The Parson chameleon. Care and needs simplified.


Chameleon Enthusiast
Good afternoon keepers.

Today's lecture shall be on the captive care of the Parson chameleon. I shall lay out the requirements for this animal's long term care as a pet, the information here pertains only to that aspect and breeding will not be covered. The goal of this post is to provide the reader with a baseline to work with and by no means is my way the only way to care for one of these giants. The following information is based upon my experiences in keeping these fat little monsters. At the end of this long semi-book will be a simple synopsis of my methods

A little about me. I have kept reptiles for over forty years of varying genus and species, primarily tropical in nature. I worked in the pet industry for nearly 15 years starting at age 11 and nothing captured my attention like a chameleon. Over those years I learned more than one could find in books, I learned about the importation process on the receiving end and the casualties that resulted from it. It wasn't long before I was keeping Parsons and during those early years I dealt directly with the issue of trying to rehab sick Parson chameleons.

One such Parson was a sad giant I came across in a cage at the importer. While buying animals for the pet store I managed, I purchased him for myself and took him home. He weighed a little over 700g but looked very thin to give you an idea of the condition he was in. Six months later, two vet visits and a lot of patience rewarded me with a healthy Male who, once rehabbed, was actually closer to 850g. He was that bad off when I got him. He lived another 7 years, the last two of which he had no teeth. The bone structures in the jaw that are their "teeth" had been attacked by a nasty dual bacterial infection resulting in him surviving the infection but having to gum his meals to death since the doc removed each quadrant. Fortunately for him I killed everything for him before hand feeding his old ass. When he passed he weighed 1049g. Not a small chameleon to say the least, especially for back in the 80's and 90's. His name was Hormone.

If you are reading this, then you are looking for information on how to care for one of these animals. I'm not an elitist ( they are plenty of those in this hobby ), nor a professional breeder (there are some out there now fortunately), nor somebody with too big of an ego to share how to keep one of these animals as a single pet. Since it seems we may be seeing so many more of these available in the near future between successful hatching's here in the US and also captive hatched ones coming from Europe and the recent imports, I felt maybe it was time to actually share my husbandry methods. That and I'm tired of getting hit up all the time. Ever since I started posting pictures of Atlas as he grows I've been hit up a lot on his care.

So, I'm going to remove the mystique. I say that since I've met a lot of Parson keepers with a elitist attitude who try to make the animal into the holy grail, and one that 'they' attained. So lets start with the first things many people want to know about.....

Q - How hardy is a Parson?

A- In my experience, and I've kept a lot of species, the Parson is one of the hardiest out there but with one serious caveat. Like any chameleon they need to be kept in the right environment. Do that, and these animals can live 15+ years no doubt. Don't do that, go cheap on the lighting, don't provide them with the huge amounts of water they require, don't pay attention to their nutritional needs, try and house more than one in a fancy enclosure because you want more than one, and they die. They are quite forgiving when the humidity fluctuates. They temperature range is actually pretty broad and easy to achieve in captivity.

Q- How much room do they need?

A- Not as much as some people think. These giants are not the most active chameleons I've ever kept. That said, I'm not saying they will be fine in a tiny 24"X24"x48" cage like many keep their Panthers. I keep Atlas in a custom cage I made out of a converted closet. His home is 8' long X 7' tall x 30" wide. However he only uses about two thirds of that. Parsons tend to find a spot they are comfortable in- and they sit there. Very very boring animal to watch. A Parson roaming all over the place is either an animal looking for a mate, or an animal very uncomfortable for some reason. Now I've seen people go nuts and built magnificent full room habitats for their legendary Parsons, but it's overboard. In some cases the habitats built are going to be problematic over time for the keeper to maintain.... think mold, cleaning, finding the animal, dead feeders, air circulation, fire hazards, and more. I'm not saying don't give your Parson a nice home, but for the beginner reading this for their first Parson- don't buy into the hype that you have to kick out your first born and convert their room for a Parson.

There is a vendor on this site who makes cages, Dragon Strand, they make a magnificent cage called the Atrium that is 45" wide X 22" deep X 44" high. By itself that is suitable for just raising a young Parson to around 500g. After that it needs a bigger area. The thing about these cages is that you can buy a second one and either stack it on top for a cage that is now 88" high or, as I would suggest, you attach it to the back of the first cage giving you a cage that is now 44" deep. It would be nearly a perfect square. Either configuration would work long term for a solo animal.

Yes, a square is an odd shaped cage to fit in your home, but it is easier than turning a whole room into a cage. The big Parsons are better off with some space to turn around, plus I've noticed mine prefer to use horizontal branches most of the time. That's what they rest on most of the day. A wider cage gives them plenty of room as opposed to a taller one. It's a bit of a blind spot some keepers have, thinking that chameleons want just a tall cage but how much of that tall cage do they actually use? Many I've seen just find a height they like and then just use that section of their cage because its the sweet spot in the cage for the animal. Instead make the majority of the cage the sweet spot.

Inside this space you would create pathways going in circles at different heights. You'll find the Parson will use them and this size cage is good for a single male Adult of up to 800g in my opinion. They don't move around a lot but will use the space over time. However if you really want a 'palace', buy four of these cages and make one large habitat. Doing this You can build one cage that is 45" wide X 44" deep X 88" high. Much better than converting a whole room. Cheaper than building a greenhouse for some. Easy as all hell to outfit for the animal's needs and easier still when it comes to breaking it all down if you ever have to move. I can think of a lot of configurations with these cages and those dragon ledges make it easy to keep plants and stuff up off the bottom. Yes, for some people it may be cheaper to build their own cage. I don't care how you spend your money, just keep in mind the sizes I mentioned.

If on the other hand you want to build something like this, be aware even it has limitations.
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Q- What about lighting?

A- Lots of people say use the UVB 5.0 or Arcadia 6%. If you have a large cage, one where the animals will usually be more than 12" away from their lights AND they have lots of shady places to go, I use the Arcadia 12% bulb. Each Parson cage lighting consists of a Quad fixture with one UVB bulb, one plant light, and two 6500k white lights. My animals can get as close as 12" to the lights or as far away as 5 feet if they want to go to the bottom of their habitats, but even then they don't have to. All my cages have areas of dense foliage with horizontal branches going in. If the animals want some shade they use it, and unlike some chameleons, Parson's really like the shade. I have never seen one of mine bask under a heat lamp.This of course could vary depending on your climate. A cold Parson could use a basking light possibly for one example. I don't use them myself. When it comes to sunning themselves outside they don't do it for long. Despite that, giving any chameleon natural sunlight should be done when possible. During the months when weather permits I put them outside for a week at a time but most of that time they like to stay in the denser foliage and only come out for a brief amount of time into the sunlight. Yes...I've sat outside and watched them or used cameras...the buggers don't care about sunning as much as I thought they would. Now a Panther on the other hand will do that quite a bit by comparison.

As for an outside cage, here's what I made. However the bugger doesn't sun himself much.

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That was when it was new, now the plants have filled out and it is very very dense, just the way he likes it. Before he didn't use much of the space but now he roams it always sticking with the foliage. He has misters and a single sprinkler inside he uses on warm or even hot (90F) days.

Q- I hear they need a lot of water.

A- Oh H*** yes they do! More so than any other species I've ever worked with. At a bare minimum they should get two 5 minute showers a day... and honestly that's not enough. A good long soak of 10 minutes will hydrate one for the day. Personally I have a little set up with branches and fake pants that I place in a shower three times a week. I then let each Parson soak for 25 minutes. My Mist Kings are set for three daily 5 minute sprays and another five sessions that only go off for a minute each. That's all the water my current set ups can handle and not cause issues in the house. If you as a keeper can build a drainage system that would allow more water, go for it. But if you are limited to how much water you can spray as a first time Parson keeper go with the multiple 5 min mistings daily and additional short mistings supplemented with a few long soakings in the shower. You want to handle your pet right? Well there you go, a few times a week you get to handle your Parson as you put it in the shower. Like this.

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Q- What about Humidity and Temps?

A- Parsons are pretty forgiving. There are those who disagree, I don't listen to them and the fact my animals thrive is all I care about so they can go pound sand.The thing most people fail to think about actually is air flow. Stagnant air combined with humidity and certain warmer temps will lead to a respiratory infection. As for temps, I've kept mine outside at 90F and they just use the dense foliage to stay comfortable. I do turn on misters and if they need to drink, they drink. As for humidity it is pretty arid in SoCal so figure that one out. I don't let my animals stay outside if temps are getting down to 55F. Now indoors, the day temp in their cages has a nice gradient going from 75 up to 88F. You, as a keeper, providing this gradient is important, it lets the animal regulate its own body temp. How you provide that gradient is on you. My humidity goes up and down during the day. Right after the misters kick on the humidity goes up and will be in the high 70's and then drop down to as low 30. Having potted plants with semi damp soil helps create a gradient in humidity too. In areas around a plant with damp soil the humidity is higher than areas away from the plants.

So the lesson here is that with some planning and understanding of your equipment and your foliage you can easily create acceptable temperature and humidity gradients for your first Parson as long as you have enough room to do it in.
Q - I hear I need a huge variety of food items!

A- To start with, all chameleon species do better with the biggest variety of food items you can give them as a keeper. To say one MUST have a large variety is simply bull.

Keep this in mind, the bigger the predator, the bigger the prey items.

I have seen first hand that Parson's eat vertebrates. I've been talked down to by some people over the years insisting they don't eat them if given a choice. Well, they're wrong.

I've seen Huge Parsons stalk after day geckos, anoles, and coming running for a mouse fuzzy just as fast as they want a mantis, a choice roach, or a hawk moth. If it fits they'll eat it. I am NOT suggesting people do this, but before old Hormone lost his teeth that beast blew outta the air and ate a few hummingbirds courtesy of my father who thought it was cool despite my protests about parasites. The point is they hunt for appropriate sized prey items and they eat everything. Or so you think.

You see every Parson chameleon is different in its eating habits. Some are easy to feed. So will go on a hunger strike from hell. Some will eat from your hands, others won't eat until they see you leave the room. Just as their habits vary so do their preferences. I've had some that won't eat a roach and others that will only eat a roach. I have a female right now that will eat anything buy ONLY if I hold the cup. If I put the same food items in a hanging feeder in front of her she won't touch them. Personally I make sure my animals have two steady food sources (Orange head roaches and jumbo super worms currently) that I powder up with supplements. I do make the effort to obtain other food items. Stick insects are good, other types of roaches, large horn worms or silk worms, maybe a mantis, or a gecko, or a fuzzy. What I don't do is stress over having a constant variety so huge it is prohibitive to keep.

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Q- What about medical care?

A- What about it? If you can't afford to take a pet to the Vet then don't own one. Considering these animals and their set up cost more than most dogs I would hope a person owning one has enough forethought to look up and find a good Herp vet prior to owning one. The sad truth of keeping any chameleon is that at some point you will need some type of medical help. The difference between your chameleon living and dying can come down to whether or not your vet is experienced with chameleons, or instead just says "they see reptiles".

I was very lucky in my early years to meet a wonderful Vet who was more than happy to teach me about basic reptile medical care while I taught him about equipment and environmental factors. Whenever a customer came in with a sick reptile, I sent them to him. Whenever he had a sick reptile come in, he sent them to me for the right gear. I saw first hand how good he was with reptiles, but even he hated working on a chameleon "because you don't have a lot of room or time to work with."

If your animal is sick, you don't have a lot of time to wait around, or to wait until your next paycheck. You need to be able to take your critter in when it needs it. If you can't do that, don't buy one. Also don't give me that crap about "My animal will be fine, I've got the perfect set up blah blah blah" because all your animal has to do is fall and you end up with a vet visit like this....
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He fell. Nothing more. Busted his middle horn well into the base and despite a solid attempt by a great herp vet and having an owner more than capable of caring for his rehab, he died. Crap happens with any pet you keep, be prepared for the occasional vet visit and even if your Parson is healthy take in a fecal sample once a year and have it checked for parasites. Personally I give my animals a dose of Panacur once a year (three doses at two week intervals) as a routine.

Q- Do I have to let my animal go through brumation?

A- No. I've kept Parsons for years without letting them go into that semi hibernative state. Same with tortoises. I've kept tortoises for years that never hibernated and thrived. It's just about providing them the environment they need to stay active.

So, that synopsis:

1 - Always set up your habitat first and make sure everything is working before you buy that Parson. Seriously.

2 - Consider a long cage instead of a traditional tall one. A size of 48"L X 48" H X 24" deep is fine for a young solo animal up to about 500g, That fact right there will help a lot of you getting your first Parson. Don't go bonkers on the size of the cage.

3- I recommend a single quad fixture for that size cage. One bulb should be a plant light and another a UVB bulb. I'd go with a 6% bulb for any cage 48" or less in height. Bigger cages I use the 12% bulbs or if they are densely planted. Use your head when deciding that. Put the fixture on a timer and give the animal 10-12 hours of it daily.

4- You need a Mist King. None of this " I'll use a hand sprayer for now" crap. Make sure you know how much water your set up can handle before doing this. You should set the timer to give 2-3 long mistings at 5 mins each with additional mistings set for 1 minute throughout the day. I don't mist at night. 2-3 times a week a good long soak in the shower for 20+ minutes is really important. If you have a set up that lets you just turn the water on for however long you like, more power to you.

5- Temps. I keep my animals indoors at 75-88F using a gradient. The Quad fixture puts out a ton of heat so it is warmer up top and gets cooler down below. My Parsons just go where they feel comfortable. Providing that gradient is my job as a keeper. How you do it is up to you, you just need to have it. Night temps stay above 55F outside but indoors my animals are never below 70F. This is the reason why they will never go into brumation.

6- Humidity. I let it fluctuate. I don't stress over it. The Mist King and damp potted plants tend to give them enough Humidity from my experience. Just make sure you have some air flow going through the cage in some capacity.

7- Feeding. I offer food daily. They don't always eat daily. Sometimes they'll eat five days in a row and then not want anything for a day or two. I try to use hanging feeders but also cup feed from my hand. I do not free range any insects in their cages. I use Repashy calcium with medium D3 since my animals are mostly kept indoors and lightly dust their food items with it three days a week. Once a week I use Herptivite lightly one a few feeders. Once a week I use Brewer's yeast mixed 50/50 with bee pollen. These chams do seem to have a need for more B1 than other species. I go light on all my dusting and there are some days I don't dust the feeders. All feeders are gut loaded fresh veggies.

As for my animals, I use Orange head roaches mostly and really huge super worms. I offer a mouse fuzzy twice a month. Other feeders I obtain randomly or when available.

8- Handling. I don't. Pretty simple. In truth I only pick them up to shower them. The rest of the time I leave them alone, to quote a friend they are more like living art and art should just be looked at and appreciated for what it is.

I do hope this gives some of you young and coming Parson keepers the basic info you are looking for while cutting through the B.S. from some of the more elite keepers out there.

Some good references:

Lighting - Todd over at His quad fixtures are great.
Caging - Bill over at Dragon Strand - His Atrium cage is the only one like it out there and they are well made.
Feeders - Nick Barta over at full throttle feeders. - Talk about a variety of food items.

Those three guys take care of their customers, know their stuff, and would have made keeping a Parson much easier if they would have been around back in the 80's and 90's with their products and experience. So right there as a new Parson keeper you have some advantages over me.

In conclusion, a Parson is a fairly hardy chameleon but ONLY if you provide it with what it needs from the start. Lastly, always do your best to buy from a reputable source. That will give you the best chance for getting a healthy animal to start out with. Do check on the reputation of anybody you decide to buy one of these great animals from. if you start out with a sick animal, you may not be as lucky as I was.

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"What the F*** are you staring at! Get outta my sight!" - Atlas
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Ralph if you had just kept track of everything I ask you, you would have had this ready for others!
I know the time you gave me was precious to both Titan and I. Thanks for taking this time and helping so many keepers who will one day own a parsons.

PS Titan said to say thanks from him too,

I do think this needs to be more than just a post that can get lost. Maybe Brad could add it to the info area where we can find it again ?
Thanks a ton @OldChamKeeper! I'm hoping to get one of these awesome giants soon and have been trying to find every bit of info I can which hasn't been easy. Having this all in one spot with your level of detail is great.(y)
Actually, no. I forgot to mention don't try and give them the biggest food item you can find. Always go a size down if you can. It's easier on the animal and safer. That's a nod to Jannb who lost a few to cuts or tears in the throats of some of hers.
lovely !!! thank you so much, now i wanna know the breeding side of the keeping Cheers
Thank you Ralph!
Thank you so much for all your hard work in putting this invaluable information together and for the knowledge that you have so kindly shared.
Atticus and Parsley say thank you too! :)
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