Metabolic Bone Disease in Bearded Dragons – What it is and What to do About it

In Care, Nutrition by Tim Steward

Last updated on May 23rd, 2021 at 02:53 pm

Disclaimer: We are not veterinarians and this article does not replace the advice given by a qualified vet. The aim of this article is to bring more awareness to a common health issue experienced by bearded dragon owners.

This information should be used only as a reference tool and should not be used in place of vet assistance. Our views and opinions are the results of hours of dedicated research. But remember, we are not professionals. If you have a sick beardie and don’t know what to do, don’t rely on the internet, take them to the vet immediately.

Our biggest fear, when it comes to being a bearded dragon owner, is that we’ll do something wrong that causes our beardie to get sick or die. Luckily, on the spectrum of pets, bearded dragons are pretty easy to take care of. That said, improper care can still cause a host of problems.

In fact, one of the most common health issues among captive bearded dragons is caused almost exclusively by improper care. Metabolic bone disease can be painful and debilitating for a beardie. It can even be fatal. Fortunately, it is also easily preventable with proper diet, supplements, and lighting.

Most commonly seen in bearded dragons 2 years of age or younger, metabolic bone disease (or MBD for short) is actually an umbrella term that describes one of several commonly found conditions.

MBD is caused by a range of nutrient issues. The nutrient in question is almost always calcium, but vitamin D and phosphorous can also be culprits. Too little (hypocalcemia) or too much (hypercalcemia) calcium can cause problems with both the growth and the strength of a bearded dragon’s bones.

A microscopic view of metabolic bone disease

Metabolic bone disease (MBD) in bearded dragons is a condition that causes their bones to form improperly. It is usually caused by a diet low in calcium and/or vitamin D or a lack of UVB light that allows them to make vitamin D naturally. It is a serious condition that can be avoided with proper care.

A bearded dragon needs a steady supply (not too much and not too little) of calcium to facilitate bone growth and density. They also need a consistent source of vitamin D. This allows their bodies to convert dietary calcium into a bioavailable form that is shuttled into the bones.

Causes of metabolic bone disease in bearded dragons

Also known as fibrous osteodystrophy or nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism, MBD has a handful of well-known causes.

The first thing to note about these causes is that they can all be traced to improper care. A bearded dragon in captivity does not get to pick its own food, supplements, or lighting. It is up to us as responsible beardie parents to provide these things for them.

Too little calcium

In the wild, bearded dragons get calcium from a variety of plant and animal sources. Their varied diet typically provides them with just the right amount of calcium to keep the bones of young beardies growing properly. It’s also the right amount to keep the bones of adult beardies strong and healthy.

Simulating this proper balance of dietary calcium in captivity is usually a matter of combining proper diet with proper supplementation. If either is off, and your bearded dragon does not get enough calcium, it can lead to metabolic bone disease.

Too much calcium

In an effort to provide enough calcium for optimal health, some bearded dragon owners go overboard. They give their beardies far too much calcium in the form of high calcium foods along with overdoses of calcium supplements.

Most of the calcium we give our beardies as supplements are not very bioavailable. So giving them too much is not a common occurrence. It takes a ton of calcium to begin to be too much. But it is still something vets see occasionally so it’s something we must be aware of.

Check out our complete guide on bearded dragon supplementation to make sure you are giving your bearded dragon the appropriate amount of calcium and other important supplements they need!

The wrong type of calcium supplement

While powdered supplements are easy to administer and very popular with reptile owners, they are not always the best choice. Powdered dietary calcium is very hard for reptiles to absorb. This leaves us with two choices.

We can either supplement (meaning dust your feeder insects and maybe even your salads) powdered calcium every time we feed our beardies, or we can use a much more easily digestible form of calcium.

Our vet recommended supplementing with calcium gluconate. This is administered orally via a syringe. If you choose to go this route, consult your vet for proper dosage and frequency.

Basking spot not hot enough

Is their basking spot the right temperature?

In order for dietary calcium to be absorbed into the bones, it must first be digested. Bearded dragons rely on their basking area for digestion. Without an adequate supply of external heat, beardies are unable to digest their food.

A basking spot that is too cool means that a bearded dragon will not be able to digest its food. It will, therefore, not absorb many of that food’s nutrients. This includes both the calcium in the food itself as well as any supplemental calcium placed on the food.

We have put together a really nice guide on what the proper basking temperatures for bearded dragons are that you can see here!

High oxalate foods

Sometimes it’s not that we aren’t giving our beardies enough calcium, but instead, we are also feeding them foods that make that calcium undigestable.

Oxalate prevents the absorption of calcium by binding to it before it is absorbed by your bearded dragon. Foods that are high in oxalate can cause problems for bearded dragons because of this. Examples of high oxalate foods are kale, spinach, carrots, collards, and chards.

While it’s okay to give these foods occasionally, they aren’t something that should be a daily staple in your dragon’s diet. Instead, stick to other types of low oxalate, high calcium foods instead.

For an exhaustive guide to what to feed your bearded dragon, including information on the frequency with which you can feed your beardie high oxalate foods, check out our complete bearded dragon nutrition guide here (guide coming soon). There’s even a downloadable .pdf you can print out and keep handy for reference (also coming soon)!

Foods high in phosphorus

Phosphorus is another chemical that prevents the absorption of calcium. For that reason, we should avoid feeding high phosphorus foods to our bearded dragons.

The most common culprit here is bananas. But some beans can also be very high in phosphorus. Unlike high oxalate foods, which can be given occasionally, high phosphorous foods should be avoided altogether.

Lack of UVB lighting

Bearded dragons live their best life under the light of the sun. In captivity, this usually isn’t possible

Warning! NEVER place your vivarium in direct sunlight! It turns into an oven that will quickly cook and kill your beardie.

Because of that, we need to make sure our beardies get ample UVB rays from the artificial lighting we provide for them.

UVB rays are what allow your bearded dragon to produce vitamin D. Vitamin D is critical in converting dietary calcium to calcium that is shuttled to their bones. Lack of UVB is a very common cause of MBD.

In short, a lack of UVB comes in one of two ways. Either our lights are not putting out enough or they aren’t on long enough. Luckily, the solutions are easy!

First, buy quality lights (never go cheap on these!) and replace them every 6 months (just because it’s on doesn’t mean it’s emitting enough UVB). Then set them on timers so they are on for 12 hours every day.

Lighting can be tricky, that’s why we went in-depth on the subject in this article (article coming soon). Complete with photographs and visual guides, it has everything you need to know about setting up proper lighting for your bearded dragon.

It’s up to us!

It’s critical that all bearded dragon owners know how to properly provide for their beardies. Not doing so can have dire and unpleasant consequences. These consequences are evident when we look at the symptoms of MBD and how it presents itself in a sick beardie.

Symptoms of metabolic bone disease in bearded dragons

Keep in mind that the below symptoms can also be signs of other problems and are not necessarily specific to MBD. What all of these symptoms do have in common is that they warrant a visit to a qualified veterinarian asap.

By the time symptoms become apparent, the underlying cause has been around for a while. Your beardie can’t speak up and tell you that they don’t feel well. They rely on your keen eye and regular observation to notice problems early and head them off as soon as possible.

  • Tremors or an involuntary shaking of the limbs, front or rear.
  • Softening of the jaw. This can often be seen in conjunction with a swollen lower jaw.
  • Softening of the facial bones. While this symptom usually presents in the lower jaw first, the facial bones are some of the first to show outward signs of MBD.
  • Weakness, lack of appetite, and lethargy. These nonspecific symptoms don’t necessarily mean your beardie has MBD, but they are something to be concerned about no matter the cause.
  • Stunted growth. See our article on how big beardies get as a guideline, but if your beardie isn’t growing, MBD could be the cause.
  • Swollen rear legs and/or limb paralysis. This can be caused by impaction as well as MBD, but in both cases, these are serious signs of a problem. Call your vet immediately.
  • Bone fractures, severely curled limbs, and inability to move. Please don’t let things get to this point before seeking help. These symptoms present in very late stage MBD and are signs that recovery will be a tough road if recovery is possible at all.

As you can see, metabolic bone disease is not a fun experience for your beardie. It is hard for them to move and they are in pain. It’s imperative that you seek treatment for them immediately if they show even a hint of any of these symptoms.

Treatment for metabolic bone disease

Luckily most cases of MBD are treatable. While severe cases can cause deformities that don’t go away, it’s not always a life-threatening disease. The quicker the treatment starts, the better off the patient will be!

Call your vet!

Here is where we start to have a major problem with some of the bearded dragon forums out there on the internet. More than once we see the advice given that vets are not necessary.

The person posting then goes on to give what they think is an effective do it yourself treatment for whatever ailment is being discussed.

We cannot caution against taking this advice strongly enough. This is irresponsible and dangerous. They are not vets, are not qualified, and have not examined your bearded dragon and its unique symptoms. ALWAYS seek the counsel of a qualified herp vet.

We know this might sound harsh, but if you can’t afford veterinary treatment, you shouldn’t be a pet owner. Being able to cover veterinary care is part of being able to have a pet in the first place. “I can’t afford it” is no excuse to leave your beardie suffering, in pain, or untreated for a serious ailment.

Again, please see a vet, these are not do-it-yourself cures. In the interest of providing helpful information, we are listing the most common treatments a vet will try when treating MBD. But again, leave it up to them and do not try these on your own!

Oral Calcium

The most common first step, especially when MBD is caught early on, is oral administrations of calcium and vitamin D. When oral administration isn’t found to have a high enough absorption rate, subcutaneous injections of calcium gluconate or calcitonin may be used.

The goal of this treatment is to put calcium back into your beardie’s bones. In conjunction with this added calcium, proper UVB lighting must be addressed. A UV meter should be used (see our vet’s favorite option here on Amazon) and any UVB lighting deficiencies should be corrected immediately.

In addition to the above, your vet will most likely ask you to be very careful with your dietary choices. No foods high in oxalate or phosphorous should be given and a diet high in calcium-rich foods will most likely be prescribed.

The calcium in whole food is much more easily absorbed than added calcium, so this step is an important one.

Foods that are high in calcium include squashes, mustard greens, dandelions, escarole, and papaya. This is also a good list of foods you can safely feed your beardie every day!

Length of treatment

Treatment for MBD is not a quick affair. Treatment can take months. Full recuperation, if that’s even possible, could take over a year. It’s a long process and really drives home the importance of noticing symptoms and seeking veterinary care quickly.

Left untreated, metabolic bone disease can lead to permanent disfiguration and even death. While it’s a long road to recovery, treatment is relatively simple. It just takes a while.

Steps to Preventing Metabolic Bone Disease

There is quite a bit that we can do to prevent metabolic bone disease in our pet bearded dragons. Luckily, all of it falls under the category of proper husbandry. In other words, everything on this list is something we should be doing for our beardies anyway.

Proper Nutrition

As with many possible beardie issues, everything starts with proper nutrition. As we mentioned, we have put together an extensive nutrition guide for bearded dragons that you can see here (guide coming soon), but there are a few highlights that pertain directly to preventing metabolic bone disease.

Remember to limit or eliminate foods high in oxalate. As we noted before, these are foods such as spinach, kale, and chards. It’s also best to stay away from bananas and other foods high in phosphorus.

Instead, feed your beardie foods high in calcium. Escarole is a favorite of our beardie, Bacardi. She also enjoys hornworms as a treat and that particular worm is rich in calcium. You can see our full guide to wormy treats here!

hornworm
Hornworms are a high calcium treat

Natural sources of calcium are always a better choice than supplements. That said, it’s almost always necessary to supplement with calcium. Dusting your feeder insects with a calcium powder should be a regular practice.

Also, remember that calcium gluconate is more bioavailable than powdered calcium, but it is not as easy to administer. In the end, making sure to regularly supplement with calcium, regardless of the form factor, will be key.

Don’t miss our full bearded dragon supplementation tutorial here.

Proper Lighting

A very close second to nutrition in order of importance is proper lighting. As with nutrition, we’ve put together a guide complete with everything you need to know here (guide coming soon), but we’ll hit the high points for you in this article as well.

We’ll start with proper basking temps. Explained fully in our basking temperatures article here, you basically want to provide a basking spot hot enough to properly aid in the digestion of food, and therefore the calcium in that food.

Nighttime temps should also be kept in check. Maintaining a nighttime temperature range above 65℉ (preferably 70℉-75℉ | 21℃-24℃) will also aid in the digestion and absorption of both dietary and supplemental calcium.

Whether you use ambient room temperatures, a nighttime heat bulb, or a CHE (see what that looks like and costs here), night temps are often as important as day temps.

Speaking of night and day, make sure your lighting and heat are on timers. 12 hours on and 12 hours off is ideal. Don’t leave it to family members to remember to turn lights on and off. Automation is your best friend here!

If you don’t currently have your lighting set up on timers stop reading now and head over to Amazon to buy one of these all in one timer/power strips. You’ll thank us once you have one!

UVB lighting is next on the list to check off. You can address this in two ways (again, our lighting guide will save you a ton of time and guesswork here – guide coming soon). One is by having a dedicated UV light set on the same timer as your basking lamp.

The other is to use a mercury vapor bulb (MVB) that combines both basking and UV duties in one bulb. If you go this route, it is critical to follow published guidelines on how close the MVB bulb is to your basking spot. Too much UVB can also cause problems.

Regardless of which route you choose (our vet actually recommends using both an MVB bulb and a separate UVB light), it’s important to install new bulbs every 6 months. The UVB output of these bulbs degrades over time, so it’s important to offset that by installing new bulbs regularly.

Room To Move

Lastly, it’s important to make sure your vivarium provides enough room for your beardie to move around and get some exercise. Beardies stuck in small enclosures are more prone to MBD even if proper nutrition, supplementation, and lighting are provided.

Check out our full description here in regard to proper vivarium size and make sure your little beardie friend has a home that is the right size!

Handle your beardie often

On a final note, make sure you are handling your bearded dragon often. There are a ton of benefits of this, but a big one is getting to know what your beardie feels like.

If you know this well, you’ll be able to notice odd lumps, bumps, and swelling long before you may have noticed otherwise.

When you have your beardie out to spend time with them, make it a regular practice to do a general inspection just to be on the safe side.

The earlier you can catch something like metabolic bone disease, the easier it will be to deal with and the less long term damage can be done!

In the end…

Metabolic bone disease, while common, is both preventable and treatable. Following some basic, common-sense guidelines to caring for your bearded dragon will go a long way towards keeping your beardie happy and healthy.

And just in case we didn’t say it enough times, you can’t call your vet early enough if you think there is a problem. Don’t take the wait and see approach. Your beardie relies on you and it’s always a good idea to seek professional help any time you think something might be wrong.

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