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Chameleons as Pets – an Overview of their Natural History and Captive Care

Chamaeleo calyptratusChameleons, the most unique of all lizards, are truly marvelous creatures to know and care for.  In the past, I’ve written about Veiled, Dwarf and Senegal Chameleons, and related topics (please see articles below).  Today I’d like to discuss some general principals of chameleon care.

The following information can be applied to most available Chameleons; however, details will vary.  Please write in for specific information on individual species.

Natural History

To date, 186 Chameleon species have been described (Family Chamaeleonidae).   They range in size from the 1.5 inch-long Pygmy Leaf Chameleons (Rhampholeon spp.) to the Oustalet’s Chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti), which may top 30 inches in length.

Unique characteristics include a tongue that may exceed the animal’s length, mobile eyes, a “swaying” walk that mimics wind-ruffled leaves, joined toes that form grasping “hands”, a prehensile tail and remarkable color-changing abilities.  Color changes are mainly used to communicate, but also serve as camouflage. 

Chameleons reach their greatest diversity in Madagascar, where over 80 species may be found.  Mainland Africa is home to 100+ species, while the Middle East, Europe and India each support 2 species.  Veiled and Jackson’s Chameleons have been introduced to the USA and Mexico.

Often though of as rainforest animals, Chameleons have actually adapted to life in a wide variety of habitats, including dry woodlands, desert oasis, montane forests (where they endure snow) and even city parks.

Chameleons as Pets

Jackson’s ChameleonChameleons are extremely aware of their surroundings and easily startled by sudden movements and other threats.  They are best considered as animals to observe, and should not be handled unless absolutely necessary.


Setting up the Terrarium

Ample space and ventilation are key factors in successfully keeping Chameleons.  As most are arboreal, height is an important consideration in cage design.

Youngsters and dwarf species may be raised in large aquariums.  Commercial screen cages and terrarium top “add-ons” are ideal for indoor maintenance, and light enough to be moved outdoors as well.

Large individuals are best housed in custom cages or homemade enclosures.  In suitable climates, outdoor enclosures, including pre-fabricated bird aviaries, may be fashioned into “Chameleon mansions”.

Numerous branches and vines should be provided.  Sturdy live and/or artificial plants (i.e. Pothos, Philodendron and Spider Plants) will provide sight barriers and a feeling of security.  Chameleons rarely fare well in bare enclosures.


A mix of cypress mulch and sphagnum moss is ideal for rainforest species.  Sand can be used for the desert-dwelling Veiled Chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus).

Although impactions due to swallowed substrate are rare in arboreal species, food is best offered in large bowls or via feeding tongs.


Chameleons will not thrive without a source of Ultra-Violet B light.  Natural sunlight is best, but be aware that glass and plastic filter out UVB rays, and that fatal overheating can occur very quickly.

If a florescent bulb is used (the Zoo Med 10.0 UVB Bulb is ideal), be sure that your pet can bask within 6-12 inches of it.  Mercury vapor and halogen bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances, and provide beneficial UVA radiation as well.   UVA, while not essential, may help to regulate activity levels and breeding.

Interestingly, Panther Chameleons (Furcifer pardalis) have been shown to modify their basking behavior in response to the Vitamin D3 content of their food; please see this article for details.


Furcifer pardalisIdeal air temperatures vary widely among the different species, with many preferring cooler temperatures than might be expected.  An ambient temperature in the mid 70’s, with a basking spot of 88-90 F, and a dip to 65-68 F at night, will suit most.

Large enclosures will simplify the establishment of a thermal gradient (areas of different temperatures).  Thermal gradients, critical to good health, allow lizards to regulate their body temperature by moving between hot and cooler areas.

Incandescent bulbs should be used to maintain temperatures.  A ceramic heater or red/black reptile “night bulb” can be employed after dark.


Humidity requirements vary by species.  Most terrariums should be misted twice daily; commercial reptile foggers are useful for rainforest species.


Chameleons can be described as “rabidly antisocial”.  Both sexes are territorial and will fight savagely.  Pairs sometimes co-exist in large, heavily-planted enclosures, but their behavior should be monitored closely.

The sight of a dominant animal can stress others, even if the animals are housed separately.  One animal per enclosure, with opaque dividers between cages, is the general rule.


A highly-varied diet is essential if you are to have success in keeping Chameleons.  Most fare best when fed on a near-daily basis.

Whenever possible, I rely upon wild-caught invertebrates during the warmer months and save crickets and other commercial insects for winter use.  During my years with the Bronx Zoo, large insect traps were maintained for our insectivorous herps and birds.  The Bug Napper Insect Trap is a smaller version of these, and will help you to collect moths and other flying insects.  Moths, butterflies, beetles, grasshoppers, tree crickets, katydids, harvestmen, earwigs, “smooth” caterpillars and a variety of other invertebrates should be offered (learn to identify stinging, biting and toxic species).  Chameleons generally react very “enthusiastically” to novel foods.  Please see these articles on collecting feeder insects for more ideas.

Chamaeleo calyptratus eatingIn winter, the main portion of the diet should be a mix of roaches, crickets, butterworms, super mealworms, waxworms, caliworms and commercially-available caterpillars (silkworms, hornworms).  Feeder insects should be provided a healthful diet for several days before use.  Canned grasshoppers, snails and silkworms are often accepted from feeding tongs, and can be an important means of providing dietary variety.

Parson’s, Panther, Oustalet’s and other large species seem to do well when offered a pink mouse every month or so.  Do not use furred mice, as ingested hair may lead to impactions.

The Veiled Chameleon includes vegetation in its diet; other species may also take plants on occasion.  Favorites include dandelion flowers and leaves, Ficus, romaine, and Nasturtium/Hibiscus flowers.

Essential food supplements include Zoo Med ReptiCalcium with D3 or a similar product (most meals) and a vitamin/mineral supplement such as Reptivite 2-3 times weekly.

Please see this article for more on Chameleon diets.

Chameleons rarely accept water from a bowl.  Most will lap water that is sprayed onto foliage, and a few will drink directly from a hose (obviously this option is best employed in screen-bottomed outdoor cages!).  A perforated container on the cage top that allows water to drip over plants is a useful option.

Further Reading

Video: Oustalet’s Chameleon feeding

SenegalChameleon Care

Dwarf Chameleon Care


Chamaeleo calyptratus image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Embreus
Furcifer pardalis image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Jjargoud
Chamaeleo calyptratus eating image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Sebastian Schäfer


  1. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    I started a thread here on some findings on the nutritional analysis of pinkies. I’m curious what your take is on the reasoning in this thread. I recall you have had experience with lipid deposits in some animals fed on pinkies. Is this an overly simplified look at animal nutrition?

    • avatar

      Hello Joseph,

      Nice to hear from you again. An interesting and worthwhile topic. Over-simplification can be a problem, but unfortunately not much research has gone into the effects of various diets on captives; that’s changing, with rare species being reared in zoos, etc., but progress is slow.

      Necropsies at the Bx Zoo led vets to theorize that many largely insectivorous herps developed lipid deposits in the eye, and kidney/liver problems, when fed a high-pinky diet….basilisks, White’s Treefrogs, Tiger Salamanders come to mind. Most will take vertebrates in wild on occasion, but digestive systems seem unable to handle as a steady diet; no further details as far as I know.

      However, species vary, and individuals as well. Just as some people can do everything wrong, nutritionally, and live to ripe old ages, some individual herps thrive on diets that would kill most of their kind. However, there’s also the problem of an animal doing fine for a few years, when its potential lifespan should be much longer. This can lead folks to erroneous conclusions.

      I’m guessing that an accurate nutritional analysis of pink mice might be available, but have not checked. How each species uses/digests them is another matter…

      The professional herp journals are the best sources for related articles, but most are by subscription only. The European Center for Zoo Nutrition is a good resource, and publishes useful abstracts on line…you can sign up for alerts, etc.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    I am writing a collection of stories my father told me and was interested in your comments on chameleons as pets. He was born in 1925 and had a pet Chameleon which was fashionable to wear. He said it had a collar and a chain attached to a safety pin which allowed his to wear the Chameleon like a lapel flower. Do you have any information about this as a fashion trend or quirk that might help me with my research?

    • avatar

      Hi Kimberly,

      The animals he has in mind are Green Anoles (Anolis carolinensis), not true chameleons (which are Old World lizards in the family Chameleonidae). At the time, Green Anoles were sold as “Americam Chameleons”, due to their color-changing abilities. They were collected in Fla and Louisiana. Anoles were still sold as such (along with lapel clips, etc) in the 1960’s, perhaps into the early 1970’s, when I was growing up in NYC. Main sellers in NYC were fairs, carnivals and Ringling Brothers Circus (I’m guessing the circus would deny this now!),. Standard care advice was to feed sugar water and dry turtle food (dried ant pupae and dried flies). They usually drank the water, but will not consume dead/dried insects. They are very high-strung lizards – wearing on the lapel, and handling in general, was quite stressful. Anoles also need exposure to natural sunlight or artificial UVB in order to manufacture Vit D and utilize Calcium. Unless the owner sought help from a responsible source, all died in short order. Millions expired in this manner.

      This article on Green Anoles (4 Parts, I believe) will provide some background if needed. Please let me know if you need any more info, good luck with all, Frank

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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