The following is a brief summary of general chameleon care, husbandry, and medicine. It is not all conclusive, but does provide a framework of necessary information for the chameleon owner. As with any pet, proper husbandry and veterinary care are the most important factors in a long, healthy life. It isn’t hard to see why so many people fall in love with chameleons, and desire to keep them as pets. They are interesting, colorful animals that are unlike so many other animals. However, any prospective chameleon owner should realize that they are fragile in nature, and have some very specific needs. Without continual proper care, a pet chameleon can become very sick, very quickly.
Origin and Species Variety
There are several species of “true” chameleon, many whose native habitats range from Yemen and Saudi Arabia southward to Madagascar and parts of eastern Africa. The most popular varieties kept as pets are the Veiled, Panther, and Jackson’s chameleons. Depending on their sex and species, they can grow up to 24 inches in length, live from 1 to 12 years old, and reach sexual maturity in about five months. Obviously, individuals that are kept in ideal conditions, with proper diet and veterinary care will live longer lives. While some species are from drier climates such as the veiled chameleon, others are from more tropical areas. Therefore, in order to properly care for your particular chameleon, do some research to learn more about its life in the wild.
You may have already noticed some of the traits that make true chameleons so unique. They have prehensile tails, and zygodactyl feet, which means their toes are grouped in opposition to each other. Their large, obtrusive eyes work independently of one another, allowing them to keep a watch out for predators and catch their food. Of course, they are able to change colors, depending on their emotions and health condition. These colors can have varying patterns, and can contain shades of green, white, blue, red, yellow, brown, orange, purple, and black.
A chameleon’s cage should be large enough to allow it adequate exercise and accommodate a three-dimensional “playground” of different diameter branches with leaves for cover. Cages should be taller than they are long, and made of material that is easily cleaned. Avoid placing the enclosure in drafty or busy areas of the house. As for foliage, ficus and pathos plants are commonly used since they can be eaten by adults. Hardwood branches provide good perches; do not use limbs from “sappy” trees such as pines. Give your pet enough cover inside his cage so that he can feel that he is hiding.
UV-B Spectrum Lighting
Perhaps the most common mistake of the novice chameleon owner is not realizing the absolute dependence of chameleons upon specific wavelengths of light. They require 12 hours of exposure per day to the “UV-B” spectrum of light. This spectrum (290-320nm) can be provided by special light bulbs or natural unfiltered sunlight (which is the best source). Bulbs specifically stating that they provide 5% or more UV-B spectrum should be used while the chameleon is indoors. Without this spectrum, they are unable to properly utilize calcium inside their body, regardless of how much they ingest. This condition, called metabolic bone disease, or secondary nutritional hyperparathyroidism, is probably the number one cause of fatalities and growth defects in captive chameleons. Note that most window glass panes filter out UV radiation. Owners should also be informed that UV-B lamps are generally good for about 6-8 months, but can still produce visible light without UV-B spectrum after this period of time. Therefore, bulbs should be changed after six months of use.
Reptiles are ectothermic, and require external sources of heat in order to carry out their metabolic processes. Certain body temperatures are necessary for digestion, reproduction, and feeding. The average chameleon requires a daytime temperature range from about 77-87° F, and a night temperature of 65-75 °F. Some good heat sources that can be used outside your chameleon’s enclosure (placed 12-24 inches from the cage walls) are 50-75 watt incandescent bulbs, ceramic heating elements (commercially made), or so-called “heat lamps”. There should be several horizontal branches nearby so that your pet can move closer or farther away from the heat source if it needs. The key is to set up an environment that provides a gradient of temperatures. Red light bulbs and ceramic elements can be used 24 hours per day, without affecting the chameleons’ daily light rhythms. Heat rocks or other heating elements under the cage or at the bottom of the cage are not recommended. Temperatures in different parts of the cage can be easily monitored by placing thermometers (available at pet stores) in a few places. Generally expert herpetologists will slightly decrease temperatures and light cycles in the winter months.
Water and Humidity
Chameleons drink water from droplets sitting on objects (usually leaves) in their surroundings. The most common way to provide these droplets is to use a dripping system. This can be easily fashioned by making a hole in the bottom of a bucket, plastic mild carton, or container just large enough that a drop of water will come from it every several seconds to few minutes, and fall on plant leaves within the enclosure. Another smaller container should be placed in the chameleon’s cage under the drip system to catch the water as it falls through the plant leaves. As a short term solution, ice cubes can be placed on the cage top to slowly drip water while they melt. Commercially-made drip systems or ultrasonic misting devices can also be purchased to be used in this regard. Misting the animal itself is controversial, as it seems to stress some individuals. The humidity in a chameleon’s cage should correspond to its native environment, and be monitored daily. The average humidity needs between the different species is 50-70%.
True chameleons are mostly carnivorous, which means that they rely on insects or other animals for food sources. They are able to eat a variety of insects, but are fed mostly cricket diets in captivity. However, crickets should not comprise more than 50% of the diet. As the saying goes, “you are what you eat”, so it is important that crickets being used as food also be fed a diverse nutritious diet. They can be fed commercial “gut-loading” food in addition to dark leafy greens (collards, kale, dandelion leaves, mustard greens), oats, broccoli, alfalfa hay, and other fruits and vegetables. Adding calcium supplement powder to the crickets’ diet is also recommended. One is unable to know if crickets obtained from a pet store have been fed recently. So, owners should make sure that crickets have eaten just before being given to their chameleons. Sprinkle calcium supplement powder on the prey items every other feeding. Other insects and larvae such as waxworms, earthworms, caterpillars, grasshoppers, flies, and like should be fed for diversity. Using a “sweep net” over a lawn or garden can catch a variety of bugs for you to use. Avoid beetles and the frequent feeding of mealworms, as they are not easily digested. Some larger species can be fed “pinkie” mice on occasion.
I recommend feeding your chameleon either by hand, or placing all its food items into a bowl so that your pet recognizes the bowl as its source of food. Of course, have a branch placed very close to the bowl so that the chameleon can get to the prey items. Some chameleons will eat vegetables (dark, leafy greens are best), and you can finely chop them up to place into the food bowl daily with the prey. Adults should be fed once per day, while juveniles require feedings several times per day. Provide each creature as much as it can eat in a single feeding. Do not leave insects in the enclosure for extended periods of time.
Substrate or “bedding” is what is used to line the bottom of a cage or enclosure. The best substrate for chameleons is simple flat newspaper (cheap, recyclable, easily disposed). If a particulate or natural substrate is used avoid the following: beddings with small particles (sand, kitty litter, etc.), cedar, gravel, corn cob bedding, and beddings that would hold excess moisture. Moisture trapped in bedding can promote bacterial and fungal growth.
Stress is a very common reason for poor health in chameleons. Common sources of stress are being placed in a cage with another chameleon, handling, noises, excessive traffic or movement outside of the enclosure, inappropriate temperatures, or changes in the environment. One should remember that these species are not domesticated, and even though they are captive bred, are still in their minds wild animals. If you are handling your chameleon, do not “put him on show” and allow several people to hold and touch it. Be very gentle when removing it from its enclosure.
Like humans and other animals, chameleons can get sick from a variety of sources. They are susceptible to bacterial, fungal, and viral infections, and can harbor several different kinds of parasites as well. You can help these infections at bay by keeping the enclosure clean, removing uneaten prey items daily, and keeping your pet from coming into contact with another chameleon. If you already have a reptile at home, you should quarantine any new addition for at least 1-3 months time to avoid transference of disease from one individual to another.
Chameleons are sensitive to many chemicals and toxins in the environment, and should be kept away from household cleaners, aerosols, etc. As with any reptile, you should wash your hands after handling it or items within its enclosure (especially soiled bedding). There are diseases that can be transferred from reptiles from humans in this manner (Salmonella infection is one example), but proper hygiene should alleviate this risk. Other problems that can occur in chameleons include egg-binding, organ failure (especially kidney and liver), cancer, and bone fractures due to insufficient vitamin D, calcium, or UVB radiation.
Your chameleon should be given a check-up by your veterinarian every 6-12 months. In addition, your veterinarian should perform a fecal examination annually to determine if there are gastrointestinal parasites present, and can prescribe the appropriate medications. Blood tests are recommended every 1-3 years to check for internal disease. Speak to your veterinarian about any concerns regarding your chameleon’s care.