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Bird Food Fallout

Your pet dog and cat might like munching on your bird's food fallout, but find out why letting your other pets eat your bird's food may be a health hazard.

Susan Chamberlain

Meyer's parrot tossing food

"Whatever Peabody throws out of the cage, the dog eats!” exclaimed a friend describing her favorite cleaning method for bird-cage fallout. Sorry everyone, dogs are not vacuum cleaners and neither are cats! We have enough problems with hairballs and furniture chewing — we don’t need intestinal blockages or gas, lacerated gums, allergic reactions, nausea and other assorted ills caused by ingesting avian detritus!

Most of us regularly feed our birds an assortment of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds in addition to pellets. A good percentage of these food items end up on the floor around the bird cage or stand — locations where other household pets often patrol looking for edible, or almost edible, bits.

Lanette Raymond, a bird owner from New York, reported that if she’s not quick with the dustpan, her rabbit eats up the bits of pellets, seeds, nuts and fruit that emanate from her birds’ cages. "Although not part of the [rabbit] diet, which is pretty strict, these don’t seem to bother the bunny," she said. However, if eaten in large amounts or frequently enough, these food items could cause a rabbit gastric distress.

Marc Morrone, author of "Ask the Bird Keeper and proprietor of Parrots of the World in Rockville Centre, New York, hasn’t heard any harrowing stories from his customers about dogs or cats suffering from ingesting cage-generated debris. "Every dog I know eats some bird seed off the floor,” he said. "There’s grain in dog food, too, so I doubt the seed itself would be toxic. Regarding hazards from bird toys, there are probably more children’s toys left on the floor. I often hear about dogs eating Barbie dolls and cassette tapes.”

Morrone pointed out that many birds learn to call the family dog over to the cage and toss food out to it. "It starts off as a random event, but eventually becomes entertainment for the bird and for the dog, too.”

Entertaining, perhaps, but there are some very real hazards you should know about.

Choking Hazards
While cats seem much too sensible to eat nonfood items or produce, they are quite attracted to meat. If you give your bird meat (cooked meat only!) or chicken bones to gnaw on, beware! Dogs and cats foraging underneath the cage may ingest bone shards of dropped food. Digestive system perforations and blockages can result.

What about cuttlebone? Cuttlebone is actually the internal skeleton of cuttlefish, and it provides a source of calcium for birds that gnaw on them. The hard outer portion of the cuttlebone could possibly cause gastrointestinal irritation or perforation if swallowed, so it would be prudent to sweep up any tossed chunks of cuttlebone.

Some seeds and fruit pits contain cyanide (e.g. peach, apple, apricot, plum), but it is unlikely that an animal would ingest enough from a few seeds to cause harm. The real danger lies in choking or intestinal obstruction.

Board-certified avian veterinarian Robert Monaco of the Old Country Animal Clinic in Plainview, New York, said "I have never actually seen any real harm done, but the potential does exist. Fruit pits can be dropped by birds and swallowed by dogs.” Monaco has removed a few peach pits from dogs’ intestines. "I think they came from the backyard — people throwing the pits into the garden and the dog eating them — but I can imagine a large bird dropping the pit from its cage.”

Tummy-Trouble Foods
Grapes and raisins seem quite innocuous, but Donna Muscarella, Ph.D, of Cornell University’s Veterinary Medical Center in Ithaca, New York, explained otherwise. "The major food items commonly fed to parrots that are clearly toxic to dogs and, in some reports, to cats are grapes, raisins, currants and sultanas (seedless white grapes originating in Turkey and Iran; also known as sultaninas and marketed in the United States as Thompson seedless grapes). They all can induce acute renal/kidney failure [in cats and dogs].”

"According to the ‘Merck Veterinary Manual,’" continued Muscarella, "Dogs will develop vomiting and/or diarrhea, along with lethargy, anorexia, tremors, dehydration and weakness, within six to 12 hours of ingestion and develop renal failure within 72 hours on average. Dogs should be treated as soon as ingestion is suspected because clearing the substance out of the GI tract must occur before the start of renal failure, which is fatal.”

Muscarella explained that there doesn’t appear to be a clear association between toxicity and age, sex or breed of the dog, but there appears to be quite a lot of variation in susceptibility among individual animals. "This could be due to differences in the animals’ metabolism or variations in the individual batch of fruit, although all types of grapes and raisins are potentially toxic. 

"While there is no consensus on the amount of the fruit that is toxic, the Merck Manual indicates that approximately 32 grams per kilogram of body weight as a toxic amount for grapes, and 11 to 30 grams per kilogram of body weight as toxic for raisins.”

Muscarella said that dried fruits are more toxic than fresh, and she pointed out that even fruit cake and other baked products can be potentially toxic. "The amount ingested in the case reports on fatalities I looked over range from a few fresh grapes to a whole cup of raisins. The exact toxin is unknown. It’s been suggested that tannins, pesticides, heavy metals, glucose overload, vitamin-D toxicity are a few of several possibilities.” Muscarella said some of these potential causes, such as pesticides and heavy metals, could also affect parrots, "so I’m not sure of those.”

If you share your home with a macaw, there’s a good chance you have some macadamia nuts on hand. While they make a nice treat for you and your bird, macadamia nuts can make your dog sick and possibly your cat, too, causing nausea, vomiting, tremors and fast heart rate. The threat doubles if the nuts are combined with chocolate, since chocolate can be fatal to animals, including birds. 

Muscarella noted that according to the "Merck Veterinary Manual” ingestion of macadamia nuts is not fatal, and that most dogs appear to recover without incident. Still, it is a good idea to spare your dog or cat the ill affects of ingesting them. Whenever bird owner Linda LaFleur’s Pomeranian scavenged her macaw’s macadamia nuts he’d almost immediately vomit them up whole.

While our usual concerns are to protect our birds from dogs, cats and other household pets, we also need to protect the animals from bird-generated dangers. Be diligent about vacuuming and cleaning up in and around your bird’s cage. Use cage guards and mess catchers to keep tossed food and debris inside the cage and out of reach of foraging pets.

If your cat or dog has a penchant for scavenging around the cage or playstand, supervise it closely, especially after avian mealtimes. I stopped feeding my birds on their stands as a mess-management maneuver, but ceasing such feedings will also result in less on the floor for Fido or Fluffy.\

Want to learn more?

What Do Parrots Eat?
Bird Food Myths & Facts


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Posted: October 11, 2013, 12:15 p.m. PDT

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