When setting up an enclosure for a pet chameleon the most important aspect to get right is its lighting. In fact, it’s absolutely essential for your chameleon’s health, and getting it right will save you lots of trouble down the line.
A pet chameleon needs a basking light to provide them with heat and a UVB light to enable them to create vitamin D3.
This guide will help you meet your chameleon’s lighting needs from the get-go and applies to Veiled, Panther and Jackson chameleons.
Why Chameleons Need a Basking Light
Like all reptiles chameleons are ectotherms. This means they are unable to regulate their own body temperature like mammals can and instead have to rely on an outside source to thermoregulate their temperature. Of course, the best source for this is natural sunlight
Chameleons will wake up in the morning and the first thing they will do is find a quiet place to sit in the sun and soak up its heat in order to warm its body to the optimum temperature.
They will then move away to a cooler area to feed, get a drink if there are droplets on leaves nearby or just hang around and cool down.
Chameleons will repeat this throughout the day as and when their body temperature dictates.
This thermoregulation needs to be replicated in captivity and this is why a basking light is required. The basking light mimics the sun for the chameleon to sit under until it’s warm enough to move away and feed or drink.
Why Chameleons Need UVB Light
All living creatures need sunlight to thrive but chameleons don’t just need it for thermoregulation
While chameleons are busy soaking up the heat from the sun in their natural habitat they’re also soaking up the sun’s UVB rays.
This is so they can create essential vitamin D3 which they use to absorb calcium from their diet.
Without a UVB bulb, your chameleon will get sick pretty quickly with metabolic bone disease being the worst of the problems caused by no UVB light source.
What Basking Light Should I Get For My Chameleon?
There are various combination lamps where you can provide a UVB compact bulb and a basking light bulb at the same time. A manufacturing fault meant compact coiled UVB bulbs have been known to cause eye problems in chameleons in the past.
These problems have apparently been fixed now but I would still be wary of buying one. They also don’t provide the same level of UVB coverage as a strip bulb does.
As for the basking bulb, all you need is an incandescent shaped general halogen spot bulb. It needs to be halogen as LED lights do not give off heat.
The wattage you will need to get will depend on what the temperature is like in your home year-round but generally between 40 and 60-watt halogen bulbs are perfect.
You can also buy a UVB and basking bulb all in one known as a mercury vapor bulb but these give out too much heat for a chameleon and may cause them to burn themselves.
They’re also more expensive on their own than buying a basking bulb and a UVB bulb separately.
What UVB Light Should I Get For My Chameleon?
You should only choose one type of UVB light for your chameleon and that’s a T5 hight output strip bulb. There’s a good reason for this that’s demonstrated in the image below:
As you can see in the bottom left image a UVB strip light with a reflector gets better breadth and depth of light penetration into the cage than any other method.
There is some debate over whether to use a 5.0 or 10 strength UVB bulb for a pet chameleon.
These numbers indicate what percentage of UVB rays the bulbs emit. 5.0 are considered fine for panther chameleons, veiled chameleons and Jackson chameleons but there are a couple of things to bear in mind.
Mesh screens can filter out some UVB rays so if you have a thick mesh then I would go for a 10 bulb for a panther or veiled chameleon. Aways use a 5.0 for Jackson’s chameleons.
For my chameleon, I used a reptisun 5.0 bulb when he was young and then switched to a 10 at about 2 years old.
He never experienced any health-related problems related to lack of UVB and his colors looked so bright whenever I got him a fresh bulb.
You’ll need to get a hood with reflector like this highly recommended one on amazon that comes with a free 5.0 bulb to get you started, which is fine for young chameleons.
As I mentioned above you can get compact coiled UVB bulbs and two in one mercury vapor bulbs but the previous eye problems caused by the coil bulbs make me wary and the mercury vapor bulbs get too hot.
They also don’t provide as good coverage as a strip UVB bulb placed on top of the enclosure.
It will really depend on the size of your enclosure but you will probably need either the 22 or 34 inch version of the bulb to fit all the way across the top of the enclosure.
UVB bulbs will last a long time but they do need to be changed every six months. This is because the level of UVB light emitted drops significantly around this time.
You can probably get away with nine months before changing but I recommend six months. You will see a positive change in your chameleon’s mood whenever you replace the bulb.
What about chameleon grow lights?
Grow lights are bright LED lights placed alongside the basking and UVB lights on top of the cage.
While they’re nonessential for a chameleon’s health they do help the plants to thrive in what are generally low light conditions in the enclosure, despite the bright UVB and heat lamps.
They also vividly display your chameleon’s colors alongside the plant life.
Where Should The Lights Be Placed in a chameleon’s cage?
- Basking Light – The basking light should be placed in one corner of the cage. It should be outside the enclosure so your chameleon cannot burn themselves on it. If you have a screen cage, the best cage in my opinion, you can simply place the light on the mesh above a perch approximately 8 to 10 inches away from it. This will enable your chameleon to get warm enough but not too hot so that it burns itself. If you have a glass enclosure you can do the same but only if the top of the cage is mesh. Do not place directly onto the glass as the enclosure will overheat creating an oven-like effect in the enclosure.
- UVB Light – I’m going to work on the assumption you got the strip light version of the UVB bulb. Really they are the best solution. Simply lay it flat on top of the enclosure and this will provide enough of a spectrum for your chameleon to get the UVB it needs. UVB light cannot penetrate glass so only do this if you have a screen cage or the top of your glass enclosure is mesh.
- Grow Light – Should you choose to get one just place this on top of at the back behind the UVB lights.
Make sure you have a perch running below the highest one and some good plant cover surrounding it and below it.
You’ll need to leave a bit of bare space at the top of the enclosure so your chameleon can sit directly under the basking lamp without having the heat blocked and UVB rays blocked by plant matter.
Below that though provide good cover to enable your chameleon to move away from the heat and UVB when it needs to in order to thermoregulate.
How Long Should The Lights Stay On In A Chameleon’s Cage?
I have gone a bit more depth into this in my related article about sleeping chameleons but in general, the lights need to go on a twelve-hour on and twelve-hour off cycle.
This ensures your chameleon gets enough sleep and keeps their day/night rhythm consistent.
Some people argue that in order to mimic the day/night rhythm you need to do extra things like reducing the time the lights are on during winter and you need to provide blue and red spectrum lights to mimic the moon and so on.
While I did experiment a bit with reducing the light on hours when I had my chameleon I didn’t really notice any difference in behavior, in fact, he seemed happier when I stuck with twelve hours on and twelve hours off cycle.
As for the light spectrums? Most bulbs come with these built-in now, particularly the one I recommended above. Whether that specifically benefits behavior or not I don’t know but my chameleon certainly looked brighter and more active whenever I changed the bulb.
In any case, you will certainly need to have a pair of timers to make sure your chameleon’s lights come on and go off at the same time each day.
Sure you can turn them off yourself but who of us are able to be in the exact same place at the same time morning and night to turn some lights off!? Not many so just make it easier on yourself and your chameleon and let timers do the work for you.
I used this inexpensive pair from Amazon and they never let me down.
A Quick Word On Dimmers for chameleons
Some chameleon keepers feel it’s absolutely essential to have a dimmer switch for your basking bulb in order to regulate the temperature of the basking spot.
I personally never used one as the temperature in my apartment is pretty stable all year round and I positioned the basking lamp the appropriate distance away from the top perch so things weren’t too hot or cool for my chameleon.
Basking spots should be around 90 degrees depending on species. You can check this yourself using a thermometer like this, which has the added benefit of measuring humidity too. Your chameleon will also let you know it’s too hot by continuously opening its mouth or too cold by turning black.
You may feel you need a dimmer to make things easier though. I recommend experimenting with the distance of the bulb and checking the temperature in your living space is stable enough before investing in one.
You can of course just buy the basking lamp I mentioned earlier that has a built in dimmer switch should you feel the need for one.
To sum up
As you can see chameleon lighting is really important for a chameleon’s health. Get it set up right though and your chameleon will live happily with fewer health problems as the number one cause of illness in pet chameleons is incorrect husbandry.
To see a list of my recommended lights and to read more about chameleon lighting, in general, check out my best chameleon lights article.
Do chameleons need light at night? It’s unnecessary for chameleons to have a night light and is, in fact, a hindrance to them as they sleep better in near or total darkness.
Do I need a reflector for a UVB light? Most lighting setups come with a reflector now but if your doesn’t I recommend getting one as it reflects the UVB rays deeper into the enclosure and lights up the cage more for better viewing.
Are chameleon UVB lights good enough to provide light for live plants? No is a really short answer. While some plants may grow under these lights, particularly low light plants like pothos, the majority will not. I learned this the hard way as my plants would die all the time!
Get a grow light with a spectrum between 6000 and 6500k and use that. They won’t harm your chameleon and will add light to the enclosure for better viewing.