Chameleons, the peculiar pet

Chameleons are peculiar animals. They have large bulging eyes that can move independently, move slowly with a rocking locomotion and are known to change colour rapidly. They have a flat body which is leaf shaped to camouflage them in their environment. When walking along branches they sway from side to side to look like a leaf. There are 150 different species of Chameleons, with most species living in Africa and Madagascar. However, they can also be found in Spain, Arabian Peninsula, India and Sri Lanka.

Veiled chameleon

The veiled chameleon is most commonly kept as pets in South Africa. The males can measure up to 60 cm in size, while the female veiled chameleon will grow up to 35 cm. Males have a larger body and casque (head crest or helmet) when mature. They are born with tarsal spurs which makes sexing them very easy. The average lifespan of the males is up to 8 years and 5 years for females.

Chameleons become sexually mature between four to eight months of age. These chameleons lay 35 to 85 eggs in the ground per breeding. The eggs should be carefully moved to an incubator. It will then take five to ten months before the eggs hatch.


Chameleons are diurnal, which means that they are mainly active during the day. They are solitary animals and are therefore best kept alone. However, a male and female or two females can be kept together in a large cage with visual barriers. They are very aggressive towards other chameleons. However normally they are very shy and when startled or feeling threatened they may curl into a tight foetal position, darken in colour, and "play dead". Take your reptile out daily for 10 to 15 minutes to expose your pet to unfiltered sunlight to produce its own vitamin D3. Chameleons should have a UVB light in its cage for 10 to 12 hours per day. The light should be changed every six months depending on the lifetime of the UVB light. UVB does not penetrate glass, so the light has to be inside the enclosure. Chameleons should receive calcium and vitamin D supplements, either dusted over the insects or given as food to the insects. The insects should be dusted at least three times a week.

Colour changing

Chameleons have the tendency to change their colour in accordance with their mood, which also acts as a great defence mechanism. Chameleons have coloured pigments in the outer layers of their skin. These cells are known as chromatophores. Different colour pigments are present in different layers. The top layer of the skin has yellow coloured pigments while the lower layers have blue or white pigments. Changes in these cells bring a change in the colour of the chameleon.

Chameleons can move each eye separately and can thoroughly scan their surroundings. Their eyes can rotate 180 degrees.


Chameleons are insectivores and therefore feed primarily on insects. They have the ability to capture prey by projecting their sticky tongue. Their tongues are also used for smell and taste. The veiled chameleon has been observed to have preferred prey types, especially green insects seem to be a favourite. It is important to always feed your chameleon gut- loaded insects. Gut loading the insects is the process in which feeder insects are fed a diet high in protein and other nutrients prior to feeding. There is a wide variety of insects that you can give your chameleon, such as crickets, mealworms, super worms, waxworms, grasshoppers, silkworms and even Madagascar roaches. All these insects should have a live stage of an appropriate size to feed your chameleon. Additional supplemental nutrients should be added to the diet by "dusting" crickets or other feeder insects with a vitamin and mineral powder. A specific reptile calcium and vitamin powder is available at Family Pet Centre.

Veiled chameleons do like to eat blossoms and leaves, such as dandelions, hibiscus, Ficus, romaine and escarole. Always make sure these blossoms are not sprayed with pesticide and do not originate from road side lawns, which can result in lead toxicity.

They only drink water from morning dew and rain that has fallen onto leaves, so therefore it is important to mist the enclosure with a spray bottle three times a day for approximately two minutes, including all the leaves and branches in the enclosure. The humidity in the enclosure should be maintained between 40-60% relative humidity. Automatic misting systems are available and create the correct humidity for the chameleon.


They require screen-sided enclosures which result in increased airflow. Most glass aquariums are not suitable. They are often too small and lead to the accumulation of stagnant air which can cause upper-respiratory tract infections in veiled chameleons. The size of the cage should be at least 60 by 60 by 90 cm, however larger enclosures are recommended. A vertical cage is best suited for chameleons. Synthetic plants with plastic leaves (not silk) can be used together with common, non-toxic plants such as Ficus, Schefflera, Hibiscus and Pothos; these live plants will provide cover and help to maintain humidity inside the enclosure. Chameleons need a light that will serve as a heat source, so they can bask and regulate their body temperature. The temperature in the day should range between 20 to 35 °C, while during the night the temperature may drop with 5 to 8°C (20-22°C). They also need lighting that will provide UVB, to ensure proper calcium absorption.

Most common health issues

Metabolic bone disease (see blog on, egg binding, ophthalmic (eye) diseases and periodontal disease are common problems in chameleons. Contact your veterinarian if you think that your chameleon is sick.


Please feel free to contact us for more information.

Written by Dr Tessa Brouwer, BVSc, MSc, BSc



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