THE BLOG

The Essential Nutrient Your Pet Bird Could Be Lacking

10/16/2013 02:49 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Just as humans need sunshine and vitamin D to prevent disease and be optimally healthy, so do our avian friends.

Domesticated birds like psittacines (parrots) and passerines (finches, canaries and other perching birds), need natural direct sunlight for certain metabolic processes to occur, and for a number of other health reasons as well.

Just like those of us who don't have access to year-round sunny, warm climates, birds can also become UV deficient. If you do happen to live in a warm climate and have the time to supervise your bird outside, I highly recommend allowing her to spend several hours outdoors. Nothing man-made can ever completely replace the health benefits nature provides in clean, fresh air and sunlight.

Why Is Ultraviolet Light So Important for Your Bird?

1. To promote vitamin D synthesis and absorption.

Just like humans, birds need vitamin D to aid in nutrient absorption and bio-assimilation.

Your pet bird has an uropygial or "preen" gland above the base of the tail. This gland secretes oil. As your bird grooms, she spreads this oil over her feathers.

The oil contains a compound that produces vitamin D when exposed to the sun's ultraviolet rays. So as your bird grooms under an ultraviolet light source, she's actually mixing up a healthy batch of vitamin D on her feathers.

As your bird re-grooms her feathers coated in oil, she ingests the vitamin D, which will then be converted by the kidneys and liver to active vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol).

Another way your bird absorbs vitamin D is through the eyes. The lens of the human eye is trichromatic, which means it contains cones that absorb only three color spectrums -- red, blue and green. The human lens filters out ultraviolet light.

Not so with birds. The lens of a bird's eye absorbs not only red, blue and green spectrums, but also UVA and UVB rays, making its vision pentachromatic. Your bird has better vision than you do, and she can also see more hues and colors. This enhanced vision helps birds locate certain food sources and even helps them select a mate.

Your bird's eye is also different from yours in that it has an additional gland around the retina called the Harderian gland. The Harderian gland aids absorption of UV light into the retina and communicates with the pineal and pituitary glands to help regulate breathing, molting, and day/night cycles, as well as migration pattern.

Your bird's basal metabolism and overall health are in large part regulated by the pineal gland and the pituitary gland, which means the condition of the Harderian gland is pivotal.

2. To prevent your bird from developing UV deficiency-related illnesses.

A vitamin D3 deficiency frequently results in low calcium levels. Symptoms can include low egg production/hatching and poor shell quality, bone fractures and seizures. Shortage of vitamin D3 can also cause physical abnormalities, including a soft or overgrown beak, splayed legs, and bent keels.

The avian disease stargazing (twirling) is associated with vitamin D deficiency, as is Conure Bleeding Syndrome and increasingly, many types of cancer.

If you happen to own an African grey, you know how susceptible your bird is to hypocalcaemia. Recent research is pointing in the direction of a vitamin D deficiency rather than low calcium levels.

Since vitamin D is required for adequate calcium absorption, lack of direct sunlight or another appropriate ultraviolet light source may reduce the effectiveness of calcium fortified pellets. This can result in chronically low calcium levels.

3. To improve your bird's overall well-being and quality of life.

I've seen exposure to ultraviolet light positively affect not only the physical health of my bird patients, but also their mental processes and emotional well-being.

Access to direct sunlight or an alternative appropriate source of UV light can improve conditions as varied as:

• Destructive behavior like feather picking
• A poor feather coat
• Organ dysfunction
• Immunologic disorders
• Poor mood and temperament

Using Ultraviolet Bulbs

Except for bird owners who live in warm, sunny climates and can have their pets outside for several hours a day, most of us need to provide indoor UV lighting to ensure our birds get the exposure they need for good health. Putting your bird in front of a window won't do the trick -- glass filters out the beneficial components of ultraviolet rays.

There are a number of UV bulbs for birds available on the market. You will want to buy the kind that provides both UVA and UVB rays. And make sure you're buying UV bulbs designed for birds. Avoid aquarium or fish bulbs, and plant or grow bulbs. Stick with UV bulbs specifically marketed for birds.

Place the light about 12 to 18 inches from your bird's perch. I recommend around eight hours of light a day, with a minimum of four and a maximum of 10.

Dr. Karen Becker is a proactive and integrative wellness veterinarian. You can visit her site at: MercolaHealthyPets.com.

Her goal is to help you create wellness in order to prevent illness in the lives of your pets. This proactive approach seeks to save you and your pet from unnecessary stress and suffering by identifying and removing health obstacles even before disease occurs. Unfortunately, most veterinarians in the United States are trained to be reactive. They wait for symptoms to occur, and often treat those symptoms without addressing the root cause.

By reading Dr. Becker's information, you'll learn how to make impactful, consistent lifestyle choices to improve your pet's quality of life.