Chameleons

a multi colored Chameleon standing at the end of a branch

Chameleons are reptiles native to Africa, southern Europe and Southern China. Chameleons are reptiles with skin that can be many different colors. Some chameleons are completely green, while others are yellow, orange, red, blue, black, white, or brown. They can change color in as little as a few seconds. They are not venomous, but they do bite when threatened.

Many people are interested in Chameleons as pets, but they hear from others that they are not easy to care for, and that they will bite. If they are given the right environment, these little animals are friendly and make a great companion for the whole family.

Chameleons are very territorial, and will become aggressive if they feel something is in their space. Many Chameleons don’t even like to be handled by their owners, and will usually become stressed out from being handled.

They make great pets because they are very colorful and fascinating creatures. They have always been considered as amazing pets because of their unique looks. Because of their abilities, Chameleons are one of the most popular pet reptiles.

Hatchling chameleons are available through breeders, and will cost anywhere from $50-$300 depending on the type you purchase.

The most popular Chameleons as family pets are:

Chameleon Information

  • Average Length: 8 to 24 inches depending on species
  • Average Weight: 5 ounces
  • Skin Appearance: Soft-skin with scales of different sizes
  • Skin Colors: Turquoise, black, green or blue-green
  • Grooming Needs: Low
  • Shedding: Once every few months
  • Sensitive to Touch: No
  • Biting Tendency: No
  • Tolerance to Heat and Cold: No
  • Good Pet: Not if you want one you can handle 
  • Safe with Children: No
  • Good with Other Pets: No
  • Suitable to live in an Apartment: Yes
  • Good for Less Experienced Pet Owners: No
  • Weight Gain: Normal
  • Health Concerns: Respiratory infections, Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD), Mouth Rot (stomatitis) and Gastrointestinal Disease
  • Average Life Span: 5 to 10 years depending on species

Physical Appearance of Chameleons

a spotted Chameleon standing on a branch

Chameleons are a group of color-changing lizards that can have a variety of different colors and patterns. There are close to 100 species but only a few are kept as pets. The most popular Chameleons as family pets are the Veiled Chameleon, Panther Chameleon and Jackson’s Chameleon.

Chameleons can change their skin pigmentation to camouflage themselves in their surroundings, regulate body temperature or communicate with other Chameleons. Baby Chameleons generally are a dull gray or brown and the more vivid adult colors develop when they are about 5 months old.

Adult Chameleons can change their colors for a number of different reasons. The main reason is to hide in their surroundings. They will also change color when trying to mate, or in a stand-off with another Chameleon. According to National Geographic they may change color to regulate their body temperature. They can change into red, black, green, blue-green colors or several other colors.

Many Chameleon species tend to have unique physical characteristics like a crest or horn on their snout. Some male Chameleons have three horns on their head that look like something out of a dinosaur documentary.

A Chameleons’ head and body may be covered with scales. While some scales are prominent others are barely noticeable.

They have a long tongue that they can shoot up to 1.5 times the length of their body. They use their long tongue to catch prey from a distance.

They have 5 toes on each foot that resembles a V shape. On their front feet 3 toes point inward towards their body and 2 point out away from them. On their rear feet it is the opposite where 3 point away from them and the other 2 point towards them. The toes help them firmly grip branches while climbing. Chameleons have tails that help them hold branches and balance their body.

Chameleons have rounded eyes that can rotate 180 degrees and move independently of each other. Being able to move their eyes this way helps them scan their surroundings and view multiple objects at once. Looking for prey and identifying predators is easy because of their unique eyes.

Temperament of Chameleons

a rainbow colored stripped Chameleon walking across carpet

All Chameleon species are solitary reptiles that prefer to live alone. They are territorial and extremely protective of their living area. While they generally do not attack, they may bite you if they feel threatened. Out of the 3 commonly kept Chameleon species, Panther Chameleon is known to be the least aggressive and Veiled Chameleon the most aggressive.

While there are some reptiles who are comfortable being handled, Chameleons do not like being handled at all. They do not seek human attention and like to stay alone. They may change color, make hissing sounds or open their mouths when they feel threatened.

Some Panther Chameleons may let their owners handle them but still frequent handling is not recommended. Excessive handling will stress your Chameleons.

Males and females housed together tend to be aggressive with each other. They may only get along during the mating season. Same-sex Chameleons or different species of Chameleons should never be kept together. It is best to house Chameleons alone.

Their Compatibility with Children

The color-changing ability and the long tongues can make Chameleons a fascinating pet for your children. However, children should not be allowed to handle Chameleons. Chameleons are vulnerable to stress and can get aggressive when they feel threatened. While not common, Chameleons can bite your children if they are stressed.

If your children do handle your Chameleons or play near their tank, always have them wash their hands. This is because most Chameleons are carriers of infectious bacteria like Salmonella which can cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain. Washing their hands should keep your children from contracting bacterial and fungal illnesses from reptiles.

Habitat for Chameleons

a green Jacksons Chameleon standing on a rock

Chameleons need a more complex setup than most other reptiles. They are known to become stressed easier than most animals. If you can, keep them in a quiet room. The quiet room is important to help minimize their stress.

They are arboreal reptiles meaning they live only on trees. They are happiest if their cage has plants that have a lot of foliage. They should be housed in cages that have some height and plants that will let them climb and hide. 

They should be kept in a screen cage. A screen cage keeps their enclosure ventilated but may have problems retaining humidity. They are still better than glass tanks because glass tanks have poor ventilation. There are plants, or water bowls you can add to the tank to help keep the humidity levels up.

We recommend a minimum cage size of 3L’x3W’x4T’. If you can get a larger cage then that will be better so they will have more room to move around. Young Chameleons can live in a small tank but they tend to grow fast and will eventually need a larger cage. Getting a large tank in the beginning will keep you from needing to buy a larger cage in the future. 

Decorations

Several branches of different sizes should be placed inside their tank. Plants (artificial or living) should also be added. Most of the cage should be occupied by the branches, plants and leaves. By having branches and plants in the cage you allow your pet to climb. 

Veiled Chameleons will need more vegetation than other species. Make sure you only have non-toxic plants because they will sometimes eat the foliage. 

If you want to go for a more natural look in their enclosure adding rocks is a an easy way to do this. Place the branches and rocks in a way that they are at least 8 inches away from your lighting or heat source. 

a blue and red Chameleon climbing a thorny branch

Substrate

For substrate there are a few good choices. 2 to 3 inches of coconut fiber or reptile bark works really well. Reptile carpet is also a good choice if you want something longer lasting. Paper towels, butcher paper and newspapers can be good substrate options if the other ones are not available. Paper may not be the best choice, but it is easy to replace.

Avoid using substrates like gravel, sand, moss or others that are made of small particles. Small particles can get attached to their tongue while catching prey. By not having any small particles, you keep them from accidentally eating indigestible substrate.

Avoid using wood chips for substrate because these can cause health issues in your Jackson’s Chameleons if they are ingested.

Best Climate for Chameleons

A temperature gradient needs to be created inside the tank by maintaining a warm and basking area. Adding heat lamps on the top of your tank is the easiest way to set this up. The dual temperature zones will help your Chameleons regulate their body temperature by keeping the lower levels of the tank cooler than the upper layers.

Temperature

The temperature will depend on the specific Chameleons species you have. Some like Panther Chameleons need a higher temperature in the basking spot and warmer area than others. For most Chameleon species the temperature in the warm area should be between 70 to 85°F. It’s fine if the night-time temperature falls between 65 to 70°F. 

Humidity

The humidity level will depend on individual Chameleon species. The ideal humidity will usually be between 50 to 80 percent. Misting the plants and decorations inside their tank or adding a humidifier will help keep the humidity levels up.

a green Jacksons Chameleon resting on a thin branch

One important aspect to look into is dripping the tank decorations. This is because Chameleons do not drink water from a bowl. They keep themselves hydrated by licking water from the branches, leaves, plants placed inside the tank or their skin. An easy way to add drops of water is by placing ice cubes at the top of their tank. As the ice melts into water, water will drop down onto the decorations and plants in the tank. Buying a drip system is also an option if you want to automate the process with a controlled amount of water. 

For all the DIY people, it’s fairly easy to make a drip system yourself. To create a drip system take a water bottle and use a pinhole to create an opening for the water to flow. Suspend the bottle at the top of the tank and the water dripping from the bottle will help keep things inside the tank moist.

Lighting

Chameleons need a 12 hour light and dark cycle, and will need their lights turned off at night. Like most reptiles, UVB lighting is extremely important for Chameleons because it helps them absorb calcium in their body. If they don’t get enough UVB lighting it can cause calcium deficiencies and lead to metabolic bone disease. 

If your tank is placed near a window, you can open the window during the day to expose the Chameleon to sunlight. Most homes have windows with UV filters on them, so if the windows are shut, it will block most of the light they need. With the windows open, they’ll get access to the UVB lighting. Keep the UV bulbs on for 12 hours a day. They should be replaced every 6 months because their strength starts to greatly reduce between 6 to 8 months of use.

The Attention a Chameleon Needs

As mentioned before, these are solitary reptiles and don’t like being handled. They are best when watched from a distance. Other than feeding them the only thing that needs your attention is keeping the heat and humidity conditions in their ideal range.

Separate thermometers should be kept inside the warm and basking areas to measure the temperature. With a hygrometer you can keep an eye on the humidity levels. If you see the levels off you can make changes to bring them back to the correct level.

Special attention should be given to keeping their tank dripped because that is the only way to keep your Chameleons hydrated. If the humidity gets too high, remove any excess water or puddles to lower the humidity.

Health Issues

The most common health issues in Chameleons:

Metabolic Bone Disease

Metabolic Bone Disease is the most common disease found in pet reptiles. The disease is caused by your reptile not having enough vitamin D to properly absorb calcium. Being exposed to UV lighting helps them create vitamin D that they can use to absorb calcium.

 Symptoms include:

  • Lower jaw swelling 
  • Limb swelling
  • Facial bone softening
  • Loss of appetite
  • Seizures
  • Lethargy

An X-ray can help identify the extent of the disease. Sometimes MBD can lead to fractures, thin bone tissue or thickened bone shafts. The disease is more common in reptiles less than 2 years old.

If left untreated the disease can also lead to death. Consult your vet immediately if you find any of the above mentioned symptoms in your reptile.

Treatments can range from injecting your reptile with mineral supplements to medication and dietary modifications. To keep your reptiles from having MBD, they should be fed a diet rich in calcium (or calcium supplements) and have daily exposure to UV lighting.

Respiratory Infection

Respiratory infections are a common health issue in reptiles. Poor enclosure conditions like excessive cold or humidity as well as stress can lead to respiratory infections or pneumonia. 

Symptoms include:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Sneezing
  • Bubbles in mouth
  • Labored breathing
  • Lethargy

Take your reptile to your vet if they have any of the above symptoms. Antibiotics are commonly used to treat the disease. If the infection is severe, they may need to be hospitalized.

Respiratory symptoms can become serious if not attended to in the initial stages. Maintaining the right temperature gradient and humidity levels inside their living enclosures can prevent your reptile from getting respiratory diseases.

Mouth Rot

Mouth rot, or infectious stomatitis, is an infection in a reptile’s mouth. Mouth rot is very serious and can cause your reptile a great deal of pain, and could eventually lead to their death. Mouth rot is typically caused by an injury to your reptile’s mouth, or their enclosure not being kept at the correct conditions.

Symptoms of mouth rot in your reptile are:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Blood in your pets mouth or their water bowl
  • Swollen areas in their mouth
  • Weight loss

The first step to fixing the problem is finding out if they injured their mouth on something, or if their enclosure’s conditions are not right. If their mouth is injured you should get them to a vet to have them look at your reptile. If the problem is environmental then fix the problems in their enclosure.

No matter what the cause of your reptile’s mouth rot, you’ll still need to take your reptile to your vet because the treatment requires prescription antibiotics. Surgery may be required depending on the severity of the mouth rot. Because this infection kills tissues in your reptile’s mouth, areas may need to be removed, including teeth. It’s better to prevent this problem before it happens by keeping your reptile’s enclosure at the conditions they need to be happy.

Gastrointestinal Disease

Gastrointestinal (GI) disease is a common parasitic infection found in reptiles, including tortoises. The disease can also be caused by improper feeding habits.

Symptoms of the disease include:

  • Weight loss 
  • Runny or smeared stools
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea 

A major cause of concern is that this disease can be transmitted to humans while handling the sick animal. This is why its important to wash up after handling each reptile you have.

If you find any of the above symptoms in your reptile, take them to a vet immediately. Your vet will take a sample of your reptile’s stool to identify the parasite. In most cases medication will help treat the disease.

Salmonella

All reptiles are potential carriers of salmonella bacteria. The bacteria is present on their skin and shells (for turtles) but doesn’t seem to harm them. A major concern is that the disease can be transmitted to humans. Salmonella can cause serious and life-threatening conditions in humans. 

Symptoms include: 

  • Fever
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain in humans

As a preventive measure, we always recommend washing your hands after handling any reptiles. Pregnant women, young children and older people shouldn’t handle reptiles. These people are at an increased risk of getting infected because they have a weaker immune system.

Grooming and Care

a rainbow colored Chameleon sleeping on a branch

Chameleons shed their skin regularly and younger Chameleons shed even more often. When your Chameleon is preparing to shed, their skin will become dull and they may start eating less. They might start rubbing their skin against the tank or branches inside to loosen their skin or puff out their eyes.

They don’t need a bath because it can be stressful for them. They keep themselves clean by shedding their dead skin. They shed often enough that they don’t need to do anything else to keep clean.

To help them shed, make sure the humidity is at the levels your Chameleon needs. If it is below the range you can mist the tank as needed to keep it up. Manually misting their tank or adding an automatic drip system are the easiest ways to increase humidity. Higher humidity conditions will help your Chameleons shed easier and with less stress.

Remove their old skin after it has been shed while you spot clean the enclosure. Avoid peeling any skin off of them yourself because it can cause bleeding or infections.

Remove extra food and any fecal matter from their tank daily. Replace the substrate completely once a month.

Their nails do not need to be trimmed because they need their nails to climb and grip the branches. Their nails should wear down naturally because of all the climbing they do.

The top of their tank should be cleaned every other week. A deep cleaning should be done once a month. While doing the deep cleaning, remove your pet as well as all decorations and sticks from the tank. Use a 5 percent bleach solution to clean the entire tank. Disinfect artificial decorations before placing them back inside. Rinse the enclosure carefully and let it dry completely.

Once the enclosure is dry, add the decorations and place your Chameleon back inside. Always wash your hands after cleaning their tank or handling them.

Feeding A Chameleon

mealworms make great food for Chameleons

Chameleons are insect eating reptiles and crickets should be their primary diet. If you want to give your pet some variety they can also be fed locusts, butter worms, roaches, silkworms, grasshoppers, superworms, mealworms and waxworms. Avoid feeding them wasps, fireflies or other insects that can sting.

Young Chameleons under 6 months should be fed 2 – 3 times a day. From 6 months until 12 they only need to be fed once a day. Once they reach a year they only need to be fed about 3 times a week. The reason younger Chameleons need to be fed more often is because they are growing. After they hit 12 months most of their growing has stopped so they don’t need as much food.

Young Chameleons should be fed as many crickets as they want to eat everyday. This might mean you are feeding them 12 to 15 smaller crickets per day. Avoid feeding them wild-caught insects because these could have been exposed to pesticides. Make sure you remove any uneaten insects after about 5 to 10 minutes.

Gut loaded insects are best and don’t take that much more time than regular feeder insects. We have a great article on how to Gut Load your feeder insects. Dusting feeder insects with calcium and vitamin supplements every other week is another great way to get your pet extra calcium. Dusting your pet’s food is very important if they’re kept indoors because they might not be getting enough UV rays. The extra calcium will help protect them from MBD.

A small portion of their diet should consist of plant material. Give them small amounts of fruits and vegetables like collard greens, dandelion leaves, kale, butternut squash, blueberries and thin slices of pear or apple. The fruits and vegetables will help round out their diet and make sure they’re not nutritionally deficient.

Because they don’t drink from a water bowl, it’s not necessary to add a bowl inside their tank. Make sure that there is condensation or water drops available for them to drink so they don’t dehydrate.

Related Questions:

Can You Tell the Difference Between Male and Female Chameleons?

The males and female Chameleons can be distinguished by their physical features, which vary depending upon the species. For example, male Veiled Chameleons are born with bumps on their backs and females do not have bumps. Male Jackson’s Chameleons will have 3 horns coming out of their head while females rarely have horns. Male Panther Chameleons will have a lump at the base of the tail while females do not. In most Chameleon species the males tend to have brighter colors and are also larger than females.

Does Bathing Help Keep the Chameleons Hydrated?

Many think that since Chameleons do not drink water from a container, misting them will keep them hydrated. The truth is Chameleons don’t absorb water from their skin, so bathing them doesn’t help Chameleons stay hydrated. As mentioned before, Chameleons hydrate themselves by licking water from their skin and surroundings. Bathing can stress them which can cause various diseases, and it’s important that your Chameleons not be bathed.

Which Chameleon Species Should I Get as a Pet?

The Chameleon species to get depends on your needs. If you want a reptile that may allow you to handle them, then a Panther Chameleon is a great choice. If you don’t mind not holding them then Veiled Chameleons are great to look at. Veiled Chameleons will have the most vivid colors. Jackson’s Chameleons have three-horns on their head that make them look different from every other type of Chameleon.