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Chameleon Care Guide: Dehydration

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Dehydration in chameleons is the most common health problem they can have, particularly in captive chameleons. It’s so common that I felt it deserved a dedicated post to it because it’s also a leading cause of death in pet chameleons.

Causes

By far the most common cause of dehydration is not being knowledgeable about how a chameleon drinks water and not providing their drinking water properly.

I’ve written a more detailed article about chameleon drinking water, but in summary, chameleons don’t drink water like most animals do.

Instead of drinking water from a standing source, like a river or from a bowl in captivity, chameleons drink by licking droplets that form on or drip from leaves. Furthermore, they can only notice water is present in this form, as they do not recognize standing water.

Because of this, many beginners don’t realize how to provide water properly and instead offer it in drinking bowls or bottles.

Even if they are aware of how chameleons drink they’re unsure how long to mist for, what method to use, how often and so on.

Dehydration also stems from temperatures being too hot. Too high temperatures mean any water sprayed can evaporate too quickly before your chameleon has a chance to drink it.

Dehydration can result from other illnesses that can cause your chameleon not to drink properly or stop drinking altogether.

Symptoms of dehydration

A severely dehydrated chameleon. Note the sunken eyes and lethargic appearance.

Dehydration can either be mild or severe. A chameleon will give clear signs of both if you know what to look out for.

  • Orange/Yellow Urates – The white part of a chameleon’s feces is the urates. If this is white, then things are ok. A bit yellow means your chameleon is a little bit dehydrated, and orange means things are more severe.
  • Sagging Skin – This isn’t always obvious, but a chameleon’s skin is usually quite tight around its body. If you gently pull the skin, and it returns to the original position slowly or not at all, then the chameleon is dehydrated
  • Lethargy – This can be a sign of many things, from mild to severe, but a lethargic chameleon is often one that isn’t drinking.
  • Not Eating – Another sign of several health problems, but not eating usually means not drinking either.

Prevention

As with many chameleon health problems, the best way to prevent them is having their cage properly set up right from the start. Other ways to prevent dehydration are:

  • Use an Automatic Mister – These are the easiest and most effective way to provide water. They can be set up and timed to run whenever you want and for how long you want. They save a lot of time and worry. You can check my recommendations for automatic misters here.
  • Use Real Plants – Any from this list are great. Real plants hold water better on their leaves than fake ones, giving your chameleon a better chance to drink from them. They also help maintain humidity levels correctly.
  • Get a Hygrometer – This is essential to accurately measure the humidity levels inside your chameleon’s cage.

Treating Dehydration

First, you need to determine whether your chameleon is mildly or severely dehydrated. Mild/moderate dehydration shows up in the form of yellow urates and is therefore easy to detect if you check poop every time, something you should do anyway.

More severe dehydration is when your chameleon’s eyes are sunken, its urates are orange and they’re looking lethargic. In this situation, your chameleon will need veterinary treatment.

If your chameleon is mildly dehydrated, then there are things you can do yourself that usually solve the problem.

  • A long misting session – This should be your first option, and it’s one that usually rehydrates your chameleon successfully. You need to absolutely drench the plants and enclosure. Around 20 minutes or so should be good. I’ve nursed my chameleon back to good hydration health this way, even when its urates were starting to go orange.
  • A chameleon shower – If you feel they need a bit more, you can give your chameleon a shower. This involves placing them on a plant outside the cage, putting them in your shower and letting them have a good drink for 30-45 minutes.

    Use warm water and don’t put the shower directly on them, aim it at the wall, so the water splashes off onto them and only give showers to chameleons over 6 months old. Younger chameleons can drown this way. Do not leave your chameleon alone when doing this, either.
  • Fruit – A great way to get hydration levels up is by offering fruit. Use juicy fruits like watermelon (without the seeds) honeydew melon, strawberries, and grapes. Make sure the pieces are cut to roughly the size of an insect. I like offering by hand the most, but you can just leave it somewhere your chameleon can reach it easily if you prefer.
  • Electrolytes – This involves offering something beyond water. To do this, take a syringe and fill it with half water and half a drink rich in electrolytes. I recommend coconut water or watermelon juice.

    Get your chameleon to open their mouth and gently squirt the whole syringe full into their mouth. Do this a few times, and it will help hydrate your chameleon quicker than just by using water alone.

If none of these work and your chameleon is showing more severe signs of dehydration, then it is likely caused by an underlying problem, and you should take them to a vet for a check-up.

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