Birds get sick for many reasons but
there are two main categories where most of the problems lie. These two
categories are the bird's environment and diet. After these comes trauma
as a source of problems, but it runs a weak third. If bird owners can
optimize their bird's environment and diet, many problems that we avian
veterinarians see could be avoided. This means that your bird can live a
longer, healthier life and your wallet will also be spared much trauma!
When you do need the services of a veterinarian, make sure that the
veterinarian is an avian veterinarian who sees birds on a regular basis.
It is not a bad idea to call around and talk to some of the local
veterinarians who claim to be "bird experts" and ask them some questions.
Don't be afraid to ask for references either. Diet
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
severe upper respiratory infections to egg binding in laying hens (a
situation where an egg is stuck in the reproductive tract of the female
We will break diet into categories then offer some ideas of optimal or
healthy diets for your bird: The five categories are: 1. vitamin and
mineral, 2. protein, 3.carbohydrates, 4. vegetables and fruits, 5. fats.
Vitamin and Mineral: Vitamin A deficiency is the most common
single dietary deficiency or problem seen in cage 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 whereas 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. Vitamin D3 is essential for
healthy bones, feathers, and egg laying. Without this vitamin, calcium
cannot be properly used by the body. Natural sunlight will allow the body
to produce normal amounts of this vitamin so will using 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 will not
work. Vitamin supplementation is an easy and inexpensive way to ensure
your bird receives proper amounts of all vitamins. It is important to use
vitamins made for birds as they will contain vitamin D3. Other forms of
vitamin D will not be properly utilized by your bird; they need to have
D3. Although the rest of the vitamins are also necessary, I just wanted to
review the two most important ones.
In the case of minerals, calcium is the most important. The only birds
that require extra calcium in their diet are African Gray parrots, Blue
Fronted Amazons, and any bird laying eggs. All other birds will receive
enough calcium from a good vitamin/mineral supplement. Cuttle bone,
mineral blocks, manu blocks, oyster shell grit, and D-CA-PHOS (Fort Dodge)
are all excellent and natural sources of calcium. Do not 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. Water soluble types are not as good as they are low
in the fat soluble (A and D3) and vitamins break down fast in water losing
potency and increase the growth of bacteria.
A few brands I would recommend are Prime, Avia, Superpreen, and Necton.
Only buy enough vitamins to last six months or less as they slowly lose
their potency when exposed to air. Vitamins/mineral supplements are
utilized best when mixed with wet foods not seeds or pellets.
Protein: Birds do need protein in their diet; the amount and
type vary on the bird's activity and age. More active birds (show birds
and birds in large flights that fly around a lot) and breeding birds (egg
laying hens, parents feeding their young) and growing birds need more
protein than the average caged pet 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. While many seeds
have decent amounts of protein, 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, I prefer to give the birds pellets. Seeds are also very
high in fat and most birds prefer the taste of seeds over other foods,
this may lead to obesity as well as deficiencies.
There are many brands of pellets available, stick to the brand names,
avoid newcomers to the market that are not from a regular bird food
manufacturer. Many of the pellet companies have a variety of pellets for
your birds needs, Consult your avian veterinarian if you are unsure of
which type to feed your bird.
Many birds who have been on seed will not readily accept the pellets.
You may need to "cold turkey" them on to the pellets by withholding their
seeds, make sure they have plenty of water and "wet" foods. If you are
uncomfortable doing this type of change over, you can offer your bird a
mix of pellets and seeds or place an additional bowl of pellets next to
the seeds. You may want to offer a limited amount of seed so that your
bird is hungry enough to try the pellets (this holds true when offering
any new food to your bird that they do not seem to want).
Birds are like young children, 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 to your
birds. If your bird will not eat pellets or you want to offer seeds, their
diet should be no more than 20-50% seed (depending on their activity
levels and whether they are outside or inside and the environmental
temperature). Avoid sunflower seeds unless using the new low fat sunflower
seeds available, the birds really enjoy the taste of sunflower seeds and
will preferentially eat them over other foods. They are high in fat and
not very nutritious. If you want to give your birds sunflower seeds, use
them as treats or rewards.
Other good sources of protein for your bird are non-fat cottage cheese,
regular cheese (high in fat), lean cooked meats (beef and poultry) and
well- cooked chicken bones. Give these protein sources once or twice a
week in addition to a balanced diet offered daily.
Carbohydrates: There are two forms of carbohydrates, simple and
complex. Simple ones are the sugars. They are rapidly digested and
absorbed and are not very good for your bird. Avoid giving treats that are
high in 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 you bird and serve as building blocks for non-essential amino acid
(the building blocks of protein) and fats. Your bird should have starches
in its diet in the form of cooked rice, beans (good for 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 avocado that is fatal to birds and there is no treatment once
they have eaten it and get sick. Iceberg lettuce is mostly water and has
little nutritional value, birds seem to like it and will eat it over other
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 (birds do not salivate so they do not detect the hotness
of these peppers like you or I would but if your bird kisses you after
eating some of these, watch out!), Sweet potatoes and yams -- cooked or
raw, carrots, winter squash, pumpkin, red cabbage, mustard greens, brussel
sprouts, spinach, kale asparagus, parsley (give sparingly), dark leafy
lettuce -- not iceberg lettuce, papaya, apricots, peaches, mango,
cantaloupe, cherries (may turn stool or droppings a dark red color that
looks like blood but is harmless), and watermelon. Many of the other
vegetables not listed are okay to eat. You can use fresh or frozen
vegetables, but avoid canned vegetables as they are processed and have had
most of the good nutritional value destroyed. You can give these raw or in
the case of frozen, thawed out. Cooking is not necessary (you may find
that your bird prefers cooked yams and sweet potatoes over raw, just make
sure they have cooled down).
Your bird can eat as many vegetables as it wants, that's okay, but
avoid too much fruit as it is mostly sugar and water and therefore, not
all that nutritious. Always wash fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly
before feeding. If you use fruit cocktail, buy the type with no sugar or
syrup added. Your bird's droppings will get more watery when you feed them
fruits and vegetables, especially with fruits. Do not mistake this for
diarrhea. It is usually an increase in urine production due to the high
water content of these types of food, or in other words, water in, water
The fecal portion of the dropping should remain formed but you will see
less of the white stuff (urates) and more "water" (urine). This is okay.
If the fecal portion is also unformed or has an odor, then you need to
have the bird checked. Remember, your vet needs to see the droppings so do
not clean the cage before your visit.
Fats: Fat deficiency is rare to non-existent in birds,
especially in the pet bird. There are cases where birds require a certain
type of oil in their diet, but fat is usually quite plentiful. Most cage
or pet birds tend to have diets that are too high in fat. This is usually
due to a high seed intake. Most seeds are high in fat. A good rule of
thumb is the larger the seed, the greater the fat content (by percentage
of makeup). Sunflower seeds are the largest contributor to obesity in
birds. Peanuts are another high fat food that birds love to eat, so offer
them as treats only (or not at all). Large nuts are also high in fat. Seed
treats like honey sticks are very high calorie, high fat foods and should
only be given to your birds once a month or less. Many people think that
since these birds eat high fat foods in the wild that they need them in
captivity, however, your bird is not getting the exercise that a wild bird
gets when flying around looking for food. Besides, if a wild bird gets an
obesity problem, it falls easy prey for a predator or gets sick and dies.
Not a good outcome.
The best way to minimize your bird's fat intake is to minimize fatty
foods. Seeds should constitute only 20-50% of the diet if you want to feed
seeds. Pellets are good, since they are low in fat. Your bird can eat all
it wants and will not get fat. If you bird likes regular cheeses, give
them sparingly. The yolk of hard boiled eggs is high in fat and should be
given judiciously, egg whites are a good protein source and have no
appreciable fat content. Chicken and turkey skin and meat trimmings are
very high in fat and should be avoided. Do 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. They
are offered only as a guide line; some variation is okay. A good rule of
thumb is that anything that is good for a human with a heart condition
(remember, no avocado or chocolates).
Diet 1. Maintenance pellets,
offered on an as eat basis. If your birds are breeding/laying you may need
to go to a pellet designed for production. Offer vegetables and fruits --
75-90% vegetables, the rest fruit daily. Mix your vitamins in with this.
Change the bowl daily, clean and disinfect it on a regular basis. If you
live in a humid climate, you may need to change this bowl two to three
times a day to prevent spoilage. Offer daily table foods, part of your
breakfast, lunch, or dinner if you want. Remember, moderation is the key.
Treats such as honey sticks and nuts should be given once a month or less.
Diet 2. Use a safflower based seed mix in place of the pellets.
Sunflower and peanut 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 best to offer
seeds twice a day for 15-30 minutes then remove the seed bowl so the bird
will eat the 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. 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 your bird.
Another treat you can give your bird is Zu-preem Monkey Chow. This is a
good brand since it is not oily and has a low bacterial count. 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 that will not hurt
your dog or cat but could get your bird sick. With all the good commercial
diets available for your bird, using foods formulated for other species is
not really necessary.
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 its head into, not just his beak. You
should change your bird's water daily, if your bird is a messy eater, or
likes to dip his food in his water, you may need to change it more often.
Depending on the number of birds and their location, the water bowl(s)
should be disinfected on a regular basis. This will be covered in the
section on disinfection. It is best to use bottled or filtered water since
many municipal supplies are borderline at best and may be high in minerals
and contaminants. Tap water sometimes has low levels of bacteria that may
be harmful to your bird. Water that is safe for human consumption is not
necessarily safe for your bird!
If your bird has a habit of defecating in its water then you need a
covered or hooded bowl for water, this helps to keep the water clean. 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
misters or Sprinklers that can be turned on in the hot weather to help
cool the aviary as well as allows your birds something to play in.
another very important area that you need to pay attention to when you
have a feathered friend. Cage, location, lighting, noise, routine, toys,
perches, cleaning/disinfecting, Teflon and other toxins, heat and drafts
are all important factors. Bathing will also be covered at the end of this
Cage: The cage should be large enough for your bird to spread and flap
its wings without hitting the bars. 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 olds. They should not be left out alone because
they have a way of getting into trouble. Many a nice piece of furniture
and curtains 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. If the cage is painted, make sure it is
with non- leaded paint, the label should read safe for children/infants,
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, as the bird can
chew through the new layer of paint to the old layer.
Playground areas are nice for your bird, 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 playgrounds, wood and PVC are the most
popular, make sure the perches are the right size for your birds feet. If
using PVC, make sure that it is either roughened or has a grippable
material on it so that the bird will not slip. More about perches will be
covered under the toy and perch section.
Perches and Toys: The best perches are the natural hard woods such as
manzanita, ribbon wood 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, as mentioned earlier, is also a popular perch
playground material that is easy to clean. If you cover it for better
grip, use a material that can be easily changed for easy cleaning.
Terra-cotta is a recently introduced perch material that seems to work
well, is sage, and does seem to help keep the nails a bit shorter.
Another new perch material is rope. These perches are fine except they
are easily destroyed by larger birds and need to replaced often as the
frayed and loose strand may entangle your birds feet. With any of the
perching materials, varying diameter perches need to be offered to prevent
fatigue to the birds feet and simulate more natural perching behaviors.
Sandpaper covers should be avoided as they may irritate the skin on the
bottom of the feet and lead to bumble foot, a seriously debilitating foot
Toys should be made of very strong materials, especially for the larger
parrots, macaws, and cockatoos. Large dog choker chains are very good for
suspending things. Dog chews such as the large one-piece cowhide (do not
use pig ears) can make fun and chewable toys. Many of the acrylic toys,
while 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 for small birds of all ages. It is natural for
birds to be destructive so do not be surprised when your macaw or cockatoo
(or even some of the other birds) break these "unbreakable" toys and
perches. Expect to buy more and you will not be let down.
Dishes: Ceramic, plastic, and stainless steel are your best bets. All
are good and 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. I have found that many of the high impact plastic bowls
that clamp on the cage are easy to use, easy to clean, cheaper than other
bowls, and come in many colors. These are my personal favorite. Disinfect
your bowls on a regular basis ( see the section on Disinfection).
Light: 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 if necessary. Indoor birds need 12-16 hours of light a day. It
is best to keep your bird(s) 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 . If D3 is provided in the diet via supplementation then the
type of light is less important.
Noise and Routine: There are multiple theories on these two subjects. I
have found 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. My own birds are very use to a
"non-routine" routine of lighting, feeding, and cleaning schedules, being
up at midnight was no big deal to them' Certain birds like the African
Gray Parrots are more susceptible to change. It is important when a change
has occurred that the bird is watched closely for signs of illness or
unhappiness. These include excessive sleeping and fluffing, decrease or
loss of appetite (watch for change in droppings), decreased vocalization,
aggressive behavior, etc. If any of these should occur, call your avian
veterinarian as soon as possible.
Heat and drafts: The ambient (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 drastic. If you are
going away, make sure you leave your thermostat set such that your indoor
pets, if left behind, do not experience sudden temperature fluctuations.
They will be stressed enough with you being gone, there is no need to make
things worse. Birds should never be placed near vents, ducts, or drafty
windows and doors as they are unable to get out of the way of the air
flows and can become sick after prolonged exposure. If your bird is sick
it is 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.
Teflon: Cookware coated with non-stick surfaces should not be used if
there are birds in the house. When new or over heated they emit Teflon gas
that is odorless, colorless, and harmless to mammals. It is fatal to
birds, there is no known antidote. If you have Teflon coated cookware
(pans, waffle irons, etc.), either get rid of them or make sure you keep
the bird on the other side of the house with windows open while using
There are very good stainless and cast iron cookware available, that
when used properly, are also non-stick. If you burn or over heat coated
cookware, open all windows immediately and get your bird as far away as
possible from the source. Disinfection
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 disinfection. A detailed analysis of disinfection with all the
various chemicals could easily become a book.
My goal is to give you a brief overview of what I know will work under
most conditions. In time of certain disease outbreaks, the rules become
more stringent, check with your avian veterinarian if you are having an on
going problem that you have not been able to resolve. Do not be afraid to
ask for a second opinion.
I 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 (hard to find in
California), Neon Pet Products and Pursue (Amway), just to name a few.
They are good at killing Chlamydia (psittacosis), Psittacine Beak and
Feather Disease virus (PBFD), Pseuodomonas bacteria, and Polyoma virus.
Make sure they are listed to kill Pseudomonas, 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. Bleach used at 4 ounces per gallon of water
will kill just about anything. Bleach is inexpensive but can be very
awkward to use due to its odor and ability to ruin clothes and carpets.
The new members to this group are the stabilized chlorine dioxides. The
most notable of this group are Oxygene and Dentagene, both by Oxyfresh.
This would be the best product to use during a Polyoma outbreak or during
the handfeeding period in and aviary. Due to its expense, it may not be
appropriate for pet birds, non breeding birds, or in the offbreeding
In multiple bird household and aviaries I recommend disinfecting wet
food and water bowls daily. They should be cleaned with hot, soapy water
to remove as much debris as possible then soaked in disinfectant for 20-30
minutes. In homes with one to two birds, the bowls should be cleaned daily
and disinfected once a week. Cages may be periodically washed then sprayed
with disinfectant and left to air dry, once Cry, hose with fresh water.
Make sure you remove the 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.
Perched should be brushed with a wire brush as needed to remove dried
feces and food, they should be replaced twice a year or as needed.
Flooring in the bird room should be easily cleaned. If your birds are
on carpet, put some plastic under their cage to facilitate cleaning, your
carpet will appreciate this as well as yourself. Linoleum and tile can be
mopped or hosed on a weekly basis, after cleaning, coat the floor with
disinfectant and let it air dry, then mop it with warm water. If you
cannot remove the birds from the room when cleaning the floor, make sure
there is plenty of ventilation and that you do not spray the birds with
If you will be disinfecting electronic equipment or equipment that
cannot get wet then you need to use an aerosol that contains an
ortho-phenyphenol disinfectant. These are capable of killing all the
problem organisms, it even kills tuberculosis, a problem seen occasionally
in wild caught or imported birds. Two brand I can think of are Pursue
Broad Spectrum Disinfectant Deodorizer Spray (no TFHC, environmentally
friendly) and Lysol Disinfectant Deodorizer Spray. Spray these in to or on
to the appropriate area, including fan and motor housings, and let air
dry. If spraying in to a fan or motor, turn off before spraying and let
sit for 30 minutes before starting again.