The study of parasites is as complicated as any macro level organism. The diversity is overwhelming. The fact that most of the parasites we chameleon keepers are concerned about are microscopic makes them even more complex. The two main area of parasitic attack on chameleons are external and internal with internal taking up most of our attention.
Chameleons and parasites usually live in a balance in nature. In captivity we can throw off that balance by over stressing the chameleon and confining them in a relatively small area with direct lifecycle parasites. When we inadvertently help the parasites by stressing their host and making it much easier for eggs in fecal matter to hitch a ride with the feeder crickets back into the digestive system we can easily destroy any balance.
The dangers of a blooming parasite load are the decrease of nutrients making it to the chameleon, potential stomach discomfort, and possible intestinal blockage.
Although the knee jerk reaction is to give medicines to remove any parasites we also must keep in mind that killing a large parasite load means there now dead bodies floating around inside the chameleon’s system and death from necrotic shock is not unheard of. So eradicating parasites must be done in a thoughtful manner.
Detecting parasites is both simple and complicated. To be accurate, the generally accepted test is to take three different tests. The problem is that if the parasites are not producing eggs at the time or the eggs are in a section of the poop that wasn’t taken for a sample you could get a false reading. Add to the complication that there could be parasites that infect the feeder insects that have similar shapes as chameleon parasites. You may be treating parasites that are not infecting your chameleon.
Internal parasites are detected by a fecal analysis. The appropriate medicine is then chosen.
You can be warned that there is something to look for when your chameleon is lethargic and seems like there is internal distress. They could be weakened by a parasite load. It is standard practice to do a fecal exam whenever the chameleons are showing a health issue that is not immediately obvious as to the origin.
Internal parasites are usually microscopic and set themselves up at various places within the digestive tract. They feed, mate, and reproduce in this environment. The typical reproduction is to produce eggs which exit the body through the poop. These eggs must then make their way back to the appropriate host to continue the lifecycle.
Examples of microscopic internal parasites
Internal parasites can be found in the gut and in the blood. They range from worms to fluke to protozoa. The study of parasites is an amazing journey into a completely different world that is right under our noses.
Examples of internal parasites visible to the unaided human eye
There are parasitic worms which grow to the size where they are easily seen by the human eye. These worms can migrate out of the digestive system and travel though the body cavity. It is not uncommon to see worm shapes squirming under the skin. These are known as sub-cutaneous parasites. A vet can remove these by making an incision in the skin and gently pulling them out.
Each parasite will have a different medicine that can be used to treat them. To be effective the veterinarian should do a fecal exam to identify not only the type of parasite, but also the seriousness of infection. The chameleon’s body must process any medicine that is given to it. Some medicines are harder on a body than others and if the infestation is particularly large they must be treated carefully so as to not suddenly fill your chameleon’s body with a large mass of dead parasites that will turn necrotic. If the infestation is small it may be best just to leave it.
Some importers and keepers bringing in large numbers of chameleons do a shotgun method where they treat with Panacur and Flagyl which are used to knock out nematodes (worms) and protozoa infections. These are some of the most common parasites, but this shotgun method should not be relied upon to consider your chameleon parasite free.
Medication will kill or disrupt the parasitic lifecycle. But you must ensure that there is no reinfection of new eggs. This requires careful attention to hygiene. Parasites lay eggs which exit the body in the poop. A direct lifecycle parasite then relies upon a food item to walk by and pick up the eggs so they can get back in the mouth of the chameleon. This is why it is imperative that the floors of our chameleon cages are not substrate trays that create pools of poop marinating on the floor just waiting for an escaped feeder insect to walk by and pick up the eggs. Parasites can produce 100s of thousands of eggs. This is because the chances of a food item picking up the eggs and then being eaten by the correct animal in the wild is very slim. So they have to make up for it in volume. We knock that out of balance when we restrict our chameleon, free ranging food, and the parasites into a small cage environment.
Note that having parasites is not a health issue. It is having an out of balance load that is a problem. If you and your vet determine that treatment is not in the chameleon’s best interests (for example, the chameleon has a small load of parasites and has other health issue to work through) then a simple system of using feeder run cups will break the parasitic lifecycle. Parasites are a serious topic and need to be understood, but they are not worth hysteria and panic. Many advanced keepers do not even bother checking for parasites unless there is a sign of internal stress. This comes from the experience that treatment can sometimes be worse than the parasite load. Parasites are a normal part of chameleon life. If your chameleon has parasites but shows no sign of distress then a strict program of cleaning the cage can be the appropriate response. If in doubt, go to a reptile experienced vet for a fecal check and then go with their recommendation for treatment.