Creating a Chameleon Hydration Strategy

Water is the key to life. Today, I’ll explore the concept of hydration and how we can develop an effective strategy for our chameleon husbandry. The goal of this page is to talk about hydration at a higher level so we can understand what we are trying to achieve. So we are going to talk about what goes into setting up the strategy.

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Where Do Chameleons Get Water?

female panther chameleon

We are looking to put together a 24 hour strategy that will fulfill our chameleon’s hydration needs and then we need a method to constantly check the execution to make sure it is working. So, where do we start? Well, let’s take a look at what we have to work with. Chameleons live in trees and bushes and such so the traditional watering hole concept doesn’t fit here. So, how do chameleons get hydration? We have four options to work with.

The most obvious is rain. When it rains, the chameleon’s entire world is wet including the surfaces round them and water on their faces. So we have water from the sky as our first tool

Next is humidity. Water in the air. We lose water from our bodies every time we breathe. The lower the ambient humidity the quicker water is lost. We all know this. The drier it is outside the more water we need to drink. So ambient humidity is important. Fog is a visual form of humidity. It is being inside a cloud which is, of course, just water.

Next there is dew on the leaves that is left from the nighttime. Humid nights combined with cool temperatures lead to condensation which provides another water source for our chameleons.

And then there is moisture that they get from the food they eat. Just watch a chameleon chomp into a hornworm and the amount of moisture that comes with that meal is obvious. 

So we have rain, humidity, fog, dew, and food to work with to make sure our chameleon stays properly hydrated.

Wet and Dry Seasons

Jackson's Chameleon

We also have to step back and look at the seasons the chameleon developed within. It is hot and cold? Dry and wet? Two dry and two wet seasons? Or a constant wet season? In some areas, the dry season just means it doesn’t rain every day. In other areas the dry season means the killing the adults of, literally, the entire species. And the species survival is all in eggs underground waiting to hatch the next wet season. So it is valuable to know what the conditions are year ‘round for the species you are keeping.

And this is all the data gathering stages. Once we know the tools we can work with and the conditions the chameleon is exposed to we get ready for the difficult part. We have to decide what to replicate in our cages. Do we replicate the height of the rainy season with constant downpours? I am sure we don’t want to replicate the depth of the dry season which would possibly, or probably, kill our chameleon. But we do have to make a decision as to what we will take from the entire year of their existence to recreate. 

If you are working off of a care sheet that has one set of values you have created a life for your chameleon with one constant environmental condition. For the Chameleon Academy the care summaries recreate a blend of wet and dry season. Maybe the conditions as they are entering the wet season. It has daily access to water, but the high humidity nights with fog and misting fade way to a lower humidity day with clear skies. What most of us do in captivity is not a replication of time in nature, but an attempt at creating one perfect day. And then we do that one perfect day for 365 days a year. And our years of successfully keeping chameleon healthy under these conditions indicates that this approach works pretty well. 

But there are some keepers that are exploring giving two seasons to our chameleons. If you remember my interview with Euan Edwards where we talked not only about the harshness of the dry season, but also the benefits of having a season of rest you’ll recall how there might be benefits derived even from the dangers of the dry season. You will notice on the care summary for the Jeweled Chameleon  I included the parameters used by Michael Nash where he gave his Furcifer campani a season with lower temperatures. This is an example to try to graduate our keeping to include the rest benefits of the dry season without the life threatening dehydration and starvation. Currently, almost the entire chameleon community uses the one perfect day approach. Keep your eye on the people exploring the addition of a number of months of rest season. This is one of the new frontiers of chameleon husbandry which makes sense to me that it would produce longer lived chameleons. So, watch this space over the years as we flesh this concept out through testing.

Hydration Strategy

When we begin to pull together a hydration strategy it is helpful to think about the rain, dew, fog, humidity, and food working together in different ways. The rain is a quick spike in hydration, but is quickly over. The dew is a drinking hydration that is slower in pace. The fog and humidity are slow acting and are used over long periods of time to keep the chameleon from dehydrating. So you can’t really ask the question whether you can mist instead of using a fogger. They are two different tools for different purposes. Yes, you can get away with only a mister, we have been doing it for decades, but it won’t provide as good of an experience for your Chameleon.

There are fast acting and slow acting hydration and dehydration actions and our job is to make sure the chameleon has enough opportunities to drink, provided in the way they expect, that they can maintain their healthy hydration level. Your chameleon is using water all the time for its body to function, food to digest, and create poop. And, of course, there is the breathing which is a slow loss of water the rate of which depends on your external conditions. And we have two classes of hydration to use. There is the quick shot and there is the maintenance. The quick shot is the drinking and eating a horn worm. The maintenance is the fogging and humidity. So you can think about it as the fogging and humidity control being the way to control the rate of dehydration and the misting being the rehydration strategy. So what happens if we just use our misters for quick shots? Then your chameleon’s hydration has wider swings from hydrated fully to dehydrated. The chameleon spends their night slowly losing water from breathing and then makes up for it during the day when they are misted. But if the chameleon was given a high humidity night, they would not need as much hydration during the day to make up for waking up thirsty. 

So, why don’t we just mist all day and all night? I mean, that actually sounds like the rainy season which is their most active time! Wouldn’t that be more in line with nature? Well, somewhat. But here is where we have to acknowledge the reality of our captive environment. Constant raining, or misting, will produce constantly wet surfaces which will encourage bacteria, fungus, and mold to grow. And, constantly wet branches produce sores on chameleon feet. Add to that the logistics of having them in a constant rain chamber and it is unlikely to happen unless we have proved that chameleons actually need that for top health. If a constant torrential downpour rain season was necessary for optimal chameleon health and husbandry then we would make it happen, but we have found that constant rain is not necessary for healthy chameleons and provides a number of challenges whose benefit do not justify the effort. In fact, we have found that a hybrid between wet and dry seasons works quite well.

Chameleon Academy Hydration Schedule

Chameleon Hydration Schedule

So let’s explore one hydration approach. I’ll explain the hydration schedule that I have, with small variations, on all my care summaries. Before I jump into this I want to make it clear that this is just one of a number of hydration schedules that have been shown to work. I promote this one because it represents the culmination of all my experience and research, for much of which you have been by my side and listened in along with me on this podcast. But this does not say other methods do not work. My intention here is not to tell you what to do, I mean you can go to care sheets for that. My intention is to relate the thought process so you can adapt it for your situation, whatever it may be.

First, the night. Through out the night my chameleons will be slowly losing hydration due to breathing. This was actually measured in anole lizards so there is even a paper researched on this. So my chameleons are going to be slowly dehydrating over the night time. How much they will dehydrate is completely dependent on how humid the night is. The dryer it is the more dehydrated my chameleon will get. And I am sure you can relate just in your own experience. During the dry times It seems like I can constantly drink water and not reach my comfortable hydration level. Now, there isn’t a perfect parallel between us and chameleons because we do a lot of sweating, but there is some overlap in experience.

The more dehydrated my chameleon gets during the night the more they will need to drink when they wake up. 

This is how we chameleon keepers have done it for decades. Since we know chameleons don’t drink, in the traditional way, during the night we just ignored nighttime conditions in our wonderful screen cages that don’t hold any humidity and we would mist them multiple times during the day to hydrate them. They would gulp water and we would be happy because we could monitor their hydration activity.

But one thing that always bothered me is why they kept drinking every day like they were parched. It shouldn’t be that way. But the chameleons were growing healthy so it wasn’t a top priority problem. Well, I finally got my answer when I tried giving my chameleons a high humidity night to sleep in. I used foggers because misters would use too much water through the night. That said, I learned through one of my interviews that using misters to prime the area, so to speak, helped the fog stick around. The fog just bounces off dry surfaces so I like the method of wetting the cage surfaces down first. 

The effect was noticeable in that, after sleeping in high humidity, they didn’t drink as much during the day. Their poop had just as much moisture and I was actually able to take care of another thing that bothered me and that was turning the misters on my chameleon during the afternoon.  This bothered me because their panicked reaction at being hit by water let me know that they did not like being sprayed with water. Which is understandable. Even thirsty people don’t like be sprayed. 

But I didn’t like removing a drinking opportunity from my schedule. Sure, the chameleons protested at the beginning of being sprayed, but after settling in they would drink. And I could watch that. That gave me visual feedback that they were drinking. So, how do I make sure they are hydrated without having one or multiple misting sessions when I could observe it during the day? Well, I replaced that with a couple of things. First was a misting session just before the lights came on. So when they woke up there was dew all around and they could see the water droplets and, as they slowly crawled to their basking branch, they would have opportunity to do direct drinking. And this worked very well to keep them hydrated through the day. I also did a misting session in the early evening after lights were out to set the stage for the hydrating night.

Checking the effectiveness of your Hydration Strategy

Jackson's Chameleon Drinking

You always want a way to check to see if your hydration strategy is working. I do this in two ways. The first is to check the poop. Yes, we chameleon keepers end up being poop watchers because what comes out the back end is a very good view as to what is going on inside the chameleon’s body. And since they can’t tell us what they are feeling we have to read the poop. Welcome to chameleon keeping!

If the poop is moist you know the chameleon is hydrated. If it is dry and crusty you know your chameleon needs more water. And, yes, you have to see it before it is soaked by misters. You don’t want to skew the results. If you don’t see any poop for a long time there may be impaction issues of which lack of proper hydration can be a major contributor. 

This is one reason why having a clear cage bottom is valuable for a keeper trying to dial in their husbandry. You need that constant feedback to gauge the success of your efforts. Sure, having the bioactive soil floors sounds amazing and looks beautiful, and I love doing it, but you do lose a strong method to monitor your chameleon’s health. It isn’t a bad idea to get your chameleon keeping experience with a clear floor and then add any bioactive  aspirations later when you are confident your hydration strategy is working properly. So, what do you do if you are observing dehydrated poop? Well, enter in my second test which doubles as a supplemental hydration opportunity.

If you look at the Chameleon Academy hydration schedules, you will notice there is a hydration session a little bit before the lights go out. This is both a test of hydration and a supplemental hydration opportunity.

The test is to provide water and see if they drink it. The best case scenario is that they ignore the water. This test can be as simple as a dripper. I like using a dripper because it isolates their behavior to just a recognition that there is water over there and they make a decision. If misters are used then the behavior is also a reaction to water being sprayed and that mixes the behaviors. And, if water is all over they may run and hide and drink once they have settled in. So that is why I use a dripper. That is the purest way to measure a single reaction. 

If they drink the water I know that I need to provide more water. If they rush in a gulp the water I know I need to check all my systems to make sure they are working properly as this chameleon is desperate for water! So this behavioral test, combined with the physical…I guess we can call it the poop test, gives me a pretty good idea how things are going.

Bolstering Your Hydration

Mister misting

So, what happens if we, through our observations, see signs that we need to add more water to the system? Well, first, don’t feel you have failed in some manner. This is exactly why we have these checkpoints! Also realize that what worked before may need adjustment if the seasons change or your chameleon’s water needs change. You can bet my hydration schedule changes when the dry seasonal winds come in and humidity drops to single digits!

A way to bolster hydration just a little bit is to keep that late afternoon dripper going until they are done drinking. If you want to really take it up to the next level then you can insert an afternoon rain shower. Good ole wet season style! I know some people just turn on the misters and call it good. I go through a little bit more of a ritual and I will explain why. Since as you remember, I don’t like to surprise my warm comfortable chameleon with a blast of mist, so I like to warn them the rains are about to start. To do this I simulate a cloud cover coming by turning off the main lights and, after things cool a little I start the fogger, and then I start the misters for however long I would like to go. If you time this strategically you can have this be the bedtime ritual and just go to complete lights out once misting is done. What you have to keep in mind if you are doing this for hydration is that sometimes chameleons put themselves to bed an hour before lights go out because they are excellent at figuring out consistent time schedules. So, if you are trying to do a rehydration you may need to do this sooner. If you are just including this as a normal part of the daily schedule then you are in maintenance mode and the chameleon will move in and around all your schedules and get what they need. Chameleons are intelligent and pick up on things quickly. So, all I have to do is turn off the main lights and they know that the clouds have come in and there will be rain soon.

Main Lights

Lights on a chameleon cage

Now, I have introduced this new concept of “main lights”. This is relatively new and I present it to you for your consideration. I am enjoying having a lighting system that consists of your standard 6500K T5 fluorescent bulbs for daylight with a T5 UVB lamp, a basking bulb, and I have been adding in an additional LED light bar. I have used the Arcadia Jungle Dawn LED Light Bar for years now and have gotten some great plant growth and results so I use it as a supplemental light for higher light needing plants. I have also found it works great for the afternoon rain shower. When it is time for the afternoon rain shower cycle to start I turn off the main 6500k T5 fluorescent lights and UVB. The basking lamp also goes if it wasn’t already off. And the cage is left with the LED light bar. Since I have the LED bar placed at the back of the cage It creates a lit cage, but with an obvious cloud-cover time effect. I realize many people do not have two separate fixtures for daylight. And that is okay, because you can still create the cloud cover effect if there is still ambient light in the room. But, like everything we do, take away the concept and figure out how it can be worked in your situation with the tools available to you.

Plants in the Chameleon Cage

plants for chameleon cage

I actually really like the bedtime rain shower. I have the dripper on the care summary because this second rain shower may be more than is necessary and it does use up more water. So I don’t want to present that it has to be done for hydration in all cases, but I also want to make sure I communicate it as a way to increase your hydration offering. And, me, I just love being in the office and watching this as part of the hydration cycle. And I love what it does for the plants.

And here is a side tangent when you are working with hydration cycles. Your plants. Plants being subject to the hydration needs of chameleons often die. But this is because either the misters are pointed at the soil and the plants die of too much water, or else the mist nozzles are great at coating the thick leaf cover with dew dripping poetically to the cage floor, but none of it getting to the soil. And the plant dies of dehydration in a cage with misters going off multiple times a day. Enjoy the irony. But it has given many chameleon keepers a complex thinking they can’t keep plants alive. Even if the plants are getting a reasonable amount of moisture you are going to have to keep an eye on them. We chameleon keepers work our hydration schedules on a daily basis, but some plants like their soil to dry out over the week before being watered again. So, it is a good idea to research your plants. The situation I look for is to make sure the misters do not point at the soil and I am happy if all the misting just ends up being dew on the leaves. This allows the plant to get what they are looking for as far as care. I just have to remember to come around every week with the watering can to care for the plants. But the plants do love the foggy nights. Oh my goodness, how gorgeous they grow! Just remember you are taking care of an environment, not just a chameleon!

Summary

maranta leaf providing water for chameleon

In summary, my intentions are to fog during the night to keep them from getting dehydrated, give them drinking opportunities when they start their day, and then have a back-up test of some kind before they turn in for the night so they can go to sleep topped off if they need it. Of course, any feeding done during the day will affect the levels. The juicier the insect the more hydration, the more powder, the more water to process it so it is always a give and take. Through it all, I am watching both the poop and behavior to make sure things are working well. And, I will do this testing constantly. Weather changes, humidity rises and falls, my chameleon’s needs change with lifecycle…so by making a hydration test a daily occurrence I can know if I need to adjust for any external changes that have gone on.

So, there you go. That is a tour around my current favorite hydration approach. Now, if you have been in the community for any length of time you probably know that people are quite passionate about their hydration schedule. I try to stay out of it as much as possible. I present to you the reasons why I have come to my conclusions. And, really, many of you have seen my growth and have listened to my sources right along side me as we have all grown through this podcast. So, nothing I say will be a real mystery. You have literally watched it come together.  But you don’t have to come to the same conclusions I have. I hope you come to your own conclusions based on your own interpretation of what I have presented and the effects you see when you try it out in your husbandry. And if you come to different conclusions I would be interested in how you came to those conclusions and what you found when you explored  that direction. Success or failure, I don’t care. Every test has value even if the conclusion is to not do this again. You might save me from trying it! 

There is another value in you understanding the reasoning behind all the steps I do. When you understand the ebb and flow of hydration levels through the day you can evaluate any other hydration method you run across and you can understand what is going on and why it works. You can evaluate what kind of hydration/dehydration swing the chameleon is going through during the day. You can look at your hydration strategy and instead of tossing it all out you can tweak it and intelligently add hydration components. Focus not on the equipment used, but the effect being generated. For example, If you naturally have high humidity nights then you don’t to fog. I know you hear a lot of “you have to fog during the night” and think you need to get a fogger, but if you understand why the fogger is used you can determine if you really need it in your situation. If you have high humidity nights you may not need a fogger. If you have bone dry days and are struggling to keep the humidity up then a fogger during the day may be exactly what you need if you can’t humidify the whole room. What, did you hear you should fog during the day? Well, first ask why that is. That is because you don’t want to combine high humidity with high temperatures and high temperatures tend to accompany the basking and other lights being on. But if you need a bump in humidity then, by all means, use a fogger or humidifier to give your chameleon what it needs. I have seasonal dry winds that come through my area. You can bet my foggers and misters are going on day and night during that time. What is important is that I understand the high level concepts and needs, and adjust how I use my tools to achieve the care summary goals. 

And, yes, that takes a level of understanding beyond a simple one sentence answer. But, that is why you are here.