The Costs of Keeping Chameleons

By Dave Johnston


Johnston, D. (2003). The Costs of Keeping Chameleons. Chameleons! Online E-Zine, July 2003. (

Your First Chameleon

Many people fall in love with these googly eyed creatures the very first time they see one. Many also have no idea what's really involved in caring for them so that they thrive. The goal of this article is to give the perspective chameleon owner a little idea what may lie ahead in terms of cost.

We will take a look at the basics of chameleon care and what it takes, cost-wise, to get there. This article is broken up into three sections: 1) The cost of setting up for a chameleon 2) The annual re-occurring costs that chameleons require and 3) The expense involved in breeding chameleons. Prices are given for a typical set-up in a typical city in the USA. Each person will encounter varying prices as no set-up will be the same and prices vary across the world. Please use the examples to give yourself a ballpark figure as to what it may cost. The purpose of the ballpark figures is to help the potential keeper/breeder better understand what they can expect before they get in too deep.


Our first consideration is caging. Most pet shops will have their chameleons in improper conditions and probably won't be able to give you the right information on what is proper for them to thrive. You might have seen them in a ten gallon fish tank or possibly a twenty gallon. Some perches or plastic plants to climb on and a bowl of water and crickets galore running about with several chameleons climbing all over each other. Your first impression is that you have a ten gallon tank at home and lots of plastic plants from when you had your fish. Wow! It's only $50.00 for a baby veiled chameleon and another $15.00 for a screen lid. I can afford that! $2.00 a week for crickets and I'm good to go!

Unfortunately, chameleons generally don't do well in aquariums. They need lots of ventilation so a screen enclosure is your first order of business. They require special lighting and frequent misting several times a day. Live plants are far better than plastic as they help keep the humidity levels up.

Some people choose to purchase an enclosure. The costs on these start around $110.00. The other option is to build your own. If your handy and have the tools this could be and economical way to go. Although as you gain experience in the needs of your cham your early cages will probably get scrapped as you realize the inadequacies of the design. So a home made cage could end up costing you a lot more than a pre-made one. Then again you could be one of the lucky ones and build the perfect cham cage first time out. Homemade cage costs: $50.00 to $1000.00, depending on features, materials and mistakes.

A popular choice is a screen and plastic cage known as a "Reptariumtm". These cages consist of a plastic tube frame surrounded by a dark plastic mesh. These are popular mainly because of their low cost. Drawbacks are plenty, though. The dark mesh makes viewing more difficult and the interior darker, crickets are able to chew out through the mesh, the zipper tends to jam, and the frame tends to become brittle.


Chameleons will need lighting to provide them with warmth to warm themselves up in the morning, UVB and other components of light necessary to the chameleon's physical health, and intensity for the chameleon's mental health.

The average ceramic socketed dome lamp fixture is going to run $15.00 to $20.00. Add a full spectrum heat lamp bulb from $7.00 to $10.00. As this will only provide you with heat and, at best, UVA, you'll still need some type of fluorescent fixture for your UVB lighting. Once again you may have an old aquarium strip light laying around and only need a bulb. Quality UVB bulbs are going to cost around $30.00. OK, so maybe you don't have one laying around... Again you have the option of purchasing a fixture from your home improvement center, $10.00 for a two tube shop light. Not very pretty but cheap and effective. Keep in mind it requires two of the $30.00 bulbs. Your local pet shop may have something on hand that's a little more attractive but it's going to cost upwards of $35.00 and you'll still need a bulb.

There is the possibility of combining the two, heat and UVB, with the self ballasted mercury vapor bulbs, which are gaining in popularity. These come in an assortment of wattages, produce both heat and UVB but cost out the wazoo. Expect to pay $45.00 at a minimum and up to $90.00 depending if you buy it locally or online. (Note on mercury vapor bulbs - All you have to do with these is determine the distance to maintain your heat gradient and still keep your UVB exposure to the maximum. It may take trying several wattages to determine the one best suited to your setup. Be careful how you handle these as the filaments can break with any rough handling, even just a slight jarring as you move it can destroy the bulb. They also may shatter if they come into contact with water such as when you are misting.)


Most chameleons will not drink from standing water. In the wild they drink dew from leaves or as it collects on their bodies. This can be supplied from a dripper system or a household plant sprayer. My own experience with Jackson's chameleons was that they wouldn't drink from a dripper. This is not true of all chameleons though. Misting a minimum of 3 times per day is recommended. This is not a spritz or two but spraying of some duration, often as much as 15 minutes to keep your chameleon well hydrated. High humidity is also important to most chameleons as are climbing areas. One thing that can help in both respects and is highly recommended, is live plants. Another consideration is all that water from misting and where it will go. A waterproof catch basin in your enclosure can greatly assist in the removal.

Once more you can go the cheap route and buy a plant mister for as little as a $1.00. After a month of 3x per day misting, when your arms look like Popeye's you'll do one of two things. Either you'll be less committed to your chameleon's well being and mist less frequently or you'll look to upgrade your mister. Minimum upgrade is going to run you $10.00 for a pump up type, whether its a hand held sprayer or a garden tank type one. I prefer the tank type as it is easily upgraded to accommodate more than one cage.

So you're totally committed to your cham and money is not a factor, try one of the programmable automatic rain systems, like the ones in the produce department, starting at $100.00. There are a lot of nice features about these, expandable to handle many cages, programmable to set different times and number of times per day. You just have to hope that your reservoir doesn't run dry and burn out the pump or that your catch basin is not draining and you come home to a flooded herp room.


Your chameleon's diet is of utmost importance. All chameleons need variety in their diet. Therefore, you'll need a source for quality insects. Cheap insects often means dirty insects, as in they contain parasites that will infest your chameleon. You need to shop for variety as well as a clean insect breeder. Crickets by the 1000 lot will cost $12.50 and up. Superworms anywhere from $15.00 to $20.00/1000. You could also try your hand at raising silkworms, a great food source but considerable labor. Keeping in mind that you'll need enclosures and food for your insects you can expect to pay $5.00 and up for sweater tubs. Food costs are going to depend on the insects your feeding. It could be as little as $6.00 a quart for cricket gut load, or $10.00 per ½ lb of silkworm chow.

Your omnivorous chams will also require veggies in their diet. You can expect this to run you about $5.00 per week to maintain a good variety of acceptable veggies. These can also be used a supplemental gut load for your insects also.


Live plants are a must for your chams. They provide hide spots, humidity and in some cases food.

6" Pothos vine starting at $6.00

Ficus tree $20.00 or more.

Dwarf Umbrella tree $20.00 or more.

Clean potting soil to replace the soil your plants came with - $5.00 and up depending on how much you'll need.

Drain pan for cage, if it didn't come with one. $5.00

Hose for draining $3.00.

Slop container for catching drainage water. Free.

This should cover your basics to get you going on your adventure in keeping chameleons. You probably should factor in about another $50.00 for eventualities that you and I may have overlooked.

Summary of basic costs

Cage $100.00

Plants $31.00

Dome lamp $ 15.00

Fluorescent lamp $ 10.00

Heat lamp bulb $ 6.00

UVB bulb $ 30.00

Mister $ 10.00

Food/week $ 20.00

Total $ 221.00

Another option is a caging package. These are offered by retailers that often include lighting and various caging features. Prices can range from $100 to $300 depending on the quality of the items offered.

You still have to buy your cham also. $50.00 to $100.00 for the more commonly kept species. You'll probably be over $200.00 when you factor in sales tax, any shipping charges for your online purchases and any unforseen miscellaneous expenses.

Annual recurring costs and medical expenses

Well now, you're all set up, you've got your enclosure all dialed in and set up properly, your chameleon's a happy camper and you are too. Things are going along all to smoothly. You have a reliable source for a variety of quality insects and enclosures for all of them. UH OH.

You wake up one morning to find your beloved cham on the floor of his cage. He won't climb up, won't eat, his legs don't seem to work. What could be wrong? Is it the dreaded MBD or vitiminosis? You've read that these can have similar symptoms Could it be an impaction? How can this be? I have the right lighting, I follow the proper feeding, misting and supplemention regimen and my chams sick.

I've got to get him to the vet. What vet? You call all the vets in your area and none of them has a reptile specialist. You've been referred to one that's two hours away. You call him/her and they say I've seen a chameleon once.

This is an all too familiar scenario. I can't stress how important it is to find a quality herp vet before getting your cham or at the least as soon as you get it.

Here's some of what you can expect from a vet visit.

Office visit $35.00 and up

Fecal exam $10.00 and up

Blood work $50.00 and up

Injections (Vitamins, glucose, antibiotics, worming meds etc.) $10.00-25.00/injection

Meds to take home with you $30.00 and up

A routine wellness visit may not incur all of these charges, an emergency one could incur even more. Follow up visits for a sick cham will add even more to the expense. You should probably figure to have $300.00 to $500.00 set aside for such an emergency or have a pre-arranged payment option with your vet. Some people go through their chameleon keeping without ever having to pay out such money, but, as in all of life, the unexpected sometimes happens.

You're also going to have to factor in your recurring expenses. Replacement light bulbs, weekly food allowance, foods for your insects and the like are expenses that don't go away once you've got your cham set up.

You'll have to figure on replacing your UVB fluorescent twice a year at $30.00 dollars a bulb. Heat lamps at least once a year possibly more if you suffer from blowouts. Even with a timer the projected life of heat lamp bulbs decreases every time it's turned on and off. Minimum cost $10.00/year.

Food cost may fluctuate from week to week but they don't go away. Even buying online in quantities these costs add up. At $12.00- $15.00/ 1000 for crickets, which may last two weeks before they die off or are too large to feed your chameleon. Superworms, $18.00/1000, these are easier to keep and once your chameleon is large enough to eat them regularly 1000 may last a few weeks. Are you supplying your chameleon with the best variety your money can buy? Are you raising silkworms? Buying roaches and hornworms for variety and treats? Keep in mind variety and properly gut loaded insects are a big factor in your chams health and well being. Prepared gut load from your insect supplier can cost from $6.00-$10.00 a quart. Even making your own gut load from quality ingredients is not cheap. I've spent over $100.00 to make my own and it only lasted several months. Greens and other veggies should be included in your gut load regimen, even if your cham is not a veggie eater. The insects they eat in the wild probably are and yours should be also. This is not a big expense but one to consider.

Vitamin and mineral supplements is another minor expense but it is there on a regular basis. These should be replaced every 6 months at the very least to keep them fresh and viable. You'll have to figure $12.00/ year minimum for this.

Summary of annual expenses

Vet contingency fund $300.00 (may or may not be used)

Lighting $ 70.00

Food and shipping. $15.00/week x 52 weeks $780.00

Supplements $ 12.00

Unexpected emergency resupply, broken light

fixtures, sprayer and Murphy's Law, what can

go wrong will. $ 50.00

Total $912 to $1212.00/year


Your chameleons are well established, you think you have a grasp of the whole husbandry issue and now you're thinking you want to try your hand at breeding. For the business of breeding I refer you to Bill Strand's article, The business of breeding. Meanwhile let's look at the EXPENSE of breeding.

Before you go counting the millions you're going to make consider the thousands it will cost you to get there. First you have all the above to take into account for the second cham of your pair. A Veiled cham can lay on average 35 eggs, a Jackson's can have from 8-50 live births. A look at the equipment needs for your egg layer indicates you need some sort of laying medium and container. The costs for this aren't really that great, a 5 gallon bucket and a sand/soil mix to lay the eggs in. Once she lays those eggs the costs start to rise. A Hovabator incubator is going to cost $50.00 for the low end model. Once you've lost a clutch or two of eggs to this cheap route you'll decide to spend the money to get set up properly. Even a home made incubator isn't cheap but is a lot more reliable than the Hovabator, which really was made for hatching chicken eggs.

Your homemade unit consists of a sweater box, 2 submersible aquarium heaters, the second is a backup in case one fails. An aquarium powerhead or waterfall pump to keep the heat distribution even. Some plastic shoeboxes for the eggs and egg hatching medium and the medium itself, preferably perlite. A reliable thermometer for each egg box.

Sweater box $ 5.00

Heaters at $35.00 ea. $ 70.00

Pump $ 25.00

Plastic shoe boxes $ 0.88 ea.

Perlite $ 5.00

Thermometers $ 2.00 ea.

Total $107.88

Of course you don't have this expense with live bearers.

What about when all those babies come? Each baby should have it's own enclosure. Which means you need to accommodate them with misting, heat lighting, UVB lighting, plants for each enclosure, and lots and lots of bugs. Of course you want a reputation as a reputable breeder so you'll be raising your little goobers for at least 4 months to get them through the critical stage. I'll give you an idea of the costs based on my own setups, which I feel I've gotten pretty streamlined.

I built my small enclosures to fit 6 each on top of one sweater box/catch basin at a cost of about $12.00/enclosure. Each sweater box needs it's own pump-up sprayer and misting nozzle manifold, approximate cost per sweater box, $20.00. For heating I opted to heat my herps room with an oil fired portable radiator set on a timer, timer was $5.00, radiator was $85.00 on sale. UVB is provided with 3' two tube shoplights, these are a little more expensive than 4' ones but fit my system better. $18.00/fixture and $30.00 per UVB bulb. $6.00 per enclosure for the Pothos plants. Lots and lots of bugs, $30.00-50.00/week.

The most Jackson's babies I had at one time was 24, which required four of these setups.

Cost per setup

6 enclosures @ $12.00 $ 72.00

Misting system $ 20.00

UVB lighting, fixture and bulbs $ 78.00

Timers for lighting $ 5.00

Plants 6@ $6.00 $ 36.00

Total $211.00

That's just to care for 6 babies.

I didn't include the heat options as there are at least two ways to go. I never figured out a way to heat all those little enclosures individually so I went with the whole room option. The individual option requires 6 dome lights and bulbs, at $15.00 ea for the dome lights and $6.00 per bulb economy quickly told me that the whole room option was cheaper.

Heater & timer $ 90.00

Costs for my largest clutch of Jackson's $934.00

Feeding for 4 months at $40.00/week $640.00

Total for 4 setups and feeding. $1574.00

On average I sold these at $50.00 ea.

Gross income $1200.00

Net Loss $ -374.00

In the long run I did make a profit but it took several years before I did. In the meantime this was a side job and I do mean job. It is a lot of work just to care for the parents. Add 20 some babies and you're spending all your free time taking care of chameleons. That is in addition to having to work a full time job to support myself and the breeding project. When I looked at this as a prospective full time job I quickly realized it was not cost effective unless I went to a much larger scale than I was currently using. 10 females consistently providing me with 24 babies per clutch @ 1 clutch per year is only a gross profit or $12,000.00. When I factored in all the associated costs for adults, housing, lighting, baby setups, food and LABOR it gave me a whole new respect for the professional breeders that have managed to make this their life's work.


As stated before, costs will range widely. The above numbers were what I have experienced. Your numbers will definitely be different and some will be able to do it cheaper than I and some will spend much more than I have. Whether you are the type to get the best deal on everything or the type to get the best that there is available, go into your chameleon keeping/breeding project with your eyes open as to what financial outlay is ahead for you. You will have enough surprises working with chameleons. As much as is possible, do what you can to have a minimum of financial surprises!

Dave Johnston

Dave Johnston is a pet store owner and breeder of Jackson's chameleons.


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