Chameleon Healthcare | Paging Dr. Doolittle



Authored by Karen Venaas of The Chameleon Farm

Chameleon Healthcare | Prevention, First-Aid, and More

Disclaimer: This article is not meant to replace a visit to a qualified herp veterinarian, rather it is to discuss common issues and combat some of the conflicting advice often given. Please contact your vet, not the Internet, when your pets are ill. If you do not have a veterinarian find one and build a relationship before health issues arise.

Chameleon species with an infection

Courtesy of Karen Venaas of The Chameleon Farm

Chameleon Healthcare like our own is important. We’ve all been there. We wake up with a sore throat or upset stomach and hop onto the Internet to see what home remedy will help us feel better. Within minutes we’ve determined we have some rare disease and are not long for this world.

We tend to do the same thing when our pets are not feeling well—look for answers to make them feel better as quickly as possible.

We realize our sore throat is likely just a common cold and treat ourselves with an over-the-counter remedy, when our pets are ill it’s a different story. They can’t tell us what hurts, we can only see the signs, an active puppy becoming lethargic and refusing to eat; or the cat vomiting on the bed in the middle of the night. With chameleons the challenge is much greater.

Chameleons are masters of disguise–not as the old myth of blending into their background states–but by disguising any problems, illnesses or injuries until the issue is so far advanced, they can no longer hide it. In the wild this is a good strategy, as a sick or weak chameleon will quickly become a snack for a larger predator. This strategy does not work well in our living room because if we do not see the problem we cannot fix it early enough to prevent further problems.

When we do realize there is a problem the first thought, is often to look on Internet forums or Facebook groups for help. While this can be a good resource, it can also lead to more problems.

Many “keyboard veterinarians” are eager to diagnose based on a short description or a blurry photo. While an experienced keeper can offer suggestions, even the most experienced keeper or veterinarian cannot make a diagnosis based on so little information.

A reputable veterinarian will not even attempt to make a diagnosis without examining the animal in person.

Oftentimes we may not be able to get to a veterinarian right away so it is important to be aware of what things we can handle on our own and what we can’t. I believe that chameleon keepers, or anyone keeping reptiles or exotic animals needs to be more aware and more diligent than other pet owners. Not every vet is experienced with chameleons and if there is not a local reptile vet available we may have to handle things ourselves until we can locate one. Fortunately there are things we can do, both to keep our chameleons healthy and to deal with unexpected issues.

Unfortunately, the leading cause of illness in chameleons is poor husbandry practices. There are many sources to learn what is the correct way to keep a chameleon so I can’t cover all that here, however, maintaining a clean cage with proper temperatures and humidity will go a long way to keeping a chameleon healthy. Equally important is access to UVB (remember to change your bulb regularly), a varied diet and understanding how to use supplements correctly. Good husbandry is the best way to prevent illnesses. There are a few other simple ways to monitor chameleon health and to be aware of potential issues before they may be visible: checking weight weekly, having a fecal test yearly and keeping records on these items and any other factors affecting your chameleon.

Weighing your chameleon is an easy process. An inexpensive kitchen scale can be used. Place a branch or something the chameleon can hold onto on the scale; be sure to tare the scale (basically zeroing out the weight of the branch to get the correct weight of the chameleon.) With weekly weigh-ins you can be sure your chameleon is gaining or maintaining weight. Weight-loss is a sign that all is not well, especially a sudden or dramatic loss. Another important health care consideration is a yearly fecal check. Twice a year is even better but at least one a year should be done. If you have a good relationship with your vet you should be able to take in a sample for a check without having to bring in your chameleon. If you have many chameleons or enjoy the do-it-yourself method, it is fairly easy to purchase an inexpensive microscope and supplies to check at home. If anything suspicious is found, follow-up with your veterinarian for the correct diagnosis and to get proper medications.

Of course if you are weighing weekly and doing a yearly fecal test it is good to records. Other things that may be helpful to document include: what and how much he is eating, any illnesses and medications, and in the case of a female, anything regarding breeding or egg laying.

Common Chameleon Issues

Diseased Chameleon

Courtesy of Karen Venaas of The Chameleon Farm

In case of emergency you should seek qualified vet care immediately. Emergencies include, but are not limited to: large bleeding wounds or serious burns, extreme sudden lethargy, not breathing. Many other things are serious enough to warrant a vet visit as quickly as possible: respiratory infection, small wounds, abscesses and other infections, suspected egg binding.
Often we see smaller issues and may not be quite sure what to do. While contacting a qualified vet is always a good choice, there are things we can do in the meantime.

Sunken Eyes in Chameleons

Sunken Eyed Chameleon

Courtesy of Karen Venaas of The Chameleon Farm

This is a common issue but before you yell out “it’s dehydrated, give it water,” please understand there are other health issues causing sunken eyes. Stress, parasites, and extreme weight loss can all contribute to sunken eyes.
Since dehydration is common we will start there.

  • Are you providing your chameleon with adequate water to drink?
  • Is your humidity on point?

Cool Mist Humidifier

Things to try: Start by increasing the length of misting or add another period of misting. If it is very dry you can run a simple cool mist humidifier (available at drug stores) in the same room to increase overall humidity. You can also put your cham in the shower to give him time to drink and enjoy the increased humidity.
What not to do: Your chameleon does not need a bath or a soak, he does not need pedialyte of Gatorade, and he does not need to be force-fed any food supplements via syringe. If your husbandry is correct and you are providing plenty of misting and proper humidity and your chameleon does not improve, it is time to see a vet to rule out other issues.

Other Chameleon Eye Issues

Unfortunately, eye problems in chameleons are all too common. You may find one or both eyes closed or swollen, or notice a discharge from either eye. There are many causes of eye issues, anything from a foreign object (dirt, shed, etc.) causing irritation to problems with lighting, an infection, or a supplement issue.
Things to try: As above, try to increase mistings in case there is something irritating the eye. You can also get a mild saline solution at the drugstore to flush the eye to loosen and remove any debris. Check your UVB bulb— compact UVB bulbs have been known to cause eye issues in the past, there is debate if they still do but if you are using one try switching it to a linear bulb. Also make sure you are supplementing properly.
What not to do: As above, do not try to force-feed or water. Because eye issues can have so many causes and can lead to so many problems in an animal who relies so much on their eyes, a trip to the vet is the best bet for this issue.

Decreased Appetite/Not Eating in Chameleons

Mouth Infection in a Chameleon

Courtesy of Karen Venaas of The Chameleon Farm

Sometimes Chameleons will eat less or stop eating altogether. This is often due to minor things such approaching adulthood, seasonal changes or temperatures too low, dehydration or just boredom with feeders. It can also be due to more serious issues such as stomatitis (mouth infection), a heavy parasite load or other illness.
Things to try: Check your temperatures and if it is too low increase by a few degrees. Because dehydration can be a cause, also increase misting and humidity. Offering a variety of feeders is always a good idea. Chameleons love flying insects so try flies or moths to stimulate interest.
What not to do: Again, do not resort to force-feeding as a first response. An otherwise healthy Chameleon can go for several days (or longer) without eating. If you have been monitoring your Chameleons weight you will be able to determine if any weight loss is occurring. If your Chameleon is losing weight or continues refusing food it is time to see the vet.

Stuck shed or difficulty shedding

Chameleon in shed

Courtesy of Karen Venaas of The Chameleon Farm

Baby chameleons shed their entire bodies in a very short amount of time. Older chameleons shed in parts, and a bit slower. This can lead people to think there is a problem when there isn’t. If your chameleon truly is having trouble shedding it is a husbandry issue. A well-hydrated chameleon with proper humidity is not likely to have a problem shedding.

Things to try: Longer mistings or showers increase humidity. Check the temperatures. Higher temps will lead to a drier habitat. Don’t make it too cold–just make sure the temperatures are not too high.
What not to do: Do not soak your chameleon. While this may get some of the shed off, it is just too stressful and misting or showering will work just as well. Do not put medications or creams on your chameleon not meant to aid shedding.

If fixing your husbandry does not help, check with your vet about other remedies.

Tongue Problems in Chameleons

Like the eyes, the tongue is a very important part of chameleon anatomy. Any issues with the tongue affects the chameleon’s ability to eat. It may be a minor issue or injury that causes the chameleon to not shoot his tongue very far or it could be a major injury resulting in loss of the tongue. Infection, Metabolic Bone Disease or other illness can also be factors.
Things to try: Longer misting or showers increase humidity in case dehydration is an issue. Hand feed to reduce stress on the tongue to give it time to recover (by hand feed I mean to offer insects via tongs or your fingers, not feeding via syringe).
What not to do: Don’t try to force feed. Don’t soak your chameleon, don’t use creams or medications without consulting a vet. Because the tongue is such a crucial body part and may be a symptom of a larger issue, it is best to see a vet for appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

Gaping/Mouth Open

Mouth check of a Chameleon

Courtesy of Karen Venaas of The Chameleon Farm

Chameleons often gape in an aggressive manner as a warning to leave them alone. This is usually accompanied by hissing or lunging. The gaping I am referring to here is when they are sitting alone in their cage with their mouth open. If they are doing this and are also a pale color it is likely they are too hot. If they are gaping and wheezing it is likely a respiratory issue and will need a vet.
Things to try: Check temperatures, especially basking temps. Adjust as needed.
What not to do: If your chameleon is too hot is it a fairly easy fix–adjust temperatures. Editor’s Note: For checking temperatures you cannot beat Zilla Infrared Reptile Terrarium Thermometer. If it is a respiratory infection you will need a vet for diagnosis and proper medication. Some people attempt home remedies or dose with medication they buy from the Internet. This may work if they have the experience and are able to dose correctly. But for most keepers I strongly recommend a vet visit to get the correct medications and dosage for your animal. (For more on this see Dr. McCormack at HerpHouseMag.com

Lethargy/Falling/Weakness

If your chameleon is suddenly weak and falling it is generally a serious issue. It is likely one or more of the above issues have been seen leading up to this point. The best and really only option is a vet visit.
Obviously, I cannot cover all possible ailments, causes or possible cures. I can only share things I have learned from both my vet and other experienced keepers. I highly recommend all pet owners find a suitable veterinarian and build a relationship with them. Please, understand, information on the Internet may not be accurate and make sure whatever you do, it does not cause harm to your chameleon. Always continue to research and learn and understand how to keep your chameleon happy and healthy.

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*A note about feeding or watering a chameleon via syringe*
One of the things I see recommended all to often is for people to force water or a powdered (mixed with water) food into their chameleon via syringe. While there are certainly times for this, it is recommended far too often in cases where it may do more harm than good. This procedure is not without risk and should not be undertaken by someone who does not know how to do it without further harming the chameleon.
Also, the products frequently suggested are not made for chameleons but for carnivores such as cats or ferrets and contain high amounts of fat and protein. Not a good long-term solution for a chameleon.
Before you jump to force-feeding try offering soft worms like wax worms or silkworms available from our sponsor Ghann’s Cricket Farm. Most of the time if you can get the food into the chameleon’s mouth they will eat it. If you do need to resort to feeding a mix via syringe try a product more suited to chameleons. I use Repashy Grubs ‘N’ Fruit. Like other suggested foods it is a powder that you mix with water. The ingredients include insect meal and a variety of dried fruits and flowers, ingredients that are part of the chameleon diet and used to gut load the feeders.
*** Thoughts on how to behave on the Internet***
If you do ask for advice online, here are some things to make it easier:

  • Seek out an experienced keeper and ask privately. Most long-term keepers are more than happy to help.
  • Provide a recent clear photo of the animal and habitat. As I mentioned previously, no one can really diagnose from a photo but it can provide useful information and help to correct husbandry issues.
  • Give as much information as you can and be honest. Often we feel guilty or fear we have done something wrong. It’s better to share everything to get the best feedback.

If you offer advice online:

  • Be kind. We were all beginners once.
  • Know what you are talking about. Don’t just parrot back something you heard.
  • If you aren’t sure leave it to more experienced keepers to help.

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