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parrot mccaw 350pxAlthough there are a lot of human foods that can be shared with pet birds, there are some that should be offered only in moderation and some that should be avoided all together.

A big part of socializing a pet bird and creating a bond is having the bird out of its cage at meal time. This is when sharing food with the pet bird can promote the union that your bird is part of the flock. Sharing food that has not 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 it comfortable, and provide an activity all can partake. However, always be vigilant that if your bird should ingest any potentially toxic item, that you should contact your veterinarian immediately to see if treatment is warranted.


Birds maintained in captivity have dietary and energy requirements that vary from those in the wild. Birds kept in cages typically do not have to compete for food, territory, defend themselves or fly. This is beneficial for them and promotes their longevity in our care. However, this decreased energy demand often results in our good care leading to our captives becoming over conditioned, or in other words, overweight.

dr byron ted lafeber 400pxMany birds maintained in captivity are often fed diets too high in calories, especially those from fats. With the addition of table foods, and other calorie rich treats, the result is that many of these birds in captivity tend to be overweight. A species specific diet, balanced in nutrients and energy, is required for a bird to maintain its normal weight. Research on the part of the caretaker is recommended to determine the proper diet for any captive bird species. Although treats are important for bonding & enrichment, they should be offered judiciously.

In humans, we know that the consumption of high-fat foods, such as butter, oils, fatty meats and nuts, can result in a build-up of cholesterol deposits within our arteries i.e. atherosclerosis. This can predispose people to heart disease and stroke. A diet that contains too many of these foods can also contribute to obesity. There is concern that these same conditions may develop in birds. Thus, it is recommended to limit the amount of high-fat foods in the diets of the birds in our care.

Along with avoiding or limiting those high fat foods that can be detrimental to your birds overall well being, there are also foods that have been identified as being potentially dangerous, if not fatal, when ingested.

Chocolate will induce vomiting and diarrhea in a bird, but more importantly, it will affect the central nervous system and can eventually cause death.

Chocolate contains theobromine and caffeine, which are classified as methylxanthines. They affect a bird’s digestive system first and can result in vomiting and diarrhea. Then, the effects can progress to increased heart rate, tremors, seizures, hyperactivity and even death in birds if consumed at a toxic level. The general rule is that the darker and more bitter the chocolate, the more potentially toxic it is to a pet.

Xylitol is an artificial sweetener often used in sugarless gum and many diet foods. If ingested by our pets, it can result in low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), liver damage and possibly death in dogs and other animals. While the exact effects of this sugar substitute have not been studied in birds, it is known that birds have a faster metabolism than many other species and might therefore be more sensitive to the toxic effects of even small amounts of this artificial sweetener. Thus, it is recommended to avoid exposing pet birds to xylitol. Sugar free gum that contains xylitol is one example of something that should be avoided. Additionally, the gum can also stick to their feathers and skin.

bird harlow 256pxFoods That Your Bird Can and Can't Eat

Birds can eat tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant; even though the plants themselves are all members of the nightshade family. The fruits of the plant are safe to eat, but the plants themselves are toxic. The leaves of the rhubarb plant contain oxalate crystals, which can cause kidney problems.

If you offer your bird a fruit or veggie always make sure it has been properly cleaned and sliced so that your bird will not be exposed to potentially toxic herbicides or pesticides.

All parts of the avocado plant as well as the skin & pit of the fruit contain persin, a fungicidal toxin that has been reported to cause cardiac distress, respiratory difficulty, weakness and heart failure in birds. Small birds like canaries and parakeets are considered to be more susceptible; however, clinical signs have been observed in other bird species. Clinical signs like respiratory distress usually develop 12 hours after ingestion and death can occur within one to two days.

While it has been reported that certain types of avocado have been consumed by some bird species without adverse effects, it is difficult to know which types of avocado will affect which species. It is also not known how much avocado a pet bird would have to ingest to be affected. Given the potential dire consequences, it is recommended not feed avocado or avocado-containing foods (i.e. guacamole) to birds.

Though cooked beans are an excellent and often a favored food treat by many birds, uncooked beans can be a choking hazard and also contain a toxin called hemaglutin. So, to avoid exposure, it is recommended to thoroughly cook all beans that you choose to share with your bird and avoid leaving dried beans in a location where they could be easily accessed by your birds.

Though most fruit is safe and generally healthy for birds to consume in limited quantities, the seeds & pits of some fruit can be potentially toxic. The seeds of members of the rose family including apples, cherries, peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, and pears contain trace amounts of a cardio-toxic cyanide compound in their seeds which can be problematic.

Fortunately the seeds from other produce, such as squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, melons, mango, grapes, citrus fruits, pomegranate and berries, are safe for bird consumption.Mushrooms have been included on some toxic-food lists. Mushrooms are a type of fungus and have been known to cause digestive upset in companion birds. Caps and stems of some varieties can induce liver failure. It is therefore advised to not let your pet bird consume raw or cooked mushrooms.

Though onion, garlic & chive toxicity is well recognized in dogs and cats, consumption of small amounts in birds is generally regarded as acceptable. However, excessive consumption of onions & garlic can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and other digestive problems in pet birds. It has been found that prolonged exposure can lead to the rupturing of the red blood cells, a condition called hemolytic anemia, which is followed by respiratory distress and eventual death.

dr byron and world vet friends 400pxGarlic & onion powder or onion soup mix are very concentrated and more potent forms of the raw vegetable and may cause more problems. Fatal toxicity has been reported in geese fed large amounts of green onions, as well as a conure that ate large amounts of garlic.

While birds and pets need regulated amounts of sodium in their systems, too much salt can lead to dehydration, kidney & or liver dysfunction, and potentially death. Just as too much salt is not good for us, it also is not good for our birds.

One would hope a responsible bird owner would not offer their pet an alcoholic drink. However, there have been several known cases of free roaming pet birds accidentally consuming alcohol which can depress their organ systems and lead to death. It is very important that whenever alcohol is available in the home that the pet never consumes it.

Food substances such as coffee beans, coffee grounds, tea and soda should never be consumed by pet birds since the effects of caffeine can cause cardiac distress including arrhythmias, hyperactivity and possible cardiac arrest. Instead, share a caffeine free drink of pure fruit or vegetable juice with your bird. This will satisfy both your bird's curiosity and taste for what you are drinking as well as promoting the bond.

One must take care when offering improperly stored peanuts, and/or peanut products, as well as corn and other cereal grains as they may become moldy. The mold will contaminate the food and may develop into a toxin-producing fungus which can adversely affect birds.

Though it is usually present in most pet stores, parrots do not need grit and some birds, such as parakeets (budgies), cockatiels, and lovebirds may overeat grit when not feeling well, which can potentially lead to intestinal problems. In birds like doves/pigeons and other species that consume seeds whole, the grit can help with the digestion process. However, since parrots crack open the seeds’ hulls and consume only the seed itself, they generally do not need the added grit.

Research has shown that birds are not able to properly digest lactose which is found in milk and other dairy products. Though not technically toxic, as the amount of lactose containing products in the diet increases, birds can develop a mal-digestion & malabsorption intestinal problem that can result in diarrhea. Not all dairy products contain lactose. Some, such as certain cheeses and yogurts may have very little lactose. However, it is recommended that dairy products be fed as an occasional treat and in small amounts.

Though it is recommended, to actually create a list of foods considered dangerous or toxic to pet birds can be a challenge. As is the case with people where different people can have different reactions to the same item, a food that makes one species of bird ill may not necessarily cause illness in another species of bird. Birds belong to Class Aves, a large, diverse group in which many differences exist in anatomy and physiology; so, different bird species will demonstrate different sensitivities to toxins.

Also, one has to consider that some of the reported incidents of pet birds having a reaction to a food are based off of bird owners’ own accounts, which may not have been verified. If a pet bird is adversely affected or dies shortly after eating a particular food item, the bird owner may jump to the conclusion that a particular food caused the reaction in their pet. Pinpointing exactly how toxic a particular food is can be a dilemma. There are times or species where a food can be eaten in small amounts or in moderation without problems, yet this same food item can cause illness or even death in other birds if consumed in differing amounts. An important consideration is that some of the toxicology information used by avian veterinarians has been directly transferred over from dog, cat and even human pediatric medicine. The assumption being that if the food is toxic to people and other pets, it may also be toxic to birds.

Avian veterinarians rely on such a wide range of information, however, because it is generally considered best to err on the side of caution. It has been presented in this article a listing of foods that are potentially toxic to pet birds.

Dr. Byron J.S. de la Navarre, D.V.M.
Immediate President, Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians [AEMV]
Past-President, Association of Reptilian & Amphibian Veterinarians (ARAV)
Chairperson, Conservation & Research Co. (ARAV)
Past-President, Chicago Veterinary Medical Association {CVMA}
Illinois State Liaison & Membership Co., Association of Avian Veterinarians [AAV]
Co-Director, Midwest Exotic Seminars (MEPS)
Past-Executive Brd Member: Chicago Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Center (CVESC)
Chairperson, Chicago Herpetologic Society's [CHS] Conservation & Research Committee
Past-Chairperson/Member, Member Services Committee [MSC] (AVMA)