Not Just A Disease of Softbill Birds Anymore

by Sally Blanchard 

I met a wonderful talking pet starling years ago in California. His caregiver wouldn’t listen to me as I tried to convince her to stop feeding dog food to the bird because it was known that soft bills die of iron storage disease if they were fed dog food. The Peninsula Humane Society south of San Francisco got a Mynah in with a great vocabulary. I asked what they were feeding and the answer was that they were feeding “a quality dog food.” It was what the bird had been eating when they got it. They listened but had to requisition the softbill food I recommend. A few weeks later the bird died of iron storage. They may not have been able to save it if it had been eating dog food for a long time. It drove me crazy (still does) when I know that something is absolutely true and people are too stubborn to listen. 

For many years, we knew that Hemochromatosis (iron storage disease) was a serious problem for softbill birds such as starlings, mynahs, and toucans. One of the major reasons was that there were no low-iron diets made specifically for these birds in captivity and most people fed them dog food, which is far too high in iron because it is made for dogs that need higher iron in their diet  A lot of softbills died young because no one produced a low iron food for them and people didn't understand or know about Iron Storage Disease.

Some people fed dog food to parrots (I hope that is no longer true) but one well-known avian veterinarian I knew recommended that his clients feed their parrots (particularly macaws) dog food. Several breeders fed dog food to their breeding birds and to their babies and people fed it because it was less expensive than parrot pellets or fresh food. Even the highest quality dog foods are a death diet for parrots because they have the wrong protein/fat ratio, an inappropriate balance of vitamins and minerals, less control of gram negative bacteria, and are way too high in iron.

Although for many years, iron storage disease has been a major dietary concern and cause of death in softbills, it didn’t seem to be much of a concern in regards to parrots. However in the last few years, it has become a problem for some parrots, particularly macaws and Amazons. It has also been found in lories, African greys and a few other species. A few years ago, I received a call from a long term Companion Parrot Quarterly reader who lost a severe macaw to iron storage so I started to research it as much as possible. As with all aspects of parrot information, there is a lot of information to wade through to try and determine what is fact and what is opinion. The couple’s Scarlet macaw was also diagnosed with iron storage … I believe that it was discovered with a liver biopsy. They were told and I have also read that the only cure for iron storage disease is repeated phlebotomy; by taking blood several times over a period of time until the blood in the body has gradually been replaced and to start feeding a diet of foods with no supplementation and little or no iron.

There is information that brewing tea and having a parrot drink it has (black or green diluted) been suggested as a preventative (not a cure if the bird already has the disease). Evidently the tannins in the tea block the iron from being absorbed. However, an excess of tannins in the system can cause other health problems. I would certainly advise talking to your avian veterinarian before giving your parrot tea as a regular part of its diet. Green tea is healthier for your parrot to drink but it contains less tannins. It is important to note that green tea contains polyphenols that stimulate the activity of hepatic detoxification enzymes, which may chelate iron and keep it from being stored in the liver. I have given my parrots a dilute of green tea in their water dishes a few times a week for several years.

The best bet is to make sure that your parrot is not consuming supplements or foods with high iron content. Some veterinarians and nutritionists believe that iron storage disease in parrots may be as a result of over-supplementation and a total reliance on pelleted diets. I believe this to be true. The misguided theory that if a little supplementation is good, then more is better is creating problems with imbalances and/or excesses of nutrients, which can cause serious health problems. People who feed a nutritious diet of fresh foods with TOPS Parrot Food should not supplement their birds’ diets with vitamin/mineral products. Some researchers believe that many pellets are too high in iron, so you should check the iron level in the pellets that you feed. It is recommended that pellets should have no higher 80 ppm levels of iron. It seems to me that the most serious problems with Iron Storage Disease started when pelleted diets became common and were pushed as a total or near total diet. I know that some companies cut back in the amount of iron in their manufactured highly processed diets but how many parrots suffered iron storage before they did?

Another suspect in Hemochromatosis is high levels of iron in tap water. Iron can be as high as 10 ppm in tap water. Some water departments will provide levels of certain minerals, etc. in their water. Iron in drinking water is considered a positive since people need iron in their diet although people can also develop iron storage disease but need and can tolerate higher levels of iron than softbills and parrots. If there are high levels of iron in the water you give your parrots, you may need to invest in a filtration system that removes any high levels of iron from the water.

Some foods that are high in iron are bran flakes (and many cereals that are iron fortified for people), oatmeal, Swiss chard, spinach, turnip greens, beet greens, beets, broccoli, tofu, soy beans, chick peas, and lentils. I am not recommending that you completely remove fresh foods such as broccoli or greens from your parrots’ diets. It doesn’t appear to be the fresh foods are causing the problems as much as the reliance on supplements and pellets that are being fed as most of the diet and have added supplementation including iron. In a list of ingredients anything that has the word iron, ferrous or ferric is added iron. Feeding citrus with iron rich foods may actually enhance the absorption of iron. Evidently with foods such as spinach that have a high level of oxalic acid, the oxalic acid binds some of the iron (as it does with calcium) and makes it unusable.

Symptoms are similar to a lot of other parrot disease and health problems: fatigue, loss of appetite, weakness, and balance problems. It as been a problem in softbills (toucans, mynahs, starlings, etc) for many years but has become more common in parrots in the last decade or so. The first time I had heard of it was in macaws, but I also know it has been found in quakers, Amazons, and more. It has become fairly common in lories and lorikeets which some ornithologists think are more like softbills than they are hookbills. It is difficult to diagnose especially since it is a fairly new problem in parrots and if a veterinarian is not current, he or she may believe it doesn't occur in parrots. One veterinarian was quite upset when I suggested that one of his client's lories might have hemochromatosis. He accused me of practicing avian medicine without a license and stated that it had never been found in lories. I had to give him the issue and page number of the AAV Journal of an article about Iron Storage Disease being found in Lories.