Metabolic Bone Disease In Tortoise: Symptoms, Prevention & Cure

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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How much do you know about metabolic bone disease in tortoises? Do you know this condition can kill your pets? I am writing this article to inform all the keepers of this severe and life-threatening tortoise disease.

Any bone and shell deformity due to a lack of calcium and vitamin D is called MBD or metabolic bone disease. Beak or jaw deformation, lethargy, trouble walking, and breathing difficulty are some other signs of this condition. A balanced diet and quality UV light can prevent and cure MBD.

Keep reading to get all the necessary information on metabolic bone disease in tortoises.

Key Takeaways

  • Bone and shell deformities, along with abnormal jaw and beak, are the main symptoms of metabolic bone diseases.
  • Lack of calcium and vitamin D is the leading cause of MBD. A low-quality UV bulb also triggers this disease.
  • Dietary control and proper enclosure management can cure MBD in tortoises.

What Is Metabolic Bone Disease In Tortoise?

MBD, or metabolic bone disease, indicates the bone and shell deformity in tortoises. The creatures experience a soft shell or bone, weak posture, abnormal skeleton growth, etc. Sometimes, MBD causes secondary diseases like skin roughness, organ damage, and reduced immunity functions.

A poor diet and other environmental factors can trigger this condition in the pets. If untreated, metabolic bone diseases can be proven life-threatening for tortoises. But luckily, the symptoms of MBD are visible, and the treatment is widely available.

The signs, cures, and prevention of metabolic bone disease are discussed below.

What Causes Metabolic Bone Disease In Tortoises?

Patty Mesich, an expert on tortoise and box turtle care, underscores the significance of preventing metabolic bone disease (MBD) in tortoises.

Essential to this prevention is understanding the role of proper husbandry, including adequate UVB lighting, optimal humidity levels, and a balanced diet. These factors are critical in avoiding MBD, a condition often resulting from care deficiencies.

A thorough knowledge of what triggers metabolic bone disease is mandatory for each owner. Otherwise, you can neither determine the root cause of the condition nor go for treatment.

The primary reasons to blame for MBD in tortoises are:

1. Mineral Deficiency

Calcium and vitamin D are the building blocks for a healthy tortoise posture. Let it be bone and skeleton formation or shell growth. These minerals and vitamins are mandatory. But what if the diet lacks these nutrients?

Obviously, calcium and vitamin D deficiency will hamper bone and shell formation. Hence, the pets suffer from brittle shells, soft scutes, and deformed bones. In another sense, the metabolic bone disease symptoms will be visible.

2. High Phosphate

Well, vitamin D and calcium deficiency are definitely a curse. But low phosphate in the diet is a blessing. Too high phosphate apparently lowers calcium absorption, causing metabolic bone disease.

3. Low Quality UV Light

Experts always recommend ensuring a quality UV light in the tortoise’s pen. The UV bulbs provide UVA and UVB rays.

While UVA exposures keep mental health checked, UVB rays are necessary to build a solid posture. See, the vitamin D tortoises absorb from meals is not enough.

Getting under the sun or soaking in the UVB rays helps the creatures produce vitamin D in their system. As a result, they can absorb more calcium efficiently.

Unfortunately, a low-quality UV light can not meet any of these expectations. In the end, tortoises suffer from calcium and vitamin D deficiency. The bone and shell deformity soon turns into MBD.

4. It’s Just Genetical

Some tortoises are naturally more delicate and sensitive because of their genes. These pets demand a curated habitat and personalized meals. They fall victim to MBD or other illnesses when the care requirements are not met.

5. Other Causes

Sometimes, metabolic bone disease is a front face of other underlying illnesses. For example, kidney damage, liver failure, and intestine disease.

Furthermore, as per reports, low humidity and improper temperature range are not directly linked to metabolic bone disease. But such mismanagement can worsen the condition.

11 Symptoms & Indications Of MBD

You can not call for action until you diagnose your tortoise with metabolic bone disease. Of course, consulting a vet is the quickest and safest option to determine any illness in the pet.

However, the MBD symptoms are pretty visible. This is why many owners rely solely on physical examination.

Here are the symptoms of MBD in tortoises,

1. Soft Scutes

The lack of calcium is the main culprit for soft shell conditions in tortoises. You will notice squashy spots on the scutes, and eventually, the hard shell will take a leathery texture.

2. Reduced Bone Density

Because of the MBD, the bones lose minerals and decrease density. This is a curse for the tortoises as they have a bulky body to carry. The pets are now at risk of bone fracture. Besides, tortoises seem to struggle walking because of the reduced bone density.

3. Pyramiding

Sometimes, the soft shell issues raise pyramiding. Hence, you will notice abnormal pyramid-like scute growth.

4. Bone Deformity

Curved bones, thickened joints, bone deformities, splayed-out limbs, etc., are common in sick tortoises. They experience severe bone pain during this period. Impaired movements and stiff walking are the results of bone deformity. Usually, bone deformities are more prominent among hatchlings and juvenile tortoises. It is because they have a faster growth rate than the adult ones.

5. Brittle Shell

Calcium is a significant element in both bone and shell building. Thus, lack of this mineral can affect the plastron and carapace by making them brittle. As a result, the tortoise becomes very vulnerable and prone to shell cracking or damage. Open or fractured shell often leads to severe infectious diseases.

6. Paralysis

Tortoises with metabolic bone disease often drag the limbs during walking. If the shell deformity gets severe, it will affect the spinal cord of the pets. It can lead to paralysis, too.

7. Shell & Bone Fractures

Due to calcium deficiency, the bones lose density. At the same time, the shell loses its elasticity. As a result, the tortoise becomes prone to shell and bone fractures. Any minor fractures can hamper the pet’s mobility and cause internal organ damage.

8. Other Deformities

The bone and shell are not the only deformable body parts. Softening and flexible low jaw, beak deformity, and abnormal jaw growth are also visible in sick tortoises. The pets cannot chew their meals properly because of the unusual jaw and beak conditions. So, eventually, the tortoises get diagnosed with malnutrition.

9. Fatigue

Lethargy is common in any disease. It is because tortoises channel most of their energies to heal the pain. Furthermore, MBD affects the walking capability of the pets, causing excruciating aching even to raise the body from the ground. Therefore, you often notice the tortoises sitting in one place and dozing off.

10. Trouble Breathing

In pyramiding, the abnormal shell growth influences the ribcage and chest muscles. The added weight can lead to inflating ribcage, raising breathing issues. Your tortoises might experience the same breathing difficulty in MBD.

11. Secondary Diseases And Symptoms

MBD often comes with additional health issues. Such as digestive issues, appetite loss, skin infection, eye infection, organ damage, reduced immunity, etc.

How To Diagnose A Tortoise With MBD?

I always suggest proper diagnosis before moving on with the medicine. You can suspect MBD in your tortoise just by visual observation. Yet, take the pet to an expert for confirmation and further treatment procedures.

Here is what the metabolic bone disease diagnosis process looks like,

1. Visual Examination

The vet will first look for the physical changes. The deformed bones, jaws, and beaks, along with bumpy shells, are indications of MBD. Besides, the pet will have trouble walking or breathing and show extreme lethargic behavior.

2. X-Ray

As mentioned, metabolic bone disease leads to fractured and deformed bones. An X-ray test is thus performed to confirm bone structure and density. The report also shows results of whether there are any cracks present on the bones.

3. Shell Biopsy

It is obvious that MBD will affect shell elasticity and thickness. The biopsy test will provide you with all shell-related information. For example, thickness, hardness, pattern, growth cycle, etc. The vet can confirm the disease by analyzing the report.

4. Blood Test

The blood report shows the mineral percentages in the tortoise’s system. Generally, the vets go through the vitamin D and calcium parameters for accurate MBD diagnosis.

How To Treat Metabolic Bone Disease In Tortoises?

The MBD treatment is relatively simple and, in most cases, involves no antibiotics or medications. Instead, a lifestyle change is enough. You can cure the sick pet with the following steps,

1. A Nutritious Diet

If your tortoise has MBD, it is confirmed that you are feeding the pet the wrong diet. Hence, you must change the meal plan immediately. Add more nutritious items to the list.

Generally, an ideal tortoise diet includes grass, hay, vegetables, plants, and leaves. Fruits are only an occasional treat for the pet. Before confirming any item for the meal, go through its nutritional value chart.

I have made a safe and nutritious food chart for my pet tortoises. Access the list from this link.

2. Add Supplements

The meals are never enough to back up calcium requirements for tortoises. That is why you must add calcium supplements to meals thrice a week. You can select cuttlebone fish or powdered calcium for this purpose.

Usually, tortoises do not need a vitamin D supplement. But if necessary, you can add multivitamins to the meal once a week.

3. Install A UV Light

I have already discussed how UVB works and its significance. Hence, set up a quality UV lamp in the enclosure. Install a 10 – 12% UV bulb about 12 – 18 inches from the basking dock for the best result.

Never go for a full spectrum UV light, as it is mostly useless. Moreover, you have to replace the existing lamp every 6 months. For more UV bulb-related tips and tricks, follow this article.

4. Enclosure Management

A low humidity and improper temperature range often trigger metabolic bone disease. So, ensure 50 – 90% moisture content in the pen. The percentage will vary with the tortoise species.

Finally, the ideal temperature requirements for tortoises are given below,

  • Basking Dock: 90F to 105F
  • Daytime Temperature: 75F to 90F
  • Night Temperature: 65F to 75F

5. Additional Treatments

A bone or shell fracture is common in metabolic bone disease. If your tortoise experiences any such damages, seek immediate help. An open wound will entice infection and rot. Eventually, the condition will affect the blood and internal organ health.

Again, MBD itself can act as a symptom of an underlying disease. In such cases, go deeper with the diagnosis and make arrangements for secondary treatments.

10 Prevention Of Metabolic Bone Diseases

Luckily, it is possible to prevent MBD in tortoises with only a few management changes. Such as,

  1. Feed the tortoise a high-fiber and low-protein diet.
  2. The diet must be high in calcium and low in phosphate. High oxalate percentage is also a curse.
  3. Add supplements (calcium and multivitamins) to the meals regularly.
  4. Install a humidifier and place a water dish in the enclosure to maintain a healthy moisture content. Adding water-rich foods to the diet also beats dehydration.
  5. Strictly follow the feeding schedule. A 5-day-a-week meal routine is perfect for the pets. Overfeeding can lead to pyramiding and obesity.
  6. Set the enclosure temperature according to the species’s requirements. Generally, the basking temperature for tortoises ranges between 90F to 105F.
  7. Install a 10 – 12% UV lamp and replace it every 6 months.
  8. Keep both the bulbs on for 10 to 14 hours. For outdoor tortoises, the sunlight is enough.
  9. Encourage your tortoises to do physical exercises. You can make climbing arrangements in the pen or add some toys for entertainment. Taking the pets out for grazing is a fun activity for them.
  10. Look for any abnormality in tortoises and take immediate action accordingly. 10 common health problems with their symptoms and treatments are discussed in this article.

Before You Go…

Do you know a tortoise can die if the metabolic bone disease gets untreated? But it is not the only shell issue that causes severe damage to the pet. Pyramiding can also make the creature suffer. Click on the attached link to get an insight into pyramiding, its causes, and possible treatment options.

Pyramiding In TortoisesL Causes, Prevention, Treatment

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About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.


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