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June 12, 2018

A few months back, we took a deep look at substrates: the material placed in the bottom of a reptile’s enclosure, which serves as both flooring and bedding for your reptiles. And while we covered a number of the varieties of substrate, as well as the benefits and drawbacks thereof, we received a great deal of feedback from our various contacts within the pet supply industry, each chiming in with some constructive tips on how to properly choose substrate for both your store and for your customers.

Ryan McVeigh, marketing brand manager with Zilla, was quick to make note of the numerous varieties in substrate currently being sold within Zilla’s product line.

“Keeping a variety of substrates is key to allowing your customers to provide the best possible habitat they can,” he said.

McVeigh goes on to discuss Zilla’s numerous varieties of substrate, including:

• Reptile Bedding and Litter: an alfalfa based pellet that works best for arid tortoise species and other arid species.

• Terrarium Moss: a substrate made of beaked moss used to help increase humidity in the environments of tropical species, as well as providing humidity to humid hides.

• Bark Blend: a bark-based substrate that works great for snakes, blue tongue skinks, leopard geckos and any animal that likes to burrow and enjoys a temperate environment. Bark Blend also holds humidity well when sprayed and can increase the environment when an animal is shedding.

• Jungle Mix: a combination of sphagnum moss with fir shavings, designed specifically for tropical species and for use as live substrate in vivariums.

• Snake and Lizard Litter: litter made  from heat treated aspen chips and is widely used by snake keepers, as it works great with corn snakes and ball pythons.

• Coconut Husk Brick: a compacted brick of ground coconut husk which expands when water is added to it. This substrate works great for any tropical species.

“As we learn more about where these animals come from and how they live, substrates are changing to better help consumers recreate those environments,” McVeigh noted.

At the end of the day, we all want to provide a habitat as close to that as our reptiles would find in nature, making them feel right at home no matter where their habitat may actually be.

In addition to the more frequently found varieties of substrate, Steven Tufenkian, sales manager at Galapagos Reptile Gear, also offered a unique alternative: Galapagos’ series of Crashpads. These “crashpads” serve as terrarium liners and come in a number of varieties, catering to specific species and habitat needs. They provide “a naturalistic look without the risk of impaction.” The company’s “Mossy” Crashpad provides additional humidity for crested geckos, chameleons and water dragons, while its Coco Fiber Crashpads are best suited for bearded dragons, leopard geckos, and assorted invertebrates.

Brian Barczyk of Reptile Prime was also quick to chime in with some additional feedback. One such piece of information was his recommendation of looking to “bio-active” substrates.

“Bio-active substrates are a huge up- and-coming part of keeping reptiles and amphibians and will be a major player as more naturalistic enclosures become popular,” Barczyk said. “Reptile Prime is putting a lot of energy into developing the best option for these bio-active substrates.”

Bio-active substrates, while often more expensive to purchase, intend to replicate the most natural environment possible for your reptiles. As such, these substrates include all-natural materials, as well as microbes, isopods, mites, and even small insects within the substrate itself, effectively creating a mini-ecosystem within a given habitat. The inherent premise is that fecal matter, uneaten food items and other detritus will naturally break down thanks to the actions of the aforementioned microbes and insects. While bio-active substrates may be slightly more expensive, they can prove to be easier for a reptile owner to manage, as the cage effectively cleans itself, requiring only spot cleaning throughout the lifespan of the substrate.

Barczyk also touched upon the differences between choosing substrates as a commercial entity (i.e., for your store), as opposed to choosing them as a personal consumer.

“Commercial reptile and amphibian facilities operate on what is the easiest and safest for the upkeep for the species being bred,” he said. “So, oftentimes, breeding facilities use minimalistic set-ups for ease of care. For the consumer, they trend towards more naturalistic enclosures, so they can enjoy not only the pet, but the environment they’ve set up for that pet.”

Tufenkian also had much to add in this regard: “Specialty mixtures and soils are becoming more common and will continue to evolve for certain animal and plant species. However, for most reptile owners, the main priority is ensuring that the substrates are cleaned and problem-free.”

If a customer can opt for a low-maintenance, low-time-investment option that’s healthier for their reptile, they’ll surely go for that option every time.

However, much as I have advocated pet stores to invest more resources into their displays, Barczyk agrees that, “as the  market trends in this direction, bedding options that lean towards natural-looking substrate are becoming higher in demand.”

Much as I have said in the past, if your customers see a given product in use within your own store, they become that much more likely to use that product within their own homes. Tufenkian also spoke to this point.

“Choosing the appropriate substrate for pet store displays is vital, as new pet owners try to replicate what is shown,” he said. “Always make sure that you pass down correct information and care in providing the best possible environment.”

While it may cost you, as a store owner, more to supply your displays with high-quality substrate, it becomes all the more likely that your customers will purchase that same substrate, making back your investment multiple times over.

“The interesting thing about substrates is that there are so many options to consider,” Barczyk said. “Whether you want the most effective choice for keeping and cleaning or if you’re looking for the most natural-looking option, there are choices available for each and every species. As long as you choose one that meets the requirements for your pet, they can all be effective.”

At the end of the day, do what works best for both your store and your customers; just don’t be afraid to show off the best possible display you can!

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