Chameleon Diets: Wild Collected Insects

by Ivan Alfonso, DVM on June 17, 2011

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.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

ginger June 18, 2011 at 8:52 AM

great info. my chams love roly pollies but I did stop my cham from eating a wasp just in the nick of time, what do you recommend we do if something like that were to happen again (wasp or bees)?

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Heather July 7, 2011 at 6:46 PM

Following up on Ginger’s comment, there are a LOT of fireflies where I live, some of which find their way into the house. I worry about them because everyone everywhere seems to say they’re dangerously toxic, and I don’t know if Madagascar or Yemen possess morphologically similar toxic insects. Is there any recourse should a cham be observed to eat a known noxious insect?

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Ivan Alfonso, DVM July 7, 2011 at 7:30 PM

Chameleons are not usually dumb and they know what to eat and what to stay away from. In nature, colors tend to warn predators of which items are safe and which are toxic and most reptiles know how to stay away from these toxic prey. Reptiles are not domestic animals per se and will not be considered domestic by definition until many more generations are bred and kept in captivity. Because of this, they retain their wild instincts which usually save them from toxic insects. I have never seen a larger chameleon interested in something as small as a firefly. Wasps and bees can be of interest and it seems that by chombing on them on the torso, they disable the stnger quite well.
Of course, whenever possible, avoid exposing your chameleons to wasps and bees but I doubt it would be fatal if they ingest one of these insects.

Sorry for the late reply Ms. Ginger. Not sure how I missed your post.

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Heather July 7, 2011 at 8:30 PM

Thank you for the reassurance. I am sorry to push the point, but what would you do if a chameleon did eat a known noxious insect? – Last night I saw my female veiled shoot twice at a firefly. The bug was on the other side of a glass window; had that not been the case, I’ve no doubt she would have eaten it. I have found fireflies in the house and removed them when I’ve seen them.
Hope I’m not being too much of a pest.

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Ivan Alfonso, DVM July 7, 2011 at 9:16 PM

Thats a good question Heather. You are definitely not being a pest but you are likely worrying too much about something that is very unlikely to happen. I even think that chameleons, by the sheer nature of being insectivores, must have some genetic resistance to some poisons as they even eat spiders in nature. But with all that said, your question is still valid because there are many noxious insects in the USA that chameleons are not exposed to in the wild.
The answer I am about to give you is not something that is a definite cure or solution because it certainly would depend on how long has passed since the exposure to the toxin. Assuming you caught the issue right away, the main thing to try to do is neutralize the poison before it gets absorbed. In dogs and cats you try to induce vomiting but I am not sure a chameleon would really withstand that, so I would take the approach of diluting the poison by force feeding your chameleon some water. Not too much water but enough. Then I would likely give the chameleon a small amount (depending on size it could be up to almost 1 cc) of liquid activated charcoal which is basically a universal toxin absorber.
After that, while we wait and see, maybe put the chameleon in a nice relatively warm shower for about 30 minutes to allow it to drink some more should he/she want to. That’s about it.
There is a potential problem with my suggestion above and it is that it is apparently nearly impossible to find liquid activated charcoal anywhere. We use it routinely in veterinary clinics but I am not even sure if the clinics would sell some to clients as it is a product used for emergencies. So basically, if you are really, really, really, really worried and concerned about toxin exposure in your chameleons, then trying to locate a small supply of liquid activated charcoal might be a good idea so that you can keep it in your chameleon first-aid kit.

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Sarah Kim September 17, 2011 at 7:15 PM

I don’t have a chameleon but I love them and in fact, I am doing a profect about them. B-)

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Sarah Kim September 20, 2011 at 8:09 PM

I’m really interested but I don’t see how all the chain reaction works. I’m only in 4th grade so I’m pretty much full of questions. I never had a pet, though I want one. :(:(:(

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Ivan Alfonso, DVM September 20, 2011 at 9:57 PM

Research all you can about the reptile you want before even attempting to get it. Chameleons are not really good beginner’s pets but if you do the proper research and know you can provide for one everything they need, then you will likely do ok.

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brono barn June 16, 2012 at 2:22 PM

i have a female vieled chameleon and i was wondering if i could catch wild fireflys and give them to her are they safe for her to eat?

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Ivan Alfonso, DVM June 16, 2012 at 4:05 PM

I have never fed fireflys to chameleons and have heard about bearded dragons being poisoned by eating them. Not sure if chameleoins would have the same reaction. I normally offer items that are diurnal in nature, meaning items that would be out in the daytime and thus chameleons would recognize them as food. Nocturnal insects can still be nutritious of course, I am not sure on fireflys though.

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mckenzie laws December 27, 2012 at 2:23 PM

can my veiled chameleon eat garden spiders

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Ivan Alfonso, DVM December 27, 2012 at 6:48 PM

Never fed garden spiders on purpose to any chameleon. I have fed wolf spiders to larger Panthers and they relish them.

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Matthew May 15, 2013 at 12:25 AM

Ok here is the load down, i ought a female veiled chameleon a little over a year ago. She has not layed eggs, but I do have dirt in the bottom of her cage for her. Well lately as in the past 2-3 days I’ve noticed that her grip has become weaker, her eyes are closed often, and she has developed a kind of lumpy white streak on her tail, and another one that is starting to appear on her left side. She has been very slow and not active. But then the other day I put outside in my apple tree cause it was warm out and she loved it, she was climbing all over the place. And she seems to not be eating very much if any at all. This is my first reptile I’ve ever kept and I need to take action. I also caught some moths and put them in her cage, a few are left so she may have eaten the others. I live in Spokane Washington so I’m starting to think that the moths from up here were a very bad idea. Can you help me out and give me some addvice. I’m going to wait a day to see if there is any change in her behavior before taking her to the pet shop that I bought her from to see what they can do, cause they said they will do what they can.

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Ivan Alfonso, DVM May 15, 2013 at 8:28 AM

The best thing you can do and the best advice I can give you is to take her immediately to a qualified Veterinarian. Seems she could have a few issues going on with her and a Vet will be able to tell you if they are related or not. I don’t know what could be wrong but the lumpy tail could be a sign of calcium issues (too much, or too little, or not enough UVB light, etc) but it could certainly be something else altogether. A pet shop normally won’t be able to do much, if anything, for you because at most they may be able to exchange the chameleon but not treat appropriately the one you have. Find a Vet near you and seek help as soon as possible before it is too late. Best of luck.

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Hillary March 13, 2014 at 2:37 PM

I was curious about your comment about plants and pesticides. I bought my veiled chameleon pothos and hibiscus plants from an organic green house but he still seems to have gotten sick…is there anything these organics use that is just as dangerous. He has been seen by a vet and is on antibiotics but I need to know what pesticides to look out for when it comes to “organic” for future reference if he survives this ordeal.

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Ivan Alfonso, DVM March 13, 2014 at 4:05 PM

I am very sorry to hear your chameleon is sick. Are you completely sure it is directly related to the plants? Regardless, he is getting medical attention and I sure hope all goes well for you and your chameleon.

It is safe to assume that any pesticide is bad, even if it is organic. I know of people that go to great lengths making their plants chameleon safe even removing all the dirt where the plant came and replacing with new, pesticide-free, dirt. I never did or do such extremes but I do give any new purchased plants a thorough washing, almost a pressure washing with the hose and leave them to dry. Then I repeat this process a few times over the next day or so before using the plants on any reptile cage.

Once again, I wish your chameleon a quick recovery.

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