Can Adding Oils to Your Bird’s Diet Better Their Health?
When it comes to our birds’ diet and nutrition, a general theme is staying clear of high-fat foods. But is all fat bad? The answer simply depends on the type of fat. Some “good fats” can provide important health benefits.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are an important component of healthy diets. These are often referred to as “good fats,” because of the wide variety of health benefits they can provide when administered properly.
When assessing avian diets, we find their requirements for these fats are substantial. They play a critical role in aiding a bird’s system by replacing dying cells and producing vibrant feathers. Fats are also crucial in maintaining healthy skin, promoting a robust immune system, and so much more.
These good fats also aid in the absorption of important vitamins like A, D, K and E. All of these nutrients must be consumed through the food a bird eats. These important nutrients are occasionally difficult to manage as they become inactive when heated, processed or exposed to light for a period of time. Some nutrients can be consumed within whole foods. However, a few can be efficiently offered as an oil taken safely from its original source.
“EFA deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies we see in avian medicine and, thankfully, an easy one to correct,” said Karen Becker, DVM, NMD, of Natural Pet Animal Hospital and Feathers Bird Clinic in Bourbonnais, Ill. “By managing chronic, low-grade inflammation through appropriate EFA balance, we can reduce degenerative disease potential. Supplementing EFAs can improve skin and feathers, organ and reproductive health, behavior and immune health.”
Show Me the Good Oil
There are two major types of fats needed in avian diets: omega-3 and the omega-6 fatty acids. What are easy ways of offering your birds these all-important fats? For birds large enough to consume them, nuts are one of the best sources for omega-3. Walnuts have significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, as do many other nuts. Pecans, filberts (hazelnuts), pine nuts, and Brazil nuts are all excellent choices and the readily available raw pumpkin seed is a reliable source of EFAs.
For smaller birds, flaxseed, hemp seed and sesame seed are good sources of EFAs. Unfortunately, these oils are not particularly easy for a bird’s system to extract from a whole food source. These seeds can be quite fibrous and difficult to digest; however, an efficient way of introducing EFAs into your bird’s diet is to offer oils in their liquid form.
Oils are highly bioavailable, or readily absorbed by the body and easily put to use. Obtain oils that are either cold-pressed or expeller-pressed and unprocessed. Refrigerate after opening.
Oils can also be offered in a variety of ways. An easy way is to mix it with dry food. Many birds relish oils when mixed with seeds and pellets. Oils can be topped or mixed with room-temperature cooked foods. Rice, quinoa or pasta are excellent choices. Oil can also be lightly drizzled onto other items such as birdie bread.
Soaking birdie bread in the oils or brushing it on cooled bread once the oil has reached or gone above room temperature after baking is also effective. Some birds even accept oil in its original form from a spoon or from a dropper. Don’t add oils to drinking water, as they don’t mix.
Investing In Oil
Oils that have been effectively used with birds include the following:
Flaxseed Oil: Flaxseed contains one of the highest counts of Omega-3 fatty acids. The seeds are difficult to break down in order to extract the oils, so offering the pressed oil is best. The only downside of this process is that producing the oil removes the lignans, hormone-like substances that act as an antioxidant. However, flaxseed oil can be purchased with lignans, so your birds can also benefit from these helpful compounds. Flaxseed oil assists the circulatory system by removing potentially harmful LDL cholesterol and increasing the healthy HDL cholesterol.
Hemp Oil: Hemp oil has an ideal balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Hemp oil helps maintain a glowing skin condition, as well as increased feather quality. It benefits circulation by improving heart health while helping keep the membranes of cells fit and strong.
This oil also helps regulate a healthy metabolism and can help ease joint pain associated with arthritis.
Borage & Primrose Oil: These oils are often available together as a mixture, as they readily complement each other. Borage oil is high in Omega-3 fatty acids and Omega-6 fatty acids. One, in particular, is gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) that the body uses to produce anti-inflammatory compounds. Therefore, individuals with arthritis and joint inflammation can benefit from its consumption. Evening primrose oil has been used for its anti-inflammatory benefits. Evening primrose also appears to improve the quality of the skin.
Black Currant Oil: The seeds of the black currant plant used to create this oil are high in GLA, which appears to have anti-inflammatory benefits. Administered to increase immune system function, some studies suggest black currant oil possesses antiviral properties. An interesting study was published in “Phytotherapy Research” (February 2003) detailing its immune-enhancing effect and found it is particularly protective against the influenza virus.
Coconut Oil: This unique oil is the richest known source of medium chain triglycerides (MCT), which provide instant energy without the need for insulin as they are not typically stored within the body. Highly digestible and ideal for supporting the digestive tract, coconut oil can be heated without compromising the quality, but it is solid at room temperature. It can be converted to liquid form by simply warming it to 76-degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
Birds have been known to readily eat it in its solid form, although it can be added to just about any food item. An excellent source of lauric acid, it contains antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties.
Coconut oil has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer and other degenerative conditions, improving cholesterol levels and helping fight heart disease. Aiding in relieving arthritis and helping balance the body’s metabolism and hormones, coconut oil can improve the quality of skin and feathers and reduces allergic reactions. Obtain organic, virgin coconut oil that has been cold or expeller-pressed.
How to Add Oils to Your Bird's Diet
There is no perfect model when it comes to how much oil per day or week to offer to your flock. For small birds, a drop or two per day is a good target, as long as you can determine how much was actually ingested. Adding the oil to one popular food choice might be a logical way to track how much they’re eating.
Adding oils to dry foods is fine as long as it is only left out for short periods of time. These oils are rich in nutrients and, like all nutritious food, may spoil rather quickly. An hour or two with your flock should give them sufficient time to select the foods they prefer before discarding.
Mixing with soft foods is also a great introduction, but care should be taken to remove the surplus before it sours.
Aside from coconut oil, these oils become rancid quickly because they are sensitive to heat and light. For this reason, always buy small quantities, use within three months, and refrigerate at all times. Purchase products that have expiration dates on the bottle and rotate varieties. As with all foods, no matter what you include in your bird’s diet, moderation and variety is essential. Always consult with your avian veterinarian before adding to or changing your bird’s diet.
An essential fatty acid is an unsaturated fatty acid vital to health, but it cannot be manufactured in the body. It must be introduced to the body through food.
There are two major types of fats needed in avian diets: omega-3 and the omega-6
These polyunsaturated fats, shown to lower the risk of heart attack and cardiovascular disease, are characteristically liquid at room temperature. These healthy fats help to build cell membranes, or “packets” comprised primarily of fat that enclose every healthy cell in the body. Without these fats, the cells must rely on other types of fats to rebuild when necessary. When these cells are not strong, overall health can suffer.
Omega-3 sources are a bit more challenging to introduce, yet they are vital to a healthy diet. These oils are sensitive to heat, light and processing, so transporting and storage is difficult. Once purchased, these liquid oils must be kept refrigerated to avoid going rancid or denaturing.
Necessary for a healthy immune response, omega-3s provide cells with essential elements, allowing them to reproduce. Omega-3s also have an important function in hormone synthesis that allows normal growth and development.
In a study published in the “Journal of Experimental Biology” researchers increased non-migratory birds’ intake of omega-3 fatty acids and found that birds that were not able to exercise still increased their flight muscle enzyme activity by 58 to 90 percent. This might be something that we can apply to companion birds that may not get as much exercise as we would like.
Omega 6s are important to a healthy reproductive system, tip-top organ function (especially kidney and liver), along with healthy skin and feather condition. Birds not obtaining enough of these fatty acids might display behavioral issues and suffer from various conditions, such as wounds that fail to heal properly, infertility and even allergies.
Omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid) are more readily available in bird food items like sunflower, safflower and pumpkin seeds.
Patricia Sund is the creative director of Bird Talk Magazine.
Jason J. Crean, MS Bio, EdD, is a biology instructor, aviculturist and zoo consultant. Learn more at www.drcrean.com.
Photo credit: mama_mia/shutterstock; mypokcik/shutterstock
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