If you are interested in getting a chameleon, this episode is for you! We condense the most important points about chameleon keeping into one hour of listening! Now, understand that this is a high level overview. Each one of the topics reviewed could easily be an entire episode on their own! But this episode gets you started with some answers, but mostly to let you know the right questions to ask.
Transcript (more or less)
Welcome to your weekly dose of chameleon talk! Today we are going to go back to the beginning and talk about the most basic things one needs to know about a chameleon. This is to answer a question I got on Instagram from trippin.zen which said “Hey, I’m a sophomore in high school and I want to get a chameleon, but I don’t know much about them. Is there anything in particular that I should know?” Now that is a loaded question! And what is awesome is that you are asking it before you get your chameleon!
When you are into chameleons you don’t realize how much of a lifestyle it becomes and how much you come to just instinctively know. So much of what I do is second nature because chameleons have been a part of about 80% of my living years. But I got to experience the beginner intimidation when I got some dart frogs for my son who decided he loved frogs. Of course, he couldn’t have fallen in love with panther chameleons so I could justify a “one of each morph” collection under father/son bonding. No, that would have been too simple. So, dart frogs it is. They are incredible creatures! And suddenly I realized I have no idea how to take care of something that lives on the ground…and drinks from a bowl. Do dart frogs drink? Do I use UVB? Is keeping them in group something they like or just tolerate? Should I give dietary D3? I knew nothing. At least my chameleon experience allowed my to ask the right questions, but I was sitting at the start line trying to figure out which way to point my car! So this episode is for trippin.zen and all those out there that are curious about chameleons and are trying to figure out what questions they should ask. By time this episode is done you will have the basics and be able to function in chameleon land.
First, a note of caution. There is great debate on most things in the chameleon world. We are really still finding out so much about these guys. We have entered into a period of chameleon husbandry where we have been able to reliably breed and raise up chameleons to what we believe to be old age. But just because we have achieved longevity and apparent health doesn’t mean we know the optimal conditions. It just means we have stumbled upon acceptable conditions. And I bring this up not to confuse you, but to help you from being confused when you go searching for information and run into people hotly debating some nuance of husbandry. What are you to do? You hardly even know what they are talking about much less understand what the difference in opinion is! Our husbandry knowledge is continually growing. So what I am going to give you in this episode is the basics of chameleon care. I am going to give you what we know works by long term practice. If you start here then you will be following what has worked successfully for years. But that doesn’t mean we just accept it and refuse to change! It just means for you to start here and once you are comfortable with these basics then you can consider building on these basic guidelines and making discoveries of your own.
I would also like to make it clear that this episode is going to be giving you a high level overview. I will be touching on a wide range of subjects so cannot dive deeply into any one. You will be getting basic answers, but the real value of this episode is going to be to let you know the questions you should be asking!
To kick this off I am going to start with a list of Chameleon Frequently Asked Questions. Now each one of these questions is worthy of an entire podcast on their own! But since you need a quick fix I am going to limit my answers to five sentences maximum!
You will be able to find much more information as you dive further into previous podcast episodes, but you need answers now to determine if you want to invest more time. You will need patience with just about every other aspect dealing with chameleons so let’s indulge in a little immediate gratification right now.
Here are Frequently Asked Questions answered within five sentences! My daughter will be helping out by asking the questions
Can I tame a chameleon?
To some extent. Their natural (and very healthy) fear of humans can be lessened - especially for the person that cares for them and becomes familiar to them. Each individual chameleon will have its own level of tolerance to human interaction. Chameleons are still very much wild animals. While some adapt amazingly to life with humans, most retain their natural desire to be left alone.
How big of a cage do I need?
For most commonly kept chameleons (Panthers, Jackson’s and Veileds) 2’ x 2’ x 4’ high is a good budgetary space allocation. Babies can be grown up in smaller cages, but from the beginning, plan space for your adult cage. As far as your chameleon is concerned, bigger is almost always better. You can go shorter if you go wider. Chameleons live horiztonally and will appreciate more width.
How long do chameleons live?
This depends on species. Smaller species may live two years while larger species could easily live over ten years with reports up to 20. Panther and Veiled chameleons, the most commonly kept, will live about five to seven years. But we are finding that the more we figure out about husbandry, the longer our chameleons, even our “short lived” species, live.
Will a chameleon just die on me?
No, despite their reputation, chameleons don’t just drop dead. There are specific reasons why they get sick and die. We have a pretty good handle on what those reasons are and how to keep them alive for many years until they are in their old age. You getting your chameleon to live into its old age is what this podcast is all about!
What do chameleons eat?
Chameleons will eat anything that moves and fits in their mouth. There are a couple species, like the veiled chameleon that will take bites out of your cage plants, but chameleons are predominantly insectivores. So the quick answer to this one is insects and insect-like things. Crickets, flies, worms, roaches, stick bugs, praying mantises, snails, beetles, black soldier flies, roly polys, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, crane flies, etc…
Are chameleons noisy?
Chameleons don’t make noise the way we think about it. The crickets that you feed the chameleon may chirp if they are mature males, but chameleons themselves have no vocal chords and, by nature, try to be as unnoticed as possible! They will not be disturbing your sleep or your quiet study time.
Do chameleons smell?
Chameleons don’t really produce odors. Even poop at the bottom of the cage dries quickly and will not stink up the house. The exception to this is creating “poop soup” with standing water on the bottom of the cage or in a fountain. Obviously, this is not a proper or desired husbandry condition! Under proper husbandry conditions, a chameleon set-up will not produce odors.
Do chameleons carry disease?
Chameleons are reptiles and standard washing of hands after handling the chameleon must be a habit. While salmonella can hitch a ride with any reptile, chameleons are not common carriers of zoonotic diseases. Zoonotic diseases are diseases that jump from species to species. But please do not eat while handling chameleons and always wash your hands when finished interacting with them. Make sure your kids and friends wash their hands too.
Do chameleons bite?
Yes, chameleons have teeth and can both bite and, at times, break skin. Most chameleons will not bite, but until you know the chameleon and it knows you, it is wise to be cautious. Do not worry. With all the gaping and “hissing” and posturing that happens before hand, a chameleon bite is rarely a surprise! A bite usually happens when we insist on picking the chameleon up after it has made it quite clear that social time is not on the chameleon’s list of things they want to do today.
Can I hold a chameleon?
Yes, chameleons may be held. But a chameleon should not be considered a “holding” pet. Different chameleons take to holding differently. Most tolerate handling, some hate it, and very rare individuals actually seem to enjoy having their humans take them out. But, please don’t cuddle your chameleon.
Do chameleons change color to match their background?
Chameleons change color to communicate their moods and to regulate their temperature. Unfortunately, the erroneous idea that the color change is for deliberate camouflage is widespread and can be found in even biology text books. I have had people argue with me that chameleons DO change color to match their background – while I was holding a green chameleon against my yellow T-Shirt. Deep seeded beliefs are more powerful than any evidence! Some color palettes tend towards natural browns and greens, but, we do not observe the color changing as the background changes.
Can I keep more than one chameleon in the same cage?
No. More details on “co-habitation” later. The simple answer is no. Some people, for various reasons, want very much to have this be a yes and will tell you yes (especially if it means you will buy a second chameleon from them). Still, no… don’t do it.
Should I get a baby or an adult? The age of the chameleon is less important than the life experience. Adults are more likely to be wild-caught meaning they will be more difficult to acclimate and will probably have parasites and life injuries. Captive bred chameleons, whether baby or adult, will be more used to humans and should have reduced or no parasites. A three month old baby chameleon is typically stable enough to go to a new home and should be able to be raised without issue. A well started (typically three months or older) captive bred chameleon is the ideal starting point.
Should I get a male or a female? Male and female chameleons are the same as far as pet potential. A lone female chameleon may produce infertile eggs, but if she is healthy these should be passed without issue.
So there are some of the basic general questions. Let’s dive down into specifics.
First let’s talk about Caging.
The most general purpose chameleon cage for a chameleon the size of an adult Panther, Veiled, or Jackson’s Chameleon would be the all screen 24” x 24” x 48” tall cage. But the bigger the cage the better! The enclosure must be big enough so that the chameleon may move freely from a warm corner with a basking light to a cooler area. (This is known as a temperature “gradient”). Chameleons are horizontal animals so you can go lower in height but you then must go wider. Screen cages will work for most cases as most chameleons, once warmed up, are comfortable in the same temperature ranges we humans are comfortable in.
If your house stays cold or very dry then you will have to consider glass or solid side enclosures to keep in the heat and/or humidity. I am fully aware of the gross oversimplification soundbite that glass causes Upper Respiratory Infections or URIs. I don’t want to derail this section so I will address that community favorite mantra later.
The cardinal rule in enclosure environments is this: The bigger the enclosure the more temperature/humidity gradients can be created. Gradients allow the chameleon to take care of himself. The more your chameleon can take care of himself the less you have to worry.
When setting up your enclosure interior, have a number of horizontal perching areas linked by vertical or diagonal climbing branches. Branch diameters can range from where the chameleon can just encircle the branch with its foot to where it can get half way around. This provides a nice variety of arboreal pathways. Branches can be secured with zip ties, a hot glue gun, fishing line, push pins through the screen, or Dragon Ledge supports which can hold potted plants as well. Methods that put stress on the screen are less desirable because the screen is not designed to hold weight and bumping a branch that is held in by a pushpin or thumbtack will rip the screen. Fishing line to the cage frame is better as long as it is not relying on the screen itself for support. The Dragon Ledges from Dragon Strand cost some money, but are the best tool for the job.
Enclosure placement in your house is important. Avoid drafty areas and areas where they might be harassed (or just checked out) by other pets. Chameleons derive security from height so you can take advantage of this by placing the cage on a dresser and making the highest perching branch at least at your head level. The height of the cage itself is less important than the height of the perching branch relative to the action outside the cage.
When you are starting out there is no reason to put any soil, wood chips, or moss on the floor. A bare floor is easiest to clean and a substrate usually has little benefit for a chameleon.
So, bottom line: Most keepers of most chameleons will find the standard 48” tall screen cage sufficient. Different manufactures call it different things. Just look for the 48” height. Once again, that doesn’t mean this is the only cage size that will work, but in this podcast I am giving you the most tried and true solution! If I had to pick one that had the widest application, the 48” tall cage is the one I would recommend.
Plants have five purposes in a chameleon cage
1) They provide the kind of hiding locations that chameleons are used to. This is to create your exposure gradient. They will want the option to be hidden from view and from UVB.
2) Plants also provide a drinking surface for water droplets to gather and 3) the wet soil provides a source of humidity. 4) Plants provide climbing surfaces as well. And Finally, 5) there is the aesthetic side to plants. Never disregard the value of a beautiful looking cage. It doesn’t matter if the chameleon can’t use it. If it makes the cage more beautiful then it has value to you.
Common plants used in indoor cages include ficus benjamina trees and umbrella plants or schefflera arbicola for centerpiece plants and pothos and spider plants for hanging vine plants. And these do not take the place of solid horizontal branches, by the way.
Look at pictures of cages that other keepers have put together to get your ideas.
As far as what plants are safe: We in the chameleon community have unofficially decided that we will use the poison charts for dogs and cats. There is no basis for this other than we humans want answers and if there are no answers then we’ll find something to grab on to. There are no studies regarding what plants are or are not poisonous to chameleons. It is quite the leap of logic to decide that what is poisonous to a cat or dog is poisonous to a chameleon. The safe plant lists that we see come from what is safe for warm blooded dogs and cats. You can find lists for horses and birds. You can find edible food charts for herbivores such as tortoises or iguanas, but you will not find a list of what ornamental plants are poisonous for chameleons. So when anyone asks if this X plant is safe what we are really telling them is whether it is safe for a dog or cat. It is a game we play and, because no one has much better of a system, no one can really stand up and replace this system with a better one. But perhaps the lack of poisoning cases gives us a clue that we are being more restrictive than we need to be. Pothos is listed as a poisonous plant, yet is a staple in chameleon cages. We do not have a rash of chameleons being poisoned- even with the people that complain that their veiled chameleon is chewing on the pothos. To be poisoned two things must be in place. 1) the plant must actually be poisonous to the chameleon. And 2) The chameleon must ingest the poison in enough quantity for it to be detrimental. Veiled chameleons will chew on vegetation, but other species generally do not. So, adhere to the dog and cat poison lists if it makes you feel safer. Just realize that just because it is safe for a dog or cat doesn’t mean it is not poisonous for a chameleon. So these lists are really a false sense of security. But we are not getting a rash of poisoning cases from following the lists and we are not getting a rash of poisoning cases from the people who ignore the list. So, at this point, pick what restriction you want to place on yourself knowing that no one really has answers to the question “is this plant safe for a chameleon”. A lot of people think they do, though, so if you just want to go with the flow then go to the show notes at chameleonbreeder.com and I will point you to a link that you can reference when you are plant shopping. Although I will concede, by the community gathering around the present poison lists of which plants to select and avoid we are doing a crowdsource type test on that list. While we cannot use the lists to definitively determine what plants are poisonous to chameleons, the fact that we are sing the plants on the list and are not seeing poisoning is a test in itself saying that these plants are safe in a chameleon cage. So, in a very real way, the boundaries we have placed upon ourselves has created an anecdotal long term study on the dog and cat poison lists. A very interesting situation indeed. And by this time you are strumming your fingers and saying – just give me the bottom line!!! Fine, use umbrella plants and pothos and you’re good! They do well in standard cage lighting and provide a great combination of drinking, hiding, climbing, and aesthetics. Just make sure your misting nozzle is pointed to water them too.
You will need one cage per chameleon. Although many sellers and, unfortunately, some breeders, will sell you a pair of chameleons and say they can live together, this is setting you up for potential trouble before you are ready to recognize it. Chameleons do not get lonely and will be very happy without another chameleon in their lives. Chameleons may not be aggressive in an obvious manner towards each other, but they do play power games and over time in this stressful environment the loser will grow up slower and with a weakened immune system. Early death is a possible result. But it often is a long term issue so people do not connect the health issue with the cohabitation. Yes, people will claim they have done it. They will post pictures of chameleons together. But don’t do it yourself until you have enough chameleon experience under your belt that you can recognize the subtle signs that they are not getting along. Bring them together just for mating. All three of you will be much happier.
Chameleons acquire several things from unfiltered sunlight: visual lighting, heat, and invisible ultraviolet (UVA +UVB) rays. Unfiltered natural sunlight is best for supplying these needs, but there are acceptable lighting solutions for indoor keeping.
Visual Light: A 6500K fluorescent bulb from any home improvement store will provide visual lighting needs. You will want to keep a bright environment for both the chameleon’s sake and your enjoyment of the cage.
Heat: A basking bulb can be as simple as a 50-75 Watt incandescent bulb. Place this bulb to ensure the chameleon cannot touch the bulb and that the chameleon can move in and out of the heat. Make sure you can hold your hand at the closest perch point inside the enclosure to the bulb without discomfort for a couple of minutes. Chameleons will burn themselves if the light is too hot! Except for large chameleons, a screen top counts as a perch point. And, for Veiled Chameleon owners especially, take into account the top height of your veiled chameleon’s casque! Chameleons will burn their back and heads trying to warm their body. Remember that they have no concept of the “sun” being close enough to burn them!
The band of sunlight that is responsible for sunburns is also the light that our body, uses to produce vitamin D3 which is critical in building a healthy body. This band of light is called the Ultraviolet B band or, simply, UVB. Chameleons need it just as much as we do and they would die horrible deaths from Metabolic Bone Disease unless given UVB light or vitamin D3 oral supplements. UVB is the natural method and so that is what we prefer.
The most effective UVB light is the T5 High Output linear fluorescent bulbs. You’ll see the designation T5 HO. Those are the lights you want. A UV Index range of between 3 and 6 is a standard range used for the most common species. You can get the low end of this range by using Arcadia 6% UVB bulbs or the high end by using the 12% UVB bulb and a basking branch about six inches below the screen top of the cage. UVB bulb strength is affected by what reflector you use. The numbers I just listed are if the UVB bulb is in a fixture with other daylight bulbs. This reduces the strength as does going through the screen top of your cage. Having a dedicated reflector for your UVB bulb will increase the strength. Thus it is quite difficult to give an answer that applies to all situations. For a 48” tall cage I recommend getting a quad T5 High Output fixture with a 12% UVB and reducing oral vitamin D3 intake to once or at most twice a month. In fact, I experimented with veiled chameleons and found that levels of 3 to 6 UVI and no oral D3 supplementation from 2 to 9 months old produced chameleons with no signs of MBD or health issues. So we are on the right track.
The ZooMed 10.0 or 5.0 have similar strengths of UVB. I recommend calling up Todd Goode at Lightyourreptiles.com for a personal consultation on right lighting for your exact cage size and configuration. He was on in episode 27 and made that offer. Show him your cage and he will tell you what lighting(natural, UVB, and otherwise) would be best.
Night Lighting: Though red or blue lights are often sold with chameleons for a night light, do not use them all night. The light will keep the chameleon awake. If your nighttime temperature is too cold for your species of chameleon use a ceramic heater. Few homes get cold enough for this, though. These “night lights” are great if you use them on a separate timer for only 30 minutes after the main lights go out to lessen the shock of total light to total darkness. This will give them a little bit of time to settle in before total darkness.
Timing: Appliance timers can be used to automatically turn on and off your lights. A 12 hour on/off cycle is a good start.
Hydration. The greatest husbandry challenge of chameleons is keeping them well hydrated. You will need to provide a daily misting of the leaves and a water drip. Chameleons will drink the water droplets off the leaves. At a minimum, watering may be done by hand with a spray bottle misting the leaves or by poking a small hole in a cup and placing it, full of water, on top of the enclosure. Make sure it takes at least 15 minutes for the cup to empty. The most reliable and recommended hydration method is an automatic misting system.
Observe your chameleon drinking. If a chameleon rushes in to get water then the chameleon is probably dehydrated and you will need to ensure that your watering sessions are either more frequent and/or longer. Spray in the morning and evening, at a minimum, with the drip going during the day.
Hydration is critical to the chameleon’s health. Do not cut corners in this area.
The common staple food of modern captive chameleons is crickets. These are available at most pet stores that sell reptiles and they come in many different sizes. A standard community guideline on cricket feeder size is to feed the chameleon crickets that are a length equal to the distance between the ends of the chameleon’s eyes. You will see them chomp down larger insects, but err on the side of smaller. You can’t go wrong with feeding a few small items versus one large item that may intimidate or even fight back.
With only one chameleon, your best bet is to buy crickets and other food items (some chameleons get bored
with only one food type) from local pet stores. Independent reptile stores are your best bet for good pricing and variety of food, but national chains such as Petco and PetSmart also carry insect feeders.
Babies and juveniles up to six months can be fed every day. Up until the chameleon is full grown, and for gravid females, I feed as much as they will eat. Once they are full grown I suggest five food items every other day. Crickets, and many other feeder insects commonly available, are low in calcium so supplementation, as described in the nutrition section coming up, is important.
You will need to offer food in a way that the chameleon will find the food. Most of the food items available to us are nocturnal and like to hide on the floor of the enclosure so they cannot be just released in the enclosure and hope that they will be eaten. You will have to hand feed, do controlled release, or cup feed. Hand feeding is where you hold the feeder for the chameleon to shoot at. This is great fun, but has the drawback that shy chameleons will either not eat or else they will not eat enough. Controlled release is where you release a feeder or two on the inside screen wall until the chameleon zaps them and then you release a couple more when the chameleon is ready. Cup feeding is when you put the feeders in a cup that prevents the insect from climbing out and place the cup where the chameleon can have easy access. I, personally, hand feed or control release the first two feeders and then cup feed the rest. This gives me the opportunity to observe eating each time to verify that the chameleon is looking and acting healthy.
Establish a routine. Make a schedule for feeding, watering, enclosure cleaning, sunning, and taking care of feeder insects. There is a lot of work involved in chameleon keeping, but it is manageable if each one of the tasks is scheduled out. Make no mistake, you have chosen a high maintenance animal! But if you dive in and do it right, you will be rewarded with a fascinating experience.
Now, let’s talk about Nutrition
An avid chameleon keeper soon becomes an insect keeper. Even if you have one chameleon and buy ten crickets at a time from the corner pet store, you will learn bugs! This is the natural progression because, like with you, nutrition is critical to keeping a chameleon healthy.
Gutloading. Getting minerals, vitamins, and nutrients into your chameleon starts with gut-loading your feeder insects. This means that you spend a couple days feeding your feeder crickets/superworms/etc…with grains, fruits, and vegetables before feeding them to the chameleon. And, yes, a couple days of rehabilitation is usually necessary for your feeders. Chances are that the feeders you bought from the pet store were not fed well at all. If they are lucky they got some carrots for moisture. Unfortunately, if you feed your chameleon right when you get home with the insects from the pet store, then you are feeding your pet an empty shell devoid of what your chameleon needs to survive.
To combat malnutrition, place your feeders in a container and give them gutload to eat for three days. Then you can feel comfortable that when your chameleon chomps down he is getting what he needs. One of the first things to do is research gutloads. There are many recipes available and I’ll give you a very simple introduction recipe to tide you over. Put the wet parts on one plate and the dry on another to avoid spoiling.
Wet: Collard greens, Carrots, Sweet potatoes, Apple slices
Dry: Wheat germ, bee pollen, dry nonfat milk, alfalfa
I make it a point to mix up my ingredients and cycle in oranges, squash, and other fruits and vegetables that are in season. Commercial gutloads are available and I cycle through these as well. The more variety you give your feeders the more variety your chameleon gets. This is good.
You will have to change out food frequently to avoid spoiling. With feeder insects, fresh food and clean holding bins are critical!
Supplements. We are going to get a tad complicated here because this subject is, well, complicated. Just hang with me as I attempt to make it as high level as possible.
Most of our feeder insects are high in phosphorus which creates an imbalance relative to the calcium in your chameleon. The section on MBD will explain why this is a problem! To combat this, commercial mineral powders are available which will provide more calcium and D3 to your chameleon.
The interaction of calcium and Vitamin D3 is an enormously complicated biological process which takes use from the skin through the liver and through the kidneys. Finding the balance between not enough and too much of either is one of our husbandry challenges.
Calcium is required for proper body function including bone development. Vitamin D3 is required for the body to absorb the calcium.
Calcium is obtained through diet while Vitamin D3 is synthesized from UVB rays hitting the skin. Vitamin D3 can also come through diet, but, in nature, this is a minor source. The chameleon’s body naturally limits production from UVB, but there is no check and balance for dietary D3. Too little calcium and vitamin D3 will produce, among other problems, Metabolic Bone Disease, which is like Rickett’s in humans. Bones are not hard enough. They can be “rubbery” and will break easily. This results in weak legs, broken jaws and curved spines. Too much calcium and/or D3 can create organ failure and edema (excess fluid in the body).
Since every set-up will be different it is impossible to give a universal supplementation schedule. If you are buying a captive bred chameleon just ask your breeder for their recommendation. And remember supplementation and the UVB bulb are intricately tied together so any discussion of supplementation without mention of the UVB bulb is incomplete. The UVB bulb and vitamin D3 component in the supplement must be balanced. So if your breeder gives you a supplementation schedule that works for him or her, then make sure you replicate their UVB set up as well. If you don’t have a breeder you are working with I will give examples of two extremes. Align your supplementation with the one that fits your situation best and adjust as needed. With exposure to natural sunlight I have had good experience with dusting heavily gutloaded feeders with Arcadia EarthPro-A that has calcium and no D3 twice a week for Jackson’s, veiled, and panther chameleons. The most successful completely indoor panther chameleon breeding program, Kammerflage Kreations, uses T8 Reptisun 5.0 UVB bulbs through screen for a UVB level of 30 to 50 uw/cm2 and a dusting schedule of Rhapashy Calcium Plus on gutloaded insects every feeding. I would suggest substituting Rhapashy Calcium with Lo D3 for indoor keeping of montanes such as Jackson’s Chameleons.
To supplement with a powder, place the feeders in a bag or cup with a small amount of power, gently shake the bag/cup to lightly coat the feeder, and then feed it to your chameleon. Over supplementation can lead to as many problems as supplementation can prevent so do not think more is better and overdo it.
Variety. Now we come to the part where things get interesting. Chameleons enjoy a variety of food. You will quickly find yourself learning about many insects. Typical chameleon keepers find themselves going through crickets, superworms (Zophobas), various species of roaches (dubias are most common), praying mantises, blue bottle flies, house flies, black soldier flies, grasshoppers, butterflies, silkworms, waxworms, mealworms, fruit flies, bean beetles, walking sticks, etc… Never doubt you are on quite the adventure! You’ll find your knowledge of the natural world getting much larger with chameleons!
The most common species of chameleon in the pet trade are Panther Chameleons, Veiled Chameleons, and Jackson’s Chameleons. These three are good to start off with because they are the best known and are commonly available as captive bred. The Jackson’s Chameleon is also available as wild-caught, but resist a cheaper price tag when purchasing a chameleon that will be with you for many years if started in top health. There are many other species that come and go in the market. Which ever species you decide, do the proper research into their husbandry before you bring them home! But here are some basics.
Veiled Chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus). Originates from Yemen, but are mostly found as captive bred. This is a great chameleon to start with because of its hardiness. As babies they are voracious eaters and fast growers. Please read the section on MBD extra carefully because of this! Veileds are colorful and have a dramatic casque on top of their head. One thing that defines these chameleons is each has a distinctive personality. They can be very pleasant, very nasty or anywhere inbetween.
Panther Chameleon (Furcifer pardalis). The panther chameleon, from Madagascar, is the king of color. There are many morphs which can range from pure blue to fiery red to a complete rainbow. They are intelligent and most are mild mannered. Captive bred panthers are widely available and make excellent pets. There certainly are individuals that never lose their crankiness, but most tame down readily.
Jackson’s Chameleon (Trioceros jacksonii xantholophus). There are three sub-species of Jackson’s Chameleon. The largest and most common is the Yellow-Crested Jackson’s Chameleon, originally from Kenya. Though, today, they are brought over from Hawaii where they escaped and established themselves. They are live bearing and females can mate and store sperm. I mention this only because you can have a female only and then be surprised a year later when you’ll suddenly find 20 babies in the cage with her! Jackson’s are high altitude chameleons and can easily take temperatures down to the 50s F if the next day is clear and warms to at least the 70s. They have consistently mellow and pleasant personalities. If you told me that you had a chameleon that would eat from your hand while sitting in your other hand I would immediately bet you had an adult female jackson’s chameleon. Jackson’s are a wonderful species.
Now, let’s touch on the wonderful information source known as the internet.
You will find anything there. You will find pictures and videos of chameleons seemingly living together in peace and even snuggling cutely. Videos of chameleons drinking from water bowl, climbing willingly onto their owner’s hand, reaching out for a hug, enjoying a bath (you know it is enjoying the bath because the owner has posted that they, quotes, love it). People will talk about how they have never used a UVB bulb and their babies raised up just fine. You will find people having the exact opposite experience – either in reality or else in just their interpretation of what is going on. The fact is that there are exceptions to everything. Everything! The danger is when someone has one experience, makes an interpretation on that experience, and then broadcasts it as universal truth. The internet loves to jump on these and make them pieces of advice that go on forever. To help you from some misteps you may run into I have gathered a collection of Myths, Misconceptions, leaps of logic, and oversimplifications for your listening pleasure.
Chameleons will drink from a water bowl. Chameleons drink from water droplets on leaves. Whether from rain or morning dew, this is their preferred method of drinking. There are some chameleons, usually veileds, that will figure water bowls out. If you are providing mist and rain and they drink out of a water bowl then you follow your chameleon’s lead. But realize this is not their natural mode of drinking. Keep an eye out for why they are doing this. You’ll hear of people keeping their chameleons with only a water bowl and they’ll show videos of their chameleons drinking from it and talk about how long their chameleon has lived. This is an exception situation and expecting your chameleon to follow suit is a recipe for disappointment.
Fountains are good for humidity. Any open container of water becomes a target for chameleon poop and becomes a bacterial issue. Increase humidity by enclosing sides, increasing misting, and by use of humidifiers. Fountains are a great idea in theory, but in practice quickly become a nightmare.
Glass cages will produce Upper Respiratory Infections. It is compromised immune systems which give the bacteria that is always present a toehold on your chameleon and allows it to bloom out of control. It is not the material of your cage. URIs can happen with screen cages. This oversimplification got started back when chameleon care was in its infancy and we tried keeping chameleons in aquariums like all of the other tropical reptiles that came in. Of course, the most imported chameleon of the time was Jackson’s and they are not tropical. We gave them water through bubblers, kept them in pairs, and there was little to no deparasitization medication going on. The glass aquariums of the time were horizontal and relatively small to what chameleons need. Moving them to bird cages gave them height and better use of space. So there were a number of problems that were being solved at the same time, but glass sides took an unfair share of the blame. Yes, there is a problem with glass trapping heat and stagnant air, but that is the extreme. Trapped heat and decreased ventilation are critical to keeping chameleons healthy in cooler and drier environments. This is a dangerous point when gathering opinions from the internet. I see almost no one asking what your conditions are before stating that you need a screen cage. I wonder if they would know what to do with the information if you gave it. Your best bet when considering what cage to use is to find keepers in your area who have kept chameleons all year and know what is necessary through the seasonal fluctuations. Generally speaking, the further north in latitude you go the more glass and solid side caging is used.
Chameleons will be aggressive to their reflection in glass. Carpet chameleons, which are aggressive towards others, have been raised successfully for generations in glass cages, and glass is used as a standard in many northern latitude keeping situations. You will always have someone raise their hand up and say they saw it happen. Once again, no answer anywhere will apply to every situation. All I can do is pass along what works in the majority of cases and let you know how many “exceptions” may be out there. If you need, or choose, glass because of your conditions then you do what every keeper has to do regardless of what caging is selected – you watch your chameleon carefully and take notes from their behavior as to whether they are content or not and make adjustments accordingly. If your chameleon decides it wants to drink from a water bowl and flares up at the glass side of his cage then you make sure the water bowl is clean and you put something non-reflective up on the wall of the cage. But if you need the heat or humidity maintaining property of glass, then screen is not an option.
Superworms will eat the chameleon from the stomach out. Myth. This is an urban legend that has been circling the chameleon community for a while now. The first thing a chameleon does when it is bringing back food is kill it with a chomp. Even if it does swallow the food alive it will be suffocated. Even if this worm can live and bite while being suffocated, that is a far cry from boring its way through a live body. We humans are clever enough to figure out how this could happen. We can figure out how anything can happen! It has yet to be documented. The generally accepted origin of this story was a keeper that saw his chameleon dead on the floor of the cage with a superworm crawling around it. But this origin story is just as murky as how the originator deduced what had happened. But what we do know is that it took a life of its own and many keepers swore to never use superworms again. This urban legend persists still.
Females need to be bred or they will die egg bound.
Myth. It is hard to tell where this one came from. It is true that malnutrition is common in captive chameleons and all sorts of complications can occur when a chameleon is malnourished. This problem is compounded by the production of eggs. Females can get egg bound or simply die before laying eggs. The stress of producing eggs is enormous. Females are designed to withstand this stress, but they also need the nutrition to create 40 to 100 new lives. If she doesn’t provide it through what she eats, nature will leach the nutrients from her body. So it is not true that a female will die egg bound if not mated. It is true that a female will die if she is not given the proper nutrition –especially during egg production. If the eggs she develops are infertile due to not mating, a healthy female will lay them without issue.
Obesity is actually the culprit in females dying egg bound. The overload of nutrients kicks the body into producing a number of eggs way beyond what is naturally intended and then the now-huge fat pads around her cloaca are making it hard to push eggs through. To avoid obesity we feed them as much as they want to eat until they are sexually mature and then we go to five food items every other day. She may still produce eggs, but having a fit female will make this a non-life threatening event.
A substrate will cause impaction in your chameleons. A substrate is when you put dirt, sand, or wood chips on the bottom of the cage. Impaction is when the animal ingests the substrate and it causes internal complications. Leopard geckos and bearded dragons have this issue and it is theorized that the animals try to ingest the substrate to replace something missing in their diet. In a chameleon’s case it would come from the substrate sticking to the insect during tongue attack and something inadvertently brought back into the mouth. Yes, chameleons can and do ingest foreign objects. I was amazed when my panther chameleon pooped out a six inch piece of vegetation. I have happily put a picture of that in the show notes if you are so inclined to view such a thing. But it went through completely harmlessly. If a rock comes back with the insect there is a possibility that he could chip a tooth. And, if the chameleon is malnourished, there is no telling what he may try to eat in an attempt to get what he needs. If your chameleon starts scooping up and swallowing dirt you can take the dirt away, but you have a much greater nutritional problem. Definitely get on solving that!
Substrates add another level of complication. I do not recommend to start off with a substrate because it is just one more thing you have to monitor and it requires a little bit of skill to balance it out to ensure it is not a soggy, unhygienic mess. But a substrate properly done will be a great source of humidity and can create another living aspect to the vivarium. Those of us who have used substrate long term have a hard time relating to all the hype and doom warnings of a substrate. If you are concerned about the possibility of substrate danger, but still want live plants you can easily find large pebbles and place them on top of any exposed dirt.
That said, don’t put a substrate in unless you have a specific reason for it. Chameleons do not need it and unless you want to take on another complication just don’t mess with it. If you are not ready for maintaining your substrate it can easily become a place for feeders to hide, poop to marinate, and bacteria to thrive. If you don’t have the background to do it then just be patient. Save it for after you have done some research and decide you are ready to take on the next level of husbandry.
Baths will help hydrate your sick chameleon. Some lizards are bathed with the idea that they absorb moisture through their cloaca or that it will help with a shed. This is done with bearded dragons and some other terrestrial lizards. Although there seems to be no conclusive proof that this is useful for hydration in those lizards, some people, and even vets, have extended this to chameleons and have decided what is good for bearded dragons is good for chameleons. If your vet tells you to do this then you have to follow his or her instructions over some guy with a podcast. But if you are deciding this on your own then know that putting a chameleon in puddle of water is not their natural comfort zone and the stress you cause by doing this is hardly worth any amount of hydration they may, but probably will not, get from splashing about. Chameleons should be hydrated the way chameleons are hydrated. Misting or gentle showers. If your chameleon has their eyes closed and will not drink then this requires vet care. At no point along the way, healthy or in rehabilitation, is a bath a good husbandry practice for a chameleon.
Baby chameleons will get stressed in a large cage. There is a common concern that a baby chameleon will get stressed in a large cage. The truth is that it is the keeper that gets stressed with a baby in a large cage. The baby is just fine in a large cage! He is designed to function on the African continent bounded by oceans. If anything, he will be stressed because he will not be able to disperse as far as he can from his hatch site. He is already programmed to seek out heat and UVB. At a couple days old he is already an effective hunter of bugs. You will not be able to put feeders in a 48” cage without your baby knowing exactly where they are! Just make sure you don’t have places where feeders can hide or that the chameleon can’t reach. A feeder dish placed at the same, accessible spot every day will solve this problem nicely.
You do have to be much more sensitive to the heat at your basking spot to make sure it is not overwhelming for a little guy. And you have to make sure the coverage of your misting system is sufficient. You can start them off in a smaller cage and then move them to an adult cage later. But this is for your sake and your ease of providing for them. It is not because a large cage will produce stress in them.
A Chameleon falling asleep on you is a sign of affection. This is a tough one. It does no harm to believe that your chameleon loves you, has a special connection with you, or knows when you are sad. The problem comes when you start responding with affection appropriate for a human being. Chameleons live a completely different life. They come from a different world. They come together for mating and there are observations that some may pair up for a time. We humans like to call this affection because that warms our heart. It is more likely defending their genetics being procreated. We see chameleons sleeping together and think how precious. That is because sleeping together is how we see affection and security. It is more likely that chameleons are just jockeying for the best sleeping spot or defending their location. Babies sleeping on top of each other is not “cute”. Those are claws at the ends of those feet meant to anchor them on branches during windy nights. The chameleon on the bottom is not getting loved. We will never be rid of the perception that chameleons love each other and return our love because that is our true desire as chameleon keepers. We want a human bond with them. And so we will look for evidence that supports that and interpret actions in that light. A chameleon climbing onto our hand is because they want to be with us – not because they don’t like their cage, they know that food is out there, or they have gotten antsy because it is time to look for a mate. A chameleon has stopped running away because it is now comfortable playing our interaction game – not because it has given up on escaping this huge creature that is 50 times bigger and faster than it is. Chameleons should never have their eyes closed during the day. When they close their eyes during the day they are either sick or overwhelmed. I bring this example up specifically because the natural reaction to a chameleon who loves us so much that he falls asleep on our arm after a long play session is to find it adorable and to make sure that this chameleon gets a nice long play session the next day until it falls asleep on our arm again. If we are correct that this chameleons loves and trusts us so deeply then life is great for all involved. If, on the other hand, the chameleon is getting overwhelmed by having to interact with this large creature who could eat it at any time and then just gives up then we are creating a life of terror for our chameleon. What is more likely, that chameleons have this well of affection potential that has been untapped for millions of years of evolution just waiting for humans to make pets out of them or that they view us as potential predators and their default assumption is that we will eat them at any moment. I know what we want it to be. I also am honest enough to acknowledge what the true nature of a chameleon is most likely to be. We really have to accept them for what they are.
It isn’t a plastic chameleon, why would you use plastic plants?
There are a number of reasons why plastic plants are used and there is no evidence to show that the chameleon cares one way or another about live versus plastic plants. You won't get humidity advantage from a plastic plant, but all the other plant uses are there. In addition, the ability for plastic plants to be easily disinfected and cleaned makes them ideal for certain applications. I use both. Live plants are great! Plastic plants are great! Both have their uses and chameleons do not show a preference. But avoid plastic with veiled chameleons. If they chew a piece of plastic off it could be dangerous.
I hope this quick tour through chameleon keeping has been helpful.
I have put together a booklet entitled “Your First Chameleon” that summarizes much of what was covered in this podcast and adds in more on reading chameleon body language and health. It is a free full color pdf available on chameleonbreeder.com. It is meant to be a quick reference so do not take it as a complete information download! But it will get you started on the right foot and is a companion to this podcast episode.
Both the podcast and the eBook are made possible by the Dragon Strand Chameleon Caging Company. It is support from Dragon Strand that allows me to do what I do here. Remember the Dragon Ledges I talked about? Those are a patented Dragon Strand product. If you want a structurally sound way to mount horizontal branches and trailing vines down the sides of your chameleon cage, the Dragon Ledges allow you to do this with no stress on the screens. They are anchors that transfer weight from inside the cage to the strength of the frame. You can create some very beautiful plantscapes with these! They can be purchased as retrofit kits for most manufacturer’s screen cages. They are also included in the Dragon Strand Large Keeper Chameleon Cage kit which combines a 48” Large Keeper Cage with Dragon Ledges and an extra floor panel for easy daily cleaning. Check out the show notes or dragonstrand.com for more information.
You have just had your crash course in chameleon keeping. But it is just a glance on the surface! You have two assignments to get to immediately.
1) Research. Start at the beginning and listen to the Chameleon Breeder Podcast on iTunes or online at www.chameleonbreeder.com. Or just take the plunge and download the free iPhone/iPad Chameleon Breeder Podcast app and have all the episodes at your fingertips. Just listening to the podcasts will give you a feel for chameleons. Everything you read will be easier with this reference in mind.
-Study the back issues of the Chameleons! eZine at www.chameleonnews.com. It is the finest collection of chameleon community knowledge available. It is in a magazine format so you can read an issue at a time.
2) Get involved in that chameleon community.
-www.chameleonforums.com is our oldest active forum. It has a good blend of beginners and experienced old timers. You’ll be able to tap into some long time keepers that just haven’t jumped on the Facebook bandwagon.
On Facebook you just type "Chameleon" into the search bar and you'll have numerous results. There are a large number of Facebook groups regarding chameleons. You have many choices to check out and find one that matches your personality. The one I recommend is the Chameleon Enthusiasts which is a rare blend of beginner guidance with very experienced keepers/breeders and scientists on the moderator team. I am an admin for the group and I'd be happy to interact there. It is a great place to start making friends and learn more!
The chameleon community is made up of a very diverse group of people. We are tied together by a passion for these mini tree dragons.
If you are just getting started, then welcome to a world that is rich with possibilities for personal growth and enjoyment.
Thank you for joining me here for this podcast episode. For show notes that have images and links on what we’ve talked about go online to chameleonbreeder.com. It is here that you can also find the free eBooklet “Your First Chameleon”. I’d also like to say “thank you, Megan” for helping me out here:
And for this week, that’s a wrap.