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The Veiled Chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus) Purchase and Captive Care

by Petra Spiess

This article appeared in the July 1997 issue of Reptiles Magazine


Newly hatched veiled chameleon are small, and should be kept in enclosures small enough for the owner to keep a close watch on the health and activity of the animal. A one to three month old veiled chameleon can be housed in an enclosure the size of a standard 10 gallon aquarium. There is anecdotal evidence to support the idea that veiled chameleons benefit from cross-ventilation in their enclosures. To accomplish this, at least two sides of the enclosure should be made of mesh, or at the very least, have a screen top. Young veiled chameleons can be housed in a 10 gallon aquarium with a screen top, but there are other commercially available choices for veiled chameleon housing that may be better. There are some new commercially manufactured enclosures on the market that have two, three, or all sides made of screen. These enclosures are made specifically with chameleons in mind, and many models feature a vertical format. Veiled chameleons are an arboreal species, and as such, they prefer vertical space to horizontal space. These enclosures can be found in reptile specialty stores, or mail-ordered through companies that advertise in herpetological journals and magazines. Veiled chameleons grow at an astounding rate; a hatchling can be close to adult size in six to eight months. Adult veiled chameleons should be housed in enclosures with minimum dimensions of 3 x 3 x 4 ft (l x w x h), a larger enclosure is always preferable.

Once a suitable enclosure is acquired, it is important to furnish it properly. Veiled chameleons are highly adapted to their arboreal lifestyle, and require climbing and basking branches. The branches should be slightly larger in diameter than the chameleon's grip, so the animal can walk and perch comfortably. For baby chameleons, it is sometimes difficult to find small enough branches, but a trip to a local craft store can solve this problem quickly. Craft stores often sell grapevine wreaths, which can be torn apart to furnish small twigs. Place the branches or twigs inside the enclosure criss-crossing each other to form little "chameleon highways". Do not crowd the cage, but make sure the animal has enough branches for sleeping spots, basking spots, and eating perches. As the chameleon matures, gradually increase the diameter of the branches until the animal has reached its adult size. Branches large enough for adult chameleons can be purchased or collected. Lashing large branches together can be a chore, but there is a two dollar item that can relieve this problem. Cable ties can be used to lash large branches together in a sturdy climbing structure, but make sure to cut off the excess ribbon far enough so that the chameleon cannot scratch itself on the sharp edge. Hardware stores carry cable ties in many different colors and sizes. On the bottom of the cage, use butcher paper or newspaper cut to size. Do not use sand or other loose substrates because chameleons can ingest some should they attempt to consume a stray insect from the floor of the cage. Another important aspect of veiled chameleon housing is plant life.

Unlike many other chameleons, veileds will consume an appreciable amount of vegetable matter in their diet. Adult veiled chameleons consume more vegetable matter that babies or juveniles (Bertoni, 1994), but veileds of all ages should have access to vegetation at all times. One of the best, and most visibly appealing ways to provide for this need is to have a live plant in the enclosure. There is some debate about the suitability of ficus plants in veiled chameleon enclosures, because the plants have a milky, irritating sap that may cause eye infections. Many people have used ficus plants in veiled chameleon enclosures with no ill effects, but it may be best to err on the side of caution here. By far the best plant I have found for veiled chameleon enclosures is pothos. Pothos plants are attractive, hard to kill, non-toxic, and tasty to veiled chameleons. Some veiled chameleon enthusiasts have voiced concern over the rather high oxalate content of pothos because this can cause problems with calcium absorption. To deal with this possible problem, also offer the veiled chameleon some fresh collard or mustard greens, which have a high calcium content. I use "veggie-clips", which are intended for use in aquariums, to clip a section of collard leaf to the side of the cage. I have found that my veiled will eat sections of this leaf rather than the pothos. I have not seen any problems with my animal consuming small amounts of pothos, so including the plant in the enclosure to provide cover is still a good idea. Be careful where the pothos is purchased however, because many nurseries spray their plants with pesticides, which can be harmful to the animal if consumed. Ask the employees about their pesticide use, and obtain a pesticide free plant if possible. Do not include toxic plants in veiled chameleon enclosures, the animal will try to eat them. If the toxicity of a plant is not known, contact someone at a herpetological society for advice. In any event, make sure to wash the leaves off with clean water before putting it in the enclosure. Make sure to also put some branches under the leaves of the plant; this provides hiding areas for the animals, and they will often choose to sleep in these areas.

Do not house more than one veiled chameleon per enclosure. When veiled chameleons are very young (under 3 months), it is possible to house some together without too much undue stress, but attempt to house them separately if possible. Veiled chameleons are extremely asocial creatures and do not tolerate the presence of other species very well. Male veileds are extremely combative and will fight if placed together. Male veileds can be easily identified from birth by the presence of a small, triangular, fleshy appendage that stems from the crux of the rear feet. This appendage is called a tarsal spur, and is a reliable method of sexing veiled chameleons. Housing a male and a female together can be done if the enclosure is very large, say the size of a greenhouse. If the enclosure is small, do not attempt to house even a male and female together. The constant presence of the male will stress the female severely. The only time veiled chameleons should be put together is during the brief time required for copulation, otherwise, keep them separate. The next important factor in veiled chameleon care is heating and lighting.

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