By Margaret A. Wissman, DVM, DABVP — Avian Practice
By Cioli/Bowtie Studio/Courtesy Nick Morris
Budgerigars, also known as budgies and American parakeets, are prone to obesity. Monitor your pet bird's weight with a gram scale.
. Say that word, and many pet bird owners’ eyes glaze over and then begin to roll back in their heads. And I can understand why. There is so much advice and information about pet bird nutrition that, at best, it is confusing or guilt-inducing (if your bird isn’t consuming what is recommended). At worst, it is overwhelming and downright incorrect, depending on the source.
I don’t believe that there is just one perfect diet that meets all the needs of every bird of every species. There are many wonderful pelleted diets available that provide most pet and breeder birds with an excellent plane of nutrition. However, a bird must actually consume the pellets in order to benefit from the nutrients in them. Also, the pelleted diet must also be stored properly and consumed before the expiration date in order for it to provide the optimal amounts and balance of nutrients.
Discuss your pet bird’s diet in detail with your avian veterinarian so that you can come up with a nutritional plan that works best for your bird’s health, taking into account what your bird will and will not consume, and also what you are willing and able to provide for your bird. (Vegetarians, for example, might not wish to offer certain food items.)
Nutritional problems, including obesity and malnutrition, are some of the most common medical conditions found in our pet birds. So it is a good idea to become acquainted with these problems, just in case your own birds ever suffer from one of these conditions.
A Hefty Problem
Obesity is the most common health problem among the pet bird population. It is found most often in Amazon parrots, budgerigars, rose-breasted cockatoos, cockatiels, quaker parrots, as well as individuals of many other species. Any pet bird can become overweight, however.
What exactly is obesity? It is defined as an abnormal increase of fat in the body’s tissues, usually a weight of 15 percent or more over the optimum. There are many tables available to give average weights of most avian species. However, I recommend that you purchase a good-quality scale that weighs a bird in grams (not ounces), and get into the habit of weighing your bird weekly, first thing in the morning. Changes, up or down, can be significant and should be brought to the attention of your avian vet.
How does obesity occur? Fat is stored in the body when energy intake exceeds energy expenditure for a prolonged period of time. So, if your pet bird is consuming more calories than it expends on a daily basis, chances are that it will gain weight. The number of calories a bird needs changes over time and varies based on the bird’s activity level and reproductive status.
The nutritional needs of a bird also changes when it is molting and replacing worn out feathers with new ones. Feathers contain quite a bit of protein, so a bird must ingest and utilize certain proteins or amino acids (the building-blocks for proteins) in order to replace them properly. Malnutrition can cause the plumage to appear abnormal or to grown in incompletely.
Causes of Obesity
There are predisposing factors that contribute to obesity in pet birds, including genetic predisposition, age, reproductive status, inappropriate nutrition, inadequate exercise, environmental temperature and the psychological state of the bird. For example, birds that have trimmed wing feathers and cannot fly tend to be more sedentary in terms of their activity levels. Pets that spend all or most of their time cage-bound also tend to be heavier, due to decreased activity levels.
Certain diseases, such as hypothyroidism (poorly understood and diagnosed in birds), can also predispose a bird to weight gain. In some cases, birds might consume too many calories due to boredom and the fact that a huge bowl of seeds or nuts is sitting right in front of them all day!
Health Ramifications & Solutions
Overweight birds are prone to a myriad of conditions that adversely impact their health. Arthritis is often exacerbated if a bird is obese, as it puts extra stress on already diseased joints. The liver stores excess fat, and, over time, this can cause the liver to not function optimally. Many overweight birds also suffer from malnutrition, most often hypovitaminosis A (vitamin-A deficiency) or hypocalcemia (low blood calcium), because seed-only diets are deficient in vitamin A and calcium.
If your bird has been diagnosed as overweight, work with your avian veterinarian to come up with a diet plan and exercise protocol that works for both you and your bird. Before embarking on any dietary changes, your avian vet should perform a thorough physical examination and some baseline blood tests (including a complete blood count, CBC for short, and plasma chemistry panel, as well as a bile acids test, which is the best way to assess liver function without performing invasive procedures, such as a liver biopsy).
There are many ways to encourage a pet bird to consume a lower-calorie diet. High-potency pellets can be strictly limited to a specific amount and only offered for 20 minutes twice a day. For seed junkies, pellets can be left in a bowl all day, and a limited amount of seed can be offered for 20 minutes twice a day, which encourages a bird to eat the pellets instead of the seed.
Sprouted seed offers excellent nutrition. In the process of sprouting, the fat in the seed is used up to make the seedling grow, thus making these sprouts healthier for a bird to consume. Another benefit to offering sprouted seed is that the texture of the seed becomes softer, more plant-like, which might encourage a bird to begin tasting vegetables. Care must be taken to sprout and store the seeds in a manner that inhibits the growth of bacterial or fungal organisms, which can prove very dangerous to a bird if ingested.
Offering more vegetables is a good idea for a bird that needs to lose weight. Because they are composed of water, fiber, minerals and other healthy nutrients, vegetables are more filling, yet provide fewer calories than other nutrient-dense foods. Veggies help a bird feel satiated and full. Slightly steamed veggies also retain most of the nutrients present in fresh veggies. Do not use butter or other seasonings on the vegetables, or you might negate the benefits of the vegetables nutrients.
Fruit can be offered in small quantities. Fruits are composed of mostly fiber, sugars and water (and also some vitamins and minerals), but they are not as healthy or nutrient-dense as vegetables. Because they are sweet, birds tend to pick those out first for consumption. Offer no more than five to 10 percent of fruit as part of fresh foods.
Hiding foods encourages a pet bird to forage for food items, which is a good way to provide mental and physical stimulation. Insert nuts in the shell (hard nuts, such as walnuts, hazel nuts and almonds) into drilled-out holes in wood for your bird to figure out how to extract them for consumption. Hide food in shredded paper, palm fronds or other nontoxic material to encourage your bird to forage around for tasty morsels. Anything that you can think of to stimulate a bird to be more active is helpful when you are attempting weight loss in your pet.
Never give a bird onions or garlic, as these items contain aromatic sulfur compounds that can cause red blood cells to rupture. While this is a bigger problem in mammals, which do not have a nucleated red blood cell found in birds and reptiles, it is best to avoid these items anyway. Other off-limits food items include chocolate and foods containing chocolate, caffeine or avocado. Fattening foods and those with butter or oils should be avoided as well, due to their calorie-dense nature.
In addition to limiting calories, it is important to increase activity to burn more calories. It might not be enough to just plunk your obese, sedentary bird on a playgym and expect it to play. Interact with your bird, and make play-time fun-time.
It might be necessary to motivate your bird in creative ways to encourage it to exercise more. Put your bird on your arm and then rapidly drop your arm to cause your bird to flap its wings. This can be repeated for a specific number of repetitions, and increase the number as your bird tolerates more exercise. If your bird pants or holds its wings away from its body, or has any unusual reaction to the exercise, stop immediately and allow it time to recuperate.
Some birds can be allowed to grow out the primary wing feathers, and then have supervised flight time. This is a wonderful way for our pet birds to get into shape. However, one must be extremely diligent in maintaining a pet bird’s safety during flights, as injury or escape are real dangers.
Another exercise method can be performed with the use of a sturdy bird ladder and playgym. When you walk by the playgym, pick up your bird, place it gently on the floor, and encourage it to climb up the ladder and back onto the gym. If your bird climbs up the ladder often enough each day, it provides a good deal of exercise, especially when combined with wing-flapping as you return your bird to the floor.
During the time you are working to have your bird lose weight and exercise more, it is important to weigh your bird weekly, first thing in the morning. Keep track of what foods are being consumed, in what quantities and your bird’s weight. Weight loss should occur slowly. A 2.5-percent weight loss per week is generally considered safe for most birds.
Nutritional problems are commonly found in pet birds that refuse to consume a pelleted diet, but this group of problems can occur in any bird that over-consumes nutrients or continues to consume an unbalanced diet. But, with the help of your avian veterinarian, you can come up with a diet that provides your bird with balanced nutrients in a quantity that either maintains its weight or allows gradual weight loss when combined with an exercise program. The goal is to have a healthy bird that can live a long and happy life.