There is a danger attached to writing the words “my bird is sick” and then putting that out somewhere on the Internet or on social media for others to read. Whether you want it or not, you’re going to get people trying to help you. That in itself is a great thing because it is a sign that people care enough to try. The problem is that some of the advice you can get from the Internet is often misinformed or even dangerous. The Internet is a wonderful thing, but it shouldn’t be used as an alternative to taking your bird to a vet.
Since writing about my galah Morgy’s liver issues, I have received countless messages with advice in them. It’s all well intentioned (or at least I hope so) but some of it has been just plain scary if not downright crazy.
More than one person has sent me an avocado liver cleansing program that they said would 100% save my bird’s life in the same way that it had saved their own. The liver being a regenerative organ – it is possible to help a liver recover. A quick google search tells me avocado is amazing for helping the liver. At a glance it looks good. I could easily have been tempted or desperate enough to try it based on the advice I was receiving. Only problem with that – this is a diet designed for humans. Avocado is very toxic to birds. Knowing that, reading that advice was like reading a book titled “101 ways to poison your bird”. An avocado diet would not save my bird, but would actually kill her. Scary that people would even suggest it. Scary too that more than one did.
The most common advice I’ve received for Morgy has been the advice to try her on milk thistle. People are quite right in saying that milk thistle has the reputation for helping the liver to regenerate. It is safe for birds. In fact, Morgy has been on a milk thistle extract for a few months now and I do credit it with helping her blood test results normalize. It’s good advice. Sort-of. That little piece of advice is all over the Internet for people to randomly follow. It’s great stuff when it comes to liver problems but I just want to take the time to caution people about its use. There are a few things you need to know before you rush out and buy it.
Milk thistle seeds are bitter and many birds won’t even touch them. For this reason, most people use an extract that comes in a liquefied form. Most commercially available extracts are mixed with alcohol and therefore aren’t safe for birds. This is true for a lot of natural remedies (including dandelion which is another that people have recommended). I am using an alcohol-free extract that isn’t available over the counter. I have to go to a qualified naturopath to get it dispensed. I don’t think there even is an alcohol-free version sold over the counter in Australia.
The other thing that I’d say about milk thistle extract is that it is possible to overdo it. It can cause some uncomfortable digestive issues; diarrhea, nausea etc. Make sure you use it under a vet’s supervision, don’t just randomly add it to your bird’s diet. There are people who live in a part of the world where avian vets don’t exist (so they have no choice but to use the Internet for advice). I also know a lot of people who have been told to use it by a vet who haven’t been given a dose rate so for the record, the dose rate I have been given by an avian vet is 50-75mg silibinin per kg of bird. As knowledge and research happens, that recommended dose rate will change over time – so be sure to confirm the dose rate appropriate for your own bird with your own vet.
Nothing replaces taking your bird to a vet when it is sick. As it happens, some people’s advice has hit on what my vet has suggested for treatment just from reading my blogs. However, it is my vet whose advice I’m following. He’s the one who has physically seen the xrays and knows what her blood results are. He has the full picture that I can’t possibly fully explain in a short blog. He’s experienced and I trust him. That’s not to say that I don’t learn from the advice Internet friends send me. I do. But I’d run it past my vet before trying anything he hasn’t suggested. Who is to say what might interact with the medications Morgy is already on? Milk thistle is not the only thing that has been prescribed and there is a reason I don’t list her medications here. I don’t want to see people self-prescribe based on what I’m writing because her medications won’t suit all situations. I’m not a vet (yet) and I can’t diagnose a bird over the Internet anymore than a vet can/should.
What has become obvious to me is how easy it is to get a bird’s diet wrong. It’s also obvious that birds like Morgy, who were born into a time before humans understood that birds eat more than seed; have an increased risk of developing these issues even after their diet has been updated. Not all will develop liver problems (genetics and other factors definitely play a part) but many birds do.
To those who worry that this scenario fits their bird, I’d say you don’t need to rush out and buy milk thistle extract or start treating liver issues with medications and special foods before symptoms appear. If you are giving your bird a good diet, then you are already treating it and preventing it. A good diet will include most of the foods that will help a liver problem anyway. I have absolutely no doubt that I would have lost Morgy years ago if she’d stayed on a seed diet. A healthy diet is the number one treatment for a liver complaint.
I urge people to check out the birdtricks cookbooks and I’m not doing that just to sell stuff, I do it because I’ve seen the results for myself and I’ve heard vets discuss this diet firsthand. Believe me when I say that having all that information put together neatly in one place for you, beats doing all the research into a bird’s diet yourself! Anything to avoid being in the position of watching your bird live on borrowed time is a good thing from where I’m sitting. Getting your bird’s diet right as early as you can, is possibly the most important thing you’ll ever do for you bird. It’s one way to keep your bird healthy enough to not need an emergency vet trip.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.