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Bird Care Facts
Whether you own a large parrot or a small finch it is important to provide your pet a safe and adequate cage, a healthy diet, toys for enrichment and regular check-ups.
The following important information will help keep your bird happy and healthy. Remember if you are ever in doubt about your bird's health or condition you should consult with our office.
Gram stains signal changes in the bacterial flora of the choanal slit in the roof of the mouth and in the feces. These changes guide us as avian veterinarians to determine if your feathered friend needs treatment and what the treatment should be.
The reason behind the use of gram stains is based on the nature of your companion bird. These birds are basically preyed upon by hawks and other predators in the wild. So it is very important that they appear “normal” to those around them including their friends in the flock and to predators. If they don’t act normal, they could get pushed out of the flock where they would be more vulnerable or they could be picked off directly by predators. This means that most companion birds when starting to get ill, tend to hide their symptoms. That requires that you, as their owner and helper, need to be very watchful for subtle signs of illness. These early warning signs are extremely important because getting your bird to us as soon as possible often helps enhance a quick return to health. Waiting until the bird is on the bottom of the cage is often to late and costly.
So what are these early warning signs?
Any changes in their appearance and posture along with changes in the quality and color of their feathers. The nares or nostrils may have material in them or wetness on the feathers surrounding them. There may be swellings of the head, or changes in breathing including abnormal sounds or the bird stops vocalizing. Any changes to the color or volume of the droppings, increased amounts of urine or changes in the amounts of food consumed or water drunk should be investigated. Behavior changes are also cause of concern.
When Should My Bird Have Gram Stains?
This early warning system of gram staining the choanal slit and the feces helps us determine if there are changes in the normal flora of the respiratory and GI tracts. These results help guide us in the overall diagnosis of your bird’s health and wellness. It is important to have gram stain’s performed at least once a year but it is best for them to be done in the fall before the bad weather hits and again in the early spring.
Once your bird has completed or is near the end of its medications, we must recheck the gram stains to make sure the infection is gone and that the flora has returned to normal. We have had increasing problems with resolution of the infection so have had to keep birds on the drugs for longer periods or have had to switch medications. If you think that you bird is not improving while on the medication selected, it is important to give us a call right away. If you think your bird is experiencing a problem with the drug or it is not taking the medications, we also need to know. We all want to make your bird health and happy and want to work as a team to help make that happen.
ENRICHMENT: IDEAS TO ENHANCE FORAGING BEHAVIOR
Enrichment involves providing an environment that allows your bird to express its natural behaviors in a captive or caged condition. Natural behaviors generally include social interaction, foraging, and feather care. Foraging often includes flying from place to place for the gathering of food. For example, some species of wild Amazons spend up to 8 hours/day involved in foraging, while in captivity, they may spend approximately 30–72 minutes per day eating a pelleted diet without traveling, manipulating food items, and not attempting to balance their own diet(s).
Studies indicate that linking a food item with an object or toy that allows for the expression of their natural behaviors are more successful. That means that the frequency of use of toys not linked to a food item often diminishes over time so the bird just loses interest. That means it is important to provide daily enrichment opportunities that involve chewing and manipulating a food item. It is important to get your bird(s) used to these new enrichment techniques before leaving them for the day.
To satisfy their natural foraging behavioral repertoire, birds in home environments need to learn to forage in their cages to acquire their food. One technique to start the bird off is to offer them Nutri-Berries and Avi-Cakes by Labeber Company in a feeding dish with large, smooth stones or crumpled paper while keeping pellets in a separate and accessible feed dish (if they eat pellets). Other foods that are their favorites can be used as well.
For larger species, there are a number of puzzle enrichment toys that you may try. These involve putting treasured foods into the device. Other ideas are suggested below.
Companion birds are often weaned onto an all-seed diet. These seed mixes lack the normal complement of nutrients including vitamins A, D3, E and K, certain amino acids (the building blocks of protein), calcium, and some of the other minerals. Recent studies show that the balance of omega 6 and 3 fatty acids are also important for health of the immune and cardiovascular systems. Seed diets, fed over time, often results in a vitamin A deficiency, poor feather quality and a reduction in the competency of the immune system, making the bird more susceptible to infections.
Getting your bird to eat balanced foods daily helps them to stay healthy and improves the sheen on their feathers. A healthy bird is a happier bird! Balanced bird foods include pellets (not those included in seed mixes), Nutri-Berries, Avi-Cakes, and Nutri-Meals. Adding some fresh vegetables and/or greens each day is healthful. A smorgasbord may stimulate pair-bonding behavior (including screaming and territorial biting). Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and pomegranates add flavinoids to the diet but should be limited due to these reproductive issues. Keep away from large numbers of choices each day as your bird may interpret this as the time to think about raising a family. Warmed soft foods may also stimulate this behavior in adult birds and should be avoided.
Small Birds such as Budgerigars, Cockatiels, Lovebirds and Conures
Cockatiels and budgerigars are ground feeding seed eaters in their native habitat. They are able to balance their diet because of the large numbers of seeds that they eat (over 60 types). The number and the types of the seeds offered in our homes, however, are significantly less and are not similar so they need a balanced diet to maintain health. To stimulate their interest, try sprinkling a few small pellets on the table along with some crumbled Nutri-Berries. Both pellets and Nutri-Berries are balanced foods. To get them interested, act enthusiastic as you start pecking at the scattered foods on the table using your forefinger and your thumb to pick them up. That excitement translates into curiosity for these new foods and helps them to accept them.
Once they start pecking and eating Nutri-Berries and/ or pellets, mix these new food items into the food bowl with their seed dish. Crumbled Nutri-Berries may also be used as they look like the seeds that you are substituting. Slowly add increasing amounts of the balanced diet, so that over time, the seed is replaced with these new balanced foods. You may also be able to wedge an Avi-Cake, another balanced food, into the bars of the cage or tie it with some ribbon. Many of the birds like the texture of the Avi-Cakes and they can be used for enrichment as well.
Large Birds such as African Greys, Amazon Parrots, Cockatoos and Macaws
Getting these birds to accept new foods presents a different type of challenge. In general, they are not ground feeders so the technique described under small birds often does not work. But, the curiosity factor is very important as well as the visual impact of you seeming to eat this new and great food. Birds are highly visual and like drama, so the two combined stimulate their interest in trying this new “thing.” Pick up the food with great drama and show interest in relishing these morsels. Offer the food for several seconds and if the bird does not show any interest, you need to be very dramatic about coveting this special food. Then present the food again. This may take several sessions at home to get the bird to try these new balanced foods.
Eating with your bird and giving some of these foods while eating helps them to understand that these are foods to eat. Providing vegetables, cooked or hard scrambled eggs, cooked meat and fish and some of the true berries, mango and orange, and nuts, particularly walnuts, are great additions. Store-bought peanuts should be avoided. Try to keep the table foods to no more that 25-35% of the diet, with the balanced foods making up the remainder of your bird’s daily food consumption.
HEALTH CONCERNS FOR BIRDS
Since we love our feathered friends, we need to know when they are sick so that they can get medical care when necessary. By the time that they are obviously ill, sitting on the bottom of the cage, it may be difficult to treat them successfully. It is difficult to recognize signs of illness in companion birds because they often hide them. In the wild, obviously sick birds could be driven from the flock or be selected for attack by a predator. So, sick birds tend to disguise their illness until they are no longer able to do so. Despite the difficulty, early detection of subtle signs enhances treatment success.
Signs of Illness
Any of these signs and those listed below should be addressed with your avian veterinarian.
Serious Signs of Illness
Other serious signs include:
Psittacosis, also known as chlamydiosis or parrot fever, is a bird disease caused by the organism Chlamydophila psittaci. Bird owners need to be informed about this disease because it has the potential to be transmitted from a sick bird to humans and make them sick (zoonotic disease). Some of the signs in humans include persistent flu-like symptoms, respiratory distress, fever, chills, headache, weakness or fatigue. Untreated, it can lead to death. Persons with questions should consult their physician.
Transmission is primarily through inhalation of contaminated dust from feathers or from droppings. Risk of infection is increased by close contact with infected birds that are shedding the organism. This disease is more common in birds stressed from transport, overcrowding and malnutrition. Infected birds do not have to show signs of the illness to transmit psittacosis.
The signs of psittacosis are typically respiratory (upper respiratory or lower respiratory symptom, such as difficulty breathing) and/or gastrointestinal (such as diarrhea) in companion birds. Parakeets and cockatiels may often have signs of a respiratory tract infection or gastrointestinal problem, but not both. However, the larger birds often have both respiratory and gastrointestinal signs. Some birds may show general signs of illness: lack of appetite, weight loss, diarrhea, lime-green feces, depression or sudden death. However, these same signs may also present with a number of other diseases. Some birds that are actively infected may not show signs of illness.
A confirmed diagnosis in a live bird is sometimes difficult, depending on the species, length of exposure, and general condition of the bird. There are multiple tests available to detect the disease and multiple factors are involved in making a diagnosis. Several tests may be needed to help determine a diagnosis and these should be discussed with your avian veterinarian.
If the disease has been confirmed in a bird or if treatment is recommended, all birds in the household should be treated. Isolation and sanitary measures during treatment are most important in achieving success. Treatment is continued for a minimum of 45 days with doxycycline, an antibiotic. Since the organism is intracellular, it takes that long to kill it. However, treatment may not always be effective.
Since this disease can be transmitted to people, precautions must be taken while treating the bird(s) to not infect those providing care. Birds and people do not appear to develop an immunity to the organism so they can become infected again and have symptoms of the disease. Currently, there is no vaccine to protect birds from this disease. As a result, it is important not to touch birds at pet stores or buy bird food from bulk bins. Limit exposure of your bird to other birds to reduce the risk of infection.
There are other diseases that birds can give to humans or they can get from humans. Psittacosis is the most common disease, however. Other diseases should be discussed with your avian veterinarian. People who are most at risk to contract a zoonotic disease are the elderly, young children and those with a compromised immune system.
FORMULATED DIETS IN AVIAN NUTRITION
Susan E. Orosz, PhD, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian), Dipl ECAMS
Providing a bird with good nutrition often has different meanings for clinicians as well as with clients. While the goal is to provide a diet that mimics the diet of that particular species in the wild, in captivity those strategies for feeding parrots are very different. For some of our clients, ignorance or culture may limit the bird’s food to table scraps or seed, while others feed a smorgasbord of food items that they prepare. Both are considered to be unbalanced.
The general consensus of avian veterinarians is to provide a “balanced” diet, with recognition that nutritional requirements may vary between species of birds and for different life stages. There are few nutritional studies on the maintenance requirements for many of the individual species in the psittacine family, with many occupying a different ecological niche. Additionally, the role of a bird’s life stage on nutritional requirements is not well understood either. Nutritional requirements will vary from a neonate, to a fledgling, to a mature adult, and finally to an aging bird.
One approach to provide a balanced diet is to offer formulated foods. There are several forms of formulated diets that may be considered “balanced.”
There are also some seed-based foods where a vitamin/mineral mix is coated on the outside of the seed that is often not hulled. .
From a nutritional point of view, a bird eating any of the above diets, if they ingested the entire amount, would receive the needed nutrients. However, the dehulling of the seed by the avian patient results in the removal of the vitamins and minerals that are needed for balance and more importantly for health. From a label perspective, a diet cannot claim that it is complete as there is no defined diet that is agreed upon as complete. The balance of a particular bird food is based on the manufacturer’s recommendation. Most of these balanced diets represent variations of a complete diet for galliforms or from a diet prepared according to the recommendations of the Association of Avian Veterinarians Nutrition Panel of Experts in 1996.
Pellets: True pellets are made by grinding a variety of grains based on the manufacturer’s recommendations, then adding vitamins, minerals and other components to make a final balanced product. The end product is nearly homogenous because of the small particle size afforded by the grinding process. The homogenous product makes it difficult or impossible for a bird to pick out and eat favorite parts and leave other parts behind. The homogenous food thus helps to ensure that the bird consumes a balanced diet.
To keep particle size at the appropriate size, the ground mix is also commonly put through a hammer mill. Liquids may be added, then the mix is pelleted by heating it to 70-80oC and moving it through holes using a roller. When the mix emerges as cylindrical particles of a constant diameter, a turning knife cuts the pellets as preset lengths. This is a noncooked product where the components will have a longer fiber chain length but may not be as palatable as the extruded diet.
Extruded Diets: Most of the “pellets” that are available today are really extruded diets. These diets are also made by mixing ground grains with the vitamin, mineral and other components that will balance the final formula, but the “pellets” of an extruded diet are produced using higher temperatures and pressures. The ground mixture of grains, vitamins, and minerals is forced under pressure and temperature (between 90-180oC) through an extruder, which may involve a steam process using an injection technique. There may be a “dwell” time of anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes. Moisture added as steam ranges between 0 and 20%. The food will take on the shape of the holes in the extruder plates. While water is largely maintained as a liquid in the pressurized extruder, the water is instantaneously evaporated when the mix leaves the extruder. Intracellular water is instantly evaporated, rupturing the plant cells. The food produced is partially hydrolyzed but the cooking can kill infectious agents if present.
Whole grains and/or seeds with pelleted material added to balance the entire product: Nutri-Berries and Avi-Cakes utilize whole grains and seeds that are mixed with additional components to balance the product before it is stuck together. It is similar to a pellet nutritionally except that it is not ground.
Seed-based foods with added pellet: Other seed products put a pellet into the mixture to balance the entire product. This would require that the bird eat those pellets along with the seed to receive a balanced meal. Most often, birds do not eat the pellet in this type of product. Another variation is to coat the seed mix with vitamins and minerals to balance it. The coatings are often colored and are applied to the seed hull; however, the vitamin and mineral intake from the coatings is removed when the bird dehulls the seeds.
Understanding Formulated Diets
It is important for veterinarian to understand the processes and the issues involved in avian nutrition to advise their clients appropriately to meet the individual needs of their patients. Each bird may have certain factors as well as medical conditions that need to be taken into account when advising owners on how to feed their birds. Avian veterinarians should be aware that most birds are fed seed with or without some table foods. It will take much discussion and owner understanding to get them to work on feeding diets that are more balanced. The goal of a balanced diet for the avian patient is to enhance their health and wellness. An additional goal is to use food as part of the bird’s enrichment. Enrichment enables each bird an expression of its natural behaviors for achieving a healthier lifestyle. It is hoped that the information provided will help in discussing these issues with your avian clients.
Disclaimer: Dr. Orosz consults with the Lafeber Company.
© 2007 by Susan E. Orosz