Chameleons will puff up because something in their immediate environment is causing it to feel stressed. This puffing up display is an attempt to repel the cause of its stress.
Of course, the reasons for a chameleon puffing up are a little more nuanced than just stress, but stress is the main cause of this behavior.
As I said, the main causes are stress, but there are specific situations that lead to a chameleon puffing themselves up. These situations can be minimized if you have, or plan to get, a pet chameleon.
- Stress – This is the main cause of puffing up. It can be something wrong with its cage setup that is causing your chameleon to feel stressed in general. It could also be something in its immediate environment, like the room you have housed your pet chameleon being too busy.
- Guarding Territory – Chameleons, especially veiled chameleons, are fiercely territorial. If they perceive a threat to that territory from another chameleon or you, they will puff themselves up as part of their defense mechanisms.
- Fear – Many animals will attempt to make themselves bigger if they are frightened of something, particularly if frightened of a predator, it’s part of the fight or flight response. This response is particularly strong in reptiles. If you see a chameleon puff up fully, they really do appear much bigger. So puffing up is a way to try and ward off potential threats.
- Seeing another chameleon – This plays into all of the above, but it’s particularly heightened when seeing another chameleon. Chameleons, particularly males, will fight over territory and appearing larger helps a chameleon to intimidate his opponent.
- Mating – Male chameleons puff up as part of a mating display when they encounter a female. Females will also puff up if they want to ward off a male’s unwanted advances. This is particularly true if a female is already pregnant.
- Shedding – This is a particularly frustrating time in a chameleon’s life, and puffing up can help shed skin quickly and easily.
The important thing is not to worry or panic. A chameleon puffing up is completely normal behavior.
In fact, it’s such an intrinsic part of a chameleon’s nature that puffing up is a good indication that your chameleon is healthy.
However, it’s important you recognize this signal as stress because too much stress is unhealthy for a chameleon. The quicker you remove the source of stress for your chameleon, the better it is for them.
- Move away – If your chameleon puffs up as you’re approaching their cage, the best thing to do is stop and move away slowly. This is especially true if your chameleon is lower down their enclosure and below your head height.
- Do not attempt to hold them – This will really make your chameleon mad and there’s a strong chance they will bite you.
- Check immediate environment – If you’ve moved away, and they’re still puffing up, make sure they can’t see anything like a bird out the window or another animal in the room that may be frightening them.
- Leave them alone – Puffing up is the clearest signal your chameleon can give that they want to be left alone. Of course, they may be puffing up as a result of shedding. You may be tempted to help, but it’s best you leave them to it.
- Ignore them – Once you’ve done all the above, you need to ignore them. Looking at them only antagonizes them further and prolongs the time they feel stressed. Remember, stress is bad for their health so you need to try and minimize it as much as possible.
The best way to prevent it is to try not stress them by holding them or being too close to their cage. Observing them from a small distance is best. However, this isn’t always possible.
You may also have a chameleon that’s particularly grumpy and puffs up a lot. There are ways you can minimize this and still tend to your chameleon’s needs.
- Move slowly – You still need to get in the cage to clean, feed and so on. Chameleons, especially veiled chameleons, will often puff up. So while you’re tending to your chameleon’s needs, move slowly towards and around the cage and try not to make sudden movements.
- Stay below them – Chameleons feel safer the higher up they are. So if your chameleon is puffing up and above you, you can still tend to them by moving slowly.
- Minimize handling – It’s best to not handle your chameleon at all, as they really would prefer not to be picked up. If you must handle them, keep this to a minimum. Once every few days.
- Minimize photography – Sounds silly, but chameleons don’t appreciate being caught on film! One thing that made my chameleon puff up the most was when I took pictures and video of him. You can, of course, do this but try and use the zoom setting on your phone or camera. A big camera phone up close is scary for a chameleon.
- Don’t pick up from above – Again, if you must hold your chameleon, never pick them up from above as this is very frightening for them.
- Make sure the cage is set up correctly – This won’t necessarily prevent your chameleon puffing up, but it will minimize their stress levels if their cage is set up correctly.