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Member of the Month October 2008
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The Importance of Vitamin D3
Don Burke


For many years budgie breeders have had awful disease problems. Many breeders have encountered disease outbreaks that almost destroyed their whole flock. Many times, even in 'Budgerigar World', you hear of breeders despairing and reluctant to continue breeding our precious little birds. The list of diseases and problems is truly awful:

* Viral diseases that cause feather loss in adult birds (flightless and tailless wonders) and French moult.

* A debilitating disease first called megabacteria but which now is avian gastric yeast.

* Chronic runny noses and sneezing

* Constantly infected eyes

* Rampant infertility

* Coccidiosis

The extensive new research done on humans is breathtaking in its revelations and their possible relevance to budgies. Vitamin D3 does a lot more than build bones, it is a powerful anticancer agent and it regulates the immune system. Low Vitamin D3 levels in humans have been linked to many serious illnesses: various infectious diseases, cancers (such as breast and prostate) and autoimmune conditions. Identical twin studies showed that increased sun exposure as children can reduce the chance of developing Multiple Sclerosis by up to 57%. The same applies to autoimmune diabetes, Crohn's Disease and tuberculosis.

New research has also confirmed that, in humans, vitamin D3 deficiency has been linked to infertility in women and poor quality sperm and lower fertility in men. This is exactly what we have seen in budgies.

Vitamin D3 is actually not a vitamin at all since we make it ourselves (as do birds) and it acts more like a hormone: that is a messenger chemical that controls various functions. It controls well over 1,000 genes in the human body.
In humans, ultraviolet B light (which is part of normal sunlight) acts on oil on your skin and turns it into Vitamin D3, which is then re-absorbed.

In budgies oil is taken from the preen gland at the base of the tail during preening and is spread all over the feathers. This is turned into Vitamin D3 by sunlight and the birds consume it later on during further preening. This is essential for the budgies' health.

Here's the rub though: ultraviolet B light (UVB) does not travel through glass or clear plastic or fibreglass. Sunlight in general goes through, but not UVB light. So today's modern aviaries and bird rooms are death traps for birds since little or no UVB light reaches the budgies themselves.

It gets worse. Even "full spectrum" fluorescent lights lack UVB light. They produce the wrong sort of UV light that is UVA. While certain foods contain Vitamin D3 such as cod liver oil, this is a messy and dangerous supplement that does far too little to help. It may assist in safe egg laying and other calcium issues, but not much more.

It now seems that the budgerigar diseases that have crippled our breeding for years have been caused by badly-designed aviaries that exclude UVB light which in turn causes a deficiency in Vitamin D3. This compromises the birds' immune systems which lead to severe and constant disease problems.
Viral feather diseases go unchecked, avian gastric yeast (normal in birds' tummies) goes feral and slowly kills birds and most other common diseases get out of hand. Fertility plummets and general budgerigar vigour collapses.

When significant increases in Vitamin D3 are introduced, the problems begin to recede. Improvements are slow, but perhaps in one or two generations the younger generations will be fully healthy again. Even infected eyes have largely cleared up and no babies have this problem like they used to. I have no new cases of feather loss of any sort. A few old flightless birds can fly again (but not many). Obviously budgerigar aviaries or bird rooms which are open to direct sunlight will produce far healthier birds.

It also seems apparent that the older vitamin supplements fed to birds simply don't contain anywhere near enough Vitamin D3. Hopefully, the new one is far better.

For those wishing to read further on Vitamin D3, check out the November, 2007 issue of Scientific American pages 36 - 44. To read the entire article go to Science News, Articles, and Information - Scientific American & search for cell defences and the sunshine vitamin.

Michael Cannon BVSc, MACVSc

Until recently, we all thought that Vitamin D was only involved in controlling levels of calcium for bones and eggs.

The new research found in Scientific American and other medical and scientific literature is definitely a breakthrough. The information about Vitamin D's anticancer role and its effect on the immune system has been a great step forward in our knowledge. The influence on such a large number of genes is also evidence of how powerful this vitamin can be, and how significant its deficiency can affect your birds. We also need to revise our opinion of the levels of Vitamin D that each individual requires.

For many years, it has been my observation that any disease is a complex of interactions between the patient, the organisms causing disease and the environment. These new revelations regarding UVB and Vitamin D reinforce how changes to the bird's environment can impact on the organisms that are continually attacking the bird as well as the impact on the bird's ability to defend itself from this attack.

For me the most fascinating revelation is the role Vitamin D and UVB plays in protecting our birds from chronic, recurring infections. This may help to explain some of the failed responses to antibiotics.
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