Chameleon Care Guide: For Beginner & Experienced Keepers


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Chameleons are one of the most uniquely captivating exotic pets you can own. With their color changing abilities, independently rotating eyes, projectile tongues and prehensile tails, they are fascinating creatures to have as a pet. However, their specialized needs also make them challenging pets requiring a dedicated owner willing to provide proper care. This care guide covers everything you need to know about housing, feeding, handling and keeping a pet chameleon healthy and happy.

Native to Africa, Southern Europe and parts of Asia, over 160 species of chameleons exist in the wild. The most popular species kept as pets are the veiled chameleon, Jackson’s chameleon and panther chameleon. With proper care, chameleons can live 3–10 years in captivity, depending on the species.

While a visually striking display animal, chameleons are better admired from afar than handled extensively. They are solitary, territorial creatures that become stressed by too much interaction.

Housing Your Chameleon

Chameleons are arboreal, meaning they live in trees and shrubs, so creating a habitat that meets their climbing instincts is key. The minimum sized enclosure for a juvenile chameleon up to 8 months old should be 16” x 16” x 30”. For adult chameleons, increase the size to a 24” x 24” x 48” screened enclosure at minimum. See my cage recommendations here.

Glass enclosures can be used, but I do not recommend them as they lack proper ventilation. Opt for an enclosure made of screen, mesh or other breathable material on multiple sides to allow air flow. The floor can be left as is or lined with paper towels to absorb water and help make cleaning easier. Avoid loose substrates like sand, moss or bark that could be accidentally ingested.

Furnish the habitat generously with branches, vines and plants for your chameleon to climb and perch on. Real foliage is best because some chameleons eat plants, and ingesting artificial leaves is dangerous. Make sure the plants are nontoxic, check out my list of safe plants here. The enclosure should include ample leaves and branches to provide shelter and surfaces for water droplets to form on.

Maintaining a proper temperature gradient is crucial. The cool end of the habitat should be 72-80°F while the warm basking area should be 85-100°F depending on species. At night, the temperature can drop to 65-75°F. Monitor temperatures with separate thermometers on both the cool and warm sides.

Good ventilation, easy cleaning and a spacious enclosure are all keys to housing a chameleon successfully. Be sure to spot clean messes frequently and fully disinfect the habitat at least once a month, read more about in my article about cage cleaning. Their home should be an inviting, stimulating environment.

Chameleon Diet

In the wild, chameleons are primarily insectivores that feed on live prey. Replicating this varied insect diet is key to good nutrition in captivity. Crickets, worms, roaches and other feeder insects should make up the bulk of your chameleon’s food.

Offer size appropriate feeder insects no larger than the width of your chameleon’s head to prevent choking hazards. You can provide insects via free roaming in the enclosure or contained in a dish depending on your preferences. Just be aware free ranging insects may nibble on your chameleon if left in the cage overnight so be sure to remove them if they are not eaten.

Gut load feeder insects with nutritious produce like collard greens, carrots and sweet potato 24 hours before feeding them to your pet. This passes the nutrients in the vegetables on to your chameleon. Feed juveniles insects 1–2 times daily, and adult chameleons every other day.

Lightly dust prey items with calcium powder immediately before feeding. Chameleons should receive calcium once a day and calcium with D3 once every other week. Multivitamins should also be given once every other week. This is dependent on species, though, so please read further in my article on supplementation here.

Some chameleon species will accept vegetables and fruits directly. Try offerings like chopped greens, melons, berries and edible flowers in a shallow dish. Remove uneaten fresh foods within 4 hours to prevent spoilage. A varied diet is important, but insects should make up the majority of food.

Further Reading: Chameleons can eat these fruits and vegetables

Hydration & Humidity Needs

One of the biggest challenges to chameleon health is maintaining proper hydration. Chameleons do not recognize standing water bowls as a water source. Instead, they get moisture by licking droplets from leaves and branches.

Providing adequate water requires a daily misting routine. Use a hand mister or automatic mister to mist the enclosure at least 1–2 times a day. The habitat foliage should be lightly misted, to enable water droplets to form for your chameleon to lick. You can view my automatic mister recommendations here.

Another option is using a drip system to provide a consistent water source. This can be a simple upside down container that drips through a pinhole or a specially designed dripper. Locate the drip source over a favored perch.

Signs your chameleon is well hydrated include white urates, bulging eyes and smooth skin. Dehydration shown by sunken eyes, lethargy, wrinkled skin and yellow urates can quickly become fatal if not corrected. Proper moisture and regular mistings are a must.

Chameleons need at least 50% humidity during the day and between 80% and 100% at night. Daytime humidity is easily achieved from proper misting and using live plants. Nighttime humidity can be achieved by running a fogger machine at a low level.

Further Reading: Giving Chameleons Water

Further Reading: Chameleon Humidity

Lighting and Heating

Chameleons require bright, direct light in order to be healthy. Provide full spectrum UVB strip light for 10–12 hours daily. This allows your chameleon to safely absorb calcium and prevents illnesses like metabolic bone disease from occurring. Allowing some natural sunlight also provides beneficial rays. Place UVB bulbs on top of the cage and ensure the highest branch is between 6 and 12 inches below the roof of the cage. Check out my recommendations for lights.

Establishing a temperature gradient lets your chameleon thermoregulate by moving between warmer and cooler areas. The basking spot under a heat lamp should match the ideal temperature range for your species.

Use bulb wattage appropriate for the size enclosure to create needed heat without risking burns. This should be 100 watts for incandescent bulbs. Use a timer to turn off all artificial lights and heating elements at night, 12 hours on and 12 hours off is an ideal schedule. The habitat can cool to 65-75°F at night, as long as your pet has warmer areas to move to when active in the daytime. Monitor temperatures with reliable thermometers.

Further Reading: Essential lights for chameleons

Further Reading: Chameleon temperature

Handling and Temperament

While stunning to observe, chameleons prefer not to be handled. They are solitary creatures that become stressed by too much interaction. Give a new chameleon 3–4 days to settle into their habitat before attempting contact.

I recommend not handling them at all, but if you really want to, you should limit handling to no more than 10–15 minutes a couple of times a week after the initial acclimation period. Never grab or squeeze them firmly, and do not restrain if they attempt to move away. Support their body fully when holding and prevent falls.

To gauge if a chameleon is comfortable, watch their coloring. Darker grays and blacks signal fear or stress. Brighter greens, blues and yellows indicate a relaxed, content mood, or it could mean they are in fight mode, this is usually accompanied by puffing up, hissing and rocking behavior.

Male chameleons in particular are territorial and will become aggressive towards other males. They should not be housed together. Some females may also be aggressive, so it is safest to house chameleons individually. You should only house chameleons together if you are a highly experienced keeper.

Further Reading: Can you hold a chameleon?

Further Reading: Chameleon behavior

Common Health Issues

Metabolic bone disease and nutritional deficiencies are unfortunately common in pet chameleons. This preventable disease causes bones to become soft and malformed due to improper calcium, vitamin D3 and/or phosphorus intake.

Ensure your chameleon’s feeder insects are gut loaded with a nutritious diet and provide proper calcium supplementation. Also, be diligent about full spectrum UVB lighting for natural vitamin D3 synthesis. Catching MBD early improves outcomes.

Dehydration, respiratory infections, intestinal parasites and mouth infections are other problems seen. Any chameleon showing signs of lethargy, swollen eyes/joints, drooling, weight loss or loss of appetite needs an reptile veterinarian’s care. Establish a relationship with a qualified herpetological vet before issues arise and have regular checkups every 6-12 months.

Further Reading: How chameleons get sick

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