Jackson's Chameleon Information

troubles & illness



This page is not intended to be any kind of a "do-it-yourself" instructional page for ANY of the troubles or illnesses listed here. This is here to help you simply understand what might be happening to your chameleon, and perhaps why. If I have listed what medication was prescribed for a particular case this does not mean that your vet will/should prescribe the same medicine.

Personally I don't think anyone who is not a qualified herp vet should give any medical advice, especially when it comes to chameleons. If you think your chameleon has a problem you should see a qualified herp vet. The links provided below can be searched by state so this might help you in locating one. I do not have personal experience with all the topics listed below so any emails to me for recommendations for whatever is ailing your chameleon will be replied to with something as simple as "SEE A VET".



Need a reptile vet?

Try looking for one in your area with help from one of these sites:

Melissa Kaplan's vet listings





(Choose one of the following to jump to that section)

THIS IS BY NO MEANS A COMPLETE LIST!

Stress

Mal adaption to captivity

Parasites

Dehydration

Hunger strikes

Upper Respiratory Infection (URI)

Mouth rot (stomatitis)

Tongue problems

Eye infections

Foot infections

Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)

Polydactylism (extra toes)

Horns

Strange looking urate




As stated before, chameleons are the masters of camouflage. This not only applies to their ability to change colors, but also when it comes to sickness. It is very important that you monitor your chameleon(s) daily, observing their water intake, color, alertness, fecal matter, behavior, as well as cage temperature. Also stated earlier, having a scale to regularly weigh you chameleon can help in identifying a current or potential problem. Most importantly, contact your vet at the first sign of ANY trouble. Treatment should be left to a vet who specializes or has had experience with reptiles, or even a qualified herpetologist. As a safeguard have your chameleon checked regularly. In the wild a Jackson's chameleon's life span is around 2 - 4 years. With the proper care they can live up to 5 - 8 years. There are even reports of some reaching an age of 11 -12 years old.

Having knowledge of these symptoms will not only help you in identifying a problem with the chameleons you already have, but also help you avoid purchasing one that is already sick.

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Stress

Very common and is experienced by all captive chameleons on some level at one point or another. Identifying and eliminating stress can save a lot of trouble down the road as stress suppresses a chameleon's immune system making them more susceptible to a variety of illnesses as well as parasites. In the wild almost all chameleons have parasites but they do not harm the animals because their immune system keeps them in check. Once they become stressed their immune system weakens and eventually their health will go down hill. Things you can do to eliminate stress are to keep cages in a low traffic area of your home, put up visual barriers between chameleons, and whenever possible provide them with natural sunlight. Stress can cause a lethargic, poorly colored chameleon, as well as a host of other problems.

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Mal adaption to captivity

Simply put, this is stress caused by a chameleon's inability to cope with their loss of freedom. If you didn't catch the link in the "Choosing & Purchasing" section, here is another link to Ardi Abate's case study on animals suffering from this condition: Assessing The Health Of Wild-Caught Chameleons.

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Parasites

All chameleons are susceptible to internal parasites (as opposed to external parasites like mites or ticks, which are less common), especially those that are wild caught. Even if you purchased your chameleon from someone who says the animal has been "deparasitized" or are "parasite free", this may not be true. Upon receiving your new chameleon you should schedule a vet visit to have a (fresh) fecal exam done. Sometimes it's next to impossible to prevent parasites since feeder insects can pass them on, so it's a good idea to have this done on a yearly basis (or even twice a year) from then on. If your chameleon is diagnosed as having parasites, you'll need to revisit the vet for follow-up treatments. It can take up to 3 visits before your chameleon has been deemed parasite free. Be sure to quarantine any new wild caught chameleon (a separate room is preferred) before introducing them into the same area as the rest of your chameleons until a vet has been able to check out the new addition.

As stated earlier (in the "Choosing and Purchasing..." section) wild chameleons have some sort of internal parasites within their bodies but these parasites are kept in check by the chameleon's immune system and are, for the most part, harmless. When the stress of exportation and/or captivity is brought on the immune systems weakens and the parasites can get out of hand, eventually taking it's toll on the chameleon and killing it. Since an overdose of some of the medications used to rid your chameleon of these parasites can cause severe problems as well as death, only your vet should administer these drugs. Below are some parasites that are known to exist in wild caught chameleons.

Protozoans (flagellates) are microscopic parasites that can wreak havoc on your chameleon's intestinal tract. While most wild chameleons live with these in a sort of harmonious balance, the onset of stress can cause them to become out of control. Signs can be (but are definately not limited to) lethargy, anorexia, diarrhea, or even bloody stools.

Intestinal Nematodes (roundworms) are worms that, like protozoans, can inhabit (or impact) the intestinal tract as well as bile and pancreatic ducts. These can be seen in your chameleons feces and even in regurgitated food. If not noticed in the feces then a test can be done to see if any eggs are present. If your chameleon is diagnosed with these parasites and medication has been administered, dead worms are noticeable in the fecal matter.

Subcutaneous Nematodes (roundworms) are for the most part the same as intestinal, however they have migrated to the undersurface of the skin. It is possible for a vet to actually remove these by incising the skin and removing them with a tweezers. Then the incision must then be cleaned and an antibiotic ointment applied. The sooner removed the less likely they'll reproduce and lay eggs underneath the skin. If your chameleon has these subcutaneous parasites, chances are that they also have intestinal ones. Medication should get rid of the intestinal parasites as well as any eggs that lie underneath the skin.

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Dehydration

A very common problem, especially for recently imported chameleons. This is mainly due to inadequate amounts or inappropriate delivery of water, and/or low humidity levels. Aside from providing water via a dripper, your chameleon should be misted either by hand or from an automated misting system anywhere from 3 - 5 times per day. The most notable way to tell if your chameleon is dehydrated is sunken eyes; other symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite, or loss/lack of distance when shooting their tongue. The most common way to re-hydrate your chameleon is to give them a shower. See Captive Environment for a few ideas on how to accomplish this. And be sure to monitor them while they are in there! This should entice your chameleon to drink more than it is currently. It's also a good idea to do this on a regular basis as dehydration can cause irreversible kidney and liver failure.

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Hunger strikes

Many times people notice their chameleons refusing food and while there are many causes, it is in fact a common cause of death for captive chameleons. The general refusing of food is a symptom of some other problem(s) likes stress, lack of proper nutrition, dehydration, internal parasites, or even cage temperatures. When temps are lower a chameleon's metabolism slows, so their necessity for food decreases. There could also be a seasonal factor. It seems when fall comes my chams slow their food intake, and although I try to compensate for the lower temps (outside and in), their appetite decreases.

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Upper Respiratory Infection (URI)

A fairly common problem with different causes, but mainly caused by the environment. It could stem from stagnant air, an inadequate climate like having the temperature too low, the substrate is too wet which can create mold and bacteria among other things, or just not enough humidity. When the air is too dry the chameleon's respiratory tract dries out. Whether the infection is bacterial, viral, fungal, or parasitic they all do damage. Symptoms can include open-mouth breathing, wheezing, a "crackling" sound when breathing, or excessive saliva which is most noticeable when drinking. A definite vet visit is necessary as is checking and correcting your chameleon's environment.

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Mouth rot (stomatitis)

This is a bacterial infection in or around the mouth caused by a cut or some other trauma. Either inside, around the gum line, or in the juncture where the top and bottom jaw meets. In serious and/or untreated cases this infection can spread to a chameleon's eye(s) (infraorbital infections). Another symptom is swelling around the gumline, leaving the mouth partially open because of an inablility to close the mouth completely. If left untreated this infections can destroy bone that results in a jaw fracture and unfortunately the chameleon will likely die. Once again, a visit to the vet is necessary.


(click for larger image)
CASE 1: A clear cut case of mouth rot. This guys condition was caught in time and with proper medicine (Baytril) was cleared up.

(click for larger image)
CASE 2: Another (worse) case of mouthrot. When I first noticed this guy (he is wild caught) at a local pet shop, his jaw was much more swollen, and his eye was constantly closed. After I informed an employee of the problem they quickly took him into the back and began treatment with Baytril. I took this picture a week after the treatment began and although it still looks bad in this picture, it's a world of difference from when I first saw it. Notice the swelling that still exists in the back, lower part of his jaw, as well as the inability to completely close his mouth. This swelling was originally 2 or 3 times as bad.
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Tongue problems

A chameleon's tongue can be damaged a number of ways. Things like the tongue striking a hard surface (such as glass) at a high speed, a tongue getting caught on a branch and the ensuing struggle to free it. Keeping chameleons together has even resulted in tongue injuries when either a.) two chameleons shoot at the same food at the same time getting tangled, or b.) a chameleon shoots at food already in another chameleon's mouth - both instances resulting in a bitten tongue. Even Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD - see below) can cause a tongue problem. With MBD and the lack of calcium, the small bone that a chameleon's tongue is wrapped around (when at rest) either doesn't fully develop, doesn't develope correctly, or both. All of these can result in a chameleon's lack of aim and distance. Dehydration can also result in lack of distance. Chameleons with infected tongues can go off feed or just fail to catch insect prey. Check the tongue for swelling or a reddish color and schedule a vet visit if necessary.

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Eye infections

Simply put eye infections are caused by something that gets into the chameleon's eye, such as a mite, that they cannot get out. A symptom is one (or even both) eye being shut constantly. If this infection is caught early treatment can be as simple as placing your chameleon in the shower (see Dehydration for instructions). This allows them to actually clean or flush out anything that has accumulated by filling its eye up with water and actually swishing the water around in the socket. If not caught early or the shower is not enough you should schedule a vet visit.

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Foot infections

Foot infections can be quite serious. Swollen digits (or even limbs) are not necessarily an infection as they can be caused by their limb or digit being crushed during capture or packing (for wild caught animals). Captive animals can also experience the same kind of swelling but this is due to acclimation to a new environment.
Swelling can also result from bacterial infections. They can initially result from the toe nail being either pulled to the point of causing a tear in the skin or being ripped out completely. Another reason for larger screen in your cages.

(click photos for larger image)

The photos to the left are of my male who is currently suffering a foot infection for reasons unknown as he never actually climbs on the screen of his cage (at least not that I ever see). I noticed one night he was sleeping with one foot hanging off his usual sleeping spot. At first I thought it to be rather humorous, but then realized there could actually be something wrong. Unfortunately I was right.

I thankfully caught this early enough to hopefully help him recover from this. It's not uncommon for chameleons to lose their digits due to this type of infection. As you may be able to tell from the picture to the left he is missing the digit next to the infected one. I don't know why as it was missing before I got him. This road to recovery will be a long one. If you're ever faced with this situation it's probably a good idea to take extra care in keeping the cage clean more so than usual. This means to re-sterize anything he may come in daily contact with.

What was prescribed by my vet is the following:
Twice a day I need to soak his foot in a mixture of warm water and chlorhexadine (1 teaspoon per pint of water). But first the puss needs to be squeezed out which will open the wound for the medicine to get in and do it's work. After the soak (around ten minutes) I apply a topical antibiotic (in this case my vet prescribed Otibiotic ointment) over the infected area. On top of that I give him 1 drop of (liquid) Baytril orally once a day. So far so good - some nights he sleeps with that foot hanging off, sometimes it's tucked underneath him. UPDATE: Approximately 2 months later he made a full recovery. There was some (minimal) tissue loss but that is to be expected.

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Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)

Most common in other species such as Veiled chameleons, however all chameleons are susceptible to this at any age. This is caused by an inadequate amount of calcium intake and absorption starting from a young age. This is due to either a lack of or over supplementing with calcium powder, a lack of proper UV lighting, or a diet that contains more phosphorus than calcium - generally referred to as the calcium/phosphorus ratio, ideally 2:1 (excessive phosphorus can prevent the absorption of calcium). Most feeder insects have a high phosphorus level. Mild cases can cause stunted growth, but severe cases result in malformed, fragile bone tissue that fractures easily over time. Treatment for this is difficult but can be reversed if caught early enough. Excess calcium should not be given as it could bring their blood levels of calcium (hypercalcemia) to unhealthy levels. Correcting an improper diet and/or lighting and waiting is generally all that can be done. But again, a vet visit might be a good idea.

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Polydactylism (extra toes)

Polydactylism, or extra toes, can be caused by either genetics, or "just one of those things" during embryogenesis. Formation of the organs is largely controlled by interacting waves of chemicals released from cells in particular relative positions, and repetitive organs such as toes are caused by the resulting interference effects. This is an extremely delicate process and the least thing can mess it up and add a toe. While this is fairly common in cats, it is rarely seen in chameleons.

A genetic cause for this will usually have symmetrical effects (extra toes on all feet), while mechanical interference will usually cause asymmetrical effects (extra toes on one foot), as is the case in the picture to the left. Genetic polydactylism is not really good news as some forms of it are associated with other symptoms such as mental defects. A chameleon with symmetrical polydactylism should not be bred as it could be passed to the offspring. Those with asymmetrical polydactylism will not pass this on to offspring as it is most likely not genetic.

This is a picture of a 2-month-old female dwarf Jackson's. As you will notice there is a (smaller) sixth digit on the outside of her left front foot.

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Horns

Once again, this may or may not be a problem. Horns with asymmetrical growth (not necessarily a problem), whether they are uneven or drooping, could be either genetics and/or environmental factors like high temperatures and improper nutrition. But even with the best of care, as the one pictured here receives, things like this can be unexplainable.

There is a chance that something like this can straighten itself out. In this next picture you can see how the horns seem to be going back to "normal". The time between pictures is (approx.) 7 months. Click here for a side by side comparison.

Next there is the chance that your Jackson's could actually break a horn, which could actually pose a problem. This is more so possible with the Meru (or dwarf) subspecies, since their horns are longer in proportion to their body and fragile. If this is to happen you should be aware that antibiotics are necessary. When broken (or cut off if necessary by a vet after being partially broken) they will bleed. From what I have read they will grow back.


Here are a few thoughts on asymmetrical, or "wonky" horn growth by Ed Pollak:
1)Lots of genetically influenced traits change during development. For example, lots of kids have freckles as youths only to lose most of them later in life.
2)It's always possible that some microbial agent (e.g., bacterial, viral or fungal) was temporarily influencing horn development. We certainly see such things in the toenails of humans. There's a transient deformation of the nail which abates with treatment or via spontaneous remission.
3)And then, of course, there's always the possibility of a temporary nutritional deficiency (or over-supplementation) affecting horn development.
4)And then there's the possibility that the deformation was iatrogenic. I'd be not at all surprised if some antibiotics interfered with horn development as most (or all) of them interfere with protein synthesis.

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Strange looking urate

This isn't necessarily a problem, however it can give you a scare the first time you're ever faced with this. Although some people report that this is what the urate can look like after being fed superworms, this is actually an unfertilized egg. I mated my male & female on July 1st, and on December 1st through 3rd this was one of many unfertilized eggs (or "slugs" as some people call them) that came out of her. The chances of a female still carrying any young after dropping only these is highly unlikely.

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Stress
Mal adaption to captivity
Parasites
Dehydration
Hunger strikes
Upper Respiratory Infection (URI)
Mouth rot (stomatitis)
Tongue problems
Eye infections
Foot infections
Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)
Polydactylism (extra toes)
Horns
Strange looking urate
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