Diet often the major cause of pet parrot death

The last century has seen an increasing level of pet parrot ownership and parrots are now one of the more commonly kept family pets. With this rise in popularity has come a similar increased level of veterinary involvement in their care and welfare. Welfare issues directly related to husbandry – especially diet – have become a prime focus for veterinarians but it is still reported that the disturbing figure of up to 90% of avian clinical cases presented to vets have malnutrition as a contributory cause.

With the appreciation of nutritional disease as a major contributor to avian ill-health and reduced life expectancy, and an awareness that seed-based diets, which are still the most commonly fed for the majority of pet parrots, play a major role in the production of these nutritionally related conditions, the promotion of formulated diets as the advocated method of feeding pet parrots has increased. Feeding nutritionally formulated diets is not new of course. For many years a high percentage of both farm, poultry and companion animal nutrition has been based around scientifically blended, extruded or pelletized diets, but is only within the last 40 years or so that formulated diets have played a significant part in the feeding of pet parrots and only around twenty years since they have become readily available in the UK.

Why is there a need for formulated diets for pet birds? What are the issues with feeding seed-based diets? The majority of pet parrot owners have for many years fed their birds on commercially constructed 'parrot mixes'. The seeds included vary from mix to mix, generally depending on the target species at which the food is aimed and most seed-types would be foreign to their 'free-living' relatives. As well as the type, the seed quality is also often variable. This may be due to the source, with many seeds being second-grade leftovers from the human food market, or the way in which they have been handled and stored. When offered these 'parrot mixes' the bird rarely consumes many of the different seeds, and those that are eaten provide inadequate levels of many of the essential nutrients required to maintain healthy cellular function and are generally unduly high in fat.

Birds eat primarily to fulfil an energy need and these needs vary considerably between captive and wild birds. In captivity there will normally be a reduced food intake due to the bird's lower energy requirement and/or the eating of more energy dense foods when compared with those eaten in the wild. As the need for other (micro) nutrients remains reasonably constant, the food pet birds consume needs, therefore, to contain a higher proportional percentage of these nutrients to compensate for the lower consumption rates. This simple concept has a fundamental part to play in the pathogenesis of many avian nutritional diseases.

Good nutrition is described as 'the provision, through the intake of food, of appropriate levels of essential nutrients necessary to maintain healthy cellular function'. When this fails to happen suboptimal cellular function occurs and this leads to organ and system dysfunction and subsequently to disease. Feeding an exclusive seed-based diet predisposes to these nutritional diseases. Although energy rich, seeds are simply deficient in a wide range of nutrients necessary for a healthy life. Notwithstanding their type, size or source, it is well established that seeds are a deficient source of essential nutrients and whilst the nutrients available from each individual type of seed or nut vary, no seeds come close to fulfilling the dietary requirements of birds. It is because of this difficulty in providing natural foods that contain the requisite levels of nutrients – and ensuring that pet parrots eat them all - and the prevalence of observable nutritional disease, that the necessity for a complete formulated diet became clear.

From the outset Harrison's Bird Diets have been at the forefront of improving avian nutrition through their range of formulated diets. Their formulations are based on scientific nutritional knowledge and veterinary expertise. Not only have these diets been blended to achieve the best nutritional diets available but Harrison's have taken their foods a step further; Harrisons Bird Diets are certified organic. By only using human grade organic food sources, Harrison's eliminate the artificial preservatives, potentially poisonous agrochemicals and artificial colourings found in many other diets. This approach is designed to further enhance the health of creatures known to be sensitive to the ingestion of environmental toxins.

By taking this formulated approach to feeding, an owner ensures that not only can all essential nutrients be provided within the diet (something the use of mineral and vitamin supplements often fails to address), but also that there are no excesses, and that their pet is unable to 'buffet feed' on selected seeds which, as has been mentioned, is a major contributor in the production of nutritional disease. By being certified organic, Harrison's Bird Diets take that extra step towards providing the best formulated health package available to pet parrots.

Written by Brian Stockdale MRCVS BVM&S