Senegal Chameleons

Senegal Chemeleon
Senegal chameleons can be kept as pets. Noah Eldhart/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

Senegal chameleons are one of the four most popular species of pet chameleons. They are smaller chameleons and native to West Africa but are still just as beautiful and fragile as the other species. Like many lizards, these chameleons don't tolerate a lot of handling so they may not be the best pets for small children. But by providing the ideal environment and diet for your pet chameleon, you can help your delicate reptile live a long time.

Senegal Chameleon Facts

Commonly known as the Senegal chameleon, Chamaeleo senegalensis is the technical name of this little lizard. It can grow to be up to eight inches long and can live up to five years but females who lay several clutches of eggs may not live as long.

While they are striking to look at, Senegal chameleons are not suited for novice lizard owners. In addition to their aversion to being handled by people, they can be aggressive toward other chameleons. Because of these traits, it's best to house multiple Senegal chameleons separately and be content to watch them rather than play with them. 

Senegal Chameleon Housing

The Senegal chameleon is a sensitive reptile so its environment needs to be just right for it to thrive in captivity. A mesh or screened enclosure is the best option for it as a pet. Air circulation and ventilation along with the abundance of climbing options are perfect in a cage with screens as sides but just be sure the enclosure is of adequate height. Senegals will climb vertically in a cage, not from side to side. If a screened or mesh enclosure is not an option for your chameleon, a 29-gallon high tank is usually recommended.

Your Senegal's cage should also be equipped with plenty of vines and artificial plants to climb along with a dripper system unless you are diligent enough to mist the enclosure several times a day. Chameleons drink their water off of plant leaves, not out of a bowl, so it is crucial there are wet leaves in the enclosure that your Senegal can drink from daily.

Although mesh cages are best for chameleons, they are awful for maintaining the high humidity level that Senegals require. This is where the dripper systems, automatic misting, and fogger systems can help if you aren't physically spraying water onto the leaves daily. Without a high humidity level in the cage, your Senegal chameleon will become dehydrated, lethargic, and may have difficulty shedding.

Senegal Chameleon Heat and Lighting

Your Senegal enclosure should have both heat lights and a full spectrum UVB light. The heat lights need to be able to keep the basking area around 85 degrees. The rest of the enclosure should not drop below 70 degrees. Depending on the temperature of the room, the size of the enclosure, and the type of enclosure, different heat lights and wattages may be needed to achieve these temperatures.

The UVB lighting is a special light that increases metabolism, appetite, activity, and most importantly, synthesizes Vitamin D3 which is crucial in the calcium absorption process for your chameleon. It is a substitute for the invisible UVB rays that the sun would normally provide a chameleon if it were outside. Without UVB lighting, your chameleon will likely develop metabolic bone disease, not grow properly, and suffer from weakened or broken bones. Even if you provide calcium in your chameleon's diet, without the UVB lighting the animal won't be able to absorb it. Make sure your UVB light is placed about 12 inches away from the highest point in the cage that your chameleon can reach in order to avoid thermal burns. Ideally the UVB light will not be filtered by anything, especially a plastic or glass covering, as this will greatly decrease the amount of UVB rays that reach your chameleon.

Senegal Chameleon Food and Water

A Senegal chameleon in captivity likes to dine on crickets, mealworms, and other insects that are readily available in the pet trade. It catches its prey by shooting its long tongue out of its mouth. The tongue sticks to the insect and retracts back into the chameleon's mouth. A healthy chameleon focused on catching its food will successfully catch the insect in nine out of ten attempts.

Gut-loaded insects that are dusted with a calcium powder should be offered every few days, if not daily. You should never put more crickets in your chameleon's enclosure than he will eat in a short amount of time. Crickets left overnight may start biting your chameleon and cause small wounds that can become infected.

Also, since chameleons eat live prey, it is important to have a regular fecal examination performed by your exotics vet to check for microscopic intestinal parasites.

Choosing Your Senegal Chameleon

As with most pet lizards, it's best to get a Senegal chameleon from a reputable breeder since it's not possible to ascertain what parasites or other potential hazards a wild-caught variety may have been exposed to. Ideally, you'll be able to watch the chameleon eat before purchasing it. If it refuses food, this could be an indication that it is not healthy. Other things to look for are if its eyes are cloudy or it has excess mucus around its nasal passages and mouth. These signs could mean the chameleon has a respiratory infection or another ailment. Finally, a chameleon with dry patches on its skin may be having problems shedding, which also is not a good sign and purchasing a sick chameleon is not ideal.

Common Health Problems

Senegal chameleons, like many reptiles, are prone to several different types of health issues.

  • Respiratory infections - Usually a result of temperatures being too low in an enclosure or the chameleon being exposed to a draft or drastic change in temperature.
  • Stress-related ailments - A lack of appetite and respiratory infections may be a cause of stress.
  • Calcium deficiency - Low calcium levels can be due to a lack of UVB lighting or too little calcium in the diet.
  • Vitamin A deficiency - Low vitamin A levels are usually the result of a poor diet.
  • Stomatitis - Otherwise known as mouth rot, this will exhibit as a redness around the chameleon's mouth and possibly drooling.
  • Intestinal parasites - Worms and protozoans are common problems for chameleons.
  • Metabolic bone disease - This is usually what happens when a chameleon can't absorb calcium properly. This painful condition weakens the animal's bones so that its legs appear wobbly. It also will have a poor appetite and may appear lethargic.

If your chameleon seems unwell or is acting strangely, don't hesitate to consult a veterinarian who is experienced in treating reptiles. Most of these illnesses can be treated successfully if caught early.