Margaret A. Wissman, DVM
Chocolate & Caffeine
The first group of foods is chocolate, coffee and other items containing caffeine. When these items are digested in the human gastrointestinal tract, they are not toxic. However, when ingested by a bird, theobromine, a toxic substance that is found in chocolate, is a toxin.
Chocolate also contains theophylline and caffeine. Milk chocolate is less toxic than dark chocolate and baker’s chocolate (unsweetened) is the most dangerous, by volume. Chocolate contains excessive amounts of methylxanthine alkaloids (also found in coffee, tea and caffeinated soda).
Ingestion results in hyperactivity, regurgitation, diarrhea, seizures, dark feces, heart arrhythmias and death. If any chocolate, caffeine or tea has been consumed, call your avian veterinarian immediately for instructions.
If ingestion has just occurred, it is possible for your avian veterinarian to administer a medication to induce vomiting or regurgitation (do not attempt to do so on your own). Other medications administered can protect the gastrointestinal tract and hopefully prevent further absorption of toxins. In addition to medications, your vet will also provide any additional support care, such as warmth, oxygen, fluid therapy and anticonvulsants, if necessary.
Onion and garlic are often used to add flavor to our foods; however, the aromatic sulfuric compounds found in the Allium group are known to cause red blood cells to rupture in people and mammals. The good news is that it is thought that the nucleus found in the red blood cells of birds offer some protection. But, since it has the potential to cause anemia from rupture of red cells (called Heinz Body Hemolytic anemia), it is best to not offer any plants in the group that contains onions, garlic or scallions to your bird.
If you think your bird ingested a food containing onions or garlic, contact your avian veterinarian. The main toxic element in these foods causes red blood cells to rupture, so your avian veterinarian can run a blood test to see if your bird is anemic. The normal range of the packed cell volume (PCV), or hematocrit, which measures the percentage of red blood cells to the fluid portion of the blood, varies among bird species. So your avian vet must ensure that the PCV is within the normal range for your bird’s species. These values can be found in a number of reference books, as well as in a zoo data base called ISIS.
If your bird is found to be anemic, it is advisable to have a complete blood count and plasma chemistry panel performed to determine if there are other reasons for the anemia in addition to exposure to foods in the Allium group. Radiographs or other tests may be recommended.
If a bird is severely anemic, it may be possible to perform a blood transfusion. In most cases, it is just necessary to administer an iron and B-complex supplement to an anemic bird to give it the necessary ingredients to make and mature red blood cells, as well as to ensure that any other possible causes of the anemia are identified and corrected.
Avocado is another food to avoid giving to your bird. Only some varieties of avocado might be toxic; however, it is best to avoid offering avocado altogether. The leaves, bark, skin and pit are thought to be the most toxic, but the fruit itself may also contain a toxin. A toxic fatty acid derivative, called persin, is found in avocado leaves, and perhaps in other areas of the plant.
If you suspect that your bird has ingested any food containing guacamole or avocado, contact your avian veterinarian or emergency clinic immediately. While many birds have ingested avocado with no untoward signs, it is better to be safe than sorry. Your avian veterinarian will assess your bird’s condition and decide an appropriate treatment plan. The most common signs in birds are cardiac-related, and the first symptom that your avian vet may notice is difficulty breathing.
If the avocado is still in the bird’s GI tract, your veterinarian may elect to remove it by gavage (placing a tube into the crop and flushing out crop contents). Drugs may be administered to protect the gastrointestinal tract and to prevent the absorption of toxins still remaining. Drugs may be administered that help the heart, and other drugs can help remove extra fluid from the tissues. Oxygen and other support therapy may be necessary.
This is not a complete list of toxic foods, but these are the most commonly encountered. If you have any doubt about the possible toxicity of a food, don’t offer it to your bird. If your bird ingests a potentially toxic food, don’t panic; call your veterinarian and follow his or her instructions.
A bird can ingest enough salt from salty foods, including chips, to result in toxicosis. Relative to its size, ingestion of salty foods, results in a higher concentration of salt in a bird’s systems than it would if a person ingested them. Salt toxicosis results in increased thirst and urination, depression, neurological excitement, tremors, abnormal neck position, weakness and abnormalities standing or walking. It can lead to death if not treated.
Want to learn more? Check out these bird food articles:
Good Table Foods For Birds
What Is In Bird Seed?