How important is calcium to tortoise keeping?
A few common thoughts or impressions that some keepers might have are:
- “Basta kumakain, okay na yan.” (So long as it [the tortoise] eats, it’s okay.)
- “Ilang years na yan sa’kin and hindi ko naman binibigyan niyan, buhay pa naman hanggang ngayon.” (It’s been with me for years and I don’t give it [calcium]; it’s still alive until now.)
- “Marketing strategy lang ‘yang reptile vitamins or supplements.” ([The so-called need for] reptile vitamins or supplements is just a marketing strategy.)
- “Wala namang nagbi-bigay ng supplements sa kanila sa wild. (Nobody gives these supplements to [tortoises] in the wild]). How sure are we that the mortality rate of these animals in the wild (is normal [compared to that of those which are in captivity])?”
Calcium is the mineral that is responsible for the development of bones. And for one, tortoises have both an endoskeleton and an exoskeleton, which is why calcium plays a very crucial and important role in developing strong and healthy bones in our tortoises.
There are two common types of calcium supplement products available for reptiles. One is the calcium powder supplement, without the vitamin D3, which should be used for tortoises that are housed outdoors since they already get their vitamin D3 from natural sunlight.
The other is calcium powder supplement with the vitamin D3, which should be used for tortoises that are housed indoors since they don’t get that much vitamin D3 from natural sunlight. You may also use a UVB bulb for indoor setups since it emits vitamin D3 artificially. Vitamin D3 also plays an important role as it works hand in hand with calcium; it is responsible for the efficiency of calcium absorption.
How to use calcium supplements
Two to three times a week, sprinkle a fair amount of calcium powder on their food—about a teaspoon’s worth. Make sure to distribute the powder evenly as some tortoises will not touch food if the calcium powder is too thick. (Please see the photo for reference).
Just as humans can develop health concerns such as hypocalcemia (calcium deficiency disease) which may lead to osteoporosis, we can also say the same when it comes to tortoises; their calcium deficiency disease is called Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD).
Here are some of the symptoms of Metabolic Bone Disease:
- Loss of appetite
- Unable to walk or having difficulty walking (with limping or dragging of legs)
- Involuntary jerking or tremors
- The shell becomes very soft
- Lethargic (minimal movements)
Treating tortoises with Metabolic Bone Disease can be done by providing them with sufficient levels of calcium and vitamin D3. Also, avoid offering vegetables that are high in oxalates (such as spinach and beet greens), as high levels of oxalates in the body will have negative effects, such as blocking calcium absorption.
Always provide the calcium supplements and vitamin D3 that they need to ensure the tortoise’s healthy bone development. As they say, prevention is always better than the cure.
This appeared in Animal Scene’s October 2016 issue.