THE IMPORTANCE OF A BALANCED DIET

Three quarters of the physical health problems that are presented for treatment at my surgery are related to poor nutrition and dietary imbalance. Pet birds are no different from their human owners e.g. “they are what they eat”. However, “getting the diet right”, is not a simple matter.

Birds come from many different parts of the world and many different environments. Their dietary requirements have developed as a result of utilising available wild foods. For example, parrots that originate from dry inland areas of Australia, (galahs, corellas, cockatiels, and budgerigars) need a diet that is low in fat. Whereas, birds from rainforest environments, (Ecclectus, Macaws, Amazons etc) require a higher fat content in their diet. When feeding pet birds it is important to consider their geographic origins and where possible attempt to create a balanced diet that fulfils their nutritional needs. Many pet bird owners fail to understand this concept.

Many owners of pet birds make the mistake of thinking that they can treat their parrot like their dog. However, unlike pet dogs that have evolved as human companions over thousands of years, birds are not ‘domesticated’. Dogs have adapted to eat the table scraps of their human masters. The dietary needs of the birds are more specialised. Yet these specialised needs are often ignored as a result of ignorance and apathy. Many well-meaning owners condemn their pet birds to a short and unhealthy life by restricting them to a seed and water only diet. Chronic malnutrition is one of the insidious problems that shorten the lives of many pet birds. For example, the life-span of cockatiels in the wild is 20-25 years. However, in captivity they are lucky to reach 10-12 years of age, with the majority dying around 4-6 years of age. Seed only diets cause obesity and malnutrition as they are high in fat and lacking in essential vitamins and minerals.

Birds on a seed and water diet are often presented with obesity related problems. Obesity puts stress on bones, joints and internal organ systems. Health problems associated with obesity include: liver problems, circulatory and respiratory problems, clotting disorders, diabetes and pancreatic disorders, fatty tumours, bumble foot. Fatty liver disease is one of the most commonly presented problems at my surgery. Birds suffering from this condition often have sparse feathering which has a ‘greasy’, dark pigmented appearance (e.g. the bright ‘black and yellow’ cockatiel, or the ‘deep pink and charcoal grey’ galah). Their immune system is weakened and they are susceptible to many secondary infections.

Dietary imbalance also results in problems associated with malnutrition. Lack of critical nutrients in a bird’s diet can make them seem old before their time. Vitamins A, D and calcium are the most common nutrients missing in poor diets. Vitamin A plays an important role in maintaining the integrity of the skin and mucous membranes. It also plays a part in the function of the immune system, contributes to normal reproduction and the growth of bones and has a role in the maintenance of healthy cells. Vitamin D helps to absorb calcium from the gut and regulates blood calcium levels in the body. Calcium nutritional deficiencies can result in the bones becoming weak and brittle.

Obesity, malnutrition and their associated health problems can be corrected by a well-balanced diet. The basis of a healthy diet consists of commercial pellets or low fat seed mixes and vitamin supplements. These should be combined with fresh fruit and vegetables and a variety of ‘wild foods’. Wild foods include fresh seeding grasses, chick weed, dock weed, milk thistle, blossoms and nuts and seed pods from native trees. The dietary specifics will vary in accordance to the type of bird being fed.

However, obesity can still be a problem even though birds are provided with a healthy, balanced diet. Any animal will become fat if they eat too much food. A single pet cage bird without exercise or stimulation will over-eat. Parrots need to chew in order to maintain their beak in good condition. Beaks grow like our fingernails and chewing helps to keep them in shape. If there is nothing in the cage for the bird to chew on, it will chew on its food. Therefore it is essential that pet parrots are provided with natural, healthy alternatives on which to chew. Fresh, green , leafy branches from Australian native trees, gum nuts, seed pods, pine cones, etc, should be provided on a daily basis. Not only will the fresh ‘browse’ help keep beaks in good condition, it will also be a source of ‘occupational therapy’ for the pet parrot. Chewing green leafy branches also provides some of the additional vitamins and minerals required to keep birds healthy.

It is important to remember parrots are flock animals and in the wild, young birds learn what is good to eat by following the flock. In captivity, hand-raised birds identify with humans as their “flock”. This is why your birds will want to eat what you are eating, whether it is healthy or not. It is your responsibility, as a bird owner, to teach your birds how to eat healthily. Birds should never be fed dairy products, coffee, tea or alcohol. Always be guided by what they would eat in the wild. Remember that the majority of physical health problems in pet birds originate from dietary deficiencies.

© Peter Wilson July 2010

Information supplied by (c) Currumbin Valley Vet Services August 2010

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