Chameleons as Pets
Chameleons are unique lizards that live in a variety of climates and locations. Half of all the species are from Madagascar and the rest can be found in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. Chameleons are arboreal and have adapted to live their lives in trees. They are carnivores that feed primarily on insects, but some will also eat small reptiles and other vertebrates. Chameleons have some amazing physical features. Most have eyes that move independently and have a very long projectile tongue. Some species can extend their tongue up to twice the length of the body.
They have a prehensile tail that helps them climb and balance on branches. To aid a life in trees, their hands and feet have fused to be pincer-like which helps them grasp branches. These reptiles also have flattened bodies, another adaptation for an arboreal lifestyle.
They are often colorful lizards and can be green, blue, brown, black, orange, yellow, as well as other colors. Some can change their color which can represent emotions like fear or anger, or it is used as a way to regulate heat. A few species color change to blend into their surroundings and hide from predators.
Chameleons vary greatly in size, color, and longevity. The smallest species is less than two inches long and the largest can be up to thirty inches long. They live fairly short lives and depending on the species can live from a few years up to around ten years.
Chameleons as Pets
A chameleon can be an interesting and unique pet, but it may not be for everyone. The reptile will require a fair amount of upkeep and cage space. You will also need to factor in the cost of his habitat, lighting, heating, humidity control, and food.
If this is your first chameleon, a veiled or panther is an excellent choice. They are hardy species, require only moderate humidity, and captive bred specimens are available. Whatever type you get, captive bred are preferred since they are less likely to be unhealthy, heavily stressed, or have parasites.
Where you live should also be a factor on what type you should get. If you live in a hot dry climate, maintaining a habitat for a chameleon that requires high humidity will take some work. Alternatively, if you live in a very humid climate, those requiring moderate humidity may not be the best choice.
Chameleons do best when living alone. Having a solitary pet prevents any chance of injury or accident due to territorial disputes. Females have shorter lifespans than males so males tend to be more popular as pets. If you are prepared to properly care for a chameleon and set up an ideal habitat, it can be a wonderful pet. These fascinating lizards are amazing to watch and observe.
Once you have decided that you want a chameleon as a pet you need to be prepared for his arrival. Everything should be set up before bringing him home.
You need to have an ideal cage and habitat, the appropriate lighting and heat, and the correct foods and supplements. Creating the perfect environment for a chameleon will help ensure your pet lives a long and healthy life.
A large and tall screened cage or terrarium with screened top. For chameleons one foot or less in length the cage should be at least 2′ x 3′ x 3′. Always go with the biggest cage possible. For cage free chameleons or for inside a cage, a Ficus Tree with many branches and leaves can make a suitable home.
Horizontal branches for climbing and exploring and many leaves for hiding and resting. If you are not using a Ficus Tree, there are artificial branches and leaves designed for reptiles. UVB fluorescent bulbs that extend the length of the cage. Basking bulb or heat emitter to create heat for the habitat.
Light fixtures that hold the bulbs and prevent the chameleon from getting too close and possibly burned. A dripper, mister, or fogger to supply water and create humidity in the enclosure. A thermometer and humidity gauge to monitor your pet’s habitat. A food bowl that can be attached to a branch or the side of the cage for insects or greens. Substrate for the bottom of the cage like newspaper, paper towels, or Eco-earth. If you have a Ficus Tree, a large pot and the soil for the plant can make a suitable substrate.
Food & Supplements
Gut-loaded insects like crickets and mealworms. Gut loading is providing nutritious food to the insects. The nutrients get passed to your chameleon when the insects are eaten. Pinkie mice for larger chameleons. These should only be fed to your pet occasionally and always try to use pre-killed mice.
If your chameleon likes to eat plant matter, you can supply collard, mustard, turnip & dandelion greens, kale, or romaine lettuce. A dripper, mister, or fogger to create droplets of water on leaves that your pet can drink. A calcium and vitamin D3 supplement and reptile multivitamin.
Food & Diet
Chameleons are primarily insectivores meaning they eat various insects. Some of the larger ones also feed on small reptiles and mammals and other species, like the veiled chameleon, will even eat plant matter.
You should provide your pet with food daily even if he doesn’t eat it. Chameleons and other reptiles will often go through periods where they do not eat or eat very little. This is often due to changes in the weather and the season. If your pet looks healthy and is acting normally, there is usually nothing to worry about.
Below are the foods and dietary supplements needed for a pet chameleon. By providing a well balanced diet you help ensure that your reptile lives a long and healthy life.
Various insects will be the primary food of a chameleon. Crickets and mealworms are readily available at pet stores and online and are relatively inexpensive.
Wax worms and superworms can also be used as treats or to add variety to your reptile’s diet. These insects tend to be more fatty and should not be fed to your pet in large quantities.
You should gut-load all insects that are fed to your chameleon. Gut-loading is feeding the insects nutritious food which will then be passed to your pet when the insects are eaten. There are a variety of commercial gut-loads available that supply the necessary nutrients.
Mice can be added to a larger chameleon’s diet. Pinkie mice, newborn mice that have no fur and are pink in appearance, are a a good source of vitamins and nutrients.
Pinkie mice should only be fed to your pet occasionally since they are high in fat. A pinkie once or twice a month can make a nice treat for your chameleon.
Always try to use pre-killed mice as a humane way to feed your reptile. Frozen feeder mice are inexpensive, can be stored for a long time, and can be quickly thawed with warm water. Make sure the pinkie is completely thawed and at room temperature before feeding it to your chameleon.
Some chameleons will regularly eat plant matter and others will eat it on occasion. If your pet likes to eat plants, try offering collard, mustard, turnip & dandelion greens, kale, and romaine lettuce. Be sure to chop the food into bite size pieces for easy consumption.
Reptile supplements help ensure your pet gets all the nutrients he needs. Calcium with vitamin D3 and multivitamin supplements come in powder form and can easily be applied to food. A calcium with vitamin D3 supplement can be given about once or twice a week. A multivitamin can be given every week or two.
You do not need to put a lot of supplement powder on the food, a light dusting is plenty. Too much of a good thing is just as bad as none at all.
Chameleons prefer to drink drops of water and do not really use a water bowl. A water mister on a timer works well supplying your pet with water. You have to make sure the mist is aimed at leaves and other items where it can form droplets your pet can drink.
A dripper is another alternative for supplying water. It is a water container with a valve and tube. A dripper slowly drips water onto leaves and other items where your chameleon can drink.
If you want to hand water your pet, a spray bottle with fresh water will work. You can spray leaves and other items where your chameleon can drink the droplets.
Cage & Habitat
A pet chameleon requires a fairly elaborate habitat and will need the correct cage, decor, humidity, and care in order to be happy and healthy. An additional benefit to having an appropriate habitat is that your pet will be more active and entertaining.
A chameleon cage can be a tall glass terrarium with screened top, a screened or wire cage, or even a large and tall bird cage. Glass terrariums do provide better temperature and humidity control and may be better suited for those living in dry or cold climates.
For chameleons a foot or less in length the cage should be at least 2′ x 3′ x 3′. Bigger is always better so go with the largest and tallest cage possible.
Chameleons can also be kept in the home without a cage if you supply a tree as a habitat. The Ficus Tree is one of the best trees for a home. It has suitable branches for walking, leaves for drinking, does well indoors, and is readily available at plant nurseries. A cage-free chameleon is not recommended if you have other pets like cats or dogs.
If you pick a different type of plant, make sure it is not toxic to your chameleon since he may nibble on the leaves and bark. You should also wash and rinse any plant and its leaves with soapy water to remove any pesticides that may have been sprayed on it.
It is also possible to combine a cage and the Ficus Tree to create a natural and safe habitat. You would need a screened cage large enough to completely cover the tree. You may be able to find a commercial cage large enough or you can make one from wood and mesh screen inexpensively.
If you don’t use a Ficus Tree for your pet’s home, you will have to provide places for him to climb and drink. He will need a variety of horizontal branches where he can sit and climb.
The cage will also need a bunch of leaves from which your chameleon can drink droplets of water. The leaves also create areas where he can hide and rest. There are a variety of artificial leaves, bendable branches, and other reptile decor available that have been designed for habitats.
Light & Heat
Your chameleon will need a source of UVB lighting. Fluorescent UVB bulbs work well and ensure that your pet gets enough exposure. You want to make sure the lights are located where your pet can’t get too close and possibly burned.
A source of heat may also be needed to maintain the cage temperature. Basking bulbs and heat emitting bulbs are a good way to provide additional heat. They also focus most of the heat in one area creating temperature gradients in the cage which help the chameleon regulate heat by moving around.
Food, Water & Humidity
A food bowl will be needed for insects like mealworms that your pet eats. The food bowl should be located where your chameleon spends most of his time. A bowl that can attach to the side of the cage or a branch and won’t spill works best.
A source of water will also be needed. A dripper slowly drips water onto leaves and other items where your chameleon can drink. It also indirectly waters the Ficus Tree if that is where your pet lives.
A mister or fogger is an excellent choice if the cage is in an area with low humidity. A mister on a timer will spray the leaves and cage with a mist creating droplets of water as well as raising the humidity.
It is recommended that you have a thermometer and humidity gauge. Maintaining an ideal temperature and humidity level is important for your chameleon’s health and well being. Many do well with around 50 – 70% humidity, but it varies by species.
The substrate of your pet’s cage can be as simple as newspaper or paper towels or as realistic as Eco-earth. Whatever substrate you use should make cleaning up debris and waste easy. If your pet lives on a Ficus Tree, a large pot for the plant and its potting soil may be sufficient.
Health & Illness
Chameleons can live long healthy lives with proper care. Supplying your pet with a clean cage, the correct habitat, and nutritious foods helps ensure your pet remains healthy.
Unfortunately, even with the best care an illness or injury may arise. It is always recommended that you seek advice from a veterinarian if your chameleon becomes ill or injured.
Below is a list of some of the more common problems that can affect chameleons.
Insufficient calcium, vitamin D3, or too much phosphorous can cause your chameleon to have deformities in the legs and spine, soft bones and jaw, a loss of appetite, weight loss, and lethargy. Providing your pet the correct foods, UVB lighting, and supplements will help prevent this disease from occurring.
Dehydration can be caused by a lack of drinking water and humidity. Signs include dry or wrinkled skin, weakness, weight loss, and inactivity.
Edema is a swelling in the body caused by excess fluid. Chameleons tend to swell in the throat, neck, and chest. One of the more common causes is over-supplementation of vitamins. Always supplement your pet’s food in moderation. Too much of a good thing is as bad as none at all.
Egg binding is when a pregnant female is unable to lay her eggs. It can be caused by a lack of calcium, lack of water, a poor nesting locations, or some other factor.
Making sure a pregnant female receives the correct amount of dietary supplements can help prevent binding. Providing a good substrate where she can dig a suitable nest to lay her eggs is also beneficial.
Gout is when the joints of the legs and back get inflamed. It is often caused by a lack of humidity or drinking water.
Minor injuries like cuts and scrapes from accidents may occur. Minor injuries can be treated with soapy water and antiseptic ointment.
Keep an eye on an injury to make sure it heals and for signs of infection. Major injuries like a broken limb or tail will usually require treatment from a veterinarian.
A chameleon’s mouth is susceptible to infection which can cause loss of appetite, inability to feed, swelling, scabs, and cheesy pus. Supplying additional vitamin C as well as normal supplements may help the problem but a veterinarian may be necessary.
A respiratory infection can cause lethargy, appetite loss, gaping, and trouble breathing. Respiratory problems can be caused by cage temperatures that are too low or some other underlying problem.
Sometimes chameleons will have a bad shedding where there are flaky pieces of skin and excessive shed. A light misting of your pet can aid in the skin removal. Ongoing problems with shedding can be caused by dehydration, a vitamin deficiency, or an illness.
Sometimes a chameleon will injure its tongue and won’t be able to retract the tongue into its mouth. If this occurs, you will need to make sure the tongue remains moist and does not dry out while it heals and that your pet remains warm.
A tongue can also get an infection. Signs include loss of appetite and very little or no use of the tongue. Antibiotics are usually needed to treat the problem.
Vitamin A Deficiency
A vitamin A deficiency can cause teary and crusty eyes, respiratory problems, shedding problems, and lethargy. Providing your pet with multivitamin supplements and gut-loading his insects with nutritious food can help prevent a deficiency.
Types of Chameleons
There are around 180 different types of chameleons and they vary in size, color, and appearance. Even though there are many types of chameleons only a few are readily available as pets.
Not all will make ideal companions. Some require more specialized habitats and others do not have the best disposition. Before you decide on what type you want, research what it requires to keep your pet healthy. Below are general descriptions of some of the more common chameleons kept as pets.
The carpet chameleon is found in Madagascar. They are a smaller species and males grow to around 9 inches long. They have a short lifespan and only live for 2 to 3 years. Daytime temperatures should be around 75* F with 65% humidity. They are active and hardy chameleons that do well as pets.
The Fischer’s chameleon can be found in Kenya and Tanzania. These moderately sized lizards can grow to be 15 inches long and live up to 3 years. A daytime temperature about 75* F and a relative humidity around 75 to 85%. With experienced care these chameleons can do well.
Flap-necked chameleons can be found in eastern and southern Africa. They can grow to around 13 inches long and live around 2 to 3 years. They require a daytime temperature around 75* F and a humidity around 75% humidity. They are hardy lizards, do well in captivity, and can make nice pets.
The four-horned chameleon can be found naturally in Cameroon. They live for around 5 years and can grow to be 14 inches long. They require daytime temperatures around 75* F and a relative humidity of at least 85%. They are attractive chameleons that tend to do well in captivity if you can provide a suitable habitat with very high humidity.
In the wild, Jackson’s chameleons can be found in East Africa. They were also introduced to Hawaii where wild specimens can now be found. They can grow to be around 13 inches long and can live up to 8 years. A daytime temperature of 75 to 80* F and a humidity level around 65% is required. These three horned chameleons are readily available as pets.
The Meller’s chameleon can be found naturally in East Africa. They can be over 24 inches in length and can live up to 12 years. They require a daytime temperature around 80* F and a 70% humidity level. They are aggressive and are not a good choice if it is your first chameleon.
The Oustalet’s chameleons can be found naturally in Madagascar. They are large reptiles that can grow up to 30 inches long and can live up to 12 years. Provide a daytime temperature around 80* F and a relative humidity of 70%. These lizards can be good pets if you want a larger chameleon.
Panther chameleons are from the northern part of Madagascar. Males are larger than females and can grow up to about 20 inches long. They live for about 5 to 7 years. The panther needs daytime temperatures around 80* F and 70% humidity. They are attractive, tend to do well around people, and are a good choice for a pet.
In the wild, veiled chameleons are found in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Males can grow to be 24 inches long and they can live up to 5 years. They need daytime cage temperatures around 80* F and a relative humidity of 70%. Veiled chameleons will eat some plant matter in addition to insects. They are popular pets and can make a good first chameleon.
Source: Chameleon Care
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