You watch your bearded dragon inch to the mustard greens you’ve just placed in her salad bowl. She can barely move her swollen, twitching limbs or open her softened jaw to chomp her food.
She is hunched, shriveled, and disfigured from calcium deficiency. This is often what metabolic bone disease looks like in a bearded dragon. No Dragon Keeper wants to see their beloved pet go through this terrible experience.
Metabolic bone disease can progress to varying levels of severity and can be fatal if not addressed right away. Tragically, metabolic bone disease is one of the most common domestic bearded dragon diseases, yet it’s easily preventable with proper diet, housing, and care.
With a little information, you can take the necessary steps to protect your dragon from this cruel and miserable disease.
Disclaimer: This article does not aim to take the place of a veterinarian. It was written to provide helpful information to educate Dragon Keepers in the hopes of preventing this horrible disease. If you ever notice abnormal behavior in your bearded dragon or see any symptoms or signs for concern, please contact your vet immediately.
What Is Metabolic Bone Disease in Bearded Dragons?
Metabolic bone disease, commonly called MBD, is actually the name of several disorders that affect a bearded dragon’s skeletal structure. Also known as nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism or fibrous osteodystrophy, MBD is often caused by one or more of the following:
- Calcium deficiency or Vitamin D3 deficiency from a poor diet (Vitamin D3 is essential for absorption of calcium)
- A diet too high in phosphorus or oxalates (Phosphorus and oxalates inhibit calcium absorption)
- Improper UVB lighting (UVB is necessary for digestion and absorption of nutrients)
Pro Tip: Your best defense against MBD is learning how to properly feed and house your exotic pet.
Regardless of its exact cause, metabolic bone disease is characterized by a lack of calcium in the body. When calcium is low, the dragon’s body starts pulling calcium from the bones and other places in an attempt to compensate for the deficit. The results are devastating.
Bone and muscle damage. Lack of calcium causes the bones to become soft and easily breakable, while the muscles start to lose their ability to contract. This is why MBD often results in total or partial limb paralysis.
Tissue damage. Calcium loss also results in tissue loss because the body pulls tissue to the weak bones in a failed attempt to fortify them.
Due to the bone, muscle, and tissue damage caused by metabolic bone disease, the affected bearded dragon becomes weak and deformed. Left untreated, MBD can end in death.
Signs of MBD in Bearded Dragons
It’s important to know the signs of metabolic bone disease in bearded dragons so you can alert your vet immediately if you detect any of them.
Early signs of MBD include:
- Lack of appetite
- Lethargy and weakness
These symptoms can actually be caused by many problems, like gut impaction. So if these are the only symptoms your dragon is exhibiting, remember it may not be metabolic bone disease.
Regardless, we highly recommend notifying your vet right away if you observe any of these signs so you can figure out what’s going on. If it is metabolic bone disease, hopefully you will have caught it early enough to have a high chance of recovery.
In moderate to severe cases of metabolic bone disease, the symptoms are much more pronounced and devastating:
- 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
It’s not impossible for dragons to recover from moderate to advanced cases of MBD, but they may be permanently scarred or deformed, and the recovery process is very long and painful. Being aware of your dragon’s normal behavior and providing attentive care on a daily basis is key in preventing this awful disease.
Pro Tip: The earlier you catch metabolic bone disease, the better chance your dragon has of making a full recovery.
What to Do If Your Bearded Dragon Has Metabolic Bone Disease
Whether you suspect your dragon has contracted MBD or you just arrived home with that sobering diagnosis, here are some things you can do to care for your ailing dragon and help her recover as quickly as possible.
Contact your vet as soon as you notice any symptoms, however mild. We can’t emphasize this enough. Although there is plenty of helpful advice available online for Dragon Keepers, it’s extremely important that you contact a vet at the first appearance of any signs of MBD in your bearded dragon. His life could depend on it.
Follow your vet’s treatment plan. At your dragon’s appointment, your vet will likely perform blood work, take x-rays, and discuss symptoms, diet, and care with you to determine the severity of the disease. Depending on what your vet discovers, different treatments can be prescribed, all with the end goal of getting more calcium back into your dragon’s body.
In mild cases of MBD this could be as simple as adjusting your dragon’s diet to include more calcium-rich foods. In moderate to severe cases, you will likely need to provide one or more of the following:
- Oral calcium supplements
- Vitamin D3 injections
- Calcitonin injections (a drug that increases calcium)
- Diet changes to include more calcium
- Special UVB lighting
Prevent calcium deficiency through a healthy diet. Your vet can help you determine the best diet for your ailing pet, but in general it’s a good idea to provide lots of fruits and veggies that are rich in calcium and low in phosphorus and oxalates. Certified organic produce is best because it lacks harmful chemicals that could potentially worsen your dragon's condition.
The following foods are good sources of calcium and make great staples for your dragon even when he’s not sick:
- 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
You can also supplement your dragon’s diet with these insects:
- Phoenix worms
Make sure your bearded dragon gets enough water. Proper hydration helps the dragon’s body absorb calcium, Vitamin D3, and other important nutrients. Ask your vet how much water is recommended for your bearded dragon’s situation, and make sure the water bowl isn’t too deep.
Remove hazards from the cage. When a bearded dragon has metabolic bone disease, his bones become very frail and easily broken or fractured. Additionally, it’s very difficult and painful for him to get around, even in earlier stages of the disease.
That’s why it can be helpful to take a look at your bearded dragon’s terrarium and do some rearranging.
- Remove any sticks, rocks, or other items that may inhibit your dragon’s movement or cause him to fall or become stuck.
- Make sure anything you leave in the cage—like his basking rock, for example—is easy to climb on or around.
- Provide a very shallow water dish to minimize the risk of drowning since your dragon can’t move as fast.
Handle your dragon with care. Bearded dragons with metabolic bone disease should only be handled by people when necessary. If you must pick up your bearded dragon, do so with extreme care, especially if your dragon is in advanced stages of the disease.
Ensure the terrarium has proper UVB lighting. Dragons are cold-blooded, so they don’t generate their own body heat. They need proper heating and lighting to function. Without specific temperatures and exposure to UVB rays (which mimic the desert sun they would experience in the wild), dragons can’t digest their food or absorb nutrients. That’s why heating and lighting play a big role in MBD prevention and treatment.
In many cases, vets recommend a self ballasted mercury vapor UVB lamp because they emit heat as well as UVB rays. As a rule of thumb, ensure the following:
- Your bearded dragon should get 12 hours a day of UVB ray exposure.
- Your terrarium should have a basking spot between 95 degrees Fahrenheit and 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Other parts of the tank should be cooler, giving the dragon a range of temperatures to help her regulate her body heat as needed.
- Nighttime should be a lot cooler in the tank than in the day—ranging from 65 degrees Fahrenheit to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Continually check the temperature in the terrarium, and replace your UVB bulb every six months.
Be patient. MBD takes time to develop, and it takes time to be cured, whether the condition has seriously progressed or not. Follow your vet’s instructions, shower lots of love on your beardie, and be patient as your dragon journeys back to health.
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