Caring for Your Chameleon




Why own a chameleon? When asked this question some may say it’s the chameleon’s unique looking eyes, which move independently and are covered almost entirely by skin. Others may say it’s the chameleon’s pincer-like, prehensile appendages and slow moving gait. Certainly the projectile tongue, with which they can capture insects from a distance (up to double their body length in some species), has been reason enough to keep these unique creatures. Although they do not enjoy being handled or restrained, which can cause considerable stress, chameleons are an amazing pet to keep. Beginners may want to first try species that are “hardier” than others. Some examples of popular captive-bred species may be the Veiled or Panther chameleons.
One, Two or More?
Many species of chameleons prefer to be kept singly with the exception of breeding. Generally, males of most species should not be kept together. Some species may be kept in pairs or trios (one male to two females), if the enclosure is large enough.
In many species, the males have an elongated bulge at the base of the tail. There are secondary sexual characteristics, so the males and females know “who’s who” from far away. This is called sexual dichromastism. Basically, the colour and patterns differ between males and females. Colours and patterns also differ in some species when the female is gravid (pregnant) or when she is open to sexual advances. Sexual dimorphism, or “size and/or form” is also used to sex chameleons. In many species (not all), the males are larger than the females. As well, sexual dimorphism may be shown by the size of the chameleon’s casque (the crest portion of the head). Sometimes horns or rostral processes, dorsal or caudal crests may also play a part in sexing.
The life expectancy of a chameleon depends on the species you choose. An example of life expectancy for a Veiled chameleon could be five to eight years, but for a Panther chameleon could be up to nine years (females up to five years). As a general rule, males of the egg-laying species tend to be longer lived in captivity than females. Your pet counsellor can inform you about the approximate life expectancy of the species you are interested in.
Natural Habitat
There are approximately 135 species of chameleons with half of them coming from Madagascar. Some species are found in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. It is no wonder that your chameleon’s habitat will largely depend on the species you keep. For example, the Panther chameleon is a tropical rain forest tree-dweller from Madagascar that reaches 16 to 24 inches in length. With this information, we can surmise that the Panther will require a roomy enclosure with relatively high levels of humidity, and many climbing and hiding areas. Conversely, the Veiled chameleon is found in arid areas of Africa’s woodlands, where there is dense foliage and low levels of humidity. While he will need lots of areas to climb and hide, the Veiled chameleon will not require the higher humidity that the Panther chameleon does. Research your chameleon’s natural habitat with your pet counsellor.
To provide a happy healthy atmosphere for your chameleon, Petland recommends the following necessary accessories. We have listed them as your new pet’s four basic needs: Nutritional, Environmental, Maintenance and Behavioural. When these needs are met, along with a loving environment provided by you, your chameleon can live a long and happy life.
Housing – Consider the amount of space needed for the species you have chosen. Generally, the enclosure should be six times the total length of the chameleon. The height should be a minimum of two times the length of the chameleon. Some chameleon owners say an aquarium with a screen top works well to maintain a high humidity level that some species require. Carpet chameleons do well and have been bred in glass/screen enclosures.
Panther, Veiled and Jackson chameleons (respectively), can do very well in an aquarium with a screen. Most hobbyists also agree that smaller species (e.g. leaf-litter chameleons) or the very young, do well in a 20 or 30-gallon aquarium. Screen or welded wire cages offer height and ventilation, as well as a lot of climbing area. These suit larger chameleons very well. Whatever enclosure you choose, including the following environmental elements is essential for your chameleon’s health.
Decorations/Plants – A chameleon’s enclosure could look like an arboreal paradise or a woodland dream. Small trees, real or artificial plants, hanging vines and basking areas, such as rocks, driftwood and/or larger aquarium ornaments will provide your chameleon with some of the environmental elements he needs. Real plants provide many benefits for your chameleon. A plant aerates the enclosure, allowing for refuge, provides shade from basking areas and the leaves make perfect drinking areas. Ask your pet counsellor for a list of safe plants for your chameleon.
SubstrateBark, moss, earth and soil (without perlite, which are the white granules present in some potting soils), are all substrates suitable for a chameleon. A full soil floor would not be recommended, but an area or pot full of soil will be welcomed by most. Reptile carpeting is easy to clean, but may not satisfy your chameleon’s behavioural need to dig or rest on a soft tropical floor. If using carpet, take care to maintain the relative humidity in the enclosure, since it is not as efficient as other substrates in holding moisture. Spot clean often.
Relative humidity – It is imperative for the future health of your new pet that you find out what the humidity requirement is for your chosen species of chameleon. A humidity gauge is helpful in monitoring what the relative humidity is at any given time. Remember, even if your chameleon likes a high humidity level, the enclosure should still have good ventilation.
Temperature – A chameleon is an ectotherm, which means he depends on the temperature in his environment to regulate his body temperature. His natural habitat needs to be looked at to understand how to achieve the optimum temperature ranges for his health. Every chameleon is different in their needs. Chameleons seem to do well, if in the evening, there is a drop in temperature.
Thermometer – The use of a thermometer is the only way to know if the enclosure and basking sites are at (and maintain) the correct temperature. Stick-on thermometers are good or a digital electronic thermometer is even better. We suggest using two. Place one thermometer by the basking area and one at the other end of the enclosure, preferably in the cooler shaded area.
Lighting – By far, the best lighting is sunlight. Sunlight raises body temperature, and as some studies have indicated, it allows chameleons to synthesize vitamin D3 (believed to be important in the absorption of calcium). We recommend exposing your chameleon to a couple of hours a week of sunshine (in warmer months) and to also use high UVB reptile bulbs (you will require a fluorescent fixture) combined with spot lights (see spotlights below). Never have your chameleon sit in front of the window for his sunbath. Glass filters out beneficial UV radiation and can act like a magnifying glass, harming your chameleon. In warmer months, open up the window and have him bask through the screen area. Always provide a source of shade for him, so he can cool off when he wants. For more information ask a pet counsellor for a copy of the Ultraviolet Lighting for birds and Reptiles tip sheet
Ceramic Base Spotlight – A spotlight with a ceramic base is the best choice to provide localized heat (basking area) and as a light source. For small tanks, 60 watts or lower is recommended. Situate the light fixture far enough away from the basking area, so your chameleon does not get burned, but close enough for a comfortable bask. Review optimum temperatures with your pet counsellor, so you know what the ideal temperature is for the basking area.
Food Sources – What you feed your chameleon is dependant upon the species you are keeping. Crickets, cockroaches, wax moths, mealworms, pinkie mice, flour beetles and houseflies are all eaten by selected types of chameleons. Ask your pet counsellor for your chameleon’s favourite diet, but don’t forget to vary it, lest he become bored and/or refuse to eat.
Vitamin Supplementation – Supplements for chameleons are controversial. Some breeders and herp lovers maintain a routine of adding supplements to their chameleon’s food source. Others choose to gut-load the food source before it is consumed by the chameleon. Either way, your chameleon will need to have supplementation.
Watering Spray Bottle – It may seem strange, but many chameleon owners spend the better part of their quality time with their chameleon, watching and waiting for him to drink. Dehydration can, and does, kill chameleons. Many chameleon enthusiasts have found that hot water placed in a spray bottle (when it mists out, it’s warm) is the key to getting their chameleons to drink. At first, he may not seem interested, and it may take a few minutes for him to get the hint to start drinking. Once he starts, continue to slowly mist him (and the leaves) until he stops drinking. The length of time you spend misting is more important than the quantity of water that is sprayed.
Dripper – Many chameleons will also drink the water that comes out of a dripper. The dripper will help to maintain the humidity level in the enclosure and is necessary in ALL chameleon set-ups, as a primary or secondary source of drinking water.
Please ask your pet counsellor what other items pertain to your particular needs.
Safe Handling
Contact with reptiles, their environments or frozen feeder rodents can be a source of human Salmonella infections. After handling a reptile, its environment or its food, it is recommended that you wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. Clean and disinfect any surfaces where frozen rodents are prepared, thawed and stored.
Cleanliness and Safety
All pets can potentially carry diseases that may be contagious to people. Young children, infants, pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems and the elderly are at greater risk of infections and should use caution when in contact with pets or their environments. Regular cleaning of your pet’s environment with a pet safe cleaner may help avoid the spread of contaminants.
Hygiene procedures such as washing your hands before and after handling your pet and/or after having any contact with their habitat, is a necessary routine. Children should be assisted with hand washing and always have adult supervision when interacting with pets.
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