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The Curious Case of a Chameleon Full of Worms

Caution: This post contains graphic necropsy photos.

Unfortunately, this week’s post is not a happy one but it’s a necessary one, nonetheless. I’ve never talked very much about parasites beyond just recommending routine fecal tests but I’m going to dedicate this post to talking about what it looks like when parasites take over and end up killing their host. Next week I’ll follow up and talk more about common parasites, how to manage them, and how to (hopefully) avoid this situation.

Not quite a month ago, on Tuesday, December 13th, I received a new little panther chameleon. To the best of anyone’s knowledge he was a captive-born from the previous July (making him 6-months-old), and in great shape. We had a very pleasant buying and shipping experience and I had no complaints about Fox, the Ambilobe panther chameleon. In the few weeks that followed he did very well; he would eat and drink normally and nothing in his behavior seemed out of order. He started warming up to his new home and you could start to see his little personality shining through. On a couple occasions I was able to take him outside for some Miami sunshine.




Fox, shortly after coming to live with me. Picture of health.

On Wednesday, January 4th I came home from work and went to check on the reptiles as I always do after feeding the dog his dinner. Fox’s  eyes were sunken, which struck me as unusual given how white his urates were, but I gave him a 20-minute shower and after drinking heavily he perked up. I could tell something was off, however. The following day I came home after work and he looked considerably worse; his colors were pale and his eyes were even more sunken than the previous day, and I found him lethargically sitting on a branch with his eyes closed.

This is an animal that is crashing, I thought. I moved him into a hospital cage where I administered some fluids, but by now I knew he wouldn’t make it through the weekend, and that there was nothing we could do to turn him around. Sure enough, he passed away late on Friday the 6th. Before he died, however, I noticed for the first time clearly distinct shapes just beneath his skin. Worms!

The beginning of the decline.

Caution: Graphic necropsy photos begin after this point.

I dusted off my dissection kit and immediately set to work once I was sure he had passed away. I started by very gently removing the skin from the rib cage on his left side, where the worms seemed quite obvious. As soon as I peeled back the skin I was greeted by half a dozen large off-white worms, which quickly slithered into recesses away from the open. As I kept peeling I could see a pocket of worms collected near his pelvis, towards the back of his abdomen. I realized he wasn’t as well-fed as I originally though, he was just full of subcutaneous worms. Pretty gross, even for me!

Next I removed the entire side of his rib cage. Inside were even more worms, under and around all his organs. There was one on his lung, encrusted in the lining, and his stomach was completely bloated. I barely touched the stomach with my scalpel and it burst open with worms. 

It was a similar story throughout the rest of him. I stopped once I saw the extent of the infestation (I didn’t think exploring further was necessary, as I had my cause of death). I easily pulled out a couple hundred of these worms and still had plenty left I could have removed. It’s clear to me that he had a particularly heavy infestation and that the stress of moving into my home must have tipped the scales against him. Whatever balance the parasites had with their host that allowed him to develop relatively normally otherwise was broken and they caused his death.

Minutes before he died. You can see the worms under his skin.
These are the questions I have still, and which I am still investigating:

1. According to one veterinarian that was able to look at my photos, they seem to be Foleyella furcata, which most of us know as subcutaneous filaria, which usually only affect wild-caught chameleons. So how did they end up in an alleged captive-born chameleon?

2. Is there any way these worms could have spread here in Florida somehow? In Madagascar they depend on a special species of mosquito to act as a vector, so we should be safe here in the US from chameleon-to-chameleon infection. But if this is so, and assuming this panther was indeed captive-born, how else do we explain it?

3. Could it have been avoided by deworming early? How early should we start treating chameleons with dewormers to avoid something like this?

4. Would deworming shortly after receiving him have saved him? Did he have too-heavy a parasite load to save?


Shortly after passing away.

Upon removing the skin I could see he was absolutely covered in worms. I had already removed several and there were still plenty. 

Just the first few worms I removed. After a while it was too gross to photograph, you couldn't tell how many there were in the alcohol because it was so thick with worms. 

The stomach was completely bloated with worms. I cannot believe he had been able to eat at all. You could see them through the stomach lining. 


After removing the stomach from the GI tract and poking it with a scalpel it popped, and dozens of worms spilled out. 

There were more and more in each organ, especially in his intestines. 
This is not a story about harassing a breeder or dragging his name through the dirt. Absolutely not the point of this blog post. I want this blog post to serve as a cautionary tale, to show how well chameleons hide illness until it is absolutely too late. About how bad issues can get without us even knowing about them. About how important it is to do routine fecal checks for parasites and to treat accordingly, as part of good preventative care.

Next week I will talk a bit more about the different types of parasites that can be commonly found in reptiles, good quarantine practices, and how to manage parasites effectively. Parasites are not usually a death-sentence for reptiles that are healthy and routinely treated, so take Fox's story as an extreme case of when things go terribly wrong. 

3 comments:

  1. Really gross but interesting and horrifying to see the extent of the infection, poor little guy :( I really look forward to your future post about parasites and prevention and such.

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  2. Poor little guy! That's so sad. Thanks for the advice.

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  3. Genevieve RheaumeMarch 15, 2017 at 3:43 PM

    Thank you so much for this blog. I have gotten bitten by the chameleon bug several years ago. I agree, whole heartedly, that they are geniuses in hiding their maladies until its too late. Much to my heart-broken chagrin. One day their dancing for their girls, next day they are hanging off their branches. This one is very informative, because it shows with even the most educated of care givers, these awful things still happen. If only they could talk. Genevieve

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