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Caring For Your Chameleon

By: PetPlace Staff

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Old World chameleons, or true chameleons, are common in the pet trade. Several species can make good choices as a first chameleon. In general, however, chameleons are best suited for intermediate reptile keepers and prior experience with reptiles usually is beneficial.

If you're thinking about getting an Old World chameleon, here are some facts about these reptiles:

  • More than 150 species are known today, with over half found on the island of Madagascar off the African coast. The rest are located on the continent of Africa, with a few species located in southern Europe, southern Asia and Hawaii. They inhabit a wide range of climates, from the fringes of the Sahara Desert, to the alpine grasslands in the mountains of Uganda and the lush tropical rainforests of eastern Madagascar.

  • Most chameleons are listed as a level II protected species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

  • Chameleons range from a diminutive 1 inch to more than 2 1/2 feet in total length.

  • Males generally are more colorful and possess ornate horns compared with female chameleons.

  • Depending on species, captive-bred male chameleons generally live 4 to 6 years in captivity, whereas captive-bred female chameleons live only 2 to 3 years in captivity. Wild-caught or imported chameleons do not live as long in captivity and may only survive for a few months to a few years.

    Housing a Chameleon

    Adult chameleons prefer as large as cage as possible. They can be housed in cages as small as 18 inches by 18 inches by 24 inches, but thrive in cages at least 24 inches by 24 inches by 48 inches. Cages should be taller than wider and should be checked and cleaned daily if necessary.

    The cage preferably should be constructed out of wire. The mesh size commonly used is 1/20 inch by 1-inch. The wire should be galvanized but may be purchased with a plastic coating. Hardware cloth and window screens have caused foot damage to chameleons and generally are not recommended. Glass aquariums may be used for juveniles but do not provide adequate ventilation and are generally not designed vertically.

    Several branches should be put in the cage to provide a natural flow to the interior. Basking sites and hideouts should be set up for the chameleon's comfort. Plastic plants may be used in the enclosure but live plants are better such as ficus, schefflera, hibiscus, bougainvillea, ivy, orchids, tillandsia and ferns.

    The floor of the cage should be left bare because gravel or bark may be accidentally ingested if the chameleon misses the insect he is trying to eat. If flooring is necessary, use indoor/outdoor carpet, Astroturf, newspaper or paper liner.

    Lighting

    The cage should have full-spectrum lighting, including ultraviolet A and B (UVA and UVB). The ultraviolet light is used for activation of Vitamin D, which is important for calcium absorption. Fluorescent light bulbs, specifically made for reptiles, provide a portion of their UV requirement and include: Reptisun 5.0®, Vita-Lite® and Reptile Daylight®.

    Natural sunlight is the BEST source of full spectrum lighting and UV light. This may be achieved through permanent outdoor caging or temporary caging during temperate climates. Ultraviolet light does NOT pass through glass or plexiglass.

    Climate

    Various species have different temperature requirements, but NEVER place a chameleon outdoors in an aquarium because temperatures of 150-degrees Fahrenheit can be reached within minutes. Always use a thermometer (digital) indoors and outdoors to monitor the ambient temperature. Humidity should be measured with a humidistat which can be purchased as an added feature of several of the newer digital thermometers.

    Live plants can be used to aid in maintaining higher humidity levels. Mist/spray the chameleon enclosure every 4 to 8 hours. An automatic watering system can be used on a timer providing an even better source of water by eliminating human forgetfulness. Any watering system needs to be periodically (weekly) cleaned with a disinfectant to prevent bacteria buildup.

    Diet

    In nature, chameleons drink water from morning dewdrops or rain droplets. They are passive stalkers, waiting for a meal to come along and pursuing the prey. A common diet for chameleons in captivity includes: crickets, mealworms, superworms, waxworms, roaches (Madagascar hissing or other tropical species) and insects such as grasshoppers and butterflies. Be careful of collecting insects in areas where pesticides are spayed, and do not feed lightening bugs to chameleons. Recent reports have shown these insects are toxic to some reptiles.

    The insects should be "gut-loaded" prior to feeding. "Gut-loading" is the process where one feeds a good diet to the insects to increase the nutrient content of the prey. The body of the insect itself is relatively poor in nutritional value, so the contents of the gut are what provide the reptile the proper nutrition. Proper "gut-loading" decreases the need for external supplementation or "food dusting." Sweet potatoes, fresh greens, carrots, rolled oats, apples, ground legumes, oranges and corn meal, grain mixes or chicken laying mash found in co-ops and feed stores (must be FREE from any additive chemicals or medications) also provide good sources of nutrition.

    Some chameleons may not eat right away or go through periods of decreased appetite. When this occurs, offer them a variety of prey items, rotate prey items or present food in a different manner. You can hold the insect by hand in the cage, hold the insect in the cage but your hand is outside the cage mesh, hold the insect with a pair of tongs or long device or use an opaque dish with the insects inside (vary the dish location).

    Health Concerns

    Shortly after they are purchased, chameleons should be examined by a veterinarian with reptile medical experience. Experience specifically with chameleons is not required but is an added bonus. Once large enough to produce a sizable stool, all new chameleons, should have a fecal exam to check for intestinal parasites.

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