Do Chameleons Need Substrate?

When thinking about setting up your chameleon’s enclosure you need to consider every aspect of it from the ground up. Substrate, which is also known as bedding, is what’s used for the bottom of your chameleon’s cage. Seeing as most chameleons are tree dwelling species you may wonder why bother with any substrate at all?

Do chameleons need substrate? Chameleons don’t really need substrate as they spend very little time on the ground. I do recommend lining the bottom of the cage with paper towels though to help absorb water. Paper towels are the best choice in terms of affordability, ease of cleaning and preventing problems caused by another substrate like sand, stones or soil.

Why chameleons don’t really need substrate

I’m not suggesting you rule out using substrate altogether. There are some advantages to having it which I’ll come on to later but the disadvantages, particularly for a first time keeper, outweigh these advantages and in terms of an actual need for your chameleon it’s not required at all.

  • It’s unnecessary – Keeping mammals like hamsters and rabbits means you need hay or sawdust substrate as the animal needs these to thrive in captivity. Chameleons, especially the most widely kept species of veiled and panther chameleons, don’t require it at all as they spend all of their time off the ground.
  • It can cause impaction – Chameleons have complex and fragile digestive systems and can be prone to impaction. Impaction occurs when a piece of solid matter gets stuck in the chameleon’s digestive system and blocks further digestion of food. This causes a buildup in the chameleon’s system and can cause serious illness and a visit to the vet. Not all substrates cause this but things like bark and sand increases the risk. A chameleon can accidentally ingest a piece of debris when firing its tongue to catch prey.
  • Harboring bacteria – Substrate such as soil and bark will remain damp for longer and may in fact never dry out completely due to the frequency of mistings required for a chameleon. This can lead to the harboring of bacteria and can cause illness and parasitic infections in your chameleon that require treatment at the vets.
  • Piece of mind – Having no substrate is having one less thing to worry about. When I first got my chameleon I had so many worries about whether he was OK or not, not having substrate he could possibly get impacted or infected from was one less thing to worry about. Although risks of these things can be overstated its best to remove the worry altogether, especially if you are just starting out as a chameleon keeper.
  • Easy to clean – Just having paper towels at the bottom of the cage meant for easy cleaning of my chameleon’s environment. This works particularly well if your cage has a removable bottom like mine did. All you have to do is slide the bottom out, remove the old paper towels, wipe down with reptile friendly cleaning spray and then replace it complete with new towels.

Why you might want substrate for your chameleon

  • Looks – I get it. Here you are thinking about buying a chameleon, a pet that looks absolutely beautiful. To compliment that you want to create a beautiful looking home for it, a mini forest in its enclosure and to complete that look the last thing you want is a plain and sterile white floor with paper towels on. You naturally want the look of a forest floor to complete your mini rainforest habitat.
  • Humidity – Veiled and panther chameleons require air humidity of around 50%. Any natural material such as soil and live plants will help to maintain this more easily in your chameleon’s habitat.
  • Absorption Chameleons require regular mistings on a daily basis. A good soil substrate is a great way to absorb that moisture and reduces the need to install a drainage system. It also prevents standing water pooling at the bottom of the enclosure which can be a breeding ground for bacteria if it is left too long.
  • Egg Laying – This obviously only applies to owners of female chameleons but yes, female chameleons lay eggs even when they haven’t mated with a male. When this happens it is necessary to provide a laying pot filled with soil for her to dig in and lay her eggs. A soil based substrate removes the need to provide the pot and the chameleon can dig and lay her eggs in any spot she chooses.
  • No need to clean – This only really applies to a natural substrate like leaves and soil. The bugs and bacteria contained in the soil will grow over time and recycle chameleon dropping and other waste material and therefore removing the need to clean. This doesn’t mean you don’t have to clean dried dropping off of leaves though and my point about the risk of harboring bad bacteria that can make your chameleon ill still applies.

Types of substrate for chameleons

There are many different types of substrate, both free and for purchase, that are available for your chameleon’s terrarium. I will outline the different types and give the pros and cons of each on the horizontally scrollable table below.

SubstrateDescriptionProsConsRecommend?
Coconut Husk Brick
A compressed brick of material made out of coconut shell fibres. The brick expands when water is added to form an earth like substance to fill the bottom of the chameleon’s enclosureCheap
Can hold moisture well to maintain humidity
Is biodegradable
Easy to burrow for egg laying females
Easy for any loose digging feeder insects to hide
Can get smelly if not looked after properly
Not good for planting

I do not recommend this as it’s similar to eco earth which is a more superior substrate.

Moss
Dried moss that is placed on the bottom of the enclosure.Maintains moisture well for humidity purposes
Easy to remove and is biodegradable
Can get mouldy very easily
Is a harbour for bacteria
Female cannot dig into for laying eggs
Creates horrible smell if not changed regularly
Definitely not. It’s smelly, gets mouldy easily and harbours bacteria too easily.

Bark
Dried pieces of organic bark.Easy to installToo easy to cause impaction
Easy for feeder insects to hide
Harbours bacteria
Can smell and easily become mouldy

Possibly the worst one. I’d be far too worried about a piece of it getting stuck in my chameleon’s digestive system. Not to mention crickets hiding in it and bacteria. Definite no no!


Eco Earth
Organic earth made from coconut shellCan hold moisture well to maintain humidity
Is biodegradable
Easy to burrow for egg laying females
Easy to install
Great for planting live plants directly
Easy to dig in for egg laying females
Easy for any loose digging feeder insects to hide
Can get smelly and mouldy if not looked after properly
Can turn a bit bog like if not drained properly

I am cautiously recommending this one but only for a more confident keeper as it’s great for an enclosure where plants are directly planted into the soil.
If you’re just starting out I would skip this for now and use potted plants.


Coconut Fiber
A fibrous mat like substrate similar to soft mats found in kids’ playgrounds.Holds moisture well for humidity
Easy to install
Biodegradable
Cushions any falls well
Can get smelly
Fibres can become loose
Very poor for planting

I don’t recommend for similar reasons to the coconut brick. Eco earth would be my choice for coconut based substrate.


Sand
A calcium sand mixtureNone that I can think ofMost pet chameleons are tree dwelling species in forests. Sand isn’t their natural environment
Can confuse you with calcium suppliment regimes leading to over supplimentation
Some chameleons eat dirt at times but eating sand may cause more harm and risk impaction
Very difficult to clean

A big fat no from me. Completely unnecessary when much better options are available. The only use I see for it is mixing it with eco earth for better drainage purposes.


Smooth Stones
Smooth stonesNo risk of smelling
Looks great, particularly when wet
No burrowing insects
No need to clean
Can’t plant plants directly into enclosure
No way for egg laying female to dig
No cushion for chameleon fall

Definitely recommend this one. Easy to install, no bad smells or risk of mould, minimal bacteria risk. Just make sure stones are large enough so that your chameleon can’t accidentally swallow them.


Paper Towels
The humble roll of paper towelsVery easy to install
Very easy to clean
Absorbs water well
Doesn’t harbour bacteria
No place for feeder insects to hide
No risk of impaction
No place for egg laying female to dig
Looks a bit sterile
Can look messy if not cleaned regularly

Saving the best until last. It might not look the best but this is the easiest and most worry free substrate option of them all. It’s perfect for a beginner chameleon keeper or for anyone who just doesn’t want to worry about the hassle of dealing with other types of substrate and what effect it might have on the chameleon. This is my top choice.

The best substrate for your chameleon

Really this comes down to personal choice. My recommendation, for a beginner keeper at least, is the plain and humble paper towel. It’s very hard to get this choice wrong and puts your mind at rest. The stones are a close second for very similar reasons and they look better.

If you’re feeling more confident though the eco earth is a good bet to get a really natural look going. It also has the added benefit of your chameleon’s own personal clean up crew as there will be little bugs and bacteria in there to recycle any waste and fertilize the plants if you’ve directly planted them. Personally, as a new keeper, I’d worry too much about infection but if/when I get a new chameleon I would seriously consider using eco earth.

As you can see I have mentioned difficulties for female chameleons digging to lay their eggs. This can easily be overcome by providing laying bins for her if you have a female and will be talked about more in future articles. I just thought it a good idea to mention as these things should be taken into consideration when choosing a substrate.

I also wouldn’t worry about a substrate’s ability to hold moisture for humidity purposes. Most chameleon species in captivity only require around 50% humidity and this is easily achieved with regular mistings and live plants but again, these things need to be considered for substrate.

That’s it for this post! I hope you found it useful and it has put your worries at ease. Any questions or comments you have then please leave them below and I will do my best to answer them.


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