By Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM
Birds are very social eaters and feed in flocks of hundreds to even thousands in the wild. Pet birds, too, like to share mealtime with their flock-mates, whether they are other birds in the house or human caretakers. Eating with our feathered companions is a great way to socialize them; however, there are some foods that we humans love that should never be shared with pet birds because of potential toxicity. Among the most common foods that are toxic to birds are:
Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, Board Certified in Avian Medicine. She practices at the Veterinary Center for Birds and Exotics in Bedford Hills, New York.
The leaves of the avocado plant contain persin, a fatty acid-like compound that acts as a fungicide in the plant. When ingested by a bird, this compound may cause heart damage, respiratory difficulty, weakness, and even sudden death. While certain types of avocado have been safely consumed by some bird species, it is very difficult to know which types of avocado will affect which species. It is also unclear how much avocado a pet bird would have to ingest to be affected.
Given the potential consequences, it’s best to avoid feeding avocado and avocado-containing foods (such as guacamole) to birds. Better to skip the dip, and offer your bird a carrot stick, strip of pepper or other vegetable instead.
We all love caffeinated products, such as coffee, tea and soft drinks, for their ability to stimulate us and wake us up. It’s tempting to want to share a sip of these magic beverages with our pet birds, but even a sip or two of these drinks can be toxic to your feathered companion. Caffeine may increase heart rate, lead to arrhythmias and hyperactivity, and even induce cardiac arrest in birds. So, skip the caffeinated products, and opt for water or an occasional taste of fruit juice for your thirsty bird.
Birds have a hard time resisting chocolate or chocolate-containing foods, however, even in very small amounts, they can be toxic to birds. Chocolate contains both theobromine and caffeine, which can lead to vomiting and diarrhea, increased heart rate, induce tremors and seizures and cause hyperactivity and even death in birds. So, the next time you’re tempted to share an M&M or Hershey’s Kiss with your avian pal, offer him a piece of sugary fruit, like a mango, cantaloupe or grape instead.
Many of us add this favorite condiment to many different foods without thinking, plus, who doesn’t love salty chips, popcorn, pretzels and crackers? But, just as too much salt isn’t good for us, it also isn’t good for our birds, and even a little bit is potentially toxic to a small bird. Even a single salty chip or pretzel can throw off the electrolyte and fluid balance in a bird’s tiny body, leading to excessive thirst, dehydration, kidney failure and death. Offer your bird a bite or two of unsalted popcorn or pretzels or a low-salt cracker instead.
Human consumption of high-fat foods, such as butter, oils, fatty meats and nuts, can result in build-up of cholesterol deposits within our arteries (known as atherosclerosis), predisposing us to heart disease and stroke. Consumption of these foods also can lead to obesity. The same processes occur in birds, and certain bird species, such as Amazon parrots and Quakers, are prone to developing high cholesterol and triglyceride levels and subsequent coronary artery disease. Therefore, just as we should limit consumption of high-fat foods in our diets, so should birds.
Birds can have a bite of cooked meat or a nut or two every week, but they should not be offered heaping quantities of these fat-filled items, especially if they are small relative to the portion size. Birds love nuts, but one unsalted almond or walnut every day is plenty for a medium-sized parrot such as an African gray parrot. Larger birds that eat more fat in the wild, such as macaws, may have a few nuts a day, while smaller ones, such as cockatiels and budgies, should be offered no more than a few slivers of almond or a piece of walnut daily.
While most fruit is safe and generally healthy for birds to consume in small quantities, certain fruits containing seeds (such as apples and pears) and pits (such as cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines and plums), should not be offered to birds without removing the seeds and pits first, as these seeds and pits contain small amounts of a cardiac-toxic cyanide compound. Once the seeds and pits are removed, these fruits are completely safe to consume. The seeds from other produce, such as grapes, citrus fruits, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, melons, mango, pomegranate and berries, all are safe for bird consumption and can be fed without worry.
While these veggies have heart benefits in people, whether fed raw or cooked, they are toxic to many animals, including birds, cats and dogs. Onions contain sulfur compounds that, when chewed, can irritate the lining of a bird’s mouth, esophagus, or crop, causing ulcers, and can induce rupture of red blood cells resulting in anemia. Garlic contains allicin, another chemical that can cause anemia and weakness in birds. If you want to spice up your bird’s diet, offer a small piece of vitamin A-rich hot pepper and skip the garlic and onions.
This common artificial sweetener, found in sugarless gum and many diet foods, causes hypoglycemia, liver damage and possible death in dogs and other animals. While the effects of this sweetener haven’t been studied in detail in birds, birds have a faster metabolism than many other species and might therefore be very sensitive to the toxic effects of even small amounts of this chemical. Therefore, it’s best to avoid exposing birds to xylitol, altogether.
Birds should not be offered chewing gum, as it can stick to their feathers and skin, and overweight birds should be fed low-fat fruits and vegetables, rather than diet products, to help them lose weight. Xylitol may be a sweet option if you’re dieting but should be avoided in your bird’s meal plan.
A big part of socializing a parrot is having the bird out of its cage at meal time, and offering the bird food while you’re eating can certainly make your bird feel that he or she is part of the flock. Sharing food that hasn’t been in your mouth (which contains bacteria and yeast foreign to birds) and that is non-toxic to birds can be a great way to build trust with your pet, make him or her feel comfortable in home, and provide an activity you can all share in. Remember, though, if your bird should ingest any of these potentially toxic items, you should contact your veterinarian immediately to see if treatment is warranted.