Bird Nutrition Basics

Posted on by Patrick Shearer, BVMS, PhD

For the most part, feeding dogs and cats is fairly simple. Unless your pet has food allergies, or you prefer a home-prepared diet, feeding Spot or Whiskers is as simple as choosing a good quality food and making sure you don’t feed too much. With all the research that goes into pet food development, it’s even easy to tailor their diet according to their size and life stage. Because nutrition is such an important part of health, there are even diets designed specifically to help manage certain diseases.

Birds, on the other hand, are a different kettle of fish (or feathers). For a start, there a great many more species of birds kept as pets than dogs or cats. A Chihuahua and a Great Dane have different nutritional requirements and they’re from the same species; the variation in birds’ nutritional requirements is even greater. Although bird nutrition research is a growing field, there is much less information available to us about particular species’ nutritional requirements. On top of that, birds are very tough. They can put up with nutritional deficiencies that many other animals can’t, so it can take a long time for nutritional problems to become evident. The birds most commonly kept as pets are prey species, so they hide signs of weakness or disease, which makes it even harder to spot nutritional problems until something is wrong.

Making sure your bird’s nutrition is taken care of will mean they’re healthier and longer-lived. It might sound like feeding your bird properly is a daunting task, but by sticking to the basics it’s not too hard – the key is to have available a good variety of nutritious foods.

Getting started
The best place to start is with a good quality pelleted diet. These will be formulated to be as nutritionally balanced as possible, with appropriate amounts of key vitamins and minerals and should make up a bit more than half of the bird’s diet. Avoid seeds! They are deficient in many important vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin A, and will eventually lead to nutritional deficiencies. Birds like cockatiels and budgerigars are exceptions, because they evolved as seed-eaters. They should be fed some seeds, especially millet, but still should not be fed an all-seed diet.

Eat your vegetables
Add in lots of fresh vegetables. Leafy green vegetables (broccoli, spinach, brussel sprouts – your Mum always told you they were good for you!) and orange vegetables (carrots, corn, pumpkin, sweet potato, etc.) are good sources of vitamins (especially vitamin A) and trace minerals. Legumes(peas, beans, lentils, etc.) are good sources of protein. Vegetables should make up about a quarter of the bird’s food and should be washed before feeding.

Other goodies
Fresh fruit, while not as nutritionally important as vegetables, is a good treat (don’t forget to wash it first). Nectar-eating birds like lorikeets can eat more fruit than cockatoos, budgies, etc. because they are used to a diet with higher water and sugar content. Make sure to remove the seeds when feeding apples, and if you’re feeding a fruit that has a large pit (e.g. apricots, nectarines, plums, peaches, etc.), avoid the flesh closest to the pit. Nuts and grains can be fed occasionally as a treat and are great to use as rewards when training. They are high in fat, though, and should be fed sparingly. Peanuts should be avoided, because they can harbor fungus, which can lead to disease. Sunflower seeds are used in many commercial seed mixes and are very high in fat, which is another reason to avoid an all-seed diet.

Things to avoid
Keep from feeding your bird anything fatty, salty or sugary (e.g. potato chips, buttered toast, candy, etc.). These foods are bad for us and bad for birds. It might seem harmless to give your bird just one potato chip as a treat, but your bird is so much smaller than you, so it’s just like you eating a whole bag. Toxic foods include avocado, chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, garlic and onion. These can be lethal, even in small quantities, and should never be fed.

Don’t forget the water
It’s important to have fresh water available at all times. If you have an open water dish or tray, change it twice a day. Birds like cockatoos love to dunk their food in water and open containers will quickly become contaminated with poop, so bacteria will grow quickly. Water bottles are a good alternative and many birds get the hang of using them quite quickly.

Clean up
Food should not be allowed to spoil in the bird’s cage. Food leftover from the morning feeding should be removed before the evening meal, and food not eaten within a few hours of the evening meal should be removed so it doesn’t go bad overnight.

About Patrick Shearer, BVMS, PhD

Patrick Shearer graduated from Murdoch University School of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences in Perth, Western Australia. Dr. Shearer joined Banfield's Applied Research and Knowledge team (BARK) as an associate medical advisor in 2009. He and his wife, Danielle, have two dogs and two cats. View all posts by Patrick Shearer, BVMS, PhD →

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