What is Iodine Deficiency ?

Due to an increase of fortified and pelleted diets, thyroid hyperplasia has become a rare condition, but has been seen to affect budgerigars, parakeets, pigeons, cockatiels, canaries, and even wild birds. Budgies seem to be particularly susceptible to thyroid problems, and the formation of a goiter due to an iodine deficiency is the most common thyroid complaint seen by veterinarians. 

Goiter is the term for a malformed thyroid gland, which can grow up to 1,000 mg in mass. The pressure put on the trachea and voice box by the growing goiter causes characteristic respiratory noises that gradually become more noticeable. The problems associated with this mass can be further complicated by the presence of secondary bacterial or fungal infections.

When birds are fed an all seed diet, they can become deficient in iodine. An iodine deficiency causes a disruption in normal thyroid function, and can result in thyroid hyperplasia, also called thyroid dysplasia, or a goiter. This mass, in turn, can cause breathing and swallowing difficulties, and can lead to life threatening conditions.

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Symptoms of Iodine Deficiency in Birds

The signs seen in cases of thyroid hyperplasia due to an iodine deficiency result from the enlargement of the thyroid glands, which is a gradual process. These glands, located in the neck region, increase in size and press against other neighboring organs, including the trachea and esophagus, causing symptoms relating to voice changes, breathing and swallowing. Symptoms can include:

  • Voice changes
  • High-pitched inspiratory soun
  • Wheezing
  • Clicking sound
  • Incessant “squeaking” during inspiration and expiration
  • Loss of voice 
  • Respiratory abnormalities
  • Difficult or labored breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Regurgitation
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Visible swelling in the neck
  • Jugular vein swelling
  • Holding head upright to aid breathing
  • Signs of hypothyroidism, such as weight gain, lethargy, fat deposits, and poor feather quality
  • Convulsions
  • Sudden death

Causes of Iodine Deficiency in Birds

An iodine deficiency results from a lack of an adequate amount of iodine ingested through the diet. This often occurs when birds are fed an all seed diet, which is generally lacking in iodine. When iodine is not consumed in the diet, it leads to a lack of iodine that is available in the thyroid glands, a necessary element needed to produce the thyroid hormone thyroxine. When thyroxine levels are too low in the bloodstream, the brain sends signals to produce more epithelial cells in order to make more thyroxine. The proliferation of epithelial cells eventually leads to an enlargement of the thyroid glands.

Goitrogenic substances, such as those found in foods like cabbage, brussel sprouts, turnips, flaxseed, kale, soybeans and peanuts, can also create an iodine deficient condition. These substances block the production of the hormone thyroxine, even in the presence of enough iodine in the diet, and can create the same symptoms as an iodine deficiency.

Diagnosis of Iodine Deficiency in Birds

Diagnosis of a condition of thyroid hyperplasia due to an iodine deficiency is based on the symptoms and the dietary history of your bird. A physical examination can often reveal a mass or goiter in the neck. This mass can be more evident in X-rays. Blood is generally taken to measure thyroxine levels, which can determine if there is a disruption in the production of the hormone. The presence of hypothyroidism could also lead your veterinarian to a diagnosis. 

Budgerigars can present signs of a goiter when, in fact, they may have thyroid tumors. The presence of tumors may be considered if iodine supplement treatment fails to resolve symptoms.

Treatment of Iodine Deficiency in Birds

Treatment depends on the severity of your bird’s condition, but usually includes iodine supplementation. Many cases can be resolved by adding iodine back into the diet, often in the form of Lugol’s iodine, an iodine solution that is added to the drinking water of your bird weekly, or with an iodine formulated vitamin. Your bird’s diet is generally adjusted to include iodine. Iodine supplementation is continued until your bird’s symptoms have resolved, so long as adequate iodine is provided in his normal diet.

More severe cases may require hospitalization, where an iodine supplement can be injected directly into your bird. Lugol’s iodine may also be given in higher quantities, up to 3 times per week, until your bird has stabilized. 

You may need to provide your bird with an iodine supplement on an ongoing basis to ensure the adequate levels of iodine are met. Such preventative measures are also recommended in cases when birds are fed foods high in goitrogenic substances.

Recovery of Iodine Deficiency in Birds

Recovery of an iodine deficiency can be good, so long as iodine is added back into the diet of affected birds. However, a marked increase in the mass of the thyroid gland can cause life threatening conditions, as the trachea and esophagus are pressed, making swallowing and breathing difficult to impossible. Death can occur in such severe cases.

Ensuring your bird receives a sufficient amount of iodine, either in the diet or with a supplement, is the best prevention against a condition of iodine deficiency.