10 Everyday Items That Are Toxic to Birds

Birds can be like toddlers: They are both very oral and like to check things out by putting them in their mouths. Just like children, when pet birds are out unsupervised, this habit of tasting things can get them into trouble. As an avian veterinarian, I treat birds every week for getting into toxic substances. Though some foods and objects are clearly potentially toxic to birds, there are others that might not be so obvious. Also, what may be toxic to one bird species may not be to another. Despite some variability in species susceptibility to certain toxins, as well as a lack of scientific studies proving the toxicity of certain substances in birds that are definitely toxic to mammals, there are some items to which birds should never have access. Here are perhaps the top 10 toxins for which I treat bird patients in my veterinary practice.

1. Heavy Metals, Especially Lead, Zinc and Copper

Metals are everywhere in our environments and are an often overlooked source of toxicity in pet birds. Metals can be found in paint, linoleum, soldering, wire, zippers, twist ties and many other objects on which birds love to chew. Even some older bird toys, especially the clappers on metal bells, have been found to contain lead. Birds who may chip away over time at a lead-painted windowsill, lick a metal bell toy, nibble on the soldering of a stained glass Tiffany lamp or chew on a metal zipper are constantly ingesting heavy metals and can potentially become intoxicated. When ingested in large enough quantities, these metals can damage nerves and cause vomiting, maldigestion, neurologic signs, such as imbalance and clenched toes and even seizures. Most cases of heavy metal toxicity in birds are treatable if they are diagnosed early enough before permanent nerve damage has occurred. However, these metals are not routinely tested for in birds unless the owner indicates that his or her bird has been exposed. So, if you think your bird may have ingested any of these substances, speak up to your veterinarian immediately, as it could be the difference between life and death.

2. Avocado

Several parts of the avocado plant, but especially the leaves, contain a fatty acid derivative called persin, which has been reported to cause heart failure, respiratory distress and sudden death in a variety of bird species. It is possible that some varieties of avocado are safe for some bird species, such as Lories, who have been fed avocado without problems. However, no one is sure what types of avocado are okay for which species, so it’s better to be safe and not offer your bird the guacamole.

3. Caffeine

Caffeine may be a pick-me-up for you but a definite downer for your bird. Caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea and soda are tempting to share with your bird, but even a few sips of these beverages can be extremely hazardous to your feathered pal. Caffeine may cause increased heart rate, arrhythmias, hyperactivity and even cardiac arrest in birds. So stick to water and occasional sips of safe fruit drinks, such as apple or cranberry juice, and keep him heart healthy.

4. Chocolate

Like us, many birds love chocolate. But chocolate can cause vomiting and diarrhea in birds. Even worse, chocolate contains both caffeine and theobromine, which can increase heart rate, cause hyperactivity, induce tremors and seizures, and potentially lead to death in birds. In general, the darker the chocolate, the higher the percentage of cacao (which are the seeds that contain theobromine and caffeine) and the more toxic it is to your pet. Do your birds a favor — give them a sugary fruit treat, like a slice of ripe banana or some juicy grapes, and save the chocolate for yourself.

5. Onions and Garlic

These yummy spices, believed to be heart healthy for people, are well-known toxins to dogs and cats and have caused fatalities in geese and other pet birds. Onions — cooked, raw or dehydrated — contain sulfur compounds that, when chewed, can cause rupture of red blood cells, leading to anemia (inadequate numbers of red blood cells). Onions also can irritate a bird’s mouth, esophagus and crop, and may lead to ulcers. Garlic contains a chemical called allicin, which in rare cases also can cause anemia in birds. Bland is best in birds — keep the spices out of your birdie’s body.

6. Salt and Fat

Salt: Many of us overindulge in this favorite condiment, and birds love it, too. Let’s face it — what bird doesn’t love to munch on a bunch of salty chips, popcorn, crackers or pretzels? But for a small bird, a few chips or pretzels can contain potentially toxic amounts of salt that can upset his electrolyte balance, leading to excessive thirst, dehydration, kidney dysfunction and even death. Similarly, fatty foods, such as large amounts of butter, nuts and fatty meat, can lead to the buildup of fat deposits within arteries (known as atherosclerosis) that can make some birds, like people, prone to heart disease and stroke. Some bird species, such as Amazon parrots and Quakers, seem to be predisposed to high cholesterol and triglyceride levels and to coronary artery disease, just like humans. Also, in general, the smaller the bird, the higher the risk with even a few bites of high fat or high salt foods, so to be safe, simply avoid these foods in birds’ diets.

7. Fruit Pits and Apple Seeds

Most birds love fruit, and most fruit is safe for birds. But when offered certain fruits with seeds (like apples and pears) and pits (like cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines and plums), birds should never be allowed to eat the seeds and pits, as they contain small amounts of cardio-toxic cyanide. The seeds found in other fruits, such as grapes, citrus fruits, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, melons, mangoes, pomegranates and berries, all are safe for bird consumption. Just core out the seeds and pits of cyanide-containing fruits and let your birds enjoy the rest.

8. Xylitol

Though this artificial sweetener, found in sugarless gum and many diet foods, hasn’t been studied extensively in birds, it causes severe hypoglycemia, liver damage and potential death in dogs. Consequently, it’s best not to take chances in birds who have a higher metabolism than most mammals and who could potentially be affected by very small amounts of this chemical. Birds don’t need to chew gum or eat artificially flavored low-cal foods. Overweight birds can munch on low-starch veggies to keep calories down. Keep the sugar-free stuff away.

9. Smoke and Other Aerosols

Along with the edibles, there are some other things that can be highly toxic to birds. For example, smoking is unhealthy enough for people, but it’s even worse for birds, whose airways actually inhale and exhale simultaneously with every breath and who are extremely sensitive to smoke and other aerosols. Spray cleaners, hair spray, perfumes, incense and even candle fumes can irritate birds’ lungs and air sacs (little clear membranes birds have throughout their bodies under their skin to help them breathe). These products should never be used around birds, and if birds are accidentally exposed to them, they should be moved to well-ventilated areas immediately. Exposed birds who do not start to breathe at a normal rate and with normal effort simply with better ventilation should be brought to a veterinarian as soon as possible for supportive therapy, such as fluids and oxygen. The moral is: If you’re going to spray, keep the birds away.

10. Teflon

Most bird owners know, but a few still do not, the dangers of nonstick cookware around birds. When Teflon and other nonstick surfaces are heated to very high temperatures, they emit microscopic vapors that when inhaled by birds’ exquisitely sensitive respiratory tracts can cause instant death. Numerous birds within a single household have been reported to die simultaneously when Teflon pans are burned near them. In general, all nonstick cookware and other nonstick coated appliances, including some stoves (in particular, the self-cleaning oven feature) and toasters, should be avoided in homes with birds. If birds are exposed accidentally to fumes from these pans or appliances, they should be brought to a well-ventilated area, such as the outdoors, immediately to help clear their airways. Unfortunately, even with immediate relocation to a better ventilated area, most birds exposed to these fumes die quickly without any signs before they can be brought to an animal hospital for oxygen therapy and other treatment. The manufacturer of any questionable appliance should be contacted before these appliances are used around birds. In general though, the rule is for bird owners is: Just say no to nonstick.

Of course, there are many other toxic items potentially toxic to birds, such as certain plants, lurking in our homes. If we just use common sense, supervise our beloved birds when they’re out of their cages, and offer them only nontoxic foods and toys to chew on, they are more likely to remain safe and happy. As always, if you have any questions about whether something could be potentially toxic to your pet, consult a bird-savvy veterinarian.

Most Common Obese Exotic Pets: No. 1 Parrots

Does Polly want a cracker? Maybe. But should Polly have a cracker? The answer is no. Polly, like many pet birds and other types of exotic pets, is prone to obesity. With little exercise and too much time to sit around and eat out of boredom, too many captive animals become overweight. With the extra pounds, these animals, like overweight people, can develop numerous health problems. The battle against the bulge has become the litany not only of physicians but also of veterinarians across the U.S., and it’s not a problem limited to pet dogs and cats. Species of all kinds can suffer from being fat, and as an exotic animal veterinarian, I constantly tell my patients’ owners to increase their pets’ exercise and limit their junk food consumption. As everyone tries to make good on their resolutions for a happier, healthier life in the New Year, let’s not forget our exotic friends. This week, we’ll look at the top five species I treat for obesity.

In my weeklong countdown, No. 1 for today are parrots!

The Feathered Shouldn’t be Fat

Many bird species, particularly Amazon parrots, African gray parrots, budgerigars and Quaker parrots, tend to gain weight, especially as they age. Their sedentary lifestyles; lack of purposeful activity; and consumption of high-fat, often all-seed diets lead them to overeat and gain weight. The problem is worse in birds as they reach their late teens and 20s and hard to correct unless their owners are willing to change their pets’ diets and encourage them to exercise. Like obese people, these obese birds are prone to developing significant, often life-threatening health problems, such as atherosclerosis (the deposition of cholesterol within major blood vessels exiting the heart that can obstruct blood flow, predisposing to heart attacks, and break off, blocking oxygen delivery to tissues and leading to strokes). In addition to circulatory issues, obese birds can develop joint problems, such as arthritis, from the stress of extra weight on the joints, and metabolic problems, such as fatty liver disease and diabetes.

To help combat obesity in their pets, bird owners must convert their pets to a predominantly pelleted diet, supplemented with some fresh produce and little to no seed, and increase their birds’ exercise level by allowing them to fly around the house or at least to walk around and flap if their wings are clipped. Weight loss in birds should be a slow and gradual process, and good eating and exercise habits must be maintained lifelong, or weight gain will recur, just as it does in people. It’s often hard to tell just by looking at birds if they have gained or lost weight as they can fluff up their feathers and look “big” even though they might be thin. Weighing birds on a scale that measures in one-gram increments is the best way to monitor weight gain or loss. For help with this and before starting any diet or exercise plan with your feathered friend, be sure to consult with your veterinarian first, so you know how to help your pet bird lose weight safely.

Tomorrow: hefty hedgehogs!

The Animal Kingdom’s Hardest Working Dads

As we’re celebrating our own dads this Father’s Day weekend, don’t forget that there are plenty of patriarchs in the animal kingdom who deserve to be celebrated, too. Of course, there are some species in the animal world where the fathers do the fertilization duties and are never seen again — but you may be pleasantly surprised by how hands-on certain male animals are when it comes to caring for their young.

Tending the Nest

Mammal moms are special because they give milk, but with animals who don’t suckle their young, there’s no excuse for dads not to give equal care. Some, in fact, do more than half.

Frogs are famous for having terrible parents, both male and female — normally they dump the eggs and leave them to fend for themselves. But some species of amphibians do care for their young, and sometimes it’s the dad who’s in charge.

In many species of dart frogs, the male visits the clutch regularly to keep it moist — something any frog with a bladder can do, so it doesn’t have to be the mom. Then when the eggs hatch into tadpoles, he carries them on his back to a small pool of water that he finds on the forest floor or in the nooks and crannies of plants.

For the Japanese giant salamander, the male fans the nest with his tail, which seems to help keep the water oxygenated. He also agitates the eggs with his head and body, which keeps them from sticking together. And though the fact that he eats some of them may not exactly seem like devotion, researchers note that he chooses the eggs that are dead or infected with mold, which can spread to the rest of the clutch if not removed.

In many species of songbirds, both parents bring food back to the nest for the young, but some bird dads go a lot further. When it comes to the greater rhea — a South American bird who resembles an ostrich or emu — it’s the male who incubates the eggs and raises the chicks. He sits on the nest for up to 40 days ’til the youngsters hatch, and then takes care of them for up to six months, letting them take shelter under his wings to stay safe and comfortable. Males may even adopt lost chicks. And what’s the female doing all this time? She’s off mating with other males and leaving them to raise the kids.

Pregnant Pops

Even safer than a nest is carrying the eggs in your own body, and if you’re not a mammal who comes equipped with a womb, there’s no reason for the guys not to do it.

The most extreme example is the seahorse. The male seahorse has a brood pouch that acts a lot like a mammalian womb. The female deposits her eggs in the pouch, and after the male fertilizes them, they attach to the wall of the pouch, which contains a fluid that provides nutrients and oxygen. After several weeks of gestation, the male undergoes hours of labor to give birth to tiny seahorse babies.

Some dedicated dads have figured out that they can carry their young even without a pouch. The eggs of many frogs and toads are laid in a long string, and males of one species, the midwife toad, wrap the strings of eggs around their legs and carry them ’til they hatch, which can take up to a couple months.

But if your eggs aren’t in a string and you don’t have a pouch, there’s one thing left to do if you’re truly devoted — some animal dads brood their eggs in their mouths. The Southern Darwin’s frog guards the fertilized eggs ’til they hatch, then gathers the tadpoles up and swallows them into his unusually large vocal sac. They spend around 50 days there until they metamorphose into tiny froglets and hop out of his mouth.

Some fish are mouthbrooders as well, and in species like the cardinal fish, it’s the male who does the job. Most mouthbrooders can’t eat while they are carrying the young. Although in the cardinal fish, usually about only 20 little fish are born from the clutch of 40 or so eggs, so he may not be going completely hungry.

Our Mammal Cousins

Some of our fellow mammals are paragons of parental care as well, although, of course. The small primates called marmosets and tamarins are famous for sharing child-raising chores with the whole family, and the fathers are particularly involved. In the pygmy marmoset, for example, the father carries the babies most of the time, relinquishing them to the mother only when they need to nurse.