Old World Aviaries

Preventative health management for pet birds

Scott Echols, DVM, Diplomat ABVP (Avian)
Westgate Pet & Bird Hospital
4601 S. Lamar/ Suite 103
Austin, TX 78745

General information

Many of our pet birds have originated from different parts of the world. Pet birds account for several hundred of the approximately 8,900 currently known avian species. Each species of bird responds to infectious (bacterial, viral, parasitic, fungal) and non-infectious (toxic, nutritional, metabolic, behavioral) disease processes differently. As a natural adaptation to the wild, most of our pet birds are masters at hiding illness. This adaptation is protective, as obviously sick animals become easy targets for predators. Because our goal is to make sure that all pets live safely in the proper environment, we recommend several basic preventative health care measures. These measures are intended to limit the spread of infectious diseases between birds and prevent or manage non-infectious diseases with your individual pet. Each health care measure is briefly discussed below.

Obtain your pet bird from a reputable source

Pet birds should be obtained from experienced aviculturists or pet stores that specialize in avian species. Some birds may also come from households that can no longer care for their pet, adoption agencies or from county animal services. Regardless of the source, it should be evident that the provider is knowledgeable with birds and provides a health guarantee stating that me bird may be returned if found to be unhealthy by a qualified avian veterinarian. Most health guarantees are valid for a reasonable amount of time after purchase. Because of the high bird traffic flow and potential for infectious disease, we recommend against purchasing birds at a bird mart.

Quarantine

All new birds should be quarantined regardless of the source or apparent physical condition. Again, pet birds are masters at hiding illness. This means that a bird may harbor, shed and subsequently spread an infectious agent and not show any obvious signs. We recommend quarantining your new bird, in a separate room or building, from other pet avian species for at least 60 days. You should interact with your new pet bird but wash thoroughly after handling. During the 60-day quarantine, have your new bird examined, screened for infectious and non-infectious diseases and monitor for abnormalities such as changes in appearance and behavior.

New pet bird examination

After obtaining your bird from a good source, have your new pet examined by a qualified avian veterinarian. A new bird examination consists of a thorough history, physical evaluation and weight. At this time, laboratory diagnostics such as droppings evaluation, complete blood count, plasma biochemistries, bacterial cultures and infectious disease screening {Chlamydophilia psittaci, psittacine beak and feather disease virus, polyoma virus) may be collected. Because of the diversity of birds kept as pets, differing species may require different and specific diagnostics. Experienced avian veterinarians and their staff also provide dietary and behavioral counseling for your pet bird during this initial examination.

Annual physical examination

Just as is true with other family animals, all pet birds should be examined annually. A thorough history and physical examination are conducted on all birds. Screening diagnostics are tailored to meet the needs of the individual pet bird species and its current health status. Although infectious organisms commonly threaten the health of established pet birds, non-infectious diseases, such as malnutrition and behavioral disorders, are the most frequently encountered problems at annual examinations. The annual examination is intended to identify subclinical disease before it manifests as an obvious problem in your pet bird.

Grooming

Grooming consists of wing, nail and beak trims. Wing and nail trims are routinely performed on most pet birds 2 to 3 times a year. For those who wish to perform wing and nail trims at home, we offer a consult service to teach owners proper bird grooming. Beak trims are not standard. Birds that have overgrown or maloccluded (scissors-beak, under-bite, overbite) beaks first require a thorough medical evaluation to identify the underlying cause of the deformity. To prevent further oral occlusion problems, only personnel well versed in beak anatomy and physiology should perform beak trims.

Internal medicine and surgery

Because of the unique avian anatomy and physiology, medical and surgical techniques are quite different in birds, especially when compared to companion mammals, reptiles and fish. Our hospital and staff are equipped to care for most species of birds. We offer a full range of surgical expertise in endoscopy, microsurgery, electrosurgery, ramporthodontics and orthopedics in addition to standard surgical practice. In some cases, we may refer you and your pet bird to an experienced colleague to offer additional treatment options. Complete necropsy and pathology services are also available. Our goal is to provide the best care possible to your pet bird.

In Summary, when purchasing a new bird

Proper diet and method of conversion for birds

Due to the highly variable diets of birds in the wild and the lack of nutritional requirement studies concerning most avian species, only general feeding guidelines can be offered for companion birds. Even most of the nutritional studies and guidelines established for poultry are only designed to sustain a bird for a short period of time. Pet birds need a lifelong nutritional plan. With time and continued nutritional research, it is likely that we will modify our feeding recommendations for your pet bird.

For most psittacines (parrots or "hookbills"), we recommend a diet consisting of 50%-70% commercial avian pellets and the remaining 30%-50% being fresh leafy greens (collard, turnip and mustard greens, kale, etc), deeply colored vegetables (squash, peppers, carrots, etc), legumes (beans and peas) and a small amount of fruit. Use common nutritional sense when offering supplemental or table foods. If the food you offer is not good for you (chocolate, caffeine containing drinks, fried foods, candy, etc), it is probably not good for your bird. Although harmless to many avian species, avocado has been specifically implicated in the death of many smaller birds and should not be offered. Birds will preferentially choose high fat and high calorie items (like seeds) over other foods (pellets). As long as the diet is balanced (as suggested above), seeds can be offered as a smaller portion of the diet.

Again, since we do not know the nutritional requirements for most avian species, we do not recommend feeding any one food item. In other words, all pellet diets are not ideal, just as is true with all seed diets. In fact, certain color variety psittacines (noted in cockatiels, lovebirds, budgerigars and parrotlets) may be sensitive to diets containing predominately pellets. For color variety (non-standard feather coloring) psittacines, we recommend feeding no more than 50% pellets with the remaining 50% vegetables and a small amount of fruit as described above. As a side note, budgerigars tend to avoid high water content items (most fruits) but will typically learn to eat apples, grapes and/or kiwi. Again, seed may be offered as a smaller portion of die diet.

Non-psittacine species have entirely different nutritional requirements. Consult with your avian veterinarian to better determine the appropriate diet for your pet bird.

Converting a "seed junkie" to a "health conscience" bird

The following is a simple plan for converting a bird's diet from predominately seed ("seed junkie") to a more balanced formulation ("health conscious"). With this plan, there should only be one food bowl where all food is mixed together. Obviously, fruits and vegetables will speed the spoiling process, and the food bowl should be cleaned at least once a day. Once your pet bird is eating a balanced diet, different bowls may be used to hold separate food items (pellets in one container and fruits/vegetables in another). "Good Food" is either the diet recommended above or one specifically designed by your veterinarian in case your bird has different nutritional needs. Unless directed by your veterinarian, diet changes should not be performed on ill birds. Prior to diet conversion, a qualified avian veterinarian should physically examine your bird to determine if a diet conversion is safe.

The best way to monitor eating is by the production of droppings. If food is going in, it should eventually be coming out! It is common for birds to throw out or even crack and test new foods without actually ingesting anything. This may give the illusion that is bird is eating. Again, monitor the droppings for normal production (number and size).

In this ideal plan, the diet conversion takes about 6 weeks. Some birds may adapt sooner or take longer than suggested above. Although it may not be easy, most birds (even those who have eaten seeds for years) will convert to a good diet in 1-3 months--be persistent. Remember that the goal is lifelong nutrition!

Housing your pet bird

Cages

Bigger is better. In the wild a bird would spend much of its day flying from tree to tree in search of food and at play. In captivity, we must allow for exercise, self-expression, and entertainment. The cage must be big enough to allow the bird to move around with ease and stretch or flap the wings without striking anything. A good rule for the minimum cage size is 2-1/2 times the wingspan of the bird in all directions. Generally a rectangular metal cage, preferably longer than it is tall, is the best. Tall, narrow cages prove to be rather impractical as most birds fly horizontally and not up and down. Sturdy metal cages, with the bars close enough together to prevent the bird from getting its head through, are the best and most practical. Wood, wicker or bamboo cages are difficult to clean and disinfect properly and some birds will easily chew them apart. Also it is important for the bird's health that the cage has a wire floor or similar design to separate the bird from its dropping. A tray in the bottom covered with newspaper allows for easy cleaning and monitoring of droppings.

Perches

Tree branches or wood make the best perches. Providing non-toxic, washed, fresh branches, such as apple, elm, ash, maple, manzanita or willow, will be both functional and attractive in the cage. It is best to choose a variety of diameters to provide various textures, choice of grip, and good exercise for your bird's feet. The perches should be placed to provide many levels and being careful not to place them over food or water dishes. Sandpaper and plastic perches are not recommended. Sandpaper does little to wear down the nails and can lead to serious foot irritation and sores, and plastic can be slippery for gripping and may be chewed on by larger birds. Concrete perches can be a good way to wear down the nails, but must be provided as only one of many other perches to stand on. If natural hemp or cotton ropes are used, they must be monitored carefully so that the fine fibers do not become entangled around the bird's toes.

Food and water dishes

Dishes are best made from sturdy non-toxic materials (such as stainless steel) that are easy to clean and disinfect every day. Position the dishes up off the bottom of the cage so that they are easily accessible and will not be accidentally soiled with droppings. Also, the dishes should not be too deep or food will be wasted.

Toys

Birds love to play and explore, and being cooped up in a cage all day can be a boring and frustrating experience. The best toys are made of natural materials such as rope, wood or paper. Toys made of synthetic materials such as nylon fibers, plastic, rubber or wire should not be able to be destroyed. Make sure all toys are large enough not to be swallowed. Toys may include ladders, rope, swings, mirrors, bells, hanging toys, pieces of wood to chew on or rawhide chew toys. Although most companies strive to provide safe toys, there are no quality controls or regulations. Great care must be taken to ensure the toys you purchase are free of potential dangers. Be mindful of snaps, clasps, bell clappers, open chain links, removable parts, easily broken parts, glass or extraneous loose fibers that may be chewed or swallowed or that the bird could become entangled in. Glass mirrors are not suitable for large birds since they are easily broken. Polished stainless steel mirrors may be more appropriate. Experiment with toys and find out what your bird enjoys the most. You may wish to have an assortment of toys that can be rotated. Some birds may appear frightened of new items in their environment. These toys should be introduced slowly to allow the bird to become accustomed to their presence. All toys should be periodically washed and disinfected.

Remember to rinse well with fresh water.

Household dangers

General information

Birds are naturally mischievous and will get into many predicaments. It is crucial that you "bird proof" your home. The bird's cage is its house and the confines of your home represents the bird's environment. There are many dangers within these surroundings.

Temperature and humidity

Moderate and gradual changes ranging from 10 - 20F (2 - 5C) in temperature are usually tolerated very well by a healthy bird. Sick birds will need a more consistently warm temperature. Humidity in the range of 40% - 50% is ideal for most parrot species. It is better to have too much humidity than have the environment too dry as long as there is good ventilation. If allowed to bathe in the hot sun, a bird must always have access to shade in the event it should become over heated.

Drafts

Good ventilation is important to a bird's health. Drafts are okay for birds and cause no harm. Placing a bird directly in the path of an air conditioning or heating vent for prolonged periods could cause discomfort or death due to hypothermia or hyperthermia.

Air pollution

If you can smell it, then consider it unsafe for your bird. Birds need a well ventilated place free from toxic aerosols. Cigarette/cigar/pipe smoke, cooking fumes, carbon monoxide, volatile cleaning products, paints, glues, fingernail polish, varnishes, fireplace fumes, scented candles, dirty household air ducts, etc. may cause respiratory problems. Teflon can release a toxic fume if it is overheated, and though it doesn't cause us any apparent harm it can kill a bird instantly. Watch for Teflon in items such as cookware with a non-stick surface, self-cleaning ovens, toasters, cookie sheets, heat lamps, irons, blow dryers and space heaters. What we need to remember is that birds are much more efficient in their use of oxygen than we are. A bird uses up to 90% of the air it takes in as opposed to the 30% used by humans. This is why birds were used in mines. If the bird died, the minors still had time to get out alive.

Lighting

Birds are very sensitive to varying changes in daylight. The number of hours of light vs. dark in a 24 -hour period affect what is called diurnal rhythm. Diurnal rhythms precipitate hormonal changes that affect nest building, courtship displays, egg laying, etc. They also effect daily activity schedules. It is recommended that we keep either the same lighting schedule daily or mimic the amount of sunlight outside. For example, do not turn the on the light one day at 7 a.m. and off at 6 p.m. and then the next day turn on the light at 8 a.m. and off at 11:30 p.m. If the bird is in an artificially lighted room, cover the cage at sunset. Changes in diurnal rhythm are hard on the bird's hormonal system. The best system would be to have them in a room with windows and no artificial lights so that the diurnal patterns are set by seasonal daylight changes.

Kitchens

Generally speaking, it is unwise to house a bird in the kitchen as there are many potential hazards. Teflon as described above is a priority concern. Hot stove elements, open pots of hot soups or sauces and even a sink full of water are all potential dangers. All cleaning products present possible hazards including oven cleaners.

Bathrooms

Open toilet bowls and full sinks or bathtubs are possible perils to a bird. Most pet birds do not swim well and excessively hot water may severely burn a bird. There are often dangerous cleaning products in a bathroom as well. Various drugs that are kept around most households are potential dangers to your bird. Keep these products locked up and away from your bird.

Oil or grease

Whether hot or cold, oil and feathers do not mix. Do not use oil or grease based medicines on a bird unless specifically prescribed by an avian veterinarian. Oils will mat down feathers, decrease their insulation qualities and make a bird susceptible to chills (hypothermia) leading to other health problems. Examples of products to avoid include Vaseline, mineral oil, oil based ointments or salves such as Neosporin7 (including some sold in pet stores), cooking oils, cod liver oil and certainly motor oils.

Other Pets

Cats, dogs and ferrets can be a potential danger to your bird. These animals have a natural hunting instinct and your bird may become the victim. Never leave these animals together unattended. In general, smaller birds are at greater risk, but why take chances with any bird? When present, wild animals, such as raccoons, birds of prey (hawks, flacons, owls) and feral cats, may opportunistically attack pet birds. Because of these and other concerns, birds should be closely monitored when allowed outdoors.

Mirrors and windows

Birds may not initially master the concept of glass or mirrors. To the bird, there is nothing solid there. No barriers are perceived. Curtains, shades, blinds or some object in front of these surfaces will provide some objectivity for the bird.

Fish bowls

Any open container of water should be considered a danger zone. If the bird should fly into it, it may drown.

Noise pollution

Birds generally seem to enjoy a certain amount of commotion and may become vocal and playfully excited by vacuuming, the sound of an electric razor or the normal activities of people about the house. Excessively loud noise from televisions, stereos, construction or even appliances such as vacuum cleaners or food processors may cause undue stress to some birds. Remember the bird is captive in your home and cannot freely escape these sounds. Exposure to noise should be limited to the bird' s normal waking hours.

Plants

Many plants pose a hazard to birds. Before exposing your bird to a house plant, ensure that it is nontoxic.

Fans

Never allow a bird to fly while a fan of any sort (including a ceiling fan) is running. The bird may not see the blades while they are in motion.

Electrical cords

Birds love to chew and the soft, rubbery, chewable coating of electrical cords may be a very enticing play toy for your bird. Due to the potential danger of electrocution, facial burns and even a serious fire hazard, electrical cords must be hidden away or unplugged.

Open windows, doors

Even if the bird' s wings are clipped, all windows and doors are kept closed all the time. Once a bird escapes and is sitting at the top of a neighbor's tree, even the friendliest bird may have a difficult time finding reason to come home. Do not take chances.

Lead and zinc (heavy metal) poisoning

If lead is around, your bird will find it! Lead is commonly found in many places around the house. Examples include curtain weights, solder on cages or plumbing, older paints, batteries, pellets from air rifles, Tiffany lamps, stained glass windows and sun catchers, some costume jewelry and zipper teeth. Lead is soft, fun to chew on and easily swallowed.

Although frequently discussed, zinc toxicity is less common. Zinc toxicity most commonly results from exposure to galvanized metal (mesh, cage wiring, nails, staples), household products (zinc oxide, zinc undecylenate [Desenex cream], zinc pyrithione shampoos) and some paints and fertilizers. Larger birds may ingest pennies minted since 1993, which contain 96% zinc.

Toys

Most pet bird toys are considered safe for you bird. It is important that you check all toys for loose clasps, removable or chewable parts and sharp edges before offering them to a bird. All synthetic toys (plastic, metal, rubber, etc.) should be sturdy so that a bird cannot chip or break off pieces that can potentially be swallowed.

How to recognize a sick bird

General information

As is true with most wild animals, birds hide signs of illness until advanced disease is present, in the wild, this behavior is protective and keeps birds from being picked out as easy targets by predators. In captivity, this means that bird owners should be aware of subtle changes that suggest something is wrong with their pet before significant disease ensues. When abnormalities in your bird's behavior, appearance, vocalization or the droppings are noticed, a qualified avian veterinarian should examine your pet.

Common signs of illness

Birds often give vague clues when sick. Although some signs can be associated with specific disorders, most abnormalities are linked to multiple diseases in birds. The following list is generalized and is intended to help you recognize when your pet bird may be showing abnormal behavior.

Introducing new birds

Does my bird need a friend?

As a general rule you should only get another if you want another bird. You, as an owner, must accept the responsibility of caring for, feeding, and loving additional pets in your home. There are certain species that may become more involved with each other and therefore develop less of an interactive relationship with you and your family.

If you feel your bird is lonely or bored you should first consider providing more pet-safe toys and entertainment for the bird, or you may end up with two bored, lonely birds. Teaching pet birds how to play by themselves is an important part of a bird's development and is emphasized during behavioral consultation.

How do I introduce the birds?

There are approximately 8,900 species of birds that interact and respond to infectious disease differently. All new birds need to be checked by a veterinarian for infectious and non-infectious diseases. A physical examination includes a record of the current weight, physical examination, lab tests, and a behavioral evaluation.

The new bird should be quarantined in a separate room within the house for a minimum of 60 days. A new bird can have a relatively unknown history and may be carrying an infectious disease that other birds may catch. Some people have experienced great tragedies by unknowingly introducing a sick bird without a quarantine period, only to have their birds fall ill. Any evidence of ill health should be brought to the attention of your veterinarian immediately.

After a quarantine period, place the two cages in the same room. Gradually move the cages closer to each other. Eventually, under strict supervision, the two birds may be introduced together while monitoring for bullying or fighting and other behavioral interactions. Remember the original pet has someone intruding on his/her territory. This may lead to certain challenges. Only the birds can decide who is the boss, and they will establish the pecking order. You should just be there to make sure the decision making process is not destructive!

Will they get along?

You will find out. There is no way to be certain they will like each other as they are all individuals. It is a good idea to obtain birds from a closed aviary where they were well socialized to people and other animals before introducing them to each other. Generally, most birds will accept the presence of another bird with a gradual introduction.


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