Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Pet Doctor

QUESTION: My parakeet's beak has grown very long, but he still seems able to eat. Do I need to take him to a vet?

ANSWER: I'll assume you're talking about a budgerigar, a small Australian parrot that in the United States is commonly sold as a parakeet. There are dozens of species of birds that also may be named "parakeet," but most of these are expensive and difficult to acquire.

Also known as a budgie, this bird has been domesticated for a relatively short time, compared to dogs or cattle, but dozens of variants abound. The wild type budgie has a bright green body, a yellow head and dark blue and black wings and tail feathers. A common variant lacks the yellow color and has a white head and blue body. Some varieties are larger than others, or seem oddly proportioned compared to the wild budgie.

The reason I'm telling you this
is that different varieties of budgies are selected for traits pleasing to someone's eye and not necessarily with the overall health of the bird as a priority. Some of the hardier breeds of budgies will live to a ripe old age of 12 to 15 or so, but the majority of birds available through pet stores seems less apt to achieve this longevity. Many of them start to show signs of advanced age when they are only 5 or 6 years old and die soon after. Tumors are a fact of life for many budgies, ranging from abnormal fat deposits called lipomas to tumors of the thyroid gland, adrenal glands and reproductive organs. Adrenal gland tumors in particular seem to cause the beak to grow at an excessive rate, although thyroid tumors and testicular neoplasia also may increase the growth rate.

Husbandry can also play a role in what is happening with your parakeet. A good diet includes a balanced pellet diet, seeds, greens, fresh vegetables and occasional treats of animal protein such as boiled egg or chicken meat. If the diet is out of balance, the jaw may deform slightly and the upper and lower parts of the beak no longer fit together well. Even if the diet is good, the beak needs a little wear and tear to balance out the growth. If your parakeet gets twigs to gnaw on as well as tough mineral blocks and cuttlebone, it has less of a chance of developing an overgrown beak.

Of course, you can do everything right and still end up with a budgie that develops a long, curving beak without an obvious cause. Take your budgie to a veterinarian for evaluation.

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