Choosing an appropriate enclosure for your chameleon can be a daunting task. A quick glance on your favourite social media sites will reveal numerous opinions about which type of enclosure is correct, and dire warnings about how the wrong type will spell certain death for your chameleon. Like almost everything in this hobby, the views touted as the one and only way typically contain some kernels of truth, but fail to be universally applicable. The reason is that an enclosure is not a solitary item on a chameleon checklist, but is instead related to a number of other factors. One thing is for certain, however, CHAMELEONS MUST BE HOUSED INDIVIDUALLY. ADULT CHAMELEONS OF EVERY SPECIES ARE SOLITARY ANIMALS AND CANNOT BE KEPT IN GROUPS.
Before deciding on the kind of enclosure to purchase, it is worthwhile knowing what an enclosure has to accomplish. First, it needs to contain your chameleon--preventing escapes, and keeping the chameleon safe from outside dangers such pets, and young children. Second, it needs to make it possible for you to meet the temperature, lighting, humidity and security needs of your pet. Any type of enclosure that fails these conditions will ultimately fail your chameleon. Notice that this makes the answer to, "What is the best type of enclosure," relative to the specific ambient conditions of the environment in which you intend to keep your pet. The conditions in a centrally heated home in Edmonton, will differ significantly from those in an apartment in Niagara. Likewise, keepers on Vancouver Island might reasonably keep their chameleons in an unheated porch year round--something a keeper in Winnipeg cannot do. The point is that the best type of enclosure for your chameleon will be determined by a number of factors specific to your situation, as well as your willingness to cope with any shortcomings of a particular enclosure type.
As for enclosure size, this too will depend on multiple factors. For many of the popular species, enclosure sizes are often given as minimums. For example, many care sheets for Veiled and Panther chameleons list a minimum cage size of 2'x2'x4' tall = 16cu. feet. However, these are not dimensions written in stone. You could satisfy the minimum of of 16 cu. feet with an enclosure that measures 2'x3'x3' (18cu. feet). Conventional wisdom used to be that since chameleons are arboreal animals (they live in trees) they need very tall cages. Again, there is some truth to this: a full grown male veiled chameleon will not be happy in a 2' tall enclosure, but given that he may reach a length of 20", a 2' wide enclosure might be considered cramped too. Yes, most chameleons are arboreal, but they move horizontally through the trees they inhabit, so providing horizontal space is equally important.
Below are descriptions of the main enclosure types, as well as their pros and cons.
All screen enclosures were basically orthodoxy for decades. Keepers were told chameleons need airflow, and that only screen enclosures could provide this. While this latter point has been pretty thoroughly debunked, all-screen cages are still among the most widely used enclosures for chameleons. They are typically inexpensive and have been used successfully for decades. The general design is simple: Five appropriately sized framed window screens are put together to create a screen box with a solid plastic bottom. One or more hinged pieces make the door and bottom access panel. More sophisticated iterations can include a drainage tray, a full screen bottom, and add ons to enable the use of substrate.
Screen cages are lightweight, and can be easily broken down. Of course, once you fill them with potted plants, perhaps soil, and a network of branches, they become a lot heavier. Another benefit of all-screen cages is that if your ambient conditions (temp/humidity/security) closely match what your particular species requires, then an all-screen cage will make it easy to satisfy your chameleon's needs. This, unfortunately is also their downfall. As Canadians, we are all well aware of how dry the air in our homes can get in the winter. In the prairies, the indoor humidity in a centrally heated home can drop below 20%. While low daytime humidity is not all that bad (20% is pushing it even for hardy species), the most commonly kept species of chameleons typically require nighttime humidity levels approaching 100%. In an all-screen cage, this can be very difficult to accomplish. Keepers have used shower curtains, window wrap and other measures to try to insulate the interior of their enclosures from the dry ambient air, and these methods can be successful, but it is an uphill battle for all-screen cages. One more negative aspect of all-screen enclosures is that the mist from the misters we typically use can escape and cause damage to drywall, flooring and furniture. I am not trying to discourage you from all-screen, I am merely pointing out where you'll have to put in extra effort to make them work in many Canadian households.
Even today, mention all-glass enclosures in some circles and you'll be branded a heretic. Whether or not this is a hangover from the old days when chameleons were kept in aquariums, or whether it is just a piece of folk-wisdom that has not evolved with the enclosures it impugns, the fact remains that the most modern all-glass enclosures are designed with airflow in mind. They, have vents in front near the bottom and screens tops--the combination of which creates a chimney effect when used in conjunction with a top mounted heat lamp. To be sure, misting and dripping schedules need to be adjusted to accommodate the added humidity retention these enclosures provide. However, if you have extreme dry air, and other ambient factors that are outside your chameleon's comfort zone, these modern all-glass enclosures can be an asset. On the down side, they are heavy, not easily moved, and are less forgiving when it comes to overwatering. Drainage holes can be drilled into the glass, but it is a delicate process. That being said, many keepers who use these enclosures set them up as bio-active--employing overflow drain systems, or no drain at all.
To summarize, all-glass enclosures are an excellent choice if the conditions outside your enclosure are very different from the ones you are trying to create inside your enclosure. They make maintaining high nighttime humidity a breeze, and air flow is not a problem if they are set-up correctly. However, most chameleons do require lower daytime humidity, and their enclosures need to dry out during the day. If you are not careful with your misting regime, you can easily create a soggy swamp that will negatively affect the health of your chameleon.
- photo of a Dragon Strand hybrid Cage
This is a relatively new development in modern chameleon caging. Some companies have made small inroads here--switching the bottom glass front of an all-glass enclosure with screen so that both the top and one small portion of the front is screen--but Bill Strand of the Chameleon Academy and Dragon Strand Caging Company has really been the champion of hybrid cages. The idea is that one or more of the screen panels on a screen cage are replaced with solid PVC plastic. Variants include just a solid back, two solid sides, or a solid back and two solid sides. By far, this is the most versatile enclosure system. For those of us dealing with extremely dry indoor air, having three solid sides retains a significant amount of humidity overnight, while avoiding the problems associated with consistently soggy conditions. For those of us in particularly humid areas, having a solid back allows us the airflow we need, while protecting the walls from mist drift. Compared to all-screen cages, these enclosures are slightly heavier (depending on how many solid sides you have). Compared to glass enclosures, these will retain less heat and humidity than all glass enclosures, depending on which variant you choose.
It often happens that an all-in-one product ends up doing each one of its tasks poorly. Hybrid cages appear to be an exception to the rule, combining the good features of all-screen and all-glass enclosures.
Building your own enclosure is very rewarding, and provides the freedom to build big and build for a particular space or purpose. Even if your cabinet making skills are sub-par, there are some excellent china cabinet conversion designs on the internet. However, the biggest motivation for building your own cage is for outdoor housing. In the most populated areas in Canada, there are usually two or more months that many species can spend outside in the fresh air and natural sunlight. Here in southwest Ontario, I am lucky enough to be able to keep most of my chameleons outside for 5 months/year. If you live in the prairies, or more northern climes, your season will be shorter, but there is no overvaluing outdoor keeping. However, with outdoor enclosures comes the threat of predators. A hungry racoon, weasel, mink or bird of prey will have no trouble tearing aluminum window screen. And since glass enclosures will cook in the sun, using galvanized, or PVC coated hardware cloth is about your only choice. However, the sky is the limit on size!