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Vitamin A and your bird
by Brenda Luna

One of the most common diseases to affect our birds is hypovitaminosis A, or vitamin A deficiency. It is also one of the most preventable. Companion birds that eat a seed only diet are more prone to this illness because of the low vitamin A and high fat content in seeds, especially sunflower seeds and peanuts. Birds are generally resistant to disease but, once afflicted, treatment and cure is often difficult. Because of their selective feeding habits, vitamin A deficiency is a self-inflicted disease caused by an inadequate diet.

The cells that line the respiratory, reproductive and digestive tracts undergo structural changes in the vitamin A deficient bird, making them unable to secrete mucous. Mucous acts as a protective barrier, preventing invasion from pathogens (disease causing agents). Vitamin A deficiency allows bacteria and other pathogens to penetrate the mucous membrane and multiply within our bird's highly sensitive organ systems. Symptoms of vitamin A deficiency depends on which organ system is affected and which microorganism or combination of microorganisms is infecting the bird.

Because the respiratory system is most often affected, the signs are easy to spot. A bird with vitamin A deficiency will display any of the following symptoms: sneezing, wheezing, gagging, plugged or crusted nostrils, nasal discharge, lethargy, depression, diarrhea, loss of appetite or weight loss, eye discharge or swollen eyes, and foul breath. Do not assume that any of these symptoms are from a cold. Take your bird to an avian vet immediately.

Since the mouth and sinus are also lined by the cells that are compromised, a look inside the bird's mouth will allow you to see the early signs of this disease. You'll see small white plaques on the roof of the mouth or at the base of the tongue. These plaques become infected, forming large, easily detectable abscesses. The abscesses can distort the glottis (opening of the windpipe). This is what causes the labored breathing and, if left untreated, suffocation. The abscesses can grow so large that they block the choana (the slit in the roof of the mouth). This causes the nasal discharge and swelling around the eyes. The pain from these secondary infections will eventually cause the bird to starve. The microorganisms can also spread throughout the bird's body, weakening the immune system and damaging major organs.

Few birds die as a direct result of vitamin A deficiency. They usually die from the secondary infections common to birds with weakened immune systems. Their weakened resistance does not allow the body to go through a normal cellular regeneration, leading to the bird's eventual death. For this reason, the avian vet will treat the life threatening infection first. Once the bird's condition is stabilized, the underlying vitamin A deficiency is dealt with.

In order to treat the secondary life threatening condition, a series of diagnostic tests are first conducted. Blood is drawn to help determine which organs are involved. Cultures and antibiotic sensitivities are performed to determine what bacteria or fungi may be present. The bird is then hospitalized for at least one week and treated with the appropriate medications based on the test results. Very often the bird must be nebulized (inhaled medications administered via a fine mist in an enclosed cage), tube fed, and surgical lancing of the abscesses are performed once the bird's condition is stable. Although the recovery period may be quite long, the prognosis is favorable unless secondary problems have caused irreversible organ damage.

To protect your bird against vitamin A deficiency, offer it foods such as cantaloupe, papaya, broccoli leaves and flowers, carrots, sweet potatoes, turnip leaves, chili peppers, collards, endive, liver, egg yolks, beets, spinach, and dandelion greens. Because of the availability of quality pelleted foods containing the necessary vitamins and minerals for our birds, I do not advocate the use of powdered vitamin supplements. However, if your bird refuses to eat pellets and foods high in vitamin A, it may be your only alternative.

To convert your bird from a seed based diet to a pellet diet, you may need to do some experimenting and performing. Two of my birds made the transition easily. Two of them were very stubborn about it. They would eat pellets served in warm applesauce mixed with mashed banana and other soft fruits, but this wasn't any every day option for me. Pellets soaked in white grape juice was a big hit, but again, I opted not to do this every day because of the potential for bacterial growth. Eventually I had to show them that pellets were good by eating them myself. Again, not an every day option for me, but they love my exaggerated comments about the delectable taste. I finally found a way to convert them without fuss. I feed them pellets each morning in a separate dish. The other dish contains what I call Yam soup. Boiled yams, carrots, and broccoli mixed with sprouts, raisons and pellets. I sometimes add other vegetables, fruits, grains and pasta, depending on what I have available. They eat every bit of this meal within twenty minutes so there's no worry of food spoiling. This leaves the separate dish of pellets for the rest of the day. In the evening I give them each a few pine nuts and nutri-berries while finger feeding them more pellets. The finger feeding has become a ritual that even my most stubborn pellet hater has come to love. Besides their pellets, I often feed Hagen Gourmet blend. This is a fruit flavored pellet mixed with dehydrated fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and beans. No sunflower seeds. Again, you may have to do some experimenting to find the right diet for your bird, one that is complete, yet satisfying for them.

Different species have their own distinct dietary needs. Check with your avian vet before making a change in their diet. Always make the transition gradually, and monitor what they're actually eating and discarding. Since our birds are captive raised, they depend on us to feed them what they need first, and what they like second. Hopefully, they'll learn to like what they need.

Foods high in vitamin A Foods low in vitamin A
Red chili peppers (fresh or dry) Lettuce
Broccoli leaves Summer squash
Broccoli flowers Apples
Carrots Bananas
Sweet potatoes Oranges
Turnip leaves White potatoes
Collards Grapes
Endive Corn
Dandelion greens
Beef liver
Egg yolks