First off it must be said: chameleons are not ideal pets. They are certainly not for the beginner and they really dislike being handled so for anyone hoping to have a more interactive experience with their reptile, steer clear of chameleons! They also have very specific requirements and can become very easily stressed if their needs are not met. Having said that, they are fascinating creatures and for the keen enthusiast who researches the species thoroughly and is willing to put in the time and effort, they can be a rewarding “pet”.
Types of Chameleon
Several species of chameleon are kept in captivity. Probably the best one to start with is the veiled chameleon which, although being large (up to 2 feet long) and therefore needing a larger enclosure, is much hardier than the others. The other popular species are Panther’s chameleons which can display a brilliant array of colours and Jackson’s chameleons which are smaller and need less space but are also much less hardy. Males of this species are especially recognisable as they have three horns on their heads, resembling a miniature triceratops.
Always choose a captive-bred chameleon: these animals are delicate enough without having the stress associated with wild-caught reptiles, which will also carry parasites and find it very difficult to adapt to captive conditions. In any case, in many countries, the capture and transport of wild chameleons is illegal and supporting the trade in endangered wildlife simply results in many animals dying horrible, slow deaths on their way to the pet stores.
Check the animal that you’re interested in: is it bright and active? Is it able to change colours? Does it have a well-fleshed body? Many people recommend getting a male chameleon for a beginner as they tend to be hardier and their nutritional needs are slightly simpler.
Of course, the most striking thing about chameleons is their ability to change colour. This can occur in response to stress, excitement, lighting, temperature and the presence of other chameleons, as well as other influences. It is believed that the colour change helps with temperature regulation, communication with other chameleons and of course, camouflage. Most young chameleons are a dull grey or brown colour and can only manage slight changes in shade but once they pass 5 months of age, they can develop the ability to change to a wide range of colours, from black to green to turquoise to other brilliant hues. Usually, a dark coloured chameleon is showing signs of stress whereas a lighter coloured chameleon is in a happier mood.
Another distinctive feature of chameleons is their tongue, which they use to catch prey. This muscular weapon can extend up to 1.5 times the length of the body which means that the chameleon can catch insects very effectively, even from a distance. Still other unique features include their globular eyes which can move independently of each other, rotating like turrets, and provide them with a wide radius view of the world around them, thus helping with hunting and protection. In addition, their “split toes” – three each way – which allow them to get a good grip in the treetops where they live. Some species support this with a prehensile tail that also helps to keep a good grip on the branches.
Chameleons are such specialised pets that you must thoroughly research the species and its needs before deciding to take one on. Talk to reptile enthusiasts and experienced chameleon keepers. Certainly, a short guide like this one cannot do such a specialised animal justice and you should never get a chameleon simply based on the information you read here. However, here is a summary of its needs to give you an idea of what you might be letting yourself in for:
- One of the most difficult aspects of chameleon care is providing a suitable environment as their natural habitat is arboreal and they live exclusively in trees. Thus, their enclosure needs to be extremely large, with enough foliage for climbing and for privacy. A minimum for larger chameleons is 3 feet by 3 feet by 4 feet tall but this really is the minimum and the larger the better. The branches themselves need to be of a range of diameters and most of the cage space should be filled with branches and/or live foliage. (Make sure the plants are not toxic as chameleons are known to eat some foliage). The sides of the cage should be made of vinyl-coated wire or poly mesh in order to prevent injury should the chameleon’s toes become caught.
- Ventilation is important and make sure also that there are several basking spots among the branches, of different temperatures. The specific temperature and humidity requirements for each species can vary hugely so make sure you are familiar with the ranges of your particular type of chameleon. Natural sunlight is important if you want your chameleon to thrive but in practice, you may have to make do with full-spectrum UV lighting especially designed for reptiles. But even if you do use this as your primary source, try to expose the cage to some natural sunlight through an open window (glass will filter out the necessary UV radiation) or by placing the cage outdoors if the weather is suitable. (Always provide shade as well, to prevent overheating).
- Chameleons are insectivores, although some species like some vegetation as well (e.g. lettuce, spinach, fruits, vegetables in small amounts) and some will also eat small invertebrates, such as slugs. Feeding a variety of insects is important – crickets, worms, wax moths, non infesting roaches – and all preferable gut-loaded with nutritious foods themselves (e.g. leafy greens, vegetables, fruit) prior to feeding. You can dust chameleons with a Vit D and calcium supplement. The calcium is particularly important if you have an egg-laying female.
- Generally, chameleons will not drink from a water dish but get their moisture from water-droplets on the leaves. So you will need to provide water through the form of a drip system or by misting the enclosure regularly (at least twice a day). Even something as simple as some ice cubes at the top of the cage which melt slowly and drop water into the cage will do.
- Chameleons are solitary and territorial and so will not relish a cage-mate. Males, in particular, will become very aggressive should they be placed together.
Most of all, remember that chameleons are extremely easily stressed so place the cage in a quiet spot, away from general traffic and family activity. Always move slowly when approaching the cage and observing the chameleon and despite the temptation, avoid handling them as much as possible. This is really a pet where the rewards come more from observation than from interaction.