Chameleons are unique lizards and make fascinating pets. Although none can be considered hardy enough for beginners, their captive requirements are understood well enough that several species are bred on a regular basis and are a good choice for hobbyists with a bit of previous experience keeping lizards.
Chameleons are often thought of as rainforest animals, but they are found in a range of habitats including dry woodlands, deserts, and mountains throughout Africa and southern Asia, and even Spain and Portugal. While chameleons are highly specialized lizards with many defining characteristics shared between species, the size of their distribution alone is reflected in the varying conditions they require in captivity.
Chameleons have excellent vision and are extremely aware of their surroundings. They are easily startled by sudden movements and other threats. Chameleons are best considered as animals to observe and should not be handled unless absolutely necessary.
Setting up the Terrarium
Space and ventilation are key factors in keeping chameleons. Most are arboreal, so height is also important in cage design.
Juveniles and smaller species such as dwarf chameleons can be raised in large aquariums. Screen cages are ideal for indoor maintenance and light enough to be moved outdoors as well. Heavy duty plastic can be attached to the back wall of a screen cage as well to avoid water damage or electrical hazards when manually misting the cage. Large species are best housed in custom cages or homemade enclosures.
Branches and vines should be provided to increase the usable area of the cage. Sturdy live and/or artificial terrarium plants
are also important to provide security and reduce stress.
A mix of cypress mulch
and sphagnum peat moss
or coconut fiber is an ideal substrate for forest species. Sand can be used for desert-dwelling species such as the veiled chameleon.
Light, Heat & Humidity
Chameleons will not thrive without a source of UVB radiation. Fluorescent reptile bulbs
should be place within 6-12 inches of the basking area, and mercury vapor bulbs
can also be used to provide UVB radiation as well as heat in larger screen cages. Incandescent bulbs can be used for heat during the day, and a ceramic heater
or red/black bulb can be used after dark if supplemental heat is necessary.
Ideal temperatures vary widely among species, with many preferring cooler temperatures than most other well-known lizards. An ambient temperature in the mid 70's with a basking spot of 88-90°F and dip to the upper 60's at night will suit most species.
Large enclosures allow the establishment of a thermal gradient, which is critical to basic reptile health. They must be able to move between warm and cool areas to properly regulate their body temperature, or stress and illness may result.
Humidity requirements also vary by species. Most terrariums should be heavily misted twice daily. Automated misting systems or homemade drip cups may be beneficial for rainforests chameleons with very high humidity and hydration needs.
Chameleons are best kept alone with almost no exception. Both sexes of most species are territorial and will fight. Even the sight of a dominant animal can stress others, even if the animals are housed separately. One animal per cage, with opaque dividers between cages, is the general rule.
A highly varied diet of insects fed on an almost daily basis is essential for chameleon health. Crickets, roaches, superworms, waxworms, hornworms, and other commercially available species are excellent as long as none are used exclusively. Wild-collected insects should be offered when available. Moths, butterflies, beetles, grasshoppers, harvestmen, certain caterpillars, flies, and many others can be offered. It is important to learn to identify and avoid toxic species in your region and only collect insects from areas not sprayed with pesticides.
Veiled chameleons include vegetation in their diet, and other species may attempt to eat plants on occasion. Dandelion flowers and leaves, romaine, Ficus plants and Nasturtium and Hibiscus flowers are often accepted.
Necessary supplements include calcium supplements, multivitamin
and mineral powder
. Calcium should be used at most feedings, and vitamin supplements can be used 2-3 times per week.
Chameleons rarely drink from standing water. Most will lap water sprayed into the terrarium or from a drip cup. Automated misting systems can also be used.
Daily Care and Maintenance
Check your chameleon daily for sings of injury or disease, such as swollen limbs, wheezing, mites, and old unshed skin.
Daily care involves misting, feeding, and removing waste and uneaten food.
Salmonella bacteria, commonly present in reptile and amphibian digestive tracts, can cause severe illnesses in people. Handling an animal will not cause an infection, as the bacteria must be ingested. Salmonella infections are easy to avoid via the use of proper hygiene. Wash your hands with warm, soapy water before and after handling any animal. Please speak with your family doctor or veterinarian for more tips on preventing Salmonella, or please read our care guide Cleaning and Disinfecting Recommendations
for additional instructions.
When it comes to your new pet, knowledge is the best way to choose an appropriate addition to your family. Learn as much as you can about your new friend before you bring him home to ensure your pet enjoys a long, healthy life.
If you have any questions or concerns, please contact our reptile room at 717-299-5691 ext. 1246 or [email protected]
Screen or Wire Terrarium
(never use a tank for your chameleon)