Metabolic Bone Disease in Chameleons

Metabolic Bone Disease is a common issue amongst reptiles, chameleons being one of the most affected. Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD), also known as Nutritional Secondary HyperParathyroidism (NSHP), is a disorder in which the bones of a chameleon become malformations due to the lack of necessary Calcium or Vitamin D3.

Calcium is needed to keep their bones strong and Vitamin D3 allows the chameleon’s body to absorb that needed calcium. While Vitamin D3 can only be created by their body when they get the correct amount of UVB lighting, it can also be supplemented through diet.

This is why proper lighting and supplementation are very crucial for your pet’s wellbeing. In fact, Metabolic Bone Disease is not even truly a disease since it cannot be caught and is mainly due to poor husbandry.

Without proper calcium, chameleons will have frail, breakable bones.

This disease can lead to a slow and painful death but can be prevented with proper husbandry. It is most commonly seen in captive lizards, which is why we don’t recommend chameleons to beginner keepers.

In chameleons, the disease can most commonly be found in captive, usually juvenile, Veiled Chameleons but can happen to any species. Veiled chams are just the common species that are more susceptible.

This is because in their natural habitat food can be sparse, making them eat more actively in captivity. This causes them to grow faster, which in turn, will mean that more minerals will be required to grow strong bones.

While Metabolic Bone Disease usually happens to juvenile chameleons, adult chameleons that develop the disease will typically find that reasons can be traced back to their upbringing while they were younger. This is why it is crucial that you try to find a reputable pet shop or captive breeder when searching for your pet chameleon.

This serious disease is preventable, so we hope that responsible owners will try their best to take all the precautions they can.

Symptoms of Metabolic Bone Disease in Chameleons

Xray of chameleon with severe metabolic bone disease
Xray of chameleon with severe metabolic bone disease. Normally the bones would be clearly visible, but they arent in this case due to the disease. Courtesy of Olathe Animal Hospital in Olathe, Kansas

There are some early signs of Metabolic Bone Disease that you can look out for. These might include an arched spine, swollen legs, bumps in the bony area of the legs, spine, or tail, rubber jaw, or a jaw that is working improperly, their tongue is hanging out, constipation, loss of appetite, easily getting infections, and softening of any other bony areas.

Some more pressing symptoms are a tell-tale sign that treatment will be needed can include your chameleon being unable to hold itself up, a curved spine, swollen ankles, and bowed elbows. Even small movements that require bone strength will be impossible for a chameleon with this disease.

More concerning indications you might notice are the inability to grip branches or climb anymore.

If left untreated, your chameleon will further develop this disease, more damage will be done to the bones, which might result in a broken bone. Increased clumsiness, muscle tremors, and even paralysis of the limbs can occur. They will become unable to eat properly, losing function of their mouth and tongue.

While you might see some effects of the disease, there is a lot of serious internal damage being done. We hope that if there are any possibilities of Metabolic Bone Disease that keepers will see to it that their pet chameleon is treated.

Look out for these symptoms and start looking into why your chameleon might be lethargic or not eating properly. You need to act quickly by taking them to the vet to catch the disease quickly so that it can be treated.

Causes of Metabolic Bone Disease in Chameleons

The main cause of Metabolic Bone Disease is improper care and husbandry. Whether you raised your chameleon on your own or got it from an inadequate breeder, it is always due to inadequate keeping.

Calcium is needed to provide a strong structure for chameleons and the skeleton protects their internal organs, which are crucial for any reptile’s life. Without enough density, the skeleton will be too frail to care for the lizard’s body.

Without calcium, bones become weakened, flexible, and easily broken, causing a lot of pain and many internal issues. This is due to the chameleon’s body trying to extract calcium from its own bones to keep important bodily functions, like its metabolism, up and running.

Calcium cannot be absorbed without the proper amount of Vitamin D, which chameleons can get through UVB lighting or supplementation.

If owners are consistently unable to fulfill their pet’s calcium and vitamin needs, the body will continue to strip the calcium from the bones, weakening them.

Besides improper lighting and no supplementation, other issues that might cause this disease in chameleons can include improper temperatures.

Chameleons need specific temperatures with the right ambient temperature, a nighttime drop, and seasonal shifts which you, as their owner, must follow, watching carefully. Temperatures too low can cause slow digestion, reducing calcium absorption and temperatures that are constantly high will make them uncomfortable, can burn their skin, and increase health risks.

While some damage can be reversed, your chameleon might be unable to return to its full prior health, depending on the damage that has been done, your chameleon’s age, and how quickly you catch the disease.

Treatments for Metabolic Bone Disease in Chameleons

Veiled Chameleon with recovering from metabolic bone disease – Courtesy of Olathe Animal Hospital in Olathe, Kansas

If you care for your chameleon, pay attention and try to catch signs early so that your chameleon can be treated quickly before any serious damage is done.

Thankfully, if you detect the disease early enough, Metabolic Bone Disease can be corrected and perhaps reversed.

The first step is to take your pet to the vet to properly get it diagnosed and find out what damage has been done. They will then let you know how to treat it and what the possibilities are for you.

After a check-up and x-rays, they will be able to give your chameleon a calcium boost to help you get started with treatment.

Treatment will depend on the severity of your chameleon’s Metabolic Bone Disease. If your chameleon has a mild case, you might be able to work it out with a change in diet, husbandry, and supplementation. In more serious cases, your chameleon may need intensive supplementation and an increase in UVB lighting, which might need to be taken care of only by a veterinarian.

Metabolic Bone Disease can start to diminish as soon as they get the right amount of calcium intake for their body’s needs. If the parts that were affected were in the process of growing when the MBD started, you may be in luck but any warped or any bone with multiple breakages that have healed might not be so lucky.

After the vets, you should have asked them questions about how to properly care for your chameleon and the serious changes you will need to make to improve the health of your beloved pet.

The first huge changes will be in their conditions; that means you will need to consider their diet, supplementation, temperatures, enclosure requirements, and figure out proper UVB lighting.

Please be sure to ask the vet all the questions you might have about these things and take notes before leaving.

Owners of chameleons with MBD will need to take extra care and put in the extra effort to keep their pets healthy. Keep in mind that you will need to care for your pet for the rest of its life, especially if there is irreversible damage.

First and foremost, you will most definitely need to make some diet changes.

Be sure you are supplementing them with calcium by dusting their prey or meals with calcium powder at least 3 to 4 times a week. Learn how to feed them properly and while you’re at it, make sure their hydration needs are being met.

Another important thing you should also be doing is gut-loading your chameleon’s prey. This means feeding the prey all the nutrients they need to grow healthy, passing on that nutrition to your pet.

The next step will most likely be UVB lighting, meaning you will want to either replace your UVB bulb or buy a new one completely.

Let’s talk about the importance of UVB lighting, shall we?

These special rays are crucial for your chameleon’s health since they will technically act as a substitute for natural sunlight. UVB will help increase your chameleon’s metabolism, activity, appetite, and will also synthesize Vitamin D3, a crucial vitamin needed for proper calcium absorption.

Without UVB lighting, you run the risk of your chameleon developing MBD.

If you want to learn more about how to choose the right UVB lighting, check out this informative YouTube video here:

Recommended UVB bulbs

We suggest you keep this on for 12 hours a day then off again for 12 hours at night to keep your pet on a natural routine. Be sure to keep their UVB lamp unfiltered and at least 12 inches away from the highest point in their cage to prevent thermal burns.

After you’ve made all the changes needed for your chameleon’s health, the next step is to be patient. If you care for your pet, you will not give up on it.

You cannot expect immediate results and even if there are irreversible deformities, you must learn to love your pet the way they are. Even deformed chameleons that have been properly healed from this disease can go on to lead full, happy, healthy lives.

Of course, all in all, you should try not to let this happen from the beginning. If you are planning to get a pet chameleon, please do your research about how to properly care for them, and how you can prevent issues like this from happening in the first place.

Prevention for Metabolic Bone Disease in Chameleons

We’re sorry to say but there is no doubt that improper husbandry and nutritional issues are what causes this disease. Luckily, it is totally preventable!

If you are devoted to caring for your pet, here are some ways to avoid them getting MBD in the first place:

Be Prepared

We hope that before you even think about getting a pet chameleon that you are mentally and financially ready to take care of it. Not only that, but you will need to be able to provide for their specific needs.

Chameleons are not the easiest to care for, which is why we don’t recommend beginners or novice keepers attempt to do it without trying to keep easier reptiles first.

If you are ready for the job, it is crucial that you gather all the information about your specific chameleon species’ needs.

When it comes to supplementation, do not skimp out. You should try to make sure you get the high-quality, more well-known calcium powder, even if it costs a little extra because it will not be as expensive as vet visits.

Buying From Reputable Pet Shops

When you are looking for where to buy your chameleon, be sure to search for a reputable pet shop or breeder online. Spend some time with the chameleon you might have picked out, looking for signs that it has been well cared for.

Take your time to watch its movements and actions before going through with the deal to make sure that it is a healthy chameleon.

You should first check for signs of dehydration by making sure their skin looks full and firm without any wrinkles or hanging excess skin. You should also pay attention to their skin and color. Excessive dry patches could be a hint that the breeder or shop is not taking care of them well or that they might be sick.

Also see if it is refusing food, has excess mucus around its mouth or nasal passages, or cloudy eyes. These could be indicators of infection or just an overall unhealthy lizard.

Do Your Research

It can really cause a lot of regrets later in your pet’s life if you make mistakes, so please make sure you are well-informed.

Again, read up and take note of what is and is not suitable for your specific species of chameleon. They will not all have the same dietary needs, enclosure conditions, and lighting temperatures.

Supplement calcium, feed them only the amount they need or what they like to eat, and make sure your lighting is the appropriate distance away from their cage.

Keeping Track and Maintenance

Install thermometers and hygrometers to keep track of their numbers so that they are in the proper environment for their species. You want to mimic their natural habitat as much as you can so that they can live a comfortable life.

You might even want to install dripping systems to make sure they are getting the proper amount of water. Try your best to make their home the most comfortable place for them as you can.

Keep their cage clean and be proactive in looking for any defects in their cage that might be out of the ordinary.

Health Checkups

If your chameleon is lethargic, not eating, or is having issues shedding, you need to make sure you take them to the vet right away.

First off, finding a good, reputable veterinarian that specializes in reptile or exotics care can really save you a ton of hurt. Not only will they be able to answer all your questions and inform you on how to properly care for your pet, but they can also help your pet in times of need or when they are sick.

You should try to bring your chameleon in every year for its health checkup in case it does have a disease that you might just coincidentally catch early, which could save its life.

Example Videos of Metabolic Bone Disease in Chameleons

Here are some of the examples of Metabolic Bone Disease in some chameleons that might give you an idea of what it looks like:

Viewer discretion is advised as this may be harder to watch.

Here is a more severe case:

FAQs About Metabolic Bone Disease in Chameleons

Is Metabolic Bone Disease in chameleons curable?

Yes! But it also depends on the severity of your pet’s Metabolic Bone Disease. 

Thankfully, if you detect the disease early enough, Metabolic Bone Disease can be corrected and perhaps reversed.

How do I know if my chameleon has Metabolic Bone Disease?

There are some tell-tale signs you can look for that might hint that your pet might be developing the disease. Some symptoms to look out for including their tongue hanging out or not functioning properly, an arched or curved spine, bowed elbows, swollen ankles, hindered movement, inability to grip branches or climb, weakness, and frail bones, resulting in breaking.

How does a chameleon get Metabolic Bone Disease?

Metabolic Bone Disease is caused by poor husbandry and improper nutritional supplementation. They are not getting enough calcium in their diet to keep their bones strong enough to keep them healthy. They might also be lacking some much-needed UVB rays, which give their bodies Vitamin D3, a vitamin needed in order to absorb calcium.

How do I stop my chameleon from getting Metabolic Bone Disease?

Luckily, there are tons of prevention methods such as educating yourself on how to properly care for your pet before getting it, buying only from reputable breeders or pet stores, taking your pet for yearly checkups, supplementing properly, allowing it to get adequate UVB, and just caring for your pet in the ways it needs to be cared for.

Conclusion

While this disease is very saddening to see happen, owners should do their best to take precautions and know the preventative methods so that they can try to raise a healthy chameleon.

We hope that this article answered any questions you might have had and that you are taking the steps to learn how to give your pet the care they need.

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