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Care Guide

About Care Guides[x] These care guides are written to help your clients understand common conditions, tests, and procedures, as well as to provide basic information about pet care. They are based on the most up-to-date, documented information, recommendations, and guidelines available in the United States at the time of writing. Pharmaceutical product licensing, availability, and usage recommendations are based on US product information. Use the Download Handout button to generate a PDF for printing or e-mailing to your clients.

Caring for Chameleons

    Chameleons are fascinating, amazing, and colorful animals. However, they require some special considerations to keep them stress-free and healthy. Any prospective owner should realize that chameleons are fragile in nature and have some very specific needs. Without continual proper husbandry and veterinary care, a pet chameleon can become very sick, very quickly.

    Biological Facts

    There are more than 160 known species of “true” chameleon. Their native habitats range from Yemen and Saudi Arabia southward to Madagascar and parts of eastern Africa. Each species can have very different environmental requirements and can be more complex than most reptiles to set up. The most popular varieties kept as pets are generally those that are comparatively easy to breed and care for:

    • Veiled chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus)
    • Jackson’s chameleon (Chamaeleo [Trioceros] jacksonii)
    • Panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis)
    • Parson’s chameleon (Calumma parsonii)

    Depending on sex and species, chameleons may grow to more than 24 inches in length, live from 1 to 12 years, and reach sexual maturity in about 5 months if housed correctly. Females often die at a younger age than males due to reproductive complications. The popular panther chameleon has one of the shortest life spans.

    Sex is easier to determine in mature individuals, with males being larger than females and having hemipenal bulges caudal to the vent opening and larger casques on their heads. In some species, such as the Jackson’s, sex is obvious (males have three horns instead of a casque), but in others it may be difficult to determine unless you are able to compare one of each sex.

    The five toes on each foot are zygodactylous (grouped in opposition to each other), enabling chameleons to grasp branches. The pairing pattern is different for front and hind feet.

    Most chameleons have a prehensile tail that can wrap around tree branches while climbing. If broken off, the chameleon's tail will not regrow like those of many other lizards.

    Chameleons have large eyes that rotate like turrets and move independently, allowing them to scan a wide radius for both hunting and protection. When a chameleon sees prey, both eyes can focus in the same direction for increased hunting accuracy.

    The tongue can be up to 1.5 times the length of the body, allowing chameleons to catch insects from a distance.

    Chameleons can change colors depending on mood, health, and environmental conditions. Pattern and skin color also play an important role in communication among chameleons.

    Each species has its own special requirements. What follows are very general guidelines. Please seek more detailed information on the particular type of chameleon you own.

     Behavior

    • Chameleons are generally shy and easily stressed. Cages should be placed in low-traffic, quiet areas, with enough foliage (real or artificial) inside to form a dense buffer between the chameleon and household activities. When observing a chameleon, move slowly.
    • Being territorial and solitary animals, chameleons should be kept in separate cages. Two males should never be kept together because they will be very aggressive with each other. They can also sense pheromones from other chameleons in the same room. A female placed in a cage with a male might receive unwanted attention and become stressed.
    • Colors change in response to excitement, stress, temperature, lighting conditions, the presence of another chameleon, and other influences. Generally, a dark brown to black chameleon is stressed; brighter colors reflect excitement or a positive mood.
    • Captive-bred chameleons generally tolerate handling better than wild-caught individuals. Excessive handling may result in stress.

    Diet

    • Although chameleons mostly eat insects, some will eat small invertebrates such as slugs, and some larger species will occasionally accept “pinkie” mice.
    • A wide variety of insects should be offered, including crickets, noncolorful wild insects, phoenix worms, and noninfesting roaches. Mealworms, superworms, wax worms, and wax moths are appealing to chameleons but are generally deficient in nutrient value. Prey items that eat (crickets) should be gut loaded with nutritious foods (leafy greens, red/orange/yellow vegetables, commercial feed) before feeding.
    • Feeder insects should be dusted with a calcium and vitamin A supplement immediately before feeding. Before applying the powder, it may be useful to “shake and bake” the feeder insects with a light mist of water in plastic bag. These insects need to be ingested quickly by the chameleon or they will remove the calcium powder. Egg-laying female chameleons are especially prone to calcium deficiency and require additional calcium supplementation.
    • Chameleons may be susceptible to vitamin A deficiency; however, vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, and overdosing can occur. The best formulation of vitamin A for chameleons is still being evaluated, so consult a veterinarian for advice.
    • Adult chameleons should be fed once per day, while juveniles require feedings several times per day. Provide each individual as much as it can eat in a single feeding. Do not leave insects in the enclosure for extended periods of time, as they can bite or stress the chameleon.

    Environment

    • Adult chameleons require a large, screened enclosure that is taller than it is wide (e.g., 3 × 3 feet square and 4 feet tall.)
    • Chameleons require dense, leafy foliage for climbing and privacy. Give your pet enough cover inside the cage so that he or she can feel hidden. Ensure that plants used in the enclosure are nontoxic. Additional hardwood perches of various diameters may be provided.
    • Cage substrates made up of small particles (gravel, sand, bark) should be avoided, as they are hard to keep clean and may be accidentally ingested with prey. Sphagnum moss (undyed) and newspaper make good substrates.
    • One or more basking lamps should be placed at the top of the cage to provide a temperature gradient, allowing for thermoregulation. Branches placed near the heat source allow the chameleon to move toward or away from the heat source as it needs. It is critical to have four zones in the cage: high heat, high ultraviolet (UV) radiation; lower heat and high UV; high heat and no UV; and lower heat and no UV.
    • Two types of UV radiation are important for reptiles: UVA and UVB. Both types must be provided by exposure to natural sunlight (summer months) or full-spectrum, artificial lighting. In most cases, a long, fluorescent UVB bulb (5% to 10% UVB) or a mercury vapor bulb (which also provides heat) can be used. These bulbs can cause eye and skin problems, so hiding places and timers (usually no more than 6 hours) are critical. UVB is blocked by glass, plexiglass, and screening, so the placement of the lamp relative to the cage affects the amount of UVB exposure.
    • Chameleons get their water from droplets on leaves; they generally do not take water from a dish. The most common way to provide water is to use a dripping system. A container placed under the drip system will catch water as it falls through the plant leaves and prevent the substrate from getting soaked.
    • Frequent misting helps to keep humidity at optimal levels and provides another source of drinking water. If you are using sphagnum moss as a substrate, it can be kept moist, but aerosolized humidity is needed. A balance between good ventilation and good humidity is critical. Be careful to avoid exposing your pet to chemical toxins when disinfecting the aerosolizing system.

    Preventive Care

    • When selecting a chameleon, captive-bred animals are better; wild-caught chameleons often carry internal parasites and experience difficulty adapting to captivity.
    • Chameleons should have a routine physical examination every 6 to 12 months.
    • Annual fecal examination for parasites is recommended.
    • Blood tests should be performed as recommended by your veterinarian.

    Common Medical Disorders

    • Dehydration
    • Respiratory infection
    • Eye infection
    • Subcutaneous parasites (worms)
    • Excessive stress
    • Mouth infection (“mouth rot,” stomatitis)
    • Tongue infection
    • Metabolic bone disease (caused by deficiencies in calcium, vitamin D, and UVB light)
    • Hyperextension of the tongue
    • Egg binding