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Chameleons
Photos Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife.

All animals in the below photos are D.O.A.






This is a care sheet and info concerning the importation of chameleons. This was donated to me by an experienced keeper. For questions or comments concerning this care sheet please feel free to E-mail Mark at  Ambanja@hotmail.com, Thanks for sharing your time and experience Mark.

Senegal Chameleons (Chamaeleo Senegalensis)

I tried to cover everything I could think of in this care sheet.  My intent is to provide you with useful information that I hope will allow you to keep your chameleon alive so I have to tell you about the bad things too.  I found out some of the horrible things that are happening to Graceful and Senegal chameleons a few years back.  Since that point, I have devoted a large portion of my time towards informing others about the plight of these chameleons.  Therefore, this care sheet is a little different because I want to make you aware of some of the things your chameleon may have had to endure before you acquired him.  I wish I could get this information out to people before they get their chameleons, but it should help now.

This care sheet is designed for Senegal Chameleons but it also includes pertinent care lessons I've learned from other chameleons.  Further, this care sheet is designed for beginners.  If you've had other reptiles or chameleons you might find this boring.

Senegal Chameleons are popular in the pet trade business for a couple of reasons.  They are found not just in Senegal but over much of western Africa and are easily captured.  There are numerous imports, so unless you know otherwise, it is best to assume your chameleon is wild caught.  Senegal chameleons that are imported usually carry heavy parasite loads because they have been housed with others that are sick and infested.  The collection process is not always humane, they are often yanked from their perches and thrown from treetops to the ground.  This can cause broken bones and internal injuries but the chameleon's ordeal is just beginning.  The stunned chameleons are then grabbed and stuffed into a bag.   Later they are dumped into a small holding tank with numerous others.  I have heard reports of as many as 100 Senegal Chameleons in a 1 foot * 1 foot * 2 foot cage that sat in the sun on a 100 + degree day at a holding facility.  Being housed in close contact with so many others causes massive fights among this aggressive species and leads to numerous injuries from biting and scratching.  Sharp cage wire can also cause injuries.  Badly infected wounds from bites or amputated limbs can easily occur.
Senegal Chameleons are an asocial species and stress runs high while being in close contact with others.  Many chameleons do not have a perch to cling to,  this also causes a great deal of stress.    As far as shipping goes, they are often left to sit on hot tarmacs for hours, then loaded into cargo holds where the temperature may drop into the 30s or climb above 100 again.  When the shipment arrives, many are dead and the others are stressed beyond anything they have experienced before.

I want to state that not all chameleons are treated this inhumanely, some are provided with more humane treatment at every step of the process.   For some unfortunate others the cruel conditions of their captivity can spell the fate.  Many captured chameleons will not live long in captivity.  Some have suffered so much that it is impossible to keep them alive in captivity even with the best of care.  Overcrowded conditions and feces filled containers can lead to future illnesses.  A lack of water during the importation process may lead to kidney or liver failure at a later date.  At holding facilities, water is often offered in bowls.  Chameleons don't recognize standing water and therefore don't drink from the bowls.  During the actual shipping it is standard practice for chameleons to be deprived of water for days at a time.   Any illness that your chameleon acquires after you purchase him may have started long before you first saw him.

Stress lowers the chameleon's ability to fight off diseases.  The combination of stress and elevated parasite loads can be fatal to captured chameleons.  In the wild, the host /parasite relationship is often one of mutual benefit.  The parasite does not attempt to kill the host as this would cause the parasite to have to find a new home.  The host acquires a certain degree of immunity to other parasites from the parasites it already has.  This keeps the relationship within healthy boundaries.  When the animal is captured this relationship is thrown out of balance and the stress of captivity further reduces the host's acquired immunity often causing the host to succumb to any number of illnesses caused by parasitic overload.  Most parasites cannot be seen.  The exception to this is the subcutaneous nematodes that can be seen as raised worm like outlines just under the skin.  If you see any of these, you need to take your chameleon to a reptile vet.  I think it is a good idea to take him regardless and have a fecal sample done to detect parasites that can't be seen.  Be aware that if your chameleon has to undergo worming treatments with a medication such as Panacur or Flagyl, it will most likely take his appetite away and he will stop eating.  Worming medications are effective because they are a poison.  This poison will also affect your chameleon so make sure he gets plenty of water.  Ironically, harsh medications for wild caught chameleons may do more harm than good.  Reptile vets are hard to find so if you don't have one, you might be able to find one from this web site:  www.arav.com  ARAV is the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians.  Once you get to the site, click on members to get a list of vets in your area.  I need to warn you that just because a vet is a member of this association, it doesn't mean they know anything about chameleons or reptiles in general.  I found this out the hard way.  However it is a step in the right direction.

There are virtually no captive bred Senegal Chameleons in the United States.  The prolific number of imports at cheap prices coupled with long incubation periods for eggs has scared most breeders off.  Gravid imported chameleons that arrive dead or dying are cut open and the eggs are incubated.  These captive hatched babies are later misrepresented as captive bred chameleons at marked up prices.  Don't be fooled.  

Since I have been sending out these care sheets, I have had a couple of people tell me that they are incubating eggs.  This is a lengthy process but it is also the most hope this chameleons species has of beating extinction at the hands of man.  Loss of habitat in a changing Africa is also a constant threat to this chameleon.  Many chameleons have actually shown signs of thriving within populated areas but the Senegal is not one of them.  

The chameleon you have belongs to a family of chamaeleos that are closely related (Senegals, Gracefuls, Commons, and Flapnecked).  Each of these chameleons shares an asocial, aggressive attitude.  Graceful Chameleons (Chamaeleo Gracilis) are most closely related to Senegal Chameleons (Chamaeleo Senegalensis) and often can only be distinguished by color patterns.  Graceful Chameleons will usually display crosshatches or stripes whereas Senegals will be dotted.  Senegal Chameleons range over much of western Africa in tropical forests and arid savanna habitats.  This wide range of living conditions in the wild make it difficult to say precisely what the ideal conditions should be for Senegals in captivity.

Because Senegals are asocial, even antisocial, they should be housed alone or in mating pairs, but groups of one male and three females have also been successful.  If any member of  such a group displays aggression towards another member, they should be separated to avoid fighting and possible injuries.  Two or more males should never be housed together.

Senegals are similar in appearance to Common Chameleons but have a less prominently developed gular area, typically with a serrated crest.  The gular area (throat) may be inflated with air to signify aggression or territoriality to other chameleons.   Senegals also have a ventral crests, combined these two crests form a single line from the chin to the midventral area.  Females are generally larger than the males.  Males attain a total length of approximately 10 inches with females often exceeding 12 to 14 inches in length.  Males may be distinguished from females by the presence of a hemi-penal bulge near the ventral area.   There appears to be a sub-species of Senegal, so males also may or may not have small tarsal spurs on their hind feet.  I'm not sure what the use of these spurs is, but I suspect it is for mating purposes.

Coloration may range from green, tan, olive, white, yellow, blue or black.  Typical patterns of spots may be present.  This chamaeleo lives in diverse climates  and  has a vast range so many color patterns are possible.  Sexually receptive females will typically display a pattern of light spots against a darker background color.  Because of their aggressive nature, females should always be introduced to the males cage for breeding purposes.  The uninterested female will turn dark, gape and rock back an forth.  If the female shuns the male's advances remove her immediately and repeat this procedure in a few days time.  Allow the mating pair to copulate more than once, then remove the female.  If mating was successful, the females should show gravid colors within a few days.  Females lay up to 30 eggs and incubation periods are long, up to 10 months.  Hatchlings are typically light green with a darker spotted patterns.


The best enclosure for this type of chameleon is a reptarium.  A reptarium is a nylon screened enclosure surrounding a PVC pipe frame.  Since your chameleon will probably be 9" to 12" full grown.  I would not recommend a reptarium smaller than 65 gallons.  However,  a baby chameleon needs to be in a small enclosure to assure that he is near his food source.  A baby chameleon may starve to death in a large enclosure.  I prefer the reptariums to aquariums for chameleons because there has been some evidence linking the glass enclosures with bacteria that causes mouth diseases and Upper Respiratory Illnesses.  The screened enclosures provide good ventilation and avoid this scenario.  Another good reason for screen is because an aggressive type chameleon may get stressed if it constantly sees its own reflection in the glass.  A rival that is the same size and cannot ever be phased by an aggressive display can cause extreme stress.  Common Chameleons are not usually that aggressive, but Senegals are.

Their personality is something you can use to determine your chameleon's health.   If Dude, (my Veiled Chameleon) doesn't hiss and gape at me, I get worried about him.   If Zill (my Four Horned Chameleon) hissed or gaped, I'd be worried as well.  The single most important item to reducing stress is to make them happy with their house.  If your chameleon stays in one spot all the time, you will need to mess up his little world a bit.  Change things around in his cage and see if he doesn't start doing some different things.  Moving around his cage a little more.  Make sure that your actions aren't just causing stress, however, I have told people to do this before and their chameleon stopped eating for a while, so change one item at a time.  Chameleons prefer being in trees so move his cage onto a table to give him a height illusion and try and keep him out of high traffic paths in your house. Most chameleons are asocial and do not need a friend or cagemate.  Some of them, like Dude, absolutely will not tolerate others in his cage.  I have taken advantage of Dude's aggressive nature and territoriality.  Dude knows I have other chameleons in my house so he constantly patrols his house to make sure none of those impostors are in there.  If they are, he'll kick their ass.  This keeps him healthy by providing him with plenty of exercise.  Senegal Chameleons are asocial like all the others but they are also exceedingly aggressive, next to Veiled Chameleons, they are the worst.  Females are usually more mellow than the males.

In the US, most keepers prefer screened enclosures.  In Europe, the tendency is to use glass enclosures, and they have had success by doing this.  They have also had better success at keeping wild caught Senegal and Graceful chameleons alive than we have in the US.  Nobody really knows why this is, but when you face your first crisis, you'll learn not to ignore anything anybody is doing, if they are finding success.

To provide UV light I use a Reptisun 5.0.   I really trust in the Zoomed Reptisun bulbs., I think the UV penetrates up to 12".  Which is pretty good.  These are the long type bulbs that require a fixture.  Whatever you have, count on the UVB as only being effective for about 6 months.   After that it is just a light bulb.  There is a new bulb available that says that it provides both heat and UVB, I don't know much about them.  Some of my reptile owning friends like them, others say they are bullshit and don't work.  At the moment, I don't know.   You do need to supplement the artificial UV with the real thing whenever possible.   Natural sunlight is very helpful for everybody but for reptiles it can mean the difference between surviving and not.  Reptiles can develop a disease called Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) without natural sunlight.   Deprived of ultraviolet, a reptile will not be able to take the proper vitamins, minerals and nutrients from even the best of diets.   Their bones will break from lack of calcium, their kidneys, hearts, and livers will calcify into stones, and eventually they will die.

 I use 2 heat lamps, a 100 watt white heat lamp during the day, and a 100 watt Ceramic light at night.  The size of your enclosure should determine the size of the heat light.  A 100 watt light will provide too much heat for a 100 gallon reptarium.  I think it is fine using a Black Light to provide heat at night, I have a chameleon living in my bedroom and the Black Light was keeping me awake.  I do think the Ceramic lights are pretty good but at around $35.00 a pop they're pretty expensive too.  The temperature for your chameleon should be somewhere around 72 to 80 degrees.  You should provide a basking area that is a little hotter, but not more than 85 degrees, this is usually about 100 right next to the heat light.

It's also important to try and keep the humidity around 65 % to 70% within the reptarium.  I run a humidifier outside the reptarium, just in my bedroom and that works well.  I have an Iguana as well and in the past I bought a fogger for her, $50.00 and it lasted about a week.  I can't recommend them.  I have to have the humidifier because the humidity is only about 12% where I live in New Mexico, you may or may not need this.  If you have humidity that is normally higher that 70 % where you live, then you're fine.

Another important thing to do is to provide them with something to climb on, they tend to get stressed if they don't have anything to climb on.   I have a couple of 6 foot Bio-Vines strung across the upper part of the reptariums.  My chameleons love them, this is where they hang out all day as well as sleep at night.  I would really try and get some Bio-Vines or a cheaper alternative is called Bend-A-Branch made by Flukers if you can find them.  Try www.flukerfarms.com.  These are really wonderful and they go a long way in reducing stress and providing your chameleon something to do other than sitting all the time. Bio-Vines of different diameter will keep their grips in top shape.  I have 3/8" diameter vines running vertically down to plants and 3/4" diameter vines running horizontally for sleeping and basking.  If you go the Bend-A-Branch route, be aware that the brown coloration will come off on their feet.  There doesn't seem to be any harm in this, but I have never been able to find out what Fluker's colors these with.  Be aware that chameleons try to make the best of what they are provided with, so he may develop a trait of territoriality where he is aggressive when you reach into his cage, even if he doesn't like his surroundings.  They don't like it when you re-arrange their furniture.  So if you are adding plants or vines do it one item at a time and allow him time to adjust.

I have three live plants inside Dude's reptarium.  Two of these are medium size bushes but not trees, the other is a tree.  I tried live Hibiscus plants but they just couldn't stand up against his claws and his grip, (he's really got quite a grip), he turned them into just sticks in pot.  I had to start using gloves when I hold Dude, his nails go right through my hands and he crushes my fingers with his grip.  Right now I'm using Pothos, Ficus and Sheffelera plants.  None of these are toxic to chameleons.   I really prefer the live plants to the artificial and the Chameleons do too.  Occasionally a Chameleon will eat the leaves off the plants as well.  There is nothing wrong with this unless the plant is toxic to them.  Most Veiled Chams will eat more and more vegetation as they get older.  This is also true for Common Chameleons but none of the others really eat vegetation.  Other chameleons will nibble on leaves or bark when they are seeking some sort of enzymes they are not getting in their regular diet.  I had heard that Ficus trees can cause eye problems for Chameleons.  I have never had any problems but I think about it as analogous to allergies in people, some people have them and some do not.  If you chameleon tends to show any eye problems, don't use Ficus.  I also have some artificial vines in Dude's reptarium for additional climbing material.  To prepare a plant for your chameleon, first spray it off thoroughly, then let it sit for two weeks before you let him on it.
might be impacted.  While Dude wasn't eating, I bought some Wax Worms to see if these would spark his appetite, they didn't.  But in the meantime, the worms spun cocoons and turned into moths.  Dude loves the moths (actually anything that flies).  These are Fluker's Wax Worm Cultures and they are hard to find but might evoke a good appetite response if your chameleon ever stops eating.  Green prey of any kind is also good to spark an appetite response.  Garden shops have baby preying mantis in the spring, but other than that green prey can be hard to find.  Lots of people raise Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches and these are excellent.  They are not like the German or brown cockroaches we have.  If one gets loose in your house, it will not survive for long and they are a good food source for your chameleon.   Try not to give him any crickets that are too large,  chameleons have tender mouths and cricket legs can poke holes in their mouths and cause an infection.   Try to keep them about 1/2 to 2/3 the size of his head.  Mouth infections are very difficult to clear up.  Keep this in mind if you feed him grasshoppers.

I keep the crickets in a cricket corral.  They eat pretty damn good, and this is important.  If you've ever heard the saying you are what you eat, apply it double for chameleons.  If your crickets are eating good, your chameleon is eating good.  I feed them something along the lines of the following:  1 TBSP Wheat Germ, 1/2 handful of raw crushed pumpkin seeds, 1/4 cup of Oat Flour, 1/4 tsp of Bee Pollen, 1/4 tsp of Repcal phosphorus free Calcium with Vitamin D3, 2 TBSPs Powdered Milk, 1/4 a leaf of some sort of Greens, and a small piece of fruit like Mango.  I think this diet is better than commercial gut-load diets from pet stores, but I don't have any proof.  If you catch insects to give to your chameleon, you do not have to gut-load or dust these, they are naturally gut-loaded.

Fox Mulder may be right, "The truth is out there."   However, I have heard and read all kinds of different things about dusting the crickets with vitamins prior to feeding them to the Chameleons. This issue seems to be just like everything else, nobody, and I mean Ph. D doctors included, nobody knows the full truth in regard to Chameleons.  Everything you hear, including the advice I'm giving you, should be taken with a grain of salt.  There is a definite link between over-dusting and kidney failure.  You need to find the happy medium in between where your chameleon is healthy but not over-supplemented.   I think you can keep your animal healthy and still experiment if you carefully observe them and try and account for any behavioral differences you see.  This is hardest to do at the point where you are now because you don't have any prior relationship experiences with your Chameleon.  When things are working well, you don't want to change a thing, then changes will occur that you can't or don't have any control over and things get like rocket science trying to figure out what is going on.  I have decided upon dusting the crickets twice a week before I put them in the reptariums.  I use about 1/2 teaspoon of Repcal phosphorous free Calcium with Vitamin D3, and a pinch of Bee Pollen in a plastic bag, toss the crickets in the bag and coat them with it.   (Once a month, I add a pinch of Repcal HerptiVite). Then I let the crickets loose in the reptariums.   This is a crucial gray area.  You have to provide some sort of dusting to keep them healthy.  Not enough dusting can have dire health consequences as well.  You have to find out what works best for your chameleon, and its not easy to do.  Kidney failure is non-reversible.  It doesn't always have to be fatal to your chameleon, but this is the usual outcome.  It will break your heart if you wake up some morning and find swollen kidneys on your chameleon because you over-dusted him.  I've never been there, but I know this to be true.

While I'm in threat mode, I want to make a point here not to give your chameleon more crickets than he will eat in a day.  Crickets should not be allowed to remain loose in your chameleons cage.  If they do not have anything to eat, they will feed on your chameleon.  I've worked with too many people in the past that have had their chameleons hurt by crickets as they slept.   They are sound sleepers and will not wake up even if crickets are eating their feet.

I like to let Dude hunt for his own food, a lot of people would disagree with me on this but I got him in the summertime and the first time I had him in my yard there was a midge hatch going on, he was really bad news for the midges.  He blasted several of them out of the air.  I really feel like he could survive on his own if I was to release him back into his natural environment.  I would like to keep things this way.  I don't like the aspect of keeping Dude in a cage, but a house is not a natural environment for him and he would probably get hurt if I let him roam the house.  What I'm trying to say is that I think crippling the crickets or feeding out of a dish is not natural, but you have to find what works for you and your chameleon..  I think it is a good idea to try and simulate natural circumstances and environments for your Chameleon.

Having said this.  If your chameleon is not moving you may have to try and feed him from a dish that is suspended closer to where he is.  Use a plastic dish with slick sides and suspend or mount it somewhere close to him so he can look down into it and see the crickets.

Bee Pollen is something you might want to get.  It is a good source of Vitamin B and might cause an appetite spark for your Chameleon if he ever stops eating.  Many of the insects that are eaten in the wild have pollen on them.  This stuff can be expensive in the tablet form, so try to find the powder form.  If you can't find it let me know, I can get it and send it to you.

If you reach a point where your Chameleon isn't eating well.  He could be stressed for any number of reasons.  They kind of seem to cross their arms and step back with the attitude of "Well yeah, something's wrong and it is up to you to figure it out."   Often they are just bored with crickets, as you can imagine.  Try to feed a diverse diet and this will not happen, or at least not as often.  Also I want to mention that Superworms and Zoophobas (large mealworms) are high in fat and should not be used as everyday food, but only given once in a while.

A trip to the vet will stress him but like handling this is temporary stress and will cease when he is back home.  When I took my first chameleon to the vet for the first time I didn't know that he was born with a serious health problem that would eventually claim his life and the vet was unable to tell my that either.  I'm not faulting the vet, she has been and continues to be a great help to me for my iguana but she just didn't have any experience with chameleons and I don't use her for that anymore.  Anybody that knew anything about chameleons could have looked at him and told me that he was very undersized for his age, and probably wouldn't make it, but I didn't know anybody at the time.  As it turns out he was too small for Dr. Russman to take a blood sample, a blood sample might have told us that his kidneys were too small in relation to the rest of his body, it might not, I don't know.  It is not uncommon for a vet to be reluctant to take blood from a chameleon.  Even a large adult like Dude would have to give up a lot of blood for any kind of viable test.  At the time I took him to the vet, I just thought I would get him checked, I thought he was healthy but I thought I would make sure.  I learned soon that he should be eating 8 to 10 crickets a day at that age, this was my first clue, but I still didn't think anything was wrong.  Anyway I'm not trying to scare you or tell you that you Chameleon is going to die, just that sometimes there isn't anything that can be done.  I would have preferred to have known that he was going to die, I would have still tried everything I did try to keep him alive, including force feedings with baby food from a dropper, but I would have known to decrease the crickets.  Crickets are high in protein and are harder on the kidneys than other food items.

When I started I put my first chameleon in a small plastic garbage can with artificial plants and a plant grow light.  I constantly walked over and looked down at him.  Chameleons like to observe the world from ten feet above the ground.  He must have been tremendously stressed.

I think the best advice I can give you is to make things surrounding him as natural as possible. You have to read and learn as much about them as you can and always keep an open mind that tells you that everything you know about them could be wrong.  Most Veiled Chameleons come for Yemen, a country that is mostly desert.  Most people are satisfied with knowing this much, but my point is this;  most Veiled Chameleons live in the mountains of Yemen, an area that has many springs and lots of smaller trees. The climate is warm, but it does drop down pretty cool at night.   It rains more and the humidity is higher in the mountains.  

Try to get your Chameleon outdoors for at least half an hour on warmer days.  You might want to get a smaller reptarium just for taking him outside. They are much happier in a tree than on the ground.  Only make sure it's not a pine or spruce tree (these tree's can release resins that can be deadly to Chameleons), and make sure he doesn't have an easy escape route to the roof or anywhere else.  Try and find him some other insects besides crickets, only make sure they haven't been around where it has been sprayed with pesticides.  Small green insects would be great.  Flies and ants are good.  Keep him away from any wasps while he's outside.   We have a wasp in New Mexico that strings lizards, mice, and tarantulas, then lays an egg in them.  It takes months for them to die while the wasp that hatches eats them from the inside out.  You also need to be wary about the birds, I don't think they would eat your chameleon but they don't know what chameleons are and they use their beaks to find out.

I think I've pretty much covered things.  Let me know if I can answer any questions. I hope this will give you more confidence about taking care of  your chameleon.  You have knowledge that took me years to acquire.  Another thing you need is to find someone that knows about chameleons that you can ask questions of.  I would be willing to do this, but its not that easy when I can't see your chameleon.   Half of the trick is finding what works for you and your chameleon.  I cruised along for years and then found out in one afternoon something I was doing was completely wrong.  If you have other questions, please e-mail me.  However, I think it always helps to get someone else's point of view.  The kingsnake.com chameleon forum or the chameleon journals are the best places for this.  There are a lot of knowledgeable people that regularly get on those sites.  Good Luck and keep me posted.  Mark.