Whether it’s a veiled, panther, Jackson’s, pygmy, Parson’s, or unidentified species. There are several key principles you can apply for a wholesome approach to customizing chameleon care to your individual situation.
The primary goal of keeping chameleons successfully is duplicating, to the best of your ability, their natural environment. With a thoughtful examination of each element they face in the wild and the harmony between them, you can give your pet a comfortable life. Please click on all the external links provided to learn more about each subject – particularly the Gutloading link! They will open in a new window so you can remain on this page. It’s a great idea to read many more chameleon care sheets than this one, and join the www.chameleonforums.com to ask questions.
ELEMENT: The Sun
All reptiles are cold blooded, requiring both high & low temperatures to thermoregulate. This aids in the digestion of food and proper organ function. Being tropical, chameleons are exposed to Sun all year round with little variation in both photoperiod and temperature. A photoperiod can be achieved easily with a light timer set to 12hrs on and 12hrs off during the 6 months of Fall & Summer. For the Spring & Summer months, 14hrs on and 10hrs off is suitable.
It is important to have a ‘heat gradient’ in the habitat so your chameleon has the freedom to move from a cool area to a warm area.
- For veileds, basking spots should not exceed 90-92F. Average cage temperature should range between 72-80.
- For Panthers, basking spots should not exceed 85-88F. Average cage temperature should range between 72-78
- For Montane species, a basking threshold of 82-85F is good. Average cage temperature should range between 65-75 (room temperature).
- For a pygmy chameleon, a very small basking spot area of 76-78F is suitable. Average cage temperature should range between 68-72 (room temperature).
- ONE WAY TO ADJUST TEMPERATURE IS TO RAISE THE LAMP HIGHER AND HIGHER UNTIL DESIRABLE RESULTS ARE ACHIEVED.
We use adjustable heat lamps, with a built in dimmer switch. These are the bees knees and make temperature adjustment very simple: Available Here.
Having a basking spot will allow them to digest food after a meal by heating up & increasing metabolism. They will move away from the basking spot once this task is achieved & they’ve had enough. The best way to measure temperature is with a LASER THERMOMETER. The cheap thermometers from pet stores are not accurate, and cannot be reliable in measuring the temperature throughout the whole enclosure.
The Sun plays a crucial role in providing UVB radiation which helps in the natural production & synthesis of Vitamin D3, which aids in the absorption of calcium into the body and protects the immune system. Vitamin D3 is actually not a vitamin, but a hormone. It was mis-classified many decades ago and the misnomer stuck. ‘Good’ Cholesterol in the bloodstream is converted into D3 during exposure to the Sun – the same thing happens to you in sunlight!
To mimic the Sun, a mercury vapor bulb is your best choice – offering both heat & UVB from the same bulb. When you use a UVB bulb, it’s not necessary to use very much vitamin D3 powder. Too much vitamin D3 will cause hypervitaminosis-D3, which can be toxic to the liver or shut down the kidneys. It can also cause paralysis in the hind limbs. Vitamin D3 content varies with each manufacturer – a high level is 250,000 mcg per kg of powder. An ideal range for all chameleons is 20,000 mcg/kg. The higher D3 content is better for desert chameleons such as Namaqua, otherwise it is best left for bearded dragons and larger reptiles.
If a mercury vapor bulb is not practical for your situation, a reptile-specific heat light or halogen bulb available at any pet store will be okay for heat. For UVB radiation, you will need a second light. You can use a ReptiSun 5.0. Coiled bulbs appear to last longer than linear bulbs, but it is up to you and your setup. A handy device for measuring your UVB accurately is a UVB Meter: AVAILABLE HERE (you can even use it to measure the Sun).
When the Sun goes down in Madagascar, it gets cool – down to 62-65F. No light or heat is necessary at night & a drop in temperature of 10-15F is beneficial. Cool temperatures at night allow the chameleon’s metabolism to slow down, which anecdotal evidence has shown may lengthen the lifespan of your chameleon by a few years. It is only advised to use a red light or ceramic heat emitter during winter months in cold regions.
Note* Females who are not intended for breeding require less food & less heat. Too much food & heat will cause an increase in the amount of eggs produced as well as more frequent egg production. Keeping temperatures 2-5F lower than males may help slow the process.
ELEMENT: Sea & Sky
Many chameleons inhabit coastal regions & islands, even Jackson’s chameleons introduced to Hawaii. Panther chameleons in particular are named after these regions: ‘Nosy’ means ‘Island’ in the Madagascan language. Nosy Be (pronounced ‘Bay’) is literally ‘Be Island’; Nosy Mitsio is ‘Mitsio Island’; Nosy Faly is ‘Faly Island’.
These locations are affected constantly by rain from the sky & wind from the sea. Chameleons have adapted some of the most advanced respiratory systems in the reptile kingdom partly due to the evolution for this constant changing exposure to dry and wet. Water & Air must always be kept in balance, as too much of one and too little of the other will result in an unhappy cham.
After a rain, the sea breeze dries the fallen precipitation quickly. Chameleons will seek shelter under the tree canopy during the rain, coming out shortly after to lap up water droplets which have formed on leaves & tree hollows. It is very important to mimic this common natural event by spraying your chameleon heavily for anywhere from 30 seconds to 20 minutes* throughout the day. It is just as important to let the environment dry completely, and remain dry for 1 hour, between mistings. It must be visibly dry, no or very few water droplets should remain from the previous misting.
Sitting water & constant high humidity will cause bacterial buildup and kill your chameleon. A single large plant in the enclosure will maintain the humidity at 50% as the plant breathes, and misting will cause a spike up to 75-80% humidity.
Chameleons have evolved to drink rain water, which is the purest water found in nature. Rain water comes from clouds, which is steam – which is distilled water. Similar to rainwater is reverse osmosis. Chameleons given hard water, mineral water, tap water, or bottled spring water may develop mineral buildup in their organs. It is advisable to invest in a reverse osmosis filter under your kitchen sink (so you can use it too!), or buy purified water (look for Reverse Osmosis, or Distilled).
Saturate the environment around your chameleoen with water droplets, but only light spray the chameleon itself. If you spray your chameleon directly too often, water will buildup in the lungs and cause respiratory infections. It is important to spray your chameleon directly for a short duration so they can flush their eyes and maintain hydration in the skin. Misting systems such as The MistKing set to go off 3-7 times a day is ideal. Set your nozzle to point at foliage, avoid the basking spot. Some people set spray timers for 5-10 minutes, 2-3 times per day. Other people set times for 2-3 minutes, 5-10 times a day. This depends on your climate – if you have humid air in a place like Florida, you don’t need to spray as much or as often as you would if you lived in a dryer climate like Nevada. The rule of thumb is:
- Spray until water drops are formed on leaves & screen,
- Let dry completely.
- Keep dry for 1-3 hours.
- Spray again…
- Spraying at night is not necessary.
You may notice bulging eyes when he is being sprayed – this is normal flushing of small debris and dust within the eye structure. He may also rub his protruding eye on branches to work out debris. If this is a persistant problem, wet a q-tip and gently roll it along the eye, outward toward the opening, to try and dislodge the debris. Sometimes shed skin or plant material can get stuck inside the eye. You can also use a small eye dropper with pure water to drop into the eye (be sure not to get water into the mouth, as it may accidentally be breathed into the lungs.)
Do not read too much into the importance of airflow. Passive airflow is what’s meant, not forced airflow. Do not use a fan, do not place by a vent, and do not keep by a stairway where air is traveling up/down. Forced airflow will move too much air through the enclosure, stealing the humid air out of the enclosure. Providing a full screen or partial screen enclosure is all you need to do in order to let enough air passively flow through the enclosure.
Note* Baby chameleons only need to be sprayed lightly a few times a day onto the leaves, as a few water droplets on the snout is enough to cause fluid buildup in the lungs, causing pneumonia & death. For long durations of misting for adults, do not spray directly as this will also cause buildup in the lungs.
ELEMENT: The Earth
A life in the trees is a life of climbing. Vines, branches, plants & trellises of varying sizes keeps their grip strong. Foliage can be dense or sparse depending on how shy or bold your chameleon is. Calm chameleons seem to prefer more vines & branches, and less foliage. Shy chameleons seem to prefer more foliage to hide behind. In the wild, chameleons are most often found on bare branches soaking up the Sun and claiming their territory. A cage with many vines & 1-3 plants is ideal – plants should make up the bottom 60% of the cage (keeping the bottom bare for easy cleaning, you should be using pots for planting). The top 30% should be bare with vines and branches of varying widths.
Placing 2-3 branches/vines under the basking spot, at different distances from your heat lamp, will give your chameleon the option to choose his most comfortable temperature. This can easily be achieved by positioning a branch at a 45* angle so he can shift his position as he gets too hot.
Trees in the wild are also very clean, being washed regularly by rain. Chameleons need to be kept in a very clean environment, as they are very sensitive to bacterial buildup from shed skin, poop, insect debris, and fallen plant material. There should NEVER be a sitting water feature in the cage, as these are cesspools of bacteria. Instead, you can use a dripper such as The Big Dripper or The Little Dripper. Make sure you use a small bucket at the bottom with a screen top to catch the falling water, so it does not buildup within the cage. There are many guides out there to building a chameleon enclosure with a screen bottom so no water is sitting at all. You MUST have a regular cleaning schedule, at least once per week, to clean poop & dead insects.
Aside from clean water, chameleons need proper nutrition to thrive. This comes from the insect world, and keeping chameleons often results in an interest in the foods they eat; it’s likely you will try raising praying mantids, stick insects, silkworms, or even roaches. Chameleons are arboreal, coming in contact with the ground only to change trees, lay eggs, or search for mates. This means they have a diet that consists mostly of arboreal prey. The best variety of food are caterpillar-like insects such as silkworms, butterworms, and hornworms. Other arboreal insects include grasshoppers, moths, cicadas, mantis, phoenix worms, soldier flies (adult form of phoenix worms), stick bugs, and snails. You must source your insects from breeders, hobbyists, or breed them yourself. Wild insects can contain dangerous parasites like flukes, and you must breed this out of them for 1-2 generations before feeding them to your chameleon.
Crickets, mealworms & superworms are not arboreal prey – they’re great for common lizards which are very hardy like leopard geckos. They are not ideal to be the main diet of chameleons. We recommend staying away from waxworms, as they can be hard to digest and are very high in fat (you can feed the moths though). Crickets can be used as the base staple diet as they are very similar to other ideal bugs like grasshoppers & cicadas and they are very easy to find at a pet store, but they should only make up 20% of the diet. You must aim for 5 different types of insects to feed your chameleon. You can offer a different insect every weekday, and give treats on weekends (such as a pinky mouse or large hornworm, june bugs are great treats too, both the grubs and adult beetles.) It’s okay if your chameleon fasts for 1-2 days per week, provided he has eaten a hearty meal every other day. Many adult chameleons only need to eat a substantial meal every few days, and your chameleon will self-regulate his intake of food.
Wild collected insects must be verified by an expert (post a picture on an entomology group, or on the forums), and must be collected from pesticide-free zones. It’s a good idea to gutload the insect for 48 hours to purge its stomach contents of possibly dangerous material. Gutloading is the most important way to get nutrition into your chameleon.
Supplementation is a hot topic with chameleon care. Since we cannot go to Madagascar to collect the 50,000+ insects that provide proper nutrition for a chameleon, we must rely on supplements. However, the current method of dusting insects is that of an ‘overdose’ standpoint. While some dusting is important, too much vitamin powder can cause serious problems like gout, kidney failure, liver toxicity, tongue & eye problems, and death. Gutloading should be your primary method of supplementing, and powdering should be secondary. By feeding the insects a nutritious diet, they pre-digest the nutrients – this makes the nutrients more bio-available to the chameleon. Essentially, by gutloading an insect, you are turning its stomach into a ‘vitamin capsule.’
A plain calcium supplement can be LIGHTLY dusted daily. When beginners use too much supplement, we call this ‘Ghosting’ because the insect becomes pure white. The supplement powder should only be barely visible on the insect’s body. Calcium + D3 use depends on the chameleon’s exposure to natural light – if you keep your chameleon outdoors permanently or only for part of the year, he does not need any D3 at all for the duration of that time. If kept indoors with a UVB light, D3 is necessary but only once a week for females and once every 10 days to two weeks for males (because of egg production). The UVB light will cause your chameleon to produce his own vitamin D3 (remember, it’s a hormone and can be produced within the body!), but supplementing with D3 too often can cause a buildup which is toxic to vital organs. A multivitamin is good to use once per week for adults.
- Montane species and pygmy species require much less supplementation. Calcium must be done very lightly, and can be done daily. Vitamin D3 only needs to be used once every 10-14 days if kept indoors with a UVB light. A multivitamin should be used only once every two weeks.
- Females who are breeding can have all their supplements doubled during the breeding and egg producing season.
- Babies require more supplementation because they are growing. Calcium every feeding. Multivitamin two-three times per week. D3 twice per week (with UVB light). Cut supplementing back once they near adult size.
Chameleons can become quite picky eaters, and if your pet prefers some foods over others, just allow him to have what he wants and don’t try to force him to eat something he doesn’t like. Offering the food same all the time will cause a hunger strike which can last up to 6 weeks. Hunger strikes are often curbed by offering fatty grub-like insects & flying insects. These seem to stimulate the ‘thrill of the hunt’ response. One trick to avoid hunger strikes is to use a variety of gutload material, which will affect the taste of the insect. Variety is the spice of life.
The final element in chameleon care is you. Once an ideal habitat is established, your chameleon will depend completely on your care in order to survive & thrive. This is called ‘chameleon husbandry.’ Chameleons are naturally solitary & territorial to their own kind, but can be fully tame to humans when raised properly. Aggressive chameleons are usually found from big breeders & pet stores who do not handle their babies. Buying a chameleon at a young age or from a small hobby-breeder who has hand raised their babies will guarantee you have a calm adult.
An aggressive chameleon is a stressed chameleon. And stress kills! Handling may cause temporary stress for a few weeks until your chameleon has gotten used to you, but it will ultimately reduce the lifetime stress if you had not handled him.
The best method for handling is to take things very, very slow. Try feeding by hand, with an open, upward facing palm. Allow the insect to crawl all over you (best to use something slow like a butterworm or silkworm). Do this a few dozen times. Once he is used to your presence and has associated you with food, try coaxing him out of his cage by keeping one arm in the cage and luring him with food in the other hand. Try and get him to crawl on you a little bit, but allow him quick access to get back to his perch if he feels shy.
Finally, never pick your chameleon up in an aggressive manner (like a bird of prey picking up a fish). Allow your chameleon to crawl onto you on his own time, or maneuver your hand underneath him. If your chameleon is on the ground, you may pick him up by his tail (it won’t fall off!). And try to keep handling to a minimum, as your chameleon needs to be in his micro-habitat, the sanctuary you’ve made him in your inhospitable home. Every time you take a chameleon out of its cage, you are introducing it to an alien climate. 20-30 minutes is okay, but do not keep them on your shoulder for hours.
To make your job easier, timers and gadgets help a lot. The best investments you can make is a misting system & light timers.