Chameleon Diseases

By Gregory Rich, DVM

Chameleons are magnificent small reptiles that have a variety of color patterns. They all have eyes that can rotate 360 degrees. All four feet have two toes bound together that face forward and two toes bound together that face backward.

Like most reptiles, chameleons have specific requirements for ultraviolet (UVB) lighting and calcium supplementation. There are several diseases that chameleon owners should be aware of so that these conditions can be addressed before they become life-threatening.

Egg Retention

When a female chameleon appears to have a swollen belly, it is most likely that she is producing eggs. If her calcium is not adequate, her oviduct will not be able to contract to expel the eggs.

If the cage temperature and humidity settings are not set properly or if there is no nesting place, she may not be able to lay her eggs.

Egg retention, no matter the initiating cause, is called ovostasis. In some cases, the chameleon is an adult and still very active, but just has a swollen abdomen with eggs retained in her reproductive tract. A more critical situation occurs in juvenile veiled chameleons where they are weak, thin, and full of eggs. Some species of chameleons, like veiled chameleons, may produce 20–70 eggs at one time.


It cannot be emphasized enough that “phosphorus-free” calcium supplements must be used when dusting insects before feeding. Phosphorus can damage tissues of the kidneys. If the kidneys become damaged or diseased, they are unable to excrete uric acid properly. When the kidneys cannot excrete uric acid, it builds up in the bloodstream and can be deposited in joints (articular gout) or around internal organs (visceral gout).

“Phosphorus-free” calcium supplements must be used when dusting insects before feeding.

When gout crystals become deposited in joints, the chameleon will have pain, a difficult time moving around, and the affected joint(s) will be swollen. When gout crystals are deposited in or around internal organs, the chameleon appears lethargic, weak, and thin. If the uric acid crystals become deposited in the kidneys, the kidneys begin to fail and the chameleon has a moderate to high probability of passing away from kidney failure.

Metabolic Bone Disease

UVB lighting and calcium supplementation are both critical for chameleons to maintain proper bone growth and bone stability. When calcium is not supplied at the proper levels or cannot be absorbed because UVB light is not available, the bones become rubbery or may break.

If the jaw becomes rubbery or broken, then your chameleon will be unable to eat and will starve. When legs become rubbery or broken, your chameleon will have difficulty holding on to perches and catching insects with its tongue. Broken legs will be noticeable, as there will be extra curves or too many angles on the affected leg(s).

These breaks are called “pathologic fractures” as the bones may break even without trauma.

Swelling of Tissues Around the Eye

The soft tissue that covers the main surface of the eye is called the “turret”. Several conditions can affect the turret.

  • There may be a solid bulge at the front of the turret, which usually results from an abscess on the inside of the turret. It may be a bacterial abscess, initiated by a vitamin A deficiency.
  • A separate condition occurs where the entire turret becomes swollen and distended. This condition occurs when infection, a foreign substance, or pus blocks the tear duct (naso-lacrimal duct), and fluid or pus fills the space around the eye, causing the turret to appear “blown up” with air.

How are these conditions and diseases treated?

For any of these conditions, it is most important to consult with a veterinarian that is familiar with reptile diseases. You can find a reptile veterinarian in your area through the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterianarians (ARAV) website: Chameleons, like other reptiles, hide symptoms of illness until it may be too late.

Egg retention (ovostasis) can be a life-threatening situation for any chameleon. Juvenile veiled chameleons are especially difficult cases. These young chameleons are generally thin, weak, and malnourished, and need to see a veterinarian as soon as possible.

"Chameleons, like other reptiles, hide symptoms of illness until it may be too late."

Your veterinarian will X-ray (radiograph) the abdomen and, if the chameleon has egg retention, they will see numerous small, spherical bodies in the abdomen. Hospitalization may be necessary to syringe-feed nutrients and calcium to improve the chameleon's overall health so that she can lay the eggs on her own. In many cases, if the female has not laid the eggs within one to two weeks, a surgical procedure will be necessary to remove the oviduct and eggs. This procedure, called a salpingo-hysterectomy, is very risky since the female has a compromised health status to start with.

Gout is a serious disease in which uric acid crystals are deposited in joints or around internal organs. These crystals cause tissue damage and are very painful to the animal. Both articular and visceral gout are diagnosed by performing blood tests to analyze uric acid levels in the bloodstream. The material in swollen joints can be analyzed under a microscope to look for uric acid crystals.

Once a diagnosis is confirmed, the chameleon may need to be hospitalized. Medicines may need to be administered to diminish uric acid production and nutritional supplements given to correct any nutritional imbalance. Full resolution of gout cases is always difficult, but considerable improvement is seen in many cases.

Metabolic bone disease may happen in any animal species, but is very common in young, growing chameleons. Like all young animals, young chameleons need a proper diet, proper calcium supplementation, and the correct UVB light to form strong bones. If any of these factors are deficient or absent, a young chameleon’s bones will become rubbery and may have micro-fractures and full breaks.

"Nutritional and lighting deficiencies must be remedied immediately."

Nutritional and lighting deficiencies must be remedied immediately. Hospitalization may be necessary, but in some cases, owners can learn to syringe-feed a liquid nutritional formula that allows the chameleon to replenish its calcium reserves and stabilize the rubbery or broken bones. Treatment may need to be administered for several months to stabilize the bones.

A chameleon with swelling at the front of the turret or involving the entire turret may need a sedated eye exam. Your veterinarian may be able to flush the turret with sterile saline and, if there is bedding or other foreign material in the turret, the flushing may resolve the swelling.

In many cases, the swelling is an abscess, and your veterinarian must perform a surgical procedure to remove the infection. They may take a bacterial culture to identify the bacterial organism involved with the infection. The chameleon will need to be placed on both oral and ophthalmic antibiotics. Vitamin A supplementation may be recommended as well.

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