Chameleons are amazing creatures, but they aren't the best pets for everyone.They are not for the beginner herpetologist, as their care requirements are quite specific and they are easily stressed. They do not like to be handled, so pass this critter by at the pet store or reptile expo if you want to be able to handle your reptile.
True chameleons (also referred to as old world chameleons) are most well known for their ability to change color.
Young chameleons are usually a dull gray/brown color and can change shades a bit. At around five months of age, the adult color and the ability to change colors develops, and a range of colors including green, blue-green, turquoise and black can be seen.
Changing colors provides camouflage, temperature regulation, and a means of communicating with other chameleons. Colors change in response to excitement, stress, temperature, lighting conditions, the presence of another chameleon, and other influences. Generally, a dark brown to black chameleon is stressed, with the brighter colors reflecting a happier mood. Also, different colors can be seen due to color mutations and other color phases. Recent research has shown that chameleons are actually stretching the chromatophores in their skin to make these color changes.
Another feature that makes chameleons unique is their tongue, which is used to catch prey.
The tongue can be up to 1.5 times the length of the body, allowing chameleons to effectively catch insects from a distance. They primarily eat insects with this tongue, but some will eat vegetation and small invertebrates.
Chameleon Toes, Tails, and Eyes
Chameleon feet have three toes pointing in one direction and two that point the opposite way, which gives them a good grip on the tree branches they spend most of their time on.
Many species also have a prehensile tail, meaning it is used to grip branches. They have globular eyes which rotate like turrets and move independently, allowing them to scan a wide radius to hunt for food and look out for predators.
Choosing a Chameleon
When selecting a pet chameleon, it is without question best to find a captive bred one. Wild caught specimens are usually extremely stressed, carry a heavy parasite load, and have difficulty acclimating to captive conditions. Chameleons are not the hardiest nor easiest reptiles to keep, and starting with a stressed pet will only make matters worse. In addition, the capture and shipping of chameleons (which fortunately is being more tightly regulated) results in the death of many animals due to stress, dehydration, or starvation. Many more die in transit than make it to the pet store; the same can be said for many exotic pet species.
Once you've found a captive bred chameleon, observe them. They should be bright and active, able to change colors, and have a well-fleshed body. Some experienced chameleon keepers recommend a male, especially for the beginner, as their nutritional needs are somewhat simpler and they seem a little more hardy (females can be put through stress and calcium depletion when they start laying eggs).
Being territorial and solitary animals, chameleons should be kept by themselves. In any case, two males should never be kept together, as they will be very aggressive with each other.
There are several species of chameleons kept as pets, with the most common being the veiled, Jackson's, and panther chameleons. Veiled chameleons are large (up to 2 feet long) and need a suitably large enclosure, but are fairly hardy. Jackson's chameleons are smaller and need less space, and the males look like little triceratops with three horns on the head, but they are not as hardy. Panther chameleons are also quite large (males are much larger than females), and exhibit some striking colors.
The natural habits of chameleons make them tricky to care for. Chameleons are arboreal therefore they live exclusively in trees. As a result, they need a cage with ample foliage for climbing and privacy. The enclosure must be quite large. For the larger chameleons a minimum of 3 feet by 3 feet by 4 feet tall should be provided but the more space the better. Ample ventilation is required, and a cage screened on three sides is best with poly mesh or vinyl coated wire preferred to prevent injury due to toes becoming caught.
Lots of branches of various diameters need to be provided for climbing and the bulk of the cage space should be filled with these branches or live foliage. Ensure that the plants are not toxic, as the chameleon may eat the foliage. Some chameleon enthusiasts recommend avoiding ficus plants as well.
Substrate made up of small particles (such as gravel, sand, bark, or moss) should be avoided to prevent the chameleon from accidentally eating it while catching prey. Several basking areas of various temperatures must also be provided, ranging from the upper limit of the species temperature preference to the lower end of the range to allow the chameleons to thermoregulate. Jackson's chameleons do well at lower temperatures, but panther and veiled chameleons prefer warmer temperatures.
Chameleons get their water from droplets on leaves so as a rule they will not take water from a dish. Adequate water intake must be provided either through a drip system or by misting the enclosure at least twice daily.
Drip systems can be purchased or fashioned from a water container with a pinhole placed on top of the cage, or even by placing ice cubes on top of the cage to melt slowly and drip into the cage. If a drip system is used, keep the watering location consistent so the chameleon knows where to find water.
Misting will also help keep the humidity levels up. If a drip system is used, the excess water should be collected and removed though, to prevent the humidity from getting to high.
Chameleons need special invisible rays of light called UVA and UVB rays. In addition, allowing some exposure to natural sunlight through an open window (glass filters out nearly all of the necessary UV radiation) will help keep chameleons happy and healthy (or placing the chameleon outdoors if the weather is appropriate, providing adequate shade to prevent overheating). The UVB lights should be on for 10-12 hours a day and manufacturer directions should be followed for bulb placement to make sure you do not cause thermal burns on your chameleon.
Chameleons seem to do best on a variety of insects so you should try to feed as many types of insects as possible to your pet. Crickets, mealworms, super worms, wax worms, wax moths, and roaches are all good items to feed. Prey food should be gut loaded with nutritious foods (leafy greens, vegetables, fruit, or cricket gut load) prior to feeding and should be dusted with a calcium (especially for the egg laying females) and vitamin D supplement.
Chameleons may be susceptible to overdosing with vitamin A (hypervitaminosis A) so supplements must not be overdone. Also, some nutritious leafy greens (avoid spinach, lettuce, and cabbage) and other vegetables and fruits can be offered in small amounts as chameleons will occasionally eat these.
Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT