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Avian Health Care

 

 

 

We get a lot of birdie mail asking for advice and information about how to care properly for their parrots.  We've  tried to put all the information that she could find together and place it here for all to read!  This information was gathered from several avian websites that have published this information to aide in the ongoing education of living with companion parrots.  The majority of the content was written & published by Bart Huber, DVM, who practices veterinary medicine at the Animal Medical Center of Corona in California. We hope this helps you and your feathered pals!  ***Please note:  This information was published in 2000 so please realize that some of it may be a bit outdated.  We just haven't had time to update this page!

 

AVIAN HEALTH CARE TIPS 

Birds will get sick for several reasons but there seem to be two primary categories where most problems lie. These two categories are the bird’s diet and environment. If bird owners can optimize their birds’ environment and diet, many problems which avian vets see today could be avoided. In other words, your bird can live a longer, healthier life and your pocket book will also be spared much trauma! When you do need the services of a veterinarian, make sure that the veterinarian is an AVIAN vet who sees birds on a regular basis. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to ask for references.

DIET

Poor or inadequate diet is the number one reason for illness in birds. Whether the illness is due primarily to the deficiency or the birds get a secondary infection, diet is the key. Dietary deficiencies cause a wide range of disease, ranging from poor feather color and feather picking to sever upper respiratory infections to egg binding in laying hens (a situation where an egg is stuck in the reproductive tract of the female bird). We will break diet into five categories and then offer some ideas of optimal or healthy diets for your birds. Those categories are: 1) vitamin & mineral, 2) protein, 3) carbohydrates, 4) vegetables & fruits, 5) fats.

Vitamin and Mineral: Vitamin A deficiency is the most common single dietary deficiency or problem seen in companion birds. Vitamin A may be provided as actual Vitamin A or as beta carotene, the advantage of beta carotene is that you cannot give too much to your birds where as vitamin A, if over-supplemented could cause liver and bone disease. Many foods are high in Vitamin A and this list, along with other healthy fruits and vegetables will be provided in the vegetable and fruit section. Vitamin D3 is the next most common problem as this vitamin is essential for healthy bones, feathers and egg laying and without this vitamin, calcium cannot be properly used by the body. Natural sunlight will allow the body to produce normal amounts of this vitamin and so will using OTT, Vita-Lights or other full spectrum lighting if indoors.

Windows absorb too much of the UV light necessary for Vitamin D3 so placing your bird by a window does not always work. Vitamin supplementation is an easy and inexpensive way to ensure your bird receives proper amounts of all vitamins. It is important also to use vitamins made specifically for birds as they will contain Vitamin D3. Other vitamins are also necessary but these two are the most important.  **Note:  We do not recommend the vitamin supplements that are suggested to be used in drinking water.  This creates a breeding ground for bacteria in their water.  Use those which can be sprinkled on warm/soft foods.  

In the case of minerals, calcium is the most important. The only birds which seem to require extra calcium in their diet are African Greys, Blue Fronted Amazons and any other egg laying birds. All other birds will receive enough calcium from a good vitamin/mineral supplement. Cuttle bone, mineral blocks, manu blocks & oyster shell are all excellent and natural sources of calcium. Be careful not to overdose your birds with the food additive type of calcium supplements as it may cause calcification of their internal organs. The best type of supplements to give your bird are the powder forms that go on the food. But use them sparingly. Water soluble types are not recommended as they are low in the fat soluble (A and D3) and the vitamins break down quickly in the water, losing potency and increase the growth of bacteria. A few brands I would recommend are Prime, Avia, Superpreen and Nekton. Only buy enough vitamins to last 6 months or less as they slowly lose their potency when exposed to air. Vitamins/mineral supplements are best utilized when mixed with wet foods, not seed or pellets.  **Note: We personally do not use the commercial vitamins available on the market & instead use a probiotic supplement as a general maintenance 3 times a week.

Protein: Birds do need protein in their diet, the amount and type varies on the birds activity level and age. More active birds, breeding birds and growing birds need more protein than the average companion bird. Older birds or birds with certain metabolic diseases such as liver and kidney disease or gout need less protein. The quality of the protein is also important. Many seeds have decent amounts of protein, although the quality is not that great unless the bird eats all the seed types in the mix in proper proportions. Since this is not realistic, most avian veterinarians recommend pellets. Birds don't produce amino acids on their own and seeds and nuts will supply this for them. Each species has different fat & protein requirements and therefore need to have the correct variety of foods which contain the essential fats, proteins and vitamins.

Birds are like young children when it comes to food! They will not make wise nutritional choices on their own and are usually afraid to try new things. Be patient whenever you are attempting diet changes or offering new foods. A bird’s diet should not consist of more than 20-30% seed (depending on their activity levels and whether they are outside or inside and the environmental temperature). Avoid using a lot of sunflower seeds unless using the new low fat sunflower seeds available (grey striped). Black sunflower seeds are high in fat and not very nutritious although they are useful when germinated. 

Other good sources of protein are non-fat cottage cheese, cheddar or swiss cheese (High in fat) & cooked beans. Give these protein sources once or twice a week in addition to a daily balanced diet.

Carbohydrates: There are two forms of carbohydrates, simple and complex. Simple ones are the sugars, which are rapidly digested and absorbed and are not very good for birds. Avoid giving treats that are high on sugar. NEVER give your bird chocolate as there is a substance in there which can kill your bird. Fruits are high in sugar and therefore need to be given in moderation. Complex carbohydrates are the starches. These are great energy sources for your bird and serve as building blocks for non-essential amino acid (the building blocks of protein) and fats. Your bird should have starches in it’s diet in the form of cooked rice, beans (good source of protein as well), cooked potatoes, pizza crust, pasta, corn and tortillas.

Vegetables and Fruit: There are only a few things your bird should not have in this group of foods. One is avocado. There is a substance in avocado that is fatal to birds and there is no known treatment once they have ingested it and become sick. Iceberg lettuce is mostly water and has little nutritional value. The following list is not complete but contains many of the vegetables and fruits that are high in Vitamin A or beta carotene: broccoli, dried red chili peppers, sweet potatoes & yams (cooked or raw), carrots, winter squash, pumpkin, red cabbage, mustard greens, brussell sprouts, spinach, kale, parsley (give sparingly), dark leafy lettuce (not iceberg), papaya, apricots (not pits), peaches (no pits), mango, orange. apple, kiwi, grapes (limit amount due to high sugar), cantaloupe, cherries (no pits...may turn droppings a dark red color which looks like blood but is harmless), watermelon, zucchini, cauliflower, celery (limited amount), peas & green beans. Note: Any fruit which contains pits should have the pits removed before serving to your birds. These are known to contain a form of cyanide and can be potentially harmful if eaten often or in large amounts.

Many of the other vegetables not listed are OK. You can use fresh or frozen vegetables but avoid canned vegetables as they have been processed and have had most of the good nutritional value destroyed. You can give these raw or in the case of frozen, thawed out. It’s not advisable to serve the vegetables frozen. Cooking is not necessary although your bird may prefer cooked yams over raw. Just make sure you serve them warm, not hot. Your bird can eat as many vegetables as it wants but avoid too much fruit as it is mostly sugar and water and therefore, not that nutritious. ALWAYS wash fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly before feeding. Your birds droppings will become more watery when they eat fruits and vegetables. Do not mistake this for diarrhea!  It is usually an increase in urine production due to the high water content of these types of foods. "Water in...Water out"!

Fats: Fat deficiency is rare to non-existent in companion birds. Most companion birds tend to have diets that are too high in fat. This is usually due to a high seed intake. Peanuts are another high fat food that birds love to eat so offer them as treats or not at all. Large nuts are also high in fat and should be offered sparingly as well with the exception of certain macaws and cockatoos which require a higher fat diet. Many people think that since birds eat high fat foods in the wild that they need them in captivity as well, however, your bird is not getting the same exercise that a wild bird gets when flying around looking for food!  It is recommended that you not supplement your birds’ diet with any fats or oils unless you consult your avian veterinarian first.

 The Optimal Diet

What should your bird eat? Here are some suggestions, this offered only as a guide, some variation is OK. A good rule of thumb is: Anything that is good for a human heart condition is good for parrots. Remember.....NO avocado or chocolate!                   

Diet 1.. Offer vegetables and fruits (75% - 90% vegetables) daily. You can sprinkle vitamin supplement in with this. We are also avid believers in germinating or sprouting seeds & grains.  This is extremely nutritious "live food" and very beneficial to your bird's immune system.  Change the bowl after a few hours, depending on room temperature, to prevent spoilage.  We also use stainless steel skewers for variety and place their favorite fruits/veggies on these and hang in the cages. This not only makes eating more fun but the fruit/veggies pulled from the skewer and not eaten will fall through the bottom grate, preventing them from eating spoiled food. Offer daily table foods, part of your breakfast, lunch or dinner if you want. Remember, moderation is the key. Treats such as honey sticks should only be given once a month or less.

 

Diet 2. Use a safflower based seed mix in place of the pellets. Sunflower and peanuts type diets, while they taste good, are too high in fat and not nutritious enough for your bird. If there is left over seed at the end of the day you are probably offering your bird too much seed. Make sure your bird eats the other goodies. Some times it is effective to offer seeds twice a day for 15- 30 minutes then remove the seed bowl and replace with other foods. If your bird is overweight despite a low fat, healthy diet, consult your avian veterinarian.

 

Diet 3. This is not really a diet as much as a place to put table food! Offer your bird what you are eating. Because they are flock creatures, this is an important part of their routine. Do not offer your bird food off your fork or spoon, out of your mouth or anything you have bitten off of as this is a great way to make your bird sick. The bacteria in our mouths are not good for birds! Also, DO NOT offer your birds Purina Monkey Chow is very oily and has a high E.coli count so it should not be used. Dog and cat food, while a good source of protein and a balanced meal, is designed for dogs and cats!  It is high in bacteria which will not hurt your dog or cat but could make your bird sick.  

Water: Birds need plenty of fresh water, not only for drinking but also for bathing. If your bird does not like to take baths, there is nothing wrong with him, he just does not like to take baths! The water bowl should be large enough for the bird to get it’s head into, not just his beak. You should change your bird’s water daily, in fact, we often change our's several times a day. If your bird is a messy eater or likes to dip food/toys in his water, you may need to change it more often. Depending on the number of birds and their location in the cage, the water bowl(s) should be disinfected on a regular basis. (This will be covered in more detail in the section on disinfecting.) If your bird has a habit of defecating in it’s water then you may need to use a hooded bowl for water to keep it clean or possibly go to a water bottle. You should never add anything to your bird’s water without consulting with your avian veterinarian. As mentioned earlier, vitamins should not be added to your bird’s water. Your bird may like to be misted with a spray bottle on a regular basis. If this is to be done, make sure that the water is fresh and has no additives. Outdoor birds should be provided with the misters or sprinklers available on the market that can be turned on in the hot weather to help cool the aviary as well as allowing your birds something to play in.

 

Please click here to go to a site with some excellent articles & nutritional information by Dr. Alicia McWatters...you'll want to bookmark this page!  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!

 

Here is a link to a list of the most commonly known toxic/non-toxic plants & substances for our birds.  Please bookmark this page!          

ENVIRONMENT

Cage: It has always been said that a cage should be large enough for your bird to spread and flap it’s wings without hitting the bars. Our feeling on this is that they should be even larger than that!  Buy the largest cage you can afford (while considering bar spacing etc) for your parrot! Cages are important as they protect your birds from the "outside" world (other pets, children, friends and relatives) as well as keeping the bird out of trouble. Birds are like two year old children, they should not be left out alone EVER because they have a way of getting into trouble. Many a nice piece of furniture, curtains or blinds or electrical cords have been ruined by an all too curious bird. Lead poisoning in birds is usually due to the bird being left out alone or unattended and he finds something neat to chew on. If the cage is painted, make sure it is with non-leaded paint (the label should read safe for children/infants) and contains no lead. If the cage is painted and is of questionable or unknown origin, have the paint removed and re-apply the proper paint. It is imperative that the old paint be removed, not covered up, as the bird can chew through the new layer of paint to the old layer. Playground areas are nice for birds as they allow exercise and "fresh air" and a time to socialize with other birds in the house (if they get along!). There are many types of play grounds, wood and PVC are the most popular, and you need to make sure the perches are the right size for your birds feet. If using PVC, make sure it is either roughened or has a grip-able material (we use "vet-wrap") on it so that the bird will not slip. More about perches will be covered under toy and perch section.  We also place MANY bird safe plants all around our bird room and some near the cages so the birds cane chew on them.  Bamboo, spider plants, most ferns, palm plants/trees are quite safe and make a wonderful addition to your bird's environment!  Just make sure that you repot the plants into plain ordinary soil or place them into very large pots so that your birds cannot access the potting soil or fertilizer additives which can be hazardous to them.

Perches and Toys: The best perches are the natural hard woods such as manzanita (we prefer sandblasted as it is less slippery), ribbon wood, grapevine and eucalyptus (very hard when it dries). Other woods may or may not be safe but it is best to stick to one of the three mentioned above. PVC is also a popular perch/playground material which is easy to clean. If you cover if for better grip, use a material that can be easily changed for cleaning. Nail conditioning perches are also a recently introduced perch and most are safe while helping to keep nails a bit shorter. We like to caution people on some of the perches available on the market because they can cause tenderness to your birds feet if they spend too much time on them. Sandpaper perches should be avoided as they may irritate the skin on the bottom of the feet and lead to potential food disease. It is recommended to only have one or two of these perches in your birds cage in a location where they will perch on it for short periods of time, not as their "favorite sleeping perch". We recommend the Polly’s Pastel Perches and a new type of perch available called "Sandy Perch", which is a manzanita core with sand permanently bonded to it. This perch is also much lighter than the other conditioning perches and easier on the feet. Another popular perch material is sisal rope, These perches are fine except they are easily destroyed by larger birds and need to be replaced often as the frayed and loose strands may entangle your birds feet. With any perching materials, varying diameter perches need to be offered to prevent fatigue to the birds and simulate more natural perching behaviors.   We place wood or grooming perches in front of each food/water dish, one or 2 in high places of the cage and one on the inside of the door.  Many of our birds also have cotton bungie rope perches or sisal rope perches in their cages.

Toys:  Toys should be made of strong and safe materials, especially for the larger parrots (macaws and cockatoos). Large dog choker chains are very good for suspending things. Dog chews such as the once piece cowhide (do not use pig ears.. salmonella poisoning is a concern) type can make fun and chewable toys but be sure to throw them out if they are defecated on or become moist from dunking in water. Many of the acrylic toys, while often expensive, are excellent and safe toys. Human infant teething toys that are not fluid filled are good for young birds who are still developing jaw strength and co-ordination and for small birds of all ages. It is natural for birds to be destructive so do not be surprised when your macaw or cockatoo break these "indestructible" toys or perches! Expect to buy more and you won’t be as disappointed! ALWAYS supervise new toys with your birds to assure they cannot injure themselves from fasteners, frayed rope etc. Toes can become entangled very quickly in frayed ropes and cloth so those toys should always be monitored closely.

Dishes: Ceramic, plastic and stainless steel are your best bets. All are good and will depend on your birds needs and the design of the cage. If you get ceramic crocks, get them from a reputable manufacturer that has lead free claims. If the glazing gets chipped off (and it will) the porous clay underneath is easily chewed off by your bird. If there is lead in the clay, your bird could end up being poisoned. Always replace crocks with chips or cracks is our best advice. We have found that many of the high impact plastic or stainless steel bowls that clamp on the cage are easy to use, easy to clean and are cheaper than other bowls. Disinfect your bowls on a regular basis!

Lighting: Outdoor birds enjoy the benefit of natural sunlight. If your birds are outdoors, make sure they have access to sunlight but also make sure they have a way to get out of the sunlight or adverse weather conditions of necessary. Indoor birds need 12-16 hours of light a day. It is best to keep your birds on the same schedule so their internal clocks are not constantly being reset. Fluorescent lights, especially full spectrum or gro-lights, are better than incandescent lights. The UV component of full spectrum lights is important for the natural production of Vitamin D3.

Noise and Routine: There are multiple theories on these two subjects. We have found, in our own experience, that most birds will get use to whatever they are raised with. Birds raised in quiet homes with very strict routines do not do well when placed into a more hectic situation. Our own birds are very use to a "non-routine" routine of feeding, playing & cleaning schedules as well as varied times when they go to bed. Certain birds are more susceptible to change and you’ll need to identify if your particular species is watch for signs of illness or unhappiness. These include excessive sleeping and fluffing, decrease or loss of appetite, change in droppings, decreased vocalization, aggressive behavior, etc. If any of these should occur, call your avian veterinarian.

Heat and Drafts: The air temperature of most homes is adequate for your bird. Sudden changes in temperature are not good but the changes that occur in our every day living are not going to be drastic. If you are going away, make sure you leave the thermostat set so that your indoor pets do not experience sudden temperature fluctuations. Care should be used when placing your birds near vents or draft windows in colder temperatures and these air flows can cause your bird to become sick after prolonged exposure. If your bird becomes sick it is very important to provide them with plenty of heat and comfort. This does not replace a proper veterinary exam but may be part of the "at home" treatment recommended by your vet.

Toxic Materials: Cookware coated with non-stick surfaces, such as Teflon, should NOT be used if there are birds anywhere near the items being used! When new or over heated cookware they omit Teflon gas which is odorless, colorless and harmless to mammals. It is FATAL to birds and there is no known antidote. If you have Teflon coated cookware, waffle makers, even irons, we recommend you don't use them anywhere near your birds.  We are fortunate in that we have a completely separate bird room which is a substantial distance from our kitchen.  We use these items with extreme caution and always assure that the birdroom door is closed.  If you burn or over-heat coated cookware, open all windows immediately and get your bird as far away as possible from the source.

Other toxic materials that are common in the home and should NEVER be used if birds are present: scented candles, plug-in air fresheners, carpet deodorizers, aerosol sprays, scented pot-pouri, etc. We have several links on our "Links" page that will give you more of these items. We choose to not have them present in our home.

DISINFECTING

A clean environment is just as important to preventing disease and disease spread as is good nutrition. Many diseases can be contained or prevented with proper disaffection. A detailed analysis of disinfecting with all the various chemicals could easily become a book. We will just give you a brief overview of what we know will work under most conditions, which comes from our own experience as well as first hand information from knowledgeable and reliable sources (including the internet). In time of certain disease outbreaks, the rules become more stringent and you should check with your avian veterinarian if you are having an ongoing problem you cannot resolve. We will discuss only two classes of disinfectants that should be used in the average bird owner/breeder home/aviary.

The first group is the quaternary ammonias such as Kenosol. Roccal-D, Neon Pet Products and Pursue (Amway) are just a few. They are good at killing Chlamydia (psittacosis), Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD), Pseuodomonos bacteria and Polyoma virus. Make sure they are listed to kill Pseudomonas as many times the product needs to be used at a stronger concentration to kill the bacteria. The other class of chemicals are the chlorinated compounds. The most notable of these is bleach, which is what we use. Bleach used at 4 ounces per gallon of water will kill just about anything. Bleach is very inexpensive but can be very awkward to use do to it’s odor and ability to ruin clothing and carpets. A new member to this group are the stabilized chlorine dioxides. The most notable of this group are Oxygene and Dentagene, both by Oxyfresh. This is recommended as the best product during a Polyoma outbreak or during the handfeeding period in an aviary.  There are a couple of cleaning products on the market now which we use frequently.  Poop-Off and Doodle.  Both are very good at cleaning but do not offer any disinfecting benefits.

In multiple bird households and aviaries, it is recommended to disinfect wet food and water bowls at least twice weekly. They should be cleaned with hot, soapy water to remove as much debris as possible then soaked in disinfectant for 20-30 minutes. (Clean extra crocks are always on hand in our home!). In homes with one or two birds, it is recommended that the bowls be cleaned daily and disinfected once a week. Cages may be periodically washed then sprayed with disinfectant and left to air dry. Once dry, hose with fresh water. Make sure to remove your bird first! The frequency at which you wash and disinfect your cages depends on how dirty they get and how many birds you have. The more birds you have, the more often you need to disinfect. We spot clean our cages daily. We use bleach and heavy duty brushes for the bottom grates and around food areas weekly while doing entire cage disinfecting monthly. We change the tray papers every other day.  Perches should be scrubbed with a wire brush as needed to remove dried feces and food and should replaced twice a year or as needed.

Flooring in the bird room should be easily cleanable. If your birds are on carpet, put some plastic under their cage to facilitate cleaning. Linoleum and tile can be mopped or hosed weekly. After cleaning, it is recommended to coat the floor with disinfectant and let it air dry and then mop with warm water. We have a hardwood laminate flooring (PERGO) and it is THE best! Cleanups are easy and it is also very durable. We still keep vinyl runners under the water dishes because our birds like to bathe in their dishes and throw all the water to the floor while doing so. The PERGO has been known to bubble along seams if water has been allowed to sit for too long. Be sure to remove the birds from their cages and the room if possible when cleaning. Make sure their is plenty of ventilation also while cleaning.

 

One last thing.....If you’re in doubt....DON’T use it!

 

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