Metabolic bone disease in Bearded dragons

Metabolic bone disease in Bearded dragons
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Credits: Images from beardeddragon.org

Metabolic bone disease (MBD), also referred to as hypocalcaemia or simply as calcium deficiency, is a serious nutritional disease where calcium in the bones is depleted in favour of increasing the calcium levels in the blood.

In some countries, including South Africa, MBD is the most frequently seen nutritional disorder in pet Bearded dragons.

Metabolic bone disease in Bearded dragons is medically defined as a syndrome, including a range of bone diseases associated with metabolic diseases, e.g. secondary hyperparathyroidism. It is generally a long term result of a combination of a dietary deficiency of calcium, a negative dietary calcium to phosphorus ratio (Ca:P) or the lack of exposure to proper ultra violet (UV) lighting.

Prevention of metabolic bone disease in Bearded dragons

In order to prevent metabolic bone disease in pet Bearded dragons the most important factors are correct calcium supplementation and exposure to proper cage ultraviolet (UV) lighting. In both cases commercial lizard products should be used.

Calcium supplementation for Bearded dragons for should be done at least 2-3 times a week with a calcium/Vitamin D3 combination. It can be done as a powder or fluid, simply by spraying it on the food, or by dusting insects in powdered formulations.

In addition to artificial UV lighting pet Bearded dragons should also spend as much as possible time outside, in natural, unfiltered sunlight.

Symptoms of metabolic bone disease in Bearded dragons

  • Softening of the legs and bones
  • Inability to move legs
  • Bending of the jaw
  • Bending of the spine and tail (scoliosis & kyphosis)
  • Hyperexcitement and uncontrolled movement of the legs
  • Spasms
  • Weakness & lethargy
  • Unwillingness to eat
  • Eating of sand

Diagnosing metabolic bone disease in Bearded dragons

Being tightly linked to poor husbandry practices, metabolic bone disease can occur in pet Bearded dragons of any age, but is most commonly seen in young growing dragons. Apart from any combination of the symptoms above, the history usually includes no or improper calcium supplementation and/or inadequate exposure to direct sunlight or incorrect UV lighting. Gravid adult females are also more at risk.

Metabolic Bone Disease In Bearded Dragons Radiographs
Top: Normal full body radiograph of a Bearded dragon. Bottom: Radiograph of a Bearded dragon with MBD.

A diagnosis of MBD by suspicion can be made in moderate to severe cases by looking at the history and clinical signs alone. A definitive diagnosis however, especially in more subtle cases, can be made on radiographical evaluation by an experienced reptile friendly veterinarian.

Treatment of metabolic bone disease in Bearded dragons

After a diagnoses of metabolic bone disease is made treatment should start immediately. Treatment of MBD should be aimed at correcting the calcium imbalance, rectifying the cause and supporting the Bearded dragon until it can eat, defaecate and move around normally again.

It is important to know that the treatment of MBD is not always successful, especially in moderate to severe cases, and even if it was successful there might still be permanent consequences afterwards. For the best chances of recovery rather seek treatment advice from an experienced herpetologist or reptile friendly veterinarian.

Sick Bearded Dragon

Treatment advice might differ depending on the severity of the disease, experience and compliance of the owner and the resources and experience of the treating herpetologist/veterinarian. As a veterinarian, I usually categorise patients into those that can be treated at home and those that should be treated in hospital.

It is exciting to know that experimental calcium treatment is on the horison, but for now most veterinarians will use calcium either in the form of injections or oral medication. Additional symptomatic treatment might include drips, enemas and tube feeding.

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About the author
Renier has a keen interest in the welfare of pet reptiles. He has been keeping and treating Leopard geckos for many years and has written various forms of literature on them and other fascinating reptiles.

Renier Delport is also the author of The Advanced Bearded Dragon Manual and other Bearded dragon related eBooks.