Kids and Chameleons

By Allison Banks


Banks, A. (2004). Kids and Chameleons. Chameleons! Online E-Zine, January 2004. (

At some point most children will see a picture of a chameleon online, in books, or see one in person at a pet shop. They are fascinating reptiles and well worth a look! But, when your child comes to you starry-eyed begging for one as a pet, what should you do?

In this article we hope to give you enough information so your family can make a good decision. It isn't that we don't want you to own a chameleon, rather we don't want the chameleon to suffer needlessly or for your children to suffer when their new pet becomes sick and eventually dies. At the end of the article is a list of books and internet sites that have more detailed information. There is also a list of required supplies, equipment, manufacturers for some specific items along with cost estimates.

First, a bit of biology:

Chameleons of the old world reptile family Chameleonidae originate in Madagascar, east Africa, and some places in the Middle East. There are about 250 species known. Most species you will see in pet stores grow from 8 to 18 inches in length. They have excellent full color vision but poor hearing. Each eye rotates independently and can focus on 2 different things at the same time. They have simple peg teeth and strong jaw muscles, so some can bite hard enough to break your skin. Any reptile can carry salmonella bacteria, but if you follow basic hygiene when handling and cage cleaning the risk is low.

Chameleons come in many beautiful colors and patterns, however they do not change color to match their surroundings. Each species has a specific color pattern that changes in response to heat, cold, anger, fear, excitement or sickness. Their skin turns dark to help absorb heat when cold or when very upset. When overheated they shift to a light pale color to reflect heat away. The brighter the markings on a chameleon the higher its level of anxiety or stress. To catch prey they shoot out their stretchy tongue and snag the insect on the sticky tip. (see: The Chameleon's Tongue) Their tails are prehensile, meaning they can use it as an anchor or flexible extra foot. They cannot drop their tail voluntarily like many lizards. Chameleon feet are specially adapted for climbing. The toes are partially fused together into a pincer tipped with small sharp claws. Some species lay eggs and some give birth to live young. Some species of egg producers will develop infertile eggs even if they haven't mated, and will need to deposit the eggs periodically.

Here are the basic necessities for any chameleon to thrive:

*Chameleons normally live in trees and shrubbery so the usual glass terrariums used for ground dwelling lizards or snakes are usually not suitable as housing. They require a fairly large ventilated mesh cage filled with sturdy live houseplants for climbing, hunting, drinking, and hiding from view. The bigger the cage the better to allow them to regulate their temperature, hunt, drink, and hide.(See: Gradients in caging)

*Chameleons are cold blooded, meaning they require exposure to heat and ultraviolet lighting to regulate their body temperature and to metabolize vitamins in their food. You will need a basking light in a fixture on top of the cage in addition to a specific ultraviolet light for up to 12 hours every day. Ultraviolet lighting is not cheap, and most lights available in pet shops do not meet this need. Aquarium lighting and/or full spectrum "grow" lights will not work. UV lights emit ultraviolet for less time than the bulb will burn. You will need new bulbs every 6 months as the UV drops off after that time. The cage must be large enough so there is a gradient of temperature from warm to cool, so you will also need accurate thermometers for both warm and cool zones. Chameleons need darkness and cooler temperatures at night, so you must remember to turn all lights off every evening and on every morning.

*Chameleons are predators, meaning they eat live insects only. In addition to the chameleon you will need to house and care for lots of crickets, flies, moths, various beetle larvae, mealworms, grubs, even roaches to keep them healthy. Pet shop crickets are not fed well, so you will have to provide fresh fruit, dark green veggies and cereal grains to the insects before the chameleon eats them. Most commercial "gut loads" are quite deficient in nutrients. You will need calcium and reptile vitamin powder supplements to coat the insects occasionally. Just about every issue of this EZine discusses a food item or has the Nutrition column which will help provide fodd information.

*Chameleons require circulating humid air and a lot of water. They don't see water unless it's moving, so instead of a simple water dish in the cage you must hand-spray the cage and foliage with hot water several times a day. They will lick water off their faces or leaves and clean their eyes. You will also need an accurate humidity gauge for the cage at all times. If your climate is dry you may need a room humidifier to keep the chameleon comfortable.

*Chameleons are loners. They are easily stressed by too much handling or teasing, too much activity and noise around the cage, seeing other pets or even each other. One chameleon per cage! (see: Co-Habitation) Most chameleons do not like to be watched. Your child understandably wants to play with their pet and show off their beauty to friends, but too much of this will eventually make the chameleon sick and can kill it.

* Chameleons hide signs of sickness until it is often too late to help them. Most vets have never seen a chameleon and may not be able to diagnose or treat their problems. Don't assume your local vet can help if your chameleon becomes sick. Ask them before you need their help. Common health problems include vitamin and mineral deficiencies, metabolic bone disease, upper respiratory infections, skin burns from heat lamps, intestinal parasites, and kidney failure.(see: Veterinary Relationship)

Daily chores required:

Turn lights on

Spray cage and plants (with water 2-3 times a day minimum)

Give live food

Check cage temperatures and humidity

Clean up droppings, care for plants, and any dead or dying insects in cage

Clean and feed insects

Turn lights off

Required supplies (these are the basics!):
Cost of Keeping Chameleons)

Cage appropriate to the size of your chameleon (usually a screen cage)

Sturdy live green plants (Hawaiian schefflera, Ficus benjamina, Pothos, Hybiscus)

Basking light (can be an ordinary light bulb)

Ultraviolet emitting fluorescent light: (recommended safe one is the ReptiSun 5.0)

Accurate thermometer for basking spot and cool spot in the cage

Quality electronic humidity gauge

Live insects including crickets, superworms, mealworms, waxworms, silkworms, moths, houseflies, spiders, grasshoppers, stick insects and mantids.

Gutloads for feeder insects including dark leafy greens and carrots, fruit such as orange, fortified cereal grains such as Total or chicken mash.

Calcium dusting powder such as RepCal or MinerAll (about once a week)

Reptile vitamin powder such as Herptivite (about once a month depending on insect gutloads)

Water Drip system

Pump type hand sprayer for misting

Ultrasonic room humidifier for dry climates

Species commonly available:

Veiled Chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus)

Panther Chameleon (Furcifer pardalis)

Jackson's Chameleon (Chamaeleo jacksonii)

We recommend you buy an older chameleon rather than a tiny baby. Babies require very small food such as pinhead crickets and fruitflies by the hundreds, are easily injured and overheated and can be delicate to care for. We also recommend staying away from wild caught adult chameleons as they are often extremely stressed, suffering from deficiencies and dehydration, need repeated treatment for parasites, and can be difficult to acclimate.

Some species you may see that are almost always wild-caught include:

Meller's Chameleon (Chamaeleo melleri)

Fischer's Chameleon (Bradypodion fischeri multituberculatum or fischeri)

"Pygmy" or "Leaf" Chameleons (Brookesia, Bradypodion, Rhampholeon species)

Rudis Chameleon (Chamaeleo rudis)

Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis)

Graceful Chameleon (Chamaeleo gracilis)

Senegal Chameleon (Chamaeleo senegalensis)

Comoro Island or Dwarf Panther Chameleon (Chamaeleo cephalolepis)

Generally, Old World or "true" chameleons are not the best pets for kids. There are exceptions to the rule, but most young children and teens are not prepared for such a project and frankly the chameleon is not prepared for life as a pet! They are not social creatures and won't enjoy or tolerate much handling by an eager young owner. Most are unable to seriously injure a child, but these are things you should be aware of.

Online resources:

Active chameleon discussion forums can be found at:

Allison Banks

Allison Banks is currently a wilderness management planner for Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in SE Alaska. She has a degree in wildlife Biology and Management from Oregon State Univeristy and has worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service for about 15 years in National Wildlife Refuge System management and endangered species recovery programs. She started her chameleon addition in 1994.


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