What Causes Gout In Pet Birds

Malnutrition can lead to renal disease and problems in birds

From the pages of Bird Talk magazineQ: My beloved (budgie) Chiffon, was just diagnosed with gout. The vet said it is due to her eating too much seed. We have always fed her healthy people food, in addition to seed, and didn’t know that perhaps we never should have fed her any seed at all.  When I asked the vet why more birds don’t get gout, he said “Why do you think so many budgies don’t live more than seven years in captivity?”

What holistic treatments can effectively be pursued to help her? She was put on allopurinol, but I’ve read a lot about tart cherries, kelp, alfalfa and dandelion greens.

A: First, let me say how sorry I am about your bird having gout. Before we get into the specifics of this disease, let’s first have a look at budgies (parakeets), both in the wild and as a bird that has been kept as a pet since the 1800s, making it the closest to a domesticated pet psittacine bird that we have. 

In Australia, wild budgies forage for different types of grass seeds procured on or near the ground, and the important food items are seeds of native grasses. So one could surmise that budgies are considered to be primarily seed eaters in the wild. They are, however, also extremely nomadic, flying great distances in search of waterholes and seeding grasses. Many problems with captive budgies can be directly attributed to the sedentary lifestyle of the pet caged budgie, when compared to the activity level of that of a wild budgie.

I feed my budgies a mixture of fresh seeds, sprouted seed, little round clusters of seed and other nutrients, millet, pellets designed for budgies, shredded fresh vegetables, parsley (which is fine to feed to budgies, in spite of the fact it is on some lists of toxic plants), plain whole-wheat bread, pasta, potatoes, rice and the occasional fruit. The mix of seeds and pellets is about 50-50. 

I know some vets will disagree with me and would recommend offering only pellets and no seed whatsoever. However, I have seen many cases of cockatiels (and to a lesser extent, budgies) that developed renal disease after eating pellets as the primary food item for a number of years. This was due to some pellets having perhaps too high of levels of vitamin D3 and/or protein, which has since been corrected. However, unless long-term (five years or more) studies have been done on a formulation of a pelleted diet, we cannot be 100-percent sure that there will not be untoward effects.

I offer what can be perceived as a more natural diet, including a portion of seed along with the formulated diet, since budgies are primarily seedeaters in the wild. Sprouted seed is also a very good way to provide excellent nutrients to budgies.

The lifespan of the budgie in captivity is often quite short (6 to 9 years, depending on the source, and with the oldest bird on record being 28 years of age). Certainly malnutrition plays a part in many of these cases, but it is not generally thought among most avian vets that a seed diet causes gout.

However, in the past, the opposite has occurred, although food manufacturing companies have assured us that the problems related to pellets and small birds have been corrected. If seed diets caused gout, I would be seeing many more cases in some of my patients as many bird owners cannot or will not convert their birds to pellets, which is not the case.

The reasons for budgies having a shortened life-span in captivity is more often related to malnutrition (and often secondary bacterial and fungal infections that can occur as a result thereof), obesity, fatty liver syndrome and for reasons we still don’t quite understand, a variety of tumors, both malignant and benign. Tumors of the gonad (ovary or testicles) often occur, and tumors originating in the kidney are also fairly common. Renal (kidney) disease can occur in budgies, and that can result in gout.

Kidney Connection?
The kidneys can be affected by many entities, including infections, such as from bacteria or viruses (polyoma is known to cause kidney problems and paramyxovirus also affects the kidneys), nutritional problems (too much protein, too much vitamin D3, too much calcium, salt poisoning, vitamin-A deficiency), toxins (can occur from drugs, plants, metals and synthetic chemicals), chronic dehydration, protozoal infections (usually occurs in wild ducks and geese) and tumors. Rarely, developmental problems with kidneys can occur. Stones of uric acid concretions can form in the urinary tract, resulting in problems.

Signs Of & Tests For
The most common clinical sign that an owner notices is polyuria, an increase in the amount of urine in the droppings. This must be differentiated from diarrhea, which is loose or liquidy fecal material. In some cases, the bottom of the cage may become soaked with urine. The owner might also notice the bird drinking more water than usual. Any bird with these clinical signs should receive a thorough physical exam and work-up, including a complete blood count, plasma chemistry panel and any other diagnostic tests deemed necessary by your avian vet. It should be noted that many diseases can cause these signs and not just renal disease.

One often overlooked test is the urinalysis. If there are certain abnormalities, including casts in the urine this can be very helpful in determining the cause. However, the only way to know for absolute certain what the diagnosis is specifically, is to have a biopsy of the kidney performed, which is done under anesthesia, usually using endoscopy to nip off a small piece of the kidney. This is then preserved, processed and examined under the microscope by a pathologist. Sometimes, other tests such as bacterial cultures or viral tests will also be performed. This can often provide a specific diagnosis.

In the plasma chemistry test, uric acid is one indicator for renal disease, but it often won’t begin to elevate until the renal disease is quite advanced. Uric acid is the end product of protein metabolism. When proteins are digested and utilized by the bird, for feather production and muscle repair, for example, the waste product remaining is uric acid (also called urates). If the kidneys cannot process this waste adequately to excrete it, it can build up in the bloodstream and in the case of gout, become deposited in joints and under the skin, (called articular gout, or on the surfaces of internal organs, called visceral gout).

Articular gout is usually diagnosed by tapping a suspicious lesion with a needle, and examining this under the microscope. If the vet finds urate crystals, it proves a diagnosis of gout. However, this does not tell us why the bird’s kidneys are not effectively removing uric acid waste.  Radiographs or ultrasound may also be useful in the diagnosis of renal disease.

Once renal disease has been diagnosed, treatment can be instituted. Often, fluids are administered under the skin or in serious cases, via intravenous catheter, to help flush out urates and other toxins, called diuresis. Unless the kidney condition can be reversed, fluids are usually often needed periodically for the rest of the bird’s life. 

It may be possible to treat a specific cause of renal disease, such as those caused by infections, and, in those cases, damage to the kidneys may be ceased. But in most cases, the damage will result in long-term problems. Supplementation with two oils (corn oil and either safflower or flaxseed oil) can be used to provide beneficial fatty acids. 

Specifically, a diet of high-quality protein, in small amounts, is usually helpful. 

Birds diagnosed with gout or any other renal disease must be periodically monitored with blood tests and urinalyses. Specific treatment for gout may include allopurinol or colchicine, in addition to the other therapies mentioned. Rarely, a bird may be able to recover, and it might be possible for the medications to be discontinued, although in most cases, the bird will remain on medication for life.

Renal disease is often very complicated and I have, by necessity, simplified much of the information. But, I think you can see that renal problems are more likely to be caused by a very nutrient-rich diet and not a seed-based diet. 

I hope this helps you understand gout and the relation to the budgie’s diet. Good luck with your little friend.

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Birds · Health and Care