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Pender Veterinary Centre

Caring For Your Pet Chameleon

Bright green chameleon walking on branch.

Basic Husbandry

General Information

Vital Statistics

  • Body Weight: 25-40g

  • Life Span: 5-8 years

Species Specifics:

  • Veiled

    • Large, colorful, resilient. Veiled chameleons are one of the hardiest and easily kept species of chameleons, but still require diligent husbandry

    • Males are larger (can approach or exceed 2-feet in total length) and have a bigger casque. Females are quite a bit smaller (rarely exceed 1¼’) and often less colorful.

    • They tend to fare best in warm, dry climates.

  • Jackson

    • Midsized species of chameleon, and usually quite docile.

    • Males average around 10 inches in length with about ½ of this coming from tail and horns, and sport three forward oriented horns. Females are slightly smaller, but have a bulkier build.

  • Panther Chameleons

    • Similar to veiled chameleons

    • Known for vibrant colors, some with hues of electric blue and purple.

    • This species is particularly agile, and often jumps when startled. Care must be taken when handling to avoid injuries and escapes

  • Four Horned Chameleons

    • Less commonly kept in captivity

    • Prized for their gentle and personable disposition

    • Can sport anywhere from 2 to 8 horns, and also vary in beard and sailfin distinguishment.

    • Males average 10-14” in length, with females slightly smaller at 8-12”.

Behavior and Handling

  • Chameleons are one of the tamest reptiles, however, excessive handling can be stressful to the young. We recommend only handling chameleons after they are 5-6 inches in total length.

  • Never pull a chameleon off a branch. Instead gently disengage the claws and tail to avoid injury

  • Never pick up or grab a chameleon by the tail as this may result in injury

  • They should not be left outside of their environment for long periods of time as they cannot thermoregulate themselves at room temperatures

  • **IMPORTANT**: All reptiles, even animals that are perfectly healthy, may potentially be carrying salmonella.

    • It is safest to assume that your chameleon is always shedding salmonella and take the appropriate precautions.

    • Children and immunosuppressed individuals are more at risk of serious illness resulting from salmonella exposure.

    • Be sure to wash your hands after handling your chameleon


  • Minimum sizing is 1 ½ ’ L x 1 ½ ’W x 3’H though larger is better.

  • The cage needs to allow good air flow on all sides including the top and bottom of the habitat

    • Aquariums with glass walls do not provide adequate ventilation or allow the animal to climb around. Reflections in the glass can also cause added stress with the threat of a rival in close proximity.

    • An enclosed environment does not allow for a proper temperature gradient and lights can quickly cause over heating.

  • Cages with screening on all sides are preferred for chameleons as they allow for the correct temperature gradient and adequate ventilation. Screening must be non-corrosive and of the correct size to protect toes from damage (one-eight inch mesh is commonly used).

    • Cages constructed of aluminum screens are not advisable for medium to large adult chameleons as there is the potential for claw damage/amputation.

    • Fiberglass window screen material should also be avoided as it breaks down over time leaving sharp edges

    • Your cage must also be sturdy enough to support heating and lighting elements.

  • Chameleons are arboreal animals. If possible cages should be placed so that some of their perching locations are above human eye level (in nature many chameleons perch 7+ feet off the ground), giving them the illusion of height.

    • For this reason, it is helpful to have a side opening cage for easy of cleaning and care.

    • If your cage is not tall enough to allow perches on this level, place it on a sturdy table or stand.

  • Keep the cage out of the path of drafts and away from heating or cooling sources (open windows, radiators, air conditioners).

  • A humid hide should be placed on the hot side of the enclosure to allow it to shed its skin properly.

  • The cage should be equipped with a number of branches and vines for perching at various levels throughout the enclosure.

    • Branches should be oriented on both horizontal and vertical planes, allowing the chameleon to climb throughout the enclosure at will.

    • Perches should be placed so that your chameleon has different temperature options (branches in both the basking area as well as in the cooler zones allow them to thermoregulate by changing locations.)

  • Live plants are both visually pleasing and functional.

    • Chameleons use them for shelter, to drink off, as well as providing needed humidity.

    • Chosen plants must be non-toxic and pesticide free. Good choices include hibiscus, china doll, pothos, schefflera, and grape ivy. Ficus can also be used but caution must be exercised as its leaves and branches leak a milky sap when broken, which can be irritating to chameleon eyes and mucous membranes.

    • The habitat should be misted two to three times daily, especially in any areas that the watering set-up does not reach.

  • Chameleon’s do better housed alone. Incompatible tank mates can lead to fighting and stress.


  • Most chameleons are arboreal species and spend little time on the ground.

  • Preferred substrates include newspaper, butcher block paper, and Astroturf like reptile carpeting.

    • The papers are cheap, readily available, easily changeable substrate sources, while the Astroturf is more attractive.

    • If using carpeting the edges must be melted down to avoid trapping the claws of these fragile creatures.

  • A good quality plain sterile potting soil may also be used.

    • Don’t use backyard or garden soil as they contain compounds and fertilizers that can be toxic

  • Plain fir or orchid bark, deep drifts of alfalfa, or a combination of soil and bark can be used.

  • Avoid corn cobs, reptile bark, and alfalfa pellets as these are prone to hold moisture and promote bacterial growth, and can lead to gastrointestinal obstruction if ingested.

    • Wood shavings can predispose to skin and respiratory infections and cat litter is too dusty

Lighting and Heating

  • Proper heating is a CRITICAL COMPONENT in the care of your chameleon, allowing efficient metabolism, appropriate growth, and proper immune system function.

  • Required temperatures are species dependent.

    • Veiled: 84-92F; basking area near 94-100F

    • Jackson: 70-80F; basking area near 86F

    • Panther: 75-85F; basking area near 100F

  • Warm and cool areas in the enclosure is important because it allows for the proper regulation of body temperature.

  • Night-time temperatures can drop by 10-15 degrees. Use a nocturnal reptile bulb or red light if nighttime temperatures drop too low so as not to disturb your chameleon’s sleeping patterns.

  • Combining an under tank heating pad (on the warm side) with a spotlight or white incandescent bulb in the basking area works

  • Thermometers should be placed in the cool side, warm side and basking area to monitor temperature. You may also use a handheld infrared thermometer to measure multiple locations around the enclosure. Monitor temperature in the areas in which your chameleon spends time for accurate results.

  • Avoid using electric reptile “hot rocks” as these can cause serious burns

  • They require a source of UVB light to naturally produce vitamin D3, which aids in the absorption of calcium.

    • Incandescent lights, while suitable for use as heat sources, DO NOT provide the full spectrum required by reptiles, including little to no UVA and no UVB.

    • Many aquarium and plant life type lights are “wide spectrum” lights rather than the full spectrum required by reptiles.

    • UVB light begins dropping off exponentially at about 6-8 months even when the bulb itself still works. Regular bulb replacement is necessary.

    • Full spectrum bulbs should be placed within 8-10 inches of the animal’s basking spot as they have a short penetration distance. Be very careful that there is no way for the light fixture to fall into the habitat or for your lizard to come into direct contact with the bulb.


  • Regular cleaning is very important.

  • Uneaten food should be removed daily.

  • The cage and all items in the cage should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected at least every other week.

    • A mild soap solution can be used as well as disinfection with 1 capful of Clorox bleach to 1 gallon of water.

    • Cage cleaning solutions may also be available at the local pet store (Betadine and Nolvasan are also acceptable)

    • Make sure to rinse the habitat well and dry it thoroughly before returning the chameleon


  • Chameleons are insectivores and used to consuming large variety of prey items in their natural habitats.

  • Chameleons should be fed every one to two days.

  • Many chameleons will eat prey items out of a bowl. Some however prefer to hunt their prey, requiring proper cage bar spacing to keep their food source from escaping.

  • Commonly fed insects include crickets, mealworms, grain beetles, kingworms, silkworms, grasshoppers, beetles, walking sticks, and hawk moths, cockroaches, katydids, caterpillars, and trevo worms.

    • Occasional waxworms are also a favorite but should not be a staple of the diet as they are high in fat and predispose to obesity.

    • Insects need to be purchased through a reputable supplier; the ones from your yard can contain bacteria, parasites, and toxins which can be detrimental to your chameleon.

  • Insects need to be of a size that your chameleon can safely eat, approximately 1/3 the size of its head.

  • Lightning bugs (fireflies) and most species of spiders can be toxic and should not be fed to your chameleon. Also, do not feed insects with stingers (wasps, bees, etc.) or any with warning colors (red, yellow, orange) as they can be potentially toxic.

  • Chopped fresh greens/mixed veggies can be offered daily.

    • Dark leafy greens including mustard, kale, dandelion and collard greens should make up the majority of those offered as they are an excellent source of calcium.

    • Peas, green beans, corn, squash, carrots,sweet potato, cucumber, zucchini, green peppers, and parsley can also be added.

  • Adult chameleons should have their salad mix coarsely chopped, while juveniles tend to prefer it finely chopped.

  • Fruit such as cantaloupe, apple, cherries, blueberries, peaches, pears, grapes, plums, and raspberries can also be chopped and added to the mix as an occasional treat.

    • Fruits should make up no more than 5% of the overall diet.


  • One of the most critical aspects of maintaining healthy chameleons is meeting this essential water requirement.

  • In the wild chameleons are motivated to drink by the movement of water falling and being collected on leaves.

    • Two of the best ways to meet these needs in captivity are the rain system and the automated mister.

    • The automated mister forces the water through a pressurized head creating fine drops of mist which collect on leaves forming “raindrops”.

    • The in cage rain system uses piping and tubing with multiple pre-drilled holes to deliver large amounts of simulated rainfall, and requires a water valve and hose source.

    • Both of these set-ups more closely emulate the chameleon’s native habitat, but are labor intensive and costly.

  • More commonly used are the portable “drip systems”, as these are cheap and easily set-up.

    • They are usually placed on top of the habitat with the hosing running into the cage.

    • To more closely emulate nature, multiple drip set-ups can be used. In order to attract the attention of the chameleon and stimulate it to begin drinking the drip rate must be fairly rapid (approximately 3 drops per second.)

    • Manual misting with a spray bottle or wetting the plants down in a shower are NOT an adequate way of providing water to your chameleon.

  • Most chameleons won’t drink from a standing water dish or sipper bottle so these should only be used as an adjunct to another system.

  • Placing ice cubes on the top surface of the cage and allowing them to melt is also NOT an adequate source of water, as well as being slightly frigid in temperature and off-putting to the chameleon, and should thus be avoided.

  • In cage waterfalls are easily contaminated with feces and are difficult to disinfect properly; if used they require frequent cleanings

  • Vitamin drops SHOULD NOT be added to the water.

Gut Loading

  • Most commercially sold insects are not nutritious enough to be fed alone as they are lacking essential vitamins and minerals.

  • Some commercial products are available at pet stores, or you can feed small pieces (a food grater works well for this) of apples, dark leafy greens (mustard and collard greens, kale, and spinach), squash, sweet potato, carrots, oranges, alfalfa, baby rice cereal, oatmeal, or wheat germ to the insect prey.

  • Home-prepared gut loading setups may be more cost effective, but they may spoil quickly. Remove desiccated foods as soon as possible and reduce amount offered at the next feeding.

  • Commercial products are easy to obtain and don’t spoil quickly, but they lack the full range of nutrition needed for chameleons

Dietary Supplements

  • Calcium must be regularly supplemented 2-3 times weekly for your chameleon’s health.

    • If you are using a UVB source, this calcium should NOT contain Vitamin D3 as this will mess with the calcium and phosphorus balance.

  • Multivitamins also should be supplemented weekly. Many commercial products are available.

  • Dusting the prey items is a good way to deliver these supplements.

Common Medical Conditions

Conditions Requiring Veterinary Attention

Anorexia (not eating for a prolonged period of time)

  • Anorexia is NOT specific to any one disease process and it is a symptom of many chameleon diseases. Some common diseases that may cause anorexia in chameleon include intestinal parasites, substrate impactions, reproductive development/disease, and inadequate setup/husbandry among others.

Dysecdysis (Retained Shed)

  • This is commonly observed in animals with inappropriate humidity.

  • Common areas affected include tips of the toes/feet, eye caps, ears, and tail. Retained shed in the eyes can cause infection and inability to hunt.

  • If left unattended, this may cause tissue damage under the retained shed which may make them vulnerable to bacterial/fungal infections.

Bacterial Infections (“scale/skin rot”, “mouth rot”, “tail rot”)

  • If the temperature is not appropriate, reptile metabolic processes are interrupted. This means they have a delayed or impaired response to infection.

  • Please notify your veterinarian if you notice any discolored spots, swelling, bleeding, or discharge.

  • If untreated, these infections can become systemic and life threatening.

Metabolic Bone Disease

  • Insufficient calcium supplementation causes a deficiency in calcium in many reptile species. When calcium is insufficient, some animals mobilize calcium from bone to replenish what is lost.

  • This causes the bone to become brittle and prone to fractures. These bone changes may not be reversible once identified. Young reptiles have a higher demand for calcium and are more vulnerable to this condition.


  • Trauma, including bite wounds from dogs and cats, or getting stuck/scratched on sharp areas in the enclosure, are common and potentially fatal injuries for chameleons

  • Chameleons can also be injured through handling, falling from heights, or being stepped on.

Reproductive Disease

  • Females

    • Egg binding/dystocia - the egg is too large or misshapen and is unable to be delivered appropriately

    • Coelomitis - a ruptured egg releases yolk into the body cavity resulting in a severe bacterial infection

    • Follicular stasis - the egg development stops and follicles take up space in the body cavity

  • Males

    • Hemipene plugs - dehydrated, waxy material around the hemipenes becomes impacted causing swelling, tissue damage, and infection


  • This is the everting of the cloacal, GI, or reproductive structures through the cloacal opening.

  • Some of the many causes of prolapse include GI parasites, reproductive disease, and tumors.

  • If noticed, we recommend applying a dilute sugar solution to help reduce swelling, and contacting your veterinarian right away.

  • If untreated, this can cause damage to the exposed tissue where surgical intervention or quality of life may need to be assessed.


  • Obesity is common in many captive chameleons fed a diet too high in fat or those not provided sufficient space for exercise.

  • Obesity can lead to diseases of the heart, liver and joints.

  • Treatment consists of increasing exercise and change in diet.

Emergency / Critical Care

  • There are few true emergencies in reptiles, however reptiles often hide illness until it may be too late.

  • All emergencies require veterinary assistance. If you are unsure whether this may be an emergency, we recommend contacting your veterinarian to get the best recommendations on when to have your pet examined.

Health Recommendations

Annual Physical

  • Always have an initial physical exam performed on any newly acquired chameleon. During the exam, the doctor will check the teeth, eyes, ears, heart, lungs, and body cavity (coelom). The doctor will also check the skin for shedding problems or evidence of infection.

  • You should have your pet’s fecal sample checked for internal parasites.

  • Your chameleon should have an annual physical done by a veterinarian every year.

Over-the-Counter Medication

  • Over-the-counter topical triple antibiotic ointments or any other types of over-the-counter medications are not recommended without first consulting your veterinarian.

  • Productions such as triple antibiotic ointment (for the use of minor skin injuries) can cause digestive problems if ingested and can cause digestive problems if ingested and can potentially become toxic over time.