Veterinarian makes bird nutrition his mission

Veterinarian Joel Murphy, who runs a small-animal veterinary practice and has a passion for avian medicine, emphasizes the importance of good nutrition for pet birds. Basing his information on his study of wild birds, Dr. Murphy has developed diet recommendations for pet birds including feeding fresh vegetables and fruits, water and special pellets. According to Dr. Murphy, many pet birds in his area die prematurely due to malnutrition, a situation he believes can be prevented with owner education. He also recommends weighing birds daily because weight loss can signal illness

PALM HARBOR, FL — Inside the Amazon rainforest, thousands of miles from his office in Palm Harbor, the holistic veterinarian watched a colony of chattering macaws glide above the treetops.

“They looked like little blue and gold jewels filling the sky,” said Dr. Joel Murphy, recalling a research trip in 2009. “They were so beautiful, healthy and happy.”

Murphy, who taught graduate avian medicine at the University of Georgia and has lectured at veterinary schools from the Bahamas to Nepal, aims to recreate that vibrancy in the Tampa Bay area. He studies eating patterns in the wild to bring healthier diets to domestic pets.

Exotic bird owners from New Port Richey to Pinellas Park to Carrollwood seek Murphy’s unusual care, which includes blood serum tests, a self-concocted line of flower essences, and dietary counseling. But most of the sick parrots, cockatiels and parakeets Murphy encounters in the bay area — about 2,000 annually — die early from malnutrition, he said.

“It’s a huge, huge problem,” said Murphy, who runs a practice for dogs, cats and his specialty, birds, on U.S. 19 near Nebraska Avenue. “People bring me their beloved pets and have no idea what’s wrong with them.”

For years, Murphy operated an exotic bird research center in Palm Harbor. When a surprise divorce rocked his finances in 2005, he closed the operation. His continued research is independent, out of pocket.

The rainforest macaws and other exotic birds Murphy has observed nibble nuts, berries and tree bark loaded with vitamins and essential fatty acids — ingredients largely missing from many brands of pet store food.

He’s written four books and more than 100 articles related to the subject, most recently How to Care for Your Pet Bird. He constantly campaigns to visitors inside his waiting room, which he paid about $2,000 to “pet feng shui” with gold dragons and amethyst stones.

“I do everything I can to get through to people,” he said. “Proper, natural nutrition information is out there. The problem is fixable. We just need to bring attention to it.”

About eight years ago, when Clearwater resident Donna Taylor’s emerald green Amazon parrot stopped talking and eating, two emergency room referrals guided her to Murphy. She felt her pet, Billy, was close to death.

A tissue biopsy determined the bird suffered from severe liver cirrhosis. His previous owner, a restaurant manager, used to feed Billy beer, Taylor explained.

“Dr. Murphy didn’t even consider putting Billy down,” she said. “I’ve never seen that kind of compassion in a vet. Instead, we started a regimen of twice-daily holistic medications and we got five more wonderful years with him.”

Now, Taylor schedules regular appointments with Murphy to monitor the health of her Amazon, macaw and Caique birds.

“My husband and I had no idea how to correctly feed them before we talked to Dr. Murphy,” Taylor said. “Now, they only eat fresh, human-grade foods.”

To keep exotic birds healthy and happy, Murphy offers owners three basic guidelines: Provide a diet of fruits, vegetables, water and fortified pellets; weigh pets daily, because weight loss is often the first and only sign of illness in birds; and give large breeds proper training to foster good behavior (and avoid bouts of screeching and scratching).

“Birds are just like little people,” Murphy said. “You’ve got to love them and treat them as though they’re part of the family.”

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