Chameleons, best known for their ability to change color, are intriguing reptiles to observe and care for. As pets, they can be challenging to manage because of their numerous health problems. Captive-born chameleons are recommended over wild-caught chameleons, who tend to have more health problems. However, all chameleons are susceptible to parasites, kidney failure, metabolic bone disease, respiratory infections and diseases related to stress. A pet chameleon should visit the veterinarian every six to 12 months for a checkup and should have regular fecal and blood tests to check for parasites and disease.
Pet chameleons are easily stressed, with excessive stress leading to compromised immune systems. To reduce stress, keep your chameleon in a low-traffic part of your home and limit excessive noise and handling. Chameleons should be kept away from any other pets, including other chameleons. Don't let your chameleon see a reflective surface that could cause him to think another chameleon is present.
Unlike most captive-born chameleons, wild-caught chameleons can also be stressed by being kept as pets. For these chameleons, provide a large and natural-looking environment and watch for signs such as pacing, lethargy, anorexia and aggression.
Upper Respiratory Infections
Upper respiratory infections are common among pet chameleons, and the cause is typically environmental. Signs include a gaped mouth, excessive mucus, popping or wheezing sounds, and inflammation and bubbling around the mouth and nose. An upper respiratory infection that's caught early can be cleared up quickly. To prevent infections, or further infections, check for proper enclosure temperature and air quality, and remove litter regularly from the bottom of the cage.
Pet chameleons can harbor gastrointestinal parasites and should have yearly fecal tests by a veterinarian to check for them. Parasites can be contracted through food, especially if hygiene is poor or if wild insects are fed. Wild-caught chameleons usually harbor parasites, even when retailers label them as parasite-free. Veterinary testing and treatment can eliminate parasites.
Kidney Failure and Gout
Kidney failure is a common cause of death in pet chameleons, often caused by long-term dehydration or by certain veterinarian-prescribed antibiotics. Kidney failure can cause gout, resulting in painful swelling of leg joints.
The low-level dehydration that can cause kidney disease and other maladies can be easy to miss. Appropriate enclosure humidity (between 50 and 75 percent) and an effective water drip system should keep your chameleon appropriately hydrated.
Metabolic Bone Disease
Metabolic bone disease is probably the top cause of pet chameleon growth defects and deaths. Chameleons need at least 12 hours of UV-B light daily to properly process the calcium that they take in from food. Unfiltered sunlight is the preferred source of this light, but proper indoor bulbs can be used. Without enough UV-B light, chameleons can develop metabolic bone disease.
Signs of metabolic bone disease can include clumsiness, bowed legs and a rubbery jaw. Later stages can cause anorexia and a difficulty projecting the tongue to eat and drink. The disease is considered a slow and painful killer. This emphasizes the need for appropriate lighting, especially sunlight, and for regular veterinary visits.
Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images
E. Anne Hunter has more than a decade of experience in education, with a focus on visual design and instructional technology. She holds a master's degree in education. Hunter has contributed to several professional publications, covering education, design, music and fitness, among other topics.