Chameleon Dehydration Care Guide

by Dave

Dehydration in chameleons is the most common health problem they can have, particularly in captive chameleons. It’s so common that I felt it deserved a dedicated post to it because it’s also the leading cause of death in pet chameleons.

What causes chameleon dehydration?

By far the most common cause of dehydration is not being knowledgable about how a chameleon drinks water and not providing their drinking water properly.

I’ve written a more detailed article about chameleon drinking water but in summary, chameleons don’t drink water like most animals do.

Instead of drinking water from a standing source, like a river or from a bowl in captivity, chameleons drink by licking droplets that form on or drip from leaves. Furthermore, they can only notice water is present in this form as they do not recognize standing water.

Because of this many keepers don’t realize how to provide water properly and instead offer it in drinking bowls or bottles.

Even if they are aware of how chameleons drink they’re unsure how long to mist for, what method to use, how often and so on. This is why dehydration is the leading cause of death.

Other causes of dehydration are humidity being too low. This is less common as it’s not too difficult to provide correct levels of it but levels too low or high carry risks.

Dehydration also stems from temperatures being too hot meaning the chameleon is too hot causing dehydration. Too high temperatures also mean any water sprayed can evaporate too quickly before your chameleon has a chance to drink it.

Dehydration can result from other illnesses that can cause your chameleon not to drink properly or stop drinking altogether.

What are the symptoms of chameleon dehydration?
A severely dehydrated chameleon. Note the sunken eyes and lethargic appearance.

Dehydration can either be mild or severe. A chameleon will give pretty clear signs of both if you know what to look out for.

  • Orange/Yellow Urates – The white part of a chameleon’s poop is its urates. If this is white then things are ok. A bit yellow means your chameleon is a little bit dehydrated and orange means things are more severe.
  • Sagging Skin – This isn’t always obvious but a chameleon’s skin is usually quite tight around its body. If you gently pull the skin and it returns back to the original position slowly or not at all then the chameleon is dehydrated
  • Lethargy – This can be a sign of many things from mild to severe but a lethargic chameleon is often one that isn’t drinking.
  • Not Eating – Again another sign of several health problems but not eating usually means not drinking either.
How to prevent chameleon dehydration?

As with many chameleon health problems, the best way to prevent them is having their cage properly set up right from the start. There are ways to improve on this though.

  • Use an Automatic Mister – These are the easiest and most effective way to provide water. They can be set up and timed to run whenever you want and for how long you want. They save a lot of time and worry. I recommend either the Mist King or Exo Terra Monsoon both available on Amazon.
  • Use Real Plants – Any from this list are great. Real plants hold water better on their leaves than fake ones giving your chameleon a better chance to drink from them. They also help maintain humidity levels correctly.
  • Get a Hygrometer – This is essential to accurately measure the humidity levels inside your chameleon’s cage. This one is perfect.
Treating Chameleon Dehydration

First, you need to determine whether your chameleon is mildly or severely dehydrated. Mild/moderate dehydration shows up in the form of yellow urates and is therefore easy to detect if you check its poop every time, which you should.

More severe dehydration is when your chameleon’s eyes are sunken, its urates are orange and they’re looking lethargic. In this situation, your chameleon will need veterinary treatment fast.

If your chameleon is mildly dehydrated then there are things you can do yourself that usually solve the problem.

  • A long misting session – This should be your first option and it’s one that usually does the trick. You need to absolutely drench the plants and enclosure. Around 20 minutes or so should be good. I’ve nursed my chameleon back to good hydration health this way even when its urates were starting to go orange.
  • A chameleon shower – If you feel they need a bit more you can give your chameleon a shower. This involves placing them on a plant outside the cage, putting them in your shower and letting them have a good drink for 30-45 minutes.

    Use hot water and don’t put the shower directly on them, aim it at the wall so the water splashes off onto them and only give showers to chameleons over 6 months old. Baby chameleons can drown this way. Do not leave your chameleon alone either.
  • Fruit – A great way to get hydration levels up is by offering fruit. Use juicy fruits like watermelon (without the seeds) honeydew melon, strawberries, and grapes. Make sure the pieces are cut to roughly the size of an insect. I like offering by hand the most but you can just leave it somewhere you chameleon can reach it easily if you prefer.
  • Electrolytes – This involves offering something beyond water. To do this take a syringe and fill it with half water and half a drink rich in electrolytes. I recommend coconut water or watermelon juice but a good sugar free sports drink will work too.

    Get your chameleon to open their mouth and gently squirt the whole syringe full into their mouth. Do this a few times and it will help hydrate your chameleon quicker than just by using water alone.

If none of these work and your chameleon is showing more severe signs of dehydration then it is likely caused by an underlying problem and you should take them to a vet for a check up.

To wrap up

Chameleon dehydration is really common in both mild and severe forms. It is often caused by a lack of knowledge and poor cage set up.

Do lots of research before getting a chameleon and make sure you get their set up right before you buy one. Hopefully, this article has helped you be more aware of dehydration symptoms and what you can do to treat it.

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