Q My three-year-old hand-raised Timneh African Grey parrot, Zambia, recently died quite suddenly and unexpectedly from gout. Four days before she died, she became listless and unresponsive, sitting with both feet on her perch and with eyes closed. I brought her to my veterinarian immediately, but she was unable to diagnose the problem. However, she gave Zambia antibiotics and treated her for lead poisoning, calcium deficiency and psittacosis. Zambia began regurgitating that day and had to be tube fed and given fluid injections for dehydration. By the fourth day, the continued dehydration necessitated starting an I.V., but shortly afterward, Zambia died. The diagnosis of gout was made after necropsy, which revealed crystallization in her kidneys. I do not understand how this could have happened and have several questions as to possible causes. Could our hard water have caused the gout, or a lack of sunlight? Zambia’s diet consisted of 80% pellets, 5% parrot seed mix and 15% fruits, fruit juices, popcorn, whole wheat bread, pasta, rice, cheese greens and, rarely, cooked chicken. Since the beginning of the year I had begun giving her 4-5 pieces of peanut per week as a reward. Could the increased protein from the peanuts have been a problem? I would like to have another African Grey, but not if keeping one in captivity shortens its life span drastically.
A I am sorry to hear about the death of your African Grey parrot. It is, unfortunately, far too common a story. Gout in birds is a fairly common killer that frustrates both the owner and practitioner. The realities of gout are not easy to live with. Often the disease has progressed considerably before signs are observed. This makes recovery difficult and treatment a real problem. There are three known causes of gout: heredity, environmental pollutants such as organic and halogenated solvents, and vitamin A deficiency. From the information you provide, I believe your bird’s problem was inherited.
Gout comes in two forms, articular and visceral. In articular gout, uric acid, the chemical which carries excess nitrogen from the bird’s body via the urine, deposits in joints, tendons and tendon sheaths. This form of gout is painful and is sometimes seen in the fairly early stages, in contrast to visceral gout. Visceral gout is the condition in which uric acid is deposited in liver, heart, kidneys, pericardium, air sacs and peritoneum. Unlike articular gout, visceral gout is not usually detected until late in the course of the disease and even then may be easily confused with other syndromes. Frequently birds stop drinking at this stage and succumb quickly.
Inherited gout is extremely difficult to treat. Allopurinol, which inhibits the formation of uric acid, is used as a treatment, but the genetic tendency of the bird to deposit uric acid in inappropriate places works against treatment. Gout resulting from the other two causes can be somewhat easier to treat, depending on the severity of the damage to the liver or kidneys. Organic or halogenated solvents can interfere with proper functioning of the kidneys, resulting in an inability to excrete uric acid effectively. Vitamin A deficiency can cause keratinization of the kidneys with a similar effect. If either of these situations can be reversed, there is hope for stopping the course of the disease, but uric acid, once it has been deposited, is difficult to remove from tissues.
High protein diets are often thought to be a potential cause of gout, since they contain high levels of nitrogen, resulting in high rates of synthesis of uric acid. In practice, however, high protein diets can raise blood uric acid levels, but these high levels do not correlate with gout and so are not good indicators of that condition. On the other hand, low levels of protein have some small effect on gout and can be used to enhance other treatment.
Whether you should get another African Grey Parrot and risk a repetition of the loss of your beloved pet is difficult to answer. As I’ve said, it appears that your bird was genetically predisposed to gout and that your veterinarian did all that could be done. The course of your pet’s disease is common and there is no guarantee that it would not occur in another bird. Nevertheless, most birds never get gout. Many more birds die from infections, accidents and other causes. Considering the satisfaction birds offer as pets, the benefits may be well worth the risk.
— Tom Roudybush