Bearded dragons, like all other reptiles that eat insects and plants, are vulnerable to Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD). It is by far the most common cause of disease among ‘beardies,’ and is caused by insufficient levels of calcium and vitamin D3.
The metabolic bone disease is also known as fibrous osteodystrophy, osteomalacia, secondary nutritional hyperparathyroidism, osteoporosis, or rickets, commonly called MBD is caused by a calcium/phosphorous imbalance in the body, which weakens the skeletal structure of bearded dragons.
What causes MBD in Bearded Dragons?
MBD is often caused by one or more of the following:
- Calcium deficiency or Vitamin D3 deficiency
- A diet too high in phosphorus or oxalates
- Improper UVB lighting
Regardless of its exact cause, the metabolic bone disease is characterized by a calcium deficiency in the body. When calcium levels are low, the dragon’s body attempts to compensate by drawing calcium from the bones and other sources. The consequences are disastrous.
Damage to the bones and muscles. The bones become fragile and easily broken as a result of a lack of calcium, while the muscles lose their capacity to contract. As a result, MBD frequently causes complete or partial limb paralysis.
Damage to the tissues. In an unsuccessful attempt to strengthen the weak bones, the body draws tissue to them, resulting in tissue loss.
The affected bearded dragon becomes weak and deformed as a result of the bone, muscle, and tissue loss caused by metabolic bone disease. MBD can be fatal if left untreated.
Pro Tip: Your best defense against MBD is learning how to properly feed and house your bearded dragon.
What can cause a calcium/phosphorous imbalance?
Poor calcium to phosphorous ratio can be caused by a number of factors, but the majority of them are related to poor husbandry. This can be as simple as not getting enough calcium or getting too much phosphorus in their diet, but there are a number of other factors at play.
Other dietary factors could include too much fat, which reduces calcium solubility, or foods that restrict calcium absorption. Oxalates, for example, bind to calcium and are excreted together in the intestine.
Vitamin D deficiency is another prevalent cause of low calcium levels. Vitamin D is required for calcium absorption. It allows calcium to pass through the duodenum’s membranes, where it can then be distributed throughout the body.
Vitamin D shortage isn’t usually a dietary problem. While reptiles can get a small amount of Vitamin D from their diet, they don’t absorb it very effectively.
Reptiles have their own metabolic pathways via which they create the vast bulk of what they require. The proper functioning of these pathways, however, requires constant UVA and UVB light exposure. As a result, poor or insufficient lighting is frequently blamed for MBD.
Signs of MBD in Bearded Dragons
It’s important to understand the symptoms of metabolic bone disease in bearded dragons so you can notify your veterinarian right once if you notice any.
The following are early indications of MBD:
- Weakness and lethargy
These symptoms can be caused by many other health issues, such as gut impaction. If these are your dragon’s only symptoms, keep in mind that it might not be metabolic bone disease.
Regardless, if you see any of these symptoms, you should contact your veterinarian right away so you can find out what’s wrong. If it is a metabolic bone disease, hopefully, you have caught it early enough to have a good chance of recovery.
The symptoms of metabolic bone disease are substantially more obvious and destructive in moderate to severe cases:
- Receded lower jaw
- Swollen limbs and jaw
- Bumps along the spine or bones
- Soft jaw and facial bones
- Bowed limbs and arched spine
- Fractures and broken bones
- Greenstick fractures (folded or bent bones)
- Trembling and twitching limbs
- Tremors and seizures
- Paralysis or difficulty moving
- The inability to move or the feeling of being stuck
Although dragons can recover from mild to severe MBD, they may be permanently damaged or deformed, and the recovery process is exceedingly long and painful. The key to preventing this terrible disease is to be aware of your dragon’s normal behavior and to provide careful care on a daily basis.
Pro Tip: The sooner you catch MBD, the better chance your beardie has of making a full recovery.
How do we diagnose MBD?
MBD is diagnosed mostly by symptoms and discussion of husbandry, but it can also be confirmed through x-rays and bloodwork.
A reptile with MBD will have bones that are excessively big in diameter and have an irregular form on radiographs. The surrounding cortical bone (the hard outer shell) seems dramatically expanded with greatly lower density, yet the medullary cavities (the part of the bone holding bone marrow) appear normal.
Calcium and phosphorous levels, as well as the calcium to phosphorous ratio, can be measured through blood tests.
MBD is indicated by low blood calcium and elevated blood phosphorous levels, especially if the calcium to phosphorous ratio is inverted. It should be emphasised, however, that unless blood is collected promptly after a twitching episode, a hypocalcemic adult’s calcium levels may appear normal.
Furthermore, juveniles with MBD are far more likely to have calcium and phosphorus levels that are within normal limits. As a result, bloodwork should only be used to confirm an MBD diagnosis, not to rule it out.
What to Do if Your Bearded Dragon has Metabolic Bone Disease
Here are some things you can do to care for your sick dragon and help them recover as quickly as possible.
Take your beardie to a Vet
As soon as you discover any symptoms, no matter how little, contact your veterinarian. This cannot be emphasized enough. Although there is a tonne of information for Dragon Keepers on the internet, it is critical that you contact a veterinarian as soon as any signs of MBD in your bearded dragon develop. It might mean the difference between life and death for him.
Follow Vet’s advice
Follow your veterinarian’s treatment recommendations. To determine the severity of the disease, your veterinarian will likely run blood tests, take x-rays, and discuss symptoms, food, and care with you at your appointment. Different therapies can be offered depending on what your veterinarian discovers, all with the objective of restoring calcium to your dragon’s body.
Feed your dragon plenty of green leafy vegetables to ensure it gets enough calcium.
The following foods are good sources of calcium and make great staples for your dragon:
- Cactus leaves and prickly pear
- Dandelion leaves (ensure they are pesticide-free)
- Figs (although they have moderate oxalates, they are high in calcium)
- Mustard greens
Gut Loading Insects
Bearded dragons love insects such as crickets. Before serving, sprinkle calcium-rich mineral powders (available at pet stores) on them.
The dragon’s body needs heat to absorb calcium from its diet and utilize it to keep its bones healthy. So, it’s essential that their enclosure is sufficiently warm. To keep a portion of the space between 95 and 110°F, you’ll need an infrared bulb or lamps. You’ll also need a cooler, shady regions – 70 to 80°F- so your reptile can regulate its body temperature.
It’s also crucial for reptiles to get the correct amount of ultraviolet light to metabolize calcium. Because infrared lamps don’t emit enough UVB light, you’ll also need to install a fluorescent strip light that does.
Make sure the lamp is shining on two-thirds of the tank’s surface, and keep an eye on the levels with a UV meter. UUB output diminishes over time, thus the lamp must be replaced as directed by the manufacturer.
Keep your Beardie Hydrated
Make sure your bearded dragon is hydrated at all times. Hydration aids the dragon’s absorption of calcium, vitamin D3, and other essential elements. Consult your veterinarian about how much water your bearded dragon needs, and make sure the water bowl isn’t too deep.
Remove hazards from the cage
Remove any potential risks from the cage. A bearded dragon’s bones become incredibly fragile and easily broken or cracked when it suffers metabolic bone disease. Furthermore, even in the early stages of the condition, getting around is extremely difficult and painful for them.
That’s why taking a look at your bearded dragon’s terrarium and rearranging it can be beneficial.
- Remove any sticks, rocks, or other objects that could obstruct your dragon’s movement or cause them to fall or get stuck.
- Make sure everything you leave in the cage is simple to climb on or around, such as his basking rock.
- Because your dragon can’t move quickly, provide a small water dish to reduce the chance of drowning.
Handle with Care
People should only handle bearded dragons with the metabolic bone disease when absolutely necessary. If you have to pick up your bearded dragon, do it with the utmost caution, especially if the disease is advanced.
Metabolic bone disease can be prevented. It is far better to prevent than to treat. With proper diet and care your dragon shouldn’t develop this problem. Though, even with the best care things can still go wrong. If you do happen to come by this illness, it is reversible.