Exotic Birds and Reptiles

Read the section below to understand the food and nutrition for:

Exotic Birds:

A healthy diet is essential for a bird’s good health, immune system, and longevity. It is estimated that 80-90% of the bird diseases are due to poor diet. Birds require a mixture of dietary protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins, and minerals. And they need a lot. Because birds have a high rate of metabolism, they require more food per unit of body weight than larger animals.

Parrots, finches, canaries, and other companion birds require a varied, nutritious diet, which can include seeds, pellets, fruits, and vegetables. Different species of birds have different diet requirements. Generally, parrots can be classified according to their normal diets. Most psittacines (members of the parrot family) are folivores, meaning the main portion of their diet is obtained from plants. Among folivores, there are granivores (birds that eat grain and/or seeds, including nuts), and frugivores (birds with diets based on fruits). Some pet birds are omnivores, whose diet can consist of both plant and animal components. There is a special class of folivores called nectari-vores, who eat mostly nectar.

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A seed-only diet will not provide the required nutrition. Most of the commercially available foods are formulated to contain the required amounts of vitamins and minerals. It is available in the form of pellets, crumbles, or nuggets. The base diet is the primary diet that is fed to a bird on a daily basis and it is high in nutritional value while everything else you feed can be considered as a part of a snack diet. There are commercial foods for different species, so be sure to select one appropriate for your bird. Some foods have higher fat levels for those birds with higher caloric needs such as Macaws and Golden conures. Other foods are lower in fat and higher in protein to provide better nutrition for birds such as cockatoos and Amazons. For most species, pelleted food should be 65-80% of the diet. Vegetables should make up 15-30%, and the remainder can be seeds and fruits.

All fruits and vegetables are a great snack for your birdie. Fruits like Apple, Banana, Berries, Melon, and vegetables like cooked beans, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower can be fed to your bird friends. Before offering these to your birds, wash them properly, and remember to remove the leftovers from the cage to maintain hygiene.

All birds need protein for growth and development. This may be met by feeding limited amounts of cooked eggs, cooked egg substitute, bean mixtures (legumes), tofu, whole-grain bread, low or nonfat cheese, and peanut butter (in very small amounts).

Most pet birds, if fed a proper diet, do not require grit. Grit is considered to aid digestion and is available in two forms-soluble and insoluble. A cuttlebone is a form of soluble grit.  This type is dissolved by acids in the digestive system. Consequently, it does not gather in the gizzard and help digestion, but rather serves as a source of calcium and other minerals. Insoluble grit is typically available as silica.  This type remains in the gizzard. Consult your veterinarian to determine if your bird needs grit and what type is best.

Exotic Birds

Birds decide what to eat by sight, texture, and taste. Offer a wide variety of vegetables and fruit to provide a balanced diet. Keep them in as natural a state as possible and be creative when preparing meals. Hang food from the cage top or sides, weave food into the bars of the cage, or stuff food in the spaces of toys. As an example, for larger birds, feed corn on the cob rather than feeding kernels of corn in a dish. This will help entertain the bird as well as provide physical and mental stimulation.

Supplements for Birds:

Birds who are dependent on seed-only diets need to be fed with required supplements to provide them with necessary vitamins and minerals like Vitamin D3, Calcium, and amino acids. Also, since most birds are selective eaters, they might pick up the seed which they like over the healthier options. One can discuss with their avian vet to understand the dietary supplements that can be fed to your bird. Over-supplementing can harm your bird, it is vital to understand the dosage and administration way before feeding these to your pet.

When switching a pet bird’s diet from seed-only to one based on pelleted foods, you may notice a change in the bird’s droppings, which will appear larger and lighter in color. If you see only a scanty amount of dark droppings, contact your veterinarian; it may mean your bird is not eating well and may need to be converted more slowly. Also, one should also note the foods that are harmful to your bird’s life and always keep them at bay. 

Feeding frequency and Quantity:

Birds’ food bowls can be kept filled with a formulated diet at all times since they spend around 1/3rd of their day foraging for food in the wild. Natural feeding times in wild birds are about a half-hour after sunrise and then at 5-6 PM, so these would be good times to offer fresh vegetables and fruits. Foraging toys can be left in the cage throughout the day for snacking and entertainment.

Also, Fresh, clean water should always be available as dehydration is a very serious problem in birds. Do keep in mind to wash the food dishes daily in hot soapy water. No food should remain in the cage for longer than 24 hours, as the risk of fecal contamination or spoilage is high.

Exotic Reptiles:

Like any living being, nutrition is a very important part of maintaining the health of your reptile friend. Reptiles demonstrate a variety of feeding strategies ranging from herbivore, omnivore, carnivore, and insectivore diets based on their evolution and place of origin.  Some species will demonstrate one feeding strategy as a neonate and juvenile, only to switch to another strategy when mature. The key to maintaining their nutritional requirements is to keep the same environment as it would have been for them in the wild. 

Herbivores pets include green iguana and many species of tortoises but even these species differ in terms of their diet needs like Tortoises often require more grass-based fiber in their diets and should have free access to hay or grasses. Plant proteins are important for these species and can be provided in the form of vegetables and legumes.  Fresh dark green vegetables including Romaine lettuce, mustard greens, and collard greens should comprise 40-60% of the diet.  Commercial diets can comprise 30-50% of the diet or can be replaced with vegetables including kale, spinach, broccoli, beans, peas, and leafy lettuce.  Fruits are an inconsistent source of vitamins and trace elements but do provide some water content to the diet.  These should comprise less than 15% of the diet.  Providing the reptile pet with a diverse diet will encourage the animal to become more accepting of new dietary additions, provide environmental enrichment, and ensure that a complete diet is provided.

Omnivorous reptiles, such as box turtles, require both animal and plant proteins.  Plant proteins are the same as those provided for herbivorous reptiles.  Animal proteins can be provided through earthworms, fish, insects, and small rodents.  High protein, high-calorie foods such as commercial dog and cat foods should be avoided.  Some commercial diets such as trout chow, turtle pellets, and low-calorie dog food can supplement the omnivore’s diet but should not exceed 20% of the total diet.  Diets high in protein, including ground meats or carnivore diets, can cause skeletal abnormalities in young, growing omnivorous reptiles including abnormal shell pyramiding seen in chelonian species.

Carnivorous reptiles, such as snakes, can be fed diets composed exclusively of animal proteins.  Ideally, the prey is pre-killed in order to avoid injury to the reptile.  Whole prey diets generally do not need to be supplemented.  When fed to reptiles, adult rodents are complete with appropriate levels of vitamin D, calcium, and phosphorus.  Neonatal and juvenile rodents are also complete if there is ingested milk in the GI tract to compensate for a lack of skeletal calcium in these prey items. 

Insectivorous reptiles, such as leopard geckos, are primarily fed insects including crickets and mealworms.  Insects are widely available for purchase but wild-caught insects can also be utilized.  Care needs to be taken to avoid feeding an insect that is poisonous to the reptile (ex. fireflies, Lampyridae family).  Insect exoskeleton composition is rich in phosphorus and diets composed of insects are inherently deficient in calcium.  In order to overcome this imbalance, the reptile owner can feed the insects a diet rich in calcium prior to feeding it to the reptile (also known as gut-loading).  Alternatively, the insect can be coated with a calcium supplement prior to being fed to the reptile, (referred to as dusting).  The reptile should only be fed as many insects as it will ingest in a short amount of time to avoid losing the calcium supplement to the environment.  

Many commercial diets are available for purchase where reptiles are sold as pets.  Pellet diets may represent total nutrition, however over or under-supplementation is possible when feeding these diets exclusively.  Reptiles have a slower metabolism than mammals, which should also be considered in the diet.

Natural diets composed of plants and natural proteins can also be fed to provide a balanced and nutritious reptile diet. A balanced diet for a tortoise, turtle, iguana or lizard, snake consists of the five elements as mentioned below:

  1. Water: Reptiles need water to drink as well as some to splash in, especially on warm days while exploring the backyard. Depending on your reptile, one needs to identify the best way to provide water in their habitat. Reptile species native to the rainforest may prefer water in the form of a drip system or mister, while turtle and tortoise keepers may need to soak their reptiles regularly.
  2. Proteins: Proteins are essential building blocks of living beings that are used for growth and development. Reptiles do need both essential and non-essential amino acids in their balanced diet.
  3. Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are primarily used for rapid energy production. This is particularly important in herbivores which consume plant matter only. Carnivorous reptiles do not utilize carbohydrates at all.
  4. Fiber: Dietary fiber is extremely important for herbivorous reptiles. It acts both as a bulking agent, encouraging gut motility, and as a source for fermentation by the intestinal microflora, essential for fatty acid and vitamin B production. Snakes and other carnivores do not have a dietary fiber requirement.
  5. Vitamins and Minerals: Dietary minerals such as Calcium are required for strong bones, blood synthesis and regulation, balancing pH, cellular functions, energy processing, enzyme production, and a wide variety of biological functions in reptiles. The calcium to phosphorus ratios are extremely important to the overall health of reptiles. The ideal ratio of calcium to phosphorus is 2:1, although anywhere between 1.5:1 – 3:1 can be used in a balanced diet. The presence and relative abundance of vitamin D3, magnesium, and phosphorus all have a direct impact on the bioavailability of calcium. Conversely, too much calcium can interrupt the absorption of trace elements. Vitamins are categorized into fat-soluble (vitamin A, D, E, and K) and water-soluble (the B vitamin complex and vitamin C) which are essential for healthy living for a reptile.

In general, Carnivores should consume 25-60% protein, 30-60% fat, and <10% carbohydrate;  Omnivores should consume 15-40% protein, 5-40% fat, and 20-75% carbohydrate and Herbivores should consume 15-35% protein, <10% fat, and 55-75% carbohydrate. 

Mentioned below are the specific nutrition details for different pet reptile groups:

1. Snakes: Nutrition of snakes is relatively simple when compared to other reptiles because they ingest whole prey items. This means that they are able to get all of the nutrients they require from the body of their prey (e.g. they get vitamin A from their prey’s liver, plant proteins from the prey item’s gastrointestinal tract, etc.). Hence items like whole rodents, birds, etc. would suffice to meet the nutritional needs of your snake. 

Exotic Reptiles

The frequency of feeding depends on the metabolic rate. Active species, like Garter snakes, will require more frequent feedings than less active species, like boa constrictors. The nutritional qualities of the foods being offered will also play a role in the required frequency of feeding. Less nutritious foods will need to be fed more frequently and in greater volumes than those that are more nutritionally balanced for a particular species. In order to properly determine the frequency of feeding for a given species, one must first determine the energy requirements of that particular species and consult with a vet to understand the feeding frequency. As a general rule, smaller species will have a higher metabolism than will larger animals.

2. Lizards: Lizard nutrition varies depending on the species. Bearded dragons are usually insectivorous for the first few months of life, and then gradually change to a more omnivorous diet. Once your dragon is 9-12 months old, it is advised to switch them to a diet that includes a daily dose of vegetables, and a protein insect meal around three times a week. It is also very important for lizards to receive nutritional supplements – usually babies need a calcium supplement daily or alternate day, while adults need calcium supplement when feeding insects which can be given along with a multivitamin used once in a week. It is very important to ensure that the calcium supplement that you are using does not contain vitamin D else too much vitamin D can lead to serious diseases. The best way to get vitamin D is via adequate UV light, and it will be present in a multivitamin supplement that can be used once weekly.

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Skinks are often fed a mix of proteins (insects, snails, etc.) and vegetable/fruit mixes. Often captive skinks are fed diets too high in fat (e.g. dog/cat food, mince), having inappropriate calcium to phosphorus ratios, which can result in diseases such as metabolic bone disease. Protein sources for these lizards should be insect-based while vegetables and occasional fruit can be offered daily to meet their carbohydrate and fiber requirements.

Monitor lizards are insectivores or carnivores, and like our snakes, they usually eat whole prey items. Large monitors will often eat whole rodents or birds, and usually are fed this larger meal less frequently. Smaller monitors (e.g. ridge-tailed monitors) usually eat smaller meals more regularly, and are mostly insectivorous. Whole insects should be gut-loaded, and dusted regularly with calcium powder, with a multivitamin used once weekly. Ideally, insects should be fed some vegetable matter prior to feeding to ensure your monitor ingests some fiber.

3. Turtles: Turtles are evolved to eat a large variety of natural foods. Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to replicate their natural diet in captivity.  There are also no commercially available diets for turtles that provide everything your turtle needs to grow and be healthy. This is partly because there is no complete data available for what the ideal turtle diet contains. Hence to provide all nutrients to your turtle, variety is the key.

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Different species of turtles have different natural diets. Some species change their diet as they mature. Therefore, it is very important to know the species of turtle you have and its natural diet. Most short-necked turtles will regularly eat some vegetation, and the amount will increase as they get older. Long-necked turtles mostly eat meat and only occasional plant matter. 

The variety in their diet can contain any of the following items- crayfish, yabbies, brine shrimp, pellets, insects like earthworms, crickets, wood roaches, bloodworm, plants like elodea, vegetables like broccoli leaves, parsley, beans, capsicum, carrot, tomato, fresh fish, etc. 

Young turtles can be fed once a day and most days of the week. Adult turtles only need to be fed every 3 – 4 days and only a small amount of food each time. Overfeeding can be detrimental to your turtle’s health.

Supplements that are commercially available for reptiles vary.  If a supplement is being used to balance a diet that is high in phosphorus and low in calcium, a phosphorus-free diet should be used.  If the supplement is being used to balance a diet limited by a finicky eater, then a balanced supplement with 2:1 calcium to phosphorus content is appropriate. Ideally, the food products in the diet will be balanced and additional supplementation is not needed.  Some supplements can have negative side effects and should be avoided on a long-term basis but can be useful for juvenile reptiles or reproductively active females.

Also, one should also note the foods that are harmful to your reptile’s life and always keep them at bay.