Does Pyramiding Hurt Tortoises?

pyramiding tortoise shellA common question new tortoise owners ask is, Does pyramiding hurt my tortoise? In this blog post, I will discuss the possible causes and contributing factors to calcium pyramids in captive chelonians.

Pyramiding in tortoises occurs when an animal does not receive enough dietary calcium to meet their requirements. This results in the skeleton being partially or completely disorganized causing it to look like a pyramid instead of smooth outer edges. It is not known how much bone growth is caused by vitamin D vs. dietary calcium, however, diet is the most important contributor to bone development. Therefore if an animal has a poor diet that does not supply it’s needs, pyramiding will occur (Else & Haussler 1986; Bowen et al. 1997). Does pyramiding hurt tortoises? Usually not directly but the underlying cause should be identified and resolved by a veterinarian or professional keeper in order to ensure long term health of your pet. However, we have seen first hand where calcium pyramids on an otherwise healthy looking specimen indicates metabolic bone disease as the cause.

Metabolic bone disease is a broad spectrum of conditions characterized primarily by altered calcium homeostasis (Bowen et al. 1997). It can lead to severe pain and weakness in the bones of your tortoise, which is usually identified by bumps or lumps on the limbs. It can affect any age/sex/species of chelonian and there are many risk factors that contribute to its development. These risk factors include genetics, diet, environment, infectious disease (such as respiratory tract infections), stress, incorrect UVB exposure and vitamin D3 deficiency (Bowen et al. 1997). Does pyramiding hurt tortoises? Yes if it is caused by a metabolic bone disorder but no otherwise.

Metabolic bone disease in vertebrates will cause remodeling of the existing skeleton in addition to continued growth resulting in irregular shapes known as osteodystrophy or osteomalacia (Piedrahita & King 1994). Does pyramiding hurt tortoises? The disorganization of the bone tissue that occurs with metabolic bone disease can lead to a variety of health concerns such as internal organ damage and respiratory illness (Bowen et al. 1997; Gilbert 1994). It is clear in studies on chickens, rabbits, rats and guinea pigs that dietary calcium and vitamin D are important factors affecting skeletal development.

The clinical symptoms of osteomalacia are subtle at first and may go unrecognized, especially since they often mimic other common illnesses such as intestinal impaction or mycoplasma infections (Krejci & Kucera 1984; Bowen et al. 1997). Does pyramiding hurt tortoises? Osteomalacia in tortoises is extremely common and often mistaken for other illnesses in captive specimens.

Calcium pyramids are one indication of metabolic bone disease and can be found on the limbs, sternum or plastron (shell) of a chelonian. The presence of calcium pyramids will affect the overall health of your pet however it does not directly cause skeletal disorders in itself.