According to a survey of vets in the United Kingdom, the number one cause of illness in chameleons is poor husbandry.
Martin Whitehead, an expert herpetologist at Chipping Norton Veterinary Hospital who conducted the survey, said:
‘We can conclude pretty safely that there is high mortality among pet reptiles, and much of that morbidity and mortality is just down to husbandry. The central conclusion for me is that most vets believe most owners’ really basic husbandry, the really fundamental stuff is being got wrong.’
When a chameleon gets sick they are very good at hiding their symptoms. When their symptoms become really obvious, it’s often at a time when their illness has advanced to a stage where veterinary intervention is required.
This guide aims to tell you all the ways a chameleon can get sick, what symptoms to look out for, and how you can both prevent and treat any sickness that may arise in your pet chameleon.
I’ve also included in this list certain conditions that don’t necessarily qualify as a sickness, but are more disorders and dysfunctions that can lead to sickness down the road if not spotted in time.
Warning: Please be advised this article contains images and descriptions of animals suffering from illness and pain.
If you are concerned about your chameleon’s health, please contact your local vet for further guidance.
Signs your chameleon might be sick
- Diarrhea – Generally indicates parasites, but could also be a sign of bacterial infection or poor temperatures causing bad digestion.
- Abnormal fecal and urates – This includes not pooping for a long time and yellow urates. The former could indicate nutrient deficiencies, while the latter is a sign of dehydration.
- Weight loss – This could just simply be a case of them not being fed enough, but it could also mean something more serious. Signs of this include sagging skin and ribs being more prominent than usual.
- Not eating – Sometimes chameleons go off their food as they are bored with the same food being offered all the time. A few days not eating isn’t usually cause for concern, particularly after a shed, but any longer than this and there may be a problem. Offer your chameleon some different food and see if this sparks their appetite.
- Spending lots of time on the ground – Chameleons usually hang under their heat lamp or on branches lower down to regulate their temperature. They very rarely go on the ground. If your chameleon is spending a lot of time on the ground, it usually means something requires further investigation on your part.
- Dark color – Chameleons sometimes turn dark to indicate fear, stress or if they’re too cold. Brief periods of this are normal, but if they’re dark regularly it could mean they are too cold, or they’re upset by something stressing them in or around their enclosure or something is wrong with their health.
- Sunken eyes – If a chameleon’s eyes are not as rounded as normal or even sunken into their head, this is usually a sign of dehydration, but can also indicate other illnesses and stress.
- Limping or hanging leg from a branch – This could be the sign of an injury or fracture, as well as being a sign of low calcium or gout. If this doesn’t resolve in a few days then consider taking your chameleon to the vet.
- Missing toe nails – This is usually nothing to worry about as chameleons can lose these when climbing up a screen cage. They don’t grow back but don’t cause problems either. Where in can be a problem is if you notice any swelling around the area, as this may indicate infection.
- Poor grip and regular falling – This is the sign of a serious problem that will need veterinary intervention. If this happens once on occasion it’s ok but regular patterns of it require attention. It’s usually a sign of metabolic bone disease (MBD) or advanced dehydration. If you see this don’t try and work out what it is just get your chameleon to the vet and they will be able to advise you.
- Sleeping during the day – Healthy chameleons do not sleep during the day. Closing eyes briefly is ok but regular napping is not. If you see this behavior first check your husbandry is correct and nothing is immediately stressing your chameleon. If this doesn’t resolve the issue investigate further as to what might be the cause and use this list to guide you.
Source for the following list: De Vosjoli, P. (2012) Essential Care of Chameleons. Advanced Vivarium Systems.
What is dehydration?
I’ll start off with the most common problem chameleons in captivity suffer with. Although not a disease in itself dehydration is, without doubt, a disorder that can cause a whole load of problems down the road and is in fact the leading cause of death in chameleons.
Dehydration is a condition where chameleons are not drinking enough water to adequately hydrate themselves in order for their bodies to function normally.
What causes dehydration?
This lack of drinking water is usually caused by the inadequate provision of drinking water inside the chameleon’s enclosure. This is usually due to a poor routine of providing drinking water, a lack of understanding of how chameleons drink water or a poor method of drinking water.
What are the symptoms of dehydration?
The most obvious sign of chameleon dehydration is in its urates, the white part of its poop. If this white part is a yellow color it means more water needs to be provided. If it’s orange, then your chameleon is starting to become seriously dehydrated.
Advanced stages of dehydration are when your chameleon’s eyes start to look sunken in, its skin looks sagging and its casque misshapen.
What prevents dehydration?
A good routine of misting twice a day is the best way to prevent it. The best way to do this is by buying an automatic mister as you can set it, forget about it and know your chameleon is getting the water it needs every day.
What treats dehydration?
If you see the early symptoms just try prolonging your chameleon’s mistings to make sure it drinks. As well as automatic misting you can mist by hand or by using a dripper system.
You can also give your chameleon a shower where you take the chameleon out of the cage, put them on a plant and place them in the shower. Don’t direct water directly onto them but have the showerhead aimed at the wall so the water bounces onto them.
If things are at the serious stage like in the above picture, then a visit to a reptile specialist vet will be required as soon as possible.
2. Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)
What is MBD?
Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) is the second most common disease found in captive chameleons. It’s a very painful disease that causes brittle bones and general weakness.
What causes MBD?
The most common causes are lack of dietary calcium and improper lighting preventing the chameleon absorbing calcium into their system properly. To try and correct this imbalance the chameleon’s body will draw calcium out from its bones and therefore causing the weak brittleness of them.
What are the symptoms of MBD?
The danger with MBD is the difficulty of seeing the symptoms early on. Early signs of it are your chameleon frequently grabbing its own legs and head. It will also not be able to climb as well as it used to and may fall.
More obvious signs are broken limbs, double elbow and knee joints, stunted growth, twisted looking knee joints, mouth not closing properly, soft jaw and decreased tongue use.
What prevents MBD?
The easiest way to prevent MBD is by making sure you’re using the correct 5.0 UVB light bulb and that it’s changed every 9 months to a year.
You also need to ensure your feeder insects are gut loaded with calcium rich food and that you supplement correctly with calcium at every feed. Properly supplemented locusts are a particularly recommended food source for preventing MBD.
What treats MBD?
MBD symptoms cannot be reversed, but they can be prevented from progressing further with the correct treatment. The only way to do this is through medication provided by your vet and a rebalancing of dietary calcium and correct UVB light provision. Ways to do this should be discussed with a vet.
What are parasites?
These are tiny microscopic worms and other organisms that can get into the intestine of a chameleon. They’re mainly found in wild caught chameleons but can occur in captive bred ones too.
What causes parasites?
Parasites can find their way into a chameleon through the ingestion of an infected insect or if your chameleon comes into contact with the feces of an infected animal.
What are the symptoms of parasites?
Symptoms a chameleon might have parasites are runny diarrhea, rancid smelling feces, weight loss, listlessness, and vomiting.
What prevents parasites?
It’s pretty much impossible to prevent it in wild caught chameleons making this another reason to only get pet chameleons bred by knowledgable breeders.
In captive chameleons, the best way to prevent it is to not allow them to eat insects caught in the wild and only buy those bred by live food breeders in a clean environment.
What treats parasites?
If you suspect your chameleon has parasites the only way to treat them is to take them to a vet, have them do what’s called a fecal float exam where the chameleon feces is examined and deworming medication is prescribed accordingly.
What is edema?
Edema is points of swelling that occur on a chameleon’s head, neck or the area below their front legs.
What causes edema?
The swelling is caused by pockets of fluid building up in these areas and while it’s not entirely known why these build ups occur it is thought to be related to mineral imbalances, usually calcium, and too much vitamin supplementation.
What are the symptoms of edema?
Swelling in any of the areas already mentioned.
What prevents edema?
Making sure your watering schedule and dusting with supplements is correct and choosing feeder insects with low phosphorous content for good overall organ health.
What treats edema?
Natural sunlight and getting back on track with your watering and supplement schedule. Prolong mistings more than usual to help reduce the swelling and increase chameleon hydration. Choose feeder insects with lower phosphorous too, like dubia roaches.
What is gout?
Gout is a painful condition in chameleons that is the result of excess uric acids and salt forming together into crystals that cause swelling in joints.
What causes gout?
There are two types of gout. Primary gout is caused by too much protein in a chameleon’s diet. Secondary gout is caused by dehydration or, worse, kidney dysfunction and failure.
What are the symptoms of gout?
The obvious symptoms of gout are swelling in the legs, ankles, feet and elbow joints. Swelling usually only occurs in one or two of these places at a time. A chameleon will also hang their legs off the branch to prevent pressure on their joints. Clumsy climbing and falling may also be a sign.
What prevents gout?
Not gut loading insects with high protein foods like dog food is a good way to prevent primary gout. Secondary gout can be prevented through good hydration methods and misting schedules already mentioned.
What treats gout?
Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment for gout. The best way is prevention in the first place.
What is stomatitis?
This is a mouth infection in chameleons also known as mouth rot.
What causes stomatitis?
This is caused by bacterial infections getting into the jawline of a chameleon.
What are the symptoms of stomatitis?
Symptoms include swelling around the gums, yellow pus in the soft areas of the mouth, black scab like bumps appearing on the gumline outside of the mouth, some black teeth,difficulty closing the mouth, difficulty feeding and refusing to eat.
What prevents stomatitis?
As this is caused by a bacterial infection it’s difficult to prevent it occurring other than maintaining good husbandry conditions and keeping the enclosure clean.
What treats stomatitis?
Stomatitis treatment is really best done by your vet. They will provide you with a topical antibacterial solution and advise you on how to apply it. They will also likely provide you information on what vitamins and minerals to increase supplementation, vitamin C is usually best for this.
7. Tongue Problems
What are tongue problems?
This is an umbrella term to describe all problems a chameleon can get with their tongue.
These include a swollen tongue in the event of infection, not extending the tongue fully when eating, tongue lacerations if they catch it on something when eating and hyperextension where the chameleon is unable to draw back their tongue into their mouth.
What causes tongue problems?
Like many illnesses in captive chameleons, tongue problems are largely caused by poor husbandry conditions resulting in dehydration, calcium deficiency, mineral imbalance, mouth infections and poor eyesight more seen in older chameleons.
Some chameleons, like mine, don’t extend their tongue fully as a result of learning it’s unnecessary to do so due to being hand fed too much when they were young.
What are the symptoms of tongue problems?
These include swelling of the tongue, chameleon not shooting the tongue as far as they did when they were younger, no longer feeding using their tongue or the tongue hanging out of the mouth.
What prevents tongue problems?
Again this is largely prevented by proper husbandry, adequate water supply and a good supplement dusting schedule of vitamins, minerals, and calcium.
What treats tongue problems?
Tongue swelling through infection can be treated by the use of antibiotics prescribed by a vet. Lacerations as long as not too serious will heal on their own.
A chameleon who doesn’t fire their tongue fully could be a result of being trained to do so as I described earlier, in which case there’s nothing that can be done to change it. As long as they’re still eating it’s nothing to worry about. If it’s a result of mineral, vitamin and calcium deficiency then rebalance this with a proper supplementation schedule.
In the case of hyperextension then immediate attention is required. Despite the horrifying look of this it’s important not to panic. Just pick up and hold the animal and its tongue carefully and place it in a separate tank with moist paper towels or wet newspaper on the bottom. This helps keep the tongue moist and prevents it from drying out.
Place the tank in a warm and dark area and leave the chameleon be. Don’t use an extra heat source just make sure the room is warm. This should enable your chameleon to eventually retract its tongue on their own and return to normal.
However, if you’re, understandably, not confident of dealing with this then get them to the vet. The important thing to repeat though is not to panic or be in a mad rush to get to the vet. The stress this will cause can do serious damage to your chameleon and it may result in having their tongue amputated. Most chameleons learn to eat without a tongue ok though.
8. Respiratory Infection
What is a respiratory infection?
Respiratory infection is a bacterial infection that affects the lungs and airway.
What causes respiratory infection?
This particular infection is caused by improper conditions inside a chameleon’s enclosure, such as the temperatures being kept too low making a chameleon too cold or if conditions are too wet and humid.
What are the symptoms of respiratory infection?
Symptoms of this are many. They include excessive gaping of the mouth, forced exhalation, breathing problems in general, excessive mucus coming out of their mouth, mucus discharge from the nose, wheezing and popping sounds when breathing, general listlessness, loss of appetite, puffed up body and not basking.
What prevents respiratory infection?
Making sure your temperature and humidity levels are correctly maintained for the species of chameleon you have as your pet. Also, make sure the cage is allowed to completely dry out between mistings to prevent moisture from building up and the cage being constantly damp. If you use paper towels as substrate change these regularly too.
What treats respiratory infection?
The only way to treat a respiratory infection is to visit a vet where they will prescribe a course of antibiotics.
9. Chameleon Skin Problems
What are skin problems?
These problems such as white bumps and/or scaly dry patches of skin. It can also refer to excessive shedding beyond the usual frequency for juvenile and baby chameleons, poor shedding that comes off in flakes or inability to shed at all or properly.
What causes skin problems?
The white bumps and scaly patches are usually caused by fungal and bacterial infections as a result of small punctures in the skin.
In the case of shedding problems, this could be an indication of several underlying health problems, such as dehydration or vitamin deficiency.
What are the symptoms of skin problems?
White bumps and/or patches of dry and flaky skin.
Excessive shedding, poor shedding amount, difficulty shedding or not shedding at all.
What prevents skin problems?
Skin infections in chameleons usually result from too much humidity in an overly wet environment. So making sure your humidity levels are appropriate for the species of chameleon you have will go a long way to preventing them. Allowing the cage to dry out between mistings also prevents this.
Shedding problems are best prevented by making sure your husbandry, temperature, supplementation and misting routines are all correct. These things being incorrect are what cause the majority of chameleon illness in captivity so preventing these illnesses will prevent shedding problems.
What treats skin problems?
In the case of fungal infections, a course of antibiotics from a vet will be required.
Shedding problems can be treated by misting more frequently with warm water to help any skin that needs to come off. Other shedding problems require further investigation as to what might be the underlying cause of them and treating that illness accordingly. This list should help with any investigations you need to do.
10. Thermal Burns
What are thermal burns?
Thermal burns are burns on a chameleon’s skin that can vary anywhere from mild to life threateningly severe.
What causes thermal burns?
Thermal burns are caused when a chameleon gets too close to a heat lamp or has insufficient cover to shade themselves away from UVB light rays causing them overexposure which can cause something similar to a sunburn.
What are the symptoms of thermal burns?
Chameleons feel pain differently to us and won’t know they’re being burned until it’s too late.
A thermal burn will show up as a white area before turning into a grey or black blister mark on the chameleon’s skin. They will also be lethargic and have trouble shedding, particularly around the eyes if it’s a UVB burn as this indicates overexposure to UVB.
Burns are usually found on the casque, back, and legs of a chameleon.
What prevents thermal burns?
The best way to prevent a thermal burn is to not place the basking bulb inside the cage. Instead place it on top of the cage and make sure it’s around 8 to 10 inches away from your chameleon and that they have no way of getting too close to it.
Also make sure your temperatures are not too hot because chameleons can still burn even without touching the bulb.
In the case of UVB burns I recommend only ever using tube bulbs, placing them on top of the cage along with the heat bulb and make sure your cage is well planted to give your chameleon the ability to shade from UVB rays.
What treats thermal burns?
Veterinary treatment should be sought right away upon discovery of a burn. It will take a while but burns do heal, even if they do leave scars, with the right course of treatment.
11. Vitamin A Deficiency
What is vitamin A deficiency?
This is when your chameleon isn’t getting enough vitamin A either from its feeder insects or supplements.
What causes vitamin A deficiency?
Either poor supplementation routine and neglecting to dust insects with multiple vitamin and mineral supplements, or not gut loading insects with foods rich in vitamin A like carrots.
What are the symptoms of vitamin A deficiency?
Symptoms include puffy, teary and crusted eyes, shedding problems like those indicated earlier, small lumps on the head and casque indicating a sinus infection, respiratory problems and inability to use the tongue properly.
What prevents vitamin a deficiency?
Making sure you supplement with vitamin A once a week and by feeding insects with vitamin A-rich foods, like carrots and sweet potato.
While it’s possible for a chameleon to overdose on vitamin A it’s unlikely this will happen.
Underdosing happens more frequently so it’s better to make sure you’re giving enough instead of worrying about overdose.
What treats vitamin a deficiency?
Rebalance vitamin A supplements and gut loading first. If this still doesn’t help consult a veterinarian.
12. Egg Binding
What is egg binding?
This is when a female chameleon is unable to lay all her eggs and as a result retains her eggs inside her body. This is an imminent life-threatening condition.
What causes egg binding?
Egg binding is caused when a chameleon can’t lay her eggs due to incorrect husbandry conditions, poor nutrition, eggs being too large or improperly formed, dehydration or lack of an appropriate nesting site.
What are the symptoms of egg binding?
Female chameleons will become visibly weak and stressed if her eggs are bound. They will appear to be straining in attempts to lay them and will stop eating and drinking.
In many cases you will also be able to see the outline of eggs showing underneath the skin.
What prevents egg binding?
In the case of large or eggs not being properly formed, there is not much that can be done to prevent this as it’s more a result of biology than husbandry conditions.
In general, though it can be prevented by, again, making sure your husbandry has the correct temperatures, misting schedule, feeding schedule and so on.
Providing the correct conditions in order for a female chameleon to lay her eggs also goes a long way towards preventing egg binding.
Please read more about how to do this in my article about chameleon egg laying here.
What treats egg binding?
Egg binding is a serious condition that needs veterinary treatment as soon as possible. This may come in the form of medicine and high calcium feed in order to help pass the eggs or, in more extreme cases, surgery to remove them.
13. Tail Rot
What is tail rot?
This is a condition where the tail becomes infected, turns black and starts to rot away.
What causes tail rot?
Tail rot is caused by bacterial infection often as a result of too much humidity and a prolonged damp environment. It can also be caused by a poor shed and the skin beginning to tighten around the tail and reducing blood flow.
What are the symptoms of tail rot?
The main symptom is the tail begins to turn black.
If the chameleon can still curl it in and out and move it normally and the tail is black, it is likely this is just a bruise and will heal on its own.
If your chameleon can’t curl their tail and has trouble using it, then it’s more likely tail rot.
What prevents tail rot?
Making sure your humidity levels aren’t too high and allowing the cage to dry out fully between mistings is the most effective way to prevent tail rot.
What treats tail rot?
If the tissue in the tail is dead, then it will eventually dry up and fall off on its own. The chameleon will not be able to grow the tail back.
If this doesn’t happen, and you notice the discoloration moving further up the tail, this means the infection is beginning to spread and will, therefore, require antibiotic treatment from a vet or possibly amputation.
14. Kidney Failure
What is kidney failure?
This is where a chameleon’s kidneys stop working properly and fail to filter the chameleon’s blood and pass urates. It is more common in old chameleons, but can happen to chameleons of any age.
What causes kidney failure?
What are the symptoms of kidney failure?
Kidney failure is what sadly ended my chameleon’s life at the age of 10, so I’m all too familiar with them.
Symptoms include a lump in front of its pelvis, inability to pass feces and urates, fluid under the skin, jaw and/or neckline, unable to drink enough water or having no interest in drinking it despite a lot being offered, foul breath odor, white salt deposits inside the mouth and bloodshot eyes.
What prevents kidney failure?
In my chameleon’s case I couldn’t really do much to prevent it, he was just old and his time had come. This is the case for many old chameleons.
In general, it’s the same common thread that runs through the preventions in this list. Make sure your husbandry is correct, ensure your chameleon has enough to drink and that it’s properly supplemented.
What treats kidney failure?
If you suspect your chameleon has this an immediate trip to the vet is required. It’s really only a small chance as to whether it can be treated and often euthanasia is the most humane option.
To wrap up
I hope you found this list useful in identifying your chameleon’s current health problems or learning about how to spot future problems. Chameleons suffer from many ailments are they’re difficult to spot. This list is by no means exhaustive, but these are the most common diseases and health issues they suffer from.
You may have noticed a common thread running through this list about ways to prevent illness, and that is correct husbandry. That’s not to say it will prevent all illnesses, animals get sick it’s just a part of life, but incorrect husbandry is a big cause of illness in chameleon in captivity.
If you get the husbandry right from the beginning, you stand a great chance of giving your chameleon a long, healthy and happy life. My chameleon only got majorly sick once in his life, and that was right at the end.