Authored by Olimpia Martinotti of Much Ado About Chameleons
How to Make a Hospital Cage for a Chameleon
Perhaps you are coming home from the vet with a chameleon who’s been diagnosed with metabolic bone disease (MBD), and your vet has advised you he may not do well in a traditional cage while he recovers, as chameleons with MBD can often times develop breaks to the long bones of the arms and legs along with general weakness, listlessness, and/or clumsiness. What’s a worried chameleon owner to do, then? What is the best way to make a recovery cage?
Building a Hospital Cage
The hospital or recovery cage may be a useful tool for reasons besides broken or weak bones, but MBD is unfortunately the most prevalent reason a setup like this would be required to help an animal recover in the safer, more controlled environment that a hospital cage provides. Safe from potentially dangerous falls, especially, and where UVB and heat are always easily available.
The idea is a very simple one: Provide all the necessary parameters in a shorter cage so a compromised animal is still able to receive warmth, UV, food, and water (and medication) in a safer environment that helps promote healing.
1. A Large Plastic Tote.
You will need a plastic tote that is a decent size, appropriate to the animal you have, that still allows the chameleon to thermoregulate properly but also doesn’t allow them to climb up and out. In this case, I have a 36” long x 20” tall x 20” wide clear plastic container. Make sure to disinfect it thoroughly (a bleach solution will do), as you don’t want to introduce an animal with a weakened immune system to anything iffy.
2. A Soft Landing.
If your chameleon has mobility issues it’s inevitable that they might fall. We definitely want to minimize this from happening and want to eliminate the chance of causing additional damage while the chameleon is healing, so it’s a good idea to line the bottom of the cage with something that will cushion any falls. The easiest and most sanitary idea would be a towel that is easy to bleach clean, or something like a thick yoga mat cut/folded to size.
3. Easy Pathways & Plant Cover.
A chameleon still needs to sit on a perch (IF the chameleon is minimally mobile. If your chameleon is physically unable to do anything but lie flat on their belly, then stick to just using the floor liner, i.e. a towel or mat.) so it’s important to provide pathways for their sense of comfort, while making sure that these are easy to climb and low to the ground.
To add to their sense of security and to provide surfaces from which to drink if they are drinking on their own, add some vegetation (in this case, fake plants might be ideal.) Keep the vegetation sparse and in line with the mobility of the animal – You don’t want to make it harder for a chameleon that can’t move well by putting plants in the way everywhere.
4. The All-Important Lighting & Heating
Of course one of the most vital parts of a hospital cage is the access to UVB and heat. Half the reason we want to keep a chameleon with MBD in a shallow cage besides preventing falls is to make sure they are never too far from their correct lighting. A sickly chameleon that falls to the bottom of a 4’ tall cage and can’t climb back up is utterly too far from the light and is getting 0% beneficial UVB.
This is when having a linear fluorescent UVB light (like a Reptisun 10.0) is vital, and the newer the bulb is the better. Lay the fixture across the top of the tote (lengthwise or widthwise), towards one end so the chameleon is under the expose as much as possible but can still wobble towards the opposite end to escape it.
If you don’t have one, purchase a clamp basking light fixture (available at any home improvement store cheaply) and clamp the light on one end of the cage, where the UV light is as well. Aim for their normal basking temperature, making sure there is a temperature gradient so that the opposite side of the tote is cooler. A temperature gun or thermometer probe will be vital, to prevent cooking an animal that is in a delicate condition to begin with.
What additional care the chameleon needs will depend on their specific condition. In nearly all cases it will still be necessary to mist down the chameleon for drinking water and humidity, but there could be exceptions to this rule (such as needing to keep stitches dry.) The chameleon may need to be hand-fed or syringe-fed liquid food and/or medicine depending on their specific needs, but their environment while in the hospital cage should be everything possible to promote healing.
Precautions to Keep in Mind
Take care with other animals and children in the house if the tote has no lid.
Do not leave live food inside the cage overnight with a chameleon that cannot move well. Crickets can and will eat living reptiles that do not fight back, so make sure to hand/cup feed and remove any uneaten bugs before nightfall.
Monitor your chameleon often for changes in condition. If you notice the chameleon is worse please contact your vet immediately.
Do not handle more than necessary. This might be an incredibly stressful time for them, between forced medication, vet visits, and a change in scenery. Be conscious of that and keep handling to a minimum during the day. Provide a peaceful, quiet area for the hospital cage. Chameleons with compromised immune systems are especially delicate, so limit stress as much as possible.