By Ann Brooks
Attending the annual Association of Avian Veterinarians conference is one of my greatest joys. While much of what is said involves a language beyond my knowledge base, I always learn something new. Here is a summary of my biggest takeaways from this year’s conference.
Thanks to the Grey Parrot Project initiated by Dr. Scott Echols, there is a growing body of evidence that a lack of exercise, sunlight and appropriate diet are highly detrimental to the long-term health of birds in captivity. These may seem like obvious statements, however proving their relationship to disease is easier said than done.
According to Dr. Echols, “a new technique involving radiographs (X-rays) is allowing researchers a means to clearly visualize bone density in birds. Preliminary evidence shows that birds flying outdoors in natural sunlight have better bone density than those housed indoors in small cages. In the attached pictures, cockatiel 1 has better bone density than cockatiel 2. Using the new imaging technique, one can readily see that cockatiel 1 has more red (indicating higher bone density) in the wing and leg bones.”
Since most birds don’t have the opportunity to fly or vigorously move, their bones start to disintegrate. In order to stay strong, bones need to have some stress. It is terrible to think that our birds are suffering in this regard, so we must find a way to get them moving. (For starters, provide more activities outside the cage, increase foraging opportunities, provide a wide variety of perches to encourage movement, and even offer flight when it can be accomplished safely).
The loss of bone structure is especially problematic for female birds in the “lay” mode. Unfortunately, many people touch their birds in sexually stimulating ways, which may encourage these hormonal responses. The healthiest relationship we can have with our companion birds is one that does not involve an excess of “petting” and mate-like behaviors.
Another common problem is nutrition. So many birds live on a diet of packaged seeds. Not only are these high in Omega 6’s (safflower, peanut, sunflower, corn), but most seed brands have very little nutritional value. Our parrots need more Omega 3’s, which can be found in fish oil, flax, pumpkin seeds, hemp, chia and walnuts. If you use flax oil, make sure to buy a very reputable brand, keep it in the refrigerator, and do not shake. And don’t forget to provide a wide variety of dark orange and green fruits and veggies. Here’s an interesting tidbit, if you have chickens, you can dramatically reduce reproductive cancer by including flaxseed as 10% of their diet.
From Drs Dahlhausen and Orosz, we learned that a very large number of birds are Avian Bornavirus positive (ABV), as many as 45% or more in some studies. If your bird is ABV positive, do not panic! Most of these birds remain healthy for their whole lives. Sometimes birds with ABV also develop PDD, but some birds that develop PDD are not positive for ABV. So as you can see, it is a complicated issue that requires more research.
Possible PDD symptoms might include difficulty in digestion or problems with the nervous system (e.g. seizures). They usually experience some kind of of stressor that suppresses the immune system or alters its normal function as well. Some of these potential stressors include: concurrent infection with Campylobacter, extreme stress, avian gastric yeast, old age and/or reproductivity. This is yet another reason why we should not sexually stimulate our birds by excessive petting, especially below the neck. Just remember if your bird does develop PDD, there are ways to help. And if your bird is ABV positive this does not mean it will develop PDD!!
Another major health concern for birds in captivity is atherosclerosis. Countless birds die at a young age from this heart problem. Why? Again — they don’t get enough exercise and they don’t have good diets. If we are going to have birds in our homes, we must learn to do better by them by providing healthy food and lots of mental & physical activities.
Lastly, there was another foraging study from UC Davis. Orange wing Amazons were fed an oversized pellet, similar to the size of the nut they eat in the wild. This pellet was made specifically for the study to see if the larger size caused eating activity time and manipulation to increase. In the wild, most parrots spend up to 60% of their day foraging. This means they have to find the food, pick the food, and then manipulate the food. In captivity, parrots usually spend 4 to 10% of their day eating. So if we can make eating more complicated and physically challenging this will give birds more to do with their time and increase physical activity. The UC Davis researcher, Dr. Polley DVM, calls this “podomandibulation” because the Amazons use both their feet and beaks. This increase in activity helped to reduce stress and improve the welfare of the Amazons.
So, we know without a doubt that our companion parrots need and deserve better diets, more complex enrichment and absolutely more exercise! What have you done for your parrot?