Have you noticed that your pet chameleon has been falling from the branches of their cage, from the sides of their cage, or seems otherwise unable to walk or move the way they once did? Are you wondering if this behavior is cause for serious alarm?
Why does my chameleon keep falling? Your chameleon may keep falling because they have metabolic bone disease. This is a common disease among reptiles and can cause lack of coordination and other symptoms. If your chameleon is displaying any behavior you find concerning, call your veterinarian.
If your chameleon does have metabolic bone disease, their treatment will depend on the severity of their condition. Even serious cases can be treated. Read on to find out more about metabolic bone disease and how you can prevent your chameleon from ever getting it.
Metabolic Bone Disease
Metabolic bone disease isn’t just one disease. It is a general term for a group of disorders that affect the skeletal system of an organism.1 These conditions can include nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism (NSHP), Renal Secondary Hyperparathyroidism (RSHP), and Osteoporosis.
Metabolic bone disease is typically caused by a lack of adequate calcium and vitamin D3 in a reptile’s diet, as well as inadequate exposure to UVB light. Improper temperature can also be a contributor.
Veiled chameleons seem to be particularly susceptible to metabolic bone disease. Young, growing reptiles, as well as females, have the highest calcium requirements and are most often affected by the disease. However, any pet reptile who is not fed a proper diet, given the proper supplementation, and not exposed to the right amount of UVB light can develop this condition.
Metabolic bone disease develops when there is an improper balance of calcium and phosphorus in the body. Calcium is used as a biochemical messenger in animals, including reptiles, meaning it is essential to many of their bodily processes.
Any deficiency of calcium in your reptile presents a serious problem that can cause, among other issues, weakened muscles and decreased ability to form blood clots.2
Symptoms of metabolic bone disease include lethargy, loss of coordination (falling off branches, for example), muscle spasms, curved or swollen limbs, paralysis of the limbs, bone fractures, curvatures of the spine, droopy lips, and a soft jaw (often referred to as “rubber jaw”).
In addition to these symptoms, your reptile may display signs of organ damage, especially of the kidneys. Early signs of kidney damage can include decreased appetite or failure to eat (anorexia), lethargy, and sunken eyes.
In more advanced cases, reptiles will begin to emit a foul smell, will have blood-shot eyes, and their extremities, such as fingers, toes, or the tip of their tail, will begin to die, turning a different color than the rest of their body. By the time these symptoms are evident, metabolic bone disease is well-advanced. Get them to the veterinarian without delay.
Dehydration and metabolic bone disease are two of the most common conditions reported in chameleons. Chronic dehydration and improper environmental temperature are thought to be the biggest contributors to kidney disease. Luckily for you, both metabolic bone disease and kidney disease are easily preventable.
Metabolic Bone Disease Contributing Factors
By doing thorough research before obtaining your pet chameleon and practicing proper husbandry, you can prevent your reptile from ever experiencing metabolic bone disease.
Poor or improper diet is one of the biggest contributors to metabolic bone disease. If your reptile develops this disease, chances are, you are either not providing them with enough calcium, are providing them with too much phosphorus, or are serving them a diet that is too high in fat.
Too much fat in a reptile’s diet decreases the solubility and absorption of calcium. You may also be giving your reptile too many foods that are high in other substances that further inhibit calcium absorption, such as oxalates.
A lack of vitamin D can also cause low calcium levels, since vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption. Your reptile needs regular exposure to both UVA and UVB light to manufacture the vitamin D they need for proper calcium absorption.
Your chameleon’s enclosure also needs to be kept at the proper temperature, with a reliable heat source. Temperatures that are too cool can impair a reptile’s digestion, further inhibiting their body’s ability to absorb calcium.
Chameleons require 12 hours a day of exposure to UVB light. You can supply this light most easily using a UVA/UVB fluorescent bulb. Please note that the windows in most homes block UVB light. Your chameleon may not receive the proper exposure if you simply place them in front of a window indoors. Additionally, the light from a UVB bulb may not penetrate a glass enclosure lid.
Temperature requirements vary a bit depending on the species of your chameleon. The warm end of a Jackson’s chameleon’s tank should range from 80-85°F. The warm end of a veiled chameleon’s tank should be 90-100°F.
The cool end of a Jackson’s chameleon’s enclosure should range from 70-75°F. The cool end of a veiled chameleon’s tank should be a bit higher, from 72-80°F. Track the temperature of both ends of your chameleon’s habitat using reliable thermometers.
You should also provide your specific species of chameleon with an appropriate and balanced diet. For the purposes of this article, we’ll talk about the proper diet for both veiled and Jackson’s chameleons. As with all reptiles, a varied diet is key, no matter which species you have.
Both veiled and Jackson’s chameleons are insectivores, which is exactly what it sounds like — they eat bugs. They can (and should) eat many different types of insects to achieve a balanced diet.
Jackson’s chameleons can consume crickets, hornworms, locusts, mantis hatchlings, various types of roaches such as dubia, banana, and orange-head, silkworms, snails with shells, and stick insects. Veiled chameleons can be fed a similar diet, including crickets, hornworms, and dubia roaches.
Mealworms, superworms, butterworms, and waxworms are much higher in fat content and should only be offered only as treats, no more than once per week, to either species.
Jackson’s chameleons are particularly evolved to make the most of a poor diet. This means that it is easy to over-supplement them. However, keep in mind that many feeder insects have a high phosphorus to calcium ratio. If you don’t supply the proper amount of calcium to balance this ratio, your chameleon is in danger of developing metabolic bone disease.
You can provide your Jackson’s chameleon with the proper supplementation by either gut-loading the insects you feed to it, or dusting their food with a powdered supplement. Use a calcium supplement without D3 twice per week, give them a multivitamin once a month, and provide a calcium with D3 supplement once a month.
Veiled chameleons require a bit more supplementation in their diet. They can also be fed gut-loaded insects. In addition, the feeder insects that you provide to them should be lightly dusted with a powdered calcium supplement that does not include D3 or phosphorus, at almost every meal.
They need a multivitamin once every two weeks. Adult male veiled chameleons (over two years old) only need their food dusted with a calcium supplement once a week.
Never feed your chameleon, or any other pet reptile, wild-caught insects or fireflies. You should attempt to feed your chameleon early in the day, if possible, so that they have time to bask and digest their meal properly.
Metabolic Bone Disease Diagnosis and Treatment
Again, if you suspect that your chameleon, or any other reptile, is suffering from metabolic bone disease, get them to a veterinarian as soon as you can. Be sure to handle your reptile as gently as possible, as they are highly susceptible to bone fractures once this disease has progressed.
Once you get your pet to a veterinarian, they will likely start the visit by obtaining a detailed history from you. This will include information about your chameleon’s diet and husbandry. Your vet will also perform a physical exam, which can include a blood sample to test calcium and phosphorus levels, and X-rays to look at their bones.
Reptiles with milder cases of metabolic bone disease can usually be effectively treated with improvements to their diet, proper supplementation, and better access to UVB light.
In many cases, reptiles with more severe metabolic bone disease do respond well to treatment. Your veterinarian may give your chameleon fluids as needed for dehydration. They will also provide your chameleon with a liquid calcium supplement, and may give them a vitamin D3 injection.
You will most likely need to administer an oral calcium supplement to your chameleon for at least a month, if not longer. Your veterinarian will also discuss appropriate diet and husbandry with you.
A sick reptile is a very sad and very scary thing. The good news is that a serious condition like metabolic bone disease can be avoided altogether when you take proper care of your chameleon. If your chameleon starts to display any symptoms of MBD, call your veterinarian and schedule an appointment immediately.