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Iguana Substrates

How To Properly Utilize Substrates In Your Iguana Enclosure

Choosing The Proper Substrate

Choosing the proper substrate for your iguana’s enclosure is one of the most important decisions you will make. There is a long-standing debate over the possible risks associated with specific substrates. We hope our information here will assist you in making an informed and safe decision.

The overwhelming inclination is to use a natural looking and aesthetically pleasing substrate. We all want to provide the best possible environment for our iguanas in terms of a naturally appealing, pleasing looking and comfortable substrates. So let’s look at the possible solutions to this dilemma.

All substrates can be placed into two categories, non-particulate (solid) and particulate (loose).

Particulate (Loose) Substrates - Iguana Substrates

Particulate substrates are those most frequently found in pet stores. These include:

  • Sand (Play Sand Or Calcium Carbonate Sand)
  • Gravel (Any Type)
  • Lizard Litter
  • Coconut Husk
  • Bark Chips

These substrates look great on the floor of the enclosure and provide a natural-looking environment for the iguana. They are all used in a similar fashion by scattering it at the bottom of the enclosure. However, these substrates are the exact ones that surround the safety debate.

Particulate substrates are made up of loose material, usually small in size. This type of substrate poses the greatest risk to your iguana in the form of impaction. Iguanas use their tongue to “taste” things, inadvertently picking up a piece of substrate here and there. This very typical behavior can lead to an impaction.

There are two types of impaction:

Acute impaction: The material lodges in the gut and prevents the flow of food and nutrients through the digestive system.
Chronic impaction: The material lodges in the gut, but allows food material restricted flow. This dangerous type of impaction builds up over time and eventually and slowly blocks the passage of food and nutrients.

Acute impactions cause an immediate health problem; the iguana continues to eat but stops defecating. The food material building up in front of the impacted gut, turns rancid and begins to leech into the blood stream through the wall of the digestive track, which many times may simply perforate or burst open. The introduced bad material into the blood stream will cause the iguana to turn septic, the body shuts down and the iguana will perish.

Acute impactions are correctable. This requires your skill in identifying the lack of defecation, an immediate visit to a qualified Herp Vet who will take x-ray views, identify the impaction site and then perform an expensive operation on the iguana to remove the impaction.

Chronic impactions are more dangerous. The signs that something is wrong are not immediately identifiable. The iguana continues to eat and defecate, but is suffering from a slow starvation as the quantity of food eaten is not being properly processed during digestion and the iguana is not getting the proper amounts of nutrients from the food. The impaction slowly grows and continues to block off the digestive track. By the time you realize that something is wrong, the iguana’s body has grown weak from a decreasing lack of necessary nutrition, and the impaction site has turned septic and may even be infected. Once again, you would rush the iguana to the vet for X-rays and surgery.

Chronic impactions, if caught in time and properly removed are correctable.

The debate surrounding the use of any particulate substrate rages on. Aside from the impaction hazard, there are also bacterial risks as soft particles retain moisture and become a breeding ground for mold and bacteria. In addition to this risk, wood can give off toxic gases when heated to the relatively high temperatures needed in the iguana’s enclosure. These substrates are also difficult to keep clean and sanitary.

Because of all these risks, we strongly advise against the use any particulate substrate for an iguana at any age.

Non-Particulate (Solid) Substrates - Iguana Substrates

Non-particulate or “solid” substrates are more frequently found in our everyday life. These substrates remove the risk of impaction by the fact that they are solid and cannot be eaten by the iguana.

Non-particulate substrates include:

  • Newspaper
  • Large Ceramic Tiles
  • Sheet Flooring (Linoleum)
  • Paper Towels
  • Large River Stones
  • Reptile Carpeting (When Properly Installed)

These substrates may not have the visual appeal of the particulates, but they are safe, easy to clean and easy to maintain, and in some cases (i.e. newspaper and paper towels) more economical.

Printed newspaper is safe and adequate, but if you live near newspaper printing press, you can ask for “end rolls.” This is newspaper that has not been printed on. You may have to pay a few bucks for it, but it is well worth the effort. It is clean (ink-free), can easily be cut to the proper size, is easily disposed of and can be attractive in a very plain way.

Large Ceramic Tiles can be purchased economically as odd-lots. They can be permanently mounted to the floor of the enclosure (make sure you seal the grout lines) or simply placed over black plastic and fit tightly together. For daily cleaning, use a safe disinfectant like Clorhexidine Gluconate and wipe up the mess. Individual tiles can be removed for a more thorough cleaning. For monthly cleaning, remove all tiles, run through a dishwasher to sanitize them, replace the black plastic and re-lay the tiles.

Sheet flooring (commonly referred to as Linoleum®), can also be purchased economically in remnants and provides the cleanest, safest possible, most sanitary substrate. It is completely solid (be sure to caulk around the end seams) and is easily cleaned and sanitized. It is available in a wide range of colors, patterns and styles to suit your enclosure décor.

Paper Towels are the least attractive of the non-particulates, but offer the most convenience. Simply place a layer or two of paper towels in the “designated” pooping area. To clean, simply remove the soiled paper and replace it with fresh paper towels.

Large River Stones are more expensive but offer a wonderful, naturalistic look to the bottom of the enclosure. Used in a similar fashion to ceramic tiles, they are arranged in a tight formation over top of black plastic. They can be spot cleaned or completely removed and thoroughly cleaned. This is a wonderful alternative when the most naturalistic aesthetic is desirable.

Reptile Carpeting (or indoor/outdoor carpeting) also has a nice eye-appeal. It can get rather expensive for large enclosures, but certainly looks more natural than newspaper or paper towels. Carpeting must be more thoroughly cleaned, as it can harbor nasty bacteria if not frequently sanitized, usually done by running it through the washing machine. If using carpeting be sure to take a few precautionary measures:
Buy two pieces, one to be in place and one to replace it as the first one is cleaned and dried. It can take days to dry out properly. Eliminate all loose threads at the end by either hemming the edge under or in the case of plastic carpeting, sealing the edge with a flame. Carpet fibers and plastic pieces pose the same impaction hazards as particulate substrates if not properly prepared up front.

Because of the minimized and sometimes eliminated risk of impaction, mold and bacteria growth, we recommend only non-particulate (solid) substrates for your iguana’s enclosure.

Whichever substrate you choose, be sure it adds to the iguanas environment in a safe and convenient manner. It’s very important to your iguana’s overall health!


Author: Dominick Giorgianni