Veiled Chameleons are one of the most popular expert-level reptiles because of their alien features and extraordinary looks. They are so slow-moving and “tame” that many people fatally believe that their Veiled wants to be held. They do not.
Why shouldn’t you handle your Veiled?
Chameleons are very sensitive to movement, sound, and light. They feel threatened when they are in an unfamiliar space and when they don’t have control over where they are going.
The species as a whole has been introduced to the pet industry without the necessary years of evolution alongside humans. Whereas dogs, cats, and some reptiles were specifically targeted for their desire to interact with us, many exotic pets were chosen for their beauty, not for their personality.
Now, there will always be accounts of people hand-taming their chameleon. They say that their Veiled loves to be cuddled, cradled, and carried around the house. Even if an individual animal has a “friendlier” disposition, however, that doesn’t mean you should handle them.
A veiled chameleon is sensitive to over-handling for many reasons:
- They lack defenses against potential threats
- They have sensitive and delicate skin
- They are arboreal and prefer to stay hidden in the trees
The Veiled chameleon’s slow pace makes them a target for predators. So does the fact that they lack claws and teeth to fight back. Because of these factors, they are a nervous animal that prefers the safety of a well-known and secure territory.
To your chameleon, you are a potential predator even if you show up when the food does. They don’t necessarily learn not to fear you because they don’t have the same disposition as a Beardy or a Blue-tongue Skink.
You will notice right away that chameleon scales are not the same as other reptiles. Instead of armor, Veiled Chameleons have a smooth, bi-layered skin more similar to geckos than to lizards. This makes them susceptible to injury if they were ever dropped or scratched.
If you have kids or other animals in the room then you absolutely should not take your chameleon out because there are so many opportunities for accidents to happen. Not only could your Veiled be injured, but they will also be anxious because of the sights and smells of other animals.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Arboreal animals rely on the thick foliage of trees to protect them. Chameleons in particular have adapted to be slow enough not to be recognized as an animal, but as a swaying limb on the tree. Apart from their shifty eyes and lightning-fast tongue, they remain quite still and prefer to stay undercover rather than out in the open on your arm.
How will you know they feel threatened?
To make up for what they lack in defenses, a Veiled will puff up their body to appear larger and they will open their mouth to prepare to bite. They will use their feet and their prehensile tail to anchor themselves onto a perch and they will darken their colors noticeably.
The idea for them is to appear as large and threatening as they can. When you see your chameleon in this stance, then you know they are feeling stressed out. Retreat and leave them be.
Keep in mind though, just because they don’t puff out or open their mouth doesn’t mean they aren’t upset. Your chameleon may instead try to escape you, climbing up your arm or reaching for the safety of their tank. Never force your pet to stay on you. Instead, pay attention to what they are trying to communicate.
Even though you may feel guilty about keeping them in their enclosure all the time, you have to remember that that is actually less stressful for them.
When should you hold a Veiled?
If you need to clean your chameleon’s cage or take them to the vet then, of course, you may need to handle them. I will talk about proper handling in a moment, but first, consider two other factors for interacting with chameleons.
Chameleons have evolved to be highly intelligent. Like other reptiles, they can learn to recognize faces and they can learn to anticipate the passage of time. Your chameleon may learn to come out of hiding when it’s feeding time.
They may also learn to relax when you are around. Instead of puffing up or opening their mouths, they may start to move towards you. This means they’ve learned to trust you but you need to respect that trust.
Treat them as you would any intelligent animal, by maintaining their boundaries and moving at their pace. Never take for granted that your chameleon “likes” you. Continue to pay attention to their body language and their color.
In the wild, a friendly chameleon would be eaten by a bird or a snake. Hence, they haven’t evolved to enjoy the company of strange animals like humans. In captivity, those individuals that are friendly or at least fearless, are actually encouraged to reproduce.
Therefore, there are exceptions to the rule that no chameleon wants to be held. However, as I said, you can’t take their friendly nature for granted.
Tips for Handling:
- Use a sturdy stick if they are not comfortable walking on you.
- Remain stable and stationary and allow them to wander at their own pace.
- Keep them up high, so that they feel safe.
- Allow them to walk to you, or if you must, herd them towards one hand by touching their tail gently with the other.
Things to avoid:
- Never grab your chameleon.
- Never come at them from above or behind their eyes.
- Never force them onto your hand.
- Do not over-handle them or needlessly carry them around with you.
Why is it so unpopular to hold Veiled Chameleons?
Although no one wants to be the bearer of bad news, I have to be honest and say that I have known Veiled Chameleons who died from over-handling. During my time at a pet store, I saw two baby chameleons pass on because of the stress from being touched repeatedly by potential buyers.
I blame our team for not explaining the importance of leaving these sensitive creatures in their enclosure unless necessary. However, the lack of education is only part of it. We also have to have the openness to live with animals on their own terms.
Chameleons are not the only reptile that gets stressed out from over-handling. Many gecko species and snakes are timid and delicate. When we accept this truth about our pets, then we are free to meet them where they’re at, not where we want them to be.
It’s always unfortunate when we get bad news about our favorite pets. We want to think that our animals love us and they want to be around us. Just because Veiled Chameleons are not cuddly, doesn’t mean they aren’t happy.
Provide your chameleon with enough space and branches to roam around on in their enclosure and they will be more than happy. Give them basking areas with the proper lighting, plenty of hiding spots, and a variety of nutritious food, and your Veiled will live a comfortable and satisfying life.