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Vitamin A Deficiency

in Birds


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by Hannis L. Stoddard, III, DVM

Vitamin A deficiency can be disastrous for your bird -- but it's
preventable by following a few esay steps.

The most common preventable avian disease that we see at our
practice is hypovitaminosis A, or vitamin A deficiency, with or
without accompanying secondary infections. Pet birds that eat
only seeds (especially sunflower seeds and peanuts) are most
prone to this problem because an all-seed diet is low in vitamin A.

When vitamin A deficiency occurs, the cells that line the
respiratory, reproductive and digestive tracts undergo structural
change, making them unable to secrete mucous. Since mucous acts
as a protective blanket to prevent invasion from pathogens
(disease- causing agents), vitamin A deficiency allows
environmental bacteria and other microorganisms to penetrate the
mucous membrane barrier and set up "housekeeping" within these

Symptoms of vitamin A deficiency depend on which organ system is
affected (for instance the reproductive, digestive, or
respiratory tracts) and which microorganism or combination of
microorganisms is invading the patient.

The respiratory system is the most often affected. Since the
mouth and sinus are also lined by the cells that are compromised,
you need only look inside the bird's mouth to see the early signs
of this deficiency. Initially, you see small white plaques on the
roof of the mouth and/or at the base of the tongue. The plaques
ultimately become infected, forming large, obvious abscesses. The
abscesses can distort the glottis (opening of the windpipe),
causing labored breathing and eventually mechanical suffocation.

The abscesses can even grow so large that they block the choana
(the slit in the roof of the mouth). When this happens, the bird
will exhibit profuse nasal discharge and obvious swelling around
the eyes. The pain from these pockets of infection will
eventually cause the bird to starve. The microorganisms can also
spread throughout the bird's body with disastrous consequences.

A bird with vitamin A deficiency may show any of the following
symptoms: sneezing, wheezing, nasal discharge, crusted or plugged
nostrils, unthriftiness lethargy, depression, diarrhea,
tail-bobbing, thinness, poor feather color, swollen eyes, ocular
discharge, lack of appetite, gagging, foul-smelling breath and
"slimy mouth".

Few patients, if any, die as a direct result of the vitamin A
deficiency. They usually die from the secondary infections common
to birds with weakened resistance and the inability of the body
to go through normal cellular regeneration (to heal itself). The
secondary infections may cause organ damage that will then lead
to the bird's eventual death. Consequently, we treat the
life-threatening infection first, dealing with the underlying
vitamin A deficiency with injections of vitamin A.

To treat the secondary life-threatening component, we first
conduct a series of diagnostic tests. We draw blood to help
determine which organs are involved, we perform cultures and
antibiotic sensitivities to determine what bacteria or fungi may
be present, and we analyze the stools to check for parasites.

We then hospitalize-the bird for at least one week and treat it
with appropriate medications based on the data from the tests.
Often we also nebulize the bird, tube-feed it and surgically
lance the abscesses once the patient is stable. Although the bird
may require a fairly long recovery period, the prognosis is
usually favorable unless secondary problems have caused
irreversible organ damage.

Once again, the adage "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of
cure" applies with this malady. Psittacines are generally quite
resistant to disease, but, once afflicted, they are often
difficult to cure. This is especially true if the disease is
induced by an inadequate diet, which is often compounded many
times by the selective feeding habits of the birds.

The majority of vitamin A deficient diets are also lacking in
other vitamins, proteins and minerals, so prevention must be
aimed at an overall improvement in nutrition as well as offering
appropriate vitamin supplementation. In addition to a good
quality, safflower seed-based mix, parrots should be offered and
taught to eat foods that are yellow and deep green in color (with
a few exceptions).

To ensure your bird against a vitamin A deficiency, offer it
foods such as cantaloupe, papaya, chili peppers, broccoli leaves
and flowers, carrots, sweet potatoes, turnip leaves, collards,
endive, butter, liver, egg yolks, beets, dandelion greens and
spinach (see chart for relative vitamin A content). The daily use
of one of the many good quality powdered vitamins will also help
keep this common, preventable disease from afflicting your birds.

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