Does the bedding that I use in my pet’s cage really matter? I have a guinea pig and a bearded dragon.
The decision of which substrate (ground cover or “bedding”) to use seems very basic, yet the ramifications of making a poor selection can be serious. The quick answer to your question is: use something that is absorbent, non-aromatic, easy to clean, non-toxic, cost-effective, and hygienic. My preferences in order from best to worst are: (1) compressed newspaper pellets (for both of your pets); (2) shredded or un-shredded newspaper or paper towels (both pets); (3) “Care-fresh” type bedding (most small mammals); (4) aspen pine shavings (most small mammals); and (5) “astro-turf” type substrates (many reptiles).
Recycled compressed newspaper pellets (such as Yesterday’s News) are always my number one choice because they are among the most absorbent of any of the beddings, they are affordable, they are non-toxic if accidentally consumed, they do not promote fungal, bacterial, or parasitic infestation, they are easy to clean/replace, they are non-aromatic, and they are environmentally friendly.
I need to elaborate on this subject because there are many additional options offered for sale and regularly selected that make bad choices for your pet. When you consider the limited floor size of the average terrarium, the elimination habits of many small exotic pets, and the frequency with which the entire substrate is completely changed out and cage disinfected, you can easily end up with disaster when a poor substrate choice is made. Many of the options available provide fuel and enough moisture for bacteria and fungi to grow and a good place for parasite eggs to accumulate and survive. For example, food by-product particulates (corn cob hulls, crushed walnut shells, alfalfa pellets, hay, etc) and beddings often promote spot cleaning rather than entire substrate change-outs (sands, mulch, soils, etc) due to time and money constraints, which, in turn leads to bacteria and fungi growth. Another dangerous category of bedding is one that is commonly ingested, often leading to impactions (sands, cat litter, and aquarium gravels and stones). Aromatics such as cedar, red wood and some pines can damage the respiratory tract and promote airway infections and inflammation.
Ultimately, no matter what bedding is chosen it still needs to be cleaned out in its entirety on a very regular basis. Remember spot cleaning only removes the visible waste material. Fungi, bacteria, viruses, and parasite eggs are microscopic and can’t be effectively removed with spot cleaning. One final note- make the substrate span as large an area as possible (in other words, get big cage). Would you want to live, eat, and drink in close proximity to where you go to the bathroom?
If you have a veterinary question that you would like to propose for an upcoming edition, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org with “ask the vet” in the subject line.
Max Conn, DVM is the owner of Cat & Exotic Care of the CentralCoast, a full service veterinary hospital dedicated to the special needs of cats, birds, reptiles and small mammals. Cat & Exotic Care is located in PismoCoastPlaza, 565 Five Cities Drive, 805-773-0228. More information can be found at www.catandexoticcare.com.
Disclaimer: The informational handouts and website links above are for informational purposes only, they are not intended to replace veterinary care.