A properly designed and furnished cage is one of the most important aspects of panther chameleon husbandry. All sub-adult to adult chameleons should be housed individually. Babies may be reared communally for a couple of months in an appropriate enclosure. The enclosure must be a large enough space so the animal may conduct all of its natural behaviors including, basking, hunting, drinking and feeding, and must accomplish the following objectives:
- Provides good ventilation on all sides, top and bottom of the enclosure. Poor ventilation, as in a glass aquarium, traps stagnant air, provides an opportunity for fungus and bacteria to grow, and is difficult to clean and disinfect. Respiratory infections (often fatal for baby chameleons), eye infections and skin infections are common diseases for chameleons housed in solid-walled enclosures.
- Safely supports a lighting system indoors, including at least one incandescent basking lamp for heat and UV-A, and one fluorescent lamp that emits UV-B (e.g. ReptiSun 5.0 by Zoo Med), or a mercury vapor lamp that emits UV-B, UV-A and infrared heat (e.g. DRAGONLITE by Marc Weiss Companies, Inc.).
- Allows exposure to direct sunlight and fresh air. Whenever the temperatures outdoors are within the preferred range of your species, the enclosure should be transferred outside so your chameleon can bask in the sun, which is the best source of UV-B irradiation (see Metabolic Bone Disease). Never place an enclosure with glass walls in the sun as the interior may overheat and kill the chameleon.
- Facilitates easy removal of excess drinking water on a daily basis. Cages with screened floors work best for this purpose. As a volume of rapidly dripping water passes through the chameleon’s cage, the panther chameleon can lap water from the plants and the excess (which far exceeds the amount consumed) drains into a basin under the cage when the cage in indoors, and can simply fall onto the ground outdoors. Enclosures with solid floors require an extra expenditure of effort to remove the excess water that accumulates on a daily basis and are therefore not recommended.
- Allows the chameleon to perch above your eye level. Chameleons are arboreal creatures in nature and some species normally perch at heights of six feet or more. This gives chameleons a sense of security that should be factored into their captive environment. Enclosures that open from the top, such as aquariums, are usually placed low to provide easy access for the keeper. Most chameleons in this environment attempt escape by reaching for their keeper whenever the top is opened. This behavior is usually interpreted as a sign of friendliness, but chameleons that constantly react in this fashion are probably just seeking escape or a higher perch because they are uncomfortable in their enclosure.
- Predator-proof. Chameleons housed outdoors must be safe from attacks by birds, cats, dogs, rats, snakes, and a variety of nocturnal predators. It is advisable to perform a flashlight inspection after dusk to ensure that chameleons choose a sleeping perch that is inaccessible to predators.
Although chameleons are often slow-moving animals, they require a lot of space for their physical and emotional comfort and security. Buying or making the wrong enclosure can be an expensive mistake, especially if it results in serious injuries or poor health for your panther chameleon. A trip to the veterinarian for health problems resulting from poor caging can result in medical costs that far exceed the cost of an appropriate cage. The following cage materials are not recommended:
- Cages constructed of aluminum window screen are not advisable for medium to large adult chameleons (i.e., F. pardalis) as there is the potential for claw damage or claw amputation if the chameleon spends significant time traversing the enclosure walls.
- Fiberglass screen should be avoided as the coating can degrade, exposing sharp fiberglass threads.
- Hardware cloth or other uncoated metal wire can cause serious foot and snout injuries.
- Dense mesh material can block adequate exposure to light and UV-B resulting in depression, lethargy, anorexia or metabolic disorders.
- Aquariums or other solid-walled enclosures may result in serious bacterial or fungal diseases, some of which are life threatening.
Furnishing the Enclosure
The enclosure needs to be equipped with a variety of horizontal perching areas so that the lizard can easily navigate the entire cage. You’ll also need to arrange the lights in such a way as to allow your panther chameleon to choose when it wants to be towards the upper and lower temperature limits. Temperature variety is very important and your chameleon will need access to both the upper and lower limits within the same enclosure. That way your chameleon will naturally thermoregulate by moving itself throughout it’s enclosure.
Live plants provide security, hiding places, and a surface to lap drinking water from. They also add to the beauty of the enclosure. Many chameleons are known to eat vegetation, so only non-toxic plants should be used in their enclosures. Hibiscus is an ideal non-toxic plant for chameleon cages. They are beautiful plants that provide nutritional plant matter (blossoms and leaves) and good navigation. One commonly recommended plant that should be used with caution is Ficus benjamina. These plants are mildly toxic and excrete a white milky sap when leaves or branches are injured that may cause skin or eye irritation if a chameleon comes in contact with it. Do not place a freshly pruned Ficus in a chameleon cage until the sap has stopped oozing and the wound is dry to the touch.
There are many risks of poisoning from newly purchased plants. Many commercial growers use toxic chemical pesticides, fungicides and plant growth regulators that could make your chameleon very ill (or dead) if ingested. Some of these chemicals are sprayed on plants, others are added to the soil and drawn up by the roots into the leaves of the plant. Washing the plant will NOT eliminate the toxicity of chemicals added to the soil. The safest method of adding a new plant to a chameleon enclosure is to clean the leaves and stems with warm water and mild detergent, rinse thoroughly, re-pot the plant in a new container with organic potting soil that does not contain chemicals, place the plant in a sunny location and wait six months before transferring it into an enclosure that houses a panther chameleon.