Jackson’s Chameleon Handling & Taming Tips

Note: As a general rule of the human condition, we like to hold, pet, and otherwise bother our pets. If you are looking for a pet that enjoys or at least tolerates this treatment well, a chameleon is not the pet for you.

How to tame your Jackson’s chameleon

Contributed by Joseph Martin

Jackson’s chameleons are best as elegant display animals rather than a “pet” that gets taken out regularly. That being said, making the effort to tame your chameleon is still important.

Sure, you can leave them alone their whole life, but what will happen if you need to clean the enclosure, move house, or take your cham to the vet? I can’t speak from experience, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that a tame chameleon is much easier to handle than a wild one.

Step 1. After bringing your chameleon home, leave it alone for a 1-2 weeks. Make sure it’s healthy, eating, and drinking during this time. Feel free to watch and admire, but don’t touch. Wait for your cham to fully adjust to its environment before introducing yourself.

Step 2. Introduce yourself with food. As Olimpia Martinotti puts it: “Chameleons are like men; the best way to their hearts is through their stomachs.” Hold a prey item in your hand or a pair of silicone-tipped tweezers. It may take a while for the cham to decide to take it. Do it during the first feeding of the day, when they are most hungry. Don’t stare directly at the cham; this makes them nervous. And be sure to hold the bug at least 6” away so you’re not directly in their space.

Step 3. Once your chameleon regularly takes food from your hands/tongs, encourage it to come to you. Olimpia Martinotti’s method is to place a tall decorative tree in front of an open enclosure and let the cham wander out on its own. (This can take a while.) When it’s comfortable on the tree, offer your hand as a perch.

Step 4. Never grab your chameleon out of its enclosure – this is predatory behavior and will damage the trust relationship. Furthermore, due to chameleons’ unique anatomy, grabbing them will break their very delicate ribs! Instead, hold out your hand and let them come to you on their own terms.

Handling your Jackson’s chameleon

Always associate handling with good things, like a chance to climb in a plant in a sunny window, a tasty bug snack, or some supervised time outside. Handling is a stressful experience, but fortunately chameleons can be bribed.

Once your chameleon has become hand-tame, gradually increase length of time until you’ve determined the cham’s threshold. This will vary from individual to individual. Some don’t like handling at all, while others don’t seem to mind at all — even seeming to welcome an opportunity to explore. Always respect your cham’s preference. If you want one that likes to be handled, it’s best to buy an adult whose disposition is already known.

As you handle your chameleon, keep your movements slow, and never restrain it, instead allowing it to walk from one hand to another.

Jackson’s chameleons can be held carefully for short periods of time (like posting a beautiful pic to Instagram or showing off to guests), but even the most “social” chams shouldn’t be out for longer than 5-10 minutes 1-2x/week.

About salmonella…

Many people are concerned about the correlation between reptiles and salmonella. The truth is, unless you’re very old or very young, you are very unlikely to get salmonella from your pet chameleon. In fact, they’re more likely to get sick from you than you are from them. So as long as you keep your cham’s cage clean and wash your hands before and after contact, you’ll be fine. For more information, read Reptiles and Salmonella: Should You Be Worried?

ackson's Chameleon Handling Tips

Contributed by Stacey Vandenhoudt

Jackson’s chameleon body language

It’s hard to say what will be the “right” color for your Jackson’s chameleon, as each has slightly different coloration and patterning. However, learning how to discern differences in your cham’s color and pattern will offer insight into its mood and health.

  • Bright colors — feeling threatened
  • Dull colors — submissive or relaxed
  • Dark/black — very sick/distressed

Aside from changing color, other Jackson’s chameleon behaviors are usually associated with threat displays:

  • Gaping – This behavior plays a role in thermoregulation, but it can also be part of a defensive posture if it feels threatened. Frequent gaping may indicate a respiratory infection.
  • Sunken eyes — Often associated with dehydration, but this is also a voluntary mechanism associated with stress or nervousness.
  • Head jerking — Dominance display. This is how males check to see if a female is receptive, as well as assert their dominance over other males.
  • Rocking/swaying — Threat display, the chameleon is uncomfortable.
  • Tail curling — Usually occurs when asleep, but can also indicate that the chameleon is uncomfortable.
  • Raising forelegs — Threat display, but also how a chameleon will stretch to grab a new branch or position itself to nab a bug.
  • Throat puffing — This is actually an expansion of the gular sac/pouch. It says, “Get away from me!”
  • Hissing — Threat display, may come with beard inflation and gaping. Often precedes biting.
  • Biting — Last resort threat maneuver, very rare. Jackson’s chameleons must feel very threatened before they will resort to biting.
Jackson's Chameleon Body Language

Female T. j. jacksonii demonstrating dull and bright coloration. Contributed by Petr Necas.

Jackson’s chameleons tend to be more defensive/aggressive when they are young. Some grow out of it after a year or so, but others don’t and you just have to respect that. If you are concerned about being bitten by a particularly feisty chameleon, wear a pair of light gloves when handling is necessary.


Keep reading:

  1. Introduction to Jackson’s Chameleons
  2. Jackson’s Chameleon Subspecies
  3. Shopping List
  4. Enclosure Size Guidelines
  5. Lighting & Temperature Requirements
  6. Humidity & Water Needs
  7. Enclosure Drainage Designs
  8. Environmental Enrichment: Decorating the Enclosure
  9. Feeding Your Chameleon
  10. Taming & Handling Tips (YOU ARE HERE)
  11. Common Illnesses & Other Health Info
  12. Additional Resources