By Dr. Becker
Psittacines are birds belonging to the family Psittacidae, which includes parrots, macaws and parakeets. And as avian enthusiasts know, these birds can live an exceptionally long time -- some over 75 years -- depending on species and lifestyle factors such as nutrition and veterinary care.
So while most dogs and cats spend only a few years in the geriatric stage of life, your parrot can spend decades as an elderly pet requiring specialized care.
Some of the most common diseases seen in geriatric psittacines include cataracts, arthritis, heart, liver and kidney disease.
Cataracts are common in aging birds, especially macaws, Amazons, and cockatiels. Fortunately, if cataracts develop gradually, most birds are able to adapt to changes in their vision.
Your bird’s eyes should be examined at yearly veterinary visits to detect any changes in the opacity of the lens that indicate the presence of cataracts. If the problem is serious and the bird is in generally good health, larger parrots can often have cataracts surgically removed.
Other disorders of the eye that may occur in geriatric birds include dry eye, corneal ulceration, abnormalities of the third eyelid, uveitis, infections of the conjunctiva, and lymphoma.
Symptoms of an eye disorder include decreasing vision, squinting, and redness.
If your bird’s vision is decreasing with age, the fewer changes you make to your home environment the better, so your pet can continue to navigate around the house safely despite his failing eyesight.
The Two Critical Factors That Influence Eye Health
I believe there are two critical factors that influence eye health in captive pet birds -- natural, unfiltered exposure to sunlight, and antioxidant load from fresh foods.
Diurnal birds (including parrots) were meant to spend their days with their bodies exposed to direct (not through windows) sunlight. Through natural adaptation, parrots’ bodies have come to require healthy doses of sunshine for optimal health.
Here’s how the system works. The bird’s retina contains cells called cones which transmit color information to the brain. Humans have three types of cones yielding three colors -- red, green and blue (trichromatic vision). Birds have a fourth cone cell to sense UV light (tetrachromatic vision). In humans, UV light is unable to pass through the lens of the eye, but birds do not have this limitation, so there are substantially more color possibilities in their world (which is probably critical for differentiating between sexes and foraging for food).
The latest research demonstrates some birds can see five primary colors (pentachromatic vision) and can differentiate between two different wavelengths of UV (ultraviolet light). Birds rely on natural light (and the angle at which it moves around the earth) for normal foraging behaviors, sleeping, social behavior, breeding, molting, and endocrine health. The intensity, color composition and direction of light are transmitted to the parrot’s brain through the optic nerve and through a special pathway to the pituitary gland.
Birds have an additional way of perceiving light through the Harderian gland around the eye. This special gland communicates with the pineal gland about the photoperiod, which regulates much of a bird’s behavior and health.
Avian vets agree that parrots need 10-14 hours of daylight in the summer and 8-10 hours in the winter for normal endocrine function and health. Because sunlight regulates the oculo-endocrine cycle, healthy sunshine affects every aspect of a bird's life.
My recommendations for achieving excellent eye health for pet birds involve lots of light! I recommend all birds be acclimated to spending time outside in warm climates (with all safety and stress precautions addressed) and during the winter months, and a specific “bird bulb” should be added to their environment for supplemental, correct UV exposure. (Note: a reptile light is very high in UVB and can cause lens and retina damage in birds, and aquarium and plant grow lights are the wrong spectrum, so make sure it’s a bulb made for parrots.)
When your bird is inside, open the shades! Do not leave your bird in a dingy room. Birds need bright room light and UV light. Natural daylight brightness is measured by a Color Rendering Index (CRI). Parrots need a minimum CRI of 88. Fluorescent lights yield a CRI of only 60 (and flicker, which annoy birds), so the best choice inside is adding full spectrum lighting that fits a parrot’s natural UV spectrum.
When selecting a bird bulb, most avian vets agree the overall output of intensity should be close to that of natural sunlight, which is 5,500k. For birds, a color temperature of higher than 5,800k is not suitable. Parrots need close to 12 percent UVA and no more than 2.4 percent UVB (with a UVB wavelength between 290 and 310 nanometers). I recommend you replace the bulb annually, even if it still works (the UV spectrum diminishes three times faster than visible light). For optimal absorption, the light should be positioned no more than 18 inches above the cage, but follow the manufacturer’s recommendations, as bulbs differ. As with all things new, birds will need to be acclimated to their UV light so they are not afraid of it. Some manufacturers to look into are FeatherBrite, Arcadia, ZooMed Avian Sun Deluxe, Vita-lite, and AviLux.
Unfortunately, most pet birds go their entire lives without access to direct sunlight. Research shows parrots need unfiltered (not through screens or glass) UV exposure to manufacture critical nutrients, including vitamin D, which is necessary for the absorption of minerals, such as calcium, and a host of health immune reactions within a bird’s body. Without proper exposure to direct and natural sunlight, parrots will have negative changes in their behavior, breeding cycle, plumage vibrancy, immunologic and nutritional health.
Without proper nutrient absorption, birds often end up with subtle nutritional deficiencies that lead to organ degeneration, including a decline in ocular health. In addition to appropriate lighting, I recommend you add lots of fresh, preferably organic fruits and vegetables to your parrot’s diet. Fresh foods contain enzymes, phytonutrients and antioxidants that scavenge free radicals and slow down degenerative ocular changes.
If your bird will not consume a variety of fresh foods, ask your avian vet to recommend an antioxidant supplement you can add to your parrot’s pellets. Make sure not to use dog or cat supplements for your parrots, as they may contain toxic levels of fat soluble vitamins (including A and D) which can harm or kill your bird.
There are three general types of arthritis that commonly occur in psittacines: septic arthritis, traumatic arthritis, and geriatric-onset arthritis.
Septic arthritis is joint inflammation caused by a bacterial or fungal infection and is most often seen in the digits (claws) of birds; traumatic arthritis is the result of an injury to a joint. Both these conditions are seen in birds of all ages.
Geriatric-onset arthritis most often affects a bird’s stifles and sometimes the hip joints. How much your parrot weighs, her general physical condition, whether she’s suffered previous injuries, and any ongoing medical conditions are all factors that contribute to the development and severity of arthritis. Often a bird with arthritis also has pododermatitis (a foot infection) that can be the cause of or result from a decreased activity level.
Signs that your bird may be suffering with arthritis include reluctance to fly, sitting on the bottom of the cage, sitting in a food bowl, loss of balance, decreased flexibility, and swollen joints.
Another condition, articular (joint) gout, is also common in older psittacines and it’s very important to determine whether the problem is arthritis or gout, since the diseases, their treatments and prognoses are very different.
Malnutrition and obesity are often present in arthritic birds, so appropriate nutrition and good body condition are very important in the prevention and management of arthritis in older parrots. I find that for birds, as with other pets and people, lack of exercise is a major contributor to early onset degenerative joint disease. Birds were meant to fly, move and be very active. Birds that sit for months or years at a time have joint problems much earlier in their lives compared to active birds that are able to live active lives.
Your arthritic bird’s cage – especially its diameter and the texture of the perches – can provide both stability and comfort, while minimizing foot problems.
If you think about it, birds are on their feet all day, every day, so making sure they have a variety of all-natural perches is critical for joint exercise, and balanced weight bearing in both limbs. I recommend at least three different sized perch diameters, made of different materials, including sand blasted grapevine, manzanita wood and rope perches. I don’t recommend wood dowel perches, as they provide no foot exercise and maintain a bird’s foot in the exact same position, something that would never happen in the wild.
Platform perches and “Birdie Beds” (or huts) can also be beneficial for helping birds rest their weary feet and legs as they age.
You should also try to leave your bird’s nails with sharp points to help with her grip. This doesn’t mean extra long nails, this means short nails with a healthy point. Wings should not be over clipped to help with balance. In addition, chondroprotective agents, Adequan, acupuncture and other natural treatments, including EFAC, turmeric and proteolytic enzymes can help decrease inflammation and discomfort.
Vitamin D is also required for healthy bone development and resiliency. Osteoporosis has been linked to vitamin D deficiency and weak, brittle bones. Vitamin D3 is required by birds for healthy immune and bone development. People can synthesize vitamin D3 from exposure to sunlight, and birds can too, but the system works slightly differently, because a bird’s skin is covered with feathers. In most parrots, the preen gland oils contain a vitamin D3 precursor, and when birds groom, they spread it over their feathers. When the precursor is exposed to UVB light it becomes activated, and when the bird re-grooms and consumes oil, the body converts it to metabolizable vitamin D3. Pretty cool, huh? So it’s easy to see why birds housed inside end up sunshine deficient, and in turn, nutrient deficient, which can lead to premature aging and disease.
Cardiac problems are being diagnosed more frequently in geriatric pet parrots, probably because diagnostic methods continue to improve, and birds are living longer. Symptoms are non-specific and can include weakness, lethargy, cyanosis (a bluish tinge to the skin or mucous membranes) increased respiration, and collapse.
Right-sided heart disease is more common in birds, and symptoms include an enlarged liver and fluid buildup in the abdomen. Unfortunately, often there are no obvious signs until the bird suddenly develops an acute problem and dies during diagnosis or treatment.
It’s highly recommended that a veterinary cardiologist be consulted if your parrot is suspected of having cardiac disease.
Again, exercise and weight management can help reduce your bird’s risk of cardiovascular disease. Maintaining your pet’s lean body mass, as well as keeping her active are good ways to help keep the cardiovascular system in good condition as she ages. Additionally, supplementing her diet with ubiquinol, the reduced form of CoQ10, is an excellent way to support an aging heart. I also recommend offering hawthorne, pomegranate and goji (also called wolfberry) berries, which are rich in heart healthy nutrients and antioxidants.
Offering healthy sources of fatty acids is another great way to improve your bird’s cardiovascular health. I recommend supplemental coconut oil, algal oil, evening primrose, borage, pumpkin seed and black current oil to aging birds.
Kidney and Liver Disorders
Kidney disease in geriatric birds can be caused by hypovitamosis A, which is vitamin A deficiency, or other illnesses. Symptoms include regurgitation, lethargy, weakness, feather fluffing, self-mutilation, increased drinking, watery droppings, weight loss, loss of appetite, joint swelling and dehydration.
Certainly proper nutrition can help your pet bird avoid kidney disease and a wide range of other disorders. For more information on feeding your bird, read my article titled Are You Sure Your Pet Bird Gets All the Nutrients He Needs?
If you’re a regular reader, you may recall hepatic lipidosis – fatty liver -- as a disease common in cats. But it’s also frequently seen in older, overweight psittacines. It’s a very serious disorder in both species, and it can affect how well your pet bird is able to respond to other health challenges. This condition usually occurs because owners are feeding birds what they want to eat, instead of what nature intended. Birds fed a sunflower seed or peanut based diet will be fat, but simultaneously malnourished, and the liver can easily become overburdened and unable to do its job effectively.
Birds are not mammals and should not be fed dairy of any kind. They do not have the correct pancreatic enzymes to process any type of milk protein, and these foods cause significant metabolic and digestive stress. Additionally, fried foods and food containing refined carbohydrates and sugars should also be avoided. “But he likes it,” I sometimes hear from my clients, and I must remind them that birds, like young children, cannot choose a balanced diet. They must rely on you, the parent, to help them make wise food choices. Avoiding metabolically stressful foods will help preserve your bird’s liver and kidney function as he ages.
Most psittacine birds are primarily vegetarian, and most certainly would not be foraging on cows or chickens in the wild. When birds consume an excessive amount of animal protein it taxes the kidneys and liver. I do not recommend feeding birds meat, unless of course you are licensed to care for raptors.
Symptoms of liver and kidney disease include loss of appetite, lethargy, distended abdomen, difficulty breathing, poor feather coat, diarrhea, and droppings that are green in color. Depending on the severity of the disease, there can also be seizures, muscle tremors and loss of balance.
Obviously, keeping your pet at a healthy weight and eliminating high fat foods is the best way to prevent hepatic lipidosis. Avoiding meat proteins and unnatural foods is the best way to avoid kidney disease. If he shows any of the symptoms of these disorders, you should make an appointment with your avian veterinarian as soon as possible.
Helping Your Pet Bird Grow Older Comfortably
Psittacines are highly intelligent, social birds that can live to a ripe old age. Ensuring your pet’s comfort, especially as he enters the geriatric stage of life, is crucially important.
In addition to proper nutrition and plenty of opportunities for exercise and social interaction, I recommend at least annual exams for your pet with an avian veterinarian. These exams should be thorough and include blood tests to detect changes or issues with organ function.