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Refeeding Seabirds

Seabirds commonly get storm wrecked around New Zealand's coastline. Quite

often they are found to be in poor or emaciated body conditions.

Refeeding a bird in this condition needs to be done slowly and carefully as if not done

correctly it can lead to Refeeding Syndrome which can cause multiple organ

failure and death.

A starving bird is also a dehydrated bird therefore rehydration is just as important if not more important than food. If fluid support is not provided then damage is likely to occur to the organs especially the kidneys.

Refeeding Syndrome

What is Refeeding Syndrome?

Refeeding syndrome is a dangerous consequence of rapid and excessive food intake in severely malnourished patients. It causes electrolyte imbalances of potassium, magnesium and phosphorus which can lead to multiple organ failure and death.

Food deprivation changes the way your body metabolizes nutrients. For example, insulin is a

hormone that breaks down glucose (sugar) from carbohydrates. When carbohydrate consumption is significantly reduced, insulin secretion slows.

In the absence of carbohydrates, the body turns to stored fats and proteins as sources of energy. Over time, this change can deplete electrolyte stores. Phosphate, an electrolyte that helps your cells convert glucose into energy, is often affected.

When food is re-introduced, there’s an abrupt shift from fat metabolism back to carbohydrate metabolism. This causes insulin secretion to increase. Cells need electrolytes like phosphate to convert glucose to energy, but phosphate is in short supply. This leads to another condition called hypophosphatemia (low phosphate).

Hypophosphatemia is a common feature of refeeding syndrome. Other metabolic changes can also occur. These include:

● abnormal sodium and fluid levels

● changes in fat, glucose, or protein metabolism

● thiamine deficiency

● hypomagnesemia (low magnesium)

● hypokalemia (low potassium)

This is why fluid therapy is essential in supporting a storm blown seabird during the refeeding process. Fluid therapy helps protect the organs, particularly the kidneys, from the damaging effects of electrolyte imbalances. Blood tests in the 2018/2019 Yellow-eyed Penguin season showed penguins with high Uric Acid in their blood, which meant that their kidneys were already compromised, with fluid support we were able to reverse the kidney damage.

Symptoms of refeeding syndrome typically appear within FOUR days of feeding being restarted.

What to look out for?

  • Regurgitation

  • Lethargy

  • Smelly breathy and or poop

  • Weakness

  • Difficulty breathing

If you see any of these symptoms contact your vet immediately.

This article was written by WReNNZ Member Angelina Martelli CVN, Senior Wildlife Veterinary Nurse at The Wildlife Hospital Dunedin.

This document and additional information on feeding schedules for seabirds is available for WReNNZ rehabilitation members in the online members library.

If any WReNNZ rehabilitation members need help accessing the members area please contact us. If anyone rehabilitating seabirds hasn't joined WReNNZ yet and you would like access to this information and more like it, we would love you have you involved, please join us today.


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