- Finding a good bird vet and scheduling regular well-bird checkups
- Exploring two important and easy ways to keep your bird healthy
- Recognizing symptoms of common health issues adopted birds can experience
- Improving your bird’s health and behavior through proper feeding and grooming
Providing good diets and healthcare for pet birds is crucial, because malnutrition and other health problems can be at the root of behaviors that cause people to relinquish their birds to shelters and rescue groups. The bulk of health problems that pet birds tend to develop come from just two highly preventable conditions: poor diet and poor — dirty, cramped — living conditions. You can change those conditions for your new bird with a little knowledge.
Keeping Your Bird Healthy
Finding a good bird vet
On the other hand, some veterinarians actually specialize in caring for birds. When you’re looking for the right vet for your bird, don’t just default to the vet who’s so wonderful with your dog or cat. Ask the family vet how much experience she has with birds and whether she knows of another vet who specializes in birds. Even if you have to drive a little farther, you may find the visit well worth your trouble. Avian veterinarians know about diseases and conditions unique to birds and the best course of treatment for bird-specific problems. They may also be able to give you some great insight into your bird’s individual behavior problems.
– Is the veterinarian a member of the Association of Avian Veterinarians (AAV)?
– Is the veterinarian board certified in avian veterinary medicine?
– How long has the vet been treating birds?
– Does the vet keep birds at home (or even in the office)? If so, which types?
– How much does the vet charge for avian services?
– Does the vet offer emergency services, if your bird happens to require immediate after-hours care and attention?
If you can’t track down a great bird vet, the Association of Avian Veterinarians can help. It can provide you with a list of bird vets near you. Call the AAV at 561-393-8901 or visit its Web site at www.aav.org, where you can search for avian vets by area.
The first vet visit
Don’t neglect this initial vet visit. It gives your vet a baseline upon which to compare your bird’s health status at all future visits or when problems arise. Schedule a well-bird vet visit about once every six months after that, just to make sure everything is A-okay or to follow up on prescribed treatment.
One last word about the vet visit: You need a travel carrier, similar to a crate you’d use to bring a cat or small dog to the vet or a small travel cage that you can cover with a cage cover or blanket so your bird doesn’t become frightened by being on the move and out of control. Make sure your bird can’t escape from this travel carrier or cage. If you use a crate, put a blanket on the bottom so your bird has something to grip. If you use a travel cage, be sure the perches are tightly secured and remove hanging toys inside that otherwise can bounce around and hit your bird. During winter months, when it is cold, be sure the car is already warm before taking the bird out. A heavy quilt over the carrier for going between car and buildings is good. Better yet, ask if the vet will make a special house call.
Common health problems in adopted birds
– Injuries: Many adopted birds are injured, or were injured in the past, before they came to you and never were treated. Adopted birds can become injured from abuse, being loose and flying into something, tangling with another pet, or even from self-mutilation caused by neglect or poor environmental conditions. Injuries are dangerous for birds. Broken bones can prevent your bird from breathing. Bacteria from infected wounds can enter the bloodstream. If your parrot gets a wound — including the self-inflicted kind — or shows any signs of injury, go to the vet immediately.
– Parasites: Birds that live in unclean conditions occasionally develop feather mites or red mites. See the vet to treat mites, because trying to treat them yourself is difficult, and some of the mite products for sale in pet stores may not be safe for your bird. Other parasites include worms and intestinal parasites, the signs of which include diarrhea and weight loss. Note: On your first visit, your vet should examine your bird for mites and test for worms.
– Bacterial infections: When they live in filthy conditions, birds can acquire a bacteria that causes tuberculosis. Humans with weakened immune systems can catch the same infection, which is airborne. In birds, tuberculosis is a digestive disorder. Signs include weight loss and other digestive problems like diarrhea. Birds with this kind of bacteria, called mycobacterium avium, can’t be cured of it, but a superclean environment and low stress keep symptoms to a minimum. Another common bird bacterial infection is psittacosis, sometimes called chlamydiosis or parrot fever. It is also contagious to humans; however, it’s a respiratory bacteria that your vet can treat effectively, especially if it is caught early. Signs include yellowish or light greenish droppings, lethargy, discharge from the nostrils, and difficulty breathing.
– Viral infections: Viruses in birds can be mild or deadly. Three of the most serious include psitticine beak and feather disease, a contagious and fatal disease causing feather loss and lesions on the beak; polyomavirus, an incurable fatal virus for which there is a vaccine (so ask your vet if your bird is at risk); and Pacheco’s disease, a type of viral hepatitis that is highly contagious and often fatal.
– Fungal infections: Fungal infections can afflict adopted birds that aren’t healthy and have been eating a poor diet, because their weakened immune systems fall prey to infections that a healthy bird’s body otherwise would resist. Birds can get yeast infections after being treated with antibiotics or if they’re not eating a healthy diet. Signs include white sticky goo on your bird’s tongue and in his mouth and sometimes digestive upset. Your vet can treat a yeast infection with medication and a vitamin A-rich diet. Yeast infections aren’t serious unless they go untreated, in which case they can eventually prove fatal. Another common fungal infection that can be fatal is aspergillosis, which causes respiratory distress and can be caused by dirty, moldy bedding. Black hairy-looking mold can produce this kind of fungus.
– Gout: You may think of gout as a rich human’s disease of overindulgence, but malnourished birds can get it, too. If your bird’s leg gets swollen or he stops using one leg, suspect gout.
– Obesity: Can a malnourished bird also be fat? Certainly. Birds fed a highfat, low-nutrient diet can quickly become overweight, especially when they’re never let out of their cages to exercise. Obesity is hard on your bird and compromises his health in many ways. He can develop a food infection called bumblefoot, and all his internal organs have to work harder to function. A low-fat, nutrient-dense diet can help correct obesity in your adopted bird. For more about how to feed your bird a healthy diet, see “Feeding Your Adopted Bird: A Mixed Bag” later in this chapter.
– Feather plucking, chewing, and self-mutilation: People often think of feather plucking and other forms of self-mutilation as behavioral problems, and indeed, they often are. Birds that are bored, neglected, abused, or under a lot of stress often develop these behaviors, some more often than others. Cockatoos are famous for being prone to feather plucking, but it also occurs with other birds like Macaws, Amazons, and African greys. But behavior isn’t always the root cause, so if your bird is plucking or chewing his feathers, has bald patches or wounds, see your vet to make sure the cause isn’t physical. If everything checks out, treat these symptoms as a behavioral problem. For more about dealing with this common problem of adopted birds, see Chapter Training Your Bird.
– Egg binding: Even without a mate, a female may go into a nesting mode and lay eggs, but in malnourished females, eggs sometimes get stuck. This problem also can occur when a female has been laying too many eggs. Weakness, a tumor, a deformed egg, or other problems likewise can cause egg binding. If your bird pants, squats, or stops walking, suspect egg binding and consider it an emergency. See your vet immediately. Don’t try to pull out the egg yourself. Doing so can fatally injure your bird.
– Respiratory distress from environmental causes: Birds have extremely sensitive respiratory systems, and many regular household appliances can produce fumes that are deadly to birds. Common offenders include any heated nonstick surface (such as nonstick cookware and appliances with nonstick surfaces), household cleaners, self-cleaning ovens, scented candles, garden chemicals, insecticides, gasoline or kerosene, charcoal or lighter fluid, and even crayons and markers. If your bird begins vomiting, bleeding from the face, or becomes paralyzed, unconscious, has seizures, or seems unresponsive — a sign of shock — rush your bird to the emergency clinic immediately.
Respiratory distress from chemicals is a form of poisoning in birds, but birds can also be poisoned if they ingest something poisonous. Houseplants or toxic food also can poison your bird. If you even suspect your bird has been poisoned, call your vet immediately. If your bird shows any sign of poisoning, such as vomiting, paralysis, loss of consciousness, seizures, or unresponsiveness, and you can’t get to a clinic right away, call the National Animal Poison Control Center’s 24-hour Poison Hotline at 900-548-2423.
Bird breeding: Why — and how — not to
– Do not provide a nesting box or anything resembling a nesting box, such as little wooden or plastic houses, shelters, or cardboard boxes.
– Do not provide nesting material or anything resembling nesting material. Your bird should not have access to shredded paper, litter, newspaper, soft cloth, straw, or anything else that looks like it can go into the construction of a nest.
– Do not expose your birds to light for more than 12 hours per day. Too much light can launch a bird into reproductive mode, which not only is stressful to the bird but also can lead to all sorts of behavior problems. Birds need light, so don’t keep them in the dark all the time, for goodness sake. But if your bird starts desperately trying to build a nest out of something, anything, or starts laying eggs (even in the absence of a partner), reduce her daylight hours by only a few, with curtains or shades in the room or a cover over the cage.
Feeding Your Adopted Bird: A Mixed Bag
Giving your bird a balanced diet
Seed gets stale and rancid quickly, so keep it in an airtight container and don’t buy more at one time than your bird will eat in about a month or two. And that jar of seed your neighbor gave you because she gave away her bird last year . . . toss it.
– Fresh foods: Fifty percent of your bird’s diet needs to be fresh foods. (See the section, “Giving your bird the best and worst foods,” later in the chapter for a list of the best fresh foods for your bird.)
– Nutritionally complete pellets: Some people are big advocates of the pelleted diet because it provides complete nutrition. However, it is processed and not at all like the food birds eat in their natural habitat. Pellets can be a great portion of a healthy diet, but if you intend to use pellets, feed about 25 percent seed, 25 percent pellets, and 50 percent fresh food. Be sure to buy pellets that are appropriate for your kind of bird.
– Fresh water: Without a constant supply of clean fresh water, your bird can quickly become dehydrated and die, and drinking dirty water can introduce bacteria into your bird’s system. Birds need to drink a lot, so thoroughly wash your bird’s water dish every day and refill it at least once a day, or more often if it gets dirty.
This kind of varied diet is not only healthy for birds but also essential for mental stimulation. Birds are interested in what goes into their bowls. If they always have a selection — a few pellets, a few seeds, a few nuts, a few grains, a mini green salad and a few pieces of fruits and veggies — they get more satisfaction out of their meals, are less bored, and in some cases, their behavior is even improved, partially because improved nutrition and partially because of improved mealtime satisfaction.
Giving your bird the best and worst foods
– Sprouted and/or cooked legumes like lentils, black beans, lima beans, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, and black-eyed peas.
– Cooked grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, couscous, whole-grain pasta, and corn.
– Root vegetables and their leafy tops, such as carrots, radishes, turnips, and cooked potatoes — skip the potato tops — including white and sweet potatoes.
– Broccoli, including the stems and leaves, and cauliflower.
– Other veggies like zucchini, yellow squash, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, artichoke, and eggplant.
– Leafy greens like Romaine lettuce, collards, radicchio, mustard, endive, dandelion, Swiss chard, kale, parsley, and the greens from beets and turnips.
– Peas, especially fresh sugar snap peas or snow peas — large parrots enjoy getting the peas out of the pod.
– Sweet and spicy peppers, both red and green.
– Tropical fruits like papaya, mango, kiwi, pineapple, and melons, including watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew.
– Orchard fruits like apples, pears, peaches, plums, and apricots, but don’t offer the pits or seeds; they’re toxic!
– Citrus fruits, like grapefruit, oranges, and tangerines.
– Dried fruit like raisins, figs, and dried apricots.
– All berries, including strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and gooseberries.
Birds don’t need to eat any of the food items in the list that follows, because they can, in fact, be dangerous for them. So you should never feed your bird:
– Onions, including green onions or scallions, leeks, or shallots, especially raw. If you have a delicious vegetable soup with a few cooked onions in it, you can probably give your bird a bite or two without a problem, but don’t hand off a raw chunk or bouquet of scallions for munching.
– Avocado, including guacamole. You may think avocado, with its suggestion of the steamy tropics, is a perfect food for birds. Think again. It is poisonous to birds, and they don’t eat it in the wild.
– Rhubarb. The leaves are toxic to humans, but even the sour stalks can be toxic to birds, so avoid them.
– Nonorganic apples, grapes, and strawberries that are extremely pesticideridden. You may as well skip eating them, too, and go for the organic versions.
– The pits of fruits like peaches, nectarines, apricots, and plums can be toxic for birds, so cut out the pits before serving these fruits. The fruit itself, however, is just fine.
– Apple seeds, which can be toxic to birds. Core those apples first. And remember to buy organic!
– Salt, which is bad for birds. (Pepper is okay.)
– Chocolate, in any form.
– Anything with caffeine, including coffee, tea, and cola.
– Anything containing alcohol. It isn’t funny to give your parrot beer or wine. You’re poisoning him.
– Junk food. If it’s fried, high fat, high sugar, and generally bad for humans, then you can bet that it’s bad for birds.
Understanding the diets of specific species
– Budgies, cockatiels, and hyacinth macaws eat mostly grains and seeds. Grains need to be more dominant in the diets of these birds, when kept as pets, because pet birds don’t get enough exercise to burn the fat that they’d burn off in the wild. Likewise, be sure to supplement these diets with healthy vegetables like leafy greens, small bits of fruit and nuts, and some nutritionally complete, species-specific pelleted food.
– Some macaws, namely military macaws and blue-and-gold macaws — two of the more common macaws — eat lots of fruit, nuts, roots, berries, and seeds in the wild. Make sure your macaw has a lot of variety, including pellets. Hyacinth macaws eat mostly palm nuts in the wild and benefit from more nuts than seeds.
– Blue-throated and green-winged macaws exist mostly on fruit and flowers, with only a few nuts and seeds. Give them plenty of fresh fruits, cooked sprouted vegetables, grains like corn and oats, and just a few seeds and nuts for a treat.
– Cockatoos and some Amazons eat seeds, fruit, and the occasional insect. Cricket anyone? These birds need plenty of variety, and they thrive on sprouted beans and legumes, grains like corn and oats, and cooked vegetables like green beans, carrots, and bell peppers.
– Pigeons in the city may eat just about anything, but your pet dove does better on fresh fruits and a seed mix made for doves.
– Lories and lorikeets have special brush-like tongues for sipping nectar and scooping up bugs. Lories need a commercially prepared nectar-like diet made just for them.
Fruit and yeast infections
If your parrot is diagnosed with yeast, or candida, take a break from feeding fruit and anything with sweetener. Sugars, even the natural kind, provide the ideal breeding ground for yeasts, so let your bird’s body
recover form this persistent and sometimes chronic problem before resuming fruit treats. Instead, focus on leafy green and other nonsweet vegetables. Avoid sweet potatoes, yams, and carrots, too.
Knowing how often to feed your bird
Converting your bird to the proper diet
Every few days, slightly decrease the amount of seed and increase the pellets and fresh food until seed is a mere 25 to 50 percent of the diet. If your bird continues to shun the other food, offer seed only in the mornings and leave grains, veggies, and pellets in the bowl for midday free-feeding. Be patient and experiment to find the fresh foods that your bird suddenly realizes he actually likes! Habits are hard to break, and birds tend to stick with their favorites, but teaching your bird to eat a more varied diet is good for him in many ways. For some severely malnourished birds — and that includes all too many of the birds waiting to be adopted — the change in health, appearance, and behavior is dramatic when real nutrition finally becomes a part of your bird’s life.
Grooming Your Bird
Beak trimming sometimes is necessary for pet birds. Beaks can become overgrown and deformed, actually injuring the bird or making it impossible for the bird to eat, but you should never do this yourself. A mistake in beak trimming can be fatal, not just cosmetic. Let your avian vet handle this chore, if it becomes necessary.