Common household hazards to companion birds

Common Household Hazards to Companion Birds
By Dr Dorianne Elliott BVSc
Of all the species of birds kept commonly as pets, surely the most popular are the parrots
and parakeets. Due to their outgoing and curious natures, these birds often get themselves
into dangerous situations in and around the home. Any home may easily be made safer
for pet birds with a little planning and common sense.
Everything becomes clear if one considers tame parrots in the same light as one would a
human toddler – with the same level of curiosity and as little good sense and foresight

Unsafe Foods:
A varied and properly balanced diet is probably the most important aspect
of giving your pet a long, healthy life. Nevertheless many common foods may cause your
bird to become ill. Unlike most fruits and veggies, avocado pear, for example is HIGHLY
toxic to birds and even a small piece could poison a parrot. Remember that avo-
containing products such as guacamole are just as dangerous.
Fatty foods (including too many sunflower seeds and/or peanuts), those containing
preservatives, artificial flavourants, non-nutritive sweeteners etc are all out. Basically, an
easy rule of thumb is: if the bird would not eat it in the wild, you shouldn’t be feeding it
Many parrots will develop sour crop if allowed fresh dairy products. Yogurt is, however
fine. Parrots (as they do not drink milk when young) do not have the enzyme, lactose,
necessary to break down fresh milk.
Chocolate, coffee and cocoa all contain a substance named theobromine, also highly toxic
to birds. Needless to say, alcohol is a no-no. Getting your bird drunk is not funny, it is
irresponsible and dangerous as alcohol can cause severe liver damage.
Although they love to eat chips, crackers and other salty foods, your bird’s intake of high
salt foods should be very firmly limited. While perfectly fine in small doses, high salt
foods in large amounts are very unhealthy, affecting both the heart and kidneys.
Remember, birds are a lot smaller than they look. For example, an African grey parrot
weighs on average 350 to 400g. A human weighs on average 75kg. This means that the
parrot is 200X smaller than the owner. Considered in this light, one can better appreciate
that one chip for your pet is equivalent to 200 chips for you!
Which brings me to another point – giving of medications. Uninformed owners often
attempt to medicate their ill birds at home, with small amounts of human medicines. This
is extremely dangerous. There is no way that anyone could break off a perfect 1/200 of an
aspirin and in any case, birds are highly sensitive to many medicines that are safe for
people, dogs and farm animals. Always consult with a qualified veterinarian before
dosing your bird with any medicines; you could easily be doing much more harm than
Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital 012 529 8105 Fumes and Poisons: Due to the small size and delicate construction of their lungs, birds
are extremely sensitive to toxic fumes. This is the reason why canaries were such
excellent poison gas indicators in the mines of long ago. One of the most dangerous and
least known of all household hazards is that of overheated Teflon. When this non-stick
pan coating is overheated, it releases fumes that cause lung bleeding and acute death in
birds. For this reason, do not keep your parrot near the kitchen if you use non-stick
cookware (remember that some of the newer cooking bags are Teflon coated too. Other
kitchen related problems include the smoke from overheated oil, aerosol oven cleaners
etc. Basically, if any product smells strongly (this includes the glue used on new carpets,
scented air fresheners, car fresheners, deodorants, scented candles and incense), keep
your parrot away until the room has been well ventilated and the smell has dissipated.
Early signs of respiratory distress involve tail bobbing, labored breathing, voice change
and distress. Should this occur, immediately take the bird away from the source into a
well-ventilated environment and call your vet.
Needless to say, household poisons such as insecticidal spray should never be sprayed on
or even near cages and food bowls. Just breathing in the spray is dangerous. If you
absolutely must use these sprays, rather use one with an odour so that you can be sure
that the fumes do not reach the parrot cage. If you can smell it at all near the cage, it is
too strong for the parrot. This is the disadvantage of odourless sprays. Remember too that
many of these poisons have a long contact time of up to 6 weeks and may still affect a
curious parrot that licks the sprayed surface weeks after you have forgotten that you ever
sprayed there.
Parrots love to fiddle with and chew on pens. Their strong beaks are capable of breaking
them open and getting themselves coated in sticky, staining ink.
It is important to make sure that your bird has no access to any lead or zinc containing
substance. As discussed in a previous article, these substances cause Heavy Metal
Poisoning when ingested. This condition is fatal if not treated in time.
Some common culprits are: wine bottle sealing foil, curtain weights, lead based paint,
jewellery, disposable lighter flints, linoleum, COMPLETE LIST.

Physical Hazards:
Most of these are fairly obvious. Fans may be flown into and should
be turned off when the bird is loose. Electrical cables may be chewed and should be out
of reach. Hot stove plates and naked light bulbs may cause burns, open bowls of water
are often fun to bath in but supervision is needed to prevent drowning. Toilet lids should
be closed.
Needless to say, if your bird’s wings are not clipped, all doors and windows should be
shut when he is out and about.
Try to place the cage in an area with more constant temperatures. Large fluctuations such
as those near doors or open windows may make the bird ill.
Never fall asleep with your bird in your bed. More that one distraught owner has awoken
to discover that he has rolled onto his pet in his sleep.
With their strong beaks, parrots are capable of shattering glass and plastic beads, which
may subsequently cut their tongues or stomachs.
Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital 012 529 8105 Other Animals: No matter how well trained your dog or how sleepy and indifferent your
cat, a sudden instinctual impulse or ill-tempered nip could change the situation in a flash.
Cats carry bacteria named Pasteurella in their mouths. These bacteria are normally
harmless but, should a bird be bitten (or even just scratched) by a cat, the bacteria may
cause a severe infection known as septicaemia. For this reason any bird that has been
mouthed by a cat needs immediate veterinary attention.
Many households contain more than one companion bird. If introduced carefully to each
other, these birds will often co-exist quite happily. Rarely, jealousy, frustration or
seasonal change (which stimulates breeding behaviour) will cause fighting amongst the
birds. For this reason birds of different species should only be allowed to be together
under supervision and should never be forced to share the same cage at night.
Be aware that male cockatoos have been known to attack and kill their mates even after
years of peaceful coexistence.
Toxic plants:
There is very little information available regarding which houseplants are
specifically toxic to birds. The following list is one of common household ornamentals
that have been linked to poisonings in one animal species or another. Many bird species
appear particularly resistant to plant toxins. Nevertheless, birds should never be allowed
to chew on or play with any plant until you are sure that it is safe. Possible problem
plants include: solanum (Jerusalem Cherry), schlefflera (Umbrella tree), azalea,
rhododendron, Mother in Laws Tongue, philodendron, Avocado Pear, kalanchoe,
euphorbia, dracaena, dieffenbachia, Oleander and Periwinkle.

Safe and Unsafe Toys:
Toys are extremely important for the psychological well-being of
companion birds, especially the parrots, who would naturally spend most of their day in
the search for food. This would involve hours of moving through the trees, looking,
touching and tasting for edible items. Many parrots build nests by chewing holes in tree
trunks. This means that even although your parrot may never have had to search for food
or build a nest, he has evolved with powerful drives to explore, taste, and touch any
attractive object around him. What all this boils down to is that parrots NEED toys. They
also NEED toys that are destructible. Parrots enjoy breaking things (as you may have
noticed if you own one!). Being allowed to reduce a toy to sawdust gives them great
satisfaction and markedly reduces the frustration and boredom suffered by many of our
feathered friends. There are, however a few points to consider when choosing safe and
suitable toys for your bird: firstly, is the size appropriate? A toy may be perfectly safe for
a macaw and be deadly for the lovebird that gets his head trapped in one of the links of
the suspending chain. Curious birds will often try to push their heads/beaks/tongues into
any available crack or gap, thus getting themselves stuck. There have been several
reports of lovebirds getting their beaks stuck in the open section of the little round bells
often seen in cages. Rope toys are excellent but should be replaced when the rope begins
to fray, as legs may become trapped in the fibres, leading to panic and sometimes even
severe injuries.
The next point to consider is the substance making up the toy. Be wary of allowing birds
to chew on chains, wires etc that may pose the threat of heavy metal toxicity. Some older
plastics are toxic especially when pieces are chewed off and swallowed.
Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital 012 529 8105 Also be aware that especially the larger parrots have immensely powerful beaks and may
break glass or brittle plastic beads into sharp pieces, capable of lacerating the tongue or
guts. One last point to be aware of is that some birds will develop the habit of chewing
off pieces of fluff on stuffed toys, fluffy blankets etc and this may, rarely become lodged
in the stomach or intestines.
Commercially available toys are, on the whole safe but always use your own good
judgment before choosing any new toy.

This article is not intended to scare you, or make you subject your feathered friend to
days on end of caged boredom, but rather to highlight some of the many hidden hazards
in and around the home, in order for you to be able to maximize the safety of your own
situation. No one has the perfect, parrot friendly home but often just a few small changes
and adjustments can prevent accidents and give you many years of joy together.
Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital 012 529 8105


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