The popularity of keeping chameleons as pets has increased in recent years. Gone are the days when it was once a niche hobby. Equipment for keeping chameleons and the chameleons themselves are available from major pet retailers, both online and in physical stores.
It’s not difficult to see why. Chameleons are just fascinating creatures. They change color, catch food with their long tongues, have eyes that can look in all directions, and come in a variety of species all with unique features and colorings.
It’s precisely for these reasons that they’re rather unusual pets. Chameleons are often described as being difficult to care for and not for beginners. They certainly are challenging to care for, but they are not as difficult as you might expect.
I myself had no experience of keeping reptiles when I got my first chameleon and he lived healthily under my care for 11 years. So they can be for beginners but only if they thoroughly research what the care requirements are so they know what they are letting themselves in for before they get a chameleon.
This list aims to do just that. To give you the absolute fundamentals of what you need to do before you get a chameleon and what you need to do from day to day to keep them healthy. Let’s get into it.
1. Choose your chameleon last
This is the most important care information I can give you. It may seem obvious to do this but often chameleons are bought on impulse. This is for the reasons I mentioned in the introduction. Chameleons look cool, cute, and interesting. You might be in a pet store or at a reptile show, see a chameleon, and think you really want one. That’s fine but take a step back a moment.
It’s possible to buy a chameleon complete with their entire setup right there on the spot but this isn’t the best way to go. It can also be bad for your chameleon because a wrong or inferior setup can quickly cause health problems.
Furthermore, you, especially as a beginner in this situation, won’t know how to care for them properly. A responsible seller can give you information but many sellers, particularly those in big pet stores, won’t be much more knowledgeable than you so, despite them trying their best, they probably won’t be much help.
Instead, decide first if you really want to get one and if you do then start getting their setup together in preparation for your chameleon. Don’t rush this step, chameleons are a big commitment and require ongoing learning to care for.
As for choosing your chameleon, there are three most common species kept as pets Veiled, Panther, and Jackson’s. If you’re a beginner I recommend choosing a veiled chameleon as they are the easiest to keep and the most forgiving of mistakes, they are still more difficult to keep than most other pets though.
Make sure your chameleon is showing bright colors and is well fed before deciding to buy. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions like whether the chameleon is captive bred, how old it is and whether it’s had any illnesses. I really recommend getting a baby chameleon as they’re super cute!
2. Be mindful of their behavior & temperment
Chameleons are not the most cuddly and playful pets. Instead, they are solitary and rather shy. Just observe one for ten minutes or so and you will see that they kind of eye you with suspicion, they hide very well amongst plant life, and their color may darken because they’re nervous.
Try and get too close and they will more than likely hiss at you, puff up, turn dark or very bright if particularly aggressive, they’ll gape their mouth open and at some point lunge at you.
The point is not to take any of this personally. This is just how chameleons are, they’re solitary in the wild, fiercely territorial, and generally nervous around any creature that they think will eat them, including you. Knowing and accepting this behavior will help you to care for them better.
You can make them feel less nervous by housing them in quiet rooms, giving them plenty of height to climb, plenty of plant cover to hide in, keeping their cage away from windows so they don’t feel threatened by any birds they might see, and by moving slowly when near their enclosure.
3. House them in a 24x24x48 inch cage
This size is required for the vast majority of chameleon species, particularly ones like veiled and panther chameleons traditionally kept by first time pet owners. It is possible to go a bit smaller, like 36x18x36 but the taller the cage the better.
Chameleons need this size because they are arboreal lizards. Arboreal means they spend their entire time high up in the branches of trees. This needs to be recreated when they are kept as pets. The higher they can get the safer they will feel because they can be above head height. Below head height, chameleons can become stressed as they are often hunted from above by birds in the wild. That’s not to say they will always feel stressed in this situation around you they just need to have the option to be as high up as they want to be.
The cage should be made of mesh material. You can house them in glass enclosures but I recommend mesh. Chameleons need good airflow a glass enclosure will prevent this and could cause them to overheat. Hybrid cages made of both glass and mesh are also a good choice as they provide airflow and allow for enhanced viewing of your pet.
Line the cage bottom with paper towels or old newspaper. Any other substrate is unnecessary and can in fact cause health problems.
4. Maintain a basking temperature of 90°F
Chameleons are ectotherms. This means they need the heat from the sun to regulate their body temperature. To mimic this when keeping a pet you need to get a heat lamp and shine it on a perch positioned 10 or 12 inches below that allows your chameleon to perch on in order to get warm enough. This is known as the basking spot.
When keeping Veiled and Panther chameleons the temperature of the basking spot needs to be between 90°F and 95°F. You also need to maintain an ambient temperature of between 75°F and 85°F for these species. This allows your chameleon to cool off without getting too cold. Perches should be positioned to allow the chameleon to climb up to the basking spot and back down again to escape the heat. They will do this to thermoregulate their body temperature throughout the day.
5. Use strip lights for UVB
Not only do chameleons need heat from the sun they need its UVB rays. These rays are absolutely essential to chameleons as their bodies use them to make vitamin D3. This in turn is used for the absorption of calcium, critical for a chameleon’s bone health. Without this, they can get very sick from conditions like metabolic bone disease.
It is possible to provide UVB from small coiled light bulbs or mercury vapor bulbs, which provide both heat and UVB but I do not recommend these. Purely because they are not the most optimized way to provide UVB, strip lights are.
Strip lights need to be placed horizontally on top of the cage about 10 or 12 inches above the highest perch. UVB lights, along with heat lamps, must be kept on for 12 hours a day and off for 12 hours at night.
Read more about the lights chameleons need here.
6. Mist the cage twice a day
Chameleons don’t drink water in the same way other pets do. This is because they do not recognize standing water and instead lick droplets from rainfall that form on leaves to hydrate themselves.
To replicate this rainfall and droplet formation in captivity, a chameleon owner should spray the cage with lukewarm water twice a day. This can sometimes be three or four times a day but twice a day is usually good enough.
You can do this by hand misting the cage with a spray bottle, which is a pretty laborious task, or you can get an automatic mister set on a timer to spray the cage at desired intervals.
I also recommend setting a dripper on top of the cage. This drips water at regular intervals onto leaves below giving your chameleon access to water when it wants.
Misting also serves the purpose of maintaining humidity levels. The most commonly kept chameleons require a base level of 50%. The combination of a dripper and misting will be enough to maintain this.
If you live in a particularly dry area and have a Panther or Jackson chameleon a fogger will be a good idea. Foggers are similar to mister but instead they produce a fog to cover the enclosure. This will help keep humidity hovering at around 60% and they look really cool!
7. Only use real plants in the enclosure
Plants are absolutely essential for your pet chameleon. The enclosure needs to be well planted with a combination of strong enough plants to climb on and plants with plenty of foliage to give your chameleon cover.
In the world of keeping chameleons, not all plants are equal. Most available plants are unsafe for them and can cause health problems. Also, the plants should be real and not artificial. This is because real plants help with humidity and some chameleons like to take a bite out of the leaves. Consuming artificial plants is toxic for your chameleon so it’s better to be safe than sorry and not use them.
8. Feed them gut loaded live foods
Chameleons are insectivores meaning they mainly eat insects to sustain themselves. As mentioned above, some eat plants and in the wild, some larger species have been known to eat small birds and rodents.
When keeping pet chameleons you need to feed them live, gut loaded insects. Gut loading means feeding the insects nutritious food around 12 hours before feeding them to your chameleon. This can easily be achieved by making sure your live food has a constant supply of fresh veggies such as dark leafy greens like kale, collard greens, and mustard greens, and vegetables like brocoli and sweet potato. This can be supplemented with commercially available dry gut load mix.
As for what insects to feed these should consist of staple feeders, such as crickets, hoppers and roaches topped up with morio and hornworms to provide variety and wax worms for the occasional treat.
Food should be supplemented at every feed with calcium powder that contains no D3, twice a month with calcium containing D3 and twice a month with a multi vitamin powder. This is to provide a type of nutritional insurance in case the gut loading is insufficient at providing nutrients to your chameleon.
Feed your chameleon by placing live insects in a food bag, sprinkling them with powder and shaking them so they’re well covered. Then place the food either in a cup or bowl your chameleon can reach (not a clear one though) or letting them loose in the cage. You can also hand feed them the insects. Some chameleon eat leafy greens so offer them too but don’t worry if they’re not eaten.
Baby chameleons should be fed as much as they can eat twice a day. Juveniles the same once a day and adults around five full size insects every two or three days. Make sure the size of the insect you feed is no bigger than the distance between your chameleon’s eyes. Any bigger and they will have difficulty swallowing the food.
9. Keep handling to a minimum
There is a never ending debate about whether it’s ok or not to handle chameleons. I come down on the side of having as little physical interaction with chameleons as possible. I base this entirely on their genetics. In the wild chameleons are solitary creatures, they don’t enjoy the company of members of their own species so it’s unlikely they’re going to enjoy being held by you.
You may have seen lots of videos on social media of people holding and playing with their chameleons. The chameleon never looks like they’re particularly enjoying it and probably prefers they were left alone. I have seen so many cases where people repeatedly hold their chameleon every day only to have that same chameleon not live much longer than a few years.
That’s not to say you can never bond with them but it’s best done so from afar. This is because chameleons are highly susceptible to stress, which can cause them serious illness. You can of course hold them but it will stress them out in some way so if you want them to live longer and be healthy, handling is best kept to a minimum. If you do handle them make sure your wash your hands thoroughly before and after.
Read more about handling here.
10. Be vigilant for disease
Chameleons are quite fragile creatures and are susceptible to a wide range of illnesses and infections. The majority of these illnesses come about by poor enclosure setup, maintenance and general care practices.
We of course all make mistakes by getting the right setup and maintaining it from the very beginning is the best way to avoid these illnesses.
Chameleons are very good at hiding their illnesses until they’re long developed. This doesn’t mean they can’t be helped by either yourself or by a herpetologist vet but it does mean you have to be extra vigilant for any signs your chameleon might be sick.
The best way to prevent them from getting sick is, as I said, by maintaining the correct setup by cleaning it regularly and removing any uneaten insects after each feed, by following the care guidelines I’ve outlined here,by preventing them from coming into contact with any cleaning products and aerosols and by familiarizing yourself with the most common chameleon diseases and the signs to look out for.
You should also invest in preventative care by taking your chameleon to the vet for annual or twice annual checkups.