By Margaret A. Wissman, DVM, DABVP, Avian Practice
Supplements help provide extra minerals and vitamins to birds.
Q: My cockatiel, Chloe, has three types of mineral blocks in her cage. There is a peanut lava block, a vegetable mineral block and a calcium block. Sometimes I also put cuttlebone in her cage. How often do these need to be replaced? I also try to give her toys that have parts she can chew. I rotate her toys, but I’m not sure how long to keep the mineral blocks.
A: Well, you certainly have enough choices of calcium supplements in Chloe’s cage! Because calcium in the form of calcium carbonate is quite stable — unless it becomes stained, wet or contaminated in some way — it is good for a very long time. Let’s take a closer look at these items and their place in a healthy bird’s arsenal of nutritional supplements.
Lava rocks are porous, volcanic stone and provide a bird with a substance to chew. If a bird swallows bits of lava rock, it will provide it with some trace minerals — if they dissolve in the gastrointestinal tract — such as iron, magnesium, potassium and sodium. Most lava rocks are composed of more than 50-percent silica (which is sand-like in composition, composed of silicon and oxygen, plus other trace minerals, depending on where it was formed). Lava rocks are usually provided to birds to maintain claw health, and to wear down their beaks by chewing.
Mineral blocks and calcium blocks, which are mineral blocks enriched with additional calcium,are made from a mixture of calcium and other minerals developed specially for birds, and can be shaped into little blocks for them. Some mineral blocks are enriched with additional healthful ingredients, flavors and interesting colors to entice birds. Some mineral blocks are made of ingredients found at the clay licks along the Manu River in Peru.
When performing housecalls, we will sometimes see a cuttlebone placed incorrectly in the bird’s cage. Place cuttlebone so that soft side is accessible to the bird; if the hard shell side is facing outward, the bird will not be able to scrape off the substrate to ingest it. If your bird has a cuttlebone in the cage and looks the same as the day you installed it, then you may have it placed backwards. Some cuttlebones now are made with an outside layer of mineral block surrounding the central cuttlebone, often with colors and flavors added, so the bird can sample both.
If mineral blocks or cuttlebone become soiled with droppings, simply use a wire brush to remove the stained top layer. Because both cuttlebones and mineral blocks are porous, liquids can penetrate more deeply; if there is any concern, it is best to throw them out and purchase new ones (they are fairly inexpensive). For example, if you think that the block has become contaminated with bleach or other disinfectants, discard it and replace it with a new one. So, while cuttlebones and mineral blocks don’t spoil or go bad, per se, they can become dirty or contaminated.
Some birds would rather hold the supplement in their feet, and, for those birds, I recommend offering a piece of a common fruit-flavored, over-the-counter human antacid tablet, composed of calcium carbonate. Recently, there has been concern that some calcium supplements for humans contain trace amounts of lead, which can be dangerous to birds. If you are concerned about your bird’s calcium levels, discuss all of these suggestions with your avian veterinarian before adding supplements.
For correct uptake of calcium, your bird must have a properly working uropygial gland (for species that possess one). The secretion from the uropygial gland contains vitamin-D3 precursors, which are spread on the feathers when the bird preens. Once the bird’s feathers are exposed to ultraviolet light (UVB in particular), the precursors are converted to active vitamin D3. Then, when the bird preens again, it ingests the active form of the vitamin, necessary for the uptake and utilization of calcium. So, if a bird’s uropygial gland isn’t functioning properly, most commonly due to vitamin-A deficiency, or if doesn’t receive natural sunlight (unfiltered through glass or plastic), it may not be able to utilize its calcium, resulting in myriad problems, from seizures to soft-shelled eggs.
While many formulated diets have added vitamin D3, birds with calcium-related problems should be provided with full-spectrum lighting. If there is a possibility of vitamin-A deficiency, your vet may prescribe a beta-carotene supplement, which will be converted to vitamin A as needed, and the rest will be excreted unchanged. Beta-carotene is nontoxic, and, therefore, much safer as a supplement than vitamin A, which can be toxic if overdosed.
You are being a responsible bird steward by providing several sources of calcium for Chloe. It is unlikely that a bird would ingest enough calcium to be dangerous. Calcium deficiencies are much more likely in birds that live indoors and are never allowed to receive natural sunlight.