Metabolic Bone Disease

"Soft-shell syndrome"

Softshell syndrome
is a major killer of young turtles, especially aquatics. Its real name is Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) and it is caused by poor diet and/or insufficient lighting.

In order to stay alive, turtles require a certain amount of calcium in the bloodstream. If they do not get enough, calcium is taken from the bones to maintain the right ratio in the bloodstream. Over time, the bones are weakened. If the shell feels soft, it means that the bony structure which holds the keratin shields (outer shell) rigidly in place is so badly compromised that you can feel the damage from the outside. In other words, the turtle's bones have softened, making the protein layer (shell) seem soft. (Note: Discoloration of the outer laminae would not be a symptom of MBD, but some sort of infection of the protein or underlying bony layer. Since both MBD and shell infections (often called shell rot) are commonly caused by husbandry errors, the two diseases often appear together in the same animal. Click for information on shell rot.) It takes a long time in very poor conditions for the most serious symptoms of advanced MBD to appear, and once the shell has become soft, treatment can be difficult. The following steps may save the turtle. It will at least ease the pain of dying of this horrible disease.

1. Housing: Set up a clean aquarium with shallow water and a dry basking area of smooth, flat rocks or cork bark. Healthy aquatics prefer deep water, but a turtle with MBD is in agonizing pain with every movement because the muscles are attached to dying bones. So shallow water with a very easy exit is recommended. Use a water heater or set the aquarium on a heating pad to keep the water about 78-82 degrees. Get a Reptisun 5.0 light or Reptile D-Light and place it less than 1 foot above the turtle. You will also need an incandescent bulb to warm and light the basking area. Place it close enough to warm the basking area to 82-86 degrees. These temperatures are higher than normal care requirements for American aquatics, but may help boost the immune system.

2. Diet: Offer a variety of foods, e.g. romaine lettuce (not iceberg lettuce, which contains little or no nutrition), collards, berries, cantaloupe, squash, earthworms, snails, etc. It is important to know what species of turtle you have to provide it with the best diet. For instance, maps and diamondbacks are more carnivorous than many other aquatics, while river cooters and red-bellies require more plant matter. Red-eared sliders and painted turtles are omnivores, but eat a considerable amount of "meat" (bugs, worms, slugs) while they are young. Wardley's Reptile T.E.N., Turtle Brittle and Tetra's ReptoMin are good prepared diets for most aquatic turtles. If your turtle is not eating, try live food as the wiggling will often attract a reluctant eater. The strong smell of cat food can have a similar enticing effect. (NOTE: Do not feed spinach to turtles as the high oxalic acid content interferes with the absorption of calcium and can lead to MBD even if calcium supplements are provided.)

3. Calcium: Insufficient dietary calcium is usually the major cause of MBD. Get a cuttlebone. They are sold in most grocery stores in the pet department. They are used by bird owners, but turtle owners also find them indispensable. Carefully scrape off the brittle backing. A healthy adult turtle is unlikely to be harmed by it, but young or weak turtles may be injured. Float a piece of the cuttlebone in the water. If the turtle will eat it, that may help reverse the calcium deficiency. However, when the disease is so advanced that the shell feels soft, injected calcium will usually be required. Your veterinarian can make that determination and also help treat any secondary infections that may have developed. (Calcium injections can be irritating. If your vet is not very experienced with chelonia, he or she may appreciate the suggestion that the calcium could be diluted it in saline of LRS and the injection given intraceloemically, as this will reduce the irritation.)

Conclusion: MBD is easy to prevent, but can very difficult to treat successfully. When you wish to acquire a pet, it is best to carefully research the proper care ahead of time. This should prevent serious health problems such as metabolic bone disease.

Further explanation of MBD (and other diseases) in reptiles
Further explanation of lighting for reptiles

© 1999 Mary Hopson, Anchorage, AK
This information sheet may be freely copied and distributed.

turtle puddle



aThe Turtle Puddle

back to the Turtle Puddle's Health Pages

Exotic Turtles a