a very interesting color pattern on a Chameleon

Chameleons

Talk about a reptilian surprise! Chameleons are one of nature’s great mysteries when it comes to pets. If you ask most people, they will tell you that these little guys are dinky little lizards—but that couldn’t be further from the truth! A chameleon is one of the most colorful, unique, and intelligent reptiles around.

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

Chameleons are one of the most striking of the reptiles—and one of the most popular pets. If you have a Chameleon as a pet, you can have a pet that is fun to watch, fascinating to examine and fun to handle. They have long been an animal of mystery, art and legend, so that they have become a regular part of our culture. They have always been considered as amazing pets because of their unique looks. Because of all of this, Chameleons are one of the most popular pet reptiles.

Chameleon Information

  • Average Length: 8 to 24 inches
  • 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
  • Good 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
  • Suitable for First-Time 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

Physical Appearance of Chameleons

Chameleons are a group of color-changing lizards that come in 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 the surroundings, regulate body temperature or communicate with other Chameleons. Baby Chameleons generally have a dull gray or brown color and the more vivid adult colors develop when they are 5 months old. 

Adult Chameleons can change their color 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. 

a Chameleon walking with a beautiful color pattern
a Chameleon that's changed color

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 the 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 aid them to 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

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.

Unlike 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 the Chameleons could bite the children if they are stressed.

If you find your children handling the Chameleons or playing with their tank, 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 prevent your children from contracting bacterial and fungal diseases from your Chameleons.

Habitat for Chameleons

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. This 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.

Chameleons should be housed in a screen cage. A screen cage keeps the enclosure ventilated but may have problems containing the moisture. 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.

a Chameleon with a bunch of crazy colors

Decorations

Several branches of different sizes should be placed inside the 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 Chameleons to climb. 

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

If you want to go for a more natural look you can also add rocks to the cage. Place the branches and rocks in a way that they are at least 8 inches away from your lighting or heat source. 

a green Chameleon standing in its owners hands

Substrate

For substrate you can use 2 to 3 inches of coconut fiber or reptile bark. Reptile carpet is also a good choice if you want something longer lasting. Paper towels, butcher paper and newspapers are good substrate options. They are easy to clean and replace.

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

Best Climate for Chameleons

A temperature gradient needs to be created inside the tank by maintaining a cool and warm area. You can do this by adding heat lamps on the top of your tank. This will help the Chameleons to 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. 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 nighttime temperature falls 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 the tank or adding a humidifier will help keep the humidity levels up.

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 the tank. As it melts water water will onto the decorations and plants in the tank. Buying a drip system is also an option if you want to automate the process. 

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 to keep things inside the tank moist.

Lighting

Chameleons need a 12 hour light and dark cycle, so the lights must be turned off at night. Like most reptiles, UVA/UVB lighting is extremely important for Chameleons because it helps them process 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. Depending upon your lighting source or the location of your tank, you may have to add a UVA/UVB light bulb. 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, Chameleons are solitary reptiles and do not 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 cool 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 levels.

Special attention should be given to keeping the 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

Most common health issues in Chameleons:

a jackson's chameleon with 3 horns

Metabolic Bone Disease

Mineral deficiencies in Chameleons can result in health issues like Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD). The diseases lead to demineralization of bones which can be caused by insufficient exposure to UV-B radiation, vitamin D3 deficiency or lack of calcium. Improper feeding or poor conditions inside their living enclosure are known causes of MBD . Chameleons affected with MBD will have the following symptoms:

https://crfamilypets.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/veiled-chameleon-1.jpg
  • Softening of the lower jaw
  • Bent limbs
  • Difficulty in climbing
  • Inability to use their tongue to catch prey
  • Softening of bones often resulting in fractures

Many of these signs can be difficult to identify at the beginning which can result in the disease spreading unchecked. Affected Chameleons should be taken to a vet. The vet will give them immediate calcium infusions, and tell you to add or replace your UV lights and add dietary supplements. Sometimes hospitalization may also be required and therapy can take a few weeks. Chameleons that recover from MBD generally have a lower life span. 

Exposing captive Chameleons to UV-B radiation, either through direct sunlight or adding a fluorescent bulb in their enclosure is important. They need this to help them regulate the calcium levels in their body. Calcium supplementation should also be regularly added to the insects you feed them. 

Respiratory Diseases

Some Chameleon species, especially the Veiled Chameleons are prone to catching respiratory diseases. Symptoms include difficulty in breathing, bubbles in the mouth, excessive saliva, gaping, mucus around the nose or mouth or wheezing. Keeping the humidity between 65 and 80 percent in their habitat will help prevent your Chameleons from catching respiratory diseases. Antibiotics are commonly used to treat the disease. Take them to a vet if you see any of the above symptoms in your Chameleon.

Mouth Rot

Mouth rot or stomatitis is another disease that can afflict Chameleons. The disease is caused by cuts in their gums or food caught in their teeth. Visible symptoms include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Thickening of saliva 
  • Plaque in mouth
  • Yellow pus from mouth
  • Swelling of gums, mouth or face

If left untreated Mouth Rot can be fatal for them. Chameleons displaying the above signs should be taken to a vet immediately.

Gastrointestinal Disease

Parasites or bacteria can cause gastrointestinal diseases in Chameleons. The disease can also be caused by improper feeding habits, like eating something that they are not supposed to. Infected Chameleons will have runny stools, loss of appetite or caked stools. Chameleons with these symptoms should be taken to a vet.

Grooming and Care

Chameleons shed their skin regularly and younger Chameleons shed even more often. When the Chameleon is preparing to shed, their skin color will become dull and they may start eating less. You may find them rubbing their skin against the tank to loosen the skin or puff out their eyes.

https://crfamilypets.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/panther-chameleon.jpg
a green jackson's chameleon with 3 horns on its head

Chameleons don’t need a bath because it can be stressful for them. Chameleons 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. You can manually mist the tank or increase the frequency of your drip system. Higher humidity conditions will help your Chameleons shed easier. 

Remove the old skin after it has been shed. Avoid peeling any skin off of them yourself because it can cause bleeding or infections.

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

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

The top of the tank should be cleaned every other week. A deep cleaning should be done once a month. When performing a deep cleaning, remove your Chameleon and 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 inside. Always wash your hands after cleaning their tank or handling them.

Feeding A Chameleon

Most Chameleons eat a variety of insects. Some Chameleons also like to eat plants and should be fed vegetables like mustard greens or collard greens once a day in addition to any insects you feed them. 

The best foods you can feed your Chameleons are crickets, super worms, mealworms, wax worms, wax moths and roaches. These should be available at your local pet store. Avoid feeding them wasps, fireflies, bees 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.

Different Chameleon species should be fed different quantities. Refer to the specific species articles to find out more about each species dietary needs.

Leftover insects should be removed after 5 to 10 minutes. 

If you are raising crickets to feed your Chameleons, feed the crickets green vegetables that are high in Vitamin A and calcium. This is called gut-loading and should be done 2 days before feeding them to your Chameleons. Feeding the insects better makes them more nutritious for the Chameleons. 

Because Chameleons do not drink from a water bowl, it’s not necessary to add a bowl inside their tank. 

a pile of mealworms ready to be fed do a reptile
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