Keeping Chameleons

An Old World species, chameleons continue to captivate the minds of reptile enthusiasts and casual observers.


Chameleons are unique and instantly recognizable. They are an old world species belonging to the family Chameonidae, and their natural range is restricted to Africa and the insular country of Madagascar. Chameleons are specially adapted creatures, having many physical and physiological characteristics found in no other animal, including their ability to change color. In a matter of seconds, a chameleon can change the color of its entire body based on mood, temperature and situation.

The needs of chameleons are more specific and less foolproof than other lizard species. Special considerations must be made when setting up and caring for these magnificent animals as pets or as part of a captive-breeding project. With proper care, these lizards will thrive and breed in captivity.

Home Sweet Home
Chameleons are primarily arboreal and, with a few exceptions, require tall, spacious living quarters. An average-sized chameleon will do best if given an enclosure measuring approximately 16 inches wide by 16 inches deep by 30 inches tall. Bigger is always better, as long as the cage can be filled with appropriate furnishings like branches, live ficus trees, vines and other vertical and horizontal perches.

Live, bushy trees are highly recommended, especially for smaller chameleons. They provide the privacy that these lizards require, as well as ample surface space for water droplets to form and provide drinking water after being misted.

All-screen enclosures are ideal, with those consisting of one or two glass sides being acceptable. The latter provides better viewing of the animals, which is desirable in a retail situation. However, glass sides reduce cross ventilation and UVB light penetration, so all-glass terrariums are not suitable and should be reserved for leopard geckos or cornsnakes.

Light & Heat
Chameleons are found in a variety of habitats, so research into the specific needs of the species being kept is a must. Nonetheless, some light and heat generalizations can be made safely.

For instance, any chameleon housing environment needs to have full-spectrum lighting (specifically light in the UVA and UVB range). This type of light can be provided via unfiltered natural sunlight or reptile bulbs designed to emit UVB rays at a tropical or desert intensity level. UVB light allows chameleons to see and hunt properly, but also plays a vital role in the synthesis of vitamin D3 and the subsequent absorption of dietary calcium in the GI tract.

Heat can be provided to chameleons in a number of ways. Providing an artificially heated basking area gives chameleons the opportunity to adjust their body temperature based on how close to and for how long they rest near the heat source.

During normal daylight hours, chameleons can be warmed by standard reptile heat and basking bulbs. Nocturnal bulbs made with red or purple glass or ceramic heat emitters may also be used as primary heat sources. These have the added advantage of being able to be left on at night should the species being kept require heat at night.

Chameleons are not picky eaters as far as lizards go. Any appropriately sized cricket, mealworm, roach or pinky mouse will be readily hunted and consumed. Chameleons are sit-and-wait predators, using their remarkably long tongue to bring their food to them. 

Food should be offered daily for baby and juvenile chameleons, and four to five times a week for adults. Only as many prey items as can be consumed in a 20-minute period should be introduced at any time.

All food should be lightly dusted with a high-quality calcium and vitamin supplement. Dosing varies between brands, so consult and closely follow the manufacturers instructions or those provided by an experienced professional.

Chameleons do not typically drink standing water from a bowl; they prefer to lap up water droplets that form on foliage after a dense rain or after a heavy misting session. Most chameleon species should be misted twice a day to allow for drinking. Species hailing from more humid environments should be misted more frequently to maintain higher humidity levels within the enclosure. In very hot weather, or if manual misting is not possible, drippers and/or automated misting systems can be incorporated.

As a rule, chameleons do best when handling is kept to a minimum–it stresses them when they are picked up. That being said, some species are more tolerant of handling than others. Generally, larger species and chameleons raised in captivity will do better with regular, gentle handling than small species or those imported from overseas.

Selling Chameleons
The ability to display and sell chameleons in a retail environment is directly related to the retailer’s ability to keep them. Once the basic husbandry needs of these animals are understood, this information can be passed on to customers along with the chameleon itself and related supplies.

Jonathan Rheins is an avid herpeteculturist. He is a manager at LLLReptile & Supply Co. in Escondido, Calif. and spends his free time working with and writing about a wide variety of exotic reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates.

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