Though they have the reputation of being delicate and needing extreme focus by an advanced reptile keeper, chameleons are actually hardy, feed well, and make excellent reptile pets as long as their captive husbandry requirements are met. The species a keeper is mostly likely to be successful with are the Panther Chameleons and Veiled Chameleons. Of course, the captive-bred chameleons available from pet stores and reptile shows around the country have a much better chance of long-term survival.
When Madagascar relaxed its restrictions on exporting reptiles, the Panther Chameleon (Furcifer pardalis) was a popular export into the pet trade. Since this time, the Panther Chameleon has been bred in fairly large numbers by devoted reptile breeders and captive-hatched specimens are regularly available to hobbyists. These captive-hatched specimens are typically hardy and stress-free and make wonderful pets. They are moderately sized and come in a rainbow of different colors, making them a joy to keep. They have prehensile tails, unique eyes, unusual feet, a friendly face, and are easily handled.
There are regional variations in the coloration of Panther Chameleons from Madagascar, and males can be blue-green with patches of red and yellow on the head, vibrant blue, red, yellow, or orange. The Panther Chameleon can grow to 14” in total length. These chameleons are sexually dimorphic, meaning that it is easy to tell the difference between males and females. The males are brightly colored and have noticeable ridges on their heads. Females remain a gray, brown, pale orange, or faint green.
The preferred range of temperatures for Panther Chameleons is between 76º and 82º F. The humidity should be maintained at around 60%. The chameleons need UVB exposure daily (five to six hours a day), as well as heat from a basking light at one end of the cage. Make sure there is a branch under the basking light so the chameleon can move closer to or away from the heat source.
Veiled Chameleons are found in nature in the Middle East. They are found in a variety of habitats, including mountain slopes along the coastline. Therefore, they do enjoy access to water and their humidity requirements are higher than what one would expect from a Middle Eastern species. Luckily, dedicated, reputable chameleon breeders are producing healthy captive-bred Veiled Chameleons that do well in captivity. These chameleons can grow quite large, with adult males reaching 18". Females are a bit smaller, reaching only about 12-14" in total length. Hatchlings start off life very small, in the 2 to 4" range. Veiled Chameleons need a fairly hot basking area. The best ambient temperature for Veiled Chameleons during the day is between 75° and 80° F. By placing a heat bulb approximately 6 to 8" above a perch inside the enclosure, a basking spot of approximately 90° to 95° F can be provided. This results in a hot basking area directly under the heat lamp and cooler temperatures lower down in the enclosure, so your chameleon can move toward the heat when necessary and can get away from the heat when it gets too hot.
These lizards also need UVB rays that ensure proper calcium absorption. This UVB can be provided by natural sunlight outdoors, but for those kept indoors, keepers must provide a UVB-emitting lamp. Keep in mind that UVB rays are filtered out by glass (and somewhat by screen mesh), so place the full-spectrum light on top of the screen top of the enclosure. Chameleons not provided with a healthy diet, calcium with Vitamin D3, and UVB rays, will eventual become sick and die.
Panther Chameleons and Veiled Chameleons feed on commercially available prey items, including dubia roaches, crickets, roaches, mealworms, waxworms, and newborn even mice. Waxworms and mice should be fed sparingly, as diets with too many of these delicacies have been found to lead to gout.
Adult chameleons love dubia roaches! Their larger size seems to attract chameleons on the prowl for prey and their soft bodies and high nutrient content catch the chameleon's eye every time. Roaches can be placed in a clear deli cup on the enclosure's floor or in the branches and the chameleons will enjoy easy access to the roaches. Young chameleons should be offered three or four small roaches daily and adult chameleons need to be fed three or four larger roaches each day or a few more every other day. Other invertebrate prey items can be offered to add some variety to the diet.
As with most lizards, you need to supplement the food sources by gut loading your roaches with fresh fruit, vegetables, fish flakes, and any of the commercially available diets. In addition to gut loading, you can dust the roaches with a mixture of 1/3 calcium with added Vitamin D3 and 2/3 vitamin powder every few times you feed.
In captivity, medical issues with chameleons include gout, Vitamin D3 and calcium deficiencies, electrolyte deficiency, metabolic bone disease (MBD), acidosis, and alkalosis. Proper husbandry and feeding dubia roaches that are properly gut-loaded and dusted with calcium and Vitamin D3 will help prevent any of these ailments.
Bartlett, R. and P. Bartlett. 2001. Jackson's and Veiled Chameleons: Facts & Advice on Care and Breeding. Reptile and Amphibian Keeper's Guide. Barrons Publishing.
Dorval, C. 2006. Chameleons in Captivity (Professional Breeders Series). ECO Herpetological Publishing & Distribution. Rodeo, New Mexico.
Ferguson, G., K. Kalisch, and S. McKeown. 2007. Chameleons: Care and Breeding of Jackson's, Panther, Veiled, and Parson's (Herpetocultural Library).
LeBerre, F, R. D. Bartlett, and P. Bartlett. 2000. The Chameleon Handbook. Barron’s.
Vosjoli de, P. and G. Ferguson. 1995. Care and Breeding of Chameleons. Advanced Vivarium Systems, USA.