Providing a complete and balanced diet is essential when you are keeping any pet. In reptiles, however, not getting it right can quickly lead to some pretty severe and irreversible consequences. A lack of calcium in the diet can lead to weak and broken bones! What’s more, even if the diet does include the right amount of calcium, your reptile will not be able to absorb it without correct lighting conditions. Read on to learn more about which reptiles need a calcium supplement, how to provide in the diet, and how to ensure that it is being absorbed in the gut.

Which reptiles need calcium?

All reptiles require the mineral calcium from their diet. Calcium is primarily used to build and maintain bones in the body but has other metabolic functions as well. If your reptile consumes a carnivorous diet of mammalian prey, such as with most snakes, you will typically not need to provide an extra supplement along with regular meals. It is necessary to provide a supplement to reptiles consuming an insectivorous (only insects), herbivorous (only plants), or omnivorous (plants and prey) diet.

How can I give a calcium supplement to my reptile?

Calcium supplements usually come in the form of a powder. This can be added to food items that are already part of your reptiles menu. For plant-eaters, the powder can be sprinkled on veggies before a meal. If you do this, make sure that your reptile isn’t avoiding the calcium-seasoned spots in his salad! If you find they become picky when it comes to their calcium-dusted veggies, try spreading the supplement out more uniformly in the food. To give a supplement with live insect prey, “gut-loading” is recommended.

To do this, allow the insects to feed on the calcium powder immediately before being offered to your reptile. Some people will dust the calcium supplement on the insect prey before feeding time. This, however, isn’t recommended as live insects will tend to groom off the powder before they are captured and eaten.

Why is lighting important for the absorption of calcium?

Appropriate lighting triggers the production of Vitamin D, which is responsible for efficient absorption of calcium from food in the gut. Considered to be the “sunshine vitamin”, Vitamin D is normally synthesized in the skin with exposure to sunlight. For a pet reptile who spends his life indoors, a UV (ultraviolet) light source can replicate the sun’s effect. Ultraviolet lights which include the wavelengths in the “B” spectrum (260-320 nanometers) are specifically required for Vitamin D synthesis.

How should I set up UV lighting for my reptile?

Every species of reptile will have a unique requirement when it comes to UV light. This will differ largely based on the habitat from which they come in the wild, as well as their specific temperature regulation behaviour. You can check out the online UV-Tool, created by the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquaria, to determine the recommended lighting conditions for each species. Remember that vivarium lights should be changed regularly according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. With use, the bulbs may have a diminished capacity to shine in the UV-B spectrum even if the light itself doesn’t appear to have dimmed.

What does calcium deficiency look like in reptiles?

Despite our best intentions, calcium deficiency can still occur in our pet reptiles. Common early signs include refusal of food and lethargy. If your reptile has completely stopped eating or is having trouble moving around his vivarium, you should book an appointment with your veterinarian. They will be able to confirm a calcium deficiency by evaluating bone health using x-ray imaging. Depending on the severity of the case, your reptile may require a period of hospitalization. Some cases may be treated at home with an adjustment made to the calcium supplementation schedule or the vivarium lighting conditions.

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