Keeping Your Pet Bird Happy and Healthy

by Kashmir Csaky

Green-wing Macaw
"Harley"
Photo courtesy of Sue Owens
 

Establishing a Good Relationship with an Avian Veterinarian-
As a bird owner, you will find that an avian veterinarian can be an invaluable ally in helping you maintain the good health and happiness of a pet bird. Since this will be a shared responsibility, it is very important that you find a qualified avian veterinarian with whom you can communicate freely and communicate well.

The search for an avian veterinarian is often a difficult task, especially in rural areas. Referrals are usually your easiest and most effective avenues. Many different people should be consulted. These include other birds owners, pet shops and veterinarians that treat other pets.

You may find that one or two veterinarians will receive the most recommendations. Calling these veterinarians and asking about their qualifications and interest in birds should be the next step. The veterinarian you choose should be a member of the Association of Avian Veterinarians. Members of AAV are kept abreast the latest developments in avian medicine by reports in the Journal published by the AAV.

As previously stated it is important that good communications be established. If this cannot be accomplished then another veterinarian should be consulted. You should feel free to ask any questions you may have. The veterinarian may speak in terms that you are unfamiliar with. Ask the veterinarian to clarify anything that you do not understand. If you do not ask any questions then the veterinarian may assume that you have some medical or avicultural background and understand everything that has been said. Most veterinarians are pleased to answer questions and are happy that the owners care enough about their birds to ask questions. When owners show concern for their birds then veterinarians will take more time with them. Do not insult the veterinarian by suggesting that a pet store employee or a breeder knows more about avian medicine than the veterinarian. If a breeder, for example, has made a recommendation, it is proper to ask the veterinarian if there is some validity to that suggestion. At this time the veterinarian should discuss all possibilities with you, including the suggestions that were made.

Veterinarians also appreciate people who take time to learn about their birds. Consult them about good reading material concerning your pet bird's health.

What Every Pet Bird Should Have-

When you purchase a bird as a pet there are a few things that you must provide for a happy and healthy environment:

Loving home
Good healthy diet
Large and safe cage
Toys
T-stand
Gym or play stand
Gram scale
Pet carrier

Parrots can be offered the best possible diet and yet they will not benefit from it if they will not eat the food. Most birds will eat good food if they are not overfed or cage-bound. Many cage-bound birds are picky eaters, choosing to eat one favorite food and discarding the rest. Often times the loving owner spoils the bird or simply offers it to much food. Dr. Hawley put it very well in a recent issue of Caged Bird Hobbyist. He said, "Giving a parrot half an apple is equivalent to a person being given a 10-pound head of lettuce to eat." Pet owners often confuse variety with abundance. In an effort to offer a great variety of food they ultimately offer too much food.

I suggest the following method for getting your pet bird to eat the right foods:

Step One

Make an appointment with your veterinarian.

On the morning before going to the appointment you should weigh your bird -- it is best to take the weight before any food is consumed, but after the morning "movement." At the veterinarian's office the weight can be compared to the norm for the species. The veterinarian can weigh the bird again and a comparison of the weight obtained with your scale should be made at this time. Now the veterinarian can determine the ideal weight and the maximum weight your bird may lose.

Step Two

Slightly reduce the amount of each type of food offered. If your parrot persists in leaving food in it's bowl, this process of reduction should continue until the bird is eating all the food.

Step Three

Now increase - slightly - the portions of the healthiest foods. Check the bottom of the cage and surrounding areas for discarded food, to insure that your pet is actually eating the food. Continue this process until your bird begins to leave food uneaten. When you reach this stage, cut back the food to the quantity the bird received the last time it ate well. While trying to establish the right quantities of food to offer your bird, monitor it's weight on a daily basis. If at any time the weight should drop too low, you may indulge the bird with it's favorite junk food until the weight returns to a safe level.

Healthy Foods-

Every species has different dietary requirements. It is your responsibility to learn the dietary needs of your species of bird and to feed a diet that will satisfy those requirements. Dumping a hand-full of seeds in a food bowl may be the easy way to feed a bird, but it is not a loving and responsible way to help fulfill the bird's nutritional needs.

It is also important to wash the food and water bowls twice a day. If the bird dunks food or otherwise contaminates the water, it will be necessary to wash the water bowl more frequently. Just as a human should not eat off a dirty plate, a bird should not be made to eat or drink out of a dirty bowl.

As a rule, most foods that are good for people are also good for birds, and most foods that are not healthy for people are bad for birds. This should be remembered when offering table scraps to your bird. If the people-food is high in cholesterol, salt, sugar, artificial sweeteners, caffeine or MSG , then it is certainly not good for your bird. Bird should never be offered chocolate, coffee, alcohol, and avocados.

The Cage-

The cage should always be as large as possible. Many pet owners scrimp and save to buy the desired pet and then they forget -- or choose to ignore -- the needs to the bird. Cages are expensive and new bird owners often suffer from "sticker shock". They will then buy a small, less expensive, cage and justify their decision by reasoning that, the bird will spend little time in it's cage anyhow. However good the intentions may be, nobody can predict the future. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the new pet may be forced to spend many long hours in it's small cage.

So, I have formulated the Hokey-Pokey rule. For the cage to be large enough the bird must be able to dance the Hokey-Pokey inside the cage. It should be able to spread both wings out, up and turn around without touching the sides of the cage. There are, unfortunately, practical limitations to this rule when the parrot is one of the larger macaws.

The cage must have a good door latch and be of sturdy construction so that the bird cannot escape, this is for the bird's safety. Should the bird escape from it's cage, while the owners are away, it may accidentally injure itself or be killed. Since, large powerful parrots can sometimes rip welded bars off, I recommend that, for this type of bird, the bars on the cage should be drilled and not welded.

Cages must be carefully inspected prior to purchase. The construction should provide the bird with a safe environment. Safety is not merely mechanical. A cage that is difficult to clean is an unsafe cage. When cages are hard to clean, people tend to procrastinate. Cleaning is postponed until the cages are filthy. This increases the likelihood of bacterial and fungal contamination -- not to mention it is ugly and messy.

The loving bird owner should look for places where the bird's nails, toes, feet, leg band and head might get caught. These potential traps include converging bars, scroll work and incorrect bar spacing. Be aware of tight bar spacing in corners. If the bar spacing is too wide the bird can push it's head between the bars and in a moment of panic could break it's neck.

Any feces or food should be wiped off of the grates, bars and apron daily. Stubborn dried-on organic material can be sprayed with hot water from a plant mister, allowed to soak for a few minutes and then will wipe off easily. These areas may be wiped down with a mild disinfectant and rinsed off. However, this must be done daily or it will be come more difficult with each passing day and soon a major clean up and strong disinfectants become necessary. Papers used to line the bottom of the cage should be picked up every day. The best time to clean the cage is just before the bird is put to bed, so that the cage stays clean as long as possible. Dust cage surfaces weekly and do a thorough cleaning once every three months. These cleaning methods apply when the bird is healthy. If a sick bird is involved then a much more aggressive cleaning and disinfecting regime must be implemented.

Cages should have aprons to help contain any mess inside the cage. Stainless steel cages or cages with powder coat finish are the easiest to clean. A large sheet of Plexiglas can be purchased for as little as $18.00 and attached to the wall near the cage. It is attractive and easy to clean. Blueberry and grape will normally stains most finishes, yet will wipe right off the Plexiglas.

Some other points to consider:

Cages with horizontal bars are difficult to clean. They are nice for clumsy baby birds. Yet, if the bar spacing is correct it is not necessary to have horizontal bars on the cage of a healthy adult bird.

Play pen tops are not recommended from a psychological point of view. They make a bird more territorial, dominant and difficult to handle.

Avoid stackable cages since they are dirty and depressing for the bird in the bottom cage.

Doors should be very large so the owner can easily put the bird in the cage or take it out.

Toys-

Every bird should have a variety of toys with which to play. These toys should be rotated about every ten days, so that the bird will not become bored with them. Three sets of toys should prove ample.

When choosing the right toy for your bird take into consideration the bird's size and destructive capabilities. The right toy for a Blue and Gold Macaw may not be the right toy for a Hyacinth Macaw. Safety factors must also be considered when buying a toy for any bird. Look for sharp edges or points that could injure the bird. You should determine if there are any places where the bird might catch a toe nail or get tangled in the toy.

The safest way to attach the toy to a cage or a gym is with quick links. If the toy comes with any other type of attaching device such as dog leash clips or key rings, they should be replaced with a quick link. If you are well acquainted with your bird's habits you will know if a toy is relatively safe for your bird. Any time a new toy is introduced it is prudent to carefully monitor your bird for an extended period of time while it plays with the toy. Any toy can be dangerous, it is up to you to try to limit the possibility of a tragic accident.

Toys need not be expensive. Home-made toys that a bird can destroy quickly are often their favorites. The cardboard center from a roll of paper towels can be an entertaining toy for your bird. However, I do not recommended that you consider the cardboard from a roll of toilet paper as a toy -- the probability of bacterial contamination is unacceptably high. Used bathroom products do not make appropriate bird toys.

The T-stand-

The T-stand is a training tool. It is not intended to be a place where a bird will spend long periods of unsupervised time. Birds are very intelligent, so you should spend some time every day training your bird. Two five-minute sessions per day is adequate. If the up and down commands are not re-enforced or if no tricks are taught, the bird -- like a precocious child -- will find other ways to entertain itself. We may consider these activities -- screaming, biting, destroying furniture and feather-picking -- to be unacceptable. The T-stand should not have food, water bowls or toys on it. It should not be easy for the bird to climb down. The T-stand is like a classroom and you are the teacher.

The Gym or Play Stand-

The gym or play stand is the place where the bird goes to have fun. It can be simple or elaborate. It should have a place for toys and depending on how much time the bird spends on the gym, it may need a place for food and water . The gym should be placed in an area where there is a fair amount of family activity so that the bird is supervised and socialized.

Scale-

This is an often overlooked, yet critical piece of equipment that every bird owner should have. For birds under 1000 grams you can purchase an inexpensive food sc This will make it easier to weigh your bird, since the perch provides a stable surface on which the bird can stand. Look for a digital scale with a one or two gram resolution as pounds and ounces are too coarse a measurement for most birds.

Weighing your bird at least once a month is one of the best ways to detect the onset of an illness. Since birds will attempt to hide signs of illness, a drop in weight is sometimes the only indication of a disease.

Carrier-

Commercial carriers -- the type used to transport dogs and cats -- can be used for birds. A very low perch to help the bird balance can be placed near the door. Always keep a carrier close by, so that you can quickly transport your bird out of danger in case of an emergency, such as a fire or earthquake.

In Closing

A pet parrot can live for many years and the happiness of that very long life starts with the people who have accepted the responsibility for their bird's well being. With the proper care and attention, you and your bird can bring much joy and happiness into each other's life.

Kashmir Csaky
Enchanted Emerald Forest Macaws
Forest, Virginia