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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.