A Case for Environmental Enrichment in Reptiles

Saturday, March 5, 2016
This is the second in a multi-part opinion series on Ethical Reptile Keeping. The series seeks to urge keepers, new and old alike, to evaluate their own husbandry habits and to think about the impact their choices, from housing to breeding, have on their personal animals as well as on the herpetology hobby as a whole. While some aspects of reptile and amphibian keeping have evolved to focus on pushing and advancing husbandry techniques to ensure that a species thrives in captivity, others have become stuck in antiquated and short-sighted practices which do not promote progress. And certain species, particularly entry-level species, are suffering as a result. I wish to draw attention to these embarrassing aspects of the herp community and encourage people to take a look at how they can grow as hobbyists and keepers, push what we know about great husbandry together, and strive for excellence, personally and as a community.

To follow along the vein of ethical housing, I wanted to elaborate upon some points I made regarding enrichment and stimulation. In an act of cosmic coincidence, I came across this phenomenal blog post in my social media, which I fully recommend that everyone read carefully and which I will discuss a little bit here.

The blog is absolutely thorough in its references and detailed in its information. The case it makes is simple; more and more we are discovering that reptiles and amphibians are more intelligent than previously thought, and that they need enrichment like any other animal in order to stay healhty and sharp. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and we must be willing to provide for a pet's mental needs as well if we are going to keep animals in captivity.

I made the case in my last post about how keeping herps in minimalistic, isolated, and unstimulating housing is lazy and a poor way to keep them, and in this one I'm going to argue that it is harmful and unhealthy. To put an animal in a plastic tote with hardly any stimulation during the day/night is to condemn them to be perpetually bored and largely inactive, and this is why herp obesity is so rampant in the community. An animal that isn't provided with the opportunity to move about and get exercise is inevitably going to develop health issues over time. And these are such easy conditions to change, and they have such a powerful impact!

When setting up a cage (regardless of what animal we are housing, be it a chameleon or a bearded dragon) it is vital that we make use of all available space. An animal will only be able to utilize the parts of the cage you give it access to, so if the height of a cage isn't being taken advantage of then you are wasting that space and limiting their range. Think of the species you are keeping. Really think about it. Forget what you may have read online about how other people keep them, just for a second, and think about what your animal has evolved over thousands of years to do. Is it a burrowing species? Is it an arboreal climber? Is it perfectly camouflaged in mossy branches? Is it an animal that spends part of the day soaking in a pool of water? Is it an active carnivorous hunter or a slow vegetarian/fructivore? Are they very shy and live hidden most of the time?

All these questions are important in helping you, as a keeper, to really understand the needs of your pet. It does a chameleon no good to be in a semi-sparce, dry, sandy cage while a bearded dragon would love it. Living in a low, horizontal cage as an arboreal green iguana would be torture, but a tortoise would feel right at home. Once you understand the nature of the species you keep, you can research how other people who have had a lot of success have been keeping theirs and make the informed decision on what tips make the most sense given what you know to be true about your species of choice.

Providing things like substrate to burrow into, things to climb, plants in which to hide, and pools in which to soak (even though, yes, they WILL make a mess all the time) will bring out such a colorful array of natural behaviors that it's absolutely worth it. Changing up the layout of the tank every few months is one way to keep it all feeling new and interesting, and changing out or adding new things occasionally will add enrichment without creating too much stress. Perhaps adding a new plant or a new hide, or changing around some large grapewood branches so that the climbing pathways are different. Changing around the food items and offering them in different ways will also add enrichment. Some handling (if tolerated) and even some free ranging around a safe area or basking outside (responsibly) are ways to add variety to their daily lives, allow them to become acclimated to you, and gives them a chance to stretch their legs beyond the confines of their own cage.

If you find that you have to reduce your pets' quality of life for the sake of fitting more animals into a given space in your home then you have reached a point where acquiring more reptiles has become unethical (in my opinion.) Remember, quality is more important than quantity in almost all aspects of life.


  1. "If you find that you have to reduce your pets' quality of life for the sake of fitting more animals into a given space in your home then you have reached a point where acquiring more reptiles has become unethical (in my opinion.)"

    Here, here! Written well! This should be shared on social media in several reptile keeping groups. If I see one more boob trying to setup their critters like some big breeder, I am going to...do something not so nice.

    1. Thank you! So do I and I just want to grab people by the shoulders, shake them, and ask them why they think that's a good idea. If your limit to being able to house animals properly in the space they deserve is, say, no more than 10 animals, then don't go above that and keep downgrading and downgrading your pets until they are in plastic drawers so you can fit 100 of them in a room corner because you want to feel like the big rack breeders and "collect" as many morphs/locales/types as you can.

  2. We just got a veiled chameleon today. Screened cage all set up nicely. Made pathways out of bamboo. The problem is he has slipped twice! I am so stressed out thinking he is going to fall and injure himself. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Wendy,

      That sounds fairly normal, bamboo can be a little too smooth especially if the branches are a size that's not easy to get your foot around. Perhaps you can take a piece of sand paper with a gentle file (you don't have to go crazy here) and just scuff up the branches a bit here and here, just enough to get some traction. Alternatively, you can wrap things like vines around the bamboo or add in some more textures branches so he has options. The one thing chameleons are really great at is not falling, but the second thing they are really great at is landing ok if they do! So Most likely if he slips he can catch himself with a foot or a tail, but if he does he is probably going to be OK falling just a couple feet. Chameleons will dive off the ends of tree branches to the ground to escape a predator, so they usually puff up and bounce.

  3. Dear Olimpia,

    Hello! My name is Harlyn! My boyfriend and I recently got a sweet little veiled chameleon named Toulouse. As far as I can tell we're doing everything correctly, I just had a few specific questions when it comes to Toulouse's habitat.

    Right now we have a lot of branches and vines for him to climb on, but not a lot of leaves to hide in. Should we get some more?

    Also, right now we have a dark purple moonlight bulb that we put on him at night. The pet store (the reason I'm asking) said we needed this to keep his terrarium warm at night. Do we really need this light? I've been stalking your blog and haven't seen any mention of this, so I decided to ask.

    Aside from my questions, thank you so much for this amazing blog! I love being able to find most all my questions answered in one reliable place. It takes some of my new chameleon mom nerves off!!

    Thanks again,
    Harlyn, Alex, and Toulouse

    1. Hi Harlyn,

      Congrats on the new chameleon! And thank you for the kind words about the blog!

      Chameleons do like to hide out sometimes and feel well camouflaged, so if you have room for at least one bushy plant or a few thick leafy vines, that would be great. I’m a big fan of pothos plants (aka, devil’s ivy) because they do very well in chameleon cages, are extremely hardy so you don’t need to be good at plants to keep one alive, and the leaves are big so chameleons like hiding out in the plants. I usually hang/suspend mine towards the top of the cage so the vines can grow downwards.

      You do not need any lights on at night, so you can get rid/return that bulb. Chameleons see all colors very well, so they can see even red light and it will keep them up at night. They are like birds in that sense, they need darkness to sleep. And unless his room is getting below 65-70F at night he will be fine with the drop in temperature. It’s actually good for their metabolism to cool down at night, as long as their lights pop on in the morning. If it gets below that you can get a low wattage ceramic heat emitter “bulb” that produces just heat and no light. But most homes will never need that, except maybe a couple weeks in winter.

      Let me know if you need anything else.

      Kind regards,

  4. Hello, Olimpia! A wonderful blog and post, as always.

    I purchased my "first" chameleon a while ago (Panther, Nosy Be, 7-ish(?) months old now, no real name... call him "Bub" sometimes). He seems healthy and will eat ANYTHING THAT MOVES and can fit in his mouth, especially the spotted roaches. But I had a couple of questions that I wanted your answers/opinions on if ye don't mind.

    - I have read from many internet users that they give their chams water via a cup/glass (and it seems healthier, from what they say... example: https://www.reddit.com/r/Chameleons/comments/2mmnma/why_training_your_chameleon_to_drink_out_of_a/cm5rq20 ).
    I have been using a misting system and he seems healthy as far as his hydration goes, from the looks of his stool and whatnot, though I don't seem him drink often. When I do see him drink, its during the first 5 minute shower, rarely any other time. He is still often frightened and will hide/flee when the mister turns on. Should I consider the hydration from a cup option, and tone down the misting?

    - What do you feed your roaches? Mine seem picky... or will they only eat well at optimal temperatures? If that's the case I'll be setting up for a colony soon anyways.

    Thank you very much for the time you commit to your blog, I very much enjoy it!

    - Edward

    1. Hi Edward, thank you for the kind words!
      I've been friends with a lot of "big" names in chameleon keeping for almost 8-9 years and there is no one that I know and respect that does the cup method. Some of these people have 10-20+ years of experience with chameleons and one even has a PhD in chameleons and none of them advocate this method. Fundamentally, chameleons are arboreal and would drink from morning dew drops and falling rain showers. If a chameleon gets infections it's due to keeping the cage too wet all the time, not necessarily due to the misting itself. And misting helps chameleons wash out their own eyes, which is probably why that person's chameleons have to dunk their whole heads in the cup to get the job done.

      An almost adult panther won't need as much water as, say, a meller's chameleon so if he only drinks during the first longish shower of the day then that seems fine. Each misting schedule will be different depending on your chameleon and your home. In my case, in Florida I don't have to do short mists to keep the humidity up because the ambient humidity is already high, but someone in Yorkshire, England or Westlake, Ohio, might have to. So play around with it and make sure the nozzle isn't aimed straight at him when he's on his favorite basking branch, it can be a shock to go from a toasty 90° under your light to suddenly sprayed with cool water!

      Regarding the roaches, they definitely like to be at room temperature or warmer and they LOVE fruit. Most feeder roaches are very tropical, so they like it warm, a little humid, and sweet. So I might use a commercial gutload like Repashy Superload and then whatever mix of fresh fruits and veggies I can get; things like apple, pear, berries, watermelon, kale, oranges, collard greens, etc.

      Let me know if you need anything else!

    2. Thanks Olimpia! I very much appreciate your reply.

      I suppose I should make sure I'm not keeping the cage too wet... I'll probably take out one of those spray sessions during the later part of his day to make sure his cage doesn't stay too wet overnight, as well as set his 20 minute misting for every other day.
      As far as the spray nozzle is concerned, most of it's cone-of-fire is aimed into a large plastic bowl on top of his cage, but I have recently re-arranged his cage after cleaning and might try out other trajectories away from his spot of basking.

      I'll also look into the fruits and Superload deal for my roaches. When I bought my first 4 dozen, I gave them some of the cricket food (damned, weak-willed crickets) and a couple slices of apple... which were about gone the next day. That probably should have been my first hint. Also I think they are adorable little creatures - is something wrong with me?
      Though towards other questions regarding crawlies: What type of other crickets/roaches/healthier-crawlies do you keep? (I read your Keeping Insects post, wondered about changes, where purchased, and whatnot) I wanted to have more variety than just the Dubias, (weak-willed) House Crickets, and Superworms (1/day, hand-fed only or bust [he loves 'em]). I hear banded crickets are good alternative to the house cricket, but I don't know where I should order them, or anything for that matter.
      Speaking of crickets, do you recommend any specific type? These guys I buy have such inconsistent mortality rates its incredible! I kept and took care of a study group to see that about 60-75% of the 5 dozen in the group died off - in the first week! but then that 25-40% stuck around and are still alive on week 4! Even after spending 1 week with the dead 75%! WHY?!? (only had 2 roaches die [uneaten] during this time) I stopped buying the crickets for the time being.

      On a side note...
      Its a shame that info on the health and care of these turret-eyed critters tends to be conflicting sometimes. I put off getting a lizard for several months because I couldn't find consistent info. Then when I finally got the little guy I was so paranoid about everything I or the little guy did; it was ridiculous! But I am very happy that your blog exists for this reason... I'm a tad calmer now.
      Watching little what's-his-face growing up seemingly healthy and turning a gorgeous bright-blue has been rewarding. Though we have trust issues, he will throw away any sense of danger to shoot at a bite-sized, crawling thing on (or around) my hand. Maybe someday he won't be terrified of me and I can take him outside when our crazy Kentucky weather isn't happening... Maybe someday.

      Most importantly though -
      Thank you very, very much, Olimpia.
      - Edward

    3. Oh... and sorry for my wall of text, I like getting the details in; feel its important, somehow.

    4. Hi Edward,

      Right now I don’t keep any lizards that eat a lot of bugs (just the crested geckos, and they get crickets or roaches every so often) but whatever I had at the time of that post is essentially what I kept for several more years. I may have added a couple more roach species but I wouldn’t be able to disclose which types, given that I’m in Florida. But I definitely like the Blaberus family (discoids, dubia, fusca, etc.) for roaches, and some like the green banana roach (P. nivea) or Surinam roach are great smaller species. The last two DO climb, so you have to take extra precautions when housing them. But the green roaches are so small and light green that they aren’t even creepy when you find them around, they don’t look like roaches. You can also even look into Madagascar hissing roaches too! The adults are waaay too big and hard, but the nymphs are in varying sizes and are a great feeder; thick and meaty. These also climb but a cage that has a tight lid and tiny air holes will keep them in. The great thing about roaches is that they breed so well, so they make great “Staples” to keep at home and then supplement with other bugs you buy in.

      As far as other bugs I like hornworms, silkworms, and butterworms. You could try your hand at raising up mantids but they are so small when they hatch and so many die off while they are growing up that it’s only worth doing for baby chameleons, which could eat up a ton of baby mantids in the first few days. Where I get them from really depends on who carries any of this stuff; Mulberryfarms.com, Roachcrossing.com, Reptilefood.com, or even on Faunaclassifieds.com. Some of these sites will have banded crickets, or will have other feeder insects seasonally, so you have to see who has what when you’re ready to order.

      Yes, it’s why I started the blog in the first place! When I started only the Chameleonforums.com was worth trusting, and 8-9 years ago it wasn’t what it is today now that they’ve developed their resources section. And there is so much BAD information floating around online in general that it’s hard to sift through it all. Or it’s not bad information, but it’s not complete so it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Glad the blog has been helpful!

  5. Amazing post. Thank you so much for sharing this perspective! I think the reptile community sometimes gets so fixated on doing the bare minimum in order to accommodate larger collections that we forget about the finer points of individual welfare. I was reminded to reevaluate my own keeping practices, and gave my reptiles a little extra TLC today. I'll be sharing this on ReptiFiles!

  6. Waooow!!! Magnificent blogs, this is what I wanted to search. Thanks buddy

  7. My 8 month old veiled does not like to eat insects but loves his repashy superfood. What gives??? Frustrating!

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