Cage materials are about ventilation and visibility
Chameleon caging comes in many forms from screen to glass and everything in between. If it can hold something chameleon sized it probably has been tried. when we chameleon keepers thinks of materials they come down to a balance between ventilation and humidity. It is our job to both create an appropriate environment and to be able to enjoy that environment. As you learn what is required to put together an appropriate chameleon cage you will need to know what are the proper tools. In the case of a chameleon cage set-up, the proper tools include a cage which has the right amount of ventilation.
Many of us grew up in the chameleon world with the mantra that chameleons need to be in screen cages. I still see that pop up on a regular basis despite the years of public education against it. We are going to dissect this and by the end of this section you’ll understand the why and the what. Screen cages are useful and, in many cases, they work well. But to ignore the rest of your options would be foolish because there are a number of situations where a screen cage would not be the best answer.
In this module we will explore the materials available and discuss their uses.
We can simplify this situation to consider all these materials as differing levels of ventilation and visibility.
Ventilation brings the cage interior to the level of the ambient temperature and humidity in the room. The more ventilation, the more the cage interior takes on the ambient conditions of your room. The less ventilation, the more control you have over increasing the amount of heat and humidity within the cage.
The second consideration is visibility. If you have decided that solid sides are appropriate for you then your choice of clear or opaque depends on your plans. A showpiece cage may want to be clear for visibility, while a cage for breeding or many chameleons in close proximity may be best opaque to increase security. Often cages that are going to me made into naturalistic bio-active terrariums have solid opaque sides to allow for more support for the creation of naturalistic walls. Unlike glass, materials such as PVC or plastics can be drilled into and you can mount items directly on the wall. With screen, PVC, and Acrylic you can construct a cage with the proper characteristics for your application.
Ventilation & Visibility
Ventilation is airflow. Airflow is what refreshes the entire environment. We all know what it feels like when we walk into a room that someone has lived in without opening any windows or getting any sort of air exchange. Having this air exchange is important for most living creature, but especially ones like chameleons that live in trees and breezes. The organisms that do not appreciate air flow are the ones we are worried about. Mold, fungus, and bacteria enjoy warm, moist environments. Without airflow they thrive. Create a cage that has poop, warmth, and is moist and we have a very unhygienic situation. When we introduce a breeze, the water dries out and the bacteria, mold, and fungus are stunted.
There is a balance to be had here because chameleons and live plants also need humidity, water, and appropriate heat. So how do we reconcile that? It is through the daily cycle of nights being cool and moist giving way to a warmer, but drier day. So it is moist when the temperature is not ideal for our microorganisms and then it dries out when things warm up. This is one reason why the natural humidity cycle is so important. We have done all sorts of things with our humidity cycles in captivity. By misting during the day and keeping things dry during the night we totally switched up the humidity cycle their body expects. But it worked because there was a humidity cycle and it dried out during the night. Whenever things were wet all the time, health issues started to arise. That has been well known for decades. As glass is a great insulator for humidity, glass got a very bad reputation in chameleon circles. And so, we blasted our misters to overcome the screen cage ventilation that took all the moisture away.
But this is where the balance comes in. During the day we need that ventilation to reduce the humidity. During the night we want to increase the humidity and ventilation is not our friend with this unless the ambient conditions are increasing in humidity. Unfortunately, damage starts to occur inside houses where the humidity gets to the levels a chameleon would expect sitting through and breathing the morning fog. So we are in need of a way to keep misting, fogging, and humidity inside. And that is where solid side walls come in. So you can see how this is a balance between the ventilation during the day and the humidity during the night.
If you elect for a hybrid (meaning a combination of screen and solid sides) then your next consideration is whether the solid sides will be clear or opaque. You must balance the need of your chameleon for security with your desire for being able to see in the cage. Although we humans would be very discontent if we could not see out, your chameleon views solid walls as security. If it is solid then no predator can come from that direction to eat them. In fact, when advanced breeders are working with exceptionally shy species, such as Trioceros owenii, they will block all the sides of the cage save a small peep hole just so they can monitor the inside of the cage.
How much visibility you want in your cage fully depends on your application.
Clear sides have the advantage that they allow you to view what is going on inside your cage. Opaque sides have the advantage that they count towards your chameleon’s security.
The Screen Cage has maximum ventilation so if you do nothing, the entire cage will be at the ambient temperature and humidity levels. And when I say ambient, I mean the environment all around in the room. The reason why screen cages are so common and successful is that many people keep their house around the same temperature range as the most common species – meaning veiled and panther chameleons – are comfortable with. The addition of a heat lamp in the morning provides a warm up and your temperatures are set. The problem usually is in humidity. We keep our homes at a lower humidity during the night than chameleons are designed to live in, but our veiled and panther chameleons seem to be able to tolerate that difference in conditions. The great thing about screen cages is that they do not store heat or humidity. You can heat the cage , but the other end of the cage will be a room ambient temperature. Although you can burn the chameleon with too hot of a basking lamp. You are not going to be over heating the cage until you overheat the entire room. And if the door to the room is open then you have to overheat the entire house to become a danger to the chameleon. There is a margin for error that is as big as the container holding the cage. By that I mean your room or even whole house. By the same token, this safety dynamic makes it very difficult to modify the cage conditions. Do you need it more humid? Good luck with a screen cage! Although, luckily, chameleons seem to be able to figure out where the fog is and sleep in that area so this is workable as long as you are consistent as to where you make your fog column. So that is screen. The pro and con wrapped up into one is that it is difficult to push levels above ambient. The pro is that it has a much wider margin of error. The con is that most chameleons will want something at least a little different from typical human ambient home conditions and you will have to know what that is and do what it takes to get those conditions.
Hybrid cages use a combination of solid and screen sides to aid in humidity (and mist) retention while still allowing the cage to be ventilated. They are more expensive than the screen cage, but offer the advantages of both the screen cages and the glass terrariums while avoiding the disadvantages of each. The most notable benefits are in the area of hydration. The solid sides will hold in the mist, fogging, and humidity. Being able to run a mister with out spraying the walls or furniture is enough benefit for most.
Hybrid cages in the chameleon community use many materials. Commercial cages may use white PVC, clear acrylic, or even clear, flexible PVC. Home made cages often utilize various wood products. The overall objective is to retain enough humidity to be able to raise the nighttime levels, but enough ventilation that the surfaces dry easily during the day.
Hybrid cages are, in my opinion, the best options for chameleon cages. They give us the right amount of humidity holding with the ventilation to make sure it does not become a problem.
On the other extreme are glass cages. Glass is excellent at holding humidity and heat. You are able to effectively create an environment inside a glass terrarium that is different than your ambient conditions. If you need it warm and humid, but live in cold in dry a glass terrarium will be your answer. But here is the thing with glass terrariums – even ones with vents – is that a little goes a long way. Heat does not escape to the outside and so accumulates in the cage. In a screen cage you can leave your heat lamp on all day without a care. With a glass terrarium, it becomes a car in the parking lot with closed windows during the summer. It can easily kill your chameleon if you don’t keep track of the levels. It is the same with humidity. A little goes a long way because it is cumulative – meaning it builds upon itself. So when you think about what caging would be appropriate for your situation thing about how much you need to change the environment you live in. Both screen and glass cages work and have been used long term by multi-generational breeders. Glass is not an experimental cage. It has been used for decades by breeders who don’t feel it is worth their time to explain ad nauseum that glass works. Glass or screen, these are only tools. It is up to you to decide what is the right tool for the job. How much control do you need over the internal environment?
Other Cage Types
There are many other cage varieties available. From plastic mesh and PVC frame cages to bird cages to even greenhouses you’ll have to make a judgement between size, cost, and functionality. This is where understanding the why behind it all is important. The plastic mesh and PVC framed cages come with a warning that they are very cheaply made and melt and get brittle under heat. While the price is great for the size, the quality is what was removed to allow the price. Stay away from plastic mesh cages. Bird cages made for large parrots offer a chance to get a large cage that will keep a chameleon, though feeder insects will not be contained. So in all these choices, consider the advantages and disadvantages. They all can be used if you are able to create the proper conditions inside the cage.
How to choose your chameleon cage type
The decision of which cage type to select falls to your environment. There is no one answer that covers all conditions. Take a look at the species you want to work with and what its conditions are. Compare that to your home environment. (This may be the first time you actually know what the day and nighttime temperatures and humilities are of your home!) Now you know how much of the environment you need to change. The closer it is the more screen you can use. The further away it is the more solid sides you need to use. Screen cages have been so common because our home comfortable temperatures align nicely with the chameleon species most often kept in captivity. Just the addition of a couple hours of heat lamp in the morning was all that was needed to make it work.
There is more of a push towards hybrid caging that has gone along with an awareness about the importance of humidity cycles. With high humidity, even if only during a part of the night, there comes a need for ventilation. Small personal or computer fans can provide this nicely, but having full screen side panels like is found in some hybrid cages is useful for this.
Glass gives the greatest control as far as retaining heat and humidity. But is more difficult in warm and humid environments. In this module, the first examples we will focus on are screen and hybrid builds, but will do a complete session on glass terrariums in an upcoming module.
So which should you get? If I were to select the most general purpose cage type that would work in the most cases I would select a hybrid cage which had three solid sides and a front and top screen. This cage has the greatest flexibility between environments.
Navigation to Next Section: Cage Types For Sale
Have you decided which type of cage you want to work with? The next modules will show what cages are commercially available. Building your own chameleon cage is an option but this takes basic construction skills and tools. The next three modules will go over the commercial cages available for Screen, Hybrid, and Glass. You are welcome to jump to the section that is most appropriate to your set-up.