By Diane Burroughs
Did you know that avian vets report that malnutrition and its complications is one of the most frequent reasons that people bring their bird's in for treatment? Pet birds often suffer from insufficient nutrition because their keepers simply don’t understand all of their unique nutritional needs.
A varied diet is critical for your parrot’s long-term health. Wild parrots feed on potentially hundreds of fruits, nuts, flowers, greens, seeds and grasses daily.
In captivity, it can be quite challenging to provide absolutely everything your bird needs to maintain balanced nutrition. But, it can be done.
An optimum, balanced avian diet must include a bountiful, rich selection of raw vegetables, fruits, nuts, herbs, seeds, and sprouts, plus a high-quality pelleted diet like Harrison's, Roudybush, or TOPS bird food.
What is malnutrition in birds and how to prevent it
So, we know that bird malnutrition is a very big problem. But why is it so prevalent?
First, bird's have a complex and unique anatomy - which is completely different from the anatomy of mammals. Their whole body is geared for efficient flight and procreation. Their dietary needs and care needs reflect this. Even so, they still need many of the vitamins, minerals, proteins, and essential fats that all living things need.
A second reason why bird malnutrition is so prevalent is because in the past, there has been so little research on psittacine nutrition. For decades, we thought that all a bird needed was a seed diet. When I first got parrot fever it was all the rage to feed your pet table food. Now, we know better!
A third reason why bird malnutrition is so common has been the availability of premium, science-based, species-specific diets.
Many essential nutrients that our body's need to maintain can be found in raw, plant-based foods. Properly caring for them doesn’t have to be daunting. You just have to educate yourself and get into a routine of bird meal prep.
A lot of people worry that they can't get their bird to eat raw foods. Check out my video on 9 ways to get your bird to eat vegetables here.
How can you tell if a bird is malnourished?
Some ways to tell if your bird is not getting an adequate diet include feather discoloration, changes in the look and smell of droppings, and weighing your bird. Also look for bleeding tendencies, depression, poor eating habits, and add an appropriate weight. Of course, it's hard to spot these changes because they occur slowly over time. It helps a lot to have a second pair of eyes on your bird's health.
It's very important to keep up with your pets' annual Wellness exams. Find a good avian vet and schedule a wellness exam each year. Your avian vet will be able to spot the telltale signs of poor nutrition and advise you on how to remedy the situation.
The right diet will have a huge impact on your bird's overall health. if you're not sure where to start, check out Dr. Jason Crean’s Facebook group, Avian Raw Food Nutrition found here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/AVIANRAW
If you're really anxious to get started, pick up a copy of A Parrot's Healthy Dining: Go Raw by Karmen Budai. This is an excellent guide for all species of birds and it even has a lot of recipes to get you started on the right track.
Just like people, parrots need a fairly extensive range of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and essential oils to maintain their overall health. Most nutrients can be found in plant-based foods. Since many of these substances work in synergy with one another it's important to feed a full range of raw foods so that you can ensure that your pet is getting a sufficient variety of vitamins, nutrients, fats, and proteins to satisfy its nutritional requirements.
Some avian vets are hesitant to promote raw diets because they've seen too many people skimp on the preparation. In other words, most people feed just a few different types of raw foods rather than a rich range of them. That's why following the advice of experts like Dr. Crean and Budai is so important.
Some of the most common nutritional deficiencies that we see in birds include vitamin A deficiency, calcium deficiency, and magnesium deficiency. A lot of people ask. “What causes vitamin A deficiency in birds?” Vitamin A deficiency tends to be somewhat common in birds and especially so in macaws. The implications are huge. Lack of vitamin A can result in respiratory and sinus issues. It also causes inflammation in the mouth and excessive oral mucus. Vitamin A deficiency has also been shown to lead to kidney dysfunction.
So, what can you do? Vitamin A is not found in a seed diet and it's not all that plentiful in pelleted diets either. To support your bird's need for adequate vitamin A, feed your bird an abundance of dark leafy greens and brightly colored vegetables that are orange in color.
What Are The Top 5 Nutritional Needs Of Parrots?
Feed a species specific diet:
Take a look at various species of birds and you'll see how diverse they are. You'll even find that's diversities within a particular species, like macaws. Different species of birds have specialized nutritional needs. For instance, I already mentioned how macaws have a tendency to be deficient in vitamin A. African grey parrots on the other hand, tend to have calcium deficiencies. Lories and lorikeets eat primarily off of nectar and pollen, while Eclectus parrots Need a variety of green plant material, fruits, nuts, and seeds. These birds consume a lot of calories for their size!
Make it a point to keep track of your bird's weight on a weekly basis. That way you're bound to notice any changes in your bird's health before the issue becomes severe. If you're unsure of how to monitor your bird’s weight, check out this blog post. All you really need is a bird scale that weighs in grams. Some people prefer to have a bird scale that has a perch on it, but that's really not necessary. Here's the scale that we use at BirdSupplies.com
Ensure that your that your bird gets adequate protein
Proteins are macronutrients that are required for overall health. A macronutrient is a type of food that the body requires a lot of. They include healthy proteins, healthy carbohydrates, and fatty acids.
They're composed of amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids, some which the body produces and others that are supplied through nutritional intake. Protein deficiency can lead to weight loss, issues with immunity, changes within the cell structure, and poor feathering.
While understanding proteins can be complicated, bird owners simply need to know what amount of protein they should provide in their Birds diet. Of course this is variable depending on the species, the bird's age, and it's reproductive status, but it's usually between 10 - 24%.
Parrots that get a lot of seeds in their diet may get a decent amount of protein, but often with too much fat content for the bird’s overall health. Obesity in parrots is a huge concern and, as with other species of animals, it is potentially crippling and/or lethal. Getting the right amount of protein in a diet heavy in fruits and vegetables can get a bit tricky. At the same time, protein deficiency in the diet can cause the bird to eat significantly more food than it needs in an effort to get enough protein, increasing its risk of obesity even more. An overload of proteins and fat can also cause a hormone surge. In other words, it gets in the mood to mate – and gets irritable and presents difficult behavior until the hormones die down.
First, it’s important to realize that not all proteins are created equal. That is, there are many different types of proteins and amino acids, and birds need quite a few of them to be healthy. It’s impossible to get protein from a single source and still be healthy long-term. Parrots glean proteins from nuts, seeds, some types of fruits and vegetables, and dairy products such as yogurt. The all-important variety in the bird’s diet, plus a good formulated pellet, will provide all the different types of protein the bird needs.
Among other things, protein offers the building blocks for muscle and tissue. Insufficient protein may impact the bird’s muscle tone, and in turn affect its ability to fly, perch properly, or even coordinate its eating movements. Prolonged protein deficiencies can lead to more serious issues, such as organ dysfunction and complete failure
Protein provides more calories than most other components of a bird’s diet combined. Calories are important because they give your bird the energy it needs to maintain a healthy activity level. Low calories can cause a parrot to lose weight and significantly decrease its daily activities, which in turn severely impacts its mental stimulation. Without enough stimulation, the parrot will get bored, and may eventually suffer from depression.
Most, if not all, of your bird's protein needs can come from plants. Foods that are rich in protein include sprouted beans, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds. Get into the habit of sprouting and soaking and add variety to these foods. Serving a variety of protein sources helps to ensure that your bird gets the appropriate and me no acids that it needs. This is where Budai’s cookbook is invaluable!
Understand the importance of plant oils in your bird's diet
Even though fats get a bad rap, they are critical for appropriate body function. For instance, fats are an important source of energy. Fats insulate the cells and tissues, act as hormones, support vitamin absorption, and act as cellular signal pathways.
Fats can come from plants or animals, but our pet’s should be getting the majority of their fats from plants. Common plant oils that you should consider feeding your bird include flaxseed oil, coconut oil, chia seed oil, and red palm oil.
Consider oils as essential nutrients that promote health and prevent or treat certain disorders, like atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, and vitamin A deficiency. Each of the above listed oils supports different conditions, so, speak with your avian vet to find out for support in choosing the right one for your pet.
Like all nutrients, a little goes a long way.
How to provide essential vitamins for your bird
There are almost as many vitamins as there are letters in the alphabet! Like all living things, birds require vitamins to thrive throughout their life cycle. The cool thing is that most of these vitamins are available by feeding a rich range of plant-based foods.
What causes vitamin A deficiency in birds?
Vitamin A: Vitamin A is needed by cells that line the skin, mucous membranes, glandular tissue, as well as the kidneys and reproductive tract. A deficiency vitamin A can lead to respiratory infections as well as problems with the kidneys and reproductive disorders. Vitamin A is found in several vegetables, fruits and fresh herbs. sprouted legumes and grains are also a good source of vitamin A.
The importance of Vitamin A cannot be overstated. Deficiencies in this vitamin spell a slow and painful death for many birds, and high mortality rates among juveniles and unhatched eggs. A Vitamin A deficiency can make it difficult for the bird to breathe and affects the production of mucus that lubricates its eyes, throat and nasal passages. Dry, scaly feet and faded feathers are some of the most obvious early signs of Vitamin A deficiency. As problems become more advanced, Vitamin A deficiency may leave ulcers in the parrot’s airways, cause swelling around the eyes, and may cause the bird to lose its hearing.
This painful nare lesion was caused by a Vitamin A deficient all seed diet.
B Vitamins: There are a number of B vitamins that are essential for your bird’s health. For instance, thiamine is needed for normal nervous system functioning and cardiovascular health. Riboflavin is required for carbohydrate metabolism. Niacin is needed as a cofactor for enzymes that support carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism. Other essential B vitamins include Choline, Pantothenic Acid, Pyridoxine, Biotin, Folic acid, and Cobalamin.
Essential B vitamins help break down the food your bird eats. Without the right balance of this class of vitamin, it’s almost impossible to provide good nutrition because your parrot’s body can’t absorb the nutrients properly.
The most important of these vitamins include B9, B6 and B12, among others. It’s also this class of vitamin that helps the bird handle stress during molting, mating, or other potentially stressful times. The physical effects of stress can severely damage a bird’s overall health, including its ability to properly utilize nutrients. High enough stress levels may also diminish a parrot’s appetite so that it will only pick through its favorite foods, significantly decreasing the chances that it will consume the variety it needs to stay healthy.
Vitamin C: This vitamin is needed for the immune system, cardiovascular system, and repairing tissue. Since most birds make their own vitamin C we rarely see deficiencies. However, vitamin C is readily available in a variety of vegetables, fruits, and herbs.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is critical for normal calcium metabolism. It is required for growth, reproduction, bone health, muscle help, and nervous system health. The best way to ensure that your bird gets adequate vitamin D is by allowing it to be out in the sun or exposed to UVB light for at least 15 minutes a day.
Vitamin D is often overlooked in a parrot’s diet because it’s simply not at the top of most people’s minds. The average human gets enough Vitamin D through a mixture of dietary intake and sunshine. Birds need a relatively high level of Vitamin D, and filtered sunlight just doesn’t cut it in the bird world. These are animals that have adapted to life under full sunlight with a high UV index, and the ill effects from not getting enough aren’t readily apparent in the early stages. Full-spectrum lights and/or an outdoor aviary can help ensure your bird gets enough Vitamin D. Formulated food with a Vitamin D3 supplement fills in any gaps left by the typical indoor life of a pet parrot.
Vitamin E: Vitamin E functions as an antioxidant. It is for the nervous system and muscle health. Vitamin E can be found in some vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
Vitamin K: This vitamin aids an appropriate blood clotting And, it's found in some vegetables, fruits, herbs, and in cashews and pine nuts.
By now, you're probably seeing how important it is to feed a huge range of raw plant-based foods to satisfy your bird's nutritional requirements.
Plan to provide essential Minerals
Your bird also requires several different types of minerals in order to live a long healthy life. These minerals include calcium, copper, iodine, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, and zinc.
Calcium Is Critical For Parrots
More birds die every day from calcium deficiency than virtually any other nutritional issue. Calcium provides the structure for a bird’s bones and beak, as well as for connective tissue and the structure of their feathers. Because parrot’s bones are denser than most other bird species, they require substantially more absorbable calcium. Calcium requires Vitamin D3 and Magnesium to be properly synthesized. Not only is calcium critical for essential body structures, it also plays a critical role in mood stabilization. Too much or too little calcium may cause a parrot to experience high levels of anxiety, a known cause for parrot feather plucking.
It’s important to understand the difference between “absorbable” and “non-absorbable”calcium in your bird’s diet. It’s true that dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale and turnip greens carry a nice calcium load that may seem perfect for providing your bird with its daily dose of this critical nutrient. Unfortunately, many vegetation-based forms of calcium also have oxalic acid and other such oxalates in them. This is a major problem because oxalates bind calcium, preventing it from being used by the bird’s body.
This rescue had been severely malnourished
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t feed your bird leafy greens. In fact, those greens carry a ton of other vitamins and nutrients that the parrot requires for long-term health. What it does mean is that you need to understand your bird’s daily calcium requirements and make sure that your packaged food provides it or that you offer other forms of calcium. Buttermilk and yogurt both offer parrot-safe, absorbable forms of calcium. On the same token, a properly formulated food is critical because too much calcium could cause kidney failure. Birds that are young, molting or laying have higher calcium requirements than most adult birds. Always consult with your avian veterinarian when dosing a calcium supplement with your bird.
While the parrot can get some calcium from nibbling cuttlebone and calcium blocks, it’s neither as appetizing nor as reliable as, say, the calcium content in Harrison’s Adult Lifetime or High Potency Formula. Often, the primary benefit in whole calcium blocks and cuttlebone is that they grind the parrot’s beak down to keep it at a healthy length. It is not uncommon for birds to enjoy crunching or scraping these blocks of calcium, but then drop them to the bottom of the cage with zero benefit to internal calcium levels.
Calcium deficiency comes with a whole slew of horrible side effects. Sadly, by the time these effects are really noticeable in your bird, it may have already suffered severe damage from this nutrient deficiency. Symptoms may start with nervousness, feather-pulling and other relatively minor behaviors. After that, the bird may become listless, lose weight, then experience organ failure and loss of cognitive function. This is why it’s so important to pay attention to your parrot’s normal weight, activity level and personality: Any variation could mean a big problem
Bear in mind that vitamins, by definition, are only needed in trace amounts. Too much can be dangerous, but too little is at least as life-threatening. This is yet another reason why properly formulated food is an absolute must as the staple of your parrot’s diet. While it takes a pretty dramatic overconsumption of vitamins to cause a problem in most cases, there’s no telling just how much got thrown into poor-quality food. When you pick a good pellet that’s specifically formulated for your bird’s needs, you can rest assured that it’s getting the right balance of dozens of essential vitamins and minerals.
Your bird will benefit from a range of trace minerals including Calcium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Phosphorus, Potassium, and Selenium.
When you feed a rich and varied range of raw, plant-based foods, your bird should receive what it needs.
Everyone needs water, so this one is a no-brainer. Right? Not necessarily.
Parrots can easily suffer from dehydration, and require water rich vegetation as well as a bowl of fresh, clean water at all times. This seemingly simple requirement may be more challenging than you think.
Typical tap water contains chlorine and chloramines to kill potentially harmful bacteria in the water. Some municipalities add in fluoride or other things that could be harmful to your parrot. The concentration of chlorine in typical drinking water is far less dangerous to large mammals such as humans or dogs than the bacteria it kills. In a relatively small bird, on the other hand, these chemicals may build up to harmful levels. Bird experts often recommend that you use filtered or purified water for your birds instead of tap water.
Parrots like soft food, and that can cause more water problems. Unless you’re feeding warm cooked bird food or a similar bird mash that’s wet when served, the parrot will likely dunk pieces of its meal in the water dish.
Add the dander, bits of bedding and other contaminants that are plentiful in the average bird cage, and you have water that gets really disgusting and even deadly very quickly. Most likely, your parrot will need fresh water a few times a day.
Bacterial contamination in your parrot’s water is not only potentially harmful to the bird, but it can make the water taste and/or smell bad so that the bird doesn’t want to touch it. You’re changing the water out regularly so that it doesn’t get cloudy and gunky, but what about the dish itself? A quick rinse won’t kill all the bacteria.
If you don’t have time to change your bird's water every time it gets gunky, get a Bird Water Bottle. Remember, if using distilled water or filtered water, it doesn’t have chlorine in it, so it won’t get rid of bacteria on contact. Most microorganisms in any body of water, however small, concentrate on hard surfaces such as the sides of the dish. Wash dishes well every day.
Whenever possible, wash out the dish with hot water and mild soap, and then allow it to dry thoroughly before returning it to the cage. Most types of waterborne bacteria that survive normal washing will die quickly once the surface dries completely. This is one of the reasons why it’s a good idea to have at least two water dishes or glass bottles on hand for your bird; you can provide an immediate dish of clean water with one, then wash the other in preparation of the next water change.
While properly feeding your bird a raw, plant-based diet can be a little time consuming, it's a great way to improve your bird's overall health and it's quality of life. These gorgeous animals are intelligent and alert, and are always looking for new experiences.
Once a parrot knows you, it will readily interact with you, enjoying many forms of attention and even participating in games. Healthy bird’s have the brightest possible colors and attend to most of their own grooming needs. In comparison to dealing with health problems, the cost of top-quality foods Harrison's bird food, Roudybush bird food, or TOPS pellets combined with a range of plant-based foods is inconsequential. To a parrot enthusiast, a healthy bird is truly priceless.
Diane Burroughs, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist trained in ABA therapy techniques. She specializes in avian anxiety disorders and is certified in Nutrition For Mental Health. Diane has written a number of bird behavior books and she offers behavior consultations. She's developed a range of UnRuffledRx Science-backed Parrot Wellness Supplies.
Diane's products have been featured in the Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery and at Exoticscon, a conference for exotic pet veterinarians. Her bird collars & supplements are stocked in avian vet clinics and bird stores throughout the US. With over 30 years in the field of behavior, Diane has created thousands of successful individualized behavior plans that help pets thrive.
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