“Polly want a cracker?” This cliché phrase has dictated and driven how parrots have been fed for more than a century. The classic bird in a cage with a bowl of seeds and occasional cracker, bread, or other carbohydrate-obsessed treat is outdated and actually dangerous for our pet parrots. This mythical and easy-to-obtain diet has caused significant nutritional imbalances and medical problems in our pets.
Classically, this is what most avian veterinarians will hear in the office when they bring up the importance of diet:
“But I’ve been feeding him this diet for years, and there’s never been a problem.”
“I’ve never even had to take them to the veterinarian until now.”
“I tried giving them a nutritious diet when they were a baby, and they just picked it out.”
“This is what the pet store told me to get.”
We have come so far in avian medicine, with our knowledge and ability to care for these animals, that so many of the problems and emergencies we see them for could be avoided, simply with a proper diet. Part of your pet parrot’s yearly exam will be discussing the importance of diet and how to properly balance it.
Let’s break it down. Seeds and nuts are high in fats, and deficient in such important vitamins and minerals as calcium. Calcium is one of the most important components in parrot diets, especially for females. Diets deficient in calcium often lead to eggbinding, hypocalcemia, and metabolic bone disease, which can cause pathologic fractures. Parrot species such as African greys are especially prone to malnutrition in diets lacking calcium. With respect to female birds, it is imperative they are sexed with a blood test (not assumed or waiting to see if they lay eggs) so as to properly prepare for their future. Female birds that are sexually mature are like chickens, in that they lay sterile eggs. Malnutrition can lead to symptoms similar to women with osteoporosis. Hormone therapy should also be discussed with your veterinarian to protect your female parrot from the detrimental effects of chronic egg laying, which can become a life-threatening emergency.
Seed diets often lack iodine, which for smaller species such as budgies, parakeets or cockatiels, can lead to the formation of a goiter; this condition results when the thyroid gland is malformed. All seed/nut diets are extremely high in fats, which causes obesity in many species (Amazons are especially prone to this), fatty liver disease, and even atherosclerosis and heart disease, just like humans. Did you know that birds can have heart attacks just like humans, all because of fat buildup in their blood vessels? It’s the primary reason that birds don’t live their full lifespan and acutely pass away.
The poor protein quality present in these diets can cause developmental issues in young, growing birds and those that chronically eat only seed well into their adult years; they often develop gout. Gout is caused by high levels of uric acid in the bloodstream, which results from excess protein buildup (e.g., from supplementing their diet with human food, such as scrambled eggs). Urates are the chalky white portion of the excrement in bird waste, which should, ideally, be in balance with the green portion, which is their feces. In advanced stages, gout will damage the joints, causing severe forms of arthritis and disfigurement to parrots’ feet, which can lead to an inability to perch properly. The other form of gout, visceral, causes uric acid buildup around major organs and can lead to kidney failure.
All seed/nut diets are extremely high in fats, which in many species causes obesity, fatty liver disease, and even atherosclerosis and heart disease, just like humans.
It’s important during your yearly physical exams with an avian veterinarian to discuss proper diet, common diseases affecting the species you own, and reproductive problems that will occur and how to manage them. Performing yearly blood work and radiographs helps you and your veterinarian stay ahead of the illness. Birds will often hide their symptoms and may go months to years suffering the effects of malnutrition before they face an emergency visit to us, at which time it may be too advanced for us to save them.
Remember, Polly really doesn’t want that cracker. If you want the best for Polly, consider instead offering her a nutritionally balanced pellet diet that will help her live a long and healthy life.