Gut Loading – What and How

Nutritional Issues
There were a lot of talks on nutrition at the recent conference for the Association of Reptile and Amphibians Veterinarian (ARAV). A subject that came up a number of times was how to improve nutrition in our insectivores (insect eaters).

The key to a good diet is diversity. Don’t just feed crickets or mealworms. There are lots of different insects out there and many can be delivered to your door. Consider super worms, Phoenix worms, king worms, Dubai cockroaches, fruit flies, grasshoppers, land crustaceans such as folly-polices or pillbugs…there are many to offer. Some of these guys will even eat pinkies.

Aside from our land crustaceans, all insects have an inverse calcium to phosphorous ratio and that needs to be fixed or your little critter will develop painful debilitating disease.

Ca:P =?
There is a complex relationship between calcium, phosphorus and a few other nutrients in the body.

To simplify, we know that most reptiles need at least a 2:1 ratio (recent studies suggest even that may be too low…). This means 2 parts calcium (Ca) to every 1 part phosphorus (P). Most crickets, while high in protein and low in fat, have a Ca:P ratio of 0.14:1. Now that’s quite a bit less than 2 to 1.  Silkworms are considered a better option but they only have a 0.8:1 ratio.

So what do we do?
Dusting and gut loading!

Most of my clients are familiar with the old “shake and bake ” treatment. Put some insects in a bag with powdered calcium and shake away. But many haven’t heard of gut loading.

gecko

Gut loading refers to the process of feeding the insects a calcium rich food and then feeding that insect to your reptile while the calcium is still in the insect’s gut. We know that gut loading requires feeding for 12 to 24 hours to get the food into the gut. We also know that by 48 hours the calcium levels start to drop off. So you have a window to work within.

Kale! Collard Greens!
veggies-646107_640
Unfortunately you can’t overcome a 0.14:1 ratio with good calcium rich foods such as in certain greens. You have to use a diet specifically designed with tons of calcium for this to work. Mazuri has two such diets (A Better Bug and High Calcium Gut Loading Diet). We also know that you can’t out any other food in the cage – apparently good gut loading diets taste terrible and the insects will only eat them if there is no other food source. Of course you still need water.

If you are raising your own insects – keep in mind that gut loading foods are only given prior to feeding the insects to your reptile. They have too much calcium and will result in the death of your colony.

Also, if you buy pre-gut loaded insects…how do you know when they last ate? What was fed? Can you be certain these insects are ready for consumption? It’s best to be sure and gut load yourself!

One last note – fireflies are known to be toxic to bearded dragons so don’t feed them.

Seeds vs. Pellets

The Diet
What to feed your feathered friend seems like a simple topic but the reality is that there are over 300 species of parrots (Psittaciformes) and over 5000 different Passeriformes (the family that canaries and finches belong to). Our diet recommendations change in response to improved understanding of what these guys need.

In The Wild
Many parrots eat seeds in the wild. They may also consume fruits, nuts, larvae, shoots, dead animals, barks, leaves and grubs. Nectivores/omnivores such as lories and lorikeets eat nectar and pollen in addition to fruits, larvae and seeds. But not all species eat all those foods. Hyacinth Macaws eat palm nuts which are about 50% fat – that would make a cockatiel quite obese!

bird feeding   nuts

So At Home…
So why not feed your bird on an all seed diet – that’s what they’d eat in the wild, right? In part they would. There are 2 very significant differences between the wild and our homes.

The first is availability. In the wild, birds spend several hours each day looking for food. Different food items are available in differing amounts throughout the year. Birds have adapted to survive on these variations. At home, we give them a plentiful (usually too plentiful) supply of all sorts of seeds. Your bird is no dummy! He or she will sort through the offering to eat whatever they’d prefer. You might be feeding an all sunflower seed or all safflower seed diet without realizing it.

seeds

The other important difference is that seeds in the wild are variable in protein and energy content. They are high in omega-3 fatty acids (these do not store well) and have moderate amounts of vitamins and minerals. Domesticated seeds (what you get from the stores) are high in energy from starches and omega-6 fatty acids. They are low in proteins, vitamins and minerals. They basically have candy-like nutrient levels.

Nutrient imbalances can affect any and every organ system in the body. Signs that you may see include changes in the feathers such as incomplete or frequent molts, retained feather shealths, abnormal coloration and irritability due to feather discomfort. Skin may be dry or flaky and itchy. Beaks and nails may split, be too long or have exaggerated curvature. There are other reasons your bird may show these signs, but if he or she eats an all seed diet they probably won’t resolve until the diet is improved.

To Sum Up
Getting your bird onto a pellet-based diet is the single most important change you can make to improve their long term health. We also recommend teaching them to eat dark leafy greans – take a look at our diet handout online here.

 ***Because your bird may have other health problems, we do not recommend working to convert the diet until after a veterinarian has examined your bird***

Chickens foraging

Hay, It’s Not Just for Rabbits

What’s This Hay Stuff All About?
Hay is the primary food for most of our small mammals like rabbits, chinchillas and guinea pigs.  While rats, mice and hamsters will benefit from hay in their environment, they don’t need to eat it.  Pellets are very nutrient dense.  They can lead to obesity if overfed.  Pellets should only be a very small portion of your pets daily food intake.  On the other hand, grass hays provide the high fiber, low protein diet these small exotic mammals need.

Ok, So Which Hay?
All grass hays provide appropriate nutrients -that doesn’t mean your pet won’t have a preference.  The most common grass hay is Timothy hay.  It is readily available and usually a good choice for that reason alone.  Some people feel that Guinea Pigs prefer Orchard Grass hay.  It has a softer texture and a sweeter flavor.  Oat Hay has a high stem content resulting in a “crunchy” texture.  There are usually several immature seed heads present as well.  Organic Meadow Hay is generally a mix of several types of grass hays.  Keep in mind that different bags of hay will vary in color, taste, texture and smell – variations in soil, sunshine and weather cause these changes.  It is a good idea to transition between bags of hay (even bags of the same variety) rather than perform a sudden switch.  A good way to prevent hay bag snobbery (your pet won’t eat his or her new hay) is to offer a variety of hay all the time.

But What About Alfalfa?
Alfalfa hay is NOT a grass hay – it is a legume.  It has higher values of protein, calcium and energy.  Alfalfa hay is recommended for young, growing animals.  It can be used as a treat to tempt older animals that aren’t eating well.  In some cases, Alfalfa pellets may be appropriate in small quantities for show bunnies or pregnant bunnies because of their higher energy needs.

How Much Hay?
Small mammals should always have hay available – free choice feeding.  In general, a rabbit should consume its body size in hay daily, while chinchillas and guinea pigs eat about two times their body size.

OK, But How Much…Is There Too Much?
Nope!
Image(photo by Dr. Micah Kohles)

Isn’t this a happy bunny?  Now look at him without his hay…

Image(photo by Dr. Micah Kohles)

Not Just Food! 

One of the other “uses” for hay is to provide environmental enrichment.  Hay can stimulate natural behaviors such as foraging and grazing.  Hide treats (low sugar, high fiber treats that is) in baskets or hay mangers.  Provide deep piles for your pet to burrow through or hide in.  Even mammals that don’t eat hay can enjoy both a sense of security and fun from a large pile of hay.  Rats, mice, hamsters…even ferrets!

Image(photo by Dr. Micah Kohles)

A Final Word on Hay

One very important job of hay is to help our pets with “open root” teeth is to wear them down.  “Aradicular” or “Elodont” teeth have continuously growing teeth.  The teeth of rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas are all open-rooted, while in rats, mice, hamsters and gerbils it is only the incisors that continuously grow.  The best way to keep these teeth in shape is to be chewing long stems of fibrous plants (also known as hay!).  Without an appropriate grinding motion, open-rooted teeth can grow inappropriately, develop points and even grow in the wrong direction.  Once the tooth becomes abnormal only a dental procedure under anesthesia can correct the problem.