Keeping Reptiles Newsletter
  Issue 2 Vol 7 March 2011
Nutritional Metabolic Bone Disease In Reptiles - Part 3 In this Issue

By Roberta A. Avila-Guevara CVT

Dietary Mismanagement

Problems associated with diet are based on several misconceptions.  First, outdated information that is considered to be of value continues to be used.  Second, modern conveniences allow for compromise of natural diets, and third misguidance.

All juvenile reptiles, regardless of what their primary food source is, develop NMBD more often than adults due to their rapid growth rates.  Lack of supplementation during this time promotes low calcium levels due to the increased demands for calcium and other vitamins and minerals.


The dietary needs of these reptiles are the most misunderstood and therefore present with the most problems.  Many novice keepers believe that commercial reptile diets, as well as dog and cat food, are balanced and complete.  Some of these processed foods are high in fat, provide animal source proteins instead of plant based ones, contain artificial ingredients, high amounts of grains, and offer no variety.

Fresh fruit and vegetable diets are optimum for these reptiles; however, mistakes are made with lack of variety, the wrong types of produce, such as acidic varieties; and fruits and vegetables in the wrong proportions.

The most detrimental practice is offering meats such as hamburger, pinkies, crickets, or other meat sources in any amount.  This not only leads to NMBD but other health problems such as gout.


Reptiles that eat mostly crickets and worms are at a disadvantage because these insects are low in calcium and other nutrients.  Feeding them on a regular basis without supplementation contributes to deficiencies in vitamins and minerals. 


Most of the problems seen with these reptiles are related to juveniles and the food that’s provided.   Some pinkies and small fish may not have the nutrient levels needed for juveniles to eat on a regular basis unless supplementation is provided.  For adults, large rodents and fish can be deficient in certain nutrients if their diet was insufficient before being fed to the pet.


Some reptiles, such as bearded dragons, change their diet from a carnivorous one when they’re juveniles to an omnivorous diet as adults.  Many novice keepers are unaware of this and will feed their pet the same diet through out its life.  This causes variations in nutrients that can lead to metabolic discrepancies in mineral levels.


Clinical Signs of NMBD

Reptiles can go for months or even years, without showing signs of health problems.  Signs of metabolic bone disease aren’t apparent until the disease is well established.  Early signs can be overlooked and include decreased activity, reluctance to posture or raise the head, carpal walking or flat feet, and anorexia.  Advanced signs are obvious and include bone deformities and/or fractures, convulsions or seizures, muscle tremors, and withdrawal of the lower jaw.  When these signs are evident, the disease is so advanced; animals that don’t succumb to it will suffer irreversible damage.


A physical exam, complete history including management practices, and clinical signs are enough for a diagnosis.  Radiographs can provide information on the degree of bone damage and disease progression. 


Immediate treatment protocols focus on medical intervention and include:

  1. Reversal of hyperactivity of the parathyroid gland.
  2. Reversal of bone loss.
  3. Promotion of new bone growth.

Long term protocols investigate current management practices to discover areas of mismanagement and implement ways to correct them.  This prevents future manifestations of the disease.   

Medical Treatment

Advancements in treatment allow the veterinary healthcare team to cut recovery time in half.  What used to take 4 to 6 months for recovery can now be done in 4 to 6 weeks, even in advanced cases.

Current medications consist of vitamin D3 and calcium by mouth followed by injections of calcitonin hormone.  Oral vitamin D3 and calcium is administered prior to calcitonin injections in most cases for a minimum of three days up to several months.  This is dependent on severity, species, and veterinary indications.  Prognosis is favorable as long as client compliance is met.  Deformities may remain for the life of the pet, but they won’t contribute to future problems.
Part 4 will discuss specific husbandry and dietary techniques appropriate for the more popular reptile species.          

Roberta A. Avila-Guevara CVT is a practising Certified Veterinary Technician and has been published in several veterinary technician journals. 

  1. Nutritional Metabolic Bone Disease In Reptiles - Part 3
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Love is Never Having to Clean the Cage . .

By Aliza Arzt

One disadvantage to keeping just about any pet, not to mention a large reptile collection, is the amount of cleaning and disinfecting that needs to be done, especially for pets living in enclosures.  There is a solution, at least for some reptile species: an enclosure can be set up as a mini eco-system in which nutrition, hydration and waste are cycled with minimal human intervention.  I have successfully kept a variety of geckos in these conditions, including day geckos, rhacodactylus and fat tail geckos for up to six years without ever breaking down the cages and cleaning them.  I will detail my methods and results with geckos; I can't guarantee that this will work well with snakes (since I have ano experience with them), with “copious poopers” like bearded dragons or with reptiles requiring an arid environment.

The following elements are necessary to set up a working ecosystem: substrate, plants, scavengers/isopods, lighting.

The substrate needs to be composed of material that will allow plants to grow and flourish, will support an isopod lifestyle and is not dangerous to the reptiles that will live with it.  There is an excellent article providing the rationale for choosing such a substrate with specific directions about how to “assemble” it in Gecko Time magazine:  In my enclosures I use substrate composed of coco-fiber (also called “bed-a-beast” or “eco-earth”) topped with sphagnum moss.  Other viable substrates consist of combinations of play sand, soil, peat moss, leaf litter and orchid bark  or similar substances.  Many keepers are hesitant to house their reptiles on any type of particulate substrate at all out of concern that the animals will ingest the substrate and become impacted.  On the other hand, some experienced keepers have kept their reptiles successfully on particulate substrate and feel that properly cared for reptiles will not ingest it.  In any case, sharp particles small enough to be ingested (such as walnut bark) or materials that contain oils that may be toxic to reptiles should be avoided.
Proper drainage should be provided to prevent pooling water below the substrate.  This is usually achieved through several inches of gravel or expanded clay balls (hydroton, which is lighter than stone) and a layer of vinyl mesh below the “soil” substrate.

Plants are important to the ecosystem as a means for maintaining humidity, providing for carbon dioxide/oxygen exchange, small amounts of compost through dead leaves and other plant matter and also to give an aesthetic look to the cage, shelter, shade and climbing opportunities for the reptile.  Plants should be selected with an eye towards the reptle's natural habitat if possible, and space, lighting, temperature range and soil type suitable for the inhabitant.

Isopods or other scavengers are a crucial ingredient in achieving a complete cycle for the system.  These small bugs and worms help to break down the reptiles' feces and uneaten food.  They live their complete lifecycles in the substrate including breeding, dying and being recycled as food or fertilizer.  Some examples of scavengers are isopods such as pill bugs and woodlice, springtails, white worms or earthworms.  These scavengers can be acquired through vendors or in soil and leaf litter brought in from the outdoors.  In my enclosures I have chosen to bring in pill bugs from the outdoors.  The enclosures also seem to become host to various other tiny bugs who probably arrive on plants brought in from the outdoors or other items introduced into the tanks. 

Lighting decisions must first be made with the reptiles' needs in mind, after which suitable plants can be introduced.  In some cases, such as enclosures for nocturnal reptiles, the lighting can be designed around the plants.  I provide lighting solely for the succulents in my African Fat Tail enclosures, where I would normally not provide extra lighting for nocturnal reptiles.

Once the tank is set up with the appropriate ingredients described above, it should evolve and develop over time.  Ideally, plants will grow, fertilized by reptile droppings and decaying feeders which have been broken down by isopods.  The tank should remain mold- and odor-free.  It's even possible that under the proper conditions, feeders such as crickets, roaches or mealworms could breed in the enclosure, facilitating feeding.

Aliza Arzt is an editor for Gecko Time ( and has been and avid keeper of reptiles foir many years.

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Frilled Lizard Warding off Danger

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