Dr. Rob Coke, DVM
Captive Care and Breeding
Old World Chameleons have long fascinated mankind with their independently rotating eyes, their lightning fast tongues, and their psychedelic color changes. Over the past few decades, chameleons have been kept as a temporary pet — living from a month to a couple of years. Within the last five years, an increase in information regarding proper nutrition, environmental conditions, and breeding has led to longer life spans with individuals even over ten years old. The next five years should bring even greater successes in the areas of husbandry and breeding.
Panther Chameleon (Chamaeleo pardalis)
The Panther, or jungle, chameleon originates from the northern part of Madagascar . They are the most colorful of the chameleons sporting an array of colors from green to blue to red. They thrive in warm, humid climates with a moderate seasonal fluctuation in temperature. In the wild, they live in scrub forests (up to 10′ tall) and on the edge of larger forests. These chameleons are one of the species that are repopulating the areas where the rain forest has been destroyed. They are fiercely territorial, especially during breeding season. Their vibrant colors and hardiness are contributing to the increase in sales and captive ownership.
Veiled Chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus)
The veiled chameleon originates from the Yemen coast of Saudi Arabia . This environment is a mixture of extremes ranging the arid desert to the temperate mountains. Veiled’s are generally a hearty species because they can tolerate either extreme; however, they do best somewhere in between. Amongst themselves, veiled’s are one of the most aggressive species; but towards humans, they are one of the most docile species. These are the hardiest of the chameleon species and make terrific pets.
Jackson ‘s Chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii xantholophus)
The male Jackson ‘s chameleon has three ominous looking horns protruding from his forehead. This variety of chameleon originates in Kenya , Africa . The jackson chameleon was recently introduced to Hawaii , USA and supports a thriving population. They are a true montane species coming from mountainous areas that have temperate days and cool nights. Therefore, they must not get too hot or too dry (i.e. > 60% daytime humidity and > 80% nighttime humidity).
Chameleons tend to be territorial and prefer to be caged individually. They need to be housed in large enclosures with trees, branches or vines and should not be able to be see each other when caged apart. The presence of another chameleon in the same cage or sight of another chameleon in another cage may cause extreme stress and predispose them to illness.
An ideal cage size for an adult male is 2’L x 2’W x 4’H – they can tolerate a smaller enclosure, but will thrive in larger cages (an adult does well in a cage 1.5’L x 1.5’W x 3’H). The ideal cage covering is a vinyl-coated, metal mesh. Un-coated wire welded mesh may be used as an alternative. Hardware cloth is too rough and may cause injury to the chameleons feet. Aluminum window screening is not recommended due to the possibility of trapping and removing claws. The wire mesh needs to be ½” x ½ ” or ½” x 1″. The large mesh provides good ventilation, protection, and a visible barrier. The cage should be set so that the top of the cage sits about six feet off the ground thereby allowing the chameleon to perch above eye level – providing a sense of security and reducing stress.
The best cage interior should attempt to mimic the chameleon’s natural environment. The inclusion of several plants and twigs provides hiding places and makes the chameleon feel safe and secure. Potted plants that can be safely used include: Ficus, Schefflera, Bougainvillaea, and Hibiscus. Other decorative plants may include ivy, pothos, or ferns. Plastic plants may also be used to facilitate cleaning and hygiene but may not appeal to aesthetics. Branches add to the cage environment and provide strong support for the larger chameleons. The branches should be of varying size to mimic the natural environment and prevent foot damage/strain. The overall cage design should provide a natural flow to allow basking/shade sites, and water/food access. The most important thing to remember is to avoid any potentially toxic plants or trees.
Since chameleons are found in several types of habitats, a proper cage should make use of different lighting schemes. A fluorescent light can be used as a basis of overall lighting in the cage. The bulbs should be of a wide-spectrum, day-light type such as: Vita-Lite, ESU Daylight, or ZooMed Repti-Sun 5-0. Remember that the basking light you have placed (see below) also emits light. The best source of light is the sun. It is recommended that chameleons be allowed access to unfiltered sunlight for an hour or two a week (weather permitting). This provides natural levels of UV radiation allowing sufficient UV light exposure (as with the fluorescent bulbs) to convert dietary vitamin D3 to its active form to allow the proper absorption of calcium.
Chameleons must have access to a water source. In the wild chameleons will drink morning dew drops or raindrops that collect on leafy surfaces. The best way to provide this natural means of a water source is to mist/spray the cage plants two to four times each day. Humidity can affect a chameleons hydration status. Humidity levels should be around 40-60% for Panthers, higher for Jackson’s, and lower for Veiled’s. The presence of live plants will aid in maintaining this level. Humidity can be enhanced with the assistance of a cool-mist humidifier or a timed misting system (a greenhouse or a manufactured type).
Other sources of water that have been used include the following: A dripping water source can be made out of a plastic cup with a pinhole in the bottom, a medical I.V. bag filled with spring water set to a slow drip, or one of the commercial water drippers. Another water source, though not very effective, is a dish with an air stone set to bubble the water to attract the chameleons attention. The BEST water source is still routine misting/spraying three to four times a day. With any of the water sources, the best way to make sure the chameleon is getting enough water is through visual signs of drinking or physically watering the chameleon with a pipette or spraying water into their mouth on the tongue.
Chameleons come from various environments. Generally, the tolerated ambient temperatures range from 70 to 85 degrees for Panthers and Veiled’s and 60 to 78 for Jackson ‘s (NEVER maintain Jackson ‘s above 82-84 degrees for long periods of time). Chameleons prefer a temperature drop of about 10 degrees at night. They also like to bask in the mornings to raise their body temperature. A spot light should be placed above the cage to allow basking during the day for Panthers and Veiled’s. The wattage of the bulb needs to be low enough to allow only a 5 to 10 degree rise in ambient temperature at the closest basking sight. A low wattage bulb will help to prevent thermal burns, which can occur if a chameleon gets too close to a bulb emitting too much heat. When placing chameleons outside for sunning, the temperature needs to monitored to prevent them from getting too cold or too hot. A shade cloth or towel can be placed over one end to allow the chameleon to hide from the sun when it gets too hot. Alternatively, the cage can be set underneath the shade of a tree to allow a mix of sunlight and shading. The best way to monitor the temperature is an indoor/outdoor thermometer with a remote sensor probe. The main unit can be placed on the side of the cage and the probe can be move around inside the cage to measure all of the various temperatures to determine if they are in the proper range.
In the wild, the chameleon is an omnivore. They sit on tree limbs waiting for their next meal to walk by. They will visually stalk or even climb after their prey. The eyes, which rotate independently 360 degrees, fixate forward on potential prey. When prey is spotted they coat their tongue with a sticky saliva, they open their mouth with their tongue protruding slightly. The end of the tongue is a bundled, accordion folded muscle surrounding a modified hyoid bone. When released the tongue, roughly the length of the chameleons body, shoots out, sticks to, and essentially grabs the prey. The tongue then retracts pulling the prey into the chameleons mouth.
Chameleons eat a varied diet consisting of flies, crickets, grasshoppers, butterflies, silkworms, roaches, arachnids, waxworms, stick insects, mealworms, etc. The largest species also can eat small mammals, small birds, and other lizards. In captivity, this meal pattern is impractical. A staple diet of crickets (Acheta) can be supplemented with a secondary food source of mealworms (Zoophobias). To prevent “food burnout” a treat type feeding of silkworms, grasshoppers, butterflies, etc. or pinkie mice can be very beneficial from once or twice every week to every other week. If you elect to feed your chameleon insects gathered from the wild or the backyard, remember not to collect them in areas where chemicals and/or insecticides have been used because the residues may be passed along and harm the hungry chameleon. If possible insects should be gut-loaded prior to being fed to the chameleon. This is accomplished by feeding the insects a combination diet of rolled oats, ground legumes, corn meal, fresh greens, carrots, and sweet potatoes. An alternative insect food source can be grain mixes obtained from a feed store or co-op but make sure that they are FREE from any added medications or chemicals. Additionally a calcium source – such as Rep-Cal, alfalfa pellets, greens, or calcium carbonate — can be added to the cricket cage to provide higher ingested calcium levels. The insects can be “dusted” with vitamin and calcium supplements such as Mineral-I, Rep-Cal, or Repti-Vite, but this should be used only once or twice a week for adult males and two to three times a week for adult females. Additional supplementing is recommended for juveniles (3-4x per week). A multi-vitamin should be fed once weekly for juveniles and twice monthly for adults.
Chameleons can be hand fed individual insects or the insects can be placed in an opaque container (make sure the container is kept clean and that it’s not so tall that the chameleon is unable to reach the insect at the bottom of the container). We recommend that adult chameleons be feed 3-4x per week. The veiled chameleons, especially adult males, are unique in that they may supplement their water intake from eating plant material and may often accept a small dish of leafy greens and vegetables (the same for an adult iguana).
The act of handling chameleons will not kill them. Some chameleons do become stressed when handled. If they are sick with some other disease, then handling may stress them beyond their physical capacity. Those chameleons should be handled as little as possible. Most chameleons can be handled with no problem. Some of the wild caught chameleons are not used to being handled and may resist handling. With these chameleons, handle only as necessary at first, gradually increasing the frequency and duration to accustom them to handling. Most captive bred chameleons can be handled without any problems, though some captive bred chameleons may resist being handled at the beginning.
In general, chameleons will readily breed in captivity. Close observation is required to determine when the female is ready to be breed. When ready, the female will often attain a very light coloration or in the veiled chameleon blue patches along her sides. The female should be introduced into the male chameleons cage to allow him to have territorial as well as sexual dominance. In the presence of a male, the female may act hostile but will immediately back down and walk away enticing the male to follow her. He will chase after and pin her down during copulation which can last from 10 to 45 minutes and may be repeated over the course of several days. If she is not ready, the female will turn black and hiss and attempt to bite the male. At this point, remove the female and try again the next day if she still shows receptive colors.
Panther and Veiled Chameleons
The panther and veiled chameleons are oviparous (egg layers). They reach sexual maturity after 6 months of age (veiled females can reach sexual maturity as early as 4 months). After copulation, the female will adopt a darkened pattern throughout her gestation period (1 to 3 months). One month into her gestation a large container of moist potting soil needs to be placed in the cage for her to lay her eggs. The soil level needs to be 6″ to 8″ deep and moist enough for her to create tunnels that do not collapse, yet not so moist that the eggs will suffocate once laid. A week or two before laying, she will increase in weight, decrease her appetite, and start to dig tunnels in the soil. An alternative method for laying eggs consist of placing the gravid female in a bucket (such as a standard five gallon bucket) with an overhead light source and a few inches of sand or potting soil. After laying, she will be noticeably thin and lethargic. Check the soil carefully for eggs. These eggs should be removed to another container filled with moistened vermiculite for incubation. The panther eggs can be kept at 77 degrees for the first couple of months then raised to 80-82 degrees until hatching which could take 6 to 9 more months. The veiled eggs can be incubated at a constant 80-82 degrees for about six months. Another method of incubation of panther and veiled eggs consist of placing them in a dark closet where the temperatures range from the low 70’s to the low 80’s. This method may lengthen the incubation time but may provide a higher hatch rate.
Jackson ‘s Chameleon
The Jackson ‘s chameleon is ovoviviparous which means that the female will internally incubate her eggs and give birth to live young. After copulation, the female will take a darkened pattern throughout her gestation period of 4 to 6 months. A week or two before laying, she will markedly increase in weight and decrease her appetite. At 2 to 3 months into her gestation, the female should be moved to a cage that has a smaller screen mesh (preferably 1/8″ square) to prevent the escape of the tiny babies after birth. Because the female jackson chameleon internally incubates her eggs, she may be prone to stress and disease. Careful observation throughout her gestation should uncover any problems.
The small neonates are about an 1 to 1½” long. They need to be housed in an environment that is temperate, 77 degrees, with little variation. They also require a higher humidity (greater than 60%) which can be maintained by periodic misting with water. They can be housed individually or in small groups of 6 to 10. Generally, cages can consist of glass or plastic enclosures with screen tops and adequate lighting. The cage can be modestly decorated with climbing branches, a potted plant such as a Pothos ivy or Ficus spp, and no substrate on the bottom. At two to three months of age they should to be separated into individual cages.
The difficulty with neonates lies with feeding. They must be supplied with a constant source of food for the first couple months of life. They can be fed small 1/8″ to ¼” crickets, wingless Drosophila fruit flies, or ¼” baby meal worms. The size of the food can increase with age (generally the length of food roughly equals the width of the youngsters head).
With the increase in popularity and importation of chameleons, many different diseases are frequently being encountered. Before a chameleon even becomes sick, a good veterinarian who deals with reptiles (one who sees and treats chameleons frequently is a bonus) should be located in your area. Signs that a chameleon might be sick include: sunken eyes (dehydration), not eating for days, listlessness or weakness, rapid weight loss, abnormal swellings, regurgitation, very watery feces, etc. Some chameleons may be predisposed to metabolic bone disease (calcium deficiency) due to improper husbandry or inbreeding, trauma due to intraspecies aggression, stomatitis (mouth rot) due to improper husbandry, parasites when not properly dewormed, egg-binding (dystocia) due to not providing a proper laying spot, and foot/claw damage due to rough coated or too small of screen. The best way to tell if your chameleon is not well is to get to know its habits and appearance. If a substantial change occurs in either there is a good chance something is amiss.
Here is a short list of further sources that will provide more detailed information.
- Abate, Ardi and Ken Kalisch. Chameleon Information Network: Newsletters #10, 11 and 14. San Diego , CA. (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Chameleon Care with Sticky Tongue Farms. Videocassette. Prod. Steve and Linda Davison. Sticky Tongue Farms, 1995.
- Care and Breeding of Panther, Jackson ‘s, Veiled, and Parson’s Chameleons. Philippe de Vosjoli and Gary Ferguson, ed. Santee , CA : Advanced Vivarium Systems, 1995. 128pp.
- de Vosjoli, Philippe. The General Care and Maintenance of True Chameleons: Part I Husbandry. Lakeside , CA : Advanced Vivarium Systems, 1990. 36pp.
- de Vosjoli, Philippe. True Chameleons: Part II, Notes on Popular Species, Diseases, and Disorders. Lakeside , CA : Advanced Vivarium Systems, 1990. 29pp.
- Glaw, Frank and Miguel Vence. A Fieldguide to the Amphibians and Reptiles ofMadagascar . 1st ed. Leverkusen , Germany : Moos-Druck, 1992.
- Le Berre, Francois. The New Chameleon Handbook. Hauppaulage , NY : Barrons, 1995.
- Martin, James. Masters of Disguise: A Natural History of Chameleons. New York : Facts on File, 1992. 176pp.
- Schmidt, W. et. Al. Chameleons: Volume I – Species. Neptune City , NJ : TFH, 1994.
- Schmidt, W. et. Al. Chameleons: Volume II – Care and Breeding. Neptune City , NJ:TFH, 1994.
If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (502) 241-4117.