Watering and Drainage Strategies

By Jason Descamps


Descamps, J. (2005). Watering and Drainage Strategies. Chameleons! Online E-Zine, October 2005. (http://www.chameleonnews.com/05OctDescamps.html)

As any chameleon keeper knows, water is the key to a healthy chameleon. And as most have discovered opinions on watering delivery methods differ as much as the varied colors of the chameleons we keep. But wait, now that you have a watering method, how do you deal with the water in the cage? In this article I will provide information on some of the most common water delivery methods as well as a few strategies for dealing with all that water.

Chameleons as a general rule are not animals who drink from standing bodies of water (yes, I realize that yours might). They are animals who rely on rain, dew, and fog for hydration and as such, we as keepers should make every effort to provide a natural water delivery method. Providing water through a more natural delivery method also helps to increase the relative humidity in the enclosure which can aid in overall health. The three most common water delivery methods used by chameleon keepers are misting, drippers, and humidifiers.

Misting a chameleon is one of the most efficient water delivery methods available to a keeper. Prolonged, heavy misting best mimics the natural rainfall of a chameleon's natural habitat, raises the relative humidity and offers evaporative cooling similar to what a chameleon would experience in the wild. There are several misting strategies that can be employed by chameleon keepers. These range from hand misting to automated systems to showers. Each method has their pros and cons but each can be very effective especially if used in conjunction with other methods.

  1. Hand misting involves the manual delivery of water through a hand held device. This device can be as simple as a household type sprayer with a trigger, to a pump type garden sprayer. Achieving proper hydration with a household type sprayer is difficult at best. The time involved and the relatively low amount of water delivered for the effort makes a household sprayer a supplement in the best case scenario. However, many breeders do utilize hand type sprayers for watering neonate chameleons during the first few weeks of life due to the small water size and the ability to control saturation levels in a small cage.

Example Household Mister, Photo courtesy Wild Eye Reptiles

  1. A pump type sprayer, often referred to as a garden sprayer or Hudson sprayer is a cheap, moderately effective way of delivering water to a captive chameleon. Pump sprayers hold larger amounts of water than the household sprayer, with models often exceed a 2 gallon capacity. This large capacity combined with the ease of use and relatively inexpensive price make a pump sprayer a common option for chameleon keepers. By compressing the air inside the tank of a pump type sprayer, you can deliver large amounts of water over a period of time that will allow a chameleon to drink at it's own pace resulting in a better hydrated chameleon.

Example Pump Type Sprayer, Photo courtesy Wild Eye Reptiles

  1. Automated misting systems are an obvious step up from hand misting, allowing for large amounts of water to be delivered with little effort on the part of the keeper. Most automated systems are now built or sold with multi setting digital timers which enable keepers to program the misting times and duration throughout the week. There are numerous commercial systems available through specialty sources, as well as plans to build your own system on the internet. These systems and plans range from the simple 1-2 cage systems to units that will mist upwards of 20 cages. When buying a commercial system one should look at: pump capacity (the number of misting heads that can be driven by the pump), pump type, the ability to run for prolonged periods of time, as well as the ability to run dry without causing damage, and the warranty.

Commercially Available Misting Pump, Photo courtesy Chris Anderson

  1. Showers are one of the cheapest and easiest watering methods employed with chameleons; they are also one of the least used. To shower a chameleon is to provide a slow gentle "rain" for upwards of 30 minutes in your regular shower. This practice is quite effective especially when used as a monthly supplement to hand or automated misting. The process is quite simple, place a large plant or tree inside the shower, adjust the water temperature to be lukewarm (comfortable to the touch), position the spray so that only half of the tree is being hit with the water, and place your chameleon in the tree. Many times the first misting or two can be confusing to the chameleon and is often stressful to the owner but in most cases the chameleons begin to relish their shower time. For more information on showering please see the Chameleon Acclimation article in the November 2004 issue.

Drippers can be excellent water delivery methods for adding an additional drinking source, though they are rarely efficient enough to be a sole watering method. Drippers can range from store bought units to a plastic cup with a pinhole in the bottom. The theory behind drippers is that the water hitting the foliage in the cage will attract the attention of the chameleon and therefore will stimulate drinking. Should a dripper be employed the water levels must be checked daily to ensure that adequate water is available. They should also be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected weekly to prevent bacteria growth.

Humidifiers are another effective supplemental water delivery method. An ultrasonic humidifier setup as described in the Humidifier Article in this issue provides a slow, natural fog that condenses on the cage furnishings much the same way a cool mountain fog or a heavy ocean fog does in nature. Many species respond quite well to this type of water and it has been theorized that many montane species' lung health is greatly benefited by this type of "fogging". When using humidifiers care must be taken to clean and disinfect the water container. Bacteria growth in humidifiers is quite common in all applications and frequent disinfecting is the only way to prevent such growth.

The use of waterfalls, bowls, ponds, etc should all be avoided with chameleons. Standing bodies of water are often the first place a chameleon will choose to defecate, creating a bacteria breeding ground right inside your cage. These items are also very rarely used for drinking and have very little effect on the humidity levels in your cage.

So now you have water, and lots of it. The only problem is that your cage is now flooded. Well, you can't really leave it there and I doubt that little chammy is going to take a swim. No need to fret, drainage is your friend. Most chameleon cages being sold or built today are made with a solid bottom, which means that chameleon keepers have to be creative in their drainage ideas. There are several options that many keepers have employed for many years, as well as some very good ideas that are relatively new options.

Probably the oldest and most widely used of these ideas is to construct a cage floor out of a screen material or to drill holes in the solid bottom and then place the cage above a plastic tub to collect the water as it drains through. A plastic storage container or concrete mixing container is the most commonly used collection pan. These are cheap, readily available, and come in a variety of sizes to fit your caging needs. A few crafty keepers have constructed similar systems of their own designs by using plastics and a channeling system to disperse the weight of the cage. The water collected is then either dumped by removing the bin or drained into a secondary container through the use of tubes and fittings.

Custom Built Collection Tray, Photo courtesy Dave Weldon

Almost as old, but not nearly as widely used is the practice of integrating utility sinks in the design of the cage. By using a commercially available utility sink as the base for the cage and then constructing the frame on top of the sink you have a completely water proof, pre-drained cage. These drains can then either be plumbed into a mass drain with other cages or drained into a collection bucket for easy disposal. If a utility sink is to be used as a base a small piece of screen or hardware cloth will need to be inserted into the drain to prevent feeder insects from escaping.

Utility Sink Design, Photo courtesy Wild Eye Reptiles

A clever method being employed by the E-zines own Chris Anderson includes metal shelves holding cages that are drilled for drainage. The water then drains onto a tarp system leading to PVC guttering attached to the back of the racks. This method provides excellent drainage with the flexibility of being able to move and remove cages without affecting the drainage system in anyway.

PVC Gutter Drainage Design, Photo courtesy Chris Anderson

PVC Gutter Drainage Design, Photo courtesy Chris Anderson

Other methods such as inserting bath drains, removable plugs, and bulk head fittings have all been used with varying degrees of success. Whatever method you choose to employ be sure to remove the water as soon as possible. Towels, sponges, absorbent substrate, etc. will all prove to be a breeding ground for disease and bacteria and should be avoided at all costs.

Jason Descamps

Jason Descamps has been keeping and breeding reptiles and amphibians for over 12 years. To date he has worked with over 135 species of reptiles including breeding 18 species of chameleons. His current focus is creating a stable captive chameleon gene pool through the CCBTD and working with rarely bred chameleon species such as C. (Tr.) weidersheimi, C. (Tr.) werneri, and C. (Tr.) fuelleborni. Jason served as an assistant editor for the Chameleons! Online E-Zine from December 2005 through February 2008.


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