Interested in handling your chameleon properly? This guide is for you!
Nowhere in the DNA of the chameleon does it say they are meant to be kept in captivity. Indeed, these cute little animals don’t like to be handled.
However, because of their sweet personalities and beautiful colors, we’d like these little animals to be part of our lives. As such, we have to look for ways to entice them to be comfortable with our presence.
You can only hold a chameleon for short periods if you use the right approach. This animal gets easily irritated and upset if he feels mishandled in the slightest sense of the word. But with patience and the proper motivation, a chameleon will learn to climb onto your hand.
Notably, not all chameleons will agree to be handled. Some will never be comfortable being held, no matter how much you entice them.
Do Chameleons Like to Be Held?
Chameleons belong to a group of animals that have roamed the earth since the beginning of time. Yet, they have enjoyed living solitary lives in the wild for all this time.
Being held is an alien concept to a chameleon. Since time immemorial, they have never socialized with people.
However, because of their personable personalities and amazing colors, people have come to love them.
We want them near us and, where possible, right in our homes. But, because this is an alien concept to the chameleon, they easily get stressed when you try to touch them.
If they could speak, they’d tell you to leave them alone. But, of course, as a pet lover, you’d not want to stress one of the cutest little animals in the wild.
With time, however, some species of chameleons have come to accept humans as part of their lives. These ones are trainable and can be kept in captivity as our pets.
Once you create a rapport with the right chameleon, you’ll enjoy the most-fulfilling satisfaction as a pet parent.
Why Don’t Chameleons Like to Be Handled?
Chameleons have evolved to lead solitary and territorial lives. In the wild, each chameleon allocates himself a bush which becomes his home for a period.
This animal uses this bush as his bedroom, and leaves it in the morning to sunbathe. Later, he begins hunting before looking for another bush for the night.
This routine behavior is ingrained in the Chameleon’s DNA and doesn’t change even in captivity. This animal still wants to be left alone and handle life on his terms.
This means a chameleon is best observed than touched. So keep handling this reptile to the minimum.
Step-by-Step Approach to Handling a Chameleon
Chameleons are as shy as they are sensitive. They easily get irritated and angry if mishandled, and may never want to be handled again.
However, you may win the right chameleon over with the right approach.
Step 1: Move Closer
Chameleons have very good vision and can recognize humans. Allow your chameleon to get used to you by moving closer to them.
Do this gently, taking care not to startle him. Don’t do anything; just sit near the tank where he can see you for a couple of minutes every few hours.
At this stage, you should not attempt to touch him.
Step 2: Offer Some Food
Offer your chameleon some food with your hand. Do this gently by sliding your hand with the food from the front of the chameleon.
Again, you don’t want to startle him.
Step 3: Touch Him Gently
Suppose the chameleon comes to associate your hand with food. In that case, it will feel comfortable coming out to meet your hand whenever you present it.
At this point, you may try to touch him a little, until he gradually gets used to this.
Step 4: Provide Support
Don’t pick your chameleon forcefully. Rather, encourage him to come to your hand of his own volition.
You’re making good progress if he is comfortable staying in your hand. If he is not, don’t force him to stay.
Also, never dangle your chameleon in the air. Chameleons like to hold on to things, and yours has identified your hand as a ‘friendly twig.’
Allow him to grab your fingers and hand properly to learn he is in safe territory.
Step 5: Hand Walking
You can teach your chameleon to walk from one hand to the other by gently shoving him on the back. Chameleons interpret this as the signal to move forward.
However, this push has to be gentle – basically a touch. A gentle push motivates your chameleon to move from one hand to the next.
Before long, he’ll be happy to do this without your prompting.
Step 6: Back into the Tank
Gently place the chameleon back into the vivarium by setting them on a branch. Remember, don’t allow your pet to dangle in the air during this transfer.
You can also lower the chameleon into the vivarium with your hand and allow him to walk away. Care must be taken to avoid the chameleon falling off your hand.
Because they are delicate creatures, chameleons are susceptible to injuries, especially from falls.
Things to Avoid While Handling a Chameleon
The above steps should guide you through handling your chameleon effectively. However, every chameleon is unique; you must be patient enough to learn how to handle yours.
However, some things would put you into instant trouble with your chameleon if you did them.
These are the things you should avoid when handling your chameleon.
#1 – Don’t Pick Him from Above
Centuries of evolutionary instincts have taught chameleons to always be on the lookout for danger. They believe that anything larger than themselves is a threat to their lives.
Also, because snakes and birds usually pick chameleons off branches from above, they fear anything that approaches from above.
You’ll make fast enemies with your chameleon if you ever attempt to pick him from above. He will immediately turn defensive and start hissing.
He could even bite your hand, jump off the branch, and get injured.
For the same reasons, avoid approaching a chameleon from behind. Instead, approach from the front so they can see you come.
This way, he will know that your intentions are sincere.
#2 – Avoid Petting
For centuries, chameleons have not been exposed to humans. As such, they don’t understand petting, what it entails, and what it means.
Don’t pet your chameleon until he’s 100% comfortable around you. Allow him to explore your hand and body and get to know you better.
Little by little, you can start touching them as an introduction to affection. If he’s comfortable with this, you can gradually advance to cupping him in your hands.
#3 – Don’t Startle
Startling a chameleon scares him and puts him under stress. When you startle him, he immediately senses danger, with you as the looming predator.
Avoid making sudden movements around him. Any rough approach instantly puts this reptile into a defense mechanism. As a result, it may be hard to win him over again.
#4 – Avoid Pushing Him
The best way to bond with your chameleon is to allow him to take the initiative. Let him come to you naturally instead of you pushing him to do it.
Of course, you can encourage him by feeding him and extending a hand into the vivarium. However, don’t pull or push him into your hand.
Doing so would be the quickest way to make enemies with this reptile. Your chameleon will be angry with you and will show it by hissing and huffing.
#5 – Respect His Boundaries
The worst you can do is to force your chameleon to come to you if he doesn’t want to. This reptile will bite you if he’s furious at you.
With their sharp teeth and relatively strong jaws, chameleons are known to inflict nasty bites. So naturally, you’d not want to be on the receiving end.
#6 – Avoid Holding Two Chameleons Together
In the wild, chameleons lead a solitary and territorial life. It’s almost impossible to find two chameleons sharing a branch.
Whenever two chameleons find themselves in the same space, a fight is sure to ensue. Holding two chameleons together is a recipe for trouble.
Signs of an Uncomfortable or Angry Chameleon
Your chameleon will send you signals you can’t miss if he’s angry, agitated, irritated, or uncomfortable in any way.
You’ll know if you push him, mishandle him, make him feel threatened, or infringe on his space. So whenever your chameleon communicates his displeasure, give him space.
Here are a few pointers that your little friend is unhappy:
This is a classic way of telling you he feels you are a threat. It could be that you startled him by using the wrong approach.
Alternatively, this reptile is trying to tell you he’s unhappy with how you’ve picked him. So he wants you to let him go.
This is a defense mechanism that precedes an attack. Your chameleon will swell its body to almost double its size in an attempt to scare you off.
To him, you’re a predator and need to be dealt with as such.
This is a classic sign of fear. Something or someone has scared your little friend, who feels his life is in danger.
A chameleon also opens his mouth wide to show off his set of sharp teeth. He wants the aggressor to know he is ready to defend himself.
Gaping indicates it’s hot, and your pet is trying to cool down.
This indicates you have pushed your little friend’s limits. He wants you to back off and leave him to his territory.
Chameleons will rarely bite their owners unless they feel they have been pushed to a corner. Then, they will try all the other methods of defense and aggression before they resort to biting.
- Turning Black
Your little friend wants you to know he is stressed. You may or may not be the cause of this problem, but he doesn’t wish to interact with you at the moment.
- Showing Bright Colors
This indicates that he’s either startled or threatened. Usually, a chameleon will show bright colors just before he strikes by hissing, puffing, or gaping.
- Running Away
Like most animals, chameleons resort to the two most fundamental instincts in the face of danger: fight or flight.
Running away is a classic chameleon defense mechanism. If your little friend is not in the mood to hiss, puff, or gape, he’ll simply take to his heels.
This should tell you that you’ve pushed him a little too much, and that you need to back off. When your chameleon takes off, it’s looking for a safe haven – away from you.
Which Chameleon Species Enjoy Being Held?
As earlier noted, some chameleons are more tolerant and accommodating than others. Yet others are timid and fearful.
There’s also a class of chameleons that’s very aggressive, such as the Panther and Veiled Chameleons.
This section looks at the more docile and personable chameleons you can keep as pets.
- Jackson’s Chameleon (Trioceros jacksonii xantholophus)
This is one of the most personable chameleons you can find anywhere. Although it may not be as playful as some chameleons, it allows you to hold it for quite some time.
Jackson’s Chameleon is calm but reserved. While some chameleons perform antics to entertain your guests, this one is happy to sit contentedly on your hands or rest on your shoulders.
This chameleon gets less angry and irritated than his counterparts. As such, he can accommodate a high degree of handling.
Take care, however, not to mishandle him as he will want nothing to do with you.
Being a smaller chameleon than most, Jackson’s Chameleon is less dangerous and more tolerant. You can safely hold this chameleon for about 20 to 30 minutes weekly.
- Rudis Chameleon (Trioceros rudis)
This is another docile and calm chameleon that tolerates handling. However, you can only handle him for about 20 minutes per week.
Anything above this will be resented as the reptile will want to be left alone.
Study your Rudi’s Chameleon’s body language before every handling session. The good thing about chameleons is that they’ll also indicate whether they’re ready for handling.
You can go ahead and gently handle your Rudi’s Chameleon if he seems relaxed and in a good mood.
- Malagasy Giant Chameleon (Fucifer oustaleti)
Also known as the Oustalet Chameleon, this reptile will not give you any trouble holding it. You’ll do particularly well with this chameleon if you get to know it from a tender age.
It will be more friendly and accommodating if it grows in your home.
Although this reptile is quite accommodating, it has a low threshold for rough handling. Therefore, you need to be careful not to push or stress it.
Be careful around this chameleon when he’s angry. Because of his large size, he can deliver a rather nasty bite if he decides to go that way.
The best way to handle him is to leave him alone until he calms down and can tolerate your presence.
You can handle the Oustalet Chameleon for 10 to 20 minutes weekly.
- Parson’s Chameleon (Calumma parsonii)
This is one of the big-size chameleons that tolerate a high level of handling. However, as with all chameleons, this one has its limits.
Be careful around the Parson’s Chameleon when he’s angry. Unlike most chameleons that use biting as a last resort, this one will bite quickly to sink his teeth into your finger or hand.
This is your cue to leave this reptile alone when he shows signs of agitation.
Ordinarily, you can handle this gentle giant for about 10 to 20 minutes.
What Happens If You Mishandle a Chameleon?
Holding your pet against his will means you don’t respect his wishes. If your chameleon shows any signs of discomfort, you should let him be.
Pushing your pet against his will makes things move from bad to worse. Here’s what you can expect when you mishandle your pet.
He Becomes Irritable
You’ll know your chameleon is irritated when he starts puffing, gaping, hissing, and biting. This tells you this creature has moved from its docile personality to another, dangerous level.
He Becomes Stressed
Stress is the number one killer of most animals, chameleons included. Environmental disturbances may cause your pet to be exhausted and fearful, but not stressed.
The primary cause of stress in chameleons is poor handling. If you touch this animal against his will, he will hiss, puff, change color, and go into hiding.
If this continues unabated, your chameleon will fall sick and eventually die. As such, you must learn to read the signs of stress in this animal.
Your chameleon may not become stressed from only one encounter. However, he will get stressed if you insist on handling him repeatedly against his will.
If this becomes too much, he will hit back and may bite you as a sign of extreme stress.
Forced human interaction with a chameleon leads to emotional stress. This is the worst type of stress this animal can face.
Other types of stress are brought about by an encounter with another chameleon. Your pet can also be stressed by a drastic change in temperature.
As a responsible pet parent, you need to understand the factors likely to cause stress in your chameleon.
Is the environment noisy and threatening? For example, do you keep pets that are natural predators of chameleons, such as snakes?
Do you feed this animal adequately and with the proper diet? These are some of the areas you should interrogate to determine whether your chameleon pet is stressed.
How to Reduce Stress on Your Chameleon
- Have your vet on speed dial.
An exotic animal vet is an expert at handling stress in chameleons and other exotic animals. Have their contact close by because you never know when you might need them.
- Vivarium location
Place the vivarium in a quiet, nice spot away from all the traffic in your house. Also, don’t place your chameleon in close proximity to other pets, especially his natural predators.
- Don’t startle your pet.
Approach your chameleon slowly and from the front. Also, don’t make any sudden movements above him.
- One chameleon per vivarium
Chameleons are solitary and territorial by nature. As such, keep only one chameleon per vivarium.
- No mirrors near the vivarium
Under no circumstances should the chameleon see his own reflection. These reptiles interpret their reflections as a rival’s presence, further elevating their stress.
How Can I Get My Chameleon Used to Being Handled?
The relationship with your chameleon cannot be built in a day. It may take weeks – sometimes months – to gain your pet’s trust to the level he feels comfortable around you.
However, it’s easier to win the trust of a baby or juvenile chameleon that an adult. Younger chameleons tend to be more trusting.
This is common with many animals, including humans.
Attend to His Needs
Chameleons may not talk our language, but they communicate clearly, nonetheless. This creature will tell you when it doesn’t want to be handled.
You can also learn from its body language when it’s okay to approach him or pick him up. Read these signs and heed them.
Chameleons see anything bigger than themselves as predators. So this animal will look at you suspiciously from day one.
It falls on you to work on building trust with him. Through your gentle actions, let him see you are no threat to his wellbeing.
Give Him Treats
All pets love treats, and your chameleon will enjoy receiving treats from you. Feeding him treats is one way of building trust with this pet and endearing him to you.
Every now and then, let him eat a worm or insect from your hand.
The relationship between humans and chameleons is delicate because we have not been in their lives since immemorial.
As such, your chameleon will struggle to place your presence in their lives.
With a positive attitude, patience, and the right effort, you can turn this animal around and start treating you as a friend – though at arm’s length.
Chameleons want you to show respect for their space. This means minimal handling. If you can treat him properly, this reptile will reciprocate by being your friend.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Are Chameleons Intelligent?
Studies have shown that chameleons can recognize humans and the passage of time. This indicates a high level of intelligence that is not common with most reptiles.
This means that your chameleon will be able to distinguish between you and another person that walks into the room.
Your chameleon will comfortably eat from your hand once he fully knows you, but go into hiding when another person tries to feed him.
Why Does a Chameleon Change Color?
A chameleon’s chief defense mechanisms are camouflage and stillness.
These are indispensable weapons, considering this reptile does not have venom, poison, or powerful jaws to ward off adversaries.
When a chameleon senses danger and wants to remain hidden, he melts into the foliage and becomes hard to spot.
Some scientists believe that chameleons change color as an expression of their emotions. Others opine it happens in response to temperature variations within the chameleon’s body.
Whatever the case, camouflage sure does serve this reptile well!
Can Chameleons Make Good Pets?
Evolutionary instinct tells chameleons that anything bigger than them is a predator. This means that when your chameleon first lays eyes on you, he thinks you’re going to eat him.
So, trying to keep a chameleon as a pet is asking this little animal to go against his DNA.
Fortunately, each chameleon has a decision point in his brain that lets him decide how to view his owner.
Treating your chameleon properly empowers him to get past his primordial fear. However, he can never totally accept you as an equal.
That’s why he will allow you to handle him for only limited periods.