanced ecosystem and can last the life of the animal.
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The soil mixture should be between 4-8″ inches (20 cm) deep to allow your gecko to dig and create burrows to hide in. 

This depth also allows proper aeration to allow your gecko to stay properly hydrated and breathe fresh air.

Next, microfauna, known as “tank custodians,” is added to the loose substrate. 

add microfauna to the substrate

These tank custodians are vital to breaking down waste and keeping the enclosure clean. 

They are also great at keeping parasites at bay and creating an overall healthier environment for your leopard gecko to thrive.

Some common tank custodians include isopods, springtails, and earthworms. 

It is best to purchase your microfauna rather than just going out to your garden and grabbing a handful of bugs. 

This is to avoid possible contamination from pesticides and parasites.

It is also wise to make sure your microfauna is compatible with living in the same space to reduce the chances one species will eliminate another species.

Microfauna makes your job as a pet owner much easier by allowing you to go longer between tank cleanings. 

Even though they feed on feces, decaying plant matter, and shedded reptile skin, microfauna does not eliminate the job of cleaning for you altogether. 

You will still have to remove any waste they can’t manage to devour.

Adding live plants to the loose substrate gives your leopard gecko several unique benefits.

Plants will give your gecko a place to hide, helping it feel more secure, in addition to adequate ventilation of fresh air in the enclosure.

Suitable plants for your leopard gecko’s enclosure include aloes, small succulents, snake plants, and air plants. 

Avoid overcrowding the tank to allow your gecko plenty of room to move around and explore comfortably.

Regularly monitoring your bioactive enclosure’s humidity and temperature ensures the environment is suitable for keeping your leopard gecko healthy.

add live plants to the tank

What Are the Benefits of a Bioactive Substrate?

Besides making the enclosure easier to maintain, a bioactive substrate mimics your leopard gecko’s natural environment.

Having a bioactive enclosure setup gives your active gecko more places to explore and hide, which enriches your leopard gecko’s life and keeps it from getting bored.

A bioactive substrate also gives your gecko room to dig and burrow, much as it would do in the wild.

Bioactive enclosures are relatively easy to maintain compared to a modern setup and are easily customizable according to your leopard gecko’s needs.

And speaking of enrichment, we have a post on enrichment ideas for leopard geckos if you’re looking for some ways beyond bioactive substrate to keep your pet entertained.

What Are the Cons of a Bioactive Substrate?

While having a bioactive substrate reduces the overall maintenance of your leopard gecko’s enclosure, it is more challenging to ensure all of the waste is removed because it is more difficult to see.

Having more items in the enclosure means more crevices and small areas to collect dirt and waste.

Initial setup using bioactive substrate is also more time-consuming than a simple, modern setup. 

You will need to allow the environment to cycle, which refers to the nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen cycle, sometimes for up to a month.

You need this process to occur before introducing your leopard gecko into the enclosure. 

This cycle ensures the proper nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen ratio in the tank’s atmosphere.

This time is also needed to allow the tank custodians to acclimate to their new home and begin breeding. 

It is also essential to ensure the enclosure reaches proper temperature and humidity levels.

There is also the worry your leopard gecko will accidentally ingest some of the bioactive substrates, causing the gecko to become impacted, meaning it cannot defecate.

You should not contain sick leopard geckos in a bioactive environment until they are healthy, so this is another thing to consider before switching your gecko to a bioactive substrate setup.

What is Essential for a Bioactive Substrate to Work Properly?

Understanding your leopard gecko’s needs, such as environment and diet, is essential to a proper bioactive substrate setup. 

Choosing the proper bioactive substrate for your leopard gecko is the most critical step, as this will be the basis for the entire bioactive setup.

If you decide to add live plants to your gecko’s enclosure, it is important to choose plants that don’t cause high humidity levels. 

Check out the plants we like in our post on the best plants for leopard gecko terrariums.

You will need to invest in a good hygrometer to ensure your bioactive enclosure’s humidity level is appropriate for your gecko.

Since a leopard gecko’s natural environment is in the desert, the optimal humidity level should be 30%-40%.

A good thermometer is also an important investment to ensure your gecko’s enclosure does not become too cold. 

The ideal ambient temperature in your leopard gecko’s enclosure should be in the range of 80-85° degrees Fahrenheit (29° C).

You should also provide a cooler area at night with an air temperature between 75-80° degrees Fahrenheit (27° C)and a warmer basking area during the day with a temperature between 90-95° degrees Fahrenheit (32° C).

thermometer in leopard gecko tank

You have the option of mixing your bioactive substrate, but buying a pre-mixed substrate tailored explicitly to your leopard gecko’s needs is the better choice, especially when it comes to regulating the humidity levels in the enclosure.

Every item you add to your gecko’s bioactive enclosure, including the substrate, plants, and tank custodians, depends on each other to thrive and maintain a balanced environment. 

You should take extra care to ensure each of these components is compatible with one another, so be sure to do your research when building a suitable bioactive enclosure for your leopard gecko.

What Types of Substrates Should You Avoid With Leopard Geckos?

There are some types of substrates you should always avoid placing in your leopard gecko’s enclosure due to various concerns.

Coconut fiber has good qualities, but it is not a good choice for a leopard gecko substrate because it can become dry enough to produce tiny dust particles harmful to your gecko’s respiratory system.

You should avoid wood chips and shavings because the sharp edges could cause injury to your leopard gecko

This substrate type may also hold too much moisture, making it susceptible to mold and mildew, which is unhealthy for your gecko.

You should also avoid walnut shells due to their sharp edges causing puncture injuries, and the tiny particles may get stuck to feeder insects, causing impaction in your leopard gecko if ingested.

You should avoid moss because, much like coconut fiber, while it does have good qualities, it may be digested by your leopard gecko and cause severe impaction, which is very dangerous.

If you’re ever concerned about impaction, we highly recommend reading our article on the causes and treatment for impaction in leopard geckos.

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Final Thoughts

With proper research and planning, bioactive substrates may be a wonderful addition to your leopard gecko’s enclosure.

Bioactive substrates will provide a more natural and comfortable environment for your gecko, and due to their self-sufficient nature, they require very little maintenance.

Allowing your bioactive enclosure to settle and go through the proper cycles will ensure your environment is the appropriate temperature and humidity to accommodate your gecko.

The proper bioactive substrate will allow your leopard gecko to explore and burrow, keeping your gecko happy and healthy.

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