Vitamin deficiencies in Exotic pets

Vitamin deficiencies are largely a thing of the past for people and pets in the developed world (with some notable exceptions).  However, they are still a relatively common problem across the various types of exotic animals kept as pets even in this part of the world.  Following are two of the most common:

 Vitamin C

Vitamin C deficiency is a common problem in guinea pigs and fish (yes, fish).

Guinea pigs, like humans, are one of the few species on earth that are not able to produce their own vitamin C.  As such, they need vitamin C supplemented in their daily diet.  Pellets are not a reliable source of vitamin C, even though many companies do fortify their pellets with it.  The reason for this is the fact that vitamin C is very unstable, and breaks down within 90 days of the milling date of the pellets.  Unfortunately, most pellets do not list the milling date on the packaging, and you have no way of knowing how long those pellets sat on the shelf at the manufacturer, the distributor and the pet store before you took the bag home.  Vitamin drops in the water are also not reliable, though when prepared daily can be a very effective way to supplement.  The reason we need to make solutions fresh daily is that vitamin C reacts and breaks down rapidly when exposed to ions that are naturally present in water (less so with distilled and de-ionized water).  With tap water, most of the vitamin C is not active after six hours.  Vitamin drops can also promote the development of a biofilm on the inside of water bottles and bowls.  This biofilm is a prime area for bacteria to colonize and grow, meaning that you would need to fully wash and scrub your water bottle regularly to make sure that the water in the container is safe and clean.  We recommend supplementing Vitamin C for guinea pigs by using a low-sugar vitamin C tablet, such as the Oxbow Vitamin C Hay cookies

Fish become deficient in vitamin C in one of two ways.  The first, as with vitamin A, is with old food.  The second is if fish do not eat soon enough after supplemented food enters the water.  Vitamin C is very unstable when it comes into contact with water, and breaks down rapidly.  If fish are shy or at the bottom of the pecking order, they may not feed as quickly and aggressively as more dominant individuals.  So feed several small meals during the day in several locations in the tank to decrease competition and food wastage.  Observe fish to make sure that submissive ones and fish who feed lower in the water column are still able to feed.


Vitamin A

Vitamin A deficiency is distressingly common in birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish.   Vitamin A is critical for the functioning of glands.  When the animal suffers a deficiency, the glands become lined with squamous epithelium (like heavy skin calluses) instead of glandular epithelium.  The glands then become plugged and are not able to function.  This leads to a wide range of problems, from dry-eye in geckos, to skeletal deformity in fish, to feather issues in birds.  Vitamin A deficiency can also cause immunodeficiency and impairment of vision.

In fish, most vitamin deficiencies result from old food.  The vitamins in fish food is only stable for 90 days after the packaging is opened, so all fish foods should be discarded and replaced 3 months after opening.  Breakdown of vitamins can be accelerated if the food is not kept cool and dry.

In birds, it is usually the result of being fed a seed-based diet.  Seed diets are high in fat, and generally low in vitamins.  Even when seed diets claim to be “vitamin fortified”, this usually is not helpful, as the only way you can add vitamins to seeds is to spray them, and most of the species we keep as pets crack the shell off the outside of the seed and discard the shell.  To avoid such deficiencies, we recommend 50-85% of the daily intake should be a high quality pelleted diet.  Passerines (finches and canaries), budgies and cockatiels should be closer to the 50% end, with the balance being made up of a high-quality seed diet.  Pellets have the advantage that every bite the bird takes in is complete and balanced nutrition, as opposed to seeds, which generally are not.  One of the best brands of pellets available is Harrison’s Bird Food.  The clinic carries these diets and can order in the appropriate sized pellet for your bird.

In reptiles and amphibians, the main culprit is lack of supplementation.  Most of the over-the-counter reptile multi-vitamins contain beta-carotene instead of vitamin A.  Most reptile species are not able to covert Beta-carotene to vitamin A, and thus they become deficient.  Turtles are also prone to vitamin A deficiency if they are not fed a high-quality commercial diet, most of which are properly supplemented with vitamin A.   We have both a liquid vitamin A supplement and a powdered supplement with vitamin A in it at your friendly Sherwood Park Veterinary Clinic, where fish, feathered friends and all companion animals are our friends!