Thinking about getting a chameleon for the first time is really exciting. There’s so much to think about from researching what cage to get, what lights they need and how are you going to handle their creepy-crawly live food?
Probably the most exciting question though is what chameleon shall I get? There are over 180 different species to choose from! Very few of them are suitable for keeping as pets though, fewer still are suitable for beginners.
If you’re a first-time chameleon owner you should only really be thinking about one of three species to keep. These are panther chameleons, veiled chameleons, and Jackson chameleons.
The reason being these species are the easiest to care for, the most widely available and therefore the easiest to get equipment for and advice.
This article will talk more about each species and why they’re good for first time chameleon keepers. We’ll start with the highly colorful panther chameleon.
1. Panther Chameleon
Panther chameleons are found in the wild in Madagascar. They are called panther chameleons due to the markings on their bodies being similar to a panther big cat.
They display astonishingly bright and vibrant colors and, even more remarkably, they are colored depending on what local of Madagascar they are from.
Panther chameleons from Nosy Be and Ambanja are bright electric blue, whereas those from Ambilobe and Sambava are redder in appearance.
They are a great choice of pet for beginners because they are quite hardy and easy to look after. All of their needs can be provided by using equipment widely available in pet stores. The chameleons themselves are also easily purchased from pet stores and private breeders.
Panther chameleons need temperatures of around 90°F for basking 80°F for ambient and they require UVB light for nutrient absorption.
You can read more about what they need and how to set up their cage in my panther chameleon cage setup guide.
As panther chameleons are so vibrantly colored and so suitable for pets they’re not the cheapest chameleon to buy. A baby will cost between$150 and $200 depending on its locale.
If you can afford it they’re the best choice of chameleon for a pet in my opinion, for a beginner or experienced keep alike.
2. Veiled Chameleon
Veiled chameleons have a special place in my heart as I was the proud keeper of one for 10 years and is the reason I decided to make this website. They’re only second choice as they’re not as colorful as panther chameleons and color is a primary reason why choose a chameleon for a pet.
Veiled chameleons are, contrary to popular belief, found in forested areas of Yemen and not in dry deserted areas. They’re also found in Hawaii as an invasive species caused by escaped pets and are therefore illegal in the state.
Like most chameleons, Veileds are fiercely territorial and can produce quite an intimidating display if they feel threatened but this rarely turns into a bite and is usually just that, a display. They really do show impressive coloration when angry though!
Like the panther chameleon, they’re great for beginners because they’re hardy and can tolerate many of the mishaps in knowledge of care a beginner will inevitably have. In fact, I’d argue they are the easiest and hardiest chameleon to have as a pet and this largely explains their popularity.
Veiled chameleons require similar conditions to a panther chameleon and they are widely available from chain pet stores like PetSmart, private breeders and reptile fairs. They’re also very cheap to buy costing only around $30 for a baby.
Read more about general veiled chameleon care and how to set up their cage in my veiled chameleon cage setup guide here.
3. Jackson Chameleon
Jackson chameleons are a mountain species found in the east of Africa mainly in Kenya and Tanzania. They were also introduced into the USA in Florida, California and, like the veiled chameleon, are an invasive species in Hawaii where it is illegal to transport them between the islands or to commercially export them to mainland America.
They are called Jackson’s chameleons after the British ornithologist, Frederik Jackson who was governor of Kenya in the 19th century.
Whilst still beautiful, Jackson chameleons display less vibrant colors than the two other chameleons on this list but what they lack in vibrancy they make up for in accessories because Jackson chameleons have a very cool looking horn on the front of its head. So owning one is a bit like owning a small yet colorful dinosaur and is the closest you’ll ever get to having a pet dinosaur!
Like veiled and panther chameleons they need a UVB and a heat lamp but due to their natural habitat being at altitude they require things to be a little cooler of around 88°F for basking and 80°F for ambient being the optimum temperature ranges.
They’re not quite as readily available as the other two species but still easy enough to find online and at reptile fairs. They sell for only slightly more than veiled chameleons.
Read more about Jackson chameleons and their cage setup requirements in my Jackson chameleon cage setup guide.
What is the best chameleon for handling?
Really there is no best chameleon for handling. You may have seen plenty of youtube videos that show people holding their chameleons or a chameleon running up to the front of the cage.
These instances are pretty rare and the chameleon seemingly wanting to be held may be for different reasons, like wanting to escape a too hot or cold enclosure, or wanting to use a human as a mobile tree to get across the room.
In reality, the vast majority of chameleons want to be left alone. They’re solitary creatures in the wild and are just not biologically wired affectionate interaction. Many chameleons can be somewhat trained to tolerate handling but if you want a pet you can cuddle and hold regularly then you might want to look elsewhere for a different type of pet.
Think of chameleons as more of a display animal in the same way a fish in an aquarium is.
Having said all this though Jackson chameleons are certainly among the more calmer species of pet chameleons but the points I’ve made still stand, they really would prefer to be left alone.
I’ve written a more extensive article about handling chameleons here.
Is it hard to take care of a chameleon?
It is often said chameleons are hard to take care of and there is a lot of truth to this. They are certainly harder than many other types of pet you could have. They require special lights, plants, cages and so on plus they look fragile and quite susceptible to illness.
On the other hand, if you get their set up correct right from the start they are not nearly as hard to care for as some people make out. The hardest part is getting the set up correct because there’s lots of research involved but once you understand it they’re not too difficult to maintain you just need patience and to be vigilant for diseases and other potential problems.
I’ve devoted an entire article to this question here.
To Wrap Up
If you really want a chameleon, do your research thoroughly first then just go for it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner, I was largely a beginner to keeping animals at all nevermind an animal as exotic as a chameleon! But I really wanted one, I put the research in and I ended up having mine for 10 years.
Either one of the chameleons listed here will be perfect if you’re just starting out in this hobby. Who knows once you get one you might want more? Chameleons can be quite addictive! So good luck, have fun and look around the site if you have more questions. I’m adding new articles all the time.