I can’t tell you how many emails or phone calls have started with “my chameleon ate a spider and I am freaking out!” or “my chameleon just ate a snail and I think he will get parasites”, etc. Has your chameleon eaten anything that you didn’t intend for him/her to eat? Has something from the great outdoors found its way into your chameleon’s cage and eventually into it’s stomach? Have you seen your chameleon chewing on something that you have no clue what it is? If so, my best advice is to relax and enjoy the sight.
Chameleons are quite fond of a varied menu and in the wild, which is where most chameleons in the hobby still come from, they eat any invertebrate prey they see. They also know which prey to stay away from and they tend to be quite knowledgeable as to which item to eat. In captivity we deal with a new set of rules because our wild insects are not usually the same as the ones in their country of origin, yet at the same time they are still insects and they still bring a good balanced nutrition to the table.
Slugs, snails, flies, moths, spiders, roaches, pill bugs, millipedes, grasshopers, katydids, dragonflies, mantis, stick bugs, etc. are but a few of the wild insects I have seen my chameleons eat while enjoying the weather outdoors. None of them have ever died or gotten sick from this. Of course, any obvious poisonous insects I remove or avoid such as Black Widow spiders or the black and orange grasshoppers we get sometimes here in FL. But in general, wild insects are good and enjoyed by most chameleons. You will find chameleons sometimes go on a hunger strike and refuse crickets and superworms but immediately go for a grasshopper. Why is this? Well, they get bored with the same old food every time so they aim to add variety to the menu.
To add even more variety, some chameleon species enjoy adding a bit of vertebrate prey to their menus and anoles are the preferred candidates. I even had a good friend report her female Veiled Chameleon ate a green tree frog while basking outdoors. I felt terrible for the frog but the chameleon was quite happy with her meal.
What about pesticides? Wild collected insects should always be taken from areas known to be free of pesticides of any sort. If you know your neighbor is using heavy doses of pesticides you are wise to avoid any insects from that area. It seems like common sense but it is always worth mentioning. Insects that come to your yard are usually traveling all over the place so the chance is always there that they could carry some chemical. However, a lethal dose of the chemical would already be affecting the insect so if it looks stunned or odd, leave it alone. If it look quite lively and moving all over the place, you can give it a quick rinse if you want, and into the cage it goes.
But what about parasites? Aren’t they bad? Yes, parasites are a concern and you should aim to keep your chameleons parasite free. But is it worth sacrificing their overall health because of the fear of possible parasites? Parasites are not known to enter the body and kill your chameleon in 48 hours. They take time to cause issues and in many cases, if the chameleon is healthy enough, you don’t even know they are there. If your chameleon enjoys the outdoor snacks, make sure you have their feces examined at least every 6 months, with every 3-4 months being ideal. This way you and your Veterinarian can be on top of any parasites that can show up and treat them quickly.
Do you deprive your dog from a walk in the park because of fear of fleas, ticks, hookworms or heartworms? I don’t think so. You take precautions but let him/her enjoy life. The same applies for chameleons, let them enjoy their variety in their menu as they will be happier and stronger. Regardless of how long we keep them in captivity, chameleons are wild reptiles, and they benefit from diets similar to the ones they would get in the wild. Keep your staple food insects on hand but don’t be shy or afraid to use wild collected insects to spice up your chameleon’s life.