When setting up an enclosure for a pet chameleon, the most important aspect to get right is its lighting. Getting it right will save you lots of trouble down the line.
According to expert veterinary surgeon, Francis M Baines. A pet chameleon needs:
- Basking light to provide heat.
- UVB light at either 5.0 or 10 strength to enable them to create vitamin D3 and prevent bone disease.
- Full spectrum daylight bulb for vision, alertness and to improve plant growth in the enclosure.
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.
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 itself, all you need is an incandescent-shaped general spot bulb. It needs to be halogen or incandescent, 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 bulbs are perfect.
For my chameleon, I used a standard lamp with a 60 watt bulb. You may have to change the wattage depending on how far away your chameleon’s back will be from the bulb and your average room temperature.
Check the chart displayed on the box. The lamp I recommend is dimmable to reduce the heat output if necessary.
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, so they are not recommended.
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 very quickly, with metabolic bone disease being the worst of the problems caused by no UVB light source.
You should only choose one type of UVB light for your chameleon, and that’s a T5 high output strip bulb with a reflector. There’s a good reason for this that’s demonstrated in the image below, taken from research carried out by veterinary surgeon, Baines et al.
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.
If you have a heavily planted enclosure then use a 10 for veiled and panther but make sure there is enough plant cover for them to take shade should they need to. Always use a 5.0 for Jackson’s chameleons.
For my veiled chameleon, I’ve used a reptisun 5.0 bulb and an arcadia 6% interchangeably throughout his life
He has 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 a reflector like this one that comes with a free 5.0 bulb to get you started, which is fine for young chameleons. I also really like the fact it comes with full spectrum LED lights built in so there’s no need for a separate full spectrum bulb.
It will really depend on the size of your enclosure, but the 24-inch version hood for the 22-inch bulb are what you will need if you get the most common 24x24x48 inch cage.
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.
Full Spectrum Light
Full spectrum lights are bright LED lights placed alongside the basking and UVB lights on top of the cage.
These lights benefit chameleon vision and help the plants to thrive in what are generally low light conditions.
They also make your chameleon’s colors look awesome and the enclosure super bright for display.
The hood I mentioned for the UVB light has LED full spectrum lights built in, but should you want to get a separate one, it needs to be between 6000k and 6500k to mimic daylight. This Jungle Dawn from arcadia is the best available.
Setting Up The Lights
- 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 10 or 12 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.
- Full Spectrum Light – Should you choose to get a separate one, just place this on top of the enclosure behind the UVB lights.
Make sure you have a perch running below the basking perch 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.
You can see what light products I recommend in my article here.
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.
This specially designed power strip with built-in timers is all you need to power your chameleon’s lights and set the right times.