For decades true chameleons have thrilled hobbyists with their unusual body shapes, brilliant color changes and fascinating behaviors. But there has always been a dark side to keeping chameleons.
True chameleons (or old world chameleons) are highly evolved and delicate reptiles. They require extensive housing, special vitamin and mineral supplementation, exposure to UV lighting, a varied diet, and unusual watering in order to thrive in captivity.
True chameleons are arboreal, insectivorous lizards which are found throughout much of the tropical old world. They are quite different from the Carolina Anoles which are sometimes sold in pet stores as 'chameleons', probably because of the anoles limited ability to change colors.
Chameleons have evolved many striking adaptations which allow them to fill their special niche in the wild.
Of the special evolutionary characteristics unique to chameleons, they are best known for their ability to change colors. These color changes help them regulate body temperature, communicate with other chameleons, and camouflage themselves in their natural habitat. A chameleon's ability to change colors varies depending upon species, gender, age as well as other factors. Even within a single species, markings and coloration vary greatly. A chameleon's long, extendable tongue, which are as much as 1.5 times the length of its body, allows it to grab food from a great distance. Their globular, independent eyes help them to survey the world almost 360 around them - without moving their head or body. Their feet are ideal for grabbing and holding branches. But, in general, chameleons are awkward and clumsy on the ground.
These special adaptations are what make chameleons so magnificent to watch. They are also what make them so difficult to care for in captivity.
Every year tens of thousands of wild caught chameleons are imported into the United States bound for wholesalers and pet shops, many of whom are unaware of the special requirements of true chameleons. By the time these animals arrive in the United States, they have already been deprived of food, water and adequate shelter. Many arrive dead or near dead, heavily parasitized, malnourished and dehydrated.
Those that survive the trip to the United States are often sold to pet shops that house them improperly. By the time their new owners have taken them home the chameleons days are already numbered, especially when the new owner has not been informed, or has been misinformed about the care their new pet requires.
Fortunately, this is changing. Organizations, like the Chameleon Information Network (CIN) have been working to distribute quality information about the husbandry and propagation of true chameleons in captivity. New laws have been passed making it more difficult to import chameleons from the wild. This increases the demand for captive bred animals, which tend to be healthier and better adapted to life in captivity.
When you choose a chameleon, it is essential that you pick a healthy one. Because of their delicate nature, it is unlikely that a sick or injured chameleon will survive. The animal you choose should be active and alert. The eyes should be bright and full-looking. They should display at least some ability to change colors, depending on the age and species. Make sure the animal is captive bred and from a respectable breeder. Because of their high mortality rate, wild caught chameleons should not be considered. Age, species and the gender of the specific animal should also be part of your selection process. If it is not your intention to breed chameleons, it is probably wise to select a male. Female chameleons are more delicate and have special needs, due to the large numbers of eggs many captive animals produce. Females need more calcium supplementation than do males. For these reasons, a female chameleon should not be considered as a first chameleon.
Chamaeleo calyptratus (Veiled Chameleons) are large, colorful, and hardy chameleons that are ideal for first-time enthusiasts. Because of their hardiness, captive bred animals are readily available. Care should be taken, however, to ensure that animals are purchased from respected breeders, as inbreeding with this species has become quite a wide-spread problem. The largest drawback to keeping C. calyptratus is their size. Large males can approach or exceed 2-feet in total length. As a result these animals need very large enclosures.
Chamaeleo jacksonii (Jackson's Chameleons) are highly unusual animals. Males sport 3 horns, making them resemble a small triceritops. These are small to medium sized chameleons which are available as captive bred stock. They are not as hardy as C. calyptratus. But their size and temperature requirements make them easier for some first-time chameleon keepers.
A properly designed, built and furnished cage is one of the most important aspects of chameleon husbandry. The ideal cage should provide for the animals physical as well as their behavioral requirements.
The essentials for a true chameleon cage are:
1.A large enough space so the animal may conduct all of its natural behaviors including, basking, hunting, feeding. It should also provide a variety of perching surfaces at different temperatures so the animal can regulate its body temperature by moving to an appropriate spot in the enclosure.
2.Good ventilation. Poor ventilation, like that found in a typical glass aquarium, will allow the air to become stagnant and provide an opportunity for fungus and bacteria to grow. These things can cause great problems for your chameleon.
3. Good lighting sources, including at least one incandescent basking light, one fluorescent full-spectrum light, and exposure to natural sunlight.
Although chameleons are slow-moving animals, they require a lot of space. They need this for their physical and emotional well-being. At least 2 sides and the top should be constructed of coated screen. Standard aluminum screen should be avoided, as should fiberglass screen. There have been reports of foot injuries in chameleons from these materials.
The cage should be furnished with branches of different diameters so that the lizard can easily navigate the entire cage. Live plants will provide good hiding places and add to the beauty of the enclosure. Because many chameleons are known for eating vegetable matter, only nontoxic plants should be planted in their enclosures.
Hibiscus are ideal plants for true chameleon cages. They are beautiful, nontoxic plants which the lizards will love, for food and navigation. Pathos plants are also a good addition. Although they are considered mildly toxic, many reptiles, including some chameleons love them and have no negative side effects from eating them. One commonly recommended plant which should be avoided are ficus trees. These plants are mildly toxic and excrete a white milky substance. This secretion has been connected to a number of eye infections in captive chameleons. So this plant should be avoided.
The arrangements of lights, plants and branches should be such to allow for at least one basking site where the temperature will reach the upper limits of the animal's comfortable temperature range. Other basking sites with slightly cooler temperatures may also be built into the cage. The temperature in the rest of the enclosure should be still lower allowing the animal to thermoregulate by moving around the cage. Most chameleons do best with a 10 degree F to 15 degree F night time temperature drop .
Keeping your chameleon(s) well hydrated by providing water in appropriate amounts is one of the most vital aspects of chameleon husbandry. Most chameleons commonly sold in the pet trade come from areas of the world that receive between 60 and 120 inches of rainfall annually. Those chameleons which come from dryer areas are generally found near a water supply of sort.
Failing to provide water in an appropriate way and in sufficient quantity can cause serious problems. Chronic, low-level dehydration - which may be imperceptible to the eye - can lead to kidney failure and death.
Few chameleons will ever learn to drink water from a standing water dish. In the wild, chameleons lick dew and rain droplets off of leaves, or are attracted to moving water. Many chameleons will simply let rain water run down their casque and into their mouths. This means that in captivity, special watering techniques need to be used to keep chameleons healthy and hydrated.
Chameleons are naturally attracted to droplets of water which are reflecting light, and pendulous drops of water hanging from leaves of plants. Keepers of these lizards can take advantage of this by designing water systems which take this natural behavior into account.
The amount of water required by a chameleon will vary depending on size and species of the animal. Smaller chameleons require less water, in general. Larger chameleons can require copious amounts of water.
Following is a list of the most commonly used methods for providing water for chameleons.
In-Cage Rain Systems
In-cage rain systems deliver large amounts of dripping water throughout a chameleon's living area. These systems can be created a number of ways. Most commonly, some sort of pvc tubing is uses which is connected to a water supply. The tubing contains holes which drip water onto many locations throughout a chameleon's living area. A valve of some sort is generally required to control water flow.
Because these systems are capable of delivering large amounts of water, it is essential to plan for some soft of water collection/removal system. These can be as simple as buckets or trays of water under the cages, or as sophisticates as complete drain systems.
The benefits of this type of watering system can not be understated. This is the most natural way for a chameleon to receive its water. Some keepers will automate the water delivery and removal by hooking the system to timers, thus eliminating a significant portion of the daily maintenance requirements of their chameleons. While delivering needed water, these systems also increase the relative humidity in the area.
The primary disadvantage to this type of system is the level of planning and effort to get them working efficiently. However, this disadvantage is more than offset by the tremendous advantages received once they are functioning.
Drip systems are the most common form of chameleon watering system. They generally consist of a container of water which sits above the animals enclosure. A plastic tube runs from the water container and into the chameleon cage. Water drips out of the end of the plastic tube. Pre-made drip systems are available at many reptile-oriented pet shops and generally include some sort of adjustment to control the rate at which water drips from the tube. These systems differ from rain systems by offering water in a more issolated area. Therefore, they, generally, deliver smaller amounts of water.
A dripper can be placed directly above a plant in the chameleon's environment causing the water to cascade over a somewhat larger area. The more water that moves through the drip system, the more chameleons will tend to be attracted to drink.
These systems are available for sale from a number of suppliers. They can be set up in minutes and, if properly used, can deliver water sufficient for many species of chameleons. Because of the limited range of water delivery, drip systems are generally best used in smaller spaces and for smaller chameleons. Daily maintenance is required to fill them. Water collection and removal is also required.
Automated Misting Systems
Automated misting systems are much like rain systems. Rather than dripping water from holes in the hose, misting systems push pressurized water through special heads which create a fine mist. Small dropplets of water fall over a broad area. When these droplets collect on leaves, they eventually form drops of water which fall like rain.
These systems offer many of the same advantages as rain systems. Some smaller chameleons seem to prefer the smaller droplets of water, and are attracted to the mist. Some chameleons may drink by sitting in the falling mist. The water collects and rolls down the casques and into their mouths. Commercial systems are available for purchase. They can also be made from supplies found at most larger garden supply stores.
Because the water is pressurized, problems of flooding can occur if hoses become damaged or loose. Misting heads are prone to mineral deposits which can cause them to clog.
The "Shower" Method
Some chameleon dealers recommend moving chameleons into a bathroom shower stall where a small tree or large plant has been placed. Shower water is then gently run over the plant/tree to provide drinking water for the chameleon. The shower stall provides a readily draining area in which large amounts of water can be run, without risk of flooding. This method can be used in emergency situations quite well. I have used this method of watering when taking in rescue animals. I will leave them in the shower with a very gentle rain falling for an hour or more, while I am establishing a more permanent situation for the animal. My assessment of this watering technique was done based on its potential use in everyday husbandry, where I feel this technique has little or no use. On the surface, this watering method can sound appealing. There is no investment in equipment. There is no up-front cost. However the appropriate uses of the shower for chameleons are pretty limited, and the risks fairly high. The amount of work required to haul trees or large plants to the shower regularly is prohibitive. Additionally, while the animal is in the shower, it is important to monitor water temperature, pressure, and the animal to ensure no problems occur. Some animals become distressed at being relocated. Stressed animals then become startled when the water begins to fall. Fractured limbs from falls and scalding injuries from hot water have all been reported as a result of this sort of activity.
Another method of watering your chameleon is to simply mist the inside of the enclosure once or twice per day with a clean spray bottle. Chameleons will eagerly lick water off plants, as well as the sides of the enclosure. This technique can work well for smaller chameleons, whose water needs are less than those of larger chameleons. It also works well to increase the relative humitidy in the immediate environment. It is difficult, or impossible, to provide sufficient amounts of water for larger chameleons using this technique. But with larger chameleons, it can be used as a method of increasing the relative humidity in their environment. The manual nature of this technique is also a major drawback.
Using this technique, ice cubes are placed in a container that has a hole in its bottom. As the ice melts, water drips down through the container and into the cage. This method can deliver small amounts of water over an extended period of time. Water delivery can last for as long as it takes for the ice to melt. Water volume and flow are difficult to control using this technique. Water temperatures near freezing are also not recommended to be used for tropical lizards.
The diet of a wild chameleon is made up of countless species of insects and other small invertebrates as well as vertebrates. Many chameleons are also reported to eat some wild berries and other vegetable matter. Some of the larger chameleon species will eat small birds, reptiles, and mammals. It is therefore logical to assume that chameleons have evolved to consume a diet that is highly diverse and complex.
Recreating the variety available to a wild chameleon in captivity is not possible. Keepers must, therefore, be diligent in providing the greatest variation possible to their pets. Although accomplishing this goal can be time consuming and expensive, providing multiple food sources is essential for the long-term health of these animals.
A general rule of thumb to follow is this: a chameleon's diet should be based on a composition of a minimum of five different insect species. Additional food sources should also be provided (such as access to wild insects when available in the summer season) on a rotating basis. Mineral and vitamin supplements should also be provided periodically. Following this dietary guideline will help ensure the health of your pets.
In addition to variety of diet, all captive chameleons require calcium and vitamin supplementation. Chameleons need a variety of vitamins and minerals to grow strong, healthy bones, skin and maintain their internal organs. For example, chameleons need vitamin D3 in order to metabolize calcium for growth. Calcium is used to produce and maintain healthy bones, skin and is also used in regulating neurological functions.
Many 'basking' reptiles naturally produce vitamin D3 in their skin when they bask in the sun and are exposed to UV-B radiation. Since the UV output of most human-made full-spectrum lights do not provide the same UV exposure as the sun, additional supplementation is ESSENTIAL. Other vitamins and minerals are essential for other reasons. Over supplementation can also be a dangerous thing. So use the vitamin and mineral supplements sparingly.
Feed your chameleon(s) daily by placing live insects and fresh vegetables into a glass jar which is large enough to prevent the insects from escaping. Vitamin & mineral supplementation can then be sprinkled on the insects and vegetables. Shake the jar to evenly coat the vegetables and insects with the supplement. On a favorite perch, but below the chameleon suspend the jar. Do this in such a way that it is easy for the lizard to reach the food in the bottom of the jar. The insects will eat some of the vegetables. So the chameleons will benefit even if they do not directly eat much of the vegetable matter themselves.
For very young hatchlings, a baby food jar makes a nice food dish. Insert a small stick into the jar for small youngsters. The stick should extend far enough into the food container to give the hatchling the ability to reach the food, but the stick should not reach the bottom of the jar. If the stick reaches the bottom of the jar, insects will easily climb the stick and escape.
The same vegetable mixture that is fed to your chameleons should also be fed to the insects you will feed to your chameleons. This will ensure the insects are healthy and full of nutrition by the time your chameleons eat them.
Following is a list of the different insects you can use to feed your chameleon: Note: insect care instructions are available by contacting CIN (The Chameleon Information Network).
Silkworms are nutritious, soft-bodies caterpillars, which are readily available from some commercial suppliers (generally via mail order). These insects are relatively easy to maintain and breed. They are an ideal food source for chameleons of all sizes. Small chameleons may eat very young silkworms. Large silkworms are sufficient for feeding the largest chameleons.
Neonate (baby) chameleons require very small food items. Flightless fruit fly cultures are available from many commercial suppliers. It is also easy to start your own colony of fruit flies. Many baby chameleons show a preference for flying food, and fruit flies are an ideal food source for very young animals
Houseflies can be captured, bred or purchased from commercial suppliers. They are nutritious, easy to care for and offer a very appealing food source for many chameleons.
Crickets are readily available at most pet shops. When fed a proper, vegetable-based diet, they are nutritious and can comprise a significant portion of your chameleon's total diet. Crickets, however have a poor Calcium/phosphorus ratio. So additional calcium supplementation should be included when feeding crickets.
Mealworms are inexpensive and, like crickets, easy to load with valuable nutrition by feeding them a quality diet of fruits and vegetables.
Zoophobus are sometimes called "Superworms". They look very much like mealworms, but much bigger and are a slightly different color. These should only be fed to chameleons when the chameleons are large enough to eat them. Like crickets and mealworms they should be fed a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables prior to feeding them to your lizards. Some suppliers sell giant mealworms (species tenebrio) under similar names like "King Worms" and "Giant Mealworms", etc. These are often common mealworms, which have been fed large quantities of growth hormone, which could have a negative effect on your chameleons. I recommend avoiding these as a food source.
Waxworms are sometime called grubs. They are nutritious, full of moisture, and easy to store. Chameleons LOVE them. Unfortunately, there are some negatives. They are high in fat, so some people speculate they should only be a small part of your chameleon's diet. Without knowing the breakdown of the 'ideal' chameleon diet, however, this is largely based on conjecture.
Waxworms turn into moths, which your chameleons will love to eat. And you will enjoy watching your pets 'zap' them out of the air with their tongue.
Non-infesting forms of tropical roaches can be ordered from some suppliers. They are VERY good for your chameleons. And the chameleons love them. Most roach species are easily cultured, making them an ideal and inexpensive food source for your chameleons.
Many chameleon owners set up insect traps during the summer to catch their own insects. Grasshoppers, flies, crickets, centipedes, and spiders will all be devoured by your chameleons. This also helps offer a diverse diet necessary for the health of your lizard. It is important, however, that the insects be collected from areas where insecticides are not used.
Some people also supplement their adult chameleons diets with newborn mice. These are also available at many pet stores.
Small lizards are a natural part of a chameleon's diet. Brown and green anoles are some of the small reptiles available as supplemental food for your chameleon. Since these animals are usually wild-caught and carrying parasites, these animals should be quarantined and deparasitized prior to using them as a food source for your chameleons.
A number of problems effect captive chameleons. Some of these troubles are subtle when they first develop, but can lead to a rapid downturn and death if not dealt with quickly. It is therefore essential that chameleon keepers remain on the alert to any sign of difficulty and that they take corrective actions quickly when trouble is spotted.
Generally, captive born and bred chameleons experience significantly fewer problems than do imported animals. The reasons for this are many.
Following is a list of some of the most common difficulties experienced by captive chameleons.
Chameleons - especially wild caught chameleons - are very susceptible to internal parasites. It is wise, therefore, to have your chameleon's stool sample checked periodically by a veterinarian familiar with reptile parasites. Parasite eggs are present in captive as well as wild-caught insects. They can easily be passed on to your chameleon, especially if your chameleons is experiencing stress. Since it is impossible to prevent exposure to parasite eggs, reduction of stress is an important factor in maintaining your pets health.
Internal parasites that are self-limiting in nature become serious life-threatening entities in captive chameleons. It is therefore essential that parasites be identified and treated in captive animals.
While many sellers of wild caught chameleons will label them "deparasitized" or "parasite free", it is not typical practice for these people to perform the necessary laboratory work necessary to identify and diagnose parasitic diseases in their animals.
Veterinary diagnosis is essential in identifying and treating parasites in wild caught animals. Generally, a series of at least three veterinary visits are required before an animal may be deemed "parasite free". The costs associated with these veterinary visits and the lab work necessary to perform an accurate assessment of an animals health should be factored into the cost of your initial purchase.
Metabolic Bone Disease:
Malformed, fragile bone tissue may result from a variety of circumstances present in captivity. The most common cause of this condition is a diet either too high in phosphorus or too low in calcium; or from some other condition that prevents the animal from properly absorbing the calcium that is present in their diet. (Note: the relationship between the amount of calcium and phosphorus in an animal's diet is generally referred to as the calcium/phosphorus ratio.) The ideal ratio of calcium to phosphorus in an animals diet should be about 2:1 - 2 parts of calcium to one part of phosphorus. In captivity, this is difficult to achieve, because most captive insects are very high in phosphorus. To compensate for this, it is essential that a good quality, phosphorus-free mineral supplement be used.
Inappropriate delivery of water is the most common cause of dehydration in captive chameleons. Signs of low-level dehydration may be easy to miss. In its most advanced stages, it can lead to a loss of appetite, lethargy, sunken eyes and eventually, death. Maintaining proper humidity levels in your animals environment will also help to prevent dehydration.
Kidney failure is a common cause of death in captive chameleons, probably the result of a general lack in the overall quality of water delivery systems provided to captive chameleons. Kidney disease is detected through diagnostic blood tests, which your reptile veterinarian can perform. Providing ample drinking water in an appropriate form is the best preventative.
Other Nutritional Problems
In the wild, chameleons consume countless species of insects, as well as other vertebrates and invertebrates. This results in a varied diet filled with all sorts of proteins, carbohydrates, amino acids, fats, trace elements, vitamins and minerals. In captivity, it is important to provide the most balanced diet possible. Failure to do so may result in a host of medical problems.
Mal Adaptation to Captivity
It is generally thought that mal adaptation is primarily caused by stress -- the animal's inability to cope with the loss of their freedom. Signs of mal adaptation include pacing the cage, lethargy, depression, poor coloration and a host of other symptoms for which the wild-caught chameleon owner should be always on the alert. Generally, this condition is not often observed in captive born and bred animals. The best action to take to mitigate the potential for mal adaptation in wild caught animals it to provide large, well-planted spaces for the animals to live and feel secure.
All captive chameleons experience some level of stress related to their captivity. Stress can be fatal to chameleons. Chronic stress can suppress their immune systems, making them more susceptible to parasite infestation and other illnesses. The successful keeper of chameleons will do everything in their power to minimize stress. 1) Keep their cage in a low (or better yet a NO) traffic area of your home. 2) If weather permits, build a sturdy outdoor enclosure for use when temperatures are appropriate. 3) Put up visual barriers between your chameleons and human activity. 4) Chameleons think people are their predators. Every time your chameleon sees you, they will be stressed. 5) When you want to spend time observing your chameleon, remove the visual barrier, and sit still. The less you move, the more calm your chameleon will be. 6) Only handle your chameleons when ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY.
There are many reports of chameleons refusing food. This is, in fact, a common cause of death in captive chameleons. They starve themselves to death. The lack of eating is likely a symptom of some other problem. Stress can cause an animal not to eat. Internal parasites can cause a loss of appetite. Lack of an essential vitamin or mineral could be at work. Sometimes chameleons will refuse one food item, but gobble up others. Therefore, it is important to have multiple food sources available all of the time.
Lack of Sun Light:
In many areas it is impractical to house chameleons outdoors (where they are the most happy!) And normal glass filters out about 100% of the sun's UV light. However, natural sunlight can still be made available indoors by placing the chameleon cage near an east, south, or west facing window. During nice weather, the window can be opened to allow your lizards to bask in unfiltered sunlight. Full-spectrum glass (often referred to as low iron glass) is also available. By replacing the panes in the windows with low iron glass, you can provide your chameleon with a wonderful, energy-efficient source of natural UV light. They will be happier and healthier! When exposed to natural sunlight, or other strong, UV-B light source, your chameleon's body will naturally produce vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 is required by all reptiles in order for their body to property utilize the calcium in their food.