The Strange Case of Charlotte's Tongue-Swallowing

Sunday, July 15, 2012
Little over a year ago I experienced one of the strangest "freak accidents" possible with chameleons, something that I didn't even know was possible until I searched for it after the fact. This is my account of what happened with my female veiled chameleon, Charlotte, and the after-math of her continuing care.

On one of my birthdays a friend of mine wanted to give me one of her baby veiled chameleons, whom she had raised very lovingly and wanted to see re-homed with people who could care for them properly.  I was more than happy to take one of the females and named the little thing Charlotte. She grew up very typically, with lots of outdoor sunshine, proper nutrition, and lots of attention. The only thing I was doing differently at the time of her accident was free-ranging her, which meant that she had a few big trees in a bedroom by herself, with all the proper lighting hanging from the ceiling above, and I'd move her outside or to the bathroom for daily showers.

She had been living like this for about 6 months when one day I went into her room to feed her and she wasn't interested in the food. This was unusual because, as a female, she really never rejected the opportunity to eat. And since I had her on a diet she hadn't eaten the couple days prior either. I found this very unusual and stayed in the room handling her and observing her. What she getting ready to lay eggs? She didn't seem as rotund as the last time she had laid eggs. Her color was bright and her eyes looked good. I was really to just call it a fluke until she opened her mouth to gag and I saw what I have illustrated below.
The bony protrusion is the hyoid bone, the bone to which the whole tongue mechanism is anchored. 
I was immediately alarmed and called for my boyfriend, because I knew that I'd need help investigating and pulling her tongue out. Because I could see the thin tongue filament disappearing down her throat I knew she had somehow managed to swallow it. With my boyfriend holding her firmly I was able to grab some smooth, rubber-coated tongs and with the use of a finger very gently and slowly pull the tongue out and little at a time.

Warning: I have years of experience working with animals at vet clinics and wildlife centers. Do not attempt to pull out the tongue yourself unless you feel very confident that you will not cause more harm than good. When in any type of doubt, wait until you can reach a vet. 

 What came out was a very swollen, very tender tongue. Unfortunately there was no way to tell how long it had been in her stomach, digesting, but it had to have been several hours at least. Because it was a Sunday, finding an emergency reptile vet was impossible. I spoke by email to a leading national chameleon vet to try to get some tips as to what to do during the night. Unfortunately, there wasn't anything else we could do that we weren't doing already. So we tried to keep her comfortable all night and wait until morning to take her to a local reptile vet.

Below are some photos of her with her injured tongue. In an attempt to keep her comfortable until morning, we tried to keep it moist. So she went on a plant into the bathtub and we kept a nozzle almost continually spraying to keep it moist. She kept trying to get it back into her mouth but it was way too swollen. And if she did get it into her mouth she would swallow it again, and we'd have to pull it out again. We considered putting her in a plastic container with moist paper towels but the vet and I worried she would step or claw at the tongue and do more damage. So we opted to let it dangle.

The following day we rushed her to the local reptile vet, who kept her for 2 days, first giving her antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medicine to try to save the tongue and then finally amputating the whole tongue. I would have been worried but I had heard of other owners having success keeping tongue-less chameleons alive for years by getting them used to hunting like other lizards so I knew we could be successful in keeping her alive. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case for us.

After 8 months of fighting infections on and off, trying to get her to learn and having to force-feed her instead, she passed away. In my opinion, it may have been the oral infections that kept her from wanting to use her mouth, probably due to pain, which is why I resorted to syringe feeding her a mush diet made from insects and other dietary supplements.

In conclusion, after lots of research I still don't know what caused her to swallow her tongue. I have spoken to vets and other owners who have had this happen and no one quite knows why it happens or how they manage it. Unfortunately, it seems like just one of those random, freak accidents that will happen to one out of every thousands of chameleons. All I can do it write my experiences and hope it helps someone else who may have this happen to them.


  1. I am SO sorry. I understand how much it would have affected you, and how much Charlotte meant to you. The worst things sometimes happen to the most kind people. Thank You for sharing the story.

  2. Do you know what medicine the vet put her on?

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