Before acquiring any new pet it is prudent to have their habitat set up properly so that they can settle in quickly into their new home and feel safe and comfortable. Chameleons have a reputation for being very difficult reptiles to keep, but their needs can be easily met by just providing a few specific things in their environment. There is no single right way to set up an enclosure but there are a few basics that must be met - how this is accomplished can vary depending on materials, personal preference, cage size, the specific animal, etc.
Note: I highly recommend automizing your set-up as much as possible. Connecting the lights to a timer is not just convenient for you as the owner, but it provides the chameleon with a stable, predictable night and day period. Routine is often good for animals. You can also find automated misting systems with timers, and while these are optional, having the water on a timer is also good for both owner and pet. Also, having as much as possible on timers allows you to leave for the weekend without worrying about having someone to turn lights on/off and provide water.
There are many options available on the market that are suitable cages for chameleons. These include:
- Screen cages
- Glass terrariums/vivariums (not to be confused with aquariums)
- Glass/Acrylic and screen combos
The style of cage will depend on your climate and personal preference. Glass retains moisture and heat better than screen, so for homes in cold, dry climates a glass vivarium like this may be better. Where as a screen cage in a hot, humid home will provide better air circulation and not get at warm and stagnant. Only you can determine which style will work best for your specific situation.
The enclosure size will depend on the species of the chameleon and their size/age. But these types of cages are commonly available in many sizes, from hatchling to adult. For most chameleons it is encouraged to get two cages when acquiring a chameleon of about 2-4 months old - one smaller cage while the chameleon is young and then upgrade to the full-sized adult cage when the chameleon is about 6-8 months old. This helps them gain experience hunting in a smaller space and allows the keeper to monitor food uptake more closely. However, chameleons can also go directly into an adult cage as long as the keeper keeps a closer eye on how they are eating and drinking.
As an alternative to buying a cage, any handy keeper can build their own cage out of whatever pet-safe materials they choose. This allows the keeper to customize the cage to meet their preferences and needs and can be a great option.
A. Lighting: As reptiles, chameleons are exothermic and depend on outside heat to be active, have healthy immune systems, and digest their food. They need a basking bulb and a UVB bulb. The basking bulb will provide a hot spot that the chameleon can bask in to warm up. The wattage of the bulb will depend on the specific temperatures the species needs, but for example, a 60w bulb will give me roughly 80-83F temps.
The UVB bulb provides artificial sunlight, allowing the chameleon to synthesize vitamin D3 in their skin, which is essential for calcium absorption in their bones. Usually, a Reptisun 5.0 UVB light is recommended, but there are many brands that are as good or better.
B. Misting System: While optional, I highly recommend an automated misting system like Mistking or Aquazamp. This allows me to provide water at a set routine every day, whether I am home or not. And it allows the chameleons to drink without me hovering in front of the cage holding a water sprayer. Whether or not an automated system is used, access to plenty of water throughout the day is essential.
C. Basking Spot: Chameleons should have an area where they have the best access to the basking bulb. This can be a few branches or the top of a plant, but it should be located at a safe distance from the bulb itself so the chameleon does not burn themselves by accident. I prefer branches, but some chameleons will not bask on an exposed branch and will prefer a leafy plant to hide in and feel safe.
D. Branches/Vines: Adding branches or vines to a cage will provide walkways and pathways for the chameleon to get around the cage. If not enough of these are available they may resort to climbing the screen sides, which can rip out nails on an adult animal. I believe it is important to provide these, even if there are plenty of plants, because they are usually sturdier than plants and chameleons like the stability.
F. Drainage: This will depend heavily on the type of enclosure you keep. I have screen cages with bare bottoms for the purpose of cleaning, so I have drilled a few small holes in the PVC bottom to drain away water from the misting system into a bucket under the shelf holding the cages. If you have a glass vivarium with plants in soil, this may need a different strategy which will be better explained by someone more experienced with naturalistically planted vivariums, but a layer of clay balls under the soil may be needed to drain the water away from the soil and keep the roots from drowning. Drainage holes can also be drilled professionally into the bottom of glass terrariums so the water can be drained into a bucket, for example. You may not need to mist enough to need drainage in glass cages, but if you do, try to avoid stagnant water pooling at the bottom at all costs.
These are the essentials of a proper chameleon cage. If all of these are met, then chameleon keeping automatically becomes easier. If the environment meets the chameleon's needs properly they are more likely to thrive long-term. The rest comes down mainly to proper diet, which will be covered in a separate blog.
Above are two examples of small chameleon cages (36" x 18" x 18") using natural branches and small plants for baby chameleons. There is enough cover to hide in and plant surface to drink from but there is still enough open space for the chameleon to hunt down its food effectively.
Above are two large screen cages (48" x 24" x 24") for a pair of panther chameleons. For the female, on the right-hand cage, there is enough open space on the floor of her cage for me to add a laying bin when she needs it.
|Another view of one of the cage above. The branches extended nearly to the floor but nothing touches the floor.|
This makes cleaning extremely quick and easy, and means that there is never stagnant or dirty water hiding behind
a plant pot or two.