KEEPING CHAMELEONS IN THE (MIS)INFORMATION AGE
I love the Internet. I love Internet shopping and having news and information available any time of day. I love being able to work from home because I can access needed files and co-workers via email. I especially love social media–where else can I mind other people’s business from the comfort of my own home?
That said, could I just rant for a bit?
The amount of incomplete, misleading and just plain wrong information being spread all over the internet about keeping reptiles, and in particular chameleons, is just staggering and frustrates me to no end.
I am active in many online groups and forums and see some of the same questions/issues/discussions coming up over and over again. Often with the same people giving the same poor information, which other people then begin to repeat. It becomes nearly impossible get people to understand the difference between fact and fiction, or in the case of keeping chameleons, the difference between proper care and fads that will do more harm than good.
I could probably fill a book with all the oft-repeated and incorrect information but for space I’ll just go over a few of the biggies—the ones I see repeated on pretty much a daily basis.
“Your chameleon’s eyes are sunken, it’s dehydrated, give it a bath.”
Sadly, giving chameleons baths is becoming the “in” thing to do, whether for dehydration or other health issues or just the very incorrect belief, chameleons enjoy bathing. Many people proudly post photos of their chameleons in bowls of water, completely oblivious to the fact that the chameleon is clearly showing signs of stress.
Why would anyone think putting a chameleon in a tub of water is a good idea rather than extremely stressful one at worst and useless at best? Most species of chameleons are arboreal; they live mainly in trees and bushes. Their skulls are designed to have dew and rainwater run down to their mouths and they lap water droplets from leaves. They do not go to the ground to drink from pools of water and they certainly do not sit in them either.
To be absolutely clear, chameleons do not absorb water through their skin at all. They also do not absorb water through their vent/cloaca in any quantity.
From top reptile vet Dr. Douglas Mader:
“If you don’t see the animal drinking while soaking, however, don’t assume it will be rehydrated just because it is soaking. There is an old wives’ tale that a herp will suck fluid up through its cloaca. While it is true that some turtle species do experience electrolyte exchange across their cloacal membranes, and some turtles do reabsorb urinary fluids in their bladders, I have seen no proof that herps in general are able to absorb enough water through their cloacas to replace fluid deficits.” (Mader, Douglas. “The Vet Report: Fluid Therapy in Reptiles.” Reptiles Magazine October 2014: 12-13)
Unfortunately, bathing a chameleon does not help with hydration and can lead to increased stress and delay finding the real problem. Also unfortunate is that some vets do recommend this as an option for hydration, believing that it may help.
Also important to remember is that despite the common belief that sunken eyes always mean dehydration, that is not the case. Stress, illness, parasites, infection, extreme weight loss can all cause sunken eyes.
If you have determined that your husbandry is correct, especially that the temperature and humidity is at appropriate levels and the chameleon is receiving adequate water via misting or drippers and still has sunken eyes, an exam and fecal test done by a qualified veterinarian would be a much better idea than a bath, and much more likely to keep your chameleon healthy and happy.
“Chameleons like to have friends.”
Chameleons are mainly solitary animals. Some will tolerate handling–panthers and veileds have been bred in captivity for many generations and are often accepting of handling and interaction. Some chameleons will also tolerate the presence of other chameleons for a short time.
Unfortunately, people see photos of chameleons with other chameleons and think their chameleon needs a friend. What they don’t see are the clear signs of stress in the photos, and sadly, neither do the keepers of the chameleons in those photos.
I was guilty of this as well. When I first began keeping chameleons, I kept many together in creative free ranges. I thought it was awesome. I also failed to see the signs of stress.
Over time they would have to be separated. One or more would be showing signs of stress that were too obvious to ignore—weight loss, hiding, eyes closed, trying to leave the area. Or they would begin fight and try to dominate each other. Fortunately no serious injuries resulted but I feel that cohabitating and the resulting chronic stress likely shortened the lives of a few of those chameleons.
When chameleons are kept together they are living with a constant low-level of stress. You may not see the signs but one will be dominant. One will be eating less than the other. Sometimes stress is shown by bright colors, extending their gular pouch (puffing out their chin), raising a foot in a defensive posture or just trying to leave the area. It can also be the opposite. When chameleons are kept together long-term their coloring is often drab and dull and they become more lethargic. Regardless of how fine they may seem to be doing, eventually their immune system will begin to fail and one or more will become ill.
While babies under a couple of months old can live in small groups, keeping adult chameleons separate makes it much easier to care for everyone and monitor individual health and make sure everyone is eating and drinking (and pooping!) their share.
Also important to remember is that chameleons are not dogs and they do not want to be our best friends either. They do not want to be wrapped in blankets, cuddled, or carried around a store. You may enjoy the attention but your chameleon does not. Some may tolerate it, others will not. If you are going to take your chameleon out, be aware of the signs of stress. Dark colors, bright colors, closed eyes, sunken eyes, gaping and hissing are a few signs of stress but they can be much more subtle. And again, just because you think they are “fine” does not mean the chameleon is not experiencing stress.
A better idea than keeping chameleons in prolonged stress by cohabbing them or parading them around town, is to spend the time to create a functional and beautiful habitat for them and enjoy watching them be chameleons.
“Never keep your chameleon in a glass enclosure or use substrate—it will kill your chameleon!”
There are over 200 species of chameleons, living in varying environments, with different requirements in regard to temperature, humidity, and space.
There are people keeping chameleons all over the world, often in settings very different from their natural habitats.
People select many different ways to house chameleons in captivity and are successful with many different methods.
Screen or mesh cages are most often recommended and they certainly do have benefits. They are lightweight, inexpensive and allow plenty of air to circulate. The downside is that the airflow is so great it becomes difficult to maintain proper humidity and keepers compensate by misting more frequently or wrapping the cage in plastic.
Glass enclosures make it much easier to maintain humidity, as the airflow is not as great. However, they are heavy and expensive, especially those in sizes large enough for many species of chameleon.
To clarify, when I say glass enclosure, I do not mean a fish tank or aquarium that is all glass with a screen lid. Those do not have enough airflow to be a good choice for a chameleon. The glass enclosures that are suitable for chameleons are those designed for airflow with a full screened top and vents at the bottom such as those made by Exo Terra.
Glass enclosures are an excellent way to create a living, bioactive environment for your chameleon. Yes, this does involve using soil, which leads us to another myth—chameleons will swallow substrate and become impacted and die.
Is it possible? Yes, but the risk is minor. A chameleon that is kept correctly, with proper temperatures and humidity, fed a healthy diet and supplemented appropriately is very unlikely to have any issues with impaction, even if they so swallow a small amount of soil or substrate.
One of the keys in keeping chameleons healthy, which new keepers often fail to do is to monitor temperatures and humidity, regardless of whether you are using screen cages or glass terrariums. It cannot be stressed strongly enough that this is too important to not monitor. A chameleon that is kept too cold will not be able to digest properly which can increase the risk of impaction. Being too cold and too wet all the time can increase the risk of respiratory infections.
In my experience, screen cages are often a little more forgiving for beginners but the reality is any type of cage needs to be set up properly for the species of chameleon that will be living in it to thrive. A planted bioactive terrarium may be a bit more work to start but easier to maintain in the long run and when done correctly will provide an excellent habitat for a chameleon.
. . .
Despite all the myths, fads, and misinformation, the Internet is a great place to share knowledge and keep learning how to continually improve as a keeper. The key is to do A LOT of research, find reputable groups and forums, and learn who has the background and expertise and listen to what they say. Even ask them directly. Most long-term keepers are more than happy to share information, even if they are not posting a lot on social media.