“You are what you eat” has been a catch phrase used for decades, and it alludes to human dietary indiscretion. This expression holds true for our avian friends as well and is especially fitting since malnutrition is very common in our pet birds and contributes to many of the bird illnesses we see at Pet Care Veterinary Hospital.
Some bird owners do not realize they are feeding an unbalanced diet. Also, the clinical signs associated with malnutrition may take years to develop into health problems.
Traditionally, birds have been fed a mixture of seeds and nuts because they are inexpensive, convenient to feed, and most birds enjoy eating seeds. Unfortunately, seed diets are also very unbalanced when it comes to total nutrition. Seeds are high in fat and play a decisive role in the development of avian obesity. Also, most seeds are deficient in a number of essential nutrients, including vitamins (particularly A and B vitamins), protein building blocks (such as lysine, methionine, and tryptophan), and minerals (especially calcium, manganese, sodium, and iodine).
Many bird owners feed a “fortified” seed diet containing added vitamins or nutrition pellets in the mixture. However, many birds only pick out and eat a few of their favorite seeds within this seed mix. Not only is this wasteful, but this type of selective eating leads to malnutrition.
Malnourished birds will show a number of subtle changes in their body condition. The skin becomes flaky, dry, and may even develop areas of inflammation, especially on the bottoms of the feet. Birds molt less frequently and consequently the feathers appear tattered and dull in color. In addition, the normal feather keratin sheath that surrounds new feathers may be retained, resulting in over-preening and with time feather picking behavior may develop. The beak may be flaky, rough, and overgrown, lacking the normal smooth, glossy appearance. The scales on the legs and feet may be dry or rough and the underside of the foot may become excessively smooth with possible progression to calluses and ulcers.
For young birds, start off with a healthy diet from the beginning—before a seed addiction starts. For the mature bird already established on seeds, use persistence and patience in order to convert the bird to a healthier diet. Just like we feed our dog and cat friends a pelleted diet—dry kibble, which contains 100% nutrition—we recommend the same for our avian friends. Some examples of good quality, well-balanced avian pelleted diets that provide 100% nutrition include: Harrison’s, Lafeber, Roudybush, Mazuri, and ZuPreem. The companies behind these brands have gone to great lengths to research the nutritional needs of pet birds and have developed a well-balanced, tasty pellet. In most cases, these pellets can be fed free-choice, meaning they can be left in the food dish and offered at all times. We are currently recommending that 80–90% of needed calories be in pelleted diets. Be patient, as a conversion to pellets may take anywhere from 4–6 weeks. Monitoring your bird’s weight is important so as to ensure that excessive weight loss does not occur.
Many bird owners want to offer their pet birds a food treat as a way of signaling love or as a training tool while working on behavior modification and communication. For these moments, a special treat, such as a few peanuts, seeds, millet (depending on the size of the bird), or other food reward, is just fine. However, this is a treat—a special reward fed in limited quantities. Too many treats will discourage eating of the more nutritious foodstuffs.
Our recommendation is to stick with something natural. Birds need Vitamin A for healthy oral and upper respiratory tissues. Try high Vitamin A content vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, yellow squash, escarole, collards, and parsley, or fruits such as cantaloupe, apricots, and papaya. For more protein, especially important during growth or healing, consider cooked beans (pinto, kidney, navy, etc.), hard-boiled egg whites, or pieces of cooked chicken. For egg-laying females and birds healing from fractured bones, the extra calcium needed can be obtained from ground oyster shell or cuttle bones. Just a reminder: Homemade diets with moist ingredients tend to spoil easily and should not be left in the cage for extended periods.
The tap water of some cities contains a variety of additives and chemicals and is probably less than ideal for your pet bird. Consider distilled or bottled spring water instead. Birds like to use their water bowls to dunk their food or even to take a bath in. As a result, water bowls need to be changed and cleaned daily or, in some cases, several times a day. Some bird owners have trained their pets to drink from sipper bottles, thereby limiting soiling of water.