Old World Chameleon Care
Chameleons are appealing in appearance and their mystical ways of changing color are fascinating. But they are demanding animals, especially in their captive environment. Over 150 species of chameleons are known today, with over half found on the Island of Madagascar. The rest are located in the main continent of Africa with a few species located in Southern Europe, Southern Asia, and Hawaii.
Chameleons inhabit a wide range of climates from the edges of the Sahara Desert, to the alpine grasslands in the mountains of Uganda, and to the lush tropical rainforests of eastern Madagascar.
Chameleons range from a diminutive 1 inch to over 2 1/2 feet in total length. Males are generally more colorful and possess ornate protrusions (horns) compared to 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 live for a few months to a few years.
Chameleons are generally best for intermediate reptile keepers. Therefore, prior reptile experience or reading would be beneficial. The following species are common in the pet trade and made good choices as a first chameleon.
Panther Chameleon (Chamaeleo pardalis)
- Geographic range: Madagascar
- Variable colors (red, green, blue, yellow, orange)
- Hardy species – repopulating deforested regions in the wild
Veiled Chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus)
- Geographic range: southwestern Saudi Arabian peninsula
- Brightly colored males (greens to yellows)
- Extreme environments – seasonal wadis to arid desert
Jackson’s Chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii xantholophus)
- Geographic range: Mt. Kenya, Africa and Hawaii, USA
- Imported into Hawaii in the 1970’s and survived successfully
- Montane species – high humidity and cooler temperatures
Chameleons tend to be territorial and prefer to be caged individually. They need to be housed in large enclosures and should not be able to see each other when caged separately. An ideal cage is at least 24 inches by 24 inches by 48 inches and cages should be taller than wider.
Glass aquariums may be used for juveniles but do not provide adequate ventilation. If housed in aquaria, chances are that they will develop stress-related diseases such as upper respiratory infections. Also, glass enclosures promote a good place for bacteria to grow.
The cage should be a screened enclosure. The mesh size commonly used is 1/2 inch by 1 inch and is galvanized but may be purchased with a plastic coating. Hardware cloth and window screens have caused foot damage to chameleons and are generally not recommended.
The cage interior should mimic the chameleon’s natural environment and the overall design should provide a natural flow to allow basking/shade sites and water/food access. Provide plenty of foliage and branches for your chameleon to climb on make him feel safe and secure. Allow multiple basking sites and hiding sites. Plastic plants may be used but live plants are better such as: ficus, schefflera, hibiscus, bougainvillea, ivy (Pothos spp), orchids, tillandsia and ferns.
Leave the base/floor of the enclosure bare because gravel or bark may be accidentally ingested if the chameleon misses the insect. If a cage substrate is necessary use indoor/outdoor carpet, Astroturf, newspaper or paper liner. The cage should be checked and cleaned daily if needed.
Chameleons love the sun and the more you can provide, the better, although you should never place a chameleon outdoors in an aquarium; temperatures of 150 degrees Fahrenheit can be reached within minutes.
They require full-spectrum lighting including ultraviolet A and B (UVA and UVB). The ultraviolet light is used for activation of Vitamin D which is then used for calcium absorption. Fluorescent light bulbs made specifically for reptiles provide a portion of the UV requirement (Reptisun 5.0, Vita-Lite, Reptile Daylight). Ultraviolet light does NOT pass through glass or plexiglass.
Natural sunlight is the best source of full spectrum lighting and UV light. This may be achieved thru permanent outdoor caging or temporary caging during temperate climates.
In nature, chameleons drink water from morning dewdrops or rain droplets. You should give a sufficient amount of water every day. They require a humid environment, which can be measured through a humidistat which can be purchased as an added feature of several of the newer digital thermometers.
- Jackson: 60 to 100 percent
- Panther: 60 to 80 percent
- Veiled: 40 to 60 percent
Live plants can be used to aid in maintaining higher humidity levels, and you can mist the chameleon enclosure every 4 to 8 hours. Commercial misters are available, but a simple hand mister works well, too. An automatic watering system can be used on a timer to provide an even better source of water by eliminating human forgetfulness. Any watering system needs to be cleaned periodically (weekly) with a disinfectant to prevent bacteria buildup.
- Misting or spraying by hand
- Greenhouse misting system
- Cool-mist humidifier (i.e., a humidifier that works by centrifugal force or by ultrasonic vaporization)
- Dripping water source: commercial reptile water dripper; medical I.V. bag set to a slow drip; plastic cup with a pinhole in the bottom
- Bowl with an air stone set to bubble the water to attract the chameleon’s attention – least effective
Chameleons need to thermoregulate so they must be able to move between high and low temperatures within the enclosure. Heat can be provided by an incandescent house light bulb. Species heat requirements vary, so research your species for specific guidelines. Start with a low watt bulb and keep the heat source outside the enclosure and far enough away so that prolonged exposure is safe.
Never exceed the recommended temperature for the species. Use a quality digital thermometer to determine the accurate temperatures.
In the wild, chameleons are omnivores and they are passive stalkers – they sit on tree limbs and wait for their next meal to come along. They stalk or even climb after their prey. When they spot something edible, they coat their tongue with a sticky saliva and open their mouths with the tongue protruding slightly. The tongue is about the length of the body, and the end of the tongue is a bundled, accordian folded muscle surrounding a modified hyoid bone. When released, the tongue sticks to and grabs the prey, then retracts and pulls the prey into the mouth.
Chameleons eat a varied diet. In captivity, common food items include crickets, mealworms, superworms, waxworms, roaches – Madagascar hissing or other tropical species and wild-caught insects – grasshoppers and butterflies.
Some new chameleons may not eat right away or go through periods of decreased appetite, so try to offer a variety of prey items and rotate these different prey items. To prevent “food burnout” you can treat your pet to a feeding of grasshoppers or butterflies once or twice a week. Remember: If you use insects gathered from the wild, make sure they have not been exposed to pesticides, and do not feed lightening bugs; recent reports have shown these insects to be very toxic to some reptiles.
Gut-Loading is the process where one feeds a good diet to the prey insects to increase the nutrient content of the ingesta (food in the intestines) of the insect. The body of the insect itself is relatively poor in nutritional value. The contents of the gut are what provide the reptile the proper nutrition. Proper gut-loading decreases the need for external supplementation.
Food items should be:
- 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)
- A calcium source, such as alfalfa pellets, greens, or calcium carbonate, should be added to the cricket cage to provide higher ingested calcium levels
Insects can be dusted with vitamin supplements by placing them in a plastic bag or tube with a small amount of the supplement powder and shaken until they are coated. Several different brands are available, so read the labels for calcium and phosphorus content. The calcium to phosphorus ratio should be around 2:1.
Recommendations for supplementing:
- Adults – weekly to twice weekly
- Gravid (egg-laying) females – every feeding
- Juveniles – every feeding to every other feeding
Some chameleons, especially veiled chameleons, may ingest some of the live vegetation in the cage to supplement their water intake and may even accept a small dish of leafy greens and vegetables.
Common Diseases and Disorders
All new chameleons should be examined after purchase by a veterinarian with reptile medical experience. Experience specifically with chameleons is not required but it is an added bonus. And once your pet is large enough to produce a sizable stool, he should have a fecal exam to check for intestinal parasites.
Chameleons are affected by many diseases. Some of these include:
- Metabolic bone disease (calcium deficiency) due to improper husbandry
- Trauma due to intraspecies aggression
- Stomatitis (mouth rot) due to improper husbandry
- Parasites when not properly dewormed
- Egg-binding (dystocia) due to not providing a proper laying spot
- Foot/claw damage due to rough coated or too small of screen
- Eye problems
- Shipping stress in newly imported chameleons is the number one cause of death and may cause anorexia and dehydration