On the odd occasion, I catch a whiff of something coming from my chameleon’s enclosure and think, ‘Pew! That stinks! What the heck is that smell!?’ Thankfully, this doesn’t happen very often.
Chameleons themselves are generally odorless, but their enclosure can give off smells if things aren’t tended to regularly and feeder insects not regularly cleaned.
Here are 10 ways a pet chameleon smells and what you can do about it:
1. Organic Soil
By this, I mean specifically organic soil with manure mixed in with it.
Buying organic soil is a great idea for potting your live plants in because sometimes your chameleon may nibble on the plant leaves and even have a munch on the dirt itself.
So whatever is in the soil will transfer to your chameleon through the leaves and the dirt. Oranic soil is safer as it has no chemicals and some soils are specifically prepared to be chameleon safe.
Organic soil mixed with manure is a great idea at first but I’m sure it’s pretty obvious how this can cause smelly problems further down the line, particularly when the soil remains damp as a result of all the misting.
Prevention – Pot your plants in organic soil to begin with or if you suspect your plants are potted in manure mixed soil. I recommend repotting them in organic soil made from coconut husks.
Even if you suspect the soil isn’t organic, I recommend repotting in organic soil anyway for the safety reasons I mentioned above.
2. Standing Water
Due to the heat produced by the lighting setup this usually means the enclosure dries out completely, but in some cases standing water can pool underneath pot plants causing bad smells.
This can also occur as a result of improper drainage and not allowing water to flow out the bottom of the pot plant when watering it.
Prevention – allow time for the enclosure to dry out between mistings. I also recommend placing any pot plants on a raised plant stand to allow water to drain out the bottom of the pot. This has the added benefit of making any small plants reach higher up the enclosure.
3. Root Rot
Due to my poor plant keeping skills, I had this happen to me on more than one occasion. This again is a result of poor drainage in pot plants and from using soil that is too compact.
Overwatering can also cause this and is something to be extra vigilant about due to the amount of water used in a chameleon’s enclosure. Of course anything rotting will eventually cause smells and root rot is no exception.
Prevention – as well as implementing proper drainage and using soil that allows for this, you should also check for symptoms of root rot about once a week. This mainly takes the form of soft stems developing at the bottom of the plant and wilting leaves.
It is possible to save a plant from root rot, but to avoid any concerns about possible impacts on your chameleons, I recommend throwing the plant out and buying a new one.
This is because root rot is mainly caused by the roots being attacked by a fungal infection and this is the last thing you want in a chameleon’s enclosure.
Chameleon poop, and its white urates along with it, don’t smell unless you put your nose right up to it… I haven’t tried this, and I don’t recommend you do either! Many times I picked up chameleon poo that has completely dried out, and I didn’t notice any smell.
However, if you leave it too long and, again, due to the amount of water used in the enclosure you can find the poo can get mixed up into a horrible, mushy and very stinky soup, and you don’t want that… Sorry if you’re eating soup whilst reading this!
Prevention – if you’re hand misting simply check before misting if there’s any poo lying around and remove it before you mist. In addition to this, just check every day when you check on your chameleon and feed it. Chances are it will be dry by the time you see it, so not messy to remove.
Don’t forget to check leaves too as poo often lands on them, particularly if like most chameleons yours uses more or less the same place when it goes to the toilet.
5. Rotting Meat Smell
Now, I accept it’s a bit weird to have a favorite reason why a chameleon smells, but this one really stands out for me because it’s so damn interesting!
Scientists recently discovered that chameleons have a little pouch at the side of their mouths that they store little bits of dead insects and rotting skin in which they then smear onto branches to attract insects to the substance which the chameleon then eats.
Added to this, the substance also mimics pheromones that insects use to communicate with each other and attract a mate, this of course further entices them to the substance.
All this may sound pretty gross, but I also find it a fascinating way that chameleons use to hunt their prey.
Prevention – I have encountered a similar smell from my chameleon’s enclosure a few times a year. I mistook it for root rot, but I never noticed any symptoms in my plants at the time, so I thought it was just a dead feeder insect somewhere under a pot.
I don’t think it can be prevented fully, but if you stick to a regular feeding schedule and hand/cup feed them, there’s a good chance your chameleon won’t feel the need to do this very often.
Crickets stink, they really, really stink and this is the main reason I stopped using them as a feeder, that, and they’re masters of escape and don’t shut up chirping!
Prevention – The easiest way to prevent this smell is to just pick a different feeder insect for your chameleon’s diet, like roaches for example or locusts.
If you want to use them, though, you need to house them in a well ventilated container and check for dead ones frequently, as many crickets kill each other before they become prey for your chameleon.
Seriously, I’d just use locusts, as they’re much easier to keep and don’t make any noise.
Roaches, on the whole, don’t really smell, and they’re an excellent choice of feeder insect, especially when feeding baby chameleons because they breed so easily giving you a free source of food.
They do have a sort of earthy smell if you smell inside the tub you house them in, but this isn’t usually noticeable otherwise. As long as you keep them well ventilated you won’t have any issues, certainly, nothing like you’d get from stinky crickets.
The only time you might smell something unpleasant from your roaches is when you actually feed them to your chameleon. This is because they sometimes emit a bad smell as a form of defense from predators, and as your chameleon is the roach’s predator, it’s understandable they might do this.
Prevention – Apart from keeping them well ventilated like I mention, there’s not much you can do if it decides to emit its defensive smell. This smell doesn’t last very long anyway and isn’t that bad, so I wouldn’t let that put you off using these as a feeder of choice for your chameleon.
This goes back to the issue of poo. If your chameleon’s poo really smells, and you can smell it from a distance, then there’s a chance it has picked up a parasitic infection. This will likely be combined with other symptoms like some weight loss and runny poo.
If you suspect this is the case then take it along to a reptile vet where they will carry out what’s called a fecal float exam, and they can advise you on a course of action.
Prevention – Just keeping your enclosure clean and well maintained whilst ensuring adequate heat and light levels are the best way to prevent this and many other illnesses. As an extra precaution, I recommend not using insects caught in the wild and only those bought from a reputable insect breeder.
A substrate such as bark or sand can be difficult to maintain and not to mention risky to your chameleon’s health. Water from regular mistings can become stagnant and leave the bark damp, causing mold growth which leads to unpleasant and musty smells coming from your chameleon’s enclosure.
Prevention – Use a substrate that’s much easier to maintain or, better still, either none at all or just use simple paper towels. Provided you change these regularly, there will be no problems with any smells caused by substrate.
10. Insects – Dead or Alive
Sometimes your chameleon misses food or doesn’t eat it in time before the insect dies or, in the case of Morio worms, they pupate into beetles which really can smell!
This particularly can be the case if you ‘free range’ the food, where your chameleon hunts it down instead of eating out of a cup.
Obviously, anything that’s dead and decomposing in the enclosure is going to give off a bad smell. Something as small as a decomposing insect is unlikely to cause much of a smell but leave a few lying around, and it can get pretty stinky.
Prevention – It’s easy to miss insects that have been left or have a stray worm turn into a beetle as they are good at hiding under pots!
Again, just check regularly for any dead insects and if you see a black beetle that your chameleon has absolutely no interest in eating like mine did, remove them as soon as you see them.