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How To Take Charge Of Your Pet Bird's Health


Everything you need to know about food, water, bird cages, air quality and veterinarian visits.



There is a movement going on today in human medicine that empowers people to take charge of their own health by becoming proactive and not just following doctor’s orders blindly. That means making healthy food choices, exercising and "listening” to one’s body.

Many folks are now procuring second opinions when necessary and doing research on nutrition, medical care, specific conditions, diagnostics and treatment options.

The same can hold true for our pet birds. Instead of just providing food and water for our pets, we can provide them with specific nutraceuticals (i.e., nutritional supplements that can promote a stronger immune system, or benefit a bird in specific ways), preventative health care and an appropriate environment, complete with enrichment to keep a bird stimulated, both physically and mentally.

Together, let’s learn what we can do to maintain a healthy parrot, starting with a bird’s habitat.

Cage & Environment
It is always best to provide your pet birds with as large a cage as is practical and that you can afford. Minimally, a bird should be able to spread her wings in all directions. The cage should be tall enough for a bird so she can stretch her legs and neck when standing on the highest perch. Round cages are not recommended.

Decorative cages made of wood, bamboo or other porous materials are impossible to disinfect adequately. Painted or coated wire used to make cages should be safe, as long as the paint is made in the United States, as no lead is permitted to be an ingredient in paint sold in this country. Galvanized wire must be thoroughly cleaned of any white residue, which may contain lead or zinc, by brushing the wire with vinegar and a metal brush.

For ease of cleaning and to prevent unnecessary exposure to droppings and discarded food items, a grate in the bottom of the cage is beneficial. Spraying the grate with a zero-calorie cooking spray helps facilitate cleaning.

In my opinion, the easiest and safest substrate for the bottom of the cage is newspaper (ink is not toxic), butcher paper or paper toweling.

In addition to a spacious cage, it is a great addition to your bird’s environment and for enrichment to provide her with a playgym or area away from the cage for playtime. Ladders, swings and toys are all great choices to keep a bird active and challenged.

Air Safety
It is vital that the air that your bird breathes is as clean and toxin-free as possible. For the safety of your entire family and pets, it is a great idea to purchase and maintain not just a smoke alarm/detector but also a carbon-monoxide detector. Carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and tasteless and is the result of incomplete combustion. Early signs of poisoning are confusion, nausea, headache, fatigue, dizziness and shortness of breath. It progresses to more serious signs of drowsiness, weakness, ataxia, seizures and, if undiagnosed in time, death.

It should go without saying that birds should not be exposed to the carcinogens and gases found in secondhand cigarette or cigar smoke. Birds possess a very intricate and delicate respiratory tract. Any type of smoke can be deleterious to the respiratory system, including smoke from scented candles, wood-burning stoves and fireplaces. In addition to the dangers from smoke, some candles have a wire to help stiffen the wick, and this wire may contain lead or other metals that may be dangerous to a bird when inhaled.

In addition to avoiding flames and smoke, aerosol sprays can also be harmful to birds. Aerosol room air fresheners and hairspray are two potential respiratory irritants. Another potential danger comes from nonstick cookware, which if overheated, can emit toxic and potentially lethal fumes. Other nonstick household items can also be dangerous, including irons, curling irons, waffle makers and sandwich presses.

Mold that grows on dropped food items and wet substrate in the bottom of a bird cage can contain spores that are potentially very dangerous if inhaled by birds. Aspergillus sp. spores can grow in the offal found below the cage grate and may, if inhaled, cause nare, sinus, lung or air sac infections, most commonly in immunosuppressed birds (from malnutrition, chronic disease or environmental stressors, such as disruption of the natural light/dark sleep cycles). Keeping the cage, perches, food and water bowls and toys clean and disinfected regularly is very important.

Maintaining some humidity in the bird room is recommended, especially for birds originating from tropical rainforests. Many Amazon parrots and macaws, especially in the wintertime, suffer from sinusitis due to ambient humidity that is too low. Always remember that moist tissues are happy tissues. In the winter, with furnaces running to keep homes warm, the humidity often is very low. The lining of the upper respiratory tract may be unable to effectively remove inhaled particles, and microorganisms may then begin growing, resulting in a bacterial or fungal infection. Signs of this may be sneezing (with or without discharge), swollen or plugged up nare(s), nasal discharge on the beak or feathers above the cere, excessive yawning, scratching at the nares with a toenail or rubbing the beak on the perches or cage wire.

Misting a bird several times per day is one way to help increase humidity. Using a humidifier or vaporizer helps raise the humidity in the bird room, but it is very important that the water tank be kept scrupulously clean to avoid aerosolizing fungal spores or bacteria into the air. Maintaining several potted plants in the bird room (ensuring that the potting soil is clean and well-drained) is another way to increase ambient humidity. Of course, make sure the plants you choose are nontoxic should a bird get a hold of a branch or leaves to chew on. You can also bring your bird into the bathroom when you are showering (ensuring that the commode lid is closed) so that your bird can enjoy the high humidity, and perhaps a shower, as well.

I recommend that bird owners purchase a good quality air filter with HEPA technology filtration. In homes with several birds that have a plethora of down (cockatoos, cockatiels and African greys are notoriously dusty species) it might be advantageous to also employ a type of box fan with an air conditioner filter in addition to the HEPA filter in order to first have the larger particles, feathers and dander trapped. This way the HEPA filter can work more effectively. Do not make your own home box fan/filter, but choose a unit developed for that purpose.

Some South American parrots are very sensitive to the type of dander from Old World species, and may develop breathing problems that can be mild to life-threatening. In these cases, air filters are even more important. However, with some South American parrots, removing them from the source of dander might be the only way to improve their health.

Green-winged macaw
The South American birds, such as this green-winged macaw, can be sensitive to the dust and dander that come off African greys, cockatoos and cockatiels. If you keep these birds with any bird that's native to South America, you may want to consider a HEPA air filter to keep the dust from bothering them.

Food & Water
When it comes to water and food delivery systems, it is healthiest to prevent a bird from being able to pass droppings into the food and water bowls, and the bowls should be kept as far apart as possible to prevent a bird from excessive dunking of food items into the water bowl. Better yet, provide your bird with a water bottle that maintains a clean, fresh supply of water, with very little chance of contamination. Birds are so smart that they can figure out how to use a water bottle very quickly. The bottle should be cleaned and water replaced daily, and the water level should be clearly marked to ensure that the level is dropping during the day. To make sure that the bird hasn’t plugged up the sipper tube (cockatoos are notorious for doing this) check it frequently.

Potable water can come from any source that is fit for human consumption. Tap water, filtered water and bottled water are safe for birds. If you have any concerns about your tap water, have it tested by your water company, health department or veterinarian. I do not recommend filling water containers using a garden hose. Since water often sits in a hose and doesn’t empty once the water is turned off, it can be a fertile breeding ground for potentially dangerous bacteria.

Do not offer your bird distilled water. Distilled water is simply pure water with all of the minerals and particulate matter removed. Distilled water acts as a mild acid and can cause health problems if used solely as a bird’s water source for a long period of time. Distilled water is not a source found in nature. Spring water is filtered through porous rocks and contains dissolved minerals and salts.

For birds that like to bathe in their water bowl, you can still provide a large, shallow bowl of tepid water from time to time for your birds to splash around in. This can also help birds with winter sinus problems. Make sure that you clean the cage bottom after your bird is done bathing to prevent the wet papers and debris from growing mold or bacteria.

A bird should consume an appropriate diet for her species and also one that meets her specific nutritional needs. Some birds are primarily seed-eaters in the wild; however, that does not mean that any parrot species should be offered a strictly seed diet. Many types of pellets have been developed by excellent nutritionists and aviculturists who have spent years studying the varied and complex nutrients consumed by wild species and fine-tuning captive diets to promote growth, excellent health and reproductive health, as well.

Talk to your own bird’s veterinarian to help you choose the most appropriate diet for your bird. Offering fresh fruits, vegetables and table foods will change the balance of nutrients that your bird consumes, so make sure you discuss with your avian vet everything your bird eats to ensure that the diet is correct for your situation.

When it comes to fresh foods, vegetables are a better choice than fruits, which are higher in sugars and have an incorrect calcium-to-phosphorus ratio. Fruits should be offered as treats in small amounts. All vegetables and greens should be fresh (suitable for human consumption) and well-rinsed and cleaned to remove as much external dirt and microorganisms as possible. Raw, uncooked is preferable to steamed or otherwise cooked, which removes some nutrients and vitamins from the vegetables.

Always remember, with fresh foods variety is the key. Try to offer different food items on a daily basis. Even if your bird is picky, if a food item is seen often enough by a bird, she may eventually taste it. Skewering food items on a shish-kabob stick that hangs in the cage may also encourage a bird to taste foods. If your bird wants to remove them, it will be necessary for her to actually bite and sample the food.

For confirmed seed-eaters, one can purchase a seed-sprouting kit that will safely sprout seeds, minimizing bacterial and fungal contamination. The process of sprouting uses up some of the fat in seeds and changes the texture to become more "vegetablelike,” which may encourage a bird to sample other veggies, as well.

One of the best and easiest ways to monitor the overall health of your bird is by weighing your bird on a daily or weekly basis, first thing in the morning. Keep a weight chart, which will make it very simple to notice any trends for increases or drops in weight. A 10-percent increase or loss of weight within a short period of time should alert you to notify your avian vet. Make sure that you purchase a good quality scale that measures weight in grams, not ounces (that is not precise enough).

Vet Visits 
All pet birds should be evaluated by an avian veterinarian on a periodic basis, usually every six months. Your bird should have the diet and husbandry evaluated, a hands-on physical examination performed and appropriate diagnostic tests. A complete blood count (CBC) requires a very small volume of blood and provides your vet with a lot of information regarding your bird’s health. Blood chemistries are also easily performed and also require a very small amount of blood. DNA PCR tests are available and easy to procure.

Radiographs of your bird may also be indicated periodically. Serologic tests for specific diseases can be performed, as well. Gram’s stains, bacterial and fungal cultures, cytology and other tests are also available. If your vet so desires, he or she can request a consultation with an avian specialist to go over the lab results or any specific questions regarding your bird. It can be very valuable to discuss your bird’s information with an avian veterinarian with a depth of experience who can provide information and suggestions to help your bird. Most large veterinary labs provide a consultation service at no charge to their clients.

As a responsible avian steward, you have the ability and responsibility to provide your bird with all of the items and environmental tools for a long, healthful and happy life.



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