Panther Chameleon Diseases, Parasites and Illnesses

Numerous health problems can affect captive panther chameleons. Captive born chameleons generally experience fewer health problems than imported animals. There are many reasons for this, some of which are detailed in Assessing the Health of Wild Caught Chameleons.

It is important to understand that chameleons are excellent at masking symptoms in the early stages of disease. This is a preservation strategy that helps wild chameleons avoid predation. By the time the disease has progressed to the point where a chameleon has visible and obvious signs of illness such as closed or sunken eyes and weak grip, the chances of recovery are low, even with medical intervention. It is essential that keepers observe their panther chameleons daily and react early to any subtle signs of declining health by seeking the help of a veterinarian. Periodic examinations by a veterinarian are also beneficial in determining any changes in health since the previous exam.

While chameleons are subject to many types of disease, the following list includes some of the most common health issues:

Parasites

Captive-born chameleons can contract parasites from their food (cultured and wild insects) sources, water sources, contact with other reptiles that are parasitized, and poor hygiene. Periodic fecal exams should be performed, particularly if wild insects are part of the chameleon’s diet.

Wild-caught imported chameleons usually have one or more species of internal parasites. While many parasites are self-limiting in nature, the stresses of capture and captivity can take a heavy toll. Poor care, stress, overcrowding, injury and food and water deprivation starting from the point of capture and lasting weeks or months until the chameleon is exported, imported and ends up in a retail outlet often sends parasite loads skyrocketing. Treating debilitated chameleons with anti-parasitic drugs may only hasten death in this scenario. Parasites can migrate to organs and lungs, particularly when their stomach is empty, and the prognosis for recovery is poor. See Assessing the Health of Wild Caught Chameleons for more information.

Although many retailers of wild-caught chameleons label them “deparasitized” or “parasite free”, it is not common practice for commercial exporters, importers or retailers to have the necessary laboratory analyses performed to identify parasites. You should assume that this is your responsibility when you purchase a chameleon. The costs associated with these veterinary visits and the lab work necessary to perform an accurate assessment of a chameleon’s health should be factored into the budget for the initial purchase of a chameleon. Although the selling price of a wild-caught chameleon is often lower than a captive-bred panther chameleon, the medical costs to treat a wild-caught chameleon may close that gap or even exceed the price of the captive bred chameleon! It is unwise to administer anti-parasitic drugs without a diagnosis based on tests performed by a veterinarian. All imported chameleons should be tested for parasites in the gastrointestinal tract by having a fecal examination performed on a fresh stool sample. A blood sample is tested for the presence of blood-borne parasites and a sputum sample is tested for the presence of parasites in the lungs. Your vet will prescribe the appropriate drugs to treat the parasites that are detected by these diagnostic tests. Two or more follow-up tests should be performed after treatment to ensure the parasite(s) has been eliminated. Any changes in fecal matter warrant an exam for parasites. This includes loose stools, blood in the stool, undigested food, mucous-laden or foul-smelling stools. See Hunger Strikes.

Subcutaneous nematodes are also very common and are diagnosed by the presence of an outline of the worm(s) under the skin (see the photo of a F. cephalolepis). These parasites are treated by making an incision in the skin, removing the worm and suturing the incision. This process is repeated periodically until all the parasites are gone.

Metabolic Bone Disease

This is the most commonly reported disease in juvenile panther chameleons. The juvenile form of MBD is called rickets, a crippling disease brought on by nutritional imbalances that can be the result of deficiencies or excesses of several key nutritional elements including calcium, phosphorus, vitamin D3 and vitamin A. Bones become thin and bend or break easily, generally visible as bowed front legs with rounded elbows, and a rubbery lower jawbone. Ribs may fracture easily and spines or tails may be kinked or deformed. The chameleon usually has difficulty navigating quickly, is shaky, unsteady or “clumsy”. Organs can also be damaged by this disease. In the latter stages of the disease the chameleon often cannot perch on a branch, is anorexic and cannot project it’s tongue to eat or drink independently. The worst aspect of MBD is that it is a slow killer….chameleons crippled with this disease often linger…and suffer. If you suspect your chameleon has signs of rickets or MBD, please have your vet perform an exam and diagnostic tests. An x-ray will determine the extent of bone loss. A blood test may provide valuable information on the extent of kidney damage and the blood levels of calcium and phosphorus.

Exposure to natural sunlight is a key factor in avoiding rickets or MBD.

Lack of Sunlight

No matter where you live (unless you happen to reside at the North Pole!) there is a season that is temperate enough to allow your chameleons an opportunity to be outdoors, especially if you choose appropriate species for your climate. When exposed to the Ultraviolet-B (UV-B) irradiation from natural sunlight your chameleon’s body will naturally produce vitamin D3, which is required by all reptiles in order to absorb the calcium in their food. Sunlight is an inexpensive health benefit of immeasurable value to chameleons and should be one of your major goals in caring for your chameleon. If you don’t have a yard or balcony, place the panther chameleon’s cage near an east, south, or west-facing open window. Remember that window glass filters out nearly 100% of the UV-B from sunlight. You can replace regular glass with full-spectrum glass (often referred to as low iron glass) to provide your chameleon with a wonderful, energy-efficient source of natural UV-B.

UV-B, however, is capable of causing thermal burns (i.e., sunburn). This is the reason that lighting manufacturers do not produce bulbs that emit UV-B at equivalent levels to the sun without a medical prescription. Some types of UV-B emitting lighting may also allow your chameleon to produce vitamin D3, but the oral administration of vitamin D3 in powdered or liquid form is advisable for chameleons maintained indoors for long periods without exposure to unfiltered sunlight.

Dehydration

Inappropriate delivery of drinking water is the most common cause of dehydration in captive chameleons. Signs of low-level dehydration may be easy to overlook. In advanced stages the symptoms can include loss of appetite, lethargy, sunken eyes and eventually, death. Maintaining proper humidity levels in your chameleon’s environment will help to prevent dehydration, but it is NOT a substitute for drinking water.

Kidney Failure

Kidney failure is a common cause of death in captive chameleons, commonly caused by chronic low-level dehydration. Kidney failure can also be linked to the administration of nephrotoxic antibiotics (e.g., Amikacin) used to treat bacterial diseases. If your veterinarian prescribes antibiotics, discuss this with her or him. Kidney disease is detected through diagnostic blood tests that your reptile veterinarian can perform.

Kidney failure may culminate in gout, a disease that results from high uric acids levels in the blood. Chameleons that develop swelling in the joints or begin dangling a leg (usually a hind leg) while perching may be suffering from this painful disease. Needle-like crystals of uric acid inflame joints, causing pain when the panther chameleon puts weight on the afflicted leg. Your veterinarian should be consulted immediately if you observe this in your chameleon. X-rays and blood tests can be used to diagnose whether the swelling is due to injury or gout. See Dehydration.

Maladaptation to Captivity

With few exceptions, this condition is not observed in captive born chameleons. For a full description of this syndrome, please read Assessing the Health of Wild Caught Chameleons. It is generally believed that maladaptation is primarily caused by captivity-related stress — a chameleon’s inability to cope with the loss of freedom aggravated by daily interaction with humans. Signs of maladaptation include pacing the cage, butting the enclosure, lethargy, depression, anorexia, aggression, and poor coloration. Providing extra large, well-planted enclosures for wild-caught chameleons may help alleviate this condition for some chameleons, but for others there is no remedy and the chameleon eventually succumbs to illnesses that cannot be overcome by a depressed immune system. See Stress.

Stress

Most chameleons experience some level of stress related to captivity. Chronic stress can be fatal to chameleons because it usually suppresses the immune system, making them more susceptible to bacterial infections, the proliferation of parasites, and other life-threatening health problems.

The following recommendations will help reduce stress in captive panther chameleons:

  1. Keep the cage in a low or no traffic area of your home. Put up visual barriers between your chameleons and human activity if necessary. Move slowly and deliberately around chameleons.
  2. House chameleons singly and out of visual range of other chameleons, birds, snakes, other reptiles or any other pets in your household. Birds, snakes and large reptiles are natural predators to chameleons and even captive-born chameleons react with fear and stress when exposed to these animals.
  3. Remove or block any surface that the chameleon can see it’s own reflection in. Chameleons are asocial and the sight of another chameleon can induce stress and defensive displays. This can include window glass and is another argument against the use of enclosures with glass sides.
  4. Do not place panther chameleons on display in public areas. Chameleons often become accustomed to their keeper after a period of time and may lose their fear of that individual. This loss of fear does not always transfer to another human being, however. Every moving object in the chameleon’s field of vision must be analyzed as a potential predator and there is a significant element of stress in every encounter of this type.
  5. Do not force handling on chameleons that display defensively (rocking, gaping, hissing, biting, etc.) or react by closing their eyes and becoming motionless. Chronic, low-level stress from forced handling usually leads to poor health in chameleons and should be avoided. When a chameleon must be handled, place your hand in front of the chameleon and allow it to walk onto your fingers, but do not grasp a chameleon’s neck, back, feet or tail unless it is absolutely necessary to restrain it.

Hunger Strikes and Anorexia

A “hunger strike” refers to a short-term (usually less than a week) refusal of food. The most common cause of a hunger strike is boredom from a monotonous diet comprised of one or two insect species. This problem can often be corrected by adding new prey items. Cessation of feeding may also occur in some females just before giving birth or laying their eggs. This is a natural and temporary condition (normally a week or less) and should not result in a visible loss of strength or body fat.

Anorexia refers to a refusal to eat for longer than a few days (but see brumation), often accompanied by weight loss, weakness and a general decline in condition. Anorexia is not a disease…..it is a symptom of a disease or underlying physiological or psychological problem that must be corrected quickly or death can be the end result. If your juvenile or adult panther chameleon refuses food but it doesn’t meet the description of a hunger strike, please have it examined by a veterinarian immediately. Your vet can perform diagnostic tests to determine the cause of anorexia, a course of treatment, and administer nutritional support in the interim so that your chameleon doesn’t starve or become dehydrated until it has a chance to recover. Some major causes of anorexia are: chronic stress, parasites, bacterial disease, organ failure, injuries to the mouth, jaw or tongue, nutritional imbalances, and inappropriate temperatures or lighting. See Stress, Maladaptation, Dehydration, Kidney Failure, Metabolic Bone Disease, and Parasites.

Injuries and First Aid

Rapid and appropriate responses to injuries or infections can be critical to a chameleon’s survival. Once your chameleon has been treated by a veterinarian for injuries or illness, this article will help you with home nursing with topics like constructing a hospital cage, making comfortable perches for injured feet, creating a clean environment for panther chameleons with eye infections, and methods of providing food and water to your chameleon while they recuperate from a variety of common injuries and health problems.

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