Water

Water is an essential nutrient for all living things. While water seems like a simple thing to provide, there are actually so many types of water available, from tap water to bottled water, including the "designer water" that you questioned me about, that I felt it was time to go over the different types, so that you can choose the best type of water to offer to your birds.

Let's start with the obvious: tap water. For most areas of the United States, tap water is safe and acceptable to offer to birds for both drinking and bathing. However, it is probably safest to have tap water tested by the health department or an independent lab to ensure that there are not hazardous bacteria, mineral content or dissolved toxins in the water. Some water companies will perform this service at no charge to water department customers. However, it is important to realize that acceptable bacterial counts for humans may NOT be safe for pet birds, so it is a good idea to have your avian vet evaluate any water testing reports to ensure that the bacteria found are not harmful to birds. Also dissolved chemicals and minerals may be harmful to birds at levels that are considered safe for humans.

There are many home test kits available to analyze drinking water. There are EPA-based laboratory-certified kits that will allow you to screen for bacteria, iron bacteria, lead, nitrates, nitrites, chlorine, iron, copper, pH, alkalinity, hydrogen sulfide, pesticides and hardness. Of course, unless you have a degree in chemistry, you may still require the services of your avian vet to help you interpret the results.

Tap water that has been treated by way of any number of filters may be a better choice if there is any question about the quality of the water. There are many types of filters available that attach right to the faucet, including carbon block filters, ultraviolet light, activated carbon, reverse osmosis and others. Other water filters work by filling a pitcher with tap water that drips through the filter, removing undesirable components in the process. These types of filters that perform selective filtration (which removes contaminants and NOT minerals) are often adequate. What contaminants are removed should be clearly spelled out in the literature that accompanies the filter, so it is important to thoroughly read the label.

Fluoride is often added to municipal water as a means of strengthening human teeth. While this practice is controversial, the safety of fluoridated water for birds has not been proven or disproved, many respected physicians and scientists feel that fluoride is detrimental to the health of humans, so, if it is possible, it is my personal recommendation that fluoridated water NOT be used for birds (not to mention that they would derive no benefit from fluoride as they have no teeth!) although side effects should be minimal, except in the debilitated bird. Unless stated on the label as an additive, bottled water should not contain fluoride. It should be noted that most home filtration units, whether attached to the faucet or via a pitcher, will only remove trace amounts of fluoride and should not be relied upon to remove fluoride from the water (unless the filter has a special attachment that is specifically designed to remove fluoride). If in doubt, provide your bird with bottled water which does not contain fluoride.

When it comes to types of water treatments, the terms can be very confusing, so it would be a good idea to learn what each means, so that when you are reading labels on bottled water, you will be an educated consumer. Natural water contains traces of dissolved minerals, including calcium, magnesium and potassium.

Water that comes in plastic bottles should be perfectly safe for avian use, however, water should be properly stored in a cool, dry, dark place to avoid the possibility of algae growing inside the bottles. And make sure to use water prior to the expiration date. If the water looks cloudy, smells off, or if the seal is broken, when in doubt, throw it out.

Distilled water is water that has been boiled, evaporated and the vapor is condensed back into water. Reverse-osmosis can also create mineral-free water. Distilled water is free of dissolved minerals, and is classically considered as flat-tasting. Nowhere on the planet is naturally occurring de-mineralized water, which can be interpreted to mean that living organisms are not meant to drink it! Drinking distilled water can be dangerous, as demineralized water contains more hydrogen and is considered an acid (with a pH of less than 7). Any time a living animal consumes an acid, the body pulls minerals from teeth (I know birds don't have teeth, except for the baby egg-tooth!) and bones to produce bicarbonate to neutralize the acid. Obviously, this can prove dangerous over time. Another problem with drinking distilled water is that acidic liquids (and having an animal become "acidic"), will result in the production of more free-radicals, which are molecules that can increase the risk for cancer.

While there are some camps that recommend drinking distilled water during intense "detoxification" of the system, it is my opinion that when offering a source of drinking water for a pet, distilled water should never be used.

Natural spring water, that is a type of bottled water, is a great choice for most birds. Check the label to make sure that the water is natural spring water (which comes from natural springs under the ground). This water will have dissolved minerals, and to my uneducated palate, tastes much better than other types of bottled water! Spring water may be treated with ultraviolet light to kill organisms in the water, and may also be run through micron filtration, which removes particulate matter (such as fine sand, silica, etc.) This water is not usually carbonated (containing bubbles), however rarely, a spring may produce naturally carbonated water (PerrierTM).

Bottled water is usually just water from any source that has been treated (usually by filtration, reverse osmosis, or other processes) and then the water will have minerals added afterwards (otherwise, it would end up being distilled water!) Minerals added are usually magnesium sulfate, potassium chloride and sodium chloride (salt!) To me, there is a big difference in the taste between natural spring water and treated bottled water. So, get used to reading labels, as there can be many differences between those bottles of water sitting on the grocer's shelf!

The next group of waters are those bottled waters containing fruit flavors, vitamins or other substances to enhance the water. These are the so-called designer waters that your bird loves so much. Most of these contain zero calories. Water with flavors may state "contains no juice" and this type of water may contain spring water, natural fruit flavor, and chemicals such as tartaric acid, malic acid, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate (to preserve freshness) and sucralose, which is a non-nutritive sweetener. Is this harmful offer to your bird? Probably not, especially if offered as a "treat," but it is always best to provide your bird with fresh, clean, cool water with no additives. Are any of these chemicals in the fruit-flavored water dangerous? In small amounts, these are most likely not a problem, but again, to be safe, I wouldn't recommend this water for daily consumption.

Enhanced water (usually purified) with added vitamins, fructose-glucose syrup and natural flavors also contains no juice, but does contain minimal calories. Because it tastes sweet, birds often enjoy the taste, but it should not be relied upon as a bird's regular water source. The vitamins are added to provide humans with those that may be lost during exercise. Birds on a balanced pellet-based diet should not require this supplementation.

Carbonated water is usually not palatable to birds, and while the carbonation is harmless, this type of water is not suitable for daily consumption for birds.

The best water to offer to your bird daily is fresh, contaminant-free, and additive-free in a clean water bottle or bowl. If using a water bowl, cleaning it does not mean swishing your finger around in it under running water. Thoroughly cleaning a bowl should mean having two sets of bowls; one for use and one being cleaned in the dishwasher or with dish detergent or with a mild bleach solution that is rinsed well. I still recommend water bottles for most birds, as they prevent contamination with food and droppings, as long as the sipper tube is checked several times a day to ensure that it is properly dispensing that clean, fresh water.

  1. distilled:   this is pure water, free of dissolved minerals, and not usually recommended for avian drinking water
  2. natural spring water:   this is spring water from a natural underground source, that is filtered or otherwise treated to remove contaminants, such as bacteria, algae, protozoa, and particulate matter. This is an excellent choice for birds' drinking water.
  3. bottled water:   this is water from one of several sources that has been purified, and then minerals are added afterwards. This is an acceptable source of avian drinking water.
  4. enhanced water:   this is purified water, with added flavoring, vitamins, minerals and preservatives (usually)
  5. carbonated water:   this water has bubbles (either naturally occurring or added) and is not usually offered to birds
  6. tap water:   may contain fluoride, dissolved minerals, chemicals, toxins, pesticides, bacteria, algae, protozoa, virus particles or other potentially harmful agents. May be safe to offer to birds, but it is best to have tap water tested to ensure potability.
  7. selective filtration:   removes undesirable components but not minerals from water.
  8. reverse-osmosis:   a water purification system that removes undesirable components, may require addition of minerals after purification
  9. ultraviolet light:   is used to sanitize water to remove dangerous microscopic organisms
  10. filters containing carbon:   removes odors, chemicals such as lead, benzene, PCBs and more

Cadeusus
Copyright 2007 Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P.
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