Generally, feeding restrictively is always a good idea in chameleons. This article will explain why this is the case and why it is a good idea to let your chameleon not become fat.
Why not feeding too much?
In Madagascar, food is not always available in generous amounts. Especially during dry season, it may sometimes take days or weeks for a chameleon to find food again. And as a reptile, they do not need such amounts of food as we mammals: We need approximately 70% of our energy intake to keep our temperature at the same level. A reptile is ectotherm, so it does not need this energy. It simply walks to a sunny place to warm up. Additionally, chameleons move a lot more in wilderness than they do in captivity, so they need more energy than a captive kept chameleon.
But as a wild animal, a chameleon eats in captivity what it gets, too. In captivity, this behaviour leads to animals eating much more than would be good for them if food is avaliable all the time. There is no “learning effect”, and that is why very restrictive feeding is important over the entire lifetime of a chameleon.
Some basic rules for feeding chameleons:
- The offered feeders should not exceed the size of the chameleon’s mouth width.
- Young chameleons up to the age of few months may have food available all day long, but not later as with four or six months the amount should be limited and days without food should be introduced.
- Maximally 10 feeders of medium size per week are enough for a middle-sized adult chameleon such as a panther chameleon.
Finally, the exact feeding amount is oriented towards the chameleon’s weight. There are individuals that get along with three large feeders per week, but there are also chameleons that need five to ten insects per week. Larvae, maggots and generally non-adult insects should not be part of the diet, or at least fed extremely rare. They are also absolutely not suitable as “intensive care nourishment”.
How can I see whether my chameleon is too fat or too thin?
Chameleons do not store their fat easily visible under the skin as humans do, but have abdominal fat pads. So you hardly can indicate the real nutritional status from the outside or from how the animal looks. It is completely normal in chameleons to see ribs and hips. Even an absolutely overfed, extremely fat chameleon has well visible ribs! And overfed chameleons are a huge problem in captivity, as in captive kept reptiles in general.
So it is recommended to regularly weigh your chameleon. A chameleon that is too fat has a bulged helmet, “chubby cheeks”, sturdy legs and a very round tail. In this case, the muscles have already become fatty. But fat is only stored in the muscles when all other storage possibilities are used up. In conclusion, such a chameleon is already on its way to develop fatty liver, renal failure and thus a much shortened life expectancy. The myth that a chameleons’s helmet contains fat pads, is totally wrong! The helmet does solely and only contain chewing muscles.
In some species, even a progressed stage of fat storage inside muscles is hardly recognizable, for example in Calumma parsonii. In these animals, restrictive feeding and adhereing hibernation is even more important. Even more since some keepers want to let their Parson‘s grow as quick as possible to impressing sizes. Many Parson’s chameleons pay with their life for this overfeeding and die being only few years old, although they reach 15 years and more if well kept.
A chameleon that is too thin is also hardly to recognize, but usually not a problem of chameleons in captivity. Overfed chameleons are the large majority. Only in sick individuals, there are some without abdominal fat pads, that have starved for a while. Chameleons can live off their abdominal fat for a long time. Often, sick animals also begin to loose muscles and you will see a protruding spine and very thin legs and tails.