Nutrition: Foundation for a Healthy Bird

by Susan Schwab, D.V.M. Animal Hospital of Fairview Park
Fairview Park, Ohio

The most important insurance of a healthy, long life for your bird is feeding it a nutritionally sound diet. Many pet birds die at a young age from malnutrition or from diseases that are secondary to malnutrition. The average life-span of a pet parakeet is 10 years. Wild parakeets have been known to live 25 years. The difference is in their diets.

Birds in the parrot family are foragers in the wild. They will eat whatever happens to be in season or is available. Their diet includes fruits, seeds, insects and whatever else they can find. Feeding pet birds an all-seed diet is neither natural nor nutritious.

The tradition of feeding seed-only diets to pet birds began years ago when wild birds were first caught and imported to our country. This was largely because of a profound lack of information and knowledge at that time about the nutritional requirements of birds and the content of seeds. Birds are particularly sensitive to nutritional deficiencies because they have a high metabolic rate. (An animal's metabolic rate indicates how many calories it burns to maintain itself.) Birds are calorie furnaces, and on an inadequate diet they will quickly develop malnutrition and a compromised health status.

Seeds are very high in fat (especially sunflower, safflower and peanuts), low in calcium, low in protein and almost devoid of any vitamins. The alternative to seed diets is offering a balanced diet of table foods. Foods that are healthy for you are also healthy for your bird. A balanced diet provides some of each of the four major food groups. You can still offer seeds, but they should make up no more than 50 percent of your bird's total diet. you can offer whole grains, such as wheat, along with grain products, such as whole wheat bread, pretzels and pasta.

Dairy and poultry products are excellent sources of calcium and protein; many birds learn to relish yogurt, cheese, eggs and chicken. Meat also provides a good protein source. You may substitute beans and legumes for meat as excellent protein sources. Finally, fruits and vegetables are a must for a balanced diet; they provide many essential vitarnins. Avoid feeding your bird any foods high in fat. Avocados are toxic to pet birds.

Many owners object to changing their birds' diets because they have offered a variety of foods only to have them ignored or refused by their pets. Birds are creatures of habit and are highly suspicious of new foods. Count on taking approximately one year to modify your bird's diet.

The trick to changing eating habits is in how you offer the new diet. you should offer your bird fresh foods twice a day for about one hour at each feeding (fresh food will spoil quickly and if left in the cage for a length of time could develop harmful bacteria).

Birds are equipped with a natural "storage tank" for food -- the crop. Located in the breast area, the crop is an enlargement of the esophagus. The crop enables birds to "tank up" on food and have a steady supply for their digestive system for many hours. Birds in the wild use this storage system daily. They forage for food in the early hours of the morning and again late in the afternoon to avoid the heat of day. Owners can take advantage of the crop by twice-a-day feedings to produce healthier, more active and affectionate pets.

Feeding birds twice a day has many benefits. The primary benefit is that it creates a healthy appetite. A healthy appetite will stimulate your bird to try new, more nutritious foods. Birds that eat twice a day are also more active. Bird and owner will share the benefits of a closer bond because the bird will associate its owner with something positive—mealtime. Feeding twice a day will also help you monitor how much your pet is earing. A drop in food consumption can be a sign of illness.

In some situations, feeding a bird twice daily is not desirable. Sick birds, those laying eggs, nesting or caring for young should always have food in their dishes.

An easy way to implement a change in feeding schedule is to offer your parrot dry foods (seeds, breads, cereals, dog kibble, etc.) in the morning and then to share your dinner with your bird at night.

Successfully providing nutritionally sound diets comes with patience and persistence. It may take many weeks, even months, of offering new foods before your bird will accept them. Some birds like foods warm and some prefer cooked vegetables to raw. you will discover your bird's particular preferences.

Remember to give your bird time to adjust to a new diet. Offer seeds (only at mealtime) along with other foods until you are confident that your bird is consuming enough of the new foods to maintain itself. Birds are more responsive to diet changes when they are fed outside of the cage (on top of the cage is fine). Remove any food not consumed within one hour. you may offer an occasional snack between mealtimes, but make sure the snack is nutritious.

The final ingredient to a healthy diet is fresh water. You can add a multivitamin to the water until your bird is getting enough vitamins from fruits and vegetables. Most vitamin supplements have a dextrose or sugar base. The sugar base encourages bacteria to multiply in the water; therefore, you must change water twice a day. A better alternative is to sprinkle powdered vitamins (several brands are available at your local pet shop) such as SuperPreen on your bird's soft foods.

Scrub out water and food bowls daily with hot, soapy water, and disinfect them in bleach twice a week (make sure to rinse away all the bleach after you disinfect the dishes).

Birds are naturally affectionate, active and intelligent. They make excellent pets. They are extremely hardy and can survive harsh living conditions. Many birds appear active and healthy even after being on an all-seed diet for years. The truth is, though, they are actually suffering from malnutrition. A bird suffering from malnutrition will eventually die from organ failure or from secondary bacterial or viral infections that plague a compromised immune system. "Sudden death" isn't uncommon in birds; however, it's usually the result of a long-term nutritional deficiency or chronic infection.

Your avian veterinarian can assess the health of your bird through annual physical examinations and routine blood testings.

Changing your bird's diet from seeds to a more nutritional one requires patience, persistence and time. Twice-a-day feedings will make this change possible. Your pet will reap the greatest benefit of your efforts: a longer, healthier and happier life.

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