Chameleons can bite, but only in rare circumstances. They will hiss, open their mouths and change color to show you that they are stressed, frightened or angry before biting as a last resort. While chameleon bites can hurt, they are not poisonous, as there are no known poisonous species of chameleon.
You shouldn’t worry about this, though. I have only been bitten once by my chameleon, but it was completely unintentional on his part. This guide will tell you how to spot if a chameleon is about to bite and how you can avoid being bitten.
Why chameleons bite
Chameleons will only bite as a last resort. Biting a creature like you that is much larger than itself is a very extreme act for a chameleon to undertake.
Chameleons will take several courses of action first to try and ward you off before finally resorting to biting.
These things will create a greater chance that you’ll get bitten by your chameleon:
- Stress – I really can’t stress enough how much of a role stress plays in your chameleon’s health and well-being. If your chameleon is stressed about something wrong in its enclosure, something in the surrounding environment or from something you’re doing, it is far more likely to want to bite you than if it’s happy and healthy.
- Handling – This relates to stress because a big cause of it is trying to handle your chameleon too much. Even if your chameleon doesn’t seem to mind handling, it would definitely prefer to be left alone. Incorrect ways of handling, like trying to pick it up from above, can severely stress your chameleon and will very likely cause it to lash out and bite you.
- Feeling cornered – This was one of the few times I thought my chameleon would bite me. I was just in his enclosure doing some spot cleaning, but didn’t notice he was in a corner with nowhere to go and my hand being near him. He just lashed out, but thankfully I moved in time. If a chameleon feels cornered like this, they can’t do anything else but attack.
- Hand feeding – This was the only time my chameleon did actually bite me, and it was purely by accident. I was hand feeding him and simply held the insect too close to his mouth and my thumb got caught up in the kill! It was more like a blunt thud feeling on my thumb nail than an actual bite, and it didn’t actually hurt, just shocked me a little bit.
- Health checking – A chameleon might bite you if you have to check closely for any health issues you suspect it might have. This is particularly true if you have to check for signs of a soft jaw as a result of suspected mouth rot. In my experience, though, chameleons generally won’t show signs of aggression if they have an underlying health issue.
- Housing chameleons together – This would require a separate article to fully discuss, but chameleons are very territorial and are likely to become more aggressive if you house two together in an enclosure that is too small. This is particularly true if housing a male and a female together, and one or both are feeling a little frisky.
Do chameleon bites hurt?
Most chameleon species are too small to bite hard enough to feel anything more than a bit of a stinging sensation, and they’re unlikely to break the skin.
The chameleons most people keep as pets, veilds, Jackson’s and panther chameleons are larger species with sharper teeth, more powerful jaws and yes they can hurt, break the skin and draw blood.
How to avoid a bite
You can greatly reduce your risk of being bitten by moving slowly when in and around your chameleon’s enclosure. Don’t put your hand in there while your chameleon is out in the open or if it’s in a corner.
If you have to go in while it’s not hiding, make sure your chameleon is perched above head height and don’t put your hand above it or try and pick it up from above.
If it’s necessary to handle your chameleon, try and coax it out onto your hand by offering food or, if it looks distressed, cover it with a towel as this will calm both you and your chameleon.
The best way to avoid being bitten is to actually get to know your chameleon, get to know its behaviors, the signals it gives you and, most importantly, pay attention to those signals and respect them.
How to tell if a chameleon will bite
These are all the things a chameleon will do to signal to you not to go near it before it actually gets to the point of having to bite you to get its message across.
- Glaring eyes – An early warning sign is the chameleon’s glare. They will absolutely transfix their eyes on you and follow you everywhere you go in the room to let you know they’ve got your number. My chameleon did this to many guests over the years, it’s an amusing but slightly unnerving experience even if you’re no where near the enclosure. Sometime they will bulge their eyes surprisingly far out of their sockets for added effect.
- All black – The bulging eye look is often accompanied by your chameleon turning completely black. This is usually an expression of fear, and a chameleon will probably attempt to edge slowly into a hiding place to feel safe away from you. Go near it, though, and it will let you know in other ways how it’s feeling
- Bright colors – Instead of black, chameleons can go the opposite direction and put on quite a display. I consider these a chameleon’s war paint, in the same way ancient human tribes used face paint to look more fearsome to their opponents. Most of the time, chameleons will stay a neutral green color, but when they get angry they will put on beautiful colors to let you know they mean business. This is usually combined with…
- Puffing up – A chameleon will puff up like a puffer fish to make itself look bigger to scare you off. I have to admit I find this quite amusing, especially when their throat flap overlaps their jaw line but in their mind it’s not funny, they’re not impressed, and they’re letting you know it. Straight after this comes the…
- The gape – Another part of trying to make itself bigger. Your chameleon will open its mouth as wide as it can at you. At least this way, you can see for yourself whether it has any teeth or not. The gape comes with a side order of…
- Hiss – This can be a short sharp hiss or a long drawn out breath. A bit like Darth Vader’s breathing but in a higher tone. If you really pay attention you’ll see that the long hiss is a signal for don’t come too close and the short, sharp hiss is for back off, you’re way too close now.
- The Lunge – This is the final signal to leave them alone. A chameleon will lunge at you and there will probably be an attempted bite along with it. Whether you receive that bite all depends on how quickly you can move your hand away.
I just had to include this video as it was the first one I saw many years ago that showed me the aggression of a veiled chameleon. It also demonstrates perfectly nearly all of the signals listed above. I still to this day find it quite funny, but also mildly terrifying!
What to do if you’re bitten
If you followed all of the above you should be well-equipped to avoid a bite from your chameleon, but if you’ve been unlucky the first thing is, and I know this is easier said than done, but try not to panic.
A chameleon bite will shock you, but you need to try and not pull your finger immediately out of his mouth.
For two reasons, first it will probably make the bite worse because if you try and move your finger quickly a chameleon will probably grind its teeth on you rather than just the initial chomp.
Secondly, the force of you moving your hand away with your chameleon still attached to it could mean you fling your chameleon across the room, potentially causing serious injury.
Chances are this will all happen very quickly and will be over in a second, and you and your chameleon will probably both be in a state of shock.
Once the bite has occurred, check the area you were bitten and if any blood was drawn, treat it in the same way you would if you cut yourself.
Even if the skin wasn’t broken, it’s still best to keep an eye on things and place some antiseptic cream on and a band-aid just in case.
If it starts to swell, it’s best to seek medical advice and make sure your tetanus jabs are up-to-date. It’s unlikely this level of harm was done, but it’s usually best to check just in case, an animal has just bitten you after all.
Once things have calmed down, you need to check on your chameleon, too. As I mentioned earlier, biting someone is an extreme act for a chameleon, and it could cause damage to it.
If the bite was particularly forceful, check to see if its jaw is ok and not dislocated. Again, this is unlikely, but if you see any signs of swelling then take the chameleon to the vet.
In the unlikely event your chameleon was flung across the room as a result of the shock, you need to check it for any injuries, particularly fractures. This will be apparent if the limbs are swollen and will require vet treatment.
If you are bitten, don’t be hard on yourself or too angry with your chameleon. You’re looking after an animal that has millions of years of evolution wired into it, who have only recently been widely kept as pets.
These things can happen from time to time and are no bearing on your ability to care for them, nor does it mean your chameleon is inherently mean.
To restate what I said at the beginning. It is very unlikely your chameleon will try and bite and you, and more unlikely still your chameleon will actually bite.
I think it’s fair to say every chameleon keeper has some story about their chameleon being aggressive or trying to bite them at least once in the time they’ve had them.