You probably won’t be a Dragon Keeper for very long without hearing how vital calcium is for bearded dragons' health and wellbeing. New and longtime owners alike often wonder if they are providing enough calcium for their pets. What calcium-rich foods are good for your bearded dragon? Should you offer supplements—if so, powdered or liquid? Why does calcium matter so much in the first place? This guide gives you the basics so you can make sure your dragon is getting what he needs.
Why Bearded Dragons Need Calcium and Vitamin D3
Vitamin D3 makes it possible for the dragon’s body to absorb calcium from their digestive system. Calcium is nothing to your dragon without Vitamin D3.
Bearded dragons need calcium for the following reasons:
- Bone development
- Muscle contractions
- Proper egg development & good reproductive health in females
Dragons’ bodies need calcium so much that if the body becomes deficient, it starts pulling calcium from their bones, causing metabolic bone disease (MBD). Unfortunately, MBD is one of the most common diseases among domestic bearded dragons, but it’s so easily preventable with proper diet and care.
Metabolic bone disease (also known as nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism or fibrous osteodystrophy) refers to several painful skeletal disorders that are caused by a lack of calcium in the body. The disease causes serious bone, muscle, and tissue damage, which can result in paralysis or death.
If your bearded dragon is deficient in calcium, any of the following could be the culprit:
- Insufficient calcium in the diet
- Too much phosphorus or oxalates (oxalic acid) in the diet
- Poor supplementation
- Poor lighting, causing a Vitamin D3 deficiency
Dragons who suffer from metabolic bone disease have trouble doing the simplest of tasks, like walking, because their tissue is deteriorating and their bones are soft and easily breakable. The disease is quite painful and very difficult to reverse.
How to Protect Your Bearded Dragon from Calcium Deficiency
There are many ways to keep your bearded dragon safe from lack of calcium and all of its consequences:
Healthy diet. Feed your dragon calcium-rich foods that are low in phosphorus and oxalates. Keep an eye on the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio in fruits and veggies. You don’t want to feed your dragon foods that have a very high phosphorus content compared to the calcium content, as this will deplete your dragon’s calcium supply.
- Provide proper supplementation. Offer calcium and Vitamin D3 regularly. Whether you choose a liquid or powder variety, always make sure the supplements contain no phosphorus.
- Proper UVB lighting. Twelve hours of UVB exposure a day is ideal. Change the bulb in your dragon’s tank every six months or so, no later than every year.
- Know the signs of deficiency and illness. These include trouble walking, lethargy, and swollen limbs.
- Take your dragon out in the sun. Bearded dragons love walks! Not only will they enjoy the exercise, but their bodies will love the Vitamin D3.
- Gut load insects with calcium-rich foods. Leafy greens, papaya, and sweet potato are great options.
Do Bearded Dragons Really Need Supplements?
Many Dragon Keepers wonder why it’s necessary to give supplements to their bearded dragon when they could just provide calcium via diet and ensure they have correct UVB lighting. After all, isn’t it the job of the Dragon Keeper to recreate the natural environment of their bearded dragon to the best of their ability?
Of course. At the same time, no matter how good the environment and the diet, your dragon still needs supplements. That’s because it’s just not possible to recreate an exact replica of a dragon’s natural habitat, although you can come close.
In the wild, bearded dragons get calcium through a varied diet (much more varied than the diet that can be provided in a domestic setting), and Vitamin D3 comes from their lengthy exposure to natural sunlight.
While it is extremely important to provide calcium in your dragon’s diet, it’s a lot more difficult than you may think to make sure they are getting enough calcium.
For one thing, bearded dragons are notoriously picky eaters. You may get lucky and have a dragon who eats everything you give him and finishes every meal, but it’s unlikely. So it can be hard to gauge exactly how much calcium your dragon is eating based on diet alone.
Not to mention that in the wild, bearded dragons are exposed to many more types of food—insects and plants—than they ever would be in a domestic setting, so they invariably consume more calcium on a regular basis than they do in captivity.
Supplementing with calcium helps you have more control over how much calcium your dragon is actually consuming. It also helps prevent metabolic bone disease and keep your dragon healthy and happy.
Vitamin D3 Supplementation.
Pet dragons primarily get Vitamin D3 through proper UVB lighting in their tank as well as exposure to natural sunlight (this means exposure to natural sunlight outside, not necessarily through a window; it’s actually dangerous to keep your dragon’s tank by a window due to risk of burns).
Although this does provide Vitamin D3, it’s not quite the same as free range exposure to the Australian desert sun. Supplementing Vitamin D3 helps ensure your dragon can absorb the calcium they need.
Liquid vs. Powder Supplements: Which Is Better for Your Bearded Dragon?
If you’ve already looked into it, you know there are primarily two ways you can offer your dragon supplements at home: liquid or powder.
Technically supplements can be given by injection, but this would usually only be in the case of a vet treating a dragon for metabolic bone disease or another condition which would require such an intervention.
So it’s down to powder or liquid. Which is better?
In a way, it just boils down to preference.
Liquid vs. Powder
Powdered calcium is fairly popular among Dragon Keepers. It’s easy to use, and all you really have to do is dust your dragon’s insects or other food with it.
Liquid supplements can be a little trickier because you typically have to offer them through a dropper, which your dragon may not enjoy. Of course, you can also mix it with water, but there is no guarantee your dragon will consume it all.
One case where you may want to select a liquid supplement over a powder would be if your dragon steadily refuses to eat or finish her food. In this case, a liquid may offer you more control over the calcium and Vitamin D3 intake. But in many cases, powder is quicker and easier.
Tips for Dusting Feeder Insects
One setback to using calcium powder: it can be a messy business. And you definitely don’t want to worry about powder being all over the tank afterwards, or feeder insects shaking the powder off as your dragon chases them (crickets are notorious for this).
Here are a few tips to combat this issue:
- Choose a powder that has a reputation for sticking to insects.
- If possible, consider dusting more docile insects like roaches instead of crickets.
- Use a designated feeder bin, one that's long and shallow. Once your insects are dusted, place them in the bin with your dragon for mealtime.
- To dust your insects, place them in an airtight container with the calcium powder and shake them thoroughly.
Pro Tip: Your dragon may not eat her food if it's too heavily dusted, so it's best to keep it on the light side.
How Often Should I Give My Bearded Dragon Calcium & Vitamin D3?
Another issue Dragon Keepers wonder about is exactly how often they need to provide supplements with calcium and Vitamin D3.
Calcium. Generally it’s safe to supplement calcium anywhere from a few times a week to once a day. Of course, always check with your vet first, especially if your beardie is a rescue or if you notice any signs of illness (especially MBD). Hypercalcemia (too much calcium in the body) is rare in bearded dragons, but it can happen, and it can result in illness and death. So it’s always best to check with a vet first before starting any supplementation.
Vitamin D3. As a rule of thumb, a Vitamin D3 supplement can be safely provided about two to three times a week. Since bearded dragons should be getting 12 hours of UVB exposure a day, they don’t necessarily need this supplement on a daily basis. Of course, the exception would be a dragon who has metabolic bone disease or another condition which would require a more intense supplement regimen.
Combination supplements. You may notice some products on the market that contain both calcium and Vitamin D3. In this case, you would want to supplement about three times a week to ensure your dragon is getting enough of both supplements. If you wish, you could also add in a secondary calcium supplement to your dragon’s feeding schedule, but it isn’t necessarily something you have to do. That is for you and your vet to determine.
Other vitamins. Many experienced Dragon Keepers will recommend providing your beardie with a multivitamin in addition to calcium and Vitamin D3 supplements. If you choose to do this, it’s best to ensure they are not getting any additional Vitamin A (unless your vet determines your dragon is seriously deficient in Vitamin A). This is because supplemental Vitamin A can quickly rise to toxic levels in bearded dragons, resulting in illness that includes vomiting, weight loss, and loss of energy. Beta carotene is a lot safer than Vitamin A because of the way your dragon’s body will absorb it.
- Calcium may be offered up to once a day.
- Vitamin D3 may be offered three times a week.
- Combination supplements should be offered three times a week.
- Avoid supplements containing Vitamin A; opt for beta carotene instead.
- Always check with your vet before determining supplements.
- Keep an eye out for any signs of illness.
Signs of Calcium Deficiency in Bearded Dragons
Alert your vet immediately if you notice any signs of metabolic bone disease in your bearded dragon. These include:
- Lack of appetite
- Lethargy and weakness
- 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
Calcium-Rich Foods for Your Bearded Dragon
Even with excellent supplementation, it’s still very important to provide calcium-rich foods for your bearded dragon.
Pro Tip: If you are looking for a calcium-rich feeder insect, try Dubia roaches. They contain more protein and calcium than typical feeders.
Leafy greens are a great source of calcium for bearded dragons, especially the following options:
- Cactus pad, or prickly pear
- Collard greens
- Dandelion leaves
- Endive or escarole
- Mustard greens
- Turnip greens
- Grape leaves
Other foods that can boost your dragon’s calcium intake:
- Sweet potatoes
Calcium and Vitamin D3 play an important role in your dragon’s overall health and wellness. Keep your dragon happy and thriving by providing a balanced diet, proper UVB lighting, and adequate supplements.
If you have questions or would like to give feedback, please email us at [email protected]