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Cage ‘n’ Cookin’

Mold can make you sick, and it can make your bird sick. When mold spores become airborne, they can be inhaled, thus causing respiratory problems.

By Susan Chamberlain


Is it safe to re-use a sodden rug after a flood? Peanuts…are they bad for your bird? Can they really cause cancer? Are you Frantic about fruit flies hovering around your bird’s dishes?  Is your bird a special volunteer? Is special certification required, or even available? Bird Talk readers had a host of varied questions this month!


I had a bad water leak and now need to replace the carpet padding. The carpet can be saved. Is this safe to do? I have a green-cheeked conure and a parakeet.


Even under the best conditions carpeting can be a host for mold spores, mildew, bacteria and other yucky stuff.  Water damage is serious because it can promote the growth of even more mold and mildew.  There are many varieties of molds, some more hazardous than others. Most of us have seen news reports about people whose homes have become infested with mold caused by dampness and water seepage behind the walls. Home insurance companies have clauses regarding mold, (check to be sure your policy includes coverage) and in some areas, homebuyers are demanding inspections to rule out the presence of mold before plunking down their cash.


Mold can make you sick, and it can make your bird sick. When mold spores become airborne, they can be inhaled, thus causing respiratory problems. Whether or not your dampened carpeting is safe to use depends on several factors. Was the floodwater clean, or the result of a backed-up sewage system? Bacteria and organic matter from wastewater may have made the rug unsanitary. Was the carpeting actually cleaned or simply air-dried following the flood? Can the cleaning company assure you that the steam or detergent eliminated mold spores in the rug? Was the carpeting thoroughly dried following treatment? Dampness breeds mold and mildew.


What kind of sub-flooring do you have? Is it mold and mildew free? Wood or particleboard may have absorbed water and may need to be replaced or treated as well. How is the ventilation in the room? Airy, sun-filled rooms in dry climates are less likely to harbor mold and mildew than dank, under-ventilated rooms or basements.  Do you use a HEPA air filter in the room? This can filter some mold spores from the air.


Evaluate the damage and potential for mold carefully and make choices based on your individual situation. Visit Green Building Supply for non-toxic alternatives to cleaning supplies and building and remodeling materials. Consult manufacturer’s directions, and check with your avian veterinarian for advice about specific products. Never use aerosols or pump sprays in closed spaces or near your birds. 


LuAnne Foss-VerSteeg wrote:


We are the proud new parents of two amazons, a blue front and a red

lore. The parrots are social, well behaved and seem very happy. My avian vet is dead set against feeding the parrots peanuts. He states they cause cancer in birds. Is there any evidence of that? I thought there might be some warning somewhere, but I haven't read anything that warns feeding the parrots peanuts. Some of the treat mixes include peanuts, and my blue front really liked a bite of English muffin with peanut butter.


 I turned to Donna Muscarella, Ph.D. at the Dept. of Microbiology and Immunology of Cornell University’s Veterinary Medical Center for help with this question.  Her response provided a wealth of information, as did those of her colleagues, Dr. Noah Abou-Madi and Dr. James Morrisey.


“Aflatoxin, a group of toxins produced by certain species of the fungi aspergillus, is a potential contaminant of peanuts, cereals and grains. Improper storage in warm, damp, dark, conditions promotes growth of the mold,” said Dr. Muscarella. “Aflatoxin is a potent liver toxin, and birds are exquisitely susceptible to its toxic effects. This was reported a long time ago in England, where many turkeys died from Aflatoxicosis after eating contaminated corn. At the time this syndrome was referred to as "Turkey X" disease. To this day, there are clear accounts of pet birds dying after eating moldy peanuts and grains.”


“Aflatoxin is also toxic to mammals, including humans,” she continued. “Chronic, low-level exposure in food, which is not enough to cause acute toxicity or death, results in a high incidence of liver cancer.  Aflatoxin is one of the few proven human dietary carcinogens.”


James Morrisey, DVM, senior lecturer in the Department of Clinical Sciences and veterinarian in the exotic animal program at the Companion Animal Hospital at Cornell said, “It can be very difficult to determine if the aflatoxins caused damage in birds because usually by the time the damage is evident clinically, the toxins are long gone, especially with chronic low-level ingestion.”


 “Birds can develop liver cancer, and it is possible that eating poor quality food with low levels of mold contamination over long periods of time may contribute to this,” related Dr. Muscarella. “However, while peanuts are prone to aspergillus contamination, grains and cereals can also be contaminated. The USDA monitors grains produced in the U.S. for aflatoxin -producing molds, so perhaps the major problem is private storage. Hence, the lesson to be learned is that only high-quality, carefully stored products should be fed to our pets.


“As for peanuts in particular, I am not opposed to feeding a few peanuts here and there as a snack, or some peanut butter on whole-grain bread.  Peanuts are a good protein source, a good source of vitamin E and even some “healthy” types of fats.  However, I prefer to use the highest-quality peanut products and only those intended for human consumption. Make sure your own storage conditions (particularly in warm, humid climates) are carefully maintained for all bird food.


I asked Dr. Muscarella about the safety of roasted peanuts and peanut butter. “Does roasting destroy aflatoxin?” She believes that small amounts of roasted, “for human consumption” quality products are generally safe, but cautions that roasting does not destroy aflatoxin. “Commercial food producers test peanuts for aflatoxin levels to ensure that their products are safely below the USDA-permissible levels.


“Organic peanut butter is free of added sugar, but there may be more variables in peanut sources and storage conditions in locally made peanut butter as compared to a big brand-name company. If you give your bird peanut butter as a treat, a well-known commercial brand might be a better choice because of the routine testing done by large companies. Don’t trust bulk peanut products that may have been stored under questionable conditions or for an unknown length of time. Look for an expiration date on the package.” Dr. Muscarella added that there’s no way her African grey parrot, Maxie will go without his little open-faced peanut butter sandwich … but it’s got to be his favorite brand of peanut butter on multi-grain bread, or it lands on the floor, peanut butter side down!


Dr. Noah Abou-Madi, a senior lecturer and veterinarian in the exotic animal program at the Companion Animal Hospital at Cornell, pointed out that other nuts, such as almonds and nut butters, may be preferable to peanuts and should be considered as well. Dr. Abou-Madi cautioned that the same conditions for storage and safety apply to other nuts as well as to peanuts.


Bird Talk reader Kathy Weisman has a bird that works in pet-assisted therapy. She asks, “Do you know of any place that does certification of birds to be Pet Therapy Birds?  Our 14-year-old Indian ringneck has been doing pet therapy since he was about 6 months old. He has been to special education and mainstream schools, daycare and nursing homes during his career. We would like to have some sort of certification for this special bird.


Roman Catholic nun Sister Barbara Seaward who regularly does animal assisted recreation with her birds suggests checking with a local bird club or animal regulatory agency for information specific to your area of the country. Sister Barbara says that it would be very difficult to evaluate birds as opposed to dogs and cats because they respond so differently to situations. “I take different birds with me at different times because some birds just don’t want to come out on a particular day. In New York, there are no specific requirements or certifications for birds at this point.” Sister Barbara cautions about using the word “therapy” in conjunction with what you do, as there may be local or state regulations against using the term if you yourself are not a licensed therapist. She also urges using common sense. “You know whether your bird is people friendly or not. Be careful of biting or scratching possibilities, and caution onlookers not to point at your birds. Permit handling under supervision only. Birds can be unpredictable.”


J. Griffiths of Ontario, Canada, is plagued with fruit flies:


My wife and I are current subscribers to BIRD TALK. I was just checking the forum and noticed a posting regarding fruit flies.  I noticed links to "timed sprayers" that would help in eliminating fruit flies. I am having a problem with fruit flies in my bird room and spoke to an individual at the local animal product store, and he did not recommend these. He also had no idea what to recommend that would not be harmful to our pet birds. Are there any ideas or safe products that you can recommend?


Fed up with fruit flies? Bird owners are often annoyed by the presence of these flying insects hovering around fruit bowls, houseplants, seed and food storage areas, birdcages and stands.

They’re smaller than gnats and no-see-ums, but you can control them! The tiny creatures we call fruit flies belong to the order Diptera. We most often see the variety known as the vinegar fly. They thrive on overripe, rotting or fermenting fruits, which is why they love to hang around fruit bowls and our birds’ cages.


* Fruit flies gravitate toward garbage. Dispose of discarded fruit in tightly closed containers or by putting it down an in-sink garbage disposal. Wipe kitchen counters and wash cutting boards and utensils immediately after preparing your bird’s fruit and vegetables. Even a tiny bit of sticky residue will attract resident fruit flies.


* Keep fruit in the refrigerator rather than in a bowl on the kitchen counter. If you must keep fruit out, check it frequently. As soon as it begins to age, the flies will return!


* Empty and wash your birds’ fruit dishes after several hours. Change the paper liner on the bottom of the cage, and wipe fruit fragments from cage bars, floors and walls.  No food, no fruit flies.


* Pour half an inch of red wine or beer into a bottle with a tall neck, and put it where flies congregate. They’ll enter and drown in the liquid.


* Fruit flies like calm, still air. Keep air currents moving with a ceiling, counter or window fan. (Be sure to keep your birds away from fans. Turn off ceiling fans when birds are at liberty in your home.  Have your birds’ wing feathers trimmed to reduce risk of injury and escape.)


* Reduce gnat populations by locating your houseplants in well-ventilated areas. Keep soil free of leaves and other debris. Top off houseplant soil with a layer of bird gravel for a neat, clean look. 


* Color attracts fruit flies. Use an Agro-BioTech Fruit Fly Trap, which uses color (and no toxic chemicals!) to attract the bugs to a very sticky glue, where they are trapped and killed. Add bait, such as beer or a slice of tomato or banana to the trap, to attract and kill more flies faster. Eliminate fungus gnats, those insidious little critters hovering around your houseplants with Bug Stix sticky traps.

For a copy of Citizen’s Guide to Pest Control and Pesticide Safety, contact:

Enjoy a safe, comfortable summer with your avian companion!


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Cage ‘n’ Cookin’

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Reader Comments
interesting answers
stephanie, no smithfield, RI
Posted: 9/23/2007 5:40:29 PM
very good article.
mary, portland, ME
Posted: 9/17/2007 2:13:51 AM
very informative.
mary, portland, ME
Posted: 9/6/2007 3:15:40 AM
good article, informative, really like the title!
stephanie, no smithfield, RI
Posted: 5/18/2007 6:45:30 AM
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