- Chameleons get water from dew, food items, and rain
- The natural humidity cycle is high in the night and lower during day
- Constantly wet surfaces encourage bacterial, fungal, and mold growth
- Automatic misting system is best single hydration tool
Drinking in the Wild
Although some chameleons do come from areas that receive high amounts of rainfall, many of our chameleons come from areas that have distinct rainy and wet seasons. Most chameleon species have had to adapt to time periods of scarce water. In the wild, chameleons get their hydration from dew left in the morning from humid nights, rain, or from their food items. There have been reports of chameleons drinking from pools of water, but this is not their preferred method of hydration.
Natural hydration cycle
The natural hydration cycle, starting with midnight is that the dark early morning hours will see heavy mist or fog due to the temperature dropping and hitting the dew point. Not only does the higher humidity slow the dehydration process due to breathing, but it forms dew on the leaves for the chameleon to wake up to. This is the chameleons first chance to drink. Moisture will be had through any prey insects that are caught. During the rainy season there are plentiful rains from which the chameleon will retreat away from, but during the dry season the dew and insects are what the chameleon has to live off of.
In captivity we strive to replicate the natural process as much as is possible. We want to provide the necessary components, but remove the unnecessary stress points. The trick is figuring out what is depended upon and what is challenging the tolerance zone. In our hydration, we provide access to water everyday even though this is an unnatural condition. At this point in time, this seems to be a way of extending the life of the chameleon. And, even though there can be too much of any good thing, when water is provided freely so that chameleons have a choice there has yet to be seen a drawback.
One thing we need to be conscious of as we explore just what is proper hydration we need to keep in mind that chameleons can be induced to drink. Whether we are placing a water droplet on their nose with a pipette or forcing them to sit in a shower, there is some reflexive drinking that occurs. Unless they are sick, a chameleon that is thirsty will be drawn to water and drink. Inducing a chameleon to drink through their reflexive response is not the same as the chameleon being thirsty. We must be careful how we interpret what we see.
Hydration methods in captivity
Misting can be anything from a simple hand mister to a high end automatic misting system. Misters send a fine mist spray into the cage and coat the leaves with water. From here the chameleon will drink the misting off the leaves. Automatic misters are the hydration tool of choice because they give both the dew on the leaves that chameleons like and are able to be automated so you can run them, not only for an afternoon rain shower, but during the night for a morning layer of dew, while you are at work, and while you are away on vacation. The automatic nature of the misting systems ensures that water is reliably available for your chameleon.
The downside to a misting system is that water is shot out under pressure. This is not comfortable to the chameleon and, like any animal that is blasted with water, they will run away. You will want to arrange your cage in a way that the likely spot for the chameleon is far enough away that he does not get hit with a high pressure spray.
I find, in my set-ups, that I am ore and more misting during the night in conjunction with fogging to have the chameleon wake up to a wet world. Since they are sleeping, usually in a protected area, they are not being blasted by the mist. My day hydration is often done with drippers. I will use the automatic misters only if my cage is set-up in a way that the chameleon does not get blasted by the mist in their favorite daytime perching spots.
Over the years, enterprising keepers have installed heating systems to lessen the shock of the water temperature. As good of an idea as this seems to be at first, you are shooting for the standard temperature of rain. Heating the water is usually not necessary and when it is shot out as a fine mist, much of the heating element is lost anyways.
One must note that the fine mist nozzles are prone to clogging if you run hard water through the system. This is water with high amounts of dissolved minerals such as calcium. This is often the case with tap water. For best operation use Reverse Osmosis or distilled water with your misting system. Some concerns in the community have been raised over distilled water leeching minerals from the body, but there has yet to be a demonstration of this as a practical concern within chameleon husbandry. Anything from tap water to RO to distilled water has been used without issue so you may choose the water type of your choice. I, personally, have used standard drinking water available from water stores for my indoor chameleons for many years and it has worked well.
The simplest hydration strategy is to use a simple gravity feed dripper. These can be as simple as poking a pin hole in a party cup to purchasing an inexpensive reptile dripper that has a water reservoir and a simple valve for controlling drip rate. Drippers are an excellent back-up and staple hydration method. They do not have the sudden, scary turn-on factor like misting systems and they provide a constant source of water on the leaves that the chameleon can find whenever it is thirsty. You will need a drainage collection tray of some sort to collect the excess water at the bottom. Do not let it pool as it could easily become a health hazard.
Fogger (or ultra-sonic humidifiers)
We focus on daytime hydration because we don’t think about what goes on at night. But a scientific study showing how lizards (anolis) loose moisture through their breath just like humans jogged the community into thinking about how this could explain why chameleons seem to drink so much in captivity when they do not have access to such water in the wild. The idea is that a foggy early morning, like they have in their homeland, reduces their dehydration during the night. Years of experience with fogging in some prominent European collections has shown the method to be successful to breed some difficult species.
There are a number of ultrasonic humidifiers on the market that will generate a focused beam of moisture. Of course, a standard humidifier would work for this purpose, but those tend to give a whole room humidity instead of an individual cage
Whether mister, dripper, or fogger or anything else dealing with water, be careful to keep all parts clean. Misters will spray the entire cage with dirty water and foggers will aerosolize whatever is in the water basin. Make sure your equipment is cleaned on a regular basis.
Sample Hydration Schedule
The following chart shows the interaction and schedule between the lights and the hydration equipment. This schedule include a mister, dripper, and ultrasonic humidifier (fogger). If you do not have all three, this schedule can be used with each independently. If you can only have one device then an automatic misting system would be my choice as the top priority.
There are many hydration methods tested and proven. Most of them include multiple mistings throughout the day. Misting a number of times through out the day has worked for decades. If your mentor insists on this method then follow your mentor. The method described here is the naturalistic hydration method which replicates the cycles found in nature. This is our mandate – to get as close to nature. Regardless of the regimen you use, make sure you understand the reason behind what is being done here because this is following the natural cycle.
A Tour of the Natural Cycle
When night sets, and the chameleon sleeps, your chameleon will lose moisture through breathing. The more humid the air the less moisture is lost. As the night goes on, the humidity rises until fog rolls in. The air is moist and, as the temperature falls, the moisture condenses into dew on leaves. They are breathing in moist air throughout the early morning greatly reducing the dehydration during the night. When the chameleon wakes up they can lick the dew to complete their rehydration and start their day. If this is the rainy season then there will be rain and more water than the chameleon can want. But if it is the dry season, when it is months between rain, then the chameleon will maintain hydration from the dew and the moisture found in its food.
To replicate this natural cycle we use misters to lay down the dew and a fogger to create our fog. Early in the morning when the fog rolls in we start our fogger. The actual hour doesn’t matter, but we are starting ours at 1:30 AM. You’ll notice, though that we are also starting our misters at the same time. The fog from the ultrasonic humidifier tends to roll off dry surfaces and flow out of the cage. But if we lay down a layer of dew the fog tends to stay around. By having the mister and fogger going at the same time there is a potent mixture of humidity. We only need the mister to lay down a layer of moisture. We do not need a drenching so the mister goes for only the first two minutes of the fogging session. The fog will continue until just before the lights come on. In this schedule I have the fogger going 30 minutes on and 30 minutes off until the morning lights come on. This is a way to keep the fog from becoming too much. And right before the lights come on the misters will activate again for a couple of minutes and reinforce that layer of dew. When the lights come on, the chameleon wakes to a world that can rehydrate and start the chameleon strong. We do start a dripper late in the afternoon. This is an insurance policy. Ideally, the chameleon will not drink at this time because it was completely hydrated by the dew. The dripper is a cheap and effective back up to make sure all is well with hydration. If your chameleon does drink from the dripper make sure the drips continue until the chameleon has had his fill. I then have another two minute misting session after lights go out to set the stage for another hydrating evening.
One may immediately notice that there is no misting during the day. This is intentional. Chameleons hate being sprayed with water and I made a huge change in my husbandry when I decided to respect this. Instead of forcing them under a mist shower until they hunkered down and accepted it, I now promote a hydration strategy that does not include a rain shower. This is not to say daytime mistings do not work – they do. But removing daytime mistings is consistent with the natural approach I am trying to take here. Although one would argue that chameleons get rained on in the wild, we know that they hide from rain as much as they can. This is the not the action of an animal that gets their life-giving hydration from rain showers. Thus I advocate a dry season approach with the addition of the dripper to provide water when ever it is needed.
Air Movement & Drying out the surfaces!
Stagnant air is a health issue. With all the moisture we are putting into the cage we need to ensure that we are also respecting the ebb of humidity and moisture through the day. The humidity should go down to a level appropriate for your species.
But how do you know when you have enough of a drop? Humid air is actually not going to be harmful in itself. It is harmful when the surfaces in the cage do not have a chance to dry out. It is when perching branches are constantly wet that foot sores start to happen. It is when surfaces never dry out that bacterial, mold, and fungal growths take hold. So the critical sign to look for after a high humidity night is that the surfaces of the cage dry out during the day.
An important aspect to include in your husbandry is active air flow. We do not want to create a high night time humidity by enclosing the cage and filling it with fog. Whether humid or dry, trapped air is stagnant air. You want that fog to be moving through the cage, not resting there. This can be accomplished by a ceiling fan in the room or personal/computer fans mounted on the cage. Have the fans pointed either at each other at the top of the cage or pulling air from the cage and blowing out. You do not want to cause a draft. So what is the difference between air movement and a draft? That would be in the intensity of the airflow. You want subtle air exchange, not a tornado or wind storm.
The fan action can be automated and turned on a couple times a day. During fogging is a good idea and maybe in the afternoon to make sure all the surfaces dry off.
Measuring the hydration of your chameleon
So how do you know if your chameleon is hydrated or not? It is actually pretty simple. If you chameleon appears healthy – meaning alert eyes, hunting food, and pooping – then you can tell if they are dehydrated by how they act when you set a dripper to drip on leaves right by where they are. If they rush to the water and gulp then they are dehydrated. If they look at the drip of water indifferently then they are hydrated.
Urates are the white and orange part of the poop that comes out with the dark brown tightly packed bundle. Urates give us a view into hydration because they start white and as they go through the intestines, the body reclaims moisture from them. This turns the urates orange. Thus the thought is that if the chameleon’s body is completely hydrated it will not reclaim any moisture from the urates and the end result is a 100% white urate. This is reasonable logic, but our logic must be checked with natural observations. Although, it is exceedingly difficult to get a herpetologist who is studying poop in the same place as a pooping wild chameleon.
Some information we have comes from Petr Necas who is one of the rare world travellers that looks for pooping chameleons. He notes that healthy wild chameleons have up to 50% of their urates orange. Thus, observations suggest that those seeking to replicate the natural balance would strive for some orange in the urate.
Glass vs screen cage hydration
Your hydration methods will have to be adjusted by what kind of cage you are using. You can run a great deal more water in through a screen cage than a glass cage. A glass terrarium is highly efficient for retaining both humidity and heat. Therefore, drastically reduce the heat and moisture you put into the glass system.
This is an important topic because most of the advice that is easily obtained in the chameleon community is for screen cages. We are used to being able to have heat lamps on the whole day and misting for minutes or even 30 minutes at a time and still struggling to keep temperature or humidity. This is a function of a screen cage. This is not a characteristic of a solid side cage. A solid side cage, whether it be glass, plastic/PVC, or wood, will retain your heat and humidity so what you put into your system will go further. Therefore, you will have to adjust your misting/fogging schedule to match your ventilation level. This will be different for each cage type. You are looking for dew on the leaves in the morning when they wake up, a drying out during the day, and an optional couple minute “rain shower” in the evening. If the evening rain shower soaks the cage too much then dial it back.
There was a hypothesis that chameleons used rain to wash out their eyes. I make special note of this because on my podcast I was a vocal proponent of this idea. I saw eye health benefits from showering my chameleons. But it always bothered me that chameleons never seemed to want to be in the rain. They always ran away. This is not the behavior of an animal that needs rain for critical health maintenance. So you may hear in the community that showering and misting is necessary for eye health. I do not have the final answer. But I am bothered enough by the story not fitting together cleanly that I have backed off speaking about it. There is a fair chance that the benefits I believe I observed connecting eye health and misting were actually caused by an increase of vitamin A in both my and other keepers’ chameleons. I continue to investigate and talk with scientists, vets, and naturalists and will update my writings as more is learned.
At this point, in my personal husbandry, I avoid showering my chameleon for either drinking or washing eyes out. I use mist heads extensively and I do spray down my outside cages. So they are subject to periodic “rain showers”. But my target strategies for hydration focus on getting leaves wet instead of ensuring the chameleons get wet.
I have not experienced a return of eye issues since changing to a no-showering husbandry strategy.