How Do Chameleons Breathe? [Important Facts]

Having interesting anatomy is nothing new in reptiles, and the same goes for chameleons. Even how they breathe is a subject of interest among lots of pet enthusiasts. But how do chameleons actually breathe?

Chameleons are quite similar to humans. They too have a respiratory system consisting of air channels and lungs, which work in a regular manner when it comes to inhaling and exhaling.

But isn’t it kind of unexpected for reptiles like chameleons, especially where the other aspects of their anatomy are simply astonishing? Well, their respiratory system got some secrets hidden in it too. But what are they? Guess what?

The answers are waiting below.

How Does the Respiratory System of Chameleons Work?

Compared to mammalian systems, the chameleon’s respiratory system couldn’t be more different. Despite its paired nature, the lung seems more like a sack with a bunch of finger-shaped bulges. Clearly, it’s not entirely like the solid human lung tissue made up of lots of air sacs called alveoli.

A chameleon’s lungs are segmented into air sacs by thin septa and have long, delicate branches that extend deep into the reptile’s body. By the way, these subdivisions are subject to variation, depending on the species, of course.

The intercostal muscles are actively involved in both breathing in and out. In contrast to mammals, only the intake and a small fraction of the exhalation are pushed by muscular contractions.

However, because gas exchange in all these species occurs during both intake and exhaling, a chameleon may replenish its blood’s oxygen supply twice as fast with a single breath. This occurs mostly in the front lobes of the lungs; abdominal protrusions have little to do with gas exchange.

The chameleon lung is particularly vulnerable to infections because of its sack-like structure, extremely thin membranes, filigree, and relatively low blood circulation. This is why these reptiles necessitate special care, especially when kept in terrariums.

Plus, Temperatures and humidity should be optimum for the chameleon, along with other amenities like the water source, ventilation, and proper lighting. The lack of a diaphragm in these animals makes it impossible for them to cough and expel fluids from their air sacs.

An open mouth, breathing sounds, and slime in the mouth at low temperatures are also signs that the owner should take seriously and take their chameleon to the vet as soon as possible. And in case you didn’t know, chameleons are susceptible to deadly lung ailments; therefore, it’s important to keep an eye on them.

Can Chameleon Breathe Underwater?

We don’t know from where this idea popped in that chameleons can breathe underwater. Just like every other kind of reptile, chameleons can’t survive underwater for long as they need to stick to the surface for air.

But interestingly, with the extraordinary ability to hold their breath, they’re able to overcome this restriction while swimming beneath the waves. By the way, a chameleon’s ability to hold its breath is affected by tons of factors such as its age, health condition, and of course, habitat.

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The reasons for chameleons not being able to survive underwater is quite obvious. After all, they’ve got no gills like the fish, do they? A chameleon’s lungs are its sole source of oxygenation. As a result, it is impossible for them to maintain oxygen levels when submerged.

But that doesn’t mean you’re free to underestimate their respiratory system yet. They can get twice the oxygen their bodies need in a single breath. That’s because each breath they take involves two rounds of gas exchange.

Clearly, this is why chameleons are so good at holding their breath for lengthy periods of time. Thus, they might perhaps survive submerged if the situation asks for it. However, chameleons dislike swimming, so they can’t spend much time underwater. If you’re feeling like you need to know more about this, feel free to click here.

How to Know If Your Chameleon has a Breathing Problem?

Like any other animal, difficulty in breathing among chameleons is nothing new. But not too many pet owners are well-informed of the signs, which can actually lead to the death of their favorite reptile. Usually, these breathing issues take place due to Respiratory infection. But what a respiratory infection exactly is?

The chameleons’ lungs getting infected with bacteria is a condition known as respiratory infection. Under this condition, the chameleon’s capacity to breathe becomes increasingly compromised as the illness worsens, ultimately leading to its demise.

One of the common names for this condition is URI or Upper Respiratory Infection. You’ve probably heard that chameleons don’t have a fully developed respiratory system, and they don’t come with any upper or lower respiratory system. Well, this isn’t exactly true.

Actually, when germs enter the lungs with the air they breathe, it is the immune system’s responsibility to eliminate them. That’s why a healthy immune system of a chameleon is crucial. But their immune system can be weakened by stress and poor husbandry conditions.

The good news is that with careful husbandry, respiratory infections are possible to avoid. And ratio? Well, at least 99 out of every 100 cases. But to prevent it in the first place, you need to know the signs, right? Well, here they are!

Sticking Nose in the Air

If you see your chameleon’s nose jutting up in the air, count it as the first visible indication of a respiratory ailment. This procedure is intended to help their trachea to become more upright, making it simpler for them to breathe.


With further deterioration, the reptile will eventually begin breathing through their mouths. If they are experiencing any kind of internal difficulty throughout this procedure, they may close their eyes too.

How to Cure Respiratory Infection of Your Chameleon?

As we said before, respiratory infection is curable. But for that, you need to go through two steps, and the first one is –

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A Trip to the Vet

A veterinarian must administer antibiotic therapy when the problem is respiration inspection. Having the bacteria cultured along with applying the appropriate antibiotic is the best course of therapy. But with the illness present in the lungs, this one can be a major challenge for you and your reptile.

Instead, the doctor will likely recommend a “broad spectrum” antibiotic, and this one has been really effective against a wide variety of bacteria. In order to take down the chances of creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it is essential to finish the whole course of antibiotics, even if you’re seeing your reptile improving really fast.

Find Out the Cause

The second step in curing a respiratory infection is fixing what caused it in the first place. If the cause is not treated, the infection will reoccur for sure. There has to be an improvement in husbandry practices, especially when the weakened defenses are allowing the bacterium to take hold. If a bacterial infection is diagnosed and treated quickly, there is a good possibility of full recovery.

Is It True that Gaping Only Means Breathing Problem?

It is true that an upper respiratory infection (URI) is a less prevalent cause of mouth gaping in chameleons. In a simpler way, the chameleon can’t breathe well when it has an upper respiratory infection.

But gaping is definitely not the sole symptom here. If the chameleon has an upper respiratory infection, the first sign will be that it turns its nose upward. In this setting, the nasal passages are completely unblocked, allowing them for optimum oxygenation of the lungs by nasal breathing.

In case you didn’t know, gaping is a sign of the second stage of respiratory infection. In this stage, the chameleon opens its mouth wide to take in air. This indicates that the reptile is becoming increasingly ill and can no longer use its nose for breathing.

During these kinds of difficulties, you might even see them wheezing or making sounds while breathing. A healthy chameleon’s respiration shouldn’t be audible. If you’re seeing something like this, we bet the sickness has progressed to the point where immediate medical attention is required.

What Can Cause Breathing Problems in Chameleons?

No illness pops up without reason, and the same goes for breathing problems or respiratory infections among chameleons. So far, we’ve found three major reasons that can get chameleons infected with bacteria and cause breathing issues in them. The first one is –

Improper Hydration

Most chameleons, while living in the wild, are subjected to very humid conditions. Humidity levels there can reach 100 degrees at night, although they drop dramatically during the day. Neglecting to provide adequate humidity at night and simply supplying hydration and humidity only during the day is a common error among captives.

This prevents the chameleons from rehydrating at night, when they are supposed to, and makes them do all the catching up during the daytime. This upsets their internal balance and puts excess strain on their body. And guess what? You won’t see chameleons taking water that much in the water.

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That’s because taking deep breaths of the damp night air is the most fundamental way for them to take in water. Many captive Chameleons act like big drinkers to make up for the dehydration they experience overnight. Thus, most of the pet owners respond to high temperatures just by misting and fogging during the day.

Because of this, the Chameleon’s physiology comes under unnecessary stress, and they’re stuck in the unintentionally created damp and warm atmosphere, which is conducive to the growth of germs. If the Chameleon’s defenses are compromised, its bacterial enemies will thrive, which might result in respiratory issues.

Missing the Natural Dietary Antibiotics

In the wild, chameleons usually treat their own ailments. They consume substantial amounts of pollen daily as a result of their diet of pollinating insects. There are effective natural antibiotics in pollen, and these work to create an antibiotic barrier that eliminates bacteria and fungus as soon as they enter the reptile.

But captive chameleons lack their natural antibacterial protection if pollen is not a component of their diet. As a result, the bacteria can easily take down the smoothness of their respiratory system.

Artificial Surface

Wild chameleons prefer to hang out on natural branches and among live plants. The natural world and its components serve as bactericides and fungicides, regulating the spread of harmful microorganisms. Plants also have a self-cleaning function as they are living things as well.

On the other hand, plastics serve many purposes in captivity, from misting nozzles and plastic vines to cage floors and walls. While certain plastics can be cleaned, nothing can beat the self-cleaning abilities of real plants and untreated wood. Water can seep through false vines, fake vines coated with dead moss, and other ropes fashioned from natural, synthetic fibers.

To make things worse, they can even get contaminated with traces of feces, dead skin, urine, and the excrement of feeding insects. This is because bacteria and fungi thrive in warm, moist environments, especially when the surfaces are not regularly cleaned.

Your Chameleon’s immune system can get easily weakened by the same warm, moist, and unclean conditions that promote the growth of infection on these surfaces. This means you can unintentionally foster ideal conditions for the growth and dissemination of pathogenic microorganisms like bacteria and fungus.

They multiply at an abnormal rate in the cage’s semi-isolated environment, waiting for a chance to infest the Chameleon and cause a respiratory infection.

Final Words

Like any other reptile, chameleons too come with a straightforward respiratory system and normal breathing process where they utilize their lungs. But due to having sensitive health, they can suffer from breathing issues at any time, especially when they’re kept in an uncleaned atmosphere.

So, if you really don’t want your reptile to struggle with the air intake, make sure that you’re keeping away all the probable causes from them, including all those bacteria and fungi we’ve mentioned earlier.

Muntaseer Rahman

About Author

Hello, I’m Muntaseer Rahman, the owner of I’m passionate about aquarium pets like shrimps, snails, crabs, and crayfish. I’ve created this website to share my expertise and help you provide better care for these amazing pets.


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