Introduction to Size
Size refers to both volume and shape, both of which are important to consider. The generally accepted dimensions for a minimum size chameleon cage for an adult is 2′ x 2′ x 4′. These dimensions work, of course. But they have also been influenced by convenience. They are vertically oriented, for example, because that type of cage is easier to package and ship. The volume is often vehemently defended, yet there are other cage shapes that work just as well and even better. In this module we will go over the considerations to think on when determining a cage size.
How much space does a chameleon need?
I will have to make some generalizations because every chameleon is different, but we’ll integrate as many common elements as possible.
A typical day of a typical chameleon is waking up from a perch that is protected in some way – either by thorns, or being out at the end of a thin branch, inside leaves, or something that gives the chameleon security. The chameleon will lick whatever dew is around and make his way to an open area and bask until warmed up at which time he will retreat into the cooler interior of the bush to wait out the heat of the day. In the late afternoon he may come out again to hunt in the cool of the evening before finding his sleeping spot. Of course, the schedule changes depending on weather and predators and hunger and thirst etc…, but I think we can all agree that if a chameleon was allowed these basic functions he would live a happy life. Chameleons tend to stay in one place and move only when they need something. They are not like we are where if we are in one place for too long we get trunky and cranky. So the minimum cage size would be the one in which we can create a safe place for them to sleep and an effective basking area that has access to food and water. If your chameleon is happy with those two places they really don’t need much else. So the object of this section is, what does it take to effectively give a chameleon those options.
How much space does a gradient take?
Chameleons, like every animal, are constantly regulating their temperature and wanting different levels of exposure and security. That is the whole concept of gradients which remains one of the most important foundational concepts in chameleon keeping. We need to not only provide them the basking temperature, but different levels of heat which they choose to be in whenever they want. And when they want it a little cooler well they need to be able to find that as well. So you now have a hot spot (at a level appropriate for your species of course) and a cool spot (ambient temperature) and the branch network to effectively be at any temperature inbetween. So this complicates things.
Our heat sources, usually an incandescent bulb, dissipate quickly as they travel away from the heat source. What this means is that making sure a little carpet chameleon can fit their body into a certain point along the heat gradient is much easier than making sure a large adult Meller’s Chameleon can fit their body in a certain point in the gradient. You could, with the wrong set-up, create a temperature gradient that falls ten degrees from too hot to not warm enough from the head to end of the Meller’s chameleon. While that same set-up may work great for a carpet chameleon, it would drive a large Meller’s chameleon crazy trying to get warmed up. And probably end up with burns as the chameleon tried to warm its whole body.
This is where it is useful to understand the four gradients of heat, humidity, UVB, and exposure.
Quick review of gradients.
Heat is somewhat obvious. They need a basking spot at an appropriate temperature, a cool side at the other end of the cage, and basking branches all along the way in between to select their own comfort temperature. And this temperature will change by the minute. You have to give them access to it all.
UVB has the same dynamic. Appropriate D3 synthesis level at the basking spot and blocked by foliage in the middle of the cage.
Humidity is actually a gradient over time. There is an ebb and flow with high humidity at night and lower during the day to dry the cage out. But even during the lower humidity of the day, offering an area of live plants will provide a higher humidity pocket.
And then, the most overlooked, the gradient of exposure. This is allowing your chameleon to hide in the leaves when they feel like it. And this means hiding fully from view. From any side that there is activity. We live in a three dimensional world. If the back side of the cage is screen, and people or pets walk by, then it doesn’t count as a hiding place and your chameleon knows it!
Those are your four gradients. The standard I follow as to how big a cage should be is how much space it requires to fulfill those required four gradients.
Where did the 2' x 2' x 4' cage standard come from?
Care sheets generally list a minimum size for a certain chameleon species. For the standard sized chameleons, such as Veileds and panthers, the advice over the last couple decades usually ends up being a 2′ x 2′ x 4′ cage. So where did this cage size and shape come from? It is hard to tell who originally developed this size and shape. But, over the years of small garage based side businesses, this became the standard. So much so, that when the large pet product corporations wanted to get in on screen cages, they just sent over one of these and told China to copy it. Now the 2′ x 2′ x 4′ cage is so common I suspect we will have it for a while. The interesting thing is that care sheets morphed to fit what was available. Caresheets of long ago started by saying these 2′ x 2′ x 4′ tall cages were acceptable, but somehow, many people morphed that into a vertically orientated 2′ x 2′ x 4′ cage being required to the exclusion of other shapes and sizes. And by “vertical” I mean the dimensions were higher than wide. This was embraced under the logic that chameleons needed height. And this is why it is important to understand why the parameters matter instead of just making caresheets from what you see. The vertically orientated cages work just fine, but they were vertical because it is easier to make, box and ship. Not because chameleons required a vertical design or that it is best. In fact, chameleons are horizontal animals! We will get to shape later. For now, I just wanted to point out that sometimes our tribal knowledge of requirements that gets passed down from keeper to keeper is sometimes based on what is available rather than what should be used.
The 2′ x 2′ x 4′ tall cage has its place and is effective, but we will be exploring a wide range of options!
Chameleon Cage Height vs. Width
Height is security to most chameleon species found in captivity. But height to a chameleon is not how far their basking branch is to the floor of their cage, but how high their basking branch is relative to the people and creatures walking around them. This is why wide format cages can be shorter in height and be effective. A 30” tall cage on top of a dresser will give more security than a 48” tall cage on the floor. If you have the option, go ahead and give them both width and height, but I need to impress upon you that it is more how the cage is set-up rather than the dimensions of the cage that is important to your chameleon. I have seen 2x2x4’ cages that were so poorly set-up that a carpet chameleon would never be happy in it. And I have seen a full grown Meller’s Chameleon happy in a 22” x 16” x 45” tall cage while rejecting the two larger cages I kept trying to get her to go into. It is all in how the cage interior is set-up. And I will share that the one mistake I see over and over that could be a complete game changer is that people do not give a hiding space. Any plants they have are along the edges of the cage and there is no real chance of the chameleon being able to rest hidden from view on an appropriate perching branch behind them. Give them a leafy glen that they can retreat to and be hidden from your view and you will be amazed at how quickly they calm down. This is the exposure gradient. Give your chameleon the option to be out and about or hidden and feeling safe. Remember that, no matter how convinced you are that they love you or how tame they are, it is programmed deep in their DNA that they should be in a protected space to sleep. Give that to them. And, to bring this back to the topic at hand, it isn’t the chameleon that needs cage space to exercise or do laps, it is you that needs the cage space to create the world that they live in. Give yourself the space you need to create these environments. The larger the chameleon, the larger the space you need to create a gradient big enough that they can fit their body in. This is why we say the larger the cage the better. The more space you have the easier it is for you to create the environment they need. Since chameleons are horizontal animals, wider cages are great tools!
Housing Juvenile Chameleons
It is common for people to be advised to raise their juvenile chameleons up to adulthood in smaller cages. And then there is this Chameleon Academy guy that likes to raise his single days old baby chameleon up in a adult size, heavily planted cage. So, should you have a smaller “grow-out” cage until they get big enough for the adult cage? Or do you need just one adult size cage? As with most things in the chameleon world, there are many approaches and they all have their merits and disadvantages. If you wanted quick answers you wouldn’t be taking this class so let’s dive in to understanding the situation.
Chameleons are designed to be self-sufficient from the moment they hatch out of the egg. Their first missions in life are to find food and safety to grow up as fast as they can. And they do this within a continent sized enclosure. In captivity there is value in being able to supervise them closely so, although I am the most out spoken proponent of keeping babies in adult size cages this has to be done strategically.
From the chameleon’s perspective, they have no problem being in a large cage and actually will do better having a dense “forest” in which to hide. Remember that they are prey items – especially babies. A sense of security is an even bigger issue for younger chameleons. They are hunters and will search out food. Their mission is to grow. So why would we consider starting them in smaller cages?
Smaller cages have the advantage that you can monitor your baby chameleon more closely. You are more likely to find their poop and ensure that they can find the food you put in. The downside of smaller cages is that it is more difficult to create the gradients. The smaller the space the more careful you have to be about how much heat and UVB energy you input into the cage.
My advice is to get the adult size cage from the beginning. Set up the adult gradients and dense foliage. Just make sure there is an open space where you can hang a feeder run cup. A feeder run cup is a cup with a backing which can be climbed by feeder insects. The bottom usually has drainage holes. This keeps the feeders contained so they do not get lost in the cage. The rough backing allows them to move around to attract the chameleon’s attention. This allows you to have one place where you can see your chameleon and then allow him to slink back into the leaves to feel safe. Your chameleon is very smart when it comes to food and will learn what the feeder cup means. Be consistent with your feeding time and you may find your chameleon waiting for you at the branch by the feeding station.
Although this should not really be a topic of discussion if you are buying a veiled or panther chameleon. Veiled chameleons are voracious food collection devices and will find the food in any size cage. You just have to do your part by not allowing the food to hide. Panther chameleons are usually sold at three to four months old and are well on their way to being the size of an adult carpet chameleon. These really aren’t babies anymore! But if you are getting involved with some of the other smaller species such as captive hatched juvenile carpet chameleons then it is probably better to have a smaller cage. It will absolutely work putting a baby carpet chameleon in a 48” tall cage, but there is an enormous amount of faith and confidence required. And probably skill. Thus, in my minimum size chart, I have smaller cages listed for juveniles. If you have the confidence in your abilities then have at it.
The bottom line is that a smaller grow-out cage is for our benefit and makes it easy for us to provide care. The chameleons will not get stressed being in a larger, properly set-up cage.
What size cage should I get for my chameleon?
So let’s tie this up. What size cage should you get? Every species will have their own needs. But the basic guideline is no surprise. The smaller the chameleon the smaller the minimum cage size and, of course, the reverse is true. I would like to encourage you, though, to get way beyond the minimum size cage. You would be surprised at the peace that comes from seeing a chameleon in a cage much larger than minimum. You see more natural behaviors and there is a joy in seeing them be a chameleon rather than a captive. With the right cage set-up, I have successfully kept a Parson’s Chameleon in a 2’x2’x4’cage. But you do not get the full appreciation of how majestic this animal is until she is in a 8’x4’x8’ tall heavily planted walk in enclosure. I have kept carpet chameleons very happy in 11” wide x 16” deep x 24” high cages, but I found a deeper joy when they were in a heavily planted 2x2x4’ cage. You see, chameleons have simple desires in life. They want to be the right temperature, eat, drink, and not be eaten. That is it. We want something much more difficult to get from our chameleons. We want a sense of wonder and to be able to touch the nature that seems so far away for many of us. Their physical needs will be fulfilled in a smaller cage than our emotional desires will. So, I encourage you to give yourself the gift of giving them the largest space possible. It is for your enrichment as well as their health.
Minimum Cage Chart
The following chart is a magnitude only. The dimensions listings here are dimensions from sample cages that exist in the market. If you are building your own cage then please do not think you have to adhere to these dimensions! They are not dimensions derived from a rigid set of needs. Therefore, use these numbers to give you an idea of the minimum size to look for. But use the knowledge gained here to help guide your decisions. For example, width is a valuable commodity in chameleon caging. It can be a great substitute for height. For example, the Exo-Terra 3′ x 18″ x 3′ Large X-Tall cage is a great replacement for the 2′ x 2′ x 4′ cage listed here as a minimum. So this list only gives a rough idea of what will work. The problem with minimum size charts is that people then use this as a shopping list to restrict their choices. Within this module I have shopping lists so feel free to use them. But always jump up to the next level of cages if you are able to!