Calcium deficiency (hypocalcemia) is common among parrots. Wild parrots gain the calcium they need from their diet, but captive parrots may not enjoy all the nutrition it needs.
The behavioral signs of a calcium deficiency in parrots include feather plucking and lethargy. As calcium is responsible for the growth of a parrot’s skeleton, hypocalcemia can lead to brittle bones and deformation of the spine and wings.
Parrots that lack calcium can also struggle with muscular weakness, making it difficult to hold onto a perch or tremors that eventually lead to seizures and the loss of consciousness. Heart problems can also arise in the longer term.
Female parrots lacking calcium will struggle to reproduce, as it’s needed to develop strong, healthy eggs. If a parrot with hypocalcemia lays eggs, the chicks are unlikely to survive.
A vet can check calcium levels with a simple blood test. If your parrot is diagnosed with hypocalcemia, you’ll need to adjust your parrot’s diet.
Why Do Parrots Need Calcium?
As explained by Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice, calcium builds and maintains strength in a bird’s skeleton. Calcium is also responsible for kidney, digestive, and thyroid health.
Calcium is particularly essential if you have a female parrot of breeding age. Insufficient calcium leads to poor egg production, resulting in egg binding (eggs becoming trapped in the oviduct), weak shells that lead to high chick mortality, or infertility.
All parrots need male or female calcium regardless of whether you plan to breed your pet. A lack of calcium causes significant health concerns in companion birds that can have a long-term impact.
Is My Parrot Calcium Deficient?
If your parrot lacks calcium in its diet, unmistakable symptoms of hypocalcemia will follow. Seek advice if you observe the following symptoms:
1/ Feather Plucking
Feather plucking is often the first warning of calcium deficiency in birds. Plucking, also known as feather destructive behavior (FDB) or pterotillomania, is unique to captive parrots and unseen in the wild.
Applied Animal Behavior Science claims that some 10% of all captive parrots will engage in feather plucking at some stage in their life, but this doesn’t mean it’s something you can turn a blind eye to. Feather plucking is an act of self-mutilation.
2/ Lethargy and Depression
Happy and healthy parrots should be active and curious. Parrots need three hours out of their cage per day to exercise, and when within the confines of a cage, they should remain alert and communicative.
If your parrot is withdrawn, showing little interest in communicating or playing with toys, this is a cause for concern. If the parrots won’t eat or drink, especially so. This warns that a parrot is growing depressed.
Calcium plays a role in keeping the blood pumping around a parrot’s body, so calcium deficiency can leave a parrot increasingly lethargic and unable to move.
3/ Muscular Weakness
As well as growing lethargic, parrots with hypocalcemia will lack muscle strength and coordination. This will likely manifest in climbing the bars of a cage or holding onto a perch. Your parrot will become much clumsier than usual.
If your parrot spends more time sitting at the bottom of the cage, where it’s not reliant on body strength to hold itself up, attempt to tempt the parrot into flying free and landing on your shoulder. If it cannot or will not do so, it likely lacks the strength required.
4/ Fragile and Brittle Bones
Parrots fly with zeal and enthusiasm when they spend time outside a cage. As a consequence, accidents will happen. Parrots may periodically brush or bump into inanimate objects.
If your parrot is healthy, this is not a concern – the skeleton will be sturdy enough to withstand such blows. If a parrot lives with hypocalcemia, its frame will be weak and brittle.
Parrots can heal broken bones faster than humans or mammals, but they need the right diet.
5/ Skeletal Deformation
Left untreated, hypocalcemia can lead to osteoporosis in parrots. The bones become increasingly weak, constantly breaking and resetting.
If this is allowed to continue, the skeleton can restructure itself incorrectly. Your parrot may end up with misaligned wings, a hunched back, or unbalanced legs and feet that make perching impossible.
6/ Tremors and Seizures
Some of the symptoms of hypocalcemia in parrots can be comparable to epilepsy.
Your parrot will experience muscular tremors, which gradually evolve into convulsions, and even outright seizures. Long-term hypocalcemia can even lead to loss of consciousness.
A seizure will begin with the bird behaving erratically; it’ll grow uncoordinated, likely falling from a perch before the body stiffens and jerks for up to 20 seconds. The parrot may also empty its bowels and verbalize at this stage.
Following a seizure, the parrot will awaken but remain confused and disoriented. It’ll likely be aggressive and restless, pacing or flying around the cage. It can take hours for a parrot to recover fully – and if it lacks calcium in the blood, the cycle may soon restart.
7/ Egg-Laying Problems
Lack of calcium in a diet can often render female parrots infertile. If this is not the case, it’ll certainly impact the ability to lay healthy eggs. Calcium is essential to create a robust and safe egg for a chick.
If your female parrot laws eggs that are soft and lack protection, the chicks within are unlikely to survive the birth. It is also possible that the eggs will not be laid at all.
Parrots with hypocalcemia often struggle with egg binding, which is where an egg becomes trapped in the oviduct. The muscles can’t contract without sufficient calcium, and an egg can’t be passed.
How Is Low Calcium Diagnosed in Parrots?
Testing a parrot’s calcium levels is comparatively straightforward, although it needs to be conducted by an avian vet. If you present to a professional with concerns over potential hypocalcemia, you’ll be asked a range of questions about your parrot’s recent behavior.
Initially, a vet will run a blood test to review your parrot’s total and ionized calcium levels. If these readings point to hypocalcemia, your vet will suggest ways to enhance calcium intake. For young parrots, this can be achieved through dietary changes.
A healthy level of calcium in a parrot varies between breeds. This table provides an idea of the reading your vet will want to see:
|African Gray||2.10 – 2.59mmol/L|
|Amazon||1.87 – 2.42mmol/L,|
|Budgerigar||1.60 – 2.54 mmol/L|
|Macaw||1.70 – 2.47 mmol/L|
If your parrot has appropriate calcium levels or is considered senior in years, your vet will run additional tests. Hypocalcemia shares symptoms with other health issues plaguing companion birds, which is why a professional diagnosis is vital.
How Do I Give My Parrot Calcium?
Dietary changes are the easiest way to get calcium into a parrot’s diet, especially important if you use a commercial parrot feed. The Netherlands Journal of Veterinary Science explains how just under half of such foodstuffs lack sufficient calcium.
You’ll need to bring more calcium-rich foods into your parrot’s diet, whether as part of their main meal or treats. Examples of calcium-rich foods for parrots include:
- Dark leafy greens, like broccoli, spinach, and kale.
- Brazil nuts, walnuts, and almonds.
- Dried figs.
- Lactose-free cheese. Avoid traditional cheese, as parrots are lactose intolerant.
In addition to pure calcium, consider the role of vitamin D in calcium metabolism. According to Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, Vitamin D encourages calcium absorption into the bloodstream.
Exposure to direct sunlight for around an hour will provide a parrot with sufficient Vitamin D. This needs to be outside – parrots can’t absorb Vitamin D through a closed window.
Introduce eggs, liver, and fresh salmon into your parrot’s diet if outdoor exercise isn’t an option.
Calcium Supplements And Cuttlebone
If your parrot is a fussy eater, you may wish to consider supplementation instead. You’ll find calcium and Vitamin D supplements in any reputable pet store, typically sold as pills or available in powdered form.
Always shop for the highest quality supplements possible. These must be offered in moderation, especially if you also change a parrot’s diet. As dangerous as hypocalcemia is to parrots, hypercalcemia – too much calcium – is just as harmful.
Consider hanging a cuttlebone in your parrot’s cage as an alternative to store-bought supplements. The cuttlefish’s shell is made of calcium carbonate, so nibbling on it will provide essential access to this mineral and trim a parrot’s beak.
Never ignore the warning signs of low calcium in a parrot. Left untreated, hypocalcemia will negatively impact a parrot’s quality of life and can eventually be fatal.