Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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What You Eat Is For the Birds Too!

Pet Column for the week of November 12, 2001

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

Dr. Julia Whittington recently joined the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital. In addition to seeing exotic patients, cats, and dogs through the community practice service of the Small Animal Clinic, she will also serve as medical director of the Wildlife Medical Clinic. Since her graduation from the University of Illinois in 1997, Dr. Whittington has worked in private practice in the local community, seeing traditional companion animals and exotics as well as assisting at the Wildlife Medical Clinic as a volunteer.

Dr. Whittington says, "I am really excited because my new position will not only offer a valuable service to our local community but also allow me to help develop procedures and protocols for addressing avian and exotic medical needs."

Dr. Whittington hopes to bring new awareness to exotics owners about the special needs of their pets. One avian medical issue that is often neglected is nutrition. Many bird owners think that seeds should be the main source of food for pet birds, but, as Dr. Whittington says, "For birds, seeds are akin to Snickers bars in the human world."

While birds in the wild do seek out seeds because they are tasty and high in fat and calories, seeds do not provide a complete source of nutrition. Birds in the wild may prefer seeds, but through the process of foraging they also get nutrients from soil, insects, and plant material. Because captive birds cannot forage, it is essential that bird owners make sure complete nutritional needs are met.

"If a bird owner is feeding seeds only, then several essential areas of nutrition are being ignored," says Dr. Whittington.

Ideally, pet birds should be fed a pelleted diet supplemented with a variety of other foods. Most of the commercially available pelleted diets are similar and nutritionally complete. Foods that can be used to supplement the pelleted diet include cooked pasta and rice; dark leafy vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach, or kale; and foods high in protein, such as beans and peas. It is also okay to just let your bird have some of whatever you are eating. This not only helps provide complete nutrition, but also makes the bird feel closer to his flock (you!). Even foods such as fruit and meat are okay as long as they are given less frequently as a treat.

Birds have a poor sense of smell, so they recognize food primarily by sight. They also tend to prefer foods that are familiar to them. Dr. Whittington says, "Some people come in and say, 'I fed my bird seeds and pellets and he just picked out the seeds and wouldn't eat the pellets.' Well, of course! If you give your bird an option, he will eat, first, what tastes good and, second, what he is familiar with!"

Birds that have been on a seed-only diet for an extended period may be reluctant to change over to the pelleted diet. During the transition period, it is important to mix the seeds and the pellets together and gradually decrease the amount of seed in the mixture over 2 to 3 weeks. During this transition period it is essential to monitor the bird to make sure that it is actually eating the pellets and not losing weight. To make sure that the bird is eating, it can also be helpful to check the bird's droppings for fecal material. In birds the urine and the feces are combined; the fecal portion is green and portion from the urinary system is white. Droppings that are white only can indicate that the bird is not eating.

A high-quality pelleted diet that is combined with a variety of other foods is a complete and nutritious diet that needs no supplementation. Supplementation can even lead to vitamin toxicity in some cases. Some people allow their birds to chew on a cuttlebone for extra calcium or supply their bird with a special kind of grit that is supposed to assist in food digestion, but neither of these things is necessary. Dr. Whittington says, "In fact, sometimes we even see blockages of the digestive tract when birds gorge themselves on grit."

A bird that has been on an all-seed diet for an extended period is at risk for obesity, which can lead to stress on the heart and respiratory system. A lack of vitamin A in the diet can lead to a flaky beak, beak overgrowth, thick, scaly skin on the feet, a deficient immune system, and bleeding disorders.

By far the easiest way to make sure that your pet bird gets proper nutrition is to introduce a proper diet initially. Dr. Whittington says, "To stimulate interest in a proper diet, eat in front of your bird and encourage him to have what you are eating. Eat breakfast or dinner with your bird. This not only encourages a well-rounded diet, but it also encourages a healthy relationship with your feathered friend."

If you have any questions about avian nutrition, please contact your local avian veterinarian.