Make Your Caged Bird Sing: The Complete Guide to Pet Avian Care
Many species of birds have very long lifespans. With proper nutrition, home care, and regular veterinary checkups, your avian pet might even outlive you. This guide offers a general overview of bird care in the home.
Basic Care (Husbandry)
Housing your bird in an appropriate environment is one of the most important things you can do to ensure a healthy, well-adjusted pet. The cage should be sturdy, made of high-quality materials, and large enough to accommodate the size of the bird. The bird should be able to fully expand its wings from all sides and the height of the cage should be at least 3 times taller than the bird. The spacing between the bars should not allow the bird to fit its head in. Several perches of various sizes should be included, but too much clutter should be avoided. We do not recommend sand covered perches because they can damage the bird’s feet. It is recommended that the entire cage, perches included, be cleaned and disinfected twice a month at a minimum.
A variety of substrate can be used on the bottom of the cage, newspaper, paper bags, or shredded paper, are all good choices and are relatively easy to change. If shavings or crushed walnuts are used, a grate should be on top of them to prevent the bird from standing in the shavings. The bedding should be changed often, at least twice weekly, to prevent mold, fungi, or bacteria from growing and potentially infecting your pet. It can be very difficult to treat infections in pet birds, although it is easy to prevent infections, just by keeping the cage and accessories nice and clean!
Fresh food, water, fruits, and veggies should be provided every day. Feeders should be cleaned daily as well. Any fruits or veggies should be removed after 2-4 hours to reduce the possibility of bacteria growth, which is prone to grow on soft foods at room temperatures. See our section on nutrition for more details about what fruits and veggies are recommended and which should be avoided.
Most birds are social animals, prefer to be around other birds and even people. They require a significant amount of socialization on a daily basis. Birds left to themselves without companionship can develop a wide array of unacceptable and sometimes harmful behaviors. Excessive vocalization (screaming) and feather picking are among the most common. The longer a bird displays these behaviors, the harder they are to correct. If your bird is exhibiting behavioral problems, contact us to schedule a consultation and speak with a specialist.
Proper nutrition is the cornerstone of a healthy bird. In general, we recommend a pelleted diet without seeds as the primary source of nutrition for most companion avian species. The following guidelines are for most Parrot and Song Bird species that are commonly kept as house pets.
Pellets – Pelleted diets are better than a total seed diet. However there is a wide range of companies producing pelleted diets for birds and they vary in terms of protein, energy, fat content, the presence of artificial colors and preservatives, etc. Most companies do produce a variety of sizes to accommodate different size birds. These pellets are typically formulated, and labeled, for each species of bird.
NO-NO’s – Absolutely NO caffeine, alcohol, chocolate or avocado. These substances are toxic and can kill your bird.
In Moderation –Sugar, salt, fat, and dairy. Birds can become obese, especially given the more sedentary lifestyle our feathered companions enjoy when compared to their wild counterparts. Birds can develop heart disease, so think “heart healthy” i.e. low fat and low salt. Birds do not have the enzyme that allows the digestion of lactose, so technically speaking birds cannot digest dairy products. Birds do enjoy dairy products and it is okay to give them a tiny amount, as long as it is not adversely affecting their stools.
Vegetables – Feeding a variety of vegetables will provide a greater spectrum of vitamins and minerals to your bird. The bitter greens – red or green leaf lettuce, chicory, escarole, mustard, dandelion, collard greens, and kale – are the most balanced in terms of offering a wide range of dietary vitamins and minerals. Vegetables that are orange in color have a high Beta Carotene content which is necessary for feather development and normal skin cell turn over. Think about “feeding the rainbow,” as different colors reflect the various nutrients, vitamins, and mineral content of your pet’s diet.
Fruit – Fruit is mostly sugar and water and doesn’t meet the vitamin and mineral needs of birds. They can be used as treats, rewards, and enticement.
Seeds – Seeds are high in oils and fats, and lacking in the vitamin/mineral content birds need. Think of them as “birdie junk food” and give out sparingly, like for rewards!
“Human food” – Most people are surprised to learn that they can share their meal with their pet bird, as long as it is in moderation and you follow a few guidelines. Try whole grain bread, fortified (non-sugar) breakfast cereals, pasta, meats, eggs, and beans with your bird. Remember that anything cooked needs to be cooled before feeding, so test the temperature on your wrist as you would a baby’s bottle before giving it to your avian companion. You might be surprised to find out what your bird enjoys as much as you do!
It may take a while for your bird a while to accept new foods and you may have to “teach” them that what you’re offering is for eating. Your bird might be suspicious of unfamiliar foods at first, so be patient and persistent. Try different methods if you need to. For example, you might spark an interest by tasting foods in front of your pet bird and showing them how yummy it is!
Signs of Illness
Some common signs that your pet bird is ill include: continuously fluffing up feathers, sitting on the bottom of the cage, decreased appetite, difficulty breathing (tail bobbing), feather picking, decreased vocalization, or any noticeable change in behavior. Most birds are seriously ill by the time they start displaying any symptoms, so if your pet is showing any signs of sickness, please call us immediately at 540-943-7577.
Most companion bird species are prey animals in the wild. Because of this, they typically will attempt to hide signs of illness for as long as possible, and this behavior can make it difficult for owners to detect an emerging illness in their pet bird. Annual physical exams are an essential part of keeping your pet bird healthy and detecting early signs of illness. The most common signs of illness in birds include fluffed feathers, sitting on the bottom of the cage, decreased appetite, difficulty breathing (tail bobbing), feather picking, decreased vocalization, and any noticeable change in their typical behavior. Most birds are seriously ill by the time they start displaying any symptoms of illness.
One exception to this rule of identifying illness would include liver disease; Birds experiencing this malady will often have overgrown beaks. If your bird’s beak is looking long and oversized, a blood test may be required to underlying medical problems in your pet bird. Do not hesitate to contact us if your pet is experiencing any symptoms of illness!
New Bird Workup
If you are bringing a pet bird into your home for the first time, our veterinarians recommend you have their health checked when introducing them into a new environment. The veterinarians at CEDARCREST Animal Clinic recommend an initial exam, intestinal parasite screening, and baseline blood work for your new companion. If you already have another bird, you should not introduce a new bird to existing pets until a complete health check has been performed. Depending on the age of your new bird, where you acquired it, and its overall general appearance, our vets may recommend additional testing to help ensure your new bird can safely be introduced to your other avian pets.