Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) in Leopard Geckos

By Frank Miller •  Updated: 12/12/23 • 

Let’s face it: Metabolic Bone Disease in leopard geckos is a nutritional disorder caused by neglect. Although it presents devastating symptoms like a swollen/distorted mandible and limb deformity, it is 100% preventable by providing a nutritious diet and upholding proper husbandry practices.

Metabolic Bone Disease in leopard geckos is caused by calcium deficiency. This can occur because of poor nutrition or disruption of calcium metabolism caused by Vitamin D3 deficiency, a lack of UVB light, or inadequate thermal provisions. There are three stages of the disease, where the advanced stage presents the most severe symptoms caused by extreme demineralization of the skeleton.

Keep reading for well-researched information about Metabolic Bone Disease in leopard geckos. We will discuss the top causes of the ailment, its symptoms, the available treatment options, and how to prevent it in the first place.

Let’s get started!

What Is Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) In Leopard Geckos?

Metabolic Bone Disease in leopard geckos, also known as secondary nutritional hyperparathyroidism, is a degenerative ailment caused by an imbalance of calcium, Vitamin D, and phosphorus. Although the concern is mostly caused by poor feeding, it can also occur because of the lack of UVB lighting.

UVB light helps leopard geckos metabolize calcium and synthesize vitamin D3 naturally. The lack of it can affect normal calcium metabolism, leading to the loss of bone density and strength. MBD affects the skeletal system, making it soft and weak, and the main areas affected are the limbs, spine, and jaw.

>> Recommended Reading: Do Leopard Geckos Need UVA or UVB Light?

What Are The Symptoms Of Metabolic Bone Disease In Leopard Geckos?

MBD is a debilitating and potentially fatal condition. The hallmark symptoms include difficulty standing upright and shaky/ jerky/ uncoordinated movements when walking. Generally, this progressive disease is classified into three stages, and the symptoms presented by your pet will depend on the stage of the ailment.

The stages of MBD in leopard geckos include the following:

1. Early Stage

During the early stage, the affected reptile will show non-conclusive signs like loss of appetite, weight loss, and lethargy. Unfortunately, these signs can quickly go unnoticed or be misinterpreted.

As a responsible pet parent, you must schedule an MBD diagnosis, especially if you also notice shaky movements and changes in the appearance of your pet’s limbs.
Slight deformities are present even in the early stage of MBD. Your Leo’s arms and legs may at first look like they’re made from rubber. If you are keen enough, you may also notice walking style changes.

2. Moderate Stage

Often, most pet parents begin to suspect something is off during the moderate stage of Metabolic Bone disease. This is where symptoms escalate to general weakness and extreme weight loss. You may also notice bumps and swellings on the jaw, limbs, and spine as the body attempts to correct the MBD.

Loss of appetite begins during the early stages of MBD. The symptom only worsens as the disease progresses, although a leopard gecko with moderate MBD may still manage to eat a few insects. Unfortunately, the reptile will face a higher risk of impaction caused by symptoms like muscle weakness and cloaca prolapse, which impact proper bowel movement.

3. Advanced Stage

Advanced MBD presents more devastating clinical signs, including bowed/arched legs, a crooked spine, and a soft or flexible jaw. Your pet will also refuse to eat and waste away because of jaw issues, pain, and general weakness. The thin, emaciated look with little or no fat reserves will allow you to see the crooked or deformed tail tip.

Unfortunately, the Metabolic Bone Disease in leopard geckos is not treatable once it progresses to the advanced stage. Your pet has better chances of fighting the disease if it is caught in the early or moderate stage. Even when cured, some of its effects are irreversible, and you cannot correct areas with extreme deformities.

What Causes Metabolic Bone Disease in Leopard Geckos?

Metabolic bone disease in leopard geckos begins when a nutritional imbalance impairs the body’s ability to maintain healthy bones and proper muscle functions. This imbalance can be caused by either poor husbandry or an inappropriate diet.

Let’s have a closer look at the four common causes of MBD in leopard geckos.

1. Lack of UVB Lighting

For leopard geckos to produce Vitamin D3 naturally, they need exposure to the sun’s UVB rays. In captivity, this can be replicated using ultraviolet (UVB) lighting. Moreover, your pet can do without UVB, provided you provide adequate Vitamin D3 supplementation.

It is debatable whether leopard geckos need UVA or not. Most advanced keepers with in-depth dusting and gut-loading skills do without UVB but ensure their pets receive ample amounts of Vitamin D3. Unless you can flex this skill level, it’s better to err on the side of caution and provide UVB lighting in your leopard gecko’s vivarium.

2. Vitamin D3 Deficiency

Without Vitamin D3, your pet’s body cannot absorb calcium. This will lead to a drop in blood-ionized calcium levels, making the bones soft and malleable. Weak and under-calcified bones are prone to fractures, and improper healing only causes more malformations.

Providing calcium in a shallow bowl and dusting feeder insects with the supplement is not enough if you don’t provide vitamin D3. Your scaly companion will still be at risk if MBD, especially if the reptile is also not exposed to the sun’s UV rays or UVA light bulbs.

3. Calcium Deficiency

If your leopard gecko’s tank has UVB lighting and Vitamin D3 is not the problem, MBD can still be caused by calcium deficiency. Feeder insects are a poor source of calcium, and you must consistently supply calcium supplements in a shallow bowl to compensate for their insufficiency. Don’t forget to also offer Vitamin D3 if your pet cannot access UVA light.

Calcium is crucial to ensuring a leopard gecko maintains healthy structural strength. The component is vital in numerous physiological processes, and the lack of it can cause the weakening of the skeletal system and trigger MBD.

4. Poor Calcium to Phosphorus Levels in the Diet

Metabolic bone disease is generally caused by low calcium levels in the blood. This deficiency can affect the functions of the parathyroid gland, affecting the effective regulation of the calcium and phosphorus in the blood. The same effects can occur if you routinely use feeder insects with a calcium-to-phosphorus imbalance.

Leopard geckos need diets with a 2:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus for healthy bones and muscle functions. Foods with more phosphorus than calcium can lead to MBD by causing bones to lose their density and overall strength.

The surest way to avoid dietary deficiencies is to provide varied feeder insects. You must also dust or gut-load feeder insects to increase their nutritional value and provide calcium and Vitamin D3 supplements in a shallow bowl.

>> Recommended Reading: A Comprehensive Guide to Feed a Leopard Gecko

How Is Metabolic Bone Disease In Leopard Geckos Treated?

Treatment for metabolic bone disease depends on the stage of ailment and the symptoms present. If a leopard gecko is only mildly affected, addressing husbandry concerns and starting a proper nutrient regimen should alleviate symptoms in about a month. More complex treatments are necessary when treating moderate and advanced MBD.

To diagnose metabolic bone disease, your vet will assess clinical signs, do a full body X-ray, and perform blood work to measure calcium levels. These procedures help unveil the degree of bone weakness and ensure the correct classification of the ailment based on severity. If MBD is past the early stage, it’s harder to achieve complete recovery through at-home dietary improvements and supplementation.

In critical cases, your pet will need comprehensive nutritional support through oral supplements, parenteral calcium therapy, Vitamin D injections, and fluid therapy. Irrespective of the stage of the disease, correct husbandry and diet are vital to ensuring successful treatment and a favorable prognosis.

If you suspect your scaly friend has MBD, don’t wait for the symptoms to worsen. It is better to consult a vet and rule out this potentially debilitating condition before symptoms go from bad to worse. MBD is a progressive disease and can eventually cause death if not treated.

>> Recommended Reading: Leopard Gecko Dying Signs & Causes of Sudden Death

Will Treatment Reverse the Effects of Metabolic Bone Disease?

Treatment can reverse some but not all of the effects of Metabolic Bone Disease. The degree of improvement to expect will highly depend on the severity of the case and the quality of care offered.

Often, reptiles in the early stage of the disease show much improvement in just weeks following treatment.

Deformities, especially those that progress and become more apparent, are harder to reverse, even with treatment. If you catch the disease in the moderate stage, your pet can still lead a good quality of life. Unfortunately, the damage suffered by Leos with advanced MBD is impossible to reverse.

Advanced metabolic bone disease causes severe muscle wasting, bone deformation, and nerve damage. These symptoms mark a point of no return. Even if your scaly friend survives, he may not enjoy the best quality of life. In this case, your vet may recommend euthanasia to end your pet’s pain humanely.

How to Prevent Metabolic Bone Disease in Leopard Geckos

Metabolic bone disease is 100% preventable through proper nutrition and husbandry practices. Here are a few tips that can help keep the condition at bay:

Final Thoughts

Metabolic bone disease in leopard geckos is common despite abundant information about proper nutrition and husbandry. Fortunately, equipping yourself with in-depth information about your pet’s dietary needs and proper care can go a long way in keeping this nutritional disorder at bay.

If you find yourself nursing a pet with MBD, the best course of action is to consult a skilled exotic vet. The expert can help with effective treatment to arrest the progression of the disease. Most importantly, your vet can help you address dietary and husbandry blunders that can make your pet’s health more vulnerable to taking a hit.

Frank Miller

Frank Miller is the Founder of Lizard Advisor and owns several pet lizards, from leopard geckos, bearded dragons, crested geckos, chameleons, and others. The mission of this website is to make owning a pet lizard very easy for everyone, but mostly beginners. And each year, he continues to help more people learn more about lizard care and much more.