Preventive medicine is routinely practiced by all physicians and veterinarians and is recognised as a fundamental discipline in keeping their respective patients healthy. Whilst clinical medicine is aimed at curing the sick, preventive medicine is directed at solving the problems that result in those illnesses. Whilst there will always be the necessity to treat illness and trauma as it arises, preventative medicine is the medical cornerstone that underpins the approach to health management in people and their pets and livestock.
For many years veterinarians dealing with pet birds focused their efforts towards the clinical aspects of their care; the importation of birds and the methods by which it was carried out provided a continuous source of diseased birds requiring treatment. With the banning of avian imports reducing the intrinsic levels of infectious disease and the rise of both captive breeding and popularity of parrots as family pets, the emphasis has now moved towards preventive medicine. The emotional attachment to individual birds recognised by their owners as 'family members', rather than curated specimens, has increased the need for better husbandry and veterinary advice.
The greatest advances in pet bird preventative medicine have undoubtedly been in nutrition. Nutrition impacts on the health, longevity, appearance and behaviour of birds in captivity and whilst the health of pet birds is of primary importance, their wellbeing also greatly influences the enjoyment and reward that owners get from their pets. A nutritionally sound diet is the foundation on which this good health is built.
Owners do not set out to deprive their pets of a nutritionally balanced diet but an historical legacy of feeding seeds in a belief that this is a 'normal' parrot diet, coupled with a lack of information about the nutritional shortfalls of a seed-based diet, combines to produce malnourished birds. A diet of seeds, even if it is fortified with vitamins, does not meet the bird's nutritional requirements. Commonly fed seeds are deficient or underfunded in at least 32 essential nutrients. As long ago as the early 1920's scientists observed health deficiencies in caged parrots that were fed seed diets. Presenting a bird with a varied and wide array of fresh produce, seeds and nuts does not necessarily provide a nutritionally balanced diet either. In general pet parrots do not exhibit nutritional wisdom when selecting dietary ingredients; they show a preference for high energy lipid-rich seeds, high carbohydrate seeds, and fruit. The value of a proper diet over the life of the bird is monumental. Birds fed a poor diet become progressively malnourished, which will start a chain of events leading to a decline in the bird's overall health.
The presenting signs of nutritional disease are varied and can present as a wide range of physical, physiological and behavioural problems. Often, the signs of improper nutrition in pet birds may be subtle and may go completely overlooked by the owner. They accept that what they see is normal for the species. Regardless of where the signs of deficiencies or excesses are first identified, malnutrition affects the body in an all-inclusive manner and whilst some areas, such as the integument, show signs of disease more readily, no organ or system or behavioural pattern is spared the effects to some degree.
The digestive system suffers first. Parrots have a functional bacterial population that regulates bowel digestive homeostasis and gut flora have a continuous and dynamic effect on the host's gut and systemic immune systems. A lack of essential nutrients (and an excess of fats) results in the bacterial population of the digestive tract becoming unbalanced. Once this has occurred, opportunistic pathogens find it easier to invade, and gram-negative rods and yeast counts increase. This opens the door for bacterial infections and other ailments related to the immune system.
Abnormalities in body weight and shape; unusual appearances of feathers, nails, beaks and skin; reproductive disorders; undesirable behaviour; and disturbances in all the body's systems can all be indicators of suboptimal nutrition. Nutritional deficiencies appear to accelerate the aging process of birds, primarily through the loss of moisture and tissue elasticity. Perhaps the most subtle and insidious nature of malnutrition is the effect that it has on the fragile avian immune system potentially predisposing to a range of additional diseases.
It is these changes from the accepted norm that a trained veterinarian is able to identify and is in a position to recommend that the owner implement a dietary change before more serious consequences occur. Where nutritional imbalances and deficiencies are suspected, it would be exceptional for only one nutrient to be involved. Correction needs to be an all-inclusive nutritional and dietary overhaul not just a top-up of presumed deficiencies.
Ultimately, suboptimal nutrition has a cumulative adverse effect. At best birds may survive but not thrive; at worst, health is severely compromised and life expectancy reduced. Preventative medicine, in the form of Harrison's organic formulated diets, should be started as soon as possible – from parent rearing or early weaning if possible. Harrison's should then form the basis of the parrot's diet for the rest of its life. Where nutritional disease is already identified or suspected, dietary change is paramount.
Many conditions can be corrected and the symptoms of others ameliorated by dietary correction onto a nutritionally balanced diet using Harrison's organic formulated diets.
Preventative medicine does not have to be complicated neither in its concept nor in its implementation.
Nor is it purely the preserve of the various medical professions; we all practice preventative medicine in our daily lives. The simple tasks of washing our hands, cleaning our teeth and conserving and cooking our food properly are all integral parts of a preventative medicine strategy.
For those of us who have pets we extend this 'at home' policy of trying to prevent disease and illness to them. De-worming and de-fleaing, vaccinations where appropriate, and a sensible diet are obvious preventative measures. For those whose pets are parrots, the ultimate step that can be taken in preventative medicine is diet; providing a diet that will ensure the health of their bird, not one that will contribute to its ultimate ill health.
Harrison's Bird Foods are readily available, highly palatable and certified organic and offer the veterinary clinician the nutritional tools to work with their avian clients to promote better health, greater life expectancy for their pets and more enjoyment for the owners. For owners who want prevention rather than attempting a cure, the information and the foods to make a difference are out there.
Written by Brian Stockdale MRCVS BVM&S