Chameleons have long been coveted by reptile-keepers, but most are nervous, delicate and, even with specialized care, difficult to keep. However, the veiled chameleon, originally from Yemen, is the hardiest species and has made chameleon-keeping possible. Fortunately, at an adult size of 20-plus inches (females are smaller) the veiled chameleon is one of the largest of the group, and colorful as well.
But these creatures are for experienced, committed hobbyists. Chameleons need sizable cages, do not tolerate handling well, and males can never be kept together. The veiled chameleon is a species not recommended for the beginner.
There are upwards of 135 species of chameleons alive in the world today. All are native to the Old World, but the Jackson’s chameleon has been introduced to Hawaii. All are in the family Chamaeleonidae. Because of their curious external characteristics, chameleons are not apt to be mistaken for any other lizards.
Veiled chameleons were first imported to the United States in the 1980s. Although little was known about them, these creatures took the reptile industry by storm. Wild-collected veiled chameleons are no longer imported in large numbers. Those now available in the pet trade are usually captive-bred babies. They range in price from $35 for hatchlings to about $150 for the occasionally available adult.
Males are much the larger sex, have a higher head-casque, and heel spurs. The head-casque of the female is very much reduced in size. Babies lack the crest entirely, but have a tiny point on the back of their head indicating where the casque will eventually be. Heel spurs are present on hatchling males. Babies and females are green, often with white highlights. Males are blue and gold, olive and blue, or dusky-olive and yellowish. Colors can change quickly. The color and intensity of pattern vary according to the lizard’s stress level (body temperature, presence of rivals, ample prey, suitable hydration, etc.).
Veiled chameleons are alert but relatively slow moving lizards that often perch in the open. Veiled chameleons are among the world’s most territorial lizard species. A dominant male may defend a single shrub or tree from interloping males. They need only to be able to see another male to become stressed.
Veiled chameleons are persistently arboreal and travel along their branches in a characteristic clamp-toed, hand-over-hand, foot-over-foot style of progression. The bundled toes (three on one side, two on the other side of each foot) clasp the branched like tongs. When stopping, especially when the branches are breeze-blown, veiled chameleons often steady themselves with their strongly prehensile tail.
Although not particularly skittish, veiled chameleons tend to be wary of quick motions and are less frightened if approached from the side. Because of their independent eye movement, these lizards can watch an object in front of them with one eye, and another behind, above, or below them with the other. When homing in on a prey item, the lizard usually uses both eyes. This binocular vision probably enhances depth perception.
The tongue of the chameleon is as strange as most other parts of its anatomy. The tongue is long — often as long as the combined length of the body and head — and may be projected at a prey item like a sticky-tipped ejectable and retractable club. Not only is the tip sticky, but the tip of the tongue also physically grips the insects it touches.
Although they may often be coaxed into stepping onto a finger or hand, these lizards never submit willingly to being physically restrained.
These lizards are decidedly omnivorous and have a large appetite. A wide variety of non-noxious, healthy and gut-loaded insects (roaches, king mealworms, silkworms, crickets, waxworms) as well as greens and blossoms (some fruit) should be offered. Hibiscus, dandelion, and nasturtium blossoms, romaine, collards, mustard, dandelion, and beet greens are readily eaten by veiled chameleons. Babies will eat fruitflies, aphids, and other tiny insects. Babies and breeding females need supplemental calcium and vitamin D3.
These lizards seldom drink from a dish unless the surface is roiled by an aquarium airstone attached to a small vibrator (or other) pump. Chameleons will drink the pendulous droplets when their cage is misted. However, the lizards do not seem to enjoy being directly sprayed. A water drip system can also be used.
One word will suffice here: Don’t! All species of chameleons become severely stressed when they are restrained. If it becomes necessary to move these creatures, allow them to climb onto your hand or arm, or onto a stick or dowel rather than grasping and restraining the lizard. To avoid possible problems with Salmonella or other bacteria, it is best to always wash your hands after (both before and after handling is better yet!) handling your lizard or working in its terrarium.
In the wild, veiled chameleons range over a comparatively huge home territory. This would be absolutely impossible to duplicate for captives, but we suggest that these active lizards be provided with the largest possible, well-ventilated, terrarium.
We suggest a minimum terrarium size of 75 gallons for a pair. A wire cage of similar size is equally good, better ventilated, will not allow a buildup of humidity, and will not, as a result of misting the terrarium, hold water on the bottom. Both diagonal and horizontal limbs of a size that the lizards can grasp easily with their feet are mandatory furniture. These, and vining plants, will help provide the visual barriers and security so important to these lizards. Illuminate and warm one end of the highest perch to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit with a full-spectrum UV-B-heat bulb. The terrarium’s ambient daytime temperature should be a fairly humid 76 to 85 F. Nighttime temperatures can drop by a few degrees. A substrate of leaves (we use dried live oak leaves) or finely shredded mulch (of some non-aromatic form) is fine.
The cage should be misted once or twice a day sufficiently to create pendulous beadlets of water. Your chameleon will drink these if thirsty. It is important that you do not allow the tank to become saturated or to hold water as a result of this misting.
Common Diseases and Disorders