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Bringing Back the Magic: A Transformational Memior
Skin and Feather Care for Greys
By Alicia McWatters, Ph.D., C.N.C.

Has the cold, dry winter weather damaged your birds' skin, feet, toes, nails, and their once glamorous feathers? Are their feet and toes red, cracked, sore and causing the winter blues? Maybe you have a bird or two with feather loss or a feather-picking problem. Are their feather follicles thickened or clogged (follicular hyperkeratosis) which prevents the development of new feather growth, due to lack of moisture and certain dietary nutrients? Do they scratch relentlessly and seem less than comfortable at this time of year? Do you live in the desert or a semi-arid part of the country? If so, you may have to battle skin problems on a daily basis. If you answered yes to any of these questions, don't panic. A few preventive measures are all it may
take to keep your birds' skin moist and feathers glowing all year long!

I would like to share with you some of the tips that have helped my birds' skin and feathers stay healthy during the inevitable harsh winter months. My winter skin and feather care program consists of a few simple procedures, which include a focus on diet, dietary supplementation, herbal therapy and environment. They have shown excellent results in our aviary when practiced consistently. Nutrition plays a key role in keeping your birds' skin healthy all year, but special precautions need be taken as the winter months approach us.

First of all, what leads to dry, flaky skin and poor feather condition other than cold, dry weather conditions? Skin and feather disorders are often caused by poor nutrition, which result in a depleted immune system. In addition, some of the other possible causes are: inadequate rest, sunlight, fresh air, or exercise, stress,
infection (i.e., fungal, bacterial, viral, or parasitical). Also, chemicals, certain medications, a diet consisting of
excess refined foods and sugar, poor digestion and assimilation, ailments such as liver or kidney malfunction, a hormonal dysfunction, (i.e., hypothyroidism, hypoparathyroidism, diabetes), essential fatty acid (EFA) depletion, iron deficiency, or food allergies. The list goes on...

A nervous bird that preens excessively may develop skin tumors. These are generally limited to the upper back, dorsal wing, and in the uropygial area (preen gland). Your avian veterinarian should exam your bird and carry out the appropriate lab work to rule out any medical cause. You can assist your veterinarian by informing him/her of the bird's past and present diet, health, environment, and medical history.

Skin and feather basics

The skin is made up of epithelial cells and consists of three layers—the epidermis (outer layer), the dermis (middle layer), and the subcutaneous layer (inner layer). The skin flexes with body movement and flight, provides a sensory surface, protects the body from water loss and invasion of microbes. The skin's job is to
protect the body from the many foreign substances that exist in its environment. Under adverse conditions it often reacts with dryness, redness, itching, cracking, thickening and scaling or flaking. The skin excretes some toxins and poisons that are present in the body as does the metabolic processes of the lungs, kidneys, liver, and large intestine. The skin and feathers, however, noticeably reflect what is going on in the internal environment of the body. Feathers are epidermal structures that perform a number of tasks including, but not limited to, protecting a bird's body from physical damage, providing aerodynamic power for flight, and act as a barrier for keeping water from the skin. Feathers insulate a bird's body against temperature change and maintain proper warmth for their offspring. Feathers are primarily made up of keratin; a fibrous protein substance. Beaks, nails, and leg scales are also made-up of keratin. Keratin is the main structural component of feathers. The feathers are nourished during growth through the blood supply at the base of the quill, which develop inside of the skin follicle. Mature feathers are very strong and durable, but are not alive. As a result, feathers cannot be repaired and damaged feathers are replaced naturally at the next molting period.

Notes on feather picking: Most birds take pride in their feathers and keep them in good working condition. Under normal circumstances where our birds are healthy and provided with the elements necessary to meet their needs, much care and effort is devoted to their daily grooming routine with feathering picking not a part of this practice. Something is seriously amiss physically, psychologically, and/or emotionally if you notice your bird suddenly missing feathers or deliberately damaging them. If excessive, long-term feather picking occurs, it may cause follicular damage and the absence of feather regrowth. A balding bird has lost some of its thermoregulatory abilities and is probably undergoing some stress. If your bird seems to be perpetually feather picked either by itself or by its overly affectionate mate, keep in mind that its quantitative nutrient needs increase. At these times, it would require a higher level of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, similar to that which is needed during the normal molting period.

Diet - Of course, a healthy diet is of utmost importance for the happiness, well-being and longevity of your pet bird. Diet is the very foundation of life. Whether we provide the proper foods depends on the knowledge we possess as bird owners. This knowledge is what makes the difference between maintenance health, optimum health or disease.

A diet rich in vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids (EFA's), enzymes, and chlorophyll-containing vegetables, such as leafy greens and sprouted seeds, grains, and legumes helps to keep skin healthy. These foods, plus a variety of fresh fruits, i.e. watermelon, grapes, apple, strawberries, and cucumbers, contain ahigh-water content, enzymes, and other healthful, life-promoting elements. I recommend that at least 80% of your bird's diet be made-up of fresh foods.

Seeds! Contrary to what you may have been told about seeds, they are a very good source of nutrients! Seeds and nuts eaten raw or sprouted contain many of the vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and amino acids essential for the growth and maintenance of healthy skin and feathers. Sprouting increases the nutrient value, esp. the vitamin C content. Seeds contain the best natural source of essential unsaturated fatty acids that convert nutrients into energy.

I offer my birds seeds not only for the pleasure they receive from eating them, but also as a boost to the immune system from the many important nutrients they contain. Seeds are rich in vitamin A, E and the B-complex vitamins and if sprouted, enzymes and vitamin C. These natural antioxidants are extremely valuable to your bird's health by helping to prevent illness and disease. The minerals that seeds contain are calcium, magnesium, manganese, iron, zinc (important for healthy skin), copper, molybdenum, selenium, chromium, silicon, potassium, and phosphorus. Sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and almonds are excellent sources of calcium.

Without a doubt, seeds are a very important part of the diet. My seed mix, which is offered as the second meal of the day, makes up about 30% of my birds' diet. Some of the seeds I serve are: millet, sunflower, sesame, almonds, pumpkin, flaxseed and buckwheat. Of course, be sure your seeds come from a quality source. I purchase a variety of seeds, mostly organically grown, from a health food market. Seeds must bestored carefully to prevent rancidity caused by oxidation of their fat content. Particularly vulnerable are sunflower seeds and peanuts. Do not buy too far in advance and store them in tightly cover containers in a dark, dry, cool location. The majority of my birds' diet consists of fresh organic fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, with seeds being an especially valuable part of this diet!

Supplementation - Often times a skin or feather problem can originate from a deficiency of some very important nutrients. However, it has been recognized that vitamins and minerals can have profound health effects beyond just preventing deficiency. There are likely many times in your pet's life when they could benefit from nutritional supplementation. The following supplements can aid in the healing process of dry, cracked, flaky skin and improve overall health.

Vitamin A has always been considered an important skin vitamin. It is also a promoter of health of the eyes, feathers, and reproductive system, while it is also important as a regulator of the immune system. Many supplements intended for skin and immune problems have considerable amounts of vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency may include symptoms such as allergies, sinus trouble, sneezing, susceptibility to infection, rough dry skin, as well as abnormal hormonal activity, possibly creating reproduction problems. Vitamin A has many uses as a dietary supplement as it aids in the growth and repair of body tissues and helps maintain smooth disease-free skin. Internally, it helps protect the mucous membranes of the mouth, throat, lungs and gastrointestinal tract, thereby reducing the chance of infection. Fish liver oil is one of the richest sources of vitamin A. It contains Omega 3 fatty acids needed for healing and for the construction of new skin.

Vitamin A in a synthetic form can be toxic if offered at high levels, as any excess is stored in the liver and the body's fat cells. When provided in the form of beta carotene found in plants (a precursor to vitamin A), the body's beta carotene conversion process slows down depending on the amount the body needs and is therefore very safe. However, beta-carotene may not be properly converted into vitamin A by birds with diabetes, hypothyroidism or liver dysfunction. I recommend a safe alternative: vitamin A and D from emulsified (unfortified) cod liver oil (natural orange flavored)—1 tbs. per lb. of seed mix.

Vitamin E assists in greater storage of vitamin A and has been shown in many studies to increase fertility and reproduction, and may improve stamina. Vitamin E also appears to have a significant effect on the immune system and the skin. It has also been recommended for chronic skin disorders as an anti-inflammatory. Wheat germ oil is a rich source of vitamin E—1 tbs. per lb. of seed mix. Vitamin A and E oils should be purchased in dark, preferably amber-colored containers. Always store them in the refrigerator. Exposure to light, heat or air will render them not only useless, but also very harmful and carcinogenic if they become rancid.

The B complex vitamins work as a team and are important for healthy skin, nerves, eyes, mouth, feathers, liver, immune function, and normal muscle tone of the heart, stomach and intestines and so forth. I prefer to provide these vitamins from foods whenever possible. However, in a case where a severe deficiency arises, a powdered B complex vitamin supplement or injection may be necessary. The best natural sources are Brewer's yeast, wheat germ, egg yolks, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and green leafy vegetables.

Flax seed oil is rich in linoleic acid, linolenic acid (essential fatty acids), vitamins A (beta carotene source), E and promotes healthy feathers, skin, bones, and nails. I recommend I tbs. per lb. of seed mix. Keep refrigerated.

Evening Primrose oil is another option and the best source of gamma-linolenic acid. The body does not manufacture GLA; it must be supplied through the diet. GLA is an essential fatty acid that eventually converts in the body to prostaglandin E1. GLA is the active ingredient of evening primrose oil. GLA is essential to good health because it is needed in order for the body to make PGE1, a family of hormone-like compounds that control every cell and organ of the body. To prevent oxidation of the oil inside the body, EPO must be taken with vitamin E. If properly processed, EP0 contains its own naturally-occurring vitamin E and many other nutrients. Vitamin B6 and vitamin C also help the absorption of EPO.

The primrose is a most beautiful plant that at first glance reminds one of colored pastel tissue paper. Delicate in structure, there are now several varieties ranging in color from white, yellow (most common), pink, lavender, or red. We grow three different species and look forward to their unique beauty every year.

The primrose plant was quite popular as a healing herb and the Indians used the whole plant extract externally to heal wounds and soothe skin inflammations. They also used it internally to control coughs and infections.

Today Evening Primrose is the focus of much research for its rare qualities as a nutrient. It has many useful purposes; however, here it is in the limelight for its powerful effects on improving the skin and feather condition of our birds. In Britain, a study was performed on rats in the 1960s, to investigate the evening primrose oil and its health effects. The rats were placed on a diet lacking in EFAs. After a few weeks they developed hair loss and skin problems. They were then divided up into two groups. One group was fed linoleic acid the other group fed gamma-linolenic acid. While linoleic acid can convert to GLA it has many obstacles (e.g. nutrient deficiencies, etc.) in its metabolic pathway and is often unsuccessful in doing so. The rats in the GLA group recovered more rapidly than the group fed the linoleic acid. This suggests that GLA is metabolized most efficiently and may help promote healthy skin and feathers. Since this study, there have been over 100 clinical trials and several companies worldwide marketing this botanical treasure.

Whenever dry skin becomes a problem for my birds I make up an 'herbal mist". Preparing one or more of the following herbs and placing the warm solution in a mister bottle can make this remedy quite simply.

Herbal mist - I use the following hydrating herbal therapy to replenish dry skin: Calendula: aids in the healing of dry, cracked skin; Chamomile: soothes and softens skin, reduces inflammation and swelling, helps aid healing; Elder: softens skin.

Recipe: 4 cups of boiling water/1 tsp. of fresh herb leaves/flowers/bark (placed in a stainless steel or porcelain infusion ball). Let steep for about 10-15 minutes in measuring cup then filter liquid through a cheesecloth or strainer into mister bottle, add to this 15 drops of sesame oil and it's ready. Spray your birds thoroughly and don't forget their feet where they may need it the most! Extra tip: Be sure your birds have perches of varying diameter to keep their feet comfortable and stress-free.

Water nourishment - Water is a very important component to health and moisture is necessary for healthy skin and feathers. Be sure fresh clean water is always available; without it our birds rapidly become dehydrated. Mineral water may be added to drinking water in a ratio of 1:1. I use Miracle Water by Alacer,

Corp. Miracle Water is "sugar-free" and contains the following minerals: potassium, magnesium, calcium, manganese, and chromium. When your birds experience stress (extreme heat or cold, for instance) they quickly use up minerals and other nutrients in their bodies. Providing mineral water can replace these lost minerals that are essential for optimum health.

You can increase the humidity level in your birds' environment by placing a humidifier in the bird room. A hygrometer placed in a central location of your bird room can tell you the percentage of humidity. For our desert climate, 30-40% humidity is a comfortable level. If this level is maintained our birds' skin and feathers appear normal. However, a higher humidity of 4O-60% may be more ideal for the various avian species we keep. Sufficient moisture in the environment will also help prevent sinus blockage problems. Be sure to disinfect the humidifier thoroughly between water refills.

We are now approaching the winter season. I hope your birds will experience some of the benefits from the skin therapy methods described above. I'm sure you will find your birds to be healthier and more beautiful as a result of pampering your very special friends!

*If your bird has a medical problem such as pancreatitis, liver malfunction or a malabsorption disorder use caution when using supplemental fatty acids.

All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form or by any means, without permission of the author.

This article was first published in the Summer 1996 issue of The Grey Play Round Table Magazine.

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