Winter Safety Tips for Pet Birds, Rabbits, Guinea Pigs and Other Exotics

When cold weather comes, especially in areas that experience significant climate changes with the seasons, there are some steps exotic pet owners should take to help ensure their animals stay happy and healthy. What you should do, of course, depends on what type of pet you have. Let’s take a look at how to safely “winterize” companion birds and small mammals, like guinea pigs and rabbits.

Cold Weather ‘Brrrd’ Care

Birds are more tolerant of temperature changes than most owners realize, and concerns about exposing them to minor drafts are usually unwarranted. Birds are usually comfortable at temperatures at which we are comfortable, and as long as they can adjust gradually over a few days to temperature changes, they generally do fine. They may, however, have difficulty adapting to rapid changes, so be sure to move your bird’s cage away from drafty windows or frequently used doors if the temperature outside drops quickly. If it’s suddenly very drafty in your house, and it’s hard to keep the thermostat above 60 degrees, you may want to cover your bird’s cage at night or hang a fabric sleeping tent in the cage to help keep your bird warm. Be careful, though: Some birds get stressed if their cages are covered and they can’t see out, and some female birds may see tents as nests and start laying eggs. If either of these situations occurs, the cover and/or tent may need to be removed.

Keep Birds Warm but Safe

If you use space heaters or the kitchen oven to provide supplemental warmth in your house, be sure they don’t have Teflon or another nonstick coating on them. When such coatings are heated, they release invisible, odorless gases that can kill birds if they breathe them in. These types of heaters and ovens shouldn’t be used around birds unless the manufacturer guarantees that the product is Teflon free. (Nonstick cookware should never be used around birds for the same reason.) In addition, perches that contain a heating element are generally not recommended. Birds can chew through these perches and possibly electrocute themselves.

If your home has forced-hot-air heat, you also want to keep your bird’s cage away from vents. Dust often accumulates in ductwork and can be blown out of vents when the heat is turned on after being off for a long time. Birds are exceptionally sensitive to inhaled pathogens and toxins. Aspergillus, for example, is often found in dust and, if inhaled, can infect your bird’s respiratory tract with a deadly, moldlike fungus. To avoid a problem, you may want to remove your bird from your home for a day if possible when you turn your heat on for the first time each year. Also consider having your heating ducts cleaned annually — for your health as well as your bird’s.

Healthy Humidity

Birds need humidity to remain healthy and maintain normal skin and feathers. Many parrots, for example, come from tropical areas where humidity is very high. These birds usually do fine during the summer in nontropical climates because humidity is adequate. In winter, however, dry air can cause their skin to become flaky and their feathers dull. They may even pick at their skin if it becomes very dry and itchy.