Why calcium? – By Malcolm Green of The Birdcare Company
Calcium is one of the most misunderstood nutrients in bird keeping. This article is intended to explain what happens when birds are calcium deficient and how to prevent this problem occurring. But before we get to that it is worth noting that a recent American survey showed that 98% of pet birds studied were getting less than the recommended levels of calcium in their diet. Calcium deficiency is a real problem!
We will look at the role of this important mineral at three stages of the birds life cycle. Firstly breeding hens. Then growing chicks. And finally in adult birds.
Egg Binding – Prevention and Treatment
There are lots of old wives tales told about egg-binding in cage and aviary birds. Whilst a few cases have medical causes the majority of cases have calcium at their root. This part of the article is intended to explain how calcium is involved in egg-binding and how proper calcium supplementation can prevent its occurrence, increase clutch sizes and improve hen health.
When a hen manufactures an egg she draws calcium from her bones to make the eggshell. In a healthy, well-fed bird the bones contain about three eggs worth of calcium. A number of problems can stop the bones from providing enough calcium to make the shell and when this happens the hen has three options. In reality most birds will select a combination of these three:
1. Stop laying – calcium deficient hens lay smaller clutches. The reverse of this is that diets rich in bio-available calcium enable hens to lay larger clutches.
2. Produce thin or soft shelled eggs – these eggs cannot control their moisture content so most dehydrate and a few (in humid conditions) may water log. Whichever happens – they die!
3. Steal calcium from other organs – when this happens the calcium is removed from nerves and muscles. These organs need calcium to work properly. So when the calcium is removed they stop working properly. The hen is partially paralysed and cannot expel the egg. This is egg-binding.
Generally egg bound hens are found on the floor of the cage, struggling to fly well and with their legs well apart. All of these symptoms are caused by poorly functioning nerves and muscles. However these symptoms are not always present. I know of conures in particular who have been flying around perfectly well. But their owners have expected more eggs and sure enough, after an oral dose of bio-available calcium, they have laid an egg within a couple of hours!
The traditional veterinary treatment for this egg-binding is an injection of calcium. This works very well though it is expensive, risky and invasive. Oral treatment, with a highly bio-available liquid calcium/magnesium/vitaminD3 supplement, works equally effectively but is far cheaper and less stressful for the bird. Old-fashioned remedies like applying oil to the vent and holding the bird over a hot kettle do not address the fundamental problem. They are risky and unreliable.
As usual prevention is better than cure. This is achieved by addressing two factors:
1. Ensuring the bones are full of calcium – this simply involves a weekly dose of bio-available calcium to all non-breeding birds. For Eclectus and African Greys we recommend twice weekly administration.
2. Exercising the bones’ ability to quickly pump calcium into the blood – the above regime ensures this is achieved. By feeding both high and low calcium levels in the diet the bones are regularly forced to move calcium in both directions. This ensures that the hormonal functions involved in this process are working optimally.
Strangely, providing good quality calcium every day can actually have the reverse result to that you desire. If all the birds’ maintenance calcium requirements are satisfied from the gut then the bones slowly lose the ability to quickly pump calcium back into the blood. Egg-binding can result from this over supplementation.
When the hen starts to lay, she needs to replace the calcium removed from the bones so we increase the of calcium administration to five days a week. This keeps the bones topped up. We continue this frequency until the chicks have reached full size.
It is easy to see why this technique increases clutch sizes as the hen always has plenty of calcium and she is storing it and releasing it very efficiently.
Splayed Legs – Prevention and Treatment
This is another area were lots of theories are banded about by well meaning bird keepers.. Whilst a few instances have medical or environmental causes the majority of splayed leg cases have calcium at their root.
We are all aware of the role of calcium in bone formation. In the rapidly growing chick the bones are consuming large quantities of calcium. If the diet is deficient in calcium, or vitamin D3, there may not be enough calcium to go round the whole body. If the nerves and muscles go short of calcium they stop working properly. For nestlings this means that the leg muscles are unable to hold the legs together and support the chick’s weight.
For larger birds like ostriches, uneven muscle function tends to cause the leg to twist outwards at the hips until the toes point out sideways.
Leg rotations are virtually impossible to treat. Though proper bio-available calcium supplementation will stop the problem getting any worse but is unlikely to reverse the deformity. For splayed legs setting the legs into an appropriate splint and simultaneously treating with calcium will normally return the legs to their normal condition if caught early enough. Sibylle Faye’s web site has some information on splinting amongst its huge amount of bird keeping data (www.avianweb.com).
As usual prevention is better than cure. The same regime described for egg-binding prevention will also prevent splayed legs.
Young birds can also suffer from other calcium related problems. Rickets (soft and bent bones) often accompany splayed legs. Slightly later in life young birds go through a period of hardening the bones up by increasing the calcium density. This is just the same in human children. If they are not getting enough calcium at this time the bones get all the calcium available and nerves and muscles again get starved. Birds will be weak, struggle to fly and perch, and, in extreme cases they may be so paralysed they can’t stand up. In many finches and canaries these birds are found on their backs. Again they respond quite quickly to oral supplementation.
Adult Birds -Nervousness and Aggression
All sorts of issues can be involved in aggressive or nervous behaviour in our birds. Perhaps the most underrated issue is also the most common – you guessed it calcium again.
Calcium is very important for nerve function. Without it the nervous system (including the brain) doesn’t work properly. People, animals and birds without enough calcium in their bodies will be frightened, chronically stressed and are potentially aggressive. Given a good calcium supplement regularly will restore good nerve function and calm the animal.
An excellent example of this is given in our story about a rescued Cockatoo whose diet was so poor that calcium deficiency was only one of its problems. This bird had been at the rescue centre for twelve months and they still could not put a hand in its cage safely! Just a week of vitamin and calcium therapy and this bird was being handled for the first time. This is an article well worth reading from our web site: (www.BirdcareCo.com/Pet_Birds/Nervous_Birds/nervous_birds.html)
The problem can also occur in birds whose diet may seem to be quite adequate. We recently had a call from a zebra finch breeder whose show team was far more nervous than the rest of his collection. The only difference between the two groups of birds was that the show birds were getting vitamins and minerals and the rest were not. We postulated that they were calcium deficient and recommended a regular dose of calcium. Within days the problem was fixed!
Of course the whole flock was actually calcium deficient. The vitamins were simply giving the show team more energy and vitality so they showed the symptoms more clearly. So, if you have any birds whose behaviour contains fear or aggression, try calcium supplementation first!
Why is calcium difficult to supplement?
All bird keepers have grown up with being told that all they need to do is give cuttlefish bone and grit to satisfy their birds’ calcium requirements. Unfortunately this is dangerous advice. Solid forms of calcium are very difficult to dissolve in water. And if it isn’t dissolved it can’t be absorbed into the bloodstream. This problem is made worse if vitamin D levels are also low or other minerals are present in the diet.
Very efficient calcium supplementation can be achieved with pre-dissolved liquid products which also contain vitamin D3 and magnesium (for muscle function). The products available do vary considerably in strength depending on the supplier. In the UK we have some products with just 5,000 mgs per litre right up to CalciBoost with 33,000mgs per litre! CalciBoost (or Calcivet as we call it in Europe) was the first product of its type in the European market and it is still the strongest more than five years after its introduction.
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