Many pet parrots in Hong Kong are not fed a nutritionally balanced diet, according to veterinarian Dr James Blanshard, of Zodiac Pet & Exotic Hospital (zodiacvet. com), who adds that this is mostly due to a lack of understanding by owners.

"The biggest problem I see is owners providing poor-quality seed-based diets. Yes, seeds do make up a large part of wild parrots' diet. However, not all seeds are the same, and those available in the pet trade are often woefully deficient in nutritional value compared with seeds from plants growing in the wild," Blanshard says.

The vet says shop-bought seeds are often old and contaminated with fungal toxins and moulds.

"Also, parrots tend to select one seed type and, before long, will eat only that. The classic example is sunflower seeds. I see many birds that have eaten a diet of exclusively sunflower seeds for years and are subsequently falling apart nutritionally."

He says owners should think of parrots like they do children - if you offer a child one plate of sweets and another of broccoli, they most likely would never touch the broccoli.

Some of the health issues associated with inappropriate seed feeding are obesity and vitamin deficiency, which can lead to more serious issues.

"A lot of the seed-based diets [tend to lead to] obesity. Add to this the sedentary lifestyle of most parrots in urban captivity, and you have the perfect recipe for obesity."

Some species, such as Amazon parrots, are prone to becoming obese.

A lot of non-supplemented seed diets are vitamin A deficient, Blanshard says. Vitamin A is important in the formation of the cellular lining of the respiratory system, and the gastrointestinal, urogenital and integumental systems.

A deficiency leads to abnormal cellular formation in these areas, often presenting as tissue proliferations, infections and abscesses.

Other deficiencies include those of vitamin D and calcium. "Vitamin D and calcium are inextricably linked, and a deficiency in vitamin D [dietary deficiency plus inadequate ultraviolet B exposure] reduces the ability to absorb calcium, which can result in bone and muscle problems, and seizures," the vet says. African grey parrots are especially prone to this.

There can also be an iodine deficiency, which is common in budgies, and this leads to thyroid problems.

"If the bird is more than a year or two old and is on a non-supplemented, seed-based diet, there is a fairly high chance there is already a deficiency."

Poor nutrition is easy to avoid if the bird is young, but transitioning an older parrot to a better diet can be challenging.

"Parrots are neophobic - they don't like and actually fear new things. They also get set in their ways. If you suddenly switch their old diet for a new one, they will leave it and not eat. Parrots do not have much reserve [in their body] and cannot go for long periods without food, and will starve themselves if they don't want to eat something," Blanshard explains.

The vet says in these cases, owners need to introduce new food gradually. If there is another bird that is eating the better diet, place the cages side-by-side so it can be seen eating the new food.

"Often we have them in hospital to transition them. We closely monitor feeding habits and body weight, and tube-feed them as required, until they have learned to eat the new food. This can take a week or two."

In terms of a recommended diet, Blanshard says to feed the bird a pellet diet. "These pellet diets are similar in appearance to dog and cat food kibble. Each pellet contains the full nutritional requirement." Pellets can be bought from some vets and reputable bird/pet stores.

Seeds can be offered in small amounts, and the vet recommends human-grade, organic varieties. "Sprouting seeds are also a good way to ensure the seeds are still alive and providing the best nutritional bang for your buck." 

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