Avian Expert Articles

Is Your Pet Bird A Healthy Weight?

white capped pionus sitting on food dishJanuary is the time of year when everywhere you turn there are sound bites on New Year’s resolutions — from diets to workout routines to lose the weight put on from all of those extra calories over the holidays. And what about your pet bird? Do you need to extend this yearly ritual to your feathered friend as well? For starters, do you know what kind of shape your bird is in?

Is your bird normal weight or overweight? Has he/she been to the vet for a health checkup in the past 12 months? What foods should your bird be eating, and what type of exercise routine are you doing with your bird? I will explore some of those topics to help you develop an appropriate resolution for your bird(s).

Birds Can’t Eat Right Themselves

Birds in the wild do not necessarily select adequate diets nutritionally. They appear to be able to balance their energy needs, amino acids, and calcium, but not their needs for other requirements. Birds in captivity do not appear to select appropriately either. In a study done by Dr. Dwayne Ullrey, a self-selected diet in African grey parrots resulted in a diet that was deficient in a total of 12 dietary components consisting of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, the building blocks of protein. That means that sometimes the bird gets fat when trying to meet its amino acid needs. This occurs when the diet does not have these amino acids in the correct proportion. The bird continues to eat to try to meet its amino acid needs but can’t because they are either missing or much reduced in the diet. In the attempt to balance those needs, the bird gets fat in the process. This is a particular problem with budgies (parakeets) on seed-only diets, particularly those with a predominance of millet.

Judging Bird Weight Status

So how do you tell if your bird is normal weight or overweight or underweight? We commonly palpate the keel bone with the pectoral muscle mass on either side along with palpation of the intestinal space to determine a body condition score. It is important for you to palpate the muscle mass in relation to the keel bone so that you know if your bird is OK.

GreenWingsFlyBrazilNormally, birds that fly have a prominent pectoral mass that is used for the down stroke of the wing. This mass feels relatively tight, like muscle that is actively used,and will be about even with the height of the keel. However, that muscle mass is used as an emergency energy ration when the bird’s metabolism outstrips the amount of energy consumed. That commonly happens when birds get sick — their metabolism goes up and then the amount of muscle mass goes down and the keel becomes more prominent. The flip side is that birds that are overweight have fat sitting on top of the muscle and you should be able to feel it. Birds that have fat over their keel bone usually store fat in their liver as well, and that can be very bad for your bird. This shows a bird with no muscle mass left as it has been used by the bird to maintain its increased metabolism with disease.

So if your bird has even a slight reduction of the muscle mass over the area of the keel bone, it is important to get an appointment with a veterinarian for your bird right away. That would also be true with birds that are overweight, as that is an important medical problem as well. Cholesterol can build up to create plaque in the great vessels of the heart  and in other important blood vessels that provide supply to the organs of the body.

The Right Bird Diet

So let’s say that your bird needs to go on a diet with the start of the new year. As suggested above, it is important to provide a balanced diet designed for companion birds. Those amino acids need to be balanced along with the fat-soluble vitamins and minerals. The best way to do that is to provide a base of a balanced product like a pellet or Pellet-Berries or another balanced product like Nutri-Berries and/or Avi-Cakes. These non-GMO foods serve as the dietary base, and you supplement with veggies and greens that are not high in simple sugars.

Foods to keep to a minimum are peas, corn, and many fresh fruits, as they have high levels of simple sugars. Foods to consider feeding include sweet potatoes or yams, Swiss chard, beet greens, kale, curled parsley, pumpkin, pea pods, green beans, walnuts, and mango. While there are others, this is just a simple list to get you started. It is also important to provide small servings to help in weight reduction — so read the package label on the volume or weight to feed as a guide.

Tracking Bird Weight Progress

Also, when you go on a diet you know that you need to weigh yourself on a regular basis. The same applies to your bird. Buy a kitchen scale that weighs in grams, not ounces, and weigh your bird daily before breakfast. Write down the weight so you can chart your bird’s daily weight. That is the best way to know if what you are doing to improve the health of your bird is working.

Exercise Is For Birds, Too

Another part of weight reduction is exercise. And boy are we learning that our perch-potato birds are really in trouble, even when their muscle mass is normal! Work at the University of Utah with Dr. Scott Echols suggest that our birds have significant reduction in bone mass. This is causing the bones to soften and to start to collapse in some cases. So we need our birds to at least do daily wing-flapping exercises, if not supervised flying sessions, to retain more bone mass. A cardio workout is also important so that we help them to be heart-healthy as well. But always have your bird checked out first by your avian veterinarian before embarking on an exercise program.

I hope that this helps you work on developing your New Year’s resolutions for your birds to enhance their quality of life. Wishing you great success on this important task!

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