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Senegal Chameleons and Related Species – Common Health Problems

Senegal ChameleonThe Senegal Chameleon (Chamaeleo senegalensis) occupies a unique position in the pet trade.  Inexpensive and widely available, it can be a hearty captive if given proper care.  However, this West African native is more easily collected than bred, so most that become available are wild-caught.  Collection and shipment, hard on any creature, is particularly difficult for chameleons to endure.  As a result, a variety of health problems are commonly seen in newly-acquired Senegal Chameleons.

In some ways, the Senegal Chameleon situation reminds me of that faced by Green Anoles in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.  Because they were interesting and cheap, these fascinating little lizards were often purchased without much forethought.  It took many years, and untold numbers of dead anoles, before we understood their specific husbandry needs.

The following information can be applied to most chameleons; I’ve focused on Senegals because they are often chosen by novice keepers (Note: the Smooth Chameleon, formerly considered a Senegal subspecies, is now classified as C. laevigatus).

Proper Care

As with any reptile, a proper environment and diet is essential to good health; lacking this, no amount of veterinary attention will be of long-term use.  Chameleons are particularly demanding in their requirements.

Senegal Chameleons need a highly-varied diet, large, airy enclosures maintained at 74-78 F (with a basking spot of 85-90 F), humidity levels of 60-90% and exposure to UVB radiation.  Please see the articles below and write me for additional information.


Chameleons are notably stress-prone. The mere presence of a dominant individual, even if separately caged, can cause others in the room to cease feeding and become ill. So it’s easy to imagine the effects of cramming hundreds of chameleons into holding and shipping containers.

Stress weakens the immune system, and therefore is a consideration in all medical conditions. Bacterial, parasitic and other infections will worsen as the immune system falters.  As wild-caught lizards invariably harbor parasites, fecal tests are essential for all Senegal Chameleons that have not been captive-bred.

Regarding stress, please remember that chameleons are pets to be observed, but not handled.  Because they do not run off when approached, people are sometimes misled into believing that chameleons “enjoy” handling.  Nothing could be further from the truth!

Egg Retention (Dystocia)

Under ideal conditions, female Senegal Chameleons are prolific breeders, producing 20-70 eggs twice yearly.  However, gravid females that are collected and shipped overseas usually fare poorly. Typically arriving at their new homes in a stressed and dehydrated condition, females should be watched carefully and examined by a veterinarian if they appear to be carrying eggs.  Gravid females may appear thin, yet heavy in the abdomen, and usually exhibit restless behavior (searching for a nest site) or listlessness.

Calcium deficiencies, a concern in any gravid reptile, are common among wild-caught female Senegal Chameleons.  Depressed calcium levels will prevent the female from expelling her eggs; veterinary intervention is essential if death is to be prevented.

The lack of a suitable nesting site can also cause a female to retain her eggs, even if she is in good health.  Please write in for further information.


ChameleonThe skin of dehydrated chameleons will have a “puckered”/wrinkled appearance, and shedding will be difficult.  Dried skin, leftover from previous sheds, may be evident on the feet and toes.

Most new arrivals will be dehydrated, but the problem is also common in long-term captives. Senegal Chameleons generally drink only when water is dripped or misted into their terrariums. In some cases, dripping water must be continually available if the animal is to remain hydrated. Low humidity levels will add to the problem, and likely increase your pet’s drinking water requirements.

Shipping-Related Injuries

Rubbed snouts, skin abrasions and abscesses are common among imported lizards of all species. Due to their unique structure, chameleon eyes are particularly sensitive.  Check carefully for tears and bits of debris that may have become lodged around the eyes.

Nutritional Concerns

Senegal Chameleons that adjust to captivity often feed ravenously, misleading owners into thinking that all is well. It’s important to understand that they need a highly-varied diet; crickets and mealworms alone, even if supplemented, are not sufficient.  Please see the article below for suggested diets.

Metabolic Bone Disease, evidenced by malformed jaws and limbs in its later stages, is a common concern. Calcium, Vitamin D3 and UVB needs are inter-related – all three must be viewed as a single concept.  Recently, for example, chameleons have been found to adjust their basking behavior in accordance with dietary levels of D3; please see the article below and write me for further information.

There’s some evidence that Vitamin A deficiencies are involved in several of the health issues faced by pet chameleons and other reptiles.  Unfortunately, we know little about their actual requirements.  A varied diet will help; please write in for supplement suggestions.



Further Reading

Chameleon Diets

Senegal & Smooth Chameleon Care

Chameleon Care: excellent book by R. and P. Bartlett

Health Issues Dr. K Wright



  1. avatar

    Hello my fiance and I recently bought a Senegal Chameleon. He loves Chameleons every time we would go to a pet store he would get happy when he saw a picture of one and told me some day I will own one. That day was just last week on the 11th. We went to a recommended local store just to browse around then I spotted the reptile section and there it was in bright orange letters CHAMELEONS. Then I knew finally he has what he wants.So we bought it and named him Rosco. To us he seemed fine, we saw him puke up his food but we thought maybe it was just too big or something He wasn’t very active and slept all day we figured he was just getting used to his new home but sadly they sold us an ill Chameleon. Im not sure if he had a seizure but on the 14 apparently he stuck out his entire tounge and he was unable to put it back in his mouth. 🙁 It was hard to see it was his tongue and a red thin strip hanging from his mouth. We took him back to the pet store and asked to put him down because I was in shock to see my little guy in that condition. After that horrible sight I decided to buy another one for my fiance. They were really helpful on giving me information and tips on how to not lose the new one. But you could really tell the difference from Rosco and our new baby Syklone.
    He is much more active and has a beautiful green color we have seen him eat his crickets and he moves around a lot and uses his tail to move from place to place. I set up his habitat I have the The ventilated screen cage with plants, the dripper for moisture, a big log the uv light and the heat bulb lamp thing. I was also encouraged to include the thermometers that keep track of humidity and temperature in his habitat to be more precise on how he was adapting to the heat and moisture to keep him healthy. But im having trouble understanding the “basking” part. This article said the temperature had to be from 74 to 78 F with a basking spot of 85 to 90 F like, what does this mean? And also I was wondering , the lighting…do I need to leave both lights on for 12 to 14 hours or no? All advice and comments are helpful 🙂 thanks.

    Susie and Gera Ortiz

    • avatar

      Hello Susana

      Thanks for your interest. Concerning heating, the basking site is one area, usually below an incandescent bulb, where the lizard can warm up to 85-90. It then needs to be able to move to cooler places within the cage (sometimes called the cage’s ambient temperature). It’s important to have this thermal gradient – areas of different temperatures – for all reptiles, so that they can adjust their body temps as needed (warmer when digesting, etc.). In small cages, this can be difficult to accomplish, as the entire cage may take on the basking temp. – glass aquariums are especially bad in this regard.

      The basking bulb (incandescent) and the UVB bulb (usually florescent) should be on for 12-14 hours. If another bulb is used to warm the rest of the cage to 74-78 or so, it can be turned off at night. Red/black night bulbs can be used to heat tank to 70-74 after dark if needed (chameleons do not sense red/black light).

      The lizard should be able to get within 6-12 inches of the UVB bulb if it is a florescent (further is ok for mercury vapor bulbs); the Zoo Med 10.0 provides the highest output among florescent UVB bulbs.

      You mentioned crickets…please note that crickets alone, even if properly fed and supplemented with powdered minerals, are not an appropriate diet. The lizard will eat them with relish and grow a bit, but will eventually develop nutritional disorders and die long before its time. They can be part of the diet, but not the sole diet. Variety and proper supplementation is vital to their well being…please read these articles on Chameleon Diets and Chameleon Care and write back if you have any questions.

      Senegal Chameleons do best in cages that are filled with live or artificial plants; there is some evidence that they do not feel secure unless in contact with dense cover; feeding is a good sign, but please be sure that the lizard can get out of view when it is at rest.

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

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    Thnks this helps alot! il make sure to get different foods and follow your instruction. You are verry helpful!

    I will keep you updated on her progress after i purchase more supplements and variations of food.

  3. avatar

    Hi there Frank. I have a few questions regarding my 6 month old Senegal. I am hoping to find out when it would be a good time to move her to the larger, fully screened enclosure that I have. I currently have her in a smaller, tall glass enclosure that is screened on the top. I purchased her from a lady that had her housed in this reptarium and I immediately purchased the screened enclosure because I learned that glass does not provide adequate airflow. My concern is that she may still be a bit young for the large enclosure. I believe it is around 4 feet tall. I do not free feed her right now, I have a clear plastic container set up that she eagerly eats from so in the larger enclosure she would not have to search for food if that would be an issue. My next concern is when will I know that she needs to lay eggs? Should I place an area in her cage for this? Also, I have read that Chameleons do not enjoy being held. I’m curious is there an exception to this rule? My Senegal actually comes to the front of her cage door and when I open the door climbs onto my hand. This is something that she does at-least a few times per week. Am I causing harm by allowing this? I do not allow anyone else to hold her at all. I just don’t want to cause any stress, but I also don’t want to ignore what seems to be a desire on her part to be held by me. I appreciate your response to my lengthy blabbering and really enjoy reading all of your information on Chameleons. If it is easier to respond to an email please feel free. aharger79@ymail.com. Thanks again, April H.

    • avatar

      Hi April,

      You raise some very good points..please don’t hesitate to write whenever you desire.

      Always best to provide a large enclosure. The more space and cover the better. As long as she’s feeding regularly, releasing moths, crickets and other insects into the enclosure is a great way to encourage foraging behavior and activity. Please see this article for tips on increasing dietary variety, a key to good health.

      Gravid females usually become restless and go off feed…you’ll see her prowl about, try to escape, etc…always best to have a site available, and to line up a vet in case she does not lay.

      It is a good sign that she crawls onto your hand…shows a lack of stress, etc., and that you have done a good bog in adjusting her to her enclosure. She may associate you with food, or you may be seeing exploratory/escape behavior Whereas most lizards bolt at the door when trying to get out, chameleons just amble along as usual). This is a good way to move her if you need to re-locate, but do not go out of your way to handle her. they are not social animals and even those reptiles that live in groups do not derive any benefit from being handled (sorry, most people hate to hear that, but no way around it – just not within their natures!).

      Good luck, enjoy and pl keep me posted, Frank

  4. avatar

    Hi there Frank. I spoke with you through one of your feeds not too long ago regarding my Senegal. We discussed transitioning her into a new enclosure. I have since moved her into her new home and she seems to be doing much better. She has so much room to climb and seems to really enjoy the space. I have a couple of new questions. I have noticed that she is displaying a new color/pattern since being in her new enclosure… She is a olive green with dark brown/black spots all over her. I’m just curious what these colors may mean? They are beautiful, but I want to make sure I’m not missing a sign. It seems that she does it when she is basking. They are the most fascinating and beautiful creatures!! I also wanted to see if I should provide an area for egg laying and if so what do I use for this? I cannot express my appreciation enough for your taking time to reply to me.. It’s nice to speak with someone that actually knows so much about animals:) Thanks so much!! Cannot wait to hear from you. April H.

    • avatar

      Hi April.,

      Glad to hear…let me look into coloration a bit more, we don’t have details on all, but there has been some recent work on the meaning of coloration. To be safe, provide a flower pot or similar with moist earth, as large as you can fit, will get back to you soon, Frank

  5. avatar

    Hi Frank,

    I am hoping to resolve a concern I have regarding my senegal. Recently I have noticed that he/she is climbing on the top of her enclosure. What would be considered the roof. I have each of her lights clamped so that they do not touch the screen on her enclosure to prevent burns. I am just noticing that she seems to climb almost frantically on the roof under the UVB that I have on the cage. The light is made by exo terra and is marked UVB 150. I replaced it 2 months ago. Thank you for your help. I am unable to find anyone in my area with proper knowledge of chameleons. April.

    • avatar

      Hi April,

      gravid females will become restless if there are no suitable nest sites..as large a plastic container or flower pot as fits should be added, 6 or so inches of moist soil. If the animal is new, it could be that the terrarium is too small, or lacks suitable cover in teh form of plastic/live plants, etc…most are stressed if forced to remain exposed. Please let me know if you need further info, best, frank

  6. avatar

    Hi Frank.
    So I Need Some Help… My Senegal Is a female I think because she is digging and giving all the signs of What a female would do to normally lay eggs… But my question is she is digging and has buried her self in my bamboo plant. I didn’t know if it would be safe to take her our or if I need to leave her there?? Please help me soon I don’t want too make her sick or anything!
    Thank you!

  7. avatar

    She’s Laying Eggs Right Now!!! What Do I Do? She Looks Like She’s Not Okay!!! Please Write Back ASAP I’m Really Worried… Ain’t ever Had To Take This On Before!

    • avatar


      Nothing for you to do…leave her undisturbed so that she can complete the process. If she seems egg-bound at any point (straining but eggs not emerging), then a vet visit would be in order. Please let me know if you need info on incubation. Best, Frank

  8. avatar

    Hi Frank – Lots of great info here! I have a few questions about my female Senegal. She will sometimes climbs her cage and hangs directly under her lights – is this safe for her to do? Also, I’m wondering if I have her in too small of a cage. She has a potted ficus that she hides very well in but do you have ideal dimensions you can recommend? Lastly, I have a glass tank that I’ve been considering feeding her in as sometimes the crickets escape her cage or don’t crawl up the sides so she can see them from her perch at the top. Thoughts? Not sure if she’s built more for grazing or not. I did see you stressed a varied diet and posted link about nutrition that I’ll read.

    • avatar

      Hello Adam,

      Thanks for the kind words!

      Larger is always better, to reduce stress and also this allows a temperature gradient to be established. Feeding, normal behavior are signs that the animal has adjusted, but long term survival will be increased if you provide ample space. a cage 2′ x 2′ x 4′ high would be about the minimum I’d suggest.

      I don’t have any info re the temperaturesyou keep, type of UVB etc but chameleons are generally good about selecting where to bask etc , how far from bulb, if given options.

      Most do not adjust well to being re-located for feeding.

      Yes, variety is key…crickets alone will not support long term health.

      Here’s an article on general care, please let me know if you need anything, best, Frank

  9. avatar

    hi frank,,, i jst purchase a 6mos old senegal i put it on a tall glass enclosure i have not seen him eat yet but i saw him dringking water,, is it ok for him not eating all he is just adusting to his new enclosure thanks you and god bless more power

    • avatar

      Hello Adam,

      Thanks for the kind words.

      It’s common for them to take time to adjust to their enclosure. Be sure to provide plenty of cover, proper temperatures and UVB, and a varied diet, and do not handle. Please see this article on general chameleon care and let me know if you need anything, best, Frank

  10. avatar

    i have pt a 40watt uv bulb that i use to my previous bearded dragon the size you said is exactly the size of my glass enclosure,,,i put some artificial flower and mist it time to time,,,the only thing i worried he is not eating yet,,,how long will a senegal chammy adjust,,thank you Frank for your time,,,more power…

    • avatar

      Hi Adam,

      You’ll need to take temperatures at the basking site and other areas in the terrarium to check if all is well…bulb wattage alone does not give a good picture. There is not set time period for it to settle in…do not disturb and keep terrarium in a quiet location. best, frank

  11. avatar

    i put in a lot of nymph cricket and dubia roaches for him ,,, are senegal chammy really skinny,,,is that there really size of their body…he is active climbing and walking around the braches i put on…thank you so much for your time,,,i just observe him for his adjustment…God bless

    • avatar

      Climbing about continually may be a sign of stress. In addition to plenty of hanging or large standing plants, cover 2 or 3 sides of the terrarium with a dark towel etc (be sure to keep anything flammable well away from the bulbs)…this may help the animal to settle in. Best, frank

  12. avatar

    I recently purchased my first senegal chameleon. Do i need to leave a light on it at night. I have a uvb light and a 60 w blue day light.

    • avatar

      Hello Tasha,

      It will need a heat source at night if temperatures will fall below 74F. You can use the daytime light for now, but it’s best to use a red bulb or ceramic heat emitter if nighttime heat is needed, so that the animal has a dark period. Be sure your fixture is able to accept the size bulb or ceramic heat emitter that you use.

      Daytime temps should range from 74-78 F, with a basking spot of 85-90 F.

      Please also see this article on chameleon care, especially the notes re diet, and let me know if you need more info, best Frank

  13. avatar

    Hello Frank,
    Enjoy your blog and FB posts so much.
    Situation: my 5 1/2 yr old adopted veiled cham had been fed pretty exclusively on crickets by previous owner for 3 yrs. I continued to house in same screen enclosure (24 x 24×48) w/UVB, spots, live pothos and aquarium strip lights and drip water. Tried offering waxworms, but not interested, not enough movement. Kept feeding crickets, occasional greens. Also feeds on pothos at times.
    Eventually he became unable to extend tongue more than 1/2″. Began feeding exclusively mealworms. He became very ill at one point (4 mos ago). Drip had not been working, and I was just hand misting plants. With my vets advice I pulled him through w/ antibiotics, sc fluids, and oral Critical Care and Carnivore Care. Dr. C. scolded me for feeding mealworms, and advised dubias.
    Problem – he only wants mworms. I can only get him to eat tiny dubias by sticking them in his mouth with tweezers. Still admin C care & Carn care every 2 – 3 days. Drip water is working but now using clear tubing, and see it gets pinkish algae.

    Is there any likelihood he’ll regain tongue flexibility? Is it likely MBD? Is it all right to allow 3-4 worms/day if I continue the powdered supplements w/water orally? Is all this mostly due to advanved age?

    Sorry so many questions.

    • avatar

      Hi Sue,

      Thanks for the kind words and please post anytime…great questions that will be useful to all. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to identify what has led up to the tongue etc problems…long term malnutrition likely has a role, age could as well. Vitamin A deficiencies have been implicated in tongue use problems in some amphibians (“short tongue syndrome” but there’s really no way to know if the same would apply to this species. Seems like you are doing all that can be done…problems may be long term, and not reversible based on what we know at this pint.

      I’m assuming you’ve tried keeping the animal hungry before offering new foods? They can go quite awhile, and will slow down metabolism to cope with food availability so as not to lose weight. It may take time.

      Consider also some other insects that can be ordered online…silkworms, hornworms, calci-worms; houseflies are usually a chameleon favorite; lab cultures of flightless houseflies are usually available. Collecting moths eytc. is a great idea when weather permits. Please see this article for other foods and keep me posted, I hope all goes well, 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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