One of the most popular lizards in the pet trade is the Chameleon. With their curly prehensile tail, the independently moving eyes, the long tongue used to catch prey, the fact that it changes colors: What’s not to like? In fact, it is often a child’s first pet reptile. Veterinarians in general do not recommend reptiles as children’s pets. Because they are more delicate than dogs or cats for example, and often require more work and responsibility. The temperature has to be just right. The humidity has to be just right. The Calcium and Vitamin D ratio have to be just right. And though you can eyeball many of these factors with some reptiles…not with Chameleons.
If you were up to the challenge of trying to keep a Chameleon alive in captivity…the best species to start with is the Veiled Chameleon. I would try to get a male if possible. You can tell males from females because they have little spurs on the back of their feet. Why males? Females can die of egg-binding...and you will have to constantly monitor them when they mature enough to lay eggs. They have to lay eggs in sand, and will require a bucket of sand to lay them in. If you forget to put the bucket of sand, they will neglect to lay their eggs and keep them inside their body. They harden and the Chameleon dies.
I had a female named Mariah. She got old enough to lay eggs. I put the bucket in. She laid the eggs. I took the bucket out. My research told me it would be a month or two before she would lay eggs again. But this actually depends on their calcium uptake. I was giving her a high calcium diet of Phoenix worms (more on these things later)…so she started trying to lay eggs earlier. I noticed one on the cage floor. So I put the sand bucket in the cage…but she refused to lay them…the window of opportunity was gone and she died a few weeks later. So I kept males ever since. She was one of my favorite reptiles too. Very alive, ate everything, shed like clockwork.
One of the biggest problems that kills young reptiles especially Chameleons is a condition called Metabolic Bone Disease or MBD. It is a softening of the bones due to lack of Calcium and Vitamin D. Often a Cham will just fall off a branch and die when this happens. In order to avoid this, the Chameleon enclosure will need a heat lamp and a UVB lamp over the cage. A vertical screen cage is preferable because Chameleon’s can stress out if they see their reflection. Unfortunately maintaining the proper humidity is a challenge in a screen cage, but Veiled’s can handle lower mid-level humidities like 50%-60%. Some more mountainous species like Jackson’s may require more. Jackson’s are popular because the males have three horns, but they are even more finnicky and tricky to keep alive. A digital hygrometer/thermometer is best for these situations. Don’t bother getting the ones from the pet store. You can get cheaper general purpose ones off the internet or hardware stores and they’re just as good. I prefer digital ones myself.
The cage should have plenty of branches to climb and plastic plants for them to hide behind. Often the Cham may climb around the walls and ceiling of the screen cage. To avoid them getting too close to the heat lamp (yes chameleons have been known to burn themselves this way) you may want to invest in a lamp with a deeper dome, or zip tie some plastic fencing from the garden section of your hardware store to the screen walls. Both lights should be on the same side to provide a cool area on the other side of the cage. I also recommend getting a surge protector with a timer for the lights. This way you don’t have to turn the lights off at night manually and on in the morning. You just program it on the timer and it’ll do it automatically. It is important that reptiles have a Circadian Rhythm, a sense of night and day. Otherwise they can die or get sick. Reptiles depend on their environment for temperature change and need to have a cool side and a warm side, basking area, to their cages. This is one of the reasons they are a challenge to keep compared to mammals who can roam around more freely, safety permitting.
Many experts will say spray misting the enclosure a few times a day will be enough to keep the humidity up. But I find this to be insufficient, especially if it’s a screen cage. You can invest in a small automatic mister for $20 to $40 dollars. You’ll just have to refill it with water daily. Some misters can cost hundreds of dollars. I have not used those, because in the world of pet care not all products give you what you pay for. There are always cheaper alternatives somewhere. Why is humidity so important? Humidity aids in shedding. A bad shed can be a sign of declining health or can lead to health problems themselves.
Proper diet is also important for shedding and to keep the bones from softening from MBD. I go all out when I get a cham. I will feed them crickets, available at most pet stores, every other day. Depending on the size of your cham, the crickets shouldn’t be bigger than the space between their eyes. If you want more protein for your buck you can buy Dubia roaches online and have them delivered to your home. These roaches look more like trilobites or beetles and are not as scary or “triggering” as your usual household roach. Also this South American species will not infest your house if a few escape. I would also supplement this diet with Phoenix worms…ordered from the internet. Sometimes called Repti-worms or Calcium worms they are popular because they give reptiles a natural boost of Calcium and Vitamin D. You don’t need to dust your crickets or roaches with Calcium powder if you give your reptiles these worms. If you don’t feed the worms regularly to your reptile they may pupate into Black Soldier Flies. If a few escape they won’t infest your house…and sometimes the Chams will eat the adults too.
You may have guessed that now you have three or four pets. The Chameleon, the crickets, the roaches, and the worms. Well, some people like to keep a critter keeper full of crickets on hand to minimize trips to the store. If that is the case you will need to buy cricket food and cricket jelly to feed them. The jelly is often yellow. It’s how the cricks get their water…a water dish can also work, but some of the cricks may drown. They also have orange cricket diet cubes which double as both food and water. They work fine too.
You should have a water dish for your Cham but it is recommended that you mist the cage to make “Dew Droplets” . This is how Cham’s drink in the wild. You might be able to zip tie a hamster bottle to the cage for water. I have had Cham’s drink from the drops at the ends of those as well.
I know, it’s a lot. And there’s more. The research for caring for reptiles, especially Chameleon’s is ongoing. Get a book before you buy one and research, research, research. Chameleon’s can live up to five years so be prepared for the responsibility. Any questions not addressed in your book can be found on Reptile forums online. There are forums just for Chameleons. This is often the best place to ask questions and get answers. Some of those people breed them for a living, so they know all the tricks of the trade. A live, healthy Chameleon is a very rewarding pet if you are willing to make the effort and spend the money. So, now that you have a better idea on how to keep a Cham successfully…whatcha gonna do?