Veiled Chameleon Diseases, Parasites & Stress Management

I am often asked to look at photos or answer questions that people have emailed me about concerning MBD, swollen joints, swelling of soft tissues, and other such problems their veiled chameleons are having. I cannot make any diagnosis, but only offer some advice. In no way would I ever encourage anyone to make such an assessment on a chameleons health without seeing a qualifies vet. Often misdiagnosis can lead to fatalities that may have been prevented if a vet had been able to examine, test and treat the chameleon sooner.

Metabolic Bone Disease

Typically with metabolic bone disease (or MBD for short), you will see the swollen joints in the legs first and even bumps forming on the ribs. Most often if not first showing there, it would be in the head, jaw or casque next. Age is of no factor when MBD visits, it hits juveniles as well as the older veiled chameleons. I have seen MBD cause degeneration of the hips in females who have been breed a lot. This is usually due to calcium deficiency.

This disease is correctable and preventable. If a chameleon is brought to the vet in an advanced state of the disease then the prognosis is not good. Otherwise, they are able to return a large percent of them to relative normalcy if their full treatment regimen is followed. After the immediate problem is corrected it is mandatory to provide the optimum environment for their proper quality of life.

Veiled chameleons with this disease have many problems. The bones might be swollen, soft, or even fractured. In severe cases the blood calcium level becomes so low that tremors occur.

The jaw might be swollen (called lumpy jaw by some people) because nature is trying to bring in supporting tissue to make up for the lack of strength to the bones of the jaw. The same thing happens to the bones of the legs, and when the problem is severe enough, or has gone on long enough, the bones of the arms and legs can fracture (called a pathologic fracture) all by themselves. Some of these chameleons will be unable to walk properly due to spinal cord damage, and many of them will be more susceptible to common infections because they are too weak to develop a proper immune response. As the bones of the jaw become weaker it becomes impossible to eat, further exacerbating the problem. They may have distended abdomens and bones leading their owners to the erroneous conclusion that their pet is fat and sassy, and receiving an adequate diet. Growing iguanas and females laying eggs have a greater need for calcium and might me more prone to this problem. Females with eggs might not have the strength to lay them, and sometimes even require surgery if they become egg bound.

MBD has many factors that work together in causing this condition. The primary reason veiled chameleons develop this disease is due to a diet too low in calcium. More specifically, the ratio of calcium to phosphorous (usually the phosphorous is too high) in their diets is inadequate to promote growth and sustain normal physiological functions. As a result, they become very ill, and can even succumb to the disease.

Other factors that exacerbate the poor diet problem are common in most households that have reptiles. Inadequate exposure to direct sunlight (not through glass), not keeping the humidity where it needs to be for the particular species, and not keeping the temperature at where it needs to be, all add to the problem.

Vitamin D3

Sunlight of a specific ultraviolet frequency is needed to produce vitamin D3 by the chameleons skin. This vitamin is needed for the absorption and utilization of calcium in the diet. No matter how much calcium there is in the diet, without this vitamin the calcium would not be be absorbed or utilized. This is why milk that we drink is fortified with vitamin D. Black Lights and other artificial ultraviolet lights are helpful, but they can not replace sunshine.

In order to maintain normal bodily functions (ability to digest food, fight infections, etc.) a veiled chameleon needs to maintain a high body temperature. Since they are reptiles, they maintain this temperature by absorbing the heat from their environment. They can not produce enough internal body heat like birds and mammals can when placed in a cold environment. Also, the precursor to vitamin D needs to be at the proper temperature to be converted to the active form of the vitamin.

In the semi arid environment in some parts of the country, or the heat needed to warm homes in the winter, many chameleons live in a perpetual state of dehydration. This dramatically interferes with their physiology and predisposes them to many problems.

If at all possible, try to get her exposed to natural sunlight as much as you can daily. In nature, the sun provides a wealth of light at high intensity for daylight loving reptiles, which can often be seen basking in the sun’s rays. This is not just for warmth, but to assist in the synthesis of vitamin D3 which promotes good health in chameleons. Most reptiles need to synthesize vitamin D3 in their skin for their healthy growth.

Remember, the UVB rays will not get through glass or Plexi-glass. She would need to be exposed through screen.

Vitamin D3 is necessary for the metabolism of calcium, which is needed for strong bone development. A deficiency can result in metabolic bone disease in reptiles.

Ultraviolet Light (UVB)

If you can’t get the veiled chameleon in direct sunlight, then your only other option is to set it up with two long Reptisun 5.0 lights running vertically inside the cage. This would allow optimal exposure wherever it is in the cage. Leave them on 12 hours a day. You may want to consider giving the chameleon oral calcium. You will need to talk to your vet about this. The vet can get you the oral calcium, and instructions on dosage for her size and weight, as well as the stage of MBD the chameleon may be in.

Ultra violet light of a particular wave band, known as UVB (290-320 nm), is required. UVB is not present in sufficient quantities in normal full spectrum fluorescent lamps, because the glass absorbs UVB, whereas the D3 lamp such as the Reptisun 5.0 uses a special glass designed to allow through sufficient yet safe levels of UVB and UVA. Although Vitamin D3 can be commercially obtained from animal sources, and given to reptiles with their food, studies have indicated that dietary D3 cannot replace the D3 synthesized in the skin from sunlight, even in reptiles injected with supplemental vitamin D3. The vitamin D type derived from plants is vitamin D2 and is not suitable for proper calcium metabolism. For the best results, vitamin D3 must be obtained from regular exposure to UVB light, either from natural sunlight or the good UV/UVB lights.

Gut-loading Insects

It is important to note that sufficient vitamin D3 is not enough in itself to avoid metabolic bone disease. Reptiles should also be fed foods rich in calcium and phosphorous. If your chameleon will not eat fruits or vegetables, then gut loading their insects is going to be the key. Below is a list of foods to be fed to crickets and worms that are high in the needed calcium and D3:

  • Collared Greens
  • Mustard Greens
  • Red Leaf
  • Butter leaf
  • Dandelion Greens
  • Mango and Papaya
  • Broccoli
  • Non toxic flowers

Avoid feeding the insects the following:

  • Dog Food
  • Cat Food
  • Iceberg Lettuce

Definitely do as much as you can with a good gut load recipe for the crickets, superworms and other feeders you give her.

Now you are armed with some natural ways to get her calcium intake up. You will want to remember that any oral or powder vitamin supplements with calcium such as Herptivite, etc, will have a retention period of at least 10 days before being fully absorbed in the chameleons system. This means the calcium supplements are not absorbed and used for almost 2 weeks and over supplementing will happen quickly if not careful. That is why I prefer a more naturalistic approach to getting the calcium to my chameleons by using natural food and food products rather than a man-made chemical based product.

Remember, you really should get your veiled chameleon to a vet if you are seeing any signs of MBD. If it persists even with corrective measures, it may still progress if not given proper treatment. It may actually be a neurological disorder. Calcium may not be the treatment. If it is not MBD, then chances are there is nothing you will be able to do to reduce or stop the problem. But with a proper diagnoses, you may be able to prevent it from coming on so fast or getting worse.

I would ask you to consider a few things before making your own final assessment:

  1. Is the area of swelling very hard, like bone would feel or is it a swelling of soft tissues? Hard would really point to the MBD, BUT…if there is soft tissue swelling, you may be seeing signs of other problems which may or may not be treatable with antibiotics, etc.
  2. What was the care and husbandry like before now? Was the chameleon getting good UVB exposure and being feed crickets well gut loaded with natural foods or were the crickets gut loaded with a product such as the Fluker Farms cricket gut load dry mix? Some of the ready made dry and wet mixes available are not good for chameleons, too much protein and other supplements and end up with over supplementation which lead to long term health problems often where there is no treatment for.
  3. Has the chameleon likely had an injury caused by a fall or similar incident? Could the problem be a fracture, separation or a break? Again, MBD can cause weakening of the bone and falls that typically would not lead to an injury such as these can be a problem. Along with the MBD treatment, the vet should be able to treat any fractures, breaks or separations. It is important to get the chameleon to the vat as soon as possible, the longer the injury is there, the tissue and bone will be almost impossible to heal and correct.
  4. If you seriously suspect it is MBD, then watch the areas where the MBD is visible. With the increased UVB exposure and proper higher calcium diet for her crickets, the veiled chameleon should gradually show signs of improvement, reduced swelling and more mobility.

If this is a case of MBD, I would highly recommend you do not breed the chameleon, especially females. Females with MBD do have problems with developing healthy eggs and neonates. She is more than likely going to throw offspring with calcium deficiencies themselves because her body is lacking severely. In minimal cases, the eggs will not develop properly in her during her gestation period. In Live bearing chameleons, the MBD poses greater problems to developing healthy fetus. In males with MBD, the risk is not so problematic when it comes to breeding if the male is under a diet and measures to control the MBD. They do not need to expend the extra calcium from their own bodies to develop healthy eggs and embryos. Still there is always a risk of producing offspring who will have some disadvantage in health.

Some severe cases will need to be hospitalized for treatment. Veiled chameleons that are diagnosed with severe MBD, D3 or calcium deficiency disorders, are usually very ill and often need to be hospitalized. During hospitalization they are given fluids to correct dehydration, a special liquid diet, injections of vitamin D3, injections of calcium, oral calcium, and antibiotics if they have an infection. Those that have pathologic fractures are splinted.

After they are stabilized in the hospital they are sent home with calcium supplements, antibiotics if needed, and their dietary deficiency is corrected. They need to return weekly for at least several weeks for vitamin D3 injections and calcium injections.

Stress

Chameleons are very sensitive and fragile reptiles. One of the leading causes of illness, repeating health problems and death is usually caused by stress. Chameleons will stress easily under conditions which most reptiles will adapt to and thrive in. Often, we do not realize our chameleons are really stressed because they do not always show signs of stress, but eventually, their health will start to deteriorate, and there is no explanation why. This is when we need to look hard at our husbandry and environmental issues of the chameleon.

The typical signs of stress are listed below. Not always are these signs solely signs of stress, but can be signs of other problems such as virus, infections, organ failure, and many other things. It is always best to have your vet do a thorough examination, run fecal and CBC tests to make sure there are no internal health problems.

  • Dark colors are typically signs that your veiled chameleon is under stress.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Gaping when you look in on them, or they see other animals.
  • Rocking back and forth and displaying their warning colors.
  • Constant hiding in foliage where they cannot be seen and feel the most secure. This usually means not enough time for basking to keep their body temps optimal.

New chameleon owners need to be aware of the stress and problems that evolve from stress of their chameleon. This is usually the biggest mistake a person makes with their first chameleon is place them in an environment where they are constantly stressed. It is also a problem with buying wild caught chameleons. These chameleons have to adapt to being in captivity, seeing people, a change in their diet, as well as going through a series of dewormings and other treatments where they must be handled frequently.

What Causes Stress

There are many common mistakes people make that cause excess stress in their chameleons. Below I will list the causes which you can take measures to reduce or eliminate stressing your chameleon.

  • Housing your chameleon in a cage which has glass. They can see their own reflections and often think it is another chameleon. Chameleons are solitary and territorial reptiles.
  • Housing more than one chameleon in a cage together. Again, they are not typically communal and only a few species will actually do well in a very large cage if kept together. Even under these circumstances stress is still present and they need to be monitored constantly.
  • Changing their cage around frequently. Veiled chameleons do explore their cages and will choose a favorite branch for basking on, drinking from, and sleeping on. If is best that you place each branch and vine and all other accessories in the cage in the same positions they were when you clean the cage thoroughly.
  • Handling your chameleon is a big stress for them. Some may tolerate being on your arm, or being handled gently, but even this stresses them to a point. It is best to avoid handling your chameleon unless you need to for treating it, cleaning it’s cage, or transporting it to an outdoor enclosure.
  • Keeping you chameleon in a room where there is a lot of traffic, people coming and going often, or where they can see people frequently. Even though they may not be near the cage, chameleons have excellent eyesight and can see the people.
  • Presence of other pets or chameleons. It is best to keep the chameleon in a place where it cannot see other animals, including other chameleons. Most animals or household pets, are natural predators of the chameleon. Chameleons are aware of the danger, and do not realize that they may be safely protected by a nice screened cage.
  • Changes in temperatures. Keeping the temperatures in the optimal ranges and providing gradient temperatures throughout the cage is best. If the chameleon is kept in temperatures which are too warm or too cold, this places stress on their immune system and can lead to problems such as URI, dehydration and problems with regulating their body temperatures.
  • Moving their cage around frequently. Even though you may not move the items of the interior of the cage around, they can see beyond the screening of their cage and to them, they have been placed in a totally new environment and they will be on a constant lookout for new dangers and predators.
  • Misting the veiled chameleon is another area where they may stress. It is important to mist the chameleons habitat and allow water to collect on foliage. This raises the humidity as well as allows the chameleon to drink fresh water from the leaves and vines. When misting, use a very light fine spray, and only use very warm, almost hot water. Check the water temperature before misting the chameleon to make sure it is not too cold or too hot for it. If the water is just right, about the temperature of a nice bath water you would enjoy, then the chameleon will enjoy being misted. It will use this opportunity to help clean it’s eyes of debree, remove shedding skin, and help with keeping it hydrated. If you use water that is cold, or not warm enough, it is a shock to it’s system, the same effect a cold shower has on you!

I know my veiled chameleon is stressed, what do I do?

After reading through the list of the causes of stress, you may identify one or more things that seem to be the main reason your chameleon is not settling in.

If you have your veiled chameleon in a glass cage, or even where there are one or more parts of the cage with glass, you can use white or other colored contact paper to cover the INSIDE of the glass. It is easy to clean, and will prevent reflections. It is really best if you spend the extra money to buy an all screened cage. This provides optimal circulation that a chameleon needs. Some species may do well in a cage with lower ventilations, but even the experienced keepers of these species provide additional ventilation by using small fans to circulate the air.

If you feel that you have done everything else possible to get your chameleon to settle in, perhaps try adding more vines, plants and other live or silk foliage for it to live in until it acclimates to it’s new home. Add new items to the cage a little at a time and do not try to redo the cage all in one shot. This would add even more stress to your chameleon. Allow a week or two for the chameleon to get used to the new items in it’s cage before adding more. This also helps you now when your chameleon is doing fine and you can save yourself some money on buying more accessories.

If you have a gravid female, it is ideal to provide her with a very quiet area to live in. Reduce as much coming and going of people, keep all other pets away from her view. If there is not other option, you may choose to drape fabric on the sides of the cage where she can see people coming and going. Do not however, cover all sides of the cage or you will block the needed circulation of fresh air needed.

If you need to handle your chameleon, it is best to offer it a snack of some special insect such as silkworms, mantids, waxworms or superworms as soon as you get it out and onto your arm, and then again after you place it back into it’s cage. They will learn that being handled means there is a special reward in it for them. Do not get discouraged if the veiled chameleon refuses to eat from your hand. Just place the insect on a nearby branch or in it’s food bowl where it can see you doing this. Eventually, the chameleon will eat the favored insect.

Parasites

Parasites are quite commonly found in all species of reptiles. Parasites are the third leading cause of deaths in chameleons. Chameleons who are wild caught and just coming in from being exported carry extremely high loads of parasites. This is due to the stress that they have been through, stress causes the immune system to go down and the chameleon body does not have all its defenses to fight of the growth of the present parasites which then breed and grow quickly. Parasites feed off of the chameleons system or the food they consume and eventually, some chameleons will succumb to death if not examined for parasites and treated as soon as possible.

Chameleons in captivity that have been acclimated as well as those who are captive bred will also carry parasites. This is to be expected since they eat insects and other prey that are carriers of parasites. Exposure to other animals, reptiles and chameleons who have parasites also puts the chameleon at risk of being infected. All chameleons should be checked regularly for parasites even if they appear to be healthy. Don’t wait until they are falling ill to have them checked.

Some species of chameleons are sensitive to the medications used to worm them. Some of the chameleon species who have been known to have severe if not fatal side effects are the brookesia and rhampoleon species. If you buy one of these species, do try to acclimate them without the treatment to rid them of parasites. Often times, these little veiled chameleons will die within a few days after treatment. If you have one that needs to be treated for parasites, consult with a good knowledgeable veterinarian about dosing with diluted amounts of the medication prescribed and administered by the vet. Ivermectin should be avoided on these tiny chameleons if at all possible.

Quarantine

It is important to quarantine all new chameleons when you first get them. Recommended time of quarantine would be 30 days. Do not recycle crickets which have been left uneaten by the chameleon. Doing so may contaminate other reptiles eating the crickets and may spread the parasites to your other animals. Do not allow them to be housed or handled near your other animals. Some parasites and bacteria are contagious and can be passed onto other animals. It is rare that they be passed onto humans. Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling the veiled chameleon and the cage or cage accessories. A daily cleaning of the cage is recommended while being treated for parasites as often the nematodes will leave the chameleon body looking for a suitable host to survive in.

Signs of Parasites

  • Lose runny stools, stools with strong odors.
  • Dehydration
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Regurgitation
  • Lumps or raised lines under the skin. (Sub que parasites.)
  • Dark spots or infectious looking lesions on the body.
  • Lethargy and sleeping during daylight.
  • No growth or slow growth.
  • Swelling of the abdomen or other parts of the body.
  • Failure to breed or produce fertile eggs.
  • Constant eye irritations can be signs of nematodes in the eye region.

If your chameleon is experiencing one or more of the signs above, collect a fresh feces and bring it to your veterinarian for examination. There are two types of fecals done to determine what parasites a chameleon may have. Visual examination will often find ticks, mites or sub que nematodes. Other parasitic problems may only be found in a blood panel. Often, one fecal will not always find the parasites or ova of parasites. It is advisable that a new or infected chameleon be checked every two weeks for three or four times before the animal is free of parasites. Even so, a chameleon will typically contain parasites as stated earlier as their diet is of insects which usually exposes the chameleon to parasitic infestation, but with out stress and proper husbandry, the chameleon should thrive well and recommended fecal checks once every three to six months would determine the need for treating the chameleon for parasites.

Finding Parasites

Visual Examination

A veterinarian will often look in each crevice of the veiled chameleons body looking for ticks or mites. The eyes should be examined as well as the mouth. Often nematodes may be present in these areas as well. The skin should be checked for any lumps or raised areas which may indicate the presence of parasites under the skin.

Direct Fecal Smears

Fecal matter is smeared onto a slide and examined under a microscope. Usually a stain may be used to help the veterinarian find the protozoans and parasite eggs. Since only a small amount of fecal matter can be viewed in this matter, the end results may not find any type of parasites. This is why more than one fecal should be done in a few weeks.

Fecal Floats

The feces is placed in a solution and left to sit while the eggs of parasites float to the top. Examination of the surface of the float will help the veterinarian to determine what parasites are present in the reptile.

Collecting Feces for Examination

The feces you bring to your veterinarian should be fresh, not dry or more than 12 or so hours old. The fresher the better. It is important to keep the feces fresh until you can get into the vet for it to be examined. Here are suggested methods for collecting and keeping the collected feces clean:

  • Wash hands thoroughly.
  • Using a baggie turned inside out, pick up the feces, the white part of the feces is not as important unless it is discolored. A normal urinal part of the feces should be white. You want to collect as much of the brown part of the feces as possible.
  • With your hand still holding the baggie, turn it inside in and seal the baggie.
  • If it will be more than a few hours before you can get to the vet, place the baggie with the feces sealed in the refridgerator. Do not freeze the feces.

Other containers that can be used are old medicine vials, small bottles, petri dishes, etc. What ever you choose to place the fecal matter in, make sure it is clean and sterile to keep from contaminating the feces with something that may be present in the container you choose.

Some times a chameleon may be so ill and not eating that it is not defecating. It is important that a vet have some fecal matter to examine. In circumstances such as this, your veterinarian may discuss doing a cloacal smear or flush to obtain feces for examination. Without a fecal to examine, the vet will not know what parasites, if any, are present and which medications need to be used to treat the veiled chameleon.

Types of Parasites

The most common parasites found in chameleons are:

Common

  • Hookworm
  • Flukes
  • Roundworm

Uncommon

  • Tapeworm
  • Ticks
  • Lungworms

Rare

  • Capillaria
  • Coccidia
  • Cryptosporidiosis
  • Flagellatees 

Some of the rare parasites are not as frequently reported, but then unless tested for such, they are not often found in the usual fecal smear. If a veiled chameleon is still showing signs of parasites even after being treated with the typical flagyl or panacure, then it should be checked for crypto or other types of parasites which require specific stains to find.

Treating the Parasites

I strongly recommend that a trained experienced veterinarian provide treatment for parasites to all chameleons. The “shotgun” method many stores, breeders, importer/exporters and some individuals use is not reccommended. This method is giving a chameleon a treatment of panacure sometimes flagyl or ivermectin without examination, proper dosages calculated, and often no fecal examination. This is not at all going to guarantee that the chameleon will be parasite free, nor does it insure that the chameleon will not suffer complications from the effects of the treatment. Medications of any kind should always be accurately measured and administered based upon the parasitic or health problems of the individual chameleon. Often species such as the wild caught pardalis are given shotgun treatments and still die. Why? Because they may be loaded with so many parasites that as the nematodes die off, they are not excreted and stay inside the chameleon causing complications such as infection or blockages. If this should happen, a vet should see the chameleon immediately and treat the chameleon for these type of complications.

A gravid female veiled chameleon should not be treated unless her health is declining due to the parasites. If she seems to be eating, drinking and overall looks healthy and is active, then let her be in a stress free environment until she lays her eggs or gives birth. Hatchlings should not be treated as well since they are already in a sensitive stage of their lives and treatment may indeed be the cause of death.

It is very important that a chameleon be given more misting and drippings each day while being treated for parasites. They need the extra hydration as the system expel the nematodes and ova of parasites. This is an important time to keep an eye on your chameleon to make sure it is responding positively to the deworming. Look for signs of lethargy, constipation, bloating, loss of appetite, or any other symptoms you know to be signs that the chameleon may be in trouble.

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