Focus on Co-Habitation

By Bill Strand


Strand, B. (2003). Focus on Co-Habitation. Chameleons! Online E-Zine, July 2003. (


One of the common major mistakes that beginners make is to house chameleons together. Our reasons for putting more than one chameleon in the same cage range from well intentioned misunderstanding ("I don't want them to be lonely") to careless collector addiction ("I want more!"). In between are a wide range of reasons. None of these reasons have anything to do with improving the chameleon's standard of living. In the end, they are all for the convenience of the keeper. But as our job as keepers is to create the best environment for our chameleons co-habitation should not be part of our pets' environment.

Chameleons are not community animals the way we humans think of communities. Although we cannot know what goes on inside of a chameleons head, decades of keeping chameleons has shown us that chameleons not only do not get lonely, but that they do very well living life without ever seeing another chameleon. In fact, the long term evidence shows that they live longer lives in better health if they interact with each other as little as possible.

In captivity, the results of co-habitation usually end up with a stunted, poor health, or dead chameleon. The reason why there is any debate at all about this issue is the combination of a strong innate desire in human beings to group animals together and the fact that health issues related to co-habitation usually manifest themselves over time and indirectly. This makes the official cause of death something other than co-habitation. And the problems become noticeable to the keeper long after the chameleons have been together thus, in the keepers mind, ruling out co-habitation as a source of trouble.

What happens when chameleons are housed together?

When chameleons are placed together in a cage you may see very little reaction from your chameleons. They are still trying to figure out why you haven't eaten them. After a day of being in the cage they have turned their attention to their surroundings. What you don't see at this point is that a power struggle is in effect. This silent power struggle is to determine who gets what they want when selecting food, basking area, and drinking. The victor is determined by size and aggression. In an equal sized pair the male usually wins. In a mismatch sized pair a larger female may claim the title. If two chameleons are equally matched you will have an ongoing contest.

The effect of any contest is stress to all parties involved. In the wild a couple of chameleons may meet, have their contest, and the loser leaves. The contest was stressful for both of them, but at the end of the spat each has been given the time to settle down and go on with their lives. In captivity there is no escape for the loser. There will always be a low grade stress level for the loser who is being dominated. The winner, though, is not free from this stress as the winner must constantly maintain his dominance.

The end result of all this is, once again, stress. From chameleons to human beings it is plain to see that stress affects health. Do you notice that under times of high stress it is easier for you to get sick and it is harder to get well? Stress degrades our immune system. Stress degrades your chameleon's immune system. Your number 1 goal as a chameleon keeper is to decrease the level of stress your chameleon receives. Quick bouts of stress during interactions such as mating or two males posturing to each other will not be damaging. It is the stress that lingers every waking hour that is insidious. The tragedy of this fatal condition is that you will not get obvious signs! It is all too common to hear someone proclaim "Well, I've kept my chameleons together with no problem!" They can say that because no one can see a depressed immune system! You can only see the effects of a depressed immune system in the form of various sicknesses or lethargy or malnurishment over time. Unfortunately, if these signs are not caught early they are difficult to reverse. Co-habitation is one of the most avoidable health problems in chameleons.

What are signs that my chameleon is stressed?

Here are some signs that will tell you that your chameleon may be stressed due to a cage mate.

Aggressive/Defensive displays: Chameleons are visual animals and they communicate in that manner. Although research suggests they may communicate with vibrations, their visual communication is the easiest for humans to interpret. Signs of aggression or defensiveness are as follows:

1) Puffing themselves up to make themselves look as big as possible.

2) Swaying back and forth while staying in one place (not to be confused with the jerky walk that chameleons do sometimes

3) Darkening or brightening or mottling of colors when in the presence of other chameleons

4) Walking over each other. A chameleon in good spirits will not allow themselves to be, literally, walked over.

5) Gaping at each other or any lunge or attempt to bite the other

These signs may be overt (the female puffs herself up, goes black, and strikes at the male) or subtle (the female goes a drab color and lets the male climb over her).

Restless pacing of the cage: This is done because there is something about the living conditions that is not right. If the chameleon feels secure in the cage and all it's needs are met then the chameleon will not pace the walls of the cage. Some things that may produce this behavior are

1) The cage is too small

2) There is not enough foliage for the chameleon to hide in

3) The chameleon feels threatened by a cage mate or something that the chameleon can see and feels the need to get away from (pet bird/cat/snake/ceiling fan....)

Eyes closed during the day: A chameleon that keeps its eyes closed during the daytime is in trouble. I have occasionally seen a chameleon do what I can only assume is napping, but if the chameleon again closes its eyes after you disturb it then a vet visit is in order. If a chameleon does not open its eyes when you disturb it then you are well on your way to a dead chameleon and it is time to get to the vet last week!

Lack of interest in food: This can be caused by many things. But if your chameleon is being bullied by a cage mate or other chameleon in sight you will have to remove the offending chameleon to get any sort of recovery. A chameleon stressed by a cage mate may still eat, but not eat until it is full. The chameleon reacting like this will effectively hide that anything is wrong as the keeper cannot tell that the food intake is less than it should be. The chameleon's health has already been compromised when the chameleon gets to the point that its food intake is so depressed that the owner notices.

Staying on the ground: If your chameleon stays on the ground then something is wrong. It could be the basking light up top is too hot or any other husbandry mistake. If you have a cage mate then you know that the one on the ground lost the contest!

The problem with this list is that the symptoms of a problem start very small. By time they are noticeable by the typical owner they have gotten serious enough to present major health risks. The vet may diagnose the chameleon with a Upper Respitory Infection (URI) and give you a treatment plan. But if you put the chameleon right back into the conditions that gave him the URI then what good is treating him? The simplest and most effective way to treat illness in chameleons is by prevention. Don't put chameleons together and count on your quick eye to note when there is trouble. If you dabble with co-habitation then you will have to have a second cage set-up ready for if there is trouble. But if you have the second cage set-up why wait for the trouble to begin? Just put the second chameleon in it from the beginning! You will have eliminated a huge potential for stress and can keep your attention on the myriad of other things that make keeping chameleons a challenge. Both you and your chameleons will be happier for it!

But can't we keep babies together? What are the exceptions?

There is not much black and white in this world and there are exceptions to this rule.

Exception 1) Rampholeon and Brookesia. It appears pretty consistant that chameleons from the genuses Rhampholeon and Brookesia are able to be kept in a community setting. Prudence must be used, though, to avoid overcrowding. How many you can put in a certain amount of space depends entirely on the layout of the cage.

Exception 2) Huge cages. More than one chameleon may be kept successfully in very large cages. As with exception #1, the number you may house together depends on how much space and how the cage is planted. Doing this right takes a balance of conditions and should be done only by individuals with experience in both what a chameleon needs to thrive and experience in the trouble signs. Each chameleon is an individual and some chameleons will work better together than others.

Exception 3) Babies. Many breeders raise babies up together. This usually works until about three months of age. Much attention is required, though to make sure that the weaker ones are not bullied and get their share of food and water. The best way to handle co-habitation of babies is to have a number of cages where babies of like sizes are kept together. The cages must be monitored closely and quicker growing babies moved to the cages with like size cage mates.

A special mention on pairs and females

Most often, people try to keep pairs of chameleons together. We humans like the idea of pairs and breeding. Pet stores and chameleon sellers may work on this deceptively or out of ignorance to make the extra sale. The only reason to have a pair of chameleons in the same cage is for breeding - and then it should only be temporarily (a couple days at most). A male and a female living together long term is a particularly bad combination. This is because they will mate and the female will get gravid. When the female gets gravid her body requires all the nutrients necessary to create eggs or babies. If she is sharing food/water/basking with the male then you will not be able to make sure she is getting everything in the amounts she needs. This is also the time in her life where her body is the most vulnerable to stress. You may suddenly find yourself with a female whose health plummets from the combined stress of pregnancy and competing with her cagemate. Or else you may find a male with a chewed up leg from a female that has had a personality change due to her pregnancy. A pair of chameleons may live in apparent serenity as they grow up from babies together, but once they reach sexual maturity their personality may take an unsociable turn. For the best health gravid females should always be in solitary confinement. If you keep a pair of chameleons together you WILL have a gravid female sooner or later. If cost is your reason for only having one cage then having a pair of chameleons is not a good idea. Babies are not cheap to raise up to the point where they can go to new homes!

Keeping a group of females together is less problematic than throwing a male into the mix. But you will still run into a dominance issue. For two females you must make sure that there are two basking sites, two feed dishes, two water drips, and plenty of prime perching areas that are not in view of each other. It is something which experienced breeders may do, but it should be left in the hands of experienced breeders that are able to put an experienced eye into making sure things do not go wrong - and, by the way, have spare cages just in case...


Most of us keep chameleons for the pure enjoyment of observing such wonderful creatures. The surest way to make sure we get the most joy out of keeping chameleons is to do what it takes to make the chameleons in our charge the most contented they can be. On the surface it sounds nice to have a jungle of chameleons crawling all over, but consider the increase in vet bills and the pressure you place on yourself to police the cage to make sure everyone is getting along. As a beginning keeper of chameleons you have enough to worry about with just learning the basics of chameleon care. Do your self a favor and do not add the difficulties of making a co-habitation work. You will have a more enjoyable and longer lasting experience with your new chameleons!

Bill Strand

Bill Strand currently works in the area of exotic animal breeding and continues to refine husbandry techniques with a broad range of chameleon species. A special interest of his is the creation of captive environments. He was the Assistant Editor and Webmaster of this Chameleons! E-Zine from March 2002-March 2004.


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