HOW TO ADMINISTER MEDICINAL HERBS TO BIRDS
One of the most important things I have learned in working with herbal medicine for birds is that each herb is totally unique and requires fresh thinking in terms of how to administer, when to administer, what the effects will be and so on. This might sound obvious, but most people think herbs are like foods and you just sprinkle them onto a bird’s food dish and that’s that. I have found the sprinkle-onto-food system to be highly ineffective for several reasons. For one thing, the bird simply can’t get a medicinal dose that way and even if they could it’s impossible to determine how much they are getting, and finally, you may well cause weight loss with this system by making the food unpalatable with the result that the bird doesn’t get enough food to sustain its weight. I think you can administer mild tasting nutritional herbs like alfalfa, kelp, nettles etc. with the sprinkle system, but for medicinal herbs, administration has to be fairly well calculated and precise.
Another important lesson I have learned is that you need a whole lot more herb than you ever imagined in order to get anywhere with birds due to their high metabolic rates. For example, I have a Princess of Wales with chronic giardia and I have had good success using some of the more toxic herbal anti-parasite formulas on the market to manage her symptoms. These are formulas that can land me in bed doubled over with cramps. Well, in order to eliminate Monkey’s symptoms, I have had to use about one quarter of the dose for a 150 pound human, and Monk only weighs one quarter of a pound. Even at this high dose, she has always been absolutely fine during all of her treatments! You have to remember that birds are designed to metabolize all kinds of toxic plant matter like unripe nuts, seeds, fruits, rinds, barks and so forth. I have seen reports of just a few drops of poke tincture killing human children, while the birds outside my window happily enjoy nibbling on my poke bush throughout the growing season. Of course there are herbs that are simply too toxic to use with birds, though I’m having trouble thinking of one at the moment…you need to use common sense on this.
Calculating the appropriate dose for any given herb to be used with birds is essential in order for it to be effective, but there is almost no literature on this subject in books or on the internet. I have developed a system for dosing that has worked really well. First, I asked my vet how he calculates bird doses of pharmaceutical medicines that are manufactured for humans. Then I compared the numbers I got from what he told me with the few examples of successful herbal dosing for birds that I could find in books and online. I was amazed to find that there really is a formula you can use that will deliver an effective medicinal dose to birds most of the time.
Here is the process I use for dosing: I take one third to one tenth of the human dose as listed on the label or as recommended via books or online (I generally do a fair amount of research to get the appropriate human dose), and this will be my dose for a one pound bird. I then use one third of the human dose if the herb is really safe or gentle and/or if the bird is really sick; I use one tenth if the herb is super strong (goldenseal, wormwood, quassia etc.) or if the bird is not too sick. Remember: one tenth is the dose for a one pound bird. So let’s say the human dose is 20 drops three times per day. I would then use about seven drops for a one pound bird. If the bird is two pounds I would go to about ten, because it doesn’t scale up and down proportionally to the weight. If the bird is half a pound I would go to maybe five or six drops, and if the bird is small, like a budgie, I go to about two drops. For a finch I would probably use two drops as well, because the smaller they are the faster their metabolism gets. The scale becomes less precise the lower you go. All of this sounds nerve-wracking, but it isn’t really because you have a whole lot of leeway. I often give a one pound bird twice the dose with no problem and I have certainly given budgies and finches up to three times the dose with no problems. I am just laying out a really rough guideline so people can get the general idea of how much plant material is required to have any significant medicinal effect in birds.
If the dose is too high I will usually see side effects such as over-stimulation, lethargy or occasionally, anorexia. I then need to either scale back the dose or use a different herb. If there is no improvement with a given dose, I may need to scale the dose up or
find a different herb.
TEAS, TINCTURES, POWDERS
Another important aspect to successful medicating with herbs is to determine the best form of herb to use. This gets complex because some herbs are more medicinal as teas, some as tinctures, some dried, some fresh and so forth. But for practical purposes, I do whatever works. If a bird is really sick and I have to use an alcohol based tincture, I go ahead and do that and I have never seen a problem with that. However, I try to avoid using the alcohol tinctures long term (though I have done it!) simply because they could theoretically compromise a bird’s liver, especially a bird with liver disease. It is a myth, I’m afraid, that you can remove alcohol with boiling water: I checked with a couple of chemists and an alcohol manufacturer, and apparently, you only boil off about ten percent of the alcohol with boiling water. Glycerites (herbal extracts in vegetable glycerin) are popular for birds, but there is a huge problem with glycerites which is that glycerin does not extract most herbal constituents effectively. Also, some birds dislike glycerin. You really should avoid glycerites except in special cases which I will get to another time. Teas work really well as long as the bird will drink the tea. Sometimes you get lucky with this and you can use a tea as the bird’s sole source of fluids which can be highly effective. However, the best way to administer herbs to birds most of the time is by using dried herbal powders. Sometimes the bird will eat the powder on a warm banana or yam, but most of the time you have to mix the powder into a slurry using warm water or apple juice and then syringe it into the beak directly. This is the safest way to ensure that the bird is getting a medicinal dose.
LENGTH OF TREATMENT
I usually run a course of treatment well past the point at which the bird recovers. If they recover in two days I might use the herbs for a week. If they recover in a month I might use the herbs on and off for six months. If, as in the case of my Princess, Monkey, the bird has a chronic condition, I might use the herbs off and on for the duration of the bird’s life. Finally, herbs should never be used continuously. I usually will not exceed two weeks of continuous use before taking two days off, then a two week period can be repeated. If the treatment is going to span months or years, then I will either use the herbs for five days of the week, taking the weekends off, or else use the herbs for two weeks on and one week off.
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, or by any veterinarian. All information, including any product or technique mentioned, is for educational purposes only. None of the information is intended to diagnose or treat any disease.