What You Should Know About Pet Chameleons

Contributed by Allison Banks
The Chameleon Information Network

This is ONLY a fact sheet! Its purpose is to explain the bare minimum of what a pet chameleon will need to survive. Chameleons are interesting and specialized animals, so you must do some reading before taking one home as a new pet. Wild populations are threatened by over-collecting, so any animals we take for pets deserve respect and good care. Ask your pet store to hold one you think you want, read this free leaflet, and decide if a chameleon is right for you and your family. Please see the back cover of this leaflet for more information sources.

Facts

  • If you want a friendly, social pet, this is not a good choice.
  • Don’t handle them much — petting them is very stressful.
  • Buying all the equipment for the cage will cost more than the chameleon!
  • Most die from stress and improper care.
  • They need space — most glass terrariums are too small.
  • Few veterinarians can treat them, and it can be expensive!
  • They need special lighting or direct sunlight.
  • They eat live bugs only, and need food and water every day.
  • They need high humidity and special water systems in the cage.

The chameleon itself

Most chameleons are from East Africa and Madagascar. There are about 130 species known, ranging in size from about 2 inches to 2 feet long. Many chameleons are still captured in the wild for pets, though most of these die from stress, disease, and improper care. Imported wild chameleons are often sick before you ever see them in a store. Captive bred animals are healthier, tamer, and adapted to living in captivity. Ask your pet store where your chameleon came from and if it has been deparasitized. They must be re-treated for parasites periodically.

Housing your chameleon

Chameleons live in trees and bushes. They are adapted for climbing, and will need live plants and branches in their cage to feel secure. Screen cages are much healthier for them than all glass terrariums. They need space! The minimum size cage for an adult Jackson’s chameleon is 3 feet high, 2 feet wide, and 2 feet deep. Set up the new cage before you bring your pet home.

Each species has specific temperature and humidity requirements, so find out before you buy. You will need a thermometer and a good humidity gauge in the cage to keep track of the environment for your pet.

A good cage set-up will cost you much more than your pet! Special heat spotlights and ultraviolet fluorescent tube lights must be used, and can be expensive. Don’t use heat rocks — chameleons can burn their feet on them. Let your pet bask outside in sunlight for a few hours a week in warm months — there’s no good substitute for real ultraviolet light from the sun. The cage must cool off at night to at least 10 degrees lower than during the day so the chameleon can sleep properly. Humidity must rise at night also. Raise humidity by spraying the plants with water in the evening.

Feeding your chameleon

Most chameleons eat live bugs only, and lots of them! They shoot them with their long sticky tongue. If the bug is not moving the chameleon may not see it. They are fussy eaters, and will often stop eating if offered only one type of food. Give them a variety, such as crickets, mealworms, superworms, and waxworms. Wild-caught bugs from a pesticide-free yard are nutritious and a real treat. Feed adult chameleons every 1 to 2 days. Don’t leave crickets loose in the cage overnight. They can chew on and hurt your pet while it is asleep.

You are what you eat! Most insects are missing some vitamins and minerals. Feed any bugs you buy fresh salad, cereals, and fruit for 3 days before they become lunch for your pet. Many stores that sell feeder insects don’t feed them. Once or twice a week dust crickets with calcium and vitamin powder before you give them to the chameleon. Vitamin deficiencies are common, so read up on what is needed.

Pet chameleons often die from slow dehydration. They live in humid places in the wild, and Colorado’s climate is much too dry for them. Just putting water in a bowl in their cage will not work! Water must be dripping or running for the chameleon to see it and start to drink. They lick rain or dew off leaves and branches in the wild. You must mist or spray water on the cage plants 2 times a day so they will drink. The spray will also raise the humidity of the cage.

Use live plants instead of artificial ones to keep the humidity up. Breathing humid air is important for your pet’s lungs. Don’t keep the cage wet all the time as molds can make your pet sick. Some pet stores sell water drip systems or you can make your own. Make sure you see the chameleon drink each day!

Chameleon personality

Chameleons are shy and slow-moving. They are easily startled and need a quiet place for their cage. Chameleons are loners, so they don’t want to share a cage or see another chameleon (even their own reflection)! They have very sharp eyesight but poor hearing. Because handling and petting causes them fear, they don’t make good pets for children. To a chameleon, you are the predator. If their captive environment is too different than what they are used to in the wild, they don’t adapt, they die. But, if you accept and understand its personality, a chameleon can be a gentle friend.

Chameleons change colors for several reasons, not just to match their background. They can turn dark to absorb heat when cold, turn light when too hot, and show bright patterns when frightened or angry. Each species has its own pattern and color range. Your pet can tell you how it is feeling by its appearance. When frightened they will puff up with air and hiss loudly. Forcing your chameleon to display its bright colors too often will lead to great stress and can kill it over time. Some large chameleons will bite hard enough to cause bleeding, so be careful.

The chameleon’s tail is prehensile, and vital for climbing around in trees and bushes. They can’t drop their tail like other lizards. Their feet are adapted for clinging to branches, and are quite strong. Never pull a chameleon off a branch by force. You can break their toes or legs and damage their claws. Claw damage can lead to serious infections. Move slowly and gently coax your pet to climb onto your hand instead.

Signs of sickness

  • Not eating or drinking.
  • Eyes that are closed, sunken, or look flat against the head.
  • Swollen toes with black claws and swollen legs.
  • Heavy breathing with mouth open (other than a quick hiss).
  • Drooling, a lot of sticky saliva, yellow or white stuff at the comer of the mouth.
  • Thin looking — ribs and pelvic bones showing through the skin.
  • Skin is wrinkled and dry, not supple.
  • Does not change color when picked up.
  • Lumps or coiled bumps under the skin (parasites).
  • Does not react to lights and movement around the cage.

Chameleons hide signs of illness until they are very weak. By the time many of these symptoms show up, survival is poor. Veterinary treatment can be difficult and expensive. It is best to buy a healthy animal and do all you can to keep it that way. If you don’t know what a healthy one should look like, ask an expert for help.

Yes, you need more information!

The information in this leaflet is NOT all you need to know! Think carefully about why you want this animal, whether you can give it a proper home and whether you can devote the time and attention it will need.

There are books available at most pet stores that will give specific information about each species of chameleon and its care.

Books commonly available:

  • F. LeBerre. The New Chameleon Handbook.
  • P. de Vosjoli. True Chameleons Parts I and II.
  • P. de Vosjoli and G. Ferguson. Care & Breeding of Panther. Jackson’s. Veiled, and Parson’s Chameleons.
  • Bartlett and Bartlett. Chameleons: a Pet Owners Manual
  • Schmidt, Tamm, and Wallikewitzs. Chameleons- Volumes I and II.

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