Chameleon Care - An Overview

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By Jonathan Rheins

Old world chameleons are without a doubt one of nature's most beautiful and mysterious creatures. Clad in brilliant colors and equipped with some if the animal kingdom’s most unique physical attributes, it is no wonder that these animals have gained such popularity among reptile hobbyists and nature lovers alike.

While chameleons are by no means new-comers to the world of herpeteculture, recent advances in husbandry and veterinary knowledge have made it possible for even new hobbyists to successfully keep and breed these lizards in captivity.

Chameleons have for years been touted as difficult or nearly impossible to maintain in the terrarium, but as a direct result of the hard work put forth by a handful of dedicated herpers, this pessimistic mentality is becoming a thing of the past.

It has become clear in the past decade that chameleons are quite capable of being successfully kept in captivity. The trick lied in identifying the needs of these animals based on their natural history, and striving to recreate their natural environment in a captive setting.

If careful attention is payed to the details of their care, and corners are not cut in providing the proper equipment and daily maintenance, then nearly any willing individual can have success with many species.

It should be noted that all chameleons are not created equally. They are a diverse group of lizards found in many different habitats and each having it's own specific set of needs in captivity. Some species are extremely hardy in captivity, while others still prove challenging to even the most seasoned keeper.

What follows is a general overview of some of the special husbandry requirements that most chameleon species have in common. Keep in mind that the needs of any given species will vary, and it is the responsibility of the keeper to carefully research the specific needs of the type of chameleon being kept.

STRESS

Stress is a word used often when discussing chameleon care. Literally, stress is an organism's physiological response to any stimuli that the organism perceives as irritating or potentially harmful. In the context of chameleon care, this definition is not far off, but has come to serve as an umbrella term used to define any unexplainable failure to thrive in an animal.

In many cases stress is in fact the culprit. However, not directly. Instead, a stressed chameleon may suffer from a suppression of the immune system, resulting in opportunistic bacterial infections, metabolic disorders, or in some cases, death.

Properly maintained chameleons are rarely stressed, and if carefully monitored, rarely become so. If the guidelines below are followed, and the species-specific needs of the chameleon met, there is little chance of stress-related illness.

Logically, knowing what causes stress in captive chameleons (this applies to most reptiles), is the best way to avoid it becoming an issue in the first place. Cramped enclosures, over handling, improper temperature/humidity, and poor diet are the primary causes. While any one of these aspects could prove detrimental to nearly any animal, chameleons tend to be more sensitive and as thus, reducing stress should be the chameleon owners primary concern.

HOUSING

Most readers are familiar with the glass terrariums commonly used to house many species of reptile and amphibian. Unfortunately, this type of enclosure is unsuitable for chameleons, with very few exceptions. Rather, chameleons require ample airflow if expected to thrive, and these glass boxes simply do not allow for an adequate exchange of air.

Spacious enclosures featuring at least 2 screened sides are highly recommended. All screen enclosures are even better, as they provide a maximum amount of airflow and reduce stress sometimes caused by the chameleons perceiving their own reflections as rival animals.

Chameleons should be given as much space as possible. By doing so, the keeper is not only providing ample space for thermoregulatory behavior, but also providing the animal with freedom of motion, which is imperative for reducing stress and extending captive life spans.

As animals that can be easily overwhelmed by high levels of activity (cats, dogs, children, radios, etc.) chameleon enclosures should be located in such a way as to limit or eliminate their exposure to the aforementioned negative stimuli. While some specimens will quickly acclimate to an urban lifestyle, it is best to start off by subjecting the lizards to as little potentially stressful activity as possible.

LIGHTING

Proper lighting is yet another vital aspect of keeping reptiles in captivity, and chameleons are no exception. In addition to an appropriate heat source (discussed below), these animals require exposure to full spectrum lighting, specifically light in the ultraviolet B (UVB) range. In nature, light of this wavelength is provided by the sun. In captivity, it may or may not be feasible to allow ones chameleons such a luxury.

Instead, keepers use a wide variety of special bulbs, all designed specifically for this purpose, to replicate the sun's rays. Traditionally these were fluorescent style bulbs that fit into hoods oriented directly above the enclosure. In the past few years new innovations in reptile lighting have yielded a variety of bulb styles to choose from, including self-ballasted mercury vapor bulbs (which provide heat as well), and compact fluorescents that are designed to screw into a standard incandescent fixture.

Any one of these bulb types will work, but some are clearly more appropriate than others depending on the specific situation. However, the bulb chosen must specifically state that it provides light in the UVB range. Light in that portion of the spectrum will cause a biochemical reaction when it encounters reptile skin, resulting in the production of vitamin D3, which in turn is vital to the chameleon for proper metabolism of dietary calcium.

HEATING

Nearly all commonly kept species of old world chameleons will require some form of supplemental heating during at least parts of the year. Ways to provide heat are plentiful, and will vary based upon the type of chameleon as well as the type of set up being utilized.

Among the most common and popular methods are the use of standard heat bulbs (which emit both heat and visible light), infrared (red) bulbs, and ceramic heat emitters. Ceramic emitters are perhaps ideal due to their long life and lack of light, making them an ideal source of heat 24 hours a day without fear of disrupting the regular day/night cycle.

Regardless of the type of heater used, one must make certain that the chameleon cannot come in direct contact with the heat source. They should always be placed on the outside of the enclosure, or otherwise enclosed by a screen box to prevent accidental contact and burns. Ideally, the heat source should be suspended or clamped a few inches above the enclosures top to ensure no burns occur should a curious chameleon choose to hang directly below the lamp.

In addition to an appropriate heat source, every chameleon enclosure should have at least one, preferably two, high quality thermometers. By placing one thermometer near the top of the enclosure, and one at ground level, the keeper can easily keep tabs on the temperature range being provided to their animals.

FEEDING

Chameleons kept in captivity seem more sensitive to a monotonous diet than do other lizard species. They literally become bored if offered only crickets and nothing else. Furthermore, by offering only one type of prey, the keeper limits the range of vitamins and minerals that the animal is receiving.

Instead, offer a wide variety of insect prey. Crickets can be the staple diet, but supplementation with various sized mealworms, waxworms, roaches, and silkworms is highly recommended. Large specimens may even be offered a pinky (newborn) mouse occasionally as a treat.

SUPPLEMENTS

Closely linked with diet and lighting is the proper use of nutritional supplements. Even with a varied diet most captive chameleons will require further supplementation to remain healthy. Of most concern is calcium. This mineral is vital to proper skeletal growth and maintenance, especially in fast-growing babies and juveniles.

Choose a calcium supplement complete with vitamin D3. As discussed above, this vitamin is essential for calcium absorption in the gut. The only exception is for animals that are housed outdoors. These lizards will be capable of producing sufficient vitamin D3 via exposure to unfiltered sunlight.

A reptile multivitamin is also highly recommended. These products contain a variety of vitamins and minerals that are assumed necessary for long-term health in captivity. Both calcium and vitamin supplements are typically sold in the form of a powder that is sprinkled directly onto prey items directly prior to being offered as food.

Formulas and dosing will vary from one manufacturer to another, so always read the label on the

packaging, or consult an experienced chameleon keeper for guidance.

HYDRATION

Most seasoned reptile keepers are aware of the fact that very few chameleons will drink from a dish of standing water. Instead, these lizards prefer to lap water droplets off of broad leaves and other foliage.

This caveat, perhaps more than any other, deters many hobbyists from attempting to keep chameleons. Despite the myths, chameleons, even tropical ones, do not require constant running water or absurdly high humidity levels. Rather, two or three heavy mistings each day is typically sufficient for maintaining proper humidity and proving ample potable water.

The inclusion of many bushy plants within the chameleon enclosure not only adds to the animals sense of security, but also provides ample area for droplets to form after spaying, and allows the animals a greater window of time in which to drink.

In addition to hand misting (with a manual or pressure spray bottle), the use of automated misting systems or drippers can be used to provide water when the keeper is away or unable to provide frequent mistings.

HANDLING

One final pitfall encountered by many first time chameleon keepers is stress induced illness as a result of over handling. Chameleons are solitary animals that rely on stealth and camouflage to avoid detection. When they are grabbed and removed from their homes, they immediately assume the worst, and over time can become stressed.

For this reason it is important to limit handling, at least at first, until one becomes familiar with the lizard's normal behavior. In general chameleons should be regarded as display animals. That is they should be enjoyed from a distance, with a hands off approach, much like one would enjoy an aquarium of tropical fish.

IN CLOSING

Despite the seemingly endless list of to-do's and not-to-do's above, chameleon care really is within the ability of anyone motivated to provide the proper care. Proper research of the needs of a given species prior to acquiring it is highly recommended to ensure that the creature's needs are within the means of the keeper. Furthermore, be willing to provide these animals with the best care possible. Cutting corners in an effort to save on time or money will only result in disappointment in the long run.

Follow the guidelines above, do some homework, and do not be afraid to ask questions. In the end, the rewards of maintaining such a magnificent creature far outweigh the costs.