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7 Signs of a Sick Chameleon

Chameleon being held in a hand

Chameleons are fascinating reptiles that are famous for their ability to change colors. While we might think it’s a cool trick, they actually do this to help regulate their body temperature—changing to a darker color helps them absorb more heat and lighter colors help reflect the sun’s rays. Pet chameleons require several habitat accessories to help keep them healthy, including a supplemental heat source, ultraviolet (UV) light and dripping water. Pet chameleons can quickly become ill if their nutritional and environmental needs are not met properly. Chameleon pet parents should be proactive about the health of their pets and always be on the lookout for signs of a sick chameleon. For more information on helping keep your pets happy and healthy, visit the Health and Wellness section of our Resource Center, where you can also find a Veiled Chameleon Care Sheet, a Warm Climate Chameleon Care Sheet and much more. 

Chameleon health care basics  

Trees are a chameleon’s natural habitat. To help your pet chameleon feel at home, their habitat should have a lot of climbing branches. If you have the room, a tall enclosure with a ficus tree inside can be the start of a great setup.  

As reptiles, chameleons are cold-blooded—meaning they rely on external sources of heat to control their internal body temperature. Pet chameleons need access to both a hot and cool zone in their habitat so they can regulate their body temperature accordingly. The exact preferred temperatures of these different zones depends on the breed of chameleon. Most breeds prefer a daytime temperature ranging between 70-75°F in the cool zone to 85-95°F in the warm zone. At night, when the UV light is off, temperatures should not fall below 65-70°F. Chameleons also require exposure to full-spectrum (UVA and UVB) ultraviolet light within their habitat. When it is warm enough outside, they will also benefit from direct natural sunlight. 

In terms of nutrition, your chameleon needs to eat lots of live bugs—including crickets, mealworms, cockroaches, wax moths, superworms and waxworms. When providing prey insects to your chameleon, they should be both dusted with a calcium supplement and gut-loaded with nutrient-rich foods. Veiled chameleons may occasionally eat small amounts of leafy green veggies, such as collard greens, kale and dandelion greens. When it comes to drinking, chameleons are unique in that they will only drink water when it is dripping. Automated water drip systems are commercially available, or you can mist the plants in your chameleon’s habitat several times a day to create water droplets on leaves that they can drink from.  

7 signs of a sick chameleon

1. Lethargy General lethargy—an overall weakness and slowness—is one major sign that something is up with your chameleon. If your once active lizard is now sitting listlessly on the floor of their habitat, it’s time to call your veterinarian. Lethargy is a nonspecific sign of many chameleon illnesses.  

2. Lesions Some sick chameleons also experience oral or skin lesions. A lesion is a discolored, raised or flat area of skin or mucous membrane in the mouth that often appears scabbed or bleeding. Lesions can be caused by a fungal, bacterial, viral or parasitic infection, as well as cancer, inflammation or trauma. If you notice sudden changes in the color or texture around your pet’s mouth or on their skin, you should have them evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Lesions and their underlying conditions can often be treated successfully when they are diagnosed early.  

3. Sunken or swollen eyes When chameleons become dehydrated or lose weight, their eyes often look sunken. Chameleons will become dehydrated if they are not provided with dripping water to drink. While sunken eyes may indicate that you have a dehydrated chameleon, swollen eyes can be a sign  of other underlying health issues—such as vitamin A deficiency. If you notice changes in the position or appearance of your chameleon’s eyes, have them examined by a vet to determine the underlying cause.  

4. Weight loss If your pet chameleon appears to be losing weight, this could also signify that they are ill. While it’s not as easy to spot weight loss in a chameleon as it might be in a dog or cat, you may notice that your chameleon’s ribs look more prominent or their skin is sagging. These are signs that your chameleon has lost muscle and fat. Sudden weight loss can result from several things, including bacterial and parasitic infection, nutritional deficiencies and inappropriate environmental conditions. If you suspect your chameleon is losing weight, have them checked out by a veterinarian as soon as possible. 

5. Fluid under the skin Kidney failure in chameleons is serious and has a few distinct symptoms. One of these symptoms is fluid under the skin, especially under the jaw and along the neck. While buildup of subcutaneous fluid may be caused by a number of illnesses, it commonly occurs with kidney failure in chameleons. Other signs of kidney failure in chameleons include a lump in front of the pelvis, an inability to poop, bloodshot eyes and swollen joints. If you notice any of these signs in your chameleon, they should be examined by a veterinarian right away.

6. Decreased appetite As with other sick pets,  chameleons often eat little to nothing when they are ill. Your pet lizard should be excited to hunt the live bugs you offer every day. Any chameleon that doesn’t go after their daily ration of insects should be checked out by a vet. 

7. Inability to climb Chameleons love to climb by using their opposable thumbs and prehensile tail to grasp and hold on to vines and branches. A chameleon who struggles to grasp a branch or shows no interest in climbing may not be feeling well. If your lizard stops climbing on the branches in their habitat, it’s time to visit your vet. 

Chameleon being held in a hand

What do I need to keep my chameleon healthy? 

There are a few essential chameleon supplies that you need to keep your chameleon going strong. First, you need to make sure your pet does not get dehydrated. If you mist down their habitat for several minutes twice a day, they will drink the water that collects on leaves.  If you don’t have time to do this, an automatic mister or drip system is a good alternative.

You also need to feed your chameleon a variety of live bugs supplemented with calcium. Make sure you set up a heat source—such as an over-the-tank ceramic heat bulb—and at least two thermometers so that you can maintain a temperature-controlled habitat with both hot and cold zones. You also need a full-spectrum UV light, which helps your chameleon make vitamin D in their skin that enables absorption of dietary calcium. Finally, you’ll need a hygrometer (humidity gauge) to monitor the habitat’s humidity level. Chameleons generally need approximately 50-60% humidity to help ensure they stay hydrated and can shed skin properly. Excessively high humidity can lead to bacterial and fungal skin infections.

How do you tell if your chameleon has a respiratory infection? 

If your Jackson’s chameleon or other species of pet chameleon has trouble breathing, it could be a sign of a respiratory infection. If you notice labored breathing, wheezing or bubbles coming from the mouth or nose, it’s time to consult your vet.  

Several factors contribute to the development of respiratory infections in chameleons. If chameleons are housed in habitats where the temperature is too low, their bodies expend a great deal of energy trying to keep warm and their immune systems don’t function optimally—predisposing them to infection. Excess humidity can also lead to respiratory infection, as it contributes to the growth of harmful bacteria and fungi.  

How do you know if a chameleon is dying? 

Any time you suspect your pet is showing sick chameleon symptoms, you should take the situation seriously. Chameleons are delicate reptiles whose health can deteriorate quickly, leading to rapid death. Signs of illness in your chameleon that warrant a trip to your vet include weakness, dehydration, sunken eyes, inability to climb and refusal to eat.  

A drastic change in color may also indicate that your pet chameleon is sick. Sick chameleon colors vary, but when a typically blue or green lizard suddenly starts to turn brown or black, they may be significantly ill.  

How can I save my chameleon? 

If you notice any signs of a sick chameleon, you should contact your veterinarian as soon as possible. You may also be able to provide some immediate care to help revive an ill lizard before getting them to the veterinarian. Hydration is key—if your chameleon is weak or is unwilling to eat live food, encouraging them to drink water is important. If they won’t drink, you can soak them in a shallow pan of warm water to help them become hydrated. You should also check the habitat’s thermometers to ensure the temperature range is appropriate and your chameleon isn’t too hot or cold. 

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Reviewed by Petco’s Animal Care, Education and Compliance (ACE) Team

Petco’s ACE team is a passionate group of experienced pet care experts dedicated to supporting the overall health & wellness of pets. The ACE team works to develop animal care operations and standards across the organization and promote proper animal care and education for Pet Care Center partners and pet parents, while also ensuring regulatory compliance.