Chameleons are amazing creatures but they are not always the best choice for a pet. The natural habits of chameleons make them tricky to care for. Chameleons are arboreal, living exclusively in trees. They are solitary creatures and are very easily stressed. Chameleons do not like to be handled, so if you want to be able to handle your reptile, chameleons are not a good choice.
True chameleons are best known for their ability to change colors. Young chameleons are most often a dull grey/brown color and can alternate colors a bit. At around 5 months of age, the adult color, as well as the ability to change colors develops and a wide range of colors including green, blue green, black and turquoise can be seen. The ability to change colors provides the chameleon with camouflage, temperature regulation and a way to communicate with other chameleons. Colors will change in response to stress, temperature, excitement, the presence of another chameleon, lighting conditions and other influences. Bright colors usually reflect a happy mood while dark brown to black are an indication of stress.
There are several features that make chameleons unique, including their tongue. The tongue is used to catch prey and can be up to 1.5 times the length of the body, which gives the chameleon the ability to catch insects from a considerable distance. Chameleons live in trees and their feet have three toes pointing in one direction and two toes pointing in the opposite direction, allowing them excellent grip. Some species have a prehensile tail which can also be used to grip branches. Chameleons have globular eyes which rotate like turrets and move independently. This permits the chameleon to scan a wide radius around them for protection and for hunting. They are mostly insectivorous, although some species eat some vegetation and some small invertebrates such as slugs.
When selecting a chameleon for a pet, it is best to find a captive bred one. Wild caught specimens are most often stressed, carry a lot of parasites and are difficult to acclimate to captive conditions. Chameleons are not the hardiest or easiest reptile to keep and starting with a stressed pet only makes matters worse. Observe the chameleon; it should be active and bright, have a full-fleshed body and be able to change colors. Beginners are recommended to choose a male chameleon since their nutritional needs are somewhat simpler and they appear to be a little more hardy than females. Being solitary and territorial creatures, chameleons should be kept singly. Two males should never be kept together as they will be very aggressive with each other.
Chameleons need a cage containing ample foliage for privacy and climbing. The enclosure should be quite large. For larger chameleons, a minimum of 3 feet x 3 feet x 4 feet tall should be provided, but the more space the better. The enclosure must provide adequate ventilation. A cage screened on 3 sides with poly mesh or vinyl coated wire is preferred. The bulk of the enclosure should be filled with branches of various diameters or live non-toxic foliage. A substrate of small particles such as sand, moss, bark or gravel should be avoided to prevent the chameleon from accidentally eating it while catching his prey. Since chameleons are easily stressed, their cages should be placed in a low traffic area such as a quiet room, and barriers (lots of foliage) between the chameleon and household activity should be provided. When observing the chameleon, always move slowly and avoid handling your pet.
Basking areas of various temperatures must be provided ranging from the upper limit temperature preference to the lower end of the range. This allows the chameleon to thermo regulate. Chameleons do best with access to natural sunlight, but since this is not feasible as a sole source of UV radiation for most owners, incandescent and full spectrum (UV) fluorescent lighting is necessary. Exposing your chameleon to natural sunlight through an open window or placing him outside when the weather permits, (providing adequate shade to prevent overheating), will help keep your chameleon healthy and happy.
As a general rule, chameleons will not take water from a dish. They get their water from droplets on leaves. They must be provided water from either a drip system or from misting their enclosure at least twice a day. Misting will help keep the humidity level up. A drip system can be purchased from a pet supply store or fashioned from a water container with a pin hole placed on top of the cage. If using a drip system, keep the watering location consistent so the chameleon will know where to find water. Also, collect and remove any excess water from the drip system to keep the humidity level in the enclosure from getting too high.
Chameleons seem to prefer a diet made up of various insects. Meal worms, crickets, wax moths, non-infesting roaches, wax worms and super worms are all good choices. All prey food should be gut-loaded with leafy greens, fruits and vegetables and dusted with a vitamin D and calcium supplement prior to feeding. Keep in mind that egg laying females will need extra calcium. Some nutritious leafy green and other vegetables and fruits can be offered in small amounts. Always avoid cabbage, lettuce and spinach.